If Ethiopia and Sudan represented the poorest of the countries through which we had travelled (well, Malawi too), then we knew that the ferry boat from Wadi Halfa in Sudan to Aswan in Egypt would represent a return to the wealthier, more orderly and easier part of the continent; and so it proved, catching up on the blog from the convenient Nile-side walkways of the Isis Hotel in Aswan two days later.
Glance up from the laptop and there is one of the world’s best known views of the Nile below the second cataract; the view popularized by the film of Agatha Christie’s story ‘Death on the Nile’ – of the sand dunes on the opposite bank, Elephantine Island (dominated by the Movenpick Hotel and its picturesque Soviet-empire airport tower design, which changes colour at two minute intervals at night), the feluccas that skim the river (servicing tourists) and the peaceful quietness of the opaque green flowing water. Everything including the river itself is cleaner – all that sediment carried down from Ethiopia is deposited on the upstream side of the High Dam at Aswan. And there is no sign of sand blow here.
So, Aswan represents a kind of watershed for the ride north into the rich(er) world, but one where we knew we would soon be getting ready to finish the ride. E-mail traffic can be collected here, and we were already in contact with a couple of freight forwarders located in Cairo who would handle the bikes for us. We had a week to get there and finalize things. Meantime, we have been enjoying a little luxury in a mid-price hotel that is, like so much of the local tourist industry, devoid of tourists. Make your offer and see if management will accept it – prices are <50% those posted, and will probably continue to be traded down.
I was here two years back and the town was overflowing with tourists – the souk opposite the hotel so full of people you could hardly find room to move of an evening. Now you can see the entire length of the main walkways between the shops and kiosks, and there are only locals shopping – not a foreigner in sight.
You have to cross Lake Nasser to get to Egypt
The ferry crossing dominates planning and travel once you cross into Sudan; you have to meet departure schedules for late Wednesday afternoon departure, and you have to have tickets and freight space allocated for whatever you are travelling with – bike, car or truck. Push bikes you can ‘push’ on to the passenger ferry (they store them on the roof of the ferry); motorbikes are also sometimes taken – we were told (and we’ve read and seen them on blogs ‘pushed’ into the passenger walkway on to the boat) but this is not the time of year for cutting corners of this kind – there is simply too much pressure on space on board. Cars and trucks go by a separate barge.
Whether the ferry is always crowded like this in May-June, who knows? We were told about flight cancellations due to sand blow/storms that make people more dependent upon land transport, but you would have to be a certain kind of traveller to undertake the 2-3 days travel required to get to Cairo from Khartoum by road/lake ferry/rail, when compared to the convenience of a two hour flight. Sure, price features too, for land travel is always much cheaper.
For overlanders in for the long haul the Lake Nasser ferry is a feature of the East African route; you can’t ‘overland’ between Egypt and Sudan any other way. There are roads – so people say, for example, south of Abu Simbel on the lake shore and along the Red Sea Coast, but neither feature on the travel logs of foreign overlanders. So, hassles or not on this most uncomfortable of ferries, but it’s a great experience and one that will quickly be relegated to the history books for the overland roads that by-pass the lake already exist – or you could, in principle, simply GPS yourself across the deserts nearby except you are not allowed to. It doesn’t make sense to leave those newly-built Sudanese roads unconnected to the existing Egyptian network that stretches along the Nile Valley to Abu Simbel and further north. There is simply too much trucking commerce to be exploited. And, eventually, this will probably also include the respective national rail networks (decrepit as they may be; particularly in Sudan); they too will also be linked.
Getting on and off the ship
There were only half-dozen private vehicles travelling with the ferry passengers – the two Suzuki bikes, Geof’s Land Rover, the Mercedes 4×4 truck of Family Arkesteijn and a couple of 20 year old Mitsubishi saloon cars – travelling under their own power, but looking a lot like escapees from a breakers yard; they were due to be sold into the Egyptian spare parts markets – we were told by the drivers. (Egypt is the ultimate mobile breakers yard – rigid import restrictions, protected car assembly factories and high value street junk.)
The ferry is passengers only, and vehicles are shipped by barge – both ways, whether you’re travelling into or out of Egypt. You get off the passenger ferry and wait for news of your vehicle or bike to catch up with you. The blog stories are full of people who waited, waited and waited. And also of those who got together and shared the costs of the barge rather than waiting around for more casual overlanders to turn up – for, don’t forget – this is a weekly ferry; so, you wait in increments of one week.
The Gods were clearly on our side, for our Aswan Agent was back to us within a couple of days of our arrival (having been in contact with our Wadi Halfa Agent) to inform us that the barge/vehicles had arrived; just sufficient time in which to enjoy that break in Aswan without beginning to worry about meeting flights in Cairo later that same week. But then we’d seen the arrival of the two private cars before we left Wadi Halfa, and knew that the barge was full. We had seen it being loaded. That, of course, does not a start-date/time make. You still need that tugboat.
Owners and vehicles had been the first to be cleared in the heat, dust and noise of the Wadi Halfa shipping/immigration hall. And this is where that local Agent really earns his money – racing us around from point to point to ensure that all the various document, etc. are checked through. Remember, this is an Arabic speaking community, the pace of life differs considerably from where you come from, and you are just one of 600 or more people milling around in a big shed. Sure, you’re foreigners, but you can’t always immediately tell whether this is a plus or minus factor. But, for all that, the local officials were friendly; and we had the reassuring words of our Agent to cover for us.
With the level of the lake dropping the main port, offices and facilities were no longer next to the water and, although we knew that the ship was due in that morning and due out that afternoon – you couldn’t actually see any large ferryboat anywhere. It turned out to be a couple of kilometres away across what was fairly recently the lake bed. ‘Head out in that direction – follow the track’ the man at the exit gate had said. So we did. Just another dusty trail for which the bikes were designed. Loose sand and gravel, but no more than usual and no one fell over – just for once. You could see the boat when you’d gone a few hundred metres – it looked pretty small given the size of the port shed and all those people.
The barge was parked next to the ferry – it looked a lot like part of the temporary wharf – an open flat steel deck recessed within a steel hull and a small retaining wall. Sure, the lake looked enormous, but this was inland water and surely there would be no real storms? There are stories on blogs of people driving their vehicles on to the barge and ending up in the lake – racing up the ramp on to a flat deck, and being too slow to stop quickly – but with our barge this would have been difficult to do. There were ‘acres’ of deck, and that small retaining wall.
Getting on was a challenge for the truck and the saloon cars. The fold-down steel ramp was steep and the gap between the ramp and lake ‘shore’ was broken and uneven. The overhang behind the rear axle of the MB camper bottomed out driving on frontwards, but a speed reverse worked OK. The dainty little bikes easily slipped into the gaps between the Land Rover and the MB. They tore the exhaust pipe off one of the Mitsubishi cars driving it on to the ramp at speed and damaged the larger rear plastic bumper on the other, but no one seemed to mind.
Life on board
Our ferry was reputedly carrying close on 600 people – twice the ‘normal’ numbers. (This presupposes a recommended/ratified number of passengers, etc. – which is how many?) Certainly the ship was crowded and there was hardly a footprint of deck space available during the night as people spread out and slept just about everywhere. Trying to book a cabin a few days earlier at the train station in Khartoum, and we were already too late – so we had expected people.
Say ‘hello’ to Family Arkesteijn* and Geoffrey Henman. We’d first met up with overlanders Vincent & Ilse Arkesteijn and their family from the Netherlands, and Geoffrey Henman from England travelling in their separate vehicles way back in Nairobi – and knew that they were chasing the Wadi Halfa ferry at about the same time. We also met up with two backpackers – Jason & Cedric, respectively, from Australia and Switzerland who were travelling by bus. As a group – and, taking the advice of our Agent in Wadi Halfa – we suggested capturing deck space that we could all share – and it worked our reasonably well too.
Most people seemed to travel in fairly large groups – families and friends – and those without allocated cabin space – the second classers (like ourselves, for we’d been unable to purchase first class tickets – that included a two-berth air/con cabin) tended to build themselves ‘walls’ of luggage, boxes, carpets, etc. within which they carefully controlled their open ‘living space’. This neatly prevented outsiders from encroaching. Voices were raised and words broke out between neighbouring groups that could not agree to demarcation lines.
For all that, out little group was an easy target and, without a formidable wall to protect out space, we were quickly encroached by the more avid, quick and astute people – usually individuals – seeking a single sleeping space. With a bedroll laid out and a body in place there is not much that can be done to reclaim space – particularly when neither can communicate in the others language. Anyway, foreigners are relatively low down the pecking order with these kinds of things – and their resources of space are probably always fair game.
Temples at Abu Simbel
Unique to ferry passengers was the night view of the twin temples of Abu Simbel – the site to which these 13th century BC structures were moved at the time of the construction of the Aswan High Dam during the 1960s. Four or five kilometres from the ship across the dark water you could easily pick out the two temples – the ‘Great Temple of Ramses II’ with the four large seated statues, and the ‘Small Temple of Hathor & Nefertari’ with the six standing statues. It was a 10 minute interlude of gazing at lights and colour, before the temples faded into the distance and became lost. Impossible to capture that sense of wonder and reality that represented the real-politic of the region almost 3,500 years ago, and the role of these temples in projecting the dominance of Upper and Lower Egypt over the Nubian kingdoms further south. Night-time photos with little hand-held cameras are a poor substitute for real life experience, and capture only a fleeting glimpse of the ancient history of these long-forgotten peoples.
Sleeping becomes a challenge
Actually getting to sleep and then remaining asleep was something of a challenge. Ship management/Egyptian Immigration continued to call passengers over the ship loudspeaker system to come and collect their documentation right through until after mid-night. Then, with a really quiet ship around you and everyone asleep, the call to the faithful was broadcast across the ship at around 04.30, and everyone woke up. This put the toilets/ablutions under intense pressure for washing; people spending minutes vigorously washing hands, feet and exposed parts of their arms and legs. Queues formed for access to the three wash basins and two cubicles in the latrines close to us. Woe betides those with demanding bowels (you would literally have to hang out over the lake).
And then the entire deck was occupied by standing and/or kneeling people running through their prayer routines. The minority Christians and others remaining laid out on deck were simply swamped by the numbers. An hour’s lost sleep – probably.
Breakfast was surprisingly good
For all those complaints of a broken night, the experience was a real one – and, on reflection, not to be missed. How can you compare it to a two hour flight? A week or more crossing deserts with all that life around you is/was simply too good to miss. And, importantly, everything worked out OK – as it usually does. Our Wadi Halfa Agent had procured us breakfast vouchers as we boarded – normally only available to those in first class cabins; which could then be exchanged from early morning on in the comfort of an air/con saloon below decks. It was all surprisingly good – relatively clean, spacious, friendly people and a ‘continental’ meal that involved eggs, bread and fruit with tea to drink.
We had dined the night before courtesy of the culinary skills of Vincent Arkesteijn – a chef by training – who produced plateful of salads, cold meats, cheeses and breads that feed the group of us – the foreigners – spread out in our little walled encampment underneath an awning that we had strung across our part of the deck. Kristian and I had carried our own supplies on board to sustain us during the 10 hour crossing, but the Family Arkesteijn meal was a treat surprise, a deal superior and a pleasure to share with everyone in the group.
Camaraderie, that thing about belonging to a group – even for a short period – the pleasure of sharing or appreciation that the ride started three months earlier was just about to end? Or something that linked into all of these feelings? But … it … was … a … great meal with a bunch of like-minded people, in an unusual place and all heading in the same direction for the next few hours. Now that’s a good reason for riding Africa.
*And, for those of you who can read Dutch, the Arkesteijn Family have their travel adventures described at: http://viksontour.gaalverweg.nl/. Check it out.
02 June 1012