Waiting without end for Libyan visas
The ZebraSafari changes direction
The ZebraBus breaks down
We are refused entry to Bulgaria
We have a collision
Waiting without end for Libyan visas
April 1, 2002
It's been a while since most of you have heard from us, and our adventure has taken a few very unexpected turns.
I'm writing this from Budapest in Hungary. And yes, I'm as surprised as many of you are to find myself here. Let's go back a bit to find how we got ourselves to Eastern Europe.
In my last journal entry on the website we had just submitted our applications for visas to cross Libya, and we had an appointment to meet the political counsellor at the South African embassy in Cairo.
Before our meeting at the embassy, we checked out of the filthy and unsatisfactory Salma Camp in Giza and headed out into the desert for a few days, to escape the filth and chaos of Cairo.
We went to Bahariya oasis in the western desert and drove to the new white desert, an eery place of fabulous giant chalk sculptures. Many of you will have seen the pictures of the white desert on the site. We had been told that it is not possible to get to the white desert without four-wheel drive, and we were unsure exactly how to find the most magnificent parts, since the area is well off the regular tourist trail. But a chance roadside meeting with a local guide, who calls himself Desert Fox, allowed us to find the new white desert.
Desert Fox agreed to lead us there, saying we could drive as far as our bus would go, and then he'd take us the rest of the way in his Land Cruiser. We amazed him by following him all the way into the new white desert, and he said it was the first time he had ever seen a two-wheel drive vehicle there. After he had made sure we could find our way out with our GPS, he left us there, and we spent two wonderful days camping out in that lonely place, with only the wind and the amazing chalk sculptures for company.
On our return to Cairo we met the political counsellor at the embassy, and came away from the meeting having been invited to stay as guests in the home of the economic secretary. As comfortable as our bed in the ZebraBus is, it made a wonderful change to live for a while in a luxurious apartment in one of the better areas of Cairo. And it was also a real treat to mix with South Africans again after so long travelling in foreign lands, and we had a great time with the economic secretary, Abdul Gafoor Dangor, and his good friend Hoosain Delvi, a Capetonian studying in Cairo.
But our stay with Abdul Gafoor turned out to be much longer than any of us had expected, as we waited, and waited, and then waited some more, for our Libyan visas that never arrived. The whole saga of the Libyans was a long, sorry story of bloody-mindedness, rudeness, incompetence and dishonesty. Definitely one of the low points of our journey.
When we first made the application, the woman in charge of the Libyan consular section, who went by the name of Rehab, was pleasant and friendly, and promised that the visas would be issued within two weeks "maximum". But two weeks turned into three, and three became a month, and one month ran into the next, and all we got out of the Libyans was that we should keep waiting. Meanwhile, it became apparent that Rehab was not as pleasant as she appeared. She lied to us repeatedly, left us twiddling our thumbs in a filthy waiting room for hours on end, and prevented us from meeting the counsellor or anyone in the embassy who could have done anything about our visas.
Meanwhile, the South African embassy in Cairo did everything they could to support us, phoning the Libyans and getting the South African embassy in Tripoli to push for information on that end. But all to no avail.
While we waited we had a great time in Cairo with Hoosain and Abdul Gafoor, and we came to be quite fond of the place, despite the chaos and the filth. I even became quite adept at driving in Cairo, where the traffic is complete anarchy.
In the meantime our Egyptian visas expired, as did the customs clearance on the car, which was altogether a more serious matter. It would be only a matter of time before Egyptian customs made a claim for import duty against the deposit on my carnet de passage, and they would then have discovered that the carnet was not valid for Egypt. Luckily for us the customs officer in Aswan couldn't read the Roman alphabet and accepted our carnet, otherwise we would have had to pay duty to get the car into the country. In Egypt the duty for importing a used car is 300% of the cost of the car when it was new!
The ZebraSafari changes direction
Eventually, after six weeks waiting, and fearing that I might be arrested for our expired visas or the invalid carnet de passage, we decided we had to find another route out of Egypt. Our original plan was to drive through Libya to Tunisia (our Tunisian visas were issued in 24 hours), and then cross over to Italy by ferry. There is no ferry service between Egypt and Europe and we found that shipping the car would have cost an arm and a leg. Which left us with only one route to Europe: through the Middle East and Turkey. The Jordanian embassy said we could get visas at the border, while Turkey said we were welcome to come to Turkey, no visas required. And our Syrian visas were issued in 24 hours. What a shame that the Libyans were so bloody minded.
If it had been posible, I would have sold the car in Egypt, or even abandoned it. But it was stamped in my passport that I brought a car in, so I had to leave with the car, and fast. So we drove through Sinai to the port of Nuweiba, where we could catch a ferry to Jordan (to avoid driving through Israel, which would have made it impossible to cross Syria). We were expecting all kinds of trouble at Nuweiba, and I was really afraid I might be arrested, because of the visas and customs clearance having expired, but things went surprisingly smoothly.
When we got to the port a pair of tourist police officers guided us through the bureaucratic process, and for some reason they were very well disposed towards us and steered us clear of trouble. Immigration wanted to fine us for the expired visas, but with the help of our friendly tourist police we talked our way out of the fine. Then customs noticed that the carnet was invalid, but they were prepared to overlook it as we were taking the car out. But there was a fine for the expired customs clearance. We were three weeks overdue and the prescribed fine was 1,300 Egyptian pounds per week (that's nearly $300 a week), but the customs chief let us off with a fine of 555 pounds (about $120). We were also liable for fines for unpaid road tax, but our friendly tourist police came to our rescue once again and persuaded the traffic police to let us off.
We were very relieved when we were finally allowed to drive aboard the ferry. But Egypt did give us a nasty parting gift: the last thing we did before entering the port at Nuweiba was to buy a full load of fuel, as petrol is much cheaper in Egypt than in Jordan. Unfortunately we were cheated by the filling station and they sold us the nasty Egyptian 80 octane instead of the 90 octane we thought we were getting.
We were allowed into Jordan without visas and they accepted the carnet de passage, even though it was stamped as invalid for the Middle East. Once again we were saved by Arab customs officers' inability to read English.
In Jordan the bad Egyptian fuel caused severe detonation, and this combined with very hot weather and a 250km climb from sea level to 1750m to cause the engine to overheat a few times, which caused terminal damage.
Nonetheless we enjoyed seeing a bit of Jordan, and we visited Petra, an ancient city carved out of a sandstone gorge, and the Dead Sea, where we took the obligatory photographs of us floating in the oversalty water.
In addition to being stamped invalid for the Middle East as a whole, our carnet was also marked invalid for Syria, but yet again the illiteracy of Arab customs officers worked in our favour and the carnet was accepted By Syrian customs. However, after processing the carnet, the customs officers wanted to search the car, and one of them warned me that we would have to pay $200 duty for video cameras. This was a problem as we are carrying two professional SONY DVCams. As they were about to search the car I mentioned the cameras to the customs officer, adding that I did not have money to pay the duties. He pulled me aside and suggested that I could avoid difficulty by "looking after" him. I pulled a small roll of bills from my pocket and offered him $10. He saw I had some $20 bills and said $20 would do, but I refused. He hurriedly pocketed the $10 and suddenly lost interest in searching the car, saying we could go. So much for our policy of not paying bribes ...
The ZebraBus breaks down
In the north of Syria the damage to the engine caused by the detonation and the overheating caught up with us when a valve broke in the city of Aleppo. Luckily I had a spare cylinder head aboard. I stripped the engine in a side street and it appeared we had got off lightly, as the piston seemed to be intact despite having been hit by the broken valve head. I fitted the spare cylinder head and got the car running again the same day. We were helped out while fixing the car by some friendly young Syrian guys. Although they spoke no English we managed to communicate, and we spent an enjoyable evening with them and slept the night in their apartment.
The next day we crossed into Turkey and about 100km inside the country, in a remote area of the countryside, the piston that hit the broken valve completely disintegrated (it must have cracked from the initial impact) and all but destroyed the engine.
We were very lucky to get a tow back to the city of Gaziantep, when a tow truck passed by within an hour, being driven by two guys returning to their home village.
In Gaziantep we placed ourselves in the hands of the local aircooled VW expert, Mehmet Yapar. He was very kind, but he worked out of a dark, filthy, dingy basement workshop. A stripdown showed that the bits of broken piston had damaged all the other pistons and cylinders, but luckily there was no serious damage to the engine case or other internal parts. There were no new parts available in Gaziantep, so we rebuilt the engine using a set of used pistons and cylinders that Mehmet gave us. His workshop was full of junk -- stuff that anyone else would have thrown away as scrap, but which he had been carefully hoarding because he could not get new parts.
For the two days it took us to fix the car, Mehmet took us in as guests in his home, a one-bedroomed apartment that he shares with his wife and four of his six children. We were given the bedroom, and Mehmet and his wife slept in the lounge with the children.
The repair got the car going again, but the parts were badly worn, and now we have a serious oil leak and the engine smokes badly, with number 4 spark plug oiling up regularly. But even though the engine was sick it carried us across Turkey in two days, to the city of Edirne on the Bulgarian border.
We are refused entry to Bulgaria
We had assumed that we would have no problem crossing borders in Europe, and that visas would be available at the borders. But we were wrong: as a friend of ours is fond of saying, assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups. We exited Turkey, but were turned back by the Bulgarian immigration police. They said we had to get our visas at the consulate in Edirne. So we had to re-enter Turkey, which took a lot longer than leaving, while our immigration exit stamps were cancelled, and the re-export voucher for the carnet was retrieved and the customs stamps cancelled.
We rushed back to Edirne and found the Bulgarian consulate one minute before closing time at noon. The unfriendly people behind the bulletproof glass told us that transit visas would cost us US$50 each and that they would take four days to be issued. Four days and $50 to cross a pisswilly, no-account country that we could drive across in five hours even with a sick engine. Communism may be dead, but the soviet paranoia and bureaucratic mentality are alive and well!
That news was the final straw in a run of bad luck, and we were both severely depressed. The long wait in Cairo had messed with our schedule. I had promised my daughters that I would be home by my birthday on February 15. With that date a month past, we had been aiming to get to England by March 22, for a big Volkswagen show on the weekend of the 23-24. It would have been a good place to sell the ZebraBus and it gave us an end point, as this trip was beginning to feel like the never-ending journey.
Even with the breakdowns we could have made it, but now we had run into bureaucratic delays again. I was homesick and travel weary and missing my daughters terribly. When I heard the news from the Bulgarians I burst into tears. But the cold-hearted Bulgarians didn't give a shit. It was closing time and they pulled the blinds down over the bulletproof glass and left me to cry to myself.
We slept that freezing night in a side street in Edirne, then returned to the Bulgarian consulate the next morning and submitted our visa applications. Afterwards we went to the office of the Romanian honorary consul, and he assured us that we could get our Romanian visas at the border, so it seemed that not all the Eastern European countries are stuck in the Stalinist past.
With four days to kill in Edirne, we sat in the car in the street and wrote emails home. While we were writing, a kind-hearted local man, Ilbas Kivci, befriended us and invited us to stay with him in his home. Ilbas lives alone in a 100-year-old mansion that he has spent the last three years restoring.
It rained for the next few days, so we spent our days playing backgammon with Ilbas, who is a grand master and taught us both a lot about the game.
Eventually Friday arrived: the four days were up and we returned to the Bulgarian consulate, where our visas were issued as promised. But something had been niggling ever since the Romanian honorary consul had told us we could get our Romanian visas at the border, and I had a feeling his information was incorrect. So we returned to the Edirne tourist information office, who had helped us beyond the call of duty earlier in the week, and asked them to check with the Romanian embassy in Istanbul. And my feeling was proved correct. The Romanian ambassador said that without visas we would not be allowed across the border. He was not exactly helpful, and said we had no option but to return to Istanbul and apply for our visas, which would take a week to issue. Aaarrrrrgh!!!
We returned to the honorary consul's office and accosted him about giving us bad information, and suggested he do something to help us out. He got no more joy out of the ambassador in Istanbul than we had. Then he called the Romanian ambassador in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. He was altogether more friendly and helpful, and told us that if we made our applications in Sofia on Monday, he would do everything in his power to issue our visas on the same day. He said he was not empowered to grant visas; that he had first to get permission from the police and the foreign ministry, but promised us that he would do everything he could. It was essential that we got the visas on the same day, as our Bulgarian transit visas only allowed us 30 hours in the country.
Meanwhile, the Romanian honorary consul in Edirne, as an apology for giving us incorrect information, invited us to spend Sunday night in his hotel, with dinner, for free.
So instead of leaving Turkey that Friday as we had planned, we spent the cold, rainy weekend playing backgammon with Ilbas. On Sunday evening Gisela and I and Ilbas went over to the Romanian honorary consul's hotel and enjoyed dinner in the restaurant, and drank too much Raki, a traditional Turkish spirit.
Very early the next morning we left Edirne and crossed the border, and this time we were allowed into Bulgaria. We had originally planned to drive the most direct route from Turkey to Romania, a distance of about 350km, but now we had to go via Sofia, which nearly doubled the distance.
It was still cold and wet but, despite our sick engine, we made good time to Sofia. Before Sofia the road climbed up into some mountains and the rain turned first into sleet and then into snow. Wow! It was the first time Gisela had seen snow falling and the first time I had driven in snow. From the deserts of Africa to snow in Eastern Europe -- this was a completely unexpected turn! Despite the freezing cold we were both as excited as little children.
We arrived in Sofia and found the Romanian embassy just after noon. The place was closed up and the sign outside said the consulate was closed on Mondays, but we rang the bell anyway and the ambassador opened especially for us. He took our visa applications and told us to call him at 2pm. Then we went to a nearby market and bought bread and cheese and beer for lunch, before driving to the city centre to find a bank where I could draw more US dollars. All visa costs and border taxes are payable only in US dollars across Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe; no local currencies accepted!
We returned to the Romanian embassy at 2.30pm and the ambassador issued our visas. We thanked him profusely for going out of his way and for being so accommodating, then headed straight out of town. On the road north it snowed in the mountains again. After the mountains it rained incessantly, and we drove into the night, eventually stopping to sleep at a roadside rest stop opposite a filling station about 50km short of the border. It rained all night.
In the morning we covered the last stretch to the border, then cleared customs and immigration and drove over the bridge across the Danube and entered Romania. We had spent 29 hours in Bulgaria; we left with one hour to spare on our transit visa.
I want to travel the whole world, but I never in my life imagined I would find myself in Romania, especially not on this journey! We cleared immigration, and the friendly immigration officer accompanied us to customs and asked the customs officer to go easy on us. It seemed he had planned to subject us to a thorough search. He did give us a cursory search anyway -- the first time we had been searched at a border crossing anywhere on our journey. Not once across all of Africa or the Middle East had customs officers gone through our stuff.
After clearing customs we had a bit of a shock. I went to buy compulsory third-party insurance and they wanted to charge me $160. So far insurance had never cost more than $25 at the borders. I managed to haggle the cost down to $60, which still seemed like a lot to me, but I had no option but to pay up. Then we hit the road to Bucharest, and I joked that the Romanian drivers had better keep out of my way, or I'd run them down -- after all, I was fully insured! About 5km past the border we were stopped by police, who only wanted to check that we had insurance!
We arrived in Bucharest about lunch time, and immediately went in search of the Hungarian embassy. When we found it a sign outside directed us to the consulate at another address, and noted that the consulate was closed on Wednesdays, which meant we would have to wait until Thursday to apply for Hungarian visas.
By then it was late afternoon and we needed to find a place to stay. There was no tourist information office, and two travel agencies told us there was no camping site in Bucharest. So we found our way to the address listed in our Bucharest map for the South African embassy, only to find the building occupied by an advertising agency, and someone there said the South African embassy had closed down and the nearest SA embassy was in Budapest, in Hungary. So we spent the night parked on an empty lot in the same street, in sight of several other embassies, including the embassy of Palestine, outside of which was parked a large, black, bulletproof Mercedes-Benz, which was covered with bird shit. I guess Yasser Arafat hasn't visited Bucharest for a while.
In the morning we went on another search for a tourist information office, but no luck. However, another travel agent told us where we could find a campsite, and we drove to the outskirts of town to where we found a clean, pleasant campground in the middle of a beautiful forest. We spent the day walking in the forest and then enjoyed hot showers in centrally heated bathrooms, pure luxury after freezing our butts off for the past few days in our drafty, unheated old bus.
First thing the next day we went to the Hungarian consulate, where a friendly man told us that getting a tourist visa was another long bureaucratic process, but that he could give us a five-day transit visa the same day provided we already had a visa for the next country. So we moved on to the Austrian consulate, only to find that they had shifted their opening hours that day from the morning to the afternoon, and they would be closed Friday through Monday for the Easter weekend. Our Romanian visas were only valid for seven days, so we had to leave the country by Easter Monday. Things weren't looking too good.
We killed time until the Austrian consulate opened, and then we found we were in luck: Austria is part of the Schengen agreement, which means Austrian visas are valid for all Schengen countries -- pretty much all of Central and Western Europe; anyway all the other European countries we must cross on our way to London. We made our applications and the helpful man behind the counter said he would try to get the visas issued that afternoon, but no promises. However, he said we should wait in the consulate and not go anywhere, and an hour or so later we had our Austrian visas.
We have a collision
That evening, as we were driving around Bucharest, we were involved in a collision. After driving through so many left-hand drive countries in a right-hand drive car, and with so many different kinds of intersections and driving styles, I suppose it was inevitable. I had found the Bucharest intersections especially confusing, as the traffic lights were not visible to the cars in the front line, and one had to rely on hooting from behind to know when the lights had changed. And in Bucharest it is illegal to turn left across oncoming traffic, and the intersections take all sorts of weird twists and turns to avoid crossing oncoming traffic.
We were in a huge square which, unlike most of the other squares in the town, was not a roundabout, and I stopped next to a Mercedes coupe while we waited to cross a one-way road with traffic approaching from our right. I thought the intersection was controlled by traffic lights, but it was actually a stop street. When the Mercedes pulled out I thought the light had changed and pulled out as well. The Mercedes was a CLK430 and it had crossed the intersection in less than a second, while I was still letting the clutch out on our slow old bus. Suddenly there was a flash across the front of us and I smashed into a speeding Daewoo. There was a bang and the sound of breaking glass and the Daewoo nearly spun out of control. Oops!
We both pulled over. The ZebraBus's right-hand headlight was smashed and there was a large scrape and dent in the front bumper. I walked over to the Daewoo, but the driver was talking on his cellphone and ignored me. Fortunately no one was injured. I had hit the Daewoo on its left rear corner and had bent the wheel rim and almost ripped the rear bumper right off. A traffic cop strolled casually over from somewhere else on the square and told us both to go to the local police station.
I followed the Daewoo to the copshop where we made our statements. The case number showed that ours was the 101st collision in that precinct of Bucharest that day. Despite the fact that the driver of the Daewoo had been speeding, the collision was my fault. The cops told me that had I been a local I would have been fined and my driver's license impounded. But as a tourist there would be no adverse consequences for me! And the clincher was that the expensive insurance I had bought at the border did not only cover personal injury as I had thought -- it also covered damage to property. I was fully insured for the damage I had caused to the Daewoo! We completed the paperwork and parted with smiles and handshakes all round.
Fortunately the Hungarian consulate was not closing for Easter, so first thing the next morning, Good Friday, we were back to make our applications for transit visas. While we waited for the visas I replaced the broken headlight lens with a good one from my spare parts stash. By noon the visas had been issued. At $65 each, they were the most expensive visas of our whole journey, but we rejoiced -- we now had all the official permissions we needed to drive the rest of the way to London. It was our fourth day in Bucharest and all we had accomplished was to deal with bureaucracy. With all our paperwork finally in order, we hit the road again, and once more it was cold and raining.
A few hours out of Bucharest we hit the Carpathian mountains, the beginning of the mythical region of Transylvania, and it began to snow again. This time it was not wet snow, but the real, light flaky stuff, and Gisela and I stopped and threw snowballs at each other like children. We drove on through the Carpathians, through Christmas card scenery that left us oohing and aahing, until we reached the city of Brasov in the late afternoon. Then we followed a road higher into the mountains to the ski resort of Poiana, where we set up camp at a roadside rest stop in a winter wonderland. The local village security gave us permission to stay there for the night, and watched over us throughout the freezing night.
When we awoke in the morning, the entire interior of the car was coated with a rime of ice, but we were snug as bugs in our warm bed. I got up and scraped ice off the inside of the windows, then headed back towards Brasov while Gisela lay in bed. The clouds had dispersed overnight, and we drove through snowbound countryside under clear blue skies -- spectacularly beautiful, yet so alien to my African soul.
We stopped at a roadside rest stop overlookig Brasov and brewed coffee and enjoyed the view while the morning sun melted the frost on our windows. And then we hit the road once more. We drove for the whole day under clear skies. But the car was running very poorly, struggling up the hills and generally feeling like the sick engine was about to give up at any moment. We stopped for lunch at another roadside rest stop and I gave the car a tune-up, which helped a bit, but power was still substantially down as we nursed our sick old bus westwards.
In the evening we reached the town of Oradea, 15km from the Hungarian border. While we were refueling at a petrol station a young Hungarian couple pulled up alongside and asked us where we were from. When we said South Africa their jaws literally dropped in surprise and we laughed out loud. A little later we found a parking lot where a few trucks were stopped for the night. We parked among them and went to sleep.
In the morning we awoke, made coffee and then headed for the border. We cleared the Romanian formalities and then stopped at the Hungarian immigration police booth. Our passports were stamped without fuss, question or charge and we were directed to the adjoining customs booth, but they just waved us on. Wow! We had cleared the border formalities without even getting out of our car!
The weather was clear and soon the day became quite warm. We kept driving westwards all morning, apart from a break for brunch at a roadside rest stop. Hungary is very flat, and the altimeter on the GPS showed that the altitude did not vary by more than 50m all day. But the car was not happy. The engine was running quite hot despite our only driving at 80km/h and the transmission had started to growl, with an accompanying vibration that I did not like at all.
Nonetheless we reached Budapest mid afternoon, and immediately stopped in the centre of town and found an internet cafe where I checked email. There were mails from Michael Steinke of the Bullikartei (VW bus club) in Germany, and one from a friend of his from the Bullikartei in Vienna, both offering assistance with our sick car once we get to Austria and Germany. And there was an email from my father, letting me know that although I had asked him not to, he had deposited more money into my bank account.
So things are looking up. We have offers of help from bus lovers In Austria and Germany, and Vienna is only 300km away from Budapest. And thanks to my father, we can afford to repair our engine properly now that we can buy the proper spare parts.
After checking emails we found a beautiful campsite in the forested hills overlooking Budapest. We had been planning to leave the next morning, but Budapest is such a beautiful city we decided to stay for a day of sightseeing. This morning I adjusted the ZebraBus's brakes and topped up the transmission oil. The work was nothing substantial, but it seemed that the bus was just wanting attention, because she ran beautifuly all day -- she pulled strongly up the hills of Budapest and the growl has disappeared from the transmission.
And help is near at hand! Tomorrow we drive to Vienna, where parts are available and we have offers of assistance from fellow VW bus lovers!