Author Archives: crossafrica

Rides Finished and Bikes have Gone

Friday and tomorrow we have to catch the plane home; it was time to deliver the bikes to the freight forwarding company, pack our gear, catch that taxi to the airport and leave Africa. Kristian had to be in the office for work on Monday – his three months ‘sabbatical’ completed. We had long given up on the option of riding the bikes back to London. That particular option had faded with the internal wars that erupted, respectively, in Libya and Syria – effectively blocking our route. A choice of Libya would have been reasonable, and with the opportunity of leaving the bikes in Rome for a leisurely ride across Europe later in the year. And, in reality, we met people going south in Aswan who had ventured across both countries during the past few weeks – but we were by then committed to freighting the bikes and flying.

Alexandria to the west of Abu Qir and just in the picture - 200 km from Cairo and climbing. Four hours to go to LHR and the realization that the ride had actually finished. Back to normality from next week on.

Last views of Africa – Egypt on the Mediterranean. Alexandria to the west of Abu Qir and just in the picture – 200 km from Cairo and climbing. Four hours to go to LHR and the realization that the ride had actually finished. Back to normality from next week on then

Getting ready to send the bikes home

Cairo we already knew, but not from the seat of a motorbike. Like traffic patterns everywhere, however, you quickly get to read the road and adapt to local practices. Traffic is furious, but relatively benign (and not as difficult as it first seemed – it’s much more difficult to cross the road on foot in places). Fortunate with the GPS unit on the yellow bike – we could GPS ourselves just about anywhere quickly; and take those many short cuts round the back of difficult traffic that only the locals knew about. Enduro bikes can handle all kinds of Cairo back roads. Where you do have to take note, however, is that sheen of sand that covers just about everything including the road surfaces. Skidding is easy on good tarmac surfaces. Skid one way, over-correct and then skid the other with an over-enthusiastic rear brake and – waiting to come off the bike but just saving yourself in time – and you quickly learn to appreciate space, timing and judicious use of brakes in the traffic flow. Come off and they’d run over you – speeds on the main ring roads were high – and people would probably not be able to re-act quick enough to miss you.

The freight agents had their main office in Maadi to the south of the city – but we couldn’t find low cost accommodation there; we looked and failed – eventually staying at a camping/motel place just a few minutes ride from the El Giza Pyramids to the SW of the city. It was the third camping place we tried. And, as it turned out, this was also where the company had their Cairo warehouse – where we eventually delivered the bikes for shipping back to the UK. But we didn’t know that until later.

Stop in Cairo, and there was that sense of loss from daily routines without a couple of bikes on hand – with shift in dependency upon others for transport. And, too, there was the added constraint of all that gear that we had to shift – 70 kg in total. And we know this because this is the extent of the check-in luggage allowance that we had on our respective Egyptair and British Midlands flights to London. We checked it out before packing.

Taxi driver Sayed & Kristian loading up the 40 year old P405 taxi before leaving for Cairo Airport. New city taxis are unlikely to deliver an ELV given the value of vehicles in Egypt; they'll simply be shifting into the country or smaller towns.

Taxi driver Sayed & Kristian loading up his 40 year old P405 taxi before leaving for Cairo Airport. New city taxis are unlikely to deliver an ELV, however, given the high value of  road vehicles in Egypt; they’ll simply be shifted into the country or smaller towns.

Taxi to the airport

In the two years since I’d last worked in the city, the taxi fleet has seriously begun to change – out have gone (or are going) the majority of those 40 year old black and white Renaults, Peugeots and Fiats that used to clog up the roads with their crumpled bodywork, smoky exhausts and noisy clatter (and in which none of the interior door handles or fittings worked either). They were always a challenge when it came to deciding prices/fares – you had to agree before getting in, which is difficult for newcomers (meaning mainly foreigners) who tend to bring with them their sense of fair-play, reasonableness and gullibility. Again, you quickly learned with this one (taking a guide on prices from locals). The Koreans had been here in the interim, and brand new brilliant white Hyundai’s had become king of the road in Cairo – with air/con, comfort and meters that actually worked.

But we couldn’t resist phoning Sayed my irregular, but long-time, driver to see if he and his venerable Peugeot 504 station wagon were still around – and they were! On-and-off for a couple of years, Sayed had run me (and sometimes Ivy too when she was staying over) to the tourist sites north and south of the city at the weekends, and waited patiently as we trooped through pyramid fields, fortified monasteries or rural museums. For the longer distances at the weekends – coaches and/or trains were a better deal, but up to 50 km out-of-town you can’t beat a friendly taxi man. He’d meet me at the airport at the beginning of a contract and, a few weeks later – work completed – he would drop me back again.

He worked the entrance to the Victoria Hotel and, for me, was one of a small group of hotel people – waiters, cleaners, receptionist and the barber – who always made you feel like a long-lost son returning home. He was pleased to catch up (for, of course, he’d no idea of our coming into Cairo on a couple of bikes. Kristian he’d never met).

Victoria Hotel Central Cairo - where we had tried to book rooms, but failed. The deal offered did not come within our budget.

Victoria Hotel Central Cairo – where we had tried to book rooms, but failed. The deal offered did not come within our budget.

The good thing about these old Africa cars is the space that they offer when compared to the new alternatives. And what we couldn’t get inside for our ride to the airport, we stacked on the roof. And, his car never broke down – it wheezed, groaned and lurched over the roads, but always went. Grow up in Africa during the past 30-40 years – before the Toyota invasion – and you always remember the suspension and the seats of Peugeot cars. (The rest can be pretty average – particularly the metalwork – but comfort was never an issue on even the roughest roads.) And you could also fix them easily when needed.

Like the Peugeot 504 that he’d driven for close on 30 years, Sayed is unlikely to survive the Hyundai invasion, and we’re not sure when we’ll get back to see him again. He was part of the Victoria Hotel team – working the tourist traffic. (Look the hotel up in Lonely Planet – Olde Worlde, 1920s decor, large dark and cool rooms, and an Agatha Christie feel about it – you could almost see Poirot coming out of the lounge.) It’s near to the main-line station in Ramsis Square, where I had stayed on-and-off for a couple of years – and I liked the people, style, architecture and value of the place; only we couldn’t afford it this time round.

Management offered a discount but it simply wasn’t sufficient, so we stayed round the corner in their more modern but bland sister hotel. But it was good to walk around the Victoria saying ‘hello’ to everyone again. I’d had a haircut in Aswan, and couldn’t take advantage of my friend the hairdresser in the Victoria – famous for having tinted my hair yellow on one visit. Imagine; he said he was doing me a favour. The family thought it had been the sun and/or the pollution in the city on that particular mission.

With only Shaun missing there are L-R: Peter, Kristian & Anna. Anna had left in Khartoum and was part of the 'Meet&Greet' party at LHR.

With only Shaun missing from the team of riders there are L-R: Peter, Anna & Kristian. Anna had left in Khartoum and was part of the ‘Meet&Greet’ party at LHR.

Journey’s end

The journey ended where it began – at London’s Heathrow Airport; we’d departed Cairo with 15 minutes between flights – Kristian leaving first – and expecting to arrive within 30 minutes of each other. The earlier BMI flight, however, was delayed – but we didn’t know that at the time. The meet and greet family group at Terminal 3 were as welcoming as ever, but where was Kristian? I had seen the flight number on the carousel, and hung around looking for him. As it turned out, there were two BMI flights incoming from Cairo at the same time and with similar codes that evening, and the second had been routed to Terminal 1. So, more last minute rushing around. Lost at LHR without our SAVNAT – it was a fitting end to a challenging three months of riding Africa on two wheels.

Road companions for >3,000 km that's Geof Henman on the bonnet of his LR camper, and Vincent  Arkesteijn footing between the two vehicles - with young Sjors climbing on to the bumper of the MB. The truck had spent most of its life as a fire tender in Belgium.

Road companions for >3,000 km that’s Geof Henman on the bonnet of his LR camper, and Vincent Arkesteijn footing between the two vehicles – with young Sjors climbing on to the bumper of the MB. The truck had spent most of its life as a fire tender in Belgium before sale and conversion.

 And about those fellow travellers?

The Arkesteijn Family – whom we had travelled with on-and-off since Nairobi and had left behind in Aswan – eventually took the ferry to Jordan, crossed into Israel and caught the ferry to Italy. We had last exchanged an SMS with them from a beach in Haifa. They were due into northern Italy and would not be coming through Rome.

Geof Henmen and his battered Land Rover camper eventually made it home too. His vehicle had travelled on a ‘wish and a prayer’ since Khartoum and, for the best part of the ride to Wadi Halfa, it had been driven by Ilse Arkesteijn – helping out when Goef had become too ill to drive. Goef was met in Aswan by his wife Ann who’d flown in from the UK to assist him – and they’d figured on the best way to get ‘man and machine’ back home. In the event, it was transported to Alexandria on the back of a flat-deck truck for a highly reasonable £250, and then shipped back. Adventure completed.

And about those bikes

Focus upon the blue bike in case you've not noticed it before. Ten years old with around 30,000 miles, bash plates, over-sized tank and renewal of peripherals before the journey, it has stood up well to the handling of three different riders. If you want a recommendation for riding Africa - consider the cost-effectiveness, simplicity and handling ease of this bike. It comes highly recommended.

Focus upon the blue bike in case you’ve not noticed it before. Ten years old with around 30,000 miles, bash plates, over-sized tank and renewal of peripherals before the journey, it has stood up well to the mixed handling of three different riders. If you want a recommendation for riding Africa – consider the cost-effectiveness, simplicity and handling ease of this design. It comes highly recommended.

And the reality of R&M? A carburettor seal in Windhoek; a couple of oil changes – Lusaka & Nairobi; tyres, headstock steering bearings and a clutch cable in Nairobi and – a perennial issue with both bikes – dust, vibration and connections in the wiring looms – that resulted in poor charging, refusal to start and similar issues. We had spent the last couple of days in Cairo bump starting the yellow bike – it simply would not charge sufficient to rotate the engine fast enough on the starter. Next time? Fit a kick start.

The bikes were not particularly comfortable for long-distance travel – and better suited smaller riders. Sure we’d choose them again – they proved themselves and there is this thing about knowing your bike.

We had bought the bikes on eBay, and this is where they will eventually be sold; that is unless there are any enthusiastic readers out there looking to make a Cairo to Cape Town journey next winter.

London

10 June 2012

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Cairo – Getting Ready to Leave – Last Days

Bikes inside store, but still with local registration plates attached. One on the RHS 'Aswan 16'. People would approach  to us and ask if we were from Aswan. Plate on the yellow bike is fixed sideways.

Bikes inside store, but still with local registration plates attached. One on the RHS ‘Aswan 16’. People would approach to us and ask if we were from Aswan. Plate on the yellow bike is fixed sideways.

Count down time until leaving
Two days before our departure from Cairo and our bikes have been delivered to the freight forwarding agent Messrs Crown Relocation. It feels unsettling not to have our own wheels available, and to have become dependent upon public transport – but that’s as it was planned and that’s how we’ll return to the normality of everyday life once away from African roads. All our goods are piled up in our hotel room near Ramses Station in Central Cairo ready for sorting and packing.

Kia, Ahmed, StoreKeeper & Kristian at the Crown Relocation store in Giza where the bikes were dropped off ready for freighting.

Kia, Ahmed, StoreKeeper & Kristian at the Crown Relocation store in Giza where the bikes were dropped off ready for freighting.

Messrs Crown Relocation as represented by Nadine Hussein the Move Manager have been as professional as we could have wished; and the services provided in Cairo and leading up to Cairo have been reassuring. Regular e-mail contact when on the road during the period of negotiation for shipping the bikes out of Egypt and delivery to Felixstowe England, handling us and our paperwork in Cairo, and taking delivery of the bikes at their deport in El Giza – just down from the Pyramids. We shall monitor performance, etc. from now on and take delivery, they said, during the next month or so depending on shipping available.

Last photo opportunities
We’d been unable to get to the Pyramids the night before – traffic on the roads leading up to the main entrance gate – where many of the five star international name hotels are located – was just too challenging, and the evening light was fading fast; so we simply turned round and headed back to our campsite/motel unit in El Giza – a short ride away.

Just to show that we had actually made it through 10 countries and around 12,000 km. We never did get a picture with both of us in it either. That's the Great Pyramid of Cheops in the background.

Just to show that we had actually made it through 10 countries and around 12,000 km. We never did get a picture with both of us in it either. That’s the Great Pyramid of Cheops in the background.

So, it was up early the following morning – around 6.00 am – and back to the same entrance gate (although the guards on the gate, parking attendants and hustlers selling guided tours, horse/camel rides and making all kinds of offers for other ‘get-you-out-of-your-money’ activities were quick to point out that nothing opened until 8.00 am). We simply wanted that photo opportunity of the bikes and riders in front of the world’s most famous man-made structure – showing the end of the ride from Cape Point south of Cape Town.

There were challenges when asking those same hustlers to take a picture of us both – with all those missing heads and feet – but we’ve now ‘been there and done that’ and it took little more than 10 minutes to get back to the campsite and to pack up. We’d got to know the local roads really well, and how to cut and thrust in and around those taxies and buses with the best of the local riders.

Across town to El Maadi
You have to have a document that enables you to clear the traffic police – showing no accidents, infringements, outstanding speeding fines and more – before you can export foreign registered vehicles; and this requires a visit to the mother of all public transport offices and interfacing with officialdom. Half of Cairo were also queuing up for other traffic related issues when we were there, and everyone was Arabic speaking, all the messages are in Arabic and we were the only foreigners there – more challenges. This is where you need a fixer.

And you thought that your society was tied up in red tape. Take time out in the Arab World. You can't do this easily without a fixer, and it still took us half a morning. There is this Catch-22 issue about it all - confirming we've not had an accident, etc. on the basis of our confirmation.

And you thought that your society was tied up in red tape. Take time out in the Arab World. You can’t do this easily without a fixer, and it still took us half a morning. There is this Catch-22 issue about it all – confirming we’ve not had an accident, etc. on the basis of our confirmation.

Ours came in the form of Ahmed (aka ‘Lewis Hamilton’) who drove his little car like a true Cairenes – hand on the horn, phone in one hand (usually the same hand) and stretching his little Kia Piccato and its auto-box for all it was worth.

Ahmed came courtesy of Crown Relocations and our appointment for 9.00 am in El Maadi the same morning, and it took all of three hours to cover this formality, and cost US$1.50 each for stamped official-looking letters that will accompany the bikes through the formalities of leaving Egypt.

Back at Crown Relocations in El Maadi we re-loaded our gear into the back of the Kia, fired up the bikes again – for the last time – and followed the car back to El Giza and the storage depot where we eventually left the bikes mid-afternoon; after removing the mirrors, draining the petrol tanks of half-a-dozen litres of fuel – for we’d been running low around town trying to use the fuel up – and unbolting the Egyptian number plates and re-attaching them with plastic ties (so that they can be easily removed by hand).

Yellow bike playing up
Since arriving in Cairo, the yellow bike had been playing up and has been difficult to start – the battery was always low on power and would not turn the motor over sufficiently fast enough for it to catch. This was not logical – low charging rate, power leakage, alternator failing, battery failing or what? Two days to go and it had been a pragmatic choice to bump start the bike each time; which is easier said than done in much of Cairo with its dust/sand covered streets, enthusiastic parking and heat. Little space either. No problem with finding willing helpers, however. Just hard work, and thinking ahead when the bike should be stopped, etc. Once running – no issue, except that it tended to overheat in dense traffic, and this also led to erratic running.

But we delivered it to the El Giza freight sheds in that condition, and it will be collected from Felixstowe by van – so it won’t be running again for a few weeks.

Pyramids of Giza
You cannot come to Cairo and remain oblivious to the impact of either the Nile or the remnants of those ancient civilizations that once dominated the country – and which now provide the basis of a tourist industry that is worth 30% GDP – and which remains in serious jeopardy since late 2010 and the impact of the ‘Arab Spring’. We’d seen quite a lot of the Nile since Aswan and before, but the Giza Pyramids were just down the road and well away from current hotspots like Tahrir Square.

What would the Ancient Egyptians have thought of it all? And imagine the choices that need to be made with 'sympathetic developemnt' choices for carrying the past into the future.

What would the Ancient Egyptians have thought of it all? And imagine the choices that need to be made with ‘sympathetic development’ choices for carrying the past into the future.

We chose to take in the ‘Sound & Light’ show which takes place in the early evening when the day has cooled sufficient to remind you to take a top coat of some kind. Given that we were camping in a run-down motel place just a few minutes away, it was easy to get there; and we took both bikes. We’d planned to take a bite before entering the grounds of the El Giza plateau where the show is held – in what must be one of the most squalid suburbs in the city: Gereir – taking advantage of the world’s best located KFC. Now there’s a contradiction – modern fast food overlooking the world’s most famous ancient monument (and, if you read the blogs on these things, you’ll see the moves to try to redress this particular issue – no, not just the KFC, but the whole community; but then you get into the social issues of local people, sanitized neighbourhoods, the reality of modern livelihoods and so on, and clearly you have to strike a balance) but, meantime we’d enjoy a quick and tasty meal. For the KFC brigade, you tend to pay more here than elsewhere in town – but the views are spectacular – unique even.

More a galaxy of colours, stories and imagination than the real thing, but highly entertaining; and not to be missed. Given a choice between day-time and S&L display, the latter is a more relaxing option. Ignore the rough picture - it was a little camera.

More a galaxy of colours, stories and imagination than the real thing, but highly entertaining; and not to be missed. Given a choice between day-time and S&L display, the latter is a more relaxing option. Ignore the rough picture – it was a little camera.

For a little over an hour, the projectors bathe the Pyramids and surrounding grounds and buildings in a splendour of changing lights and patterns; the Sphinx does all the talking – introducing the stories of how the Pyramids came to be built, what they represent and the many leaders and statesmen who have been captured by the image of them. The commentary quotes the Arab proverb ‘Man fears time, but time fears the Pyramids’. With the darkness of the evening complete and nothing but black desert behind the Pyramids there is this sense of looking into eternity. Show over, lights back on and then you’re back to the cacophony of street life in Cairo when making your way home.

Peter Steele

Melbourne

09 March 2013


Emptiness of the Red Sea Coast

Cairo via the Red Sea coast

There was a sense of ‘journey’s end’ once across the Egypt/Sudan border and, with the bikes re-registered and fitted with Aswan number plates, our Egyptian driving licences packed into our document cases and the bikes loaded up, Cairo was little more than a couple of easy days away. You can ride the agricultural roads north along the Nile Valley, but this is an endless avenue of small trading towns, bus parks and – the motorists nightmare – speed bumps located 100  metres apart wherever there were small settlements on the road. So, we chose to cross the eastern deserts and to ride north along the coast of the Red Sea. At least the military convoy system out of Aswan has been dropped in recent times, and you can travel independently.

Speed bumps dominate the villages along the Nile Valley. We never met a single one on the Red Sea coast - but then the road ran through empty desert for much of the way, with the coastal towns off the road.

Speed bumps dominate the villages along the Nile Valley. We never met a single one on the Red Sea coast – but then the road ran through empty desert for much of the way, with the coastal towns away from the road.

This was long distance riding, counting the kilometre posts to Safaga and looking ahead over the rolling hills that mark what is a featureless land of nothingness. We rode a well-maintained tar seal highway that, for much of the way, followed the railway line to the coast. Traffic was light, but not as light as it had been in northern Sudan, and we were in amongst cars, trucks and buses from time-to-time. No speed bumps here and road speeds were high. The petrol shortages of Aswan and Luxor were of concern – the extent to which it may impact on the coastal road. But that turned out to be a non-starter, for we were able to fill up at the first petrol station we saw on the outskirts of Safaga – there was no hint of shortages. Now we had sufficient fuel to get to Cairo.

We had wondered about riding into Safaga but didn’t, reasoning that we wanted to get within a day of Cairo for arrival the next day – it was already past mid-day – so we continued riding north. We’d already had a brief swim in the pool at the campsite/motel in Luxor that morning before leaving, but who could resist a dip in this most exotic of holiday destinations – the Red Sea. Well, ‘exotic’ it may be around the main centres – Sharm el-Sheikh, Hurghada and Safaga, for example – but elsewhere the coastline was simply, well … desert – with small groups of oil platforms out to sea, the occasional and abandoned military depot (with those ubiquitous ‘No photographs’ signs) and equally dilapidated truck stops. There were also lots of ‘Don’t use your mobile phone when driving’ signs – mobile phone in a red circle with red diagonal through it.

So, we pulled off the road near to one of those ubiquitous truck stops, parked the bikes on the edge of the tar seal and climbed down to the rocky shore-line. A car with travellers had stopped to take in the view, but they quickly disappeared after a photo or two. We had the beach, coastline and sea to ourselves. It was a token dip; a first in the Red Sea.

Swimming in the Red Sea. Had we taken the Nile Valley Road, we'd have missed out on the experience of a sea-to-ourselves. It was warm and refreshing at the same time.

Swimming in the Red Sea. Had we taken the Nile Valley Road, we’d have missed out on the experience of a sea-to-ourselves. It was warm and refreshing at the same time.

This was bleak desert country on both sides of a fast dual carriageway with the separate lanes sometimes divided by a kilometre or more, and few turning places should you decided to return to where you have just come from. You could see where cars had simply bumped off the road, tracked across the packed sand and bumped up on to the road to return from where they had come. Perhaps that’s what the road designers had intended? However, not so easy to do with a truck and trailer unit.

Hurghada by the sea

One of the fastest growing cities in the country – well, before that friendly revolution 2011/12 – and with an easyJet link to Europe and a passenger ferry across to Egypt’s most famous of Red Sea resorts: Sharm el-Sheikh – Hurghada sprawled along the coast. For those riding by you couldn’t really see where it started and finished. There were construction sites just about everywhere. English and Arabic language road signs featured ‘Downtown’, ‘Airport’ and a host of neighbourhoods, and we could see the planes coming in, but not where we could go to gain a quick view of the place. There were large roundabouts with modern shopping malls close-by; this was a brief introduction to modern Egypt – focusing on middle-income Egyptians – and promoted for the longer-term tourist industry.

So, we turned off the main highway and headed downtown and then to the main port and then down a main, but traditional, commercial street that led from the port, but we did not find any of the more prestigious areas that would attract a foreigners. Hurghada from the main highway was a different image to that downtown. I guess we missed the modern tourist areas – for surely they exist somewhere – and probably in the ribbon development along the coast south of the town. The main town centre was typical well: ‘Egypt’ and far removed from similar and more spectacular developments that can be found, for example, along the Costa Brava in Spain and the Egyptian Mediterranean coast. It raises the obvious question – having bought your low-cost holiday home in Hurghada – what would you do with yourself each day?

People were friendly – as they are throughout Egypt – and started up conversations when eye contact had been made and asked the usual questions about the bikes – everyone rides Chinese-made bikes in Egypt (apart from those ubiquitous Vespas – should that be ‘Vespe’- and an occasional two-stroke Jawa of heritage era – remember those twin exhaust plumes of white billowing smoke when accelerating hard – fabulous). Foreign bikes are a novelty.

In Hurghada we stopped for a bite - sitting on the pavement just to the side of where the bikes were parked. We bought drinks in the shops behind the bikes and went back to the bar.

In Hurghada we stopped for a bite – sitting on the pavement just to the side of where the bikes were parked. We bought drinks in the shops behind the bikes and took them back to the bar.

We’d pulled over at a local restaurant on the main road out of town to eat a couple of breads stuffed with meat and salad. Bikes parked nearby, relatively open pavement, empty tables & chairs, umbrellas, etc. and waited for our food to be prepared. There was this sense of journey’s end to the riding. Were all those places – Kenya, Malawi and Namibia just a few kilometres back there down the road? Had we been there so recently – was this still Africa – it was a world apart from Egypt and the Red Sea coast.

Sure, you’re supposed to steer clear of the great unwashed meals, but we’ve typically found meat a less risky food than salads or uncooked vegetables. As usual, it was the drinks that were essential, but there are only so many sugary Cokes, Pepsis, Seven-Ups and Sprites that you can take. Every freezer cabinet from end-to-end of the country seems to be stuffed with soft drinks (but also water). And for those who don’t know – this is a dry country outside the main tourist hotels – there you can buy a beer or two.

Wall mural. Opposite the bar a mural was painted on the exposed side of a small apartment block. It looked beaten and worn and contrasted with the bright Nestle advertisement promoting ice creams.

Wall mural. Opposite the bar a mural was painted on the exposed side of a small apartment block. It looked beaten and worn and contrasted with the bright Nestle advertisement promoting ice creams.

Ras Ghareb

We had considered stopping for the night in Hurghada but Ras Ghareb up the coast was 150 km nearer to Cairo, and it was still early afternoon. An industrial town – the centre of the Egyptian oil industry – larger than Hurghada and just off the main highway; it sounded just the place and we got there around 4.00 pm. We had already appreciated that this was not a tourist destination, but it was clean and presentable with wide straight and empty streets, low rise buildings and a bar on the side of the road as we entered the town – time for yet another cold drink. No one spoke English, but we figured we could ride up and down and find a small hotel somewhere – only we didn’t; it took an hour or so to decide that we were getting nowhere.

We approached a number of drivers in the petrol station when filling up, and a couple in a car kindly volunteered to take us to the only hotel that they knew in the town. They were probably right too – for we never did see another hotel and you could figure that camping would not be an option – well, formal camping where we could find a shower. The hotel – a small businessman’s hotel – was a little way out from the centre, and we would have been lucky to have found it simply by riding up and down likely looking streets.

Amir Palace Hotel. Clean, presentable & reasonably priced; all that you could request after a comfortable day on the bikes. We were within a day of Cairo.

Amir Palace Hotel. Clean, presentable & reasonably priced; all that you could ask after a comfortable day on the bikes. We were within a day of Cairo.

The Amir Palace Hotel wanted E£140/night (about GB£14) – en suite, air/con, comfortable beds, clean, etc. – what more can you want. We bought breakfast at a local super-market – stacked it in the fridge in the room – and headed off on foot to find somewhere to eat that evening. Anna phoned Kristian – we were able to vouch that he was still in the land of the living. We were in bed by 9.40 pm – the sleep of the tired wind-blown, but clean, bikkies.

Wind power

That next revolution in power has to be those thousands of wind-generators that will eventually track the Red Sea coast from the Gulf of Suez in the north to the Elba National Park on the border with Sudan in the south – for these are some of the most reliable wind resources in the world – average 10.5m/sec. And the next day, riding to Suez, we passed through wind-farms with >1,000 wind generators marching alongside the road and up into the hills alongside. The majority were not rotating. Why? Who do they belong to? Read the blogs and you’ll note planning in hand for new investments for 7,200 MW capacity south of Suez and another 3,000 MW along both sides of the Suez Canal. Egypt is already considering 20% of energy requirements from renewable resources by 2020.

Paradox of wealth creation and unfinished potential

Riding the Red Sea coast was a choice well made – and we counted down the kilometres as the Cairo signs flashed past. Long distance riding with only the wind to content with – but what a wind; hard and unrelenting for the entire distance from Safaga where we had left the desert for the coast all the way to Sukhna near Suez. The closer to Suez the more pronounced the ribbon development of beach parks, hotels, shopping malls and holiday homes – kilometre/hectare after kilometre/hectare – thousands of partially completed buildings surrounded by construction sites, with the modern north-south two lane highway skirting everything. Here you are little more than two hours from Cairo by road. With Egypt struggling economically to come to terms with the social revolution of the past 18 months, now would be a very good time to make an offer on that holiday home on the Red Sea that you have always fancied.

No issue that we were en route to Cairo - for the signs were at regular intervals along the entire road.

No issue that we were en route to Cairo – for the signs were at regular intervals along the entire road.

And if the buildings are not abandoned, they have at least been left in limbo as one more feature of a country coming to terms with a popular movement to change government and apportion blame for the inequalities between the masses and their relative poverty and the minority middle-classes/rich. Who will eventually occupy all that real estate? Who knows? Cheaper than Spain, of course, but further from Europe and more of a punt for your average middle-income German, Dutch or English family. So, are they there for rich Egyptians and others from the Middle East? It’s a difficult time to project personal wealth in Egypt – local or foreign; so those structures are probably destined to remain unfinished for some time yet.

That’s it – reached Cairo

Cairo was at the end of a fast and empty 100 km new motorway-standard road; you could see the original road running alongside – the one that still featured on our Michelin map ‘Africa North East – Arabia’. First time we had been asked to pay a toll too – US$1/entry and the same coming into Cairo. There was no ‘Cairo’ sign as such where the city began, so we missed out on that particular photo opportunity.

Main road to Cairo. New, empty and easy; our final few kilometres into Cairo. At points on the road, the builders had constructed 'ancient look-a-like' Egyptology monuments.

Main road to Cairo. New, empty and easy; our final few kilometres into Cairo. At points on the road, the builders had constructed ‘ancient look-a-like’ Egyptology monuments.

Earlier there had been the one toll booth on the road north along the Red Sea coast, but at that one the attendant had simply waved us through. Not so many bikkies on the long distance haul – in fact, perhaps one or two for the entire 500 km or so once outside the half dozen main centres. The new road ended abruptly too – clover leaf turn-round and you’re into normal city traffic with views over the city. Polluted air too – for those coastal winds  no longer featured.

Peter Steele

Cairo

6 June 2012


Ferry Boat to Aswan

Transition time

Agatha Cristie View. The Nile from the Old Cataract Hotel Aswan; scenery to take your breath away. Mid-2012 and it was empty of tourists frightened away by the social revolutions of the state. Our offer to management was not accepted - we'd known this - but we had a drink and drank in the view. Pristine Egypt.

Agatha Cristie View. The Nile from the Old Cataract Hotel Aswan; scenery to take your breath away. Mid-2012 and it was empty of tourists frightened away by the social revolutions of the state. Our offer to management was not accepted – we’d known this – but we had a drink and drank in the view. Pristine Egypt.

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.

Movenpick Hotel on Elephantine Island, with the hotel ferry boat in the foreground. Geof's wife Anna was waiting here and they and the Arkesteijn Family stayed over for their first night in Aswan. We took the ferry over, swam in the pool and shared a drink.

Movenpick Hotel on Elephantine Island, with the hotel ferry boat crossing. Geof’s wife Ann was waiting here and they and the Arkesteijn Family stayed over for their first night in Aswan. We took the ferry over, swam in the pool and shared a drink that evening.

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.)

Merc Camper. Not as easy as it first looked, for the angles were all wrong, and the slopes were rough. A fast run on board damaged a tyre and it had to be repaired in Aswan.

Merc Camper. Not as easy as it first looked, for the angles were all wrong, and the slopes were rough. A fast run on board damaged a tyre and it had to be repaired in Aswan.

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.

Kristian and the Arkesteijn boys, with the ferry boat in the background; and the barge to the left of the frame.

Kristian and the Arkesteijn boys, with the ferry boat in the background; and the barge to the left of the frame.

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.

Deck space. An awning covered 'our' part of the deck, but it didn't prevent people walking through and, eventually, pitching in for sleeping space.

Deck space. An awning covered ‘our’ part of the deck, but it didn’t prevent people walking through and, eventually, pitching in for sleeping space.

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.

Early morning, and many kilometres to go to Aswan. People breakfasted on what they carried, and began packing up their things ready to disembark.

Early morning, and many kilometres to go to Aswan. People breakfasted on what they carried, and began packing up their things ready to disembark.

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.

Ferry boat Sagalnaam in Aswan after crossing Lake Nasser, and looking a deal smaller than it felt when loaded. People were fast off the boat and into  trains, buses and taxis.

Ferry boat Sagalnaam in Aswan after crossing Lake Nasser, and looking a deal smaller than it felt when loaded. People were fast off the boat and into trains, buses and taxis.

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.

 

Peter Steele

Aswan

02 June 1012


Wadi Halfa: Township on the Edge

Reaching the Nile

Easy riding and this notwithstanding the intermittent sand blow that blurred the edges of everything and darkened the skies.

Easy riding and this notwithstanding the intermittent sand blow that blurred the edges of everything and darkened the skies.

Once past Dongola, about two-thirds of the way from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa, the road heads north and follows the Nile Valley – in fact there are roads from here all the way to Cairo – more than 1,500 km away, but you can’t overland from Sudan to Egypt – leastways not yet. This is still a great new road – open, smooth tar seal, straight and comfortable; those Chinese road builders again, of course. Great motorbike riding – great visuals; and all the more knowing that we were in reach of Wadi Halfa.

You could see the river off to the left – smooth, green and quiet, and with a narrow border of green vegetation – crops and trees – along either embankment. The proximity of the river made all the difference to riding – and not simply from being able to see it and the sense of the many people living within a few hundred metres of the water’s edge – but from the occasional burst of cool air that covered the road. Sure, this was all relative when you’re riding in 50degC or so, but it dropped the ambient temperature a handful of degrees and refreshed the bits of you it could reach – wrists, face and neck mainly. Like the deserts of the day before, northern Sudan represented the pinnacle of hot riding – only this time there was a veneer of green around the edges. To the right of the road, the grey desert stretched into the distance.

Distance like it never was before - endless distances on a new highway to nowhere; or so it seemed. It was good to get off the bikes and out of that top wear.

Distance like it never was before – endless distances on a new highway to nowhere; or so it seemed. It was good to get off the bikes and out of that hot protective top wear.

The country has become more mountainous too, with stark heaps of rocks strewn around the base of the hills – enormous rectangular rocks in places as if some kids had been playing with bricks and then discarded them. There were a handful of settlements along the way, but you would have had to turn off the road – LHS remember – and track down to the Nile to find them. The road was simply too new to have established its own settlements, but they will be there within a handful of years – and not least because of the road traffic that will follow and link Khartoum with Aswan. That said, there was a bus halt and collection of buildings on the main highway at the eloquently named El Beer – but no beer, of course. The rail line was >200 km away somewhere out there to the east in that desert country – where just a couple of years ago the long-distance travellers in their 4x4s were assiduously bumping alongside sand trails heading for Atbara. Can you imagine what it must have been like following the rail line in sand – in this heat.

It was hot, but not uncomfortable riding once you got underway – with the realization that Wadi Halfa was literally round that next bend in the river. The bike hummed along; with no traffic about you can look around.

Desert camping

Our second night in the desert wasn’t anywhere near as good as the first. Although there had been no real sand blow that day, we were now travelling through areas that had been lived in since ancient times – few people, sure, but enough that you couldn’t just pull off the roadside and set up behind a bush. We tried following tracks down to the Nile, but they always ended up in someone’s backyard. People would come out to see who was arriving.

Turn on a sixpence and lose your balance; and over you go. You can lift these bikes back without help, but its hard work. Looking for a campsite for the night at the end of the day - and easier to wait for that help.

Turn on a sixpence and lose your balance; and over you go. You can lift these bikes back without help, but its hard work. In the hills looking for a campsite for the night at the end of the day – and easier to wait for that help.

We eventually followed a track into the mountains to the right of the road and away from the Nile, but even here you could see that people and their vehicles occasionally passed this way. It was rocky, however, and you could ride over the larger rock hills and find a niche or two away from the more popular trails. We thought we had done well and, notwithstanding a small blow or two that covered everything in sand as we were setting up, we were firm about sleeping outside – that was until the sand storm really took off – an hour or so after we’d eaten and bedded down for the night. You simply could not sleep in that particular one. Quite apart from the noise there was sand into everything including you.

Fortunately, we were in a niche in the rocks so there was a measure of protection, but putting up Kristian’s tent with head torches when everything not fixed down was trying to fly away was the real challenge of the late evening. Sure we got it up – Kristian could put his tent up in his sleep – as he did this time – criss-crossing the plastic bracing rods into the channels set into the fabric, getting weights on to each corner and hustling our sleeping gear, clothes and just about everything else into the security of the tent and zipping it back up. And, five minutes later with everything battened down, we were inside this rigid little two-man tent with the plastic frame bending in the wind and sand pummelling against the fabric. Nothing like a good quality tent then. It was like being on a train in a tunnel inside the tent but, I have to say, I remember nothing more than five minutes before waking up the following morning to a brilliant sunny day – even a little cool. We’d slept though. You could have heard a pin drop it was so quiet. We had not heard the wind and sand blow cease during the night.

Everything round about that we’d left outside – mostly attached to the bikes – was heaped with sand. Time for a scrappy breakfast, load up the bikes and head back to the main highway bumping down out of the hills for around 08.30. It seemed cooler today.

Held up with a minibus full of travellers whilst the pillon contractor team cleared rocks for a foundation.

Held up with a minibus full of travellers whilst the pylon contractor team levelled rocks for a foundation.

We were stopped a couple of hours later alongside a minibus of people spilling out on to the road because of blasting ahead – the man said – by a gang erecting pylons that were following the new road. Five minutes later there was a boom a couple of hundred metres ahead and to one side of the road and we saw a small cloud of dust. The minibus collected its passengers and we followed them down the road – it was covered in small rocks.

Wadi Halfa

We reached Wadi Halfa for mid-day Monday 28 May. The little town of about 16,000 people seemed to reach out of the desert as the Nile turned into Lake Nasser (well, the bit in Sudan is really called ‘Lake Nubia’); and it was much like a small Australian-look-alike township – spacious, relative well laid out, gardens, shrubs, wide roads and suburbs that gravitated towards the remnants of the original 19th century ex-British colonial town. Everything was low rise. The main road took you around the perimeter towards the commercial centre, which was like small town Sudan anywhere; white rectangular blocks of shops, hotels, restaurants and shaded verandas and wide open dusty roads in between. Hardly a tree in sight. It was relatively clean.

Commercial centre Wadi Halfa around mid-day,and most people in the shade somewhere. Reinforcing rods protruding everywhere indicate the newness of everything; new old buildings.

Commercial centre Wadi Halfa around mid-day,and most people in the shade somewhere. Reinforcing rods protruding everywhere indicate the newness of everything; new old buildings.

We pulled into a bar for a cold drink, and minutes later our Wadi Halfa fixer Mazar rode over on his little Chinese-made Jialing, parked and came over to introduce himself. How did he know it was us … we were the only foreign bikkies expected. He recommended a newly built hotel just outside the township as a place to stay, and said that he’d come by to check with us once we’d settled in.

The original town owes its existence to the sacking of Khartoum by the Mahdi in 1885 and the establishment of a military staging post that developed into a regional headquarters for the Anglo-Egyptian Expeditionary Force assembled to re-take Khartoum and Sudan. This became the centre of the rail yards, repair shops, military resources and more with which to transport the army – men, horses, equipment, munitions and other stores – south. First, however, that railway across the Northern Sudanese deserts had to be surveyed and built. It’s the same one that you travel on today – assuming you have the time, inclination, stamina and fortitude to do so when the modern air-conditioned coach alternatives are now available.

We watched this man with has hand rake and plastic bag working the streets near to the bar where we sat - picking up rubbish. Compliments to the town managers; it may be dusty and represent 'Sudan small town anywhere', but it was reasonably clean.

We watched this man with has hand rake and plastic bag working the streets near to the bar where we sat – picking up rubbish. Compliments to the town managers; it may be dusty and represent ‘Sudan small town anywhere’, but it was reasonably clean.

That original military town lasted a little over 60 years and, eventually, fell victim to the Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser. Look at the early photographs of the town – relatively elegant buildings, the corniche and more from the first half of the century – and reflect upon the changing priorities of recent times. Loss of recent heritage, however, should be seen in the context of the ancient Nubian heritage that also became lost forever. More than 20 years of digging and relocating prior to flooding resulted in buildings, artifacts and more being dismantled and re-assembled – much of it to museums in Khartoum – but the original Nubian civilizations and the people that predate it lived along the entire Nile Valley between the first and sixth cataracts; from Aswan almost to Khartoum. Changing environmental conditions from those times have brought the deserts that dominate into the modern day; and the descendants of the Nubian people have largely been dissipated into the modern towns of both countries. The dam and Lake Nasser simply hastened the Nubian exit from the heart of their ancient lands.

Hotel

There must have been >50 rooms in the hotel, and we had it to ourselves – we could chose where we wanted the man at reception said – but they recommended the upstairs rooms with the air-cooling system, the en suite shower/toilet and the first floor open deck that ran the full length of the building. It was US$10/night/room. With the ferry due in a couple of days, the hotel would not remain empty for long – and it eventually filled to overflowing with people sleeping all over the open deck and in the enclosed compound at the rear of the ground floor. To one side there was a large dining room – spacious and open to the compound. We rode our bikes round to the back and in through the gate, and chained them together in the compound.

Hotel from the small hill overlooking it; you can see the two story design, the compound at the rear and the open eating area to the  LHS. Not a green leaf in sight.

Hotel from the small hill overlooking it; you can see the two story design, the compound at the rear and the open eating area to the LHS. Not a green leaf in sight.

For the first night the hotel was comfortable and quiet. Water flowed, the air-cooling system worked and we were able to sleep well. The air cooling system was a god-send: a steel box tacked on to the outside wall of the bedroom and containing a small pump that lifted water to the top of the box where it filtered back through internal walls of hessian into the reservoir at the base of the box. A fan set into the wall of the room pulled cooled air from the box into the room. Perfect. Second night with the hotel filling the water supply failed – no showers, no toilet and, worse of all, no air cooling. We carried water upstairs from a trailer tanker located outside the hotel – to service the room and the cooling, but even that eventually ran out; and the room remained hot and stuffy. Fortunately, there was no run on the latrine; stomachs were working just fine.

The small air cooler box; looking as if it had been designed by six-form students to test the law of latent heat of evaporation. When it worked we basked in the delight of the change from water to vapor and the associated drop in temperature that followed.

The small air cooler box; looking as if it had been designed by six-form students to test the law of latent heat of evaporation. When it worked we basked in the delight of the change from water to vapor and the associated drop in temperature that followed.

Family Arkesteijn and Geof  Henman turned up in Wadi Halfa during day #2 and also checked into the same hotel. Geof was still recuperating and Ilse had continued to drive his Land Rover in convoy with the family Merc. Everyone turned out to ensure that sufficient water was captured to service the three rooms – well, as best could be expected given the limited supplies. The Arkesteijn boys – Klaas and Sjors – ran water convoys with the best of us. But, without any means of verifying things, it’s almost certain that the foreigners lost out to the locals where water supplies were concerned – we were simply not sufficiently well connected. And, I don’t know how you get round that particular issue. No water means, quite simply, no water. If we had been camping – no issue; in a reasonably comfortable hotel it became an issue.

Day in Town

The Tuesday was a day of relaxation; away from the road, wandering the town and surroundings and catching up on the blog. Our agent Mazar came round, and this time on his bike and sidecar – the legacy of a South African rider that had left it behind – he said. He confirmed routines for tomorrow – day of departure. We walked the couple of hundred metres into town, found a local fundi with a treadle sewing machine and got him to make draw bags for our air mattresses – replacing the current ones. Kristian also had a tent bag made.

We enjoyed a drink and a snack at a bar in town and, later, rode out to the harbour offices to check on departure routines for tomorrow. They said: ‘Come back tomorrow’. But they also referred us to their office in town. So, a wasted journey then but we’d only travelled a few kilometres, so we took in a wider loop down to the lake shore following tracks and trails at random to see fishing communities, boats and markets up close and looking all pretty temporary.

People, boats and light trucks were scattered along the edge of the lake working the markets of the local fishing trade. Everything was temporary and reflected changing levels of the lake.

People, boats and light trucks were scattered along the edge of the lake working the markets of the local fishing trade. Everything was temporary and reflected changing levels of the lake.

Later in the afternoon we climbed one of those characteristic rocky pinnacles that dominate the township – pimples on the landscape little more than 300 metres high, but with some gorgeous views across the area including the hotel where we were staying. The Arkesteijn kids came with us.

Heading back to the hotel from the rocks behind the truck; Kristian and the Arkesteijn boys

Heading back to the hotel from the rocks behind the truck; Kristian and the Arkesteijn boys. The truck owner left his car on the slope below the hill to compensate for a tired battery. Amazing, 60 year old Sudanese truck still working.

Fix-it agent

I’ve probably said this already, but the value of a fix-it agent easily outweighs the costs involved; and more particularly when there are challenges of language, where the markets are dominated by narrow margins – would you prefer to stay another week in Wadi Halfa for the sake of US$20 (and/or the cost of an additional barge) – it doesn’t bare thinking. Our agent was familiar with people like ourselves – with good manners, an ability to share and/or reduce stress, and the confidence that comes from doing much the same for countless others who have gone before and those still coming. Sure he knew all the angles and the people involved and, almost certainly, he would be susceptible to the hand-outs, bribes and other ‘taxes’ that those in authority in Wadi Halfa Port would be able to load on to him. You simply fit in with the systems and, if this is difficult for you, then you have no place in coming this way.

Briefing meeting pre-departure with Mazar in the hotel dining room; and the three groups of travellers: Family Arkesteijn, Steeles & Geof Henman leaning into the advice provided.

Briefing meeting pre-departure with Mazar in the hotel dining room; and the three groups of travellers: Family Arkesteijn, Steeles & Geof Henman leaning into the advice provided.

In the ‘cadeaux’ circus it helps that you’re riding a motorbike (or a push bike or taking the bus, etc.) when compared to those driving what to the locals may seem like riches beyond understanding. Your Land Cruiser, Land Rover or whatever, may seem like a bucket back home – perhaps challenging Africa on its final journey, as-it-were, but here it represents real wealth. Hit the wrong road block or stop at those lights at the wrong junction (in the wrong city) and you could actually lose your vehicle. Theft happens.

Mazar showed up the second night on his South African Kawasaki KLS fitted with a sidecar. Now that is a rarity; the first we had seen in Africa.  Not a good picture - too dark. There's a better one at http://pikipiki.co.za. Sidecar unit left behind by a South African couple.

Mazar showed up the second night at the hotel on his South African Kawasaki KLS 650 fitted with a sidecar. Now that is a rarity; the first we had seen in Africa. Not a good picture – too dark. There’s a better one at http://pikipiki.co.za.

So, the fixer represents that little additional insurance that you’re first on the boat, you’ve a friendly face who is expecting you – from e-mails shared during the approach to the Wadi Halfa – and, should things go wrong, then there is someone who may be on your side. What can go wrong here? You may have a road accident – God forbid; or the barge may not accompany the ferry, and you’ll arrive in Aswan with your bike/car still there in Wadi Halfa. That too happens.

 So, our agent comes highly recommended.

Peter Steele

Aswan

02 June 2012

Replacing worn out camp bags with locally-made alternatives; there was a tailor treadling just 200 m from the hotel.

Replacing worn out camp bags with locally-made alternatives; there was a tailor treadling just 200 metres from the hotel.


Getting on the Road to Wadi Halfa

Planning the route

We had figured on three days of fairly demanding riding to make Wadi Halfa in time for the Wednesday ferry to Aswan; the ferry is a once–a-week affair and, fail to catch it, means one more week in sunny Wadi Halfa on the edge of Lake Nasser. This is a bit like that raffle competition in which first prize is ‘One week in Wadi Halfa’ and second prize ‘Two weeks in Wadi Halfa’ and so on, where none of the punters actually knows Wadi Halfa.

Petrol stations and 4x4/AWDs have replaced the camel and oasis, but local travellers look much the same - more comfortable too without  all the protective gear that we were wearing.

Petrol stations and 4×4/AWDs have replaced the camel and oasis, but local travellers look much the same – more comfortable too without all the protective gear that we were wearing.

You have two choices of route to get there – the shorter and the longer – all roads are tar seal, so that’s no issue, and the longer journey (with an additional 300 km) takes you past the ancient pyramids of Meroe and other ruins on the Khartoum to Atbara Road. Lonely Planet describes all manner of interesting places and ruins that link to the ancient desert kingdoms of the Meroitic Pharaoh period but you need time, stamina and perseverance to undertake this kind of exploratory mission travel mid-year. For us it was simply TOO HOT to think about and, crucially, we needed to catch that ferry this coming week.

So, we were limited to what we could see fro m the main highways given that need to ride a couple of 10 hour days to put us in contact with Wadi Halfa for the Monday evening. We needed to have some time in hand for those unforeseen happenings and those that were foreseen, but hopefully would not feature. We imagined being stopped at the 25 km perimeter checkpoint – foreigners are not permitted to travel 25 km outside Khartoum without permission – official permission that is; and we were easily identifiable as ‘Not locals’ and we were not carrying a travel permit.

Want to know where you're going; no one is better then those travelling in the opposite direction; a Dutch couple in a Landrover that we waved down.

Want to know where you’re going; no one is better then those travelling in the opposite direction; a Dutch couple in a Land Rover that we waved down.

What we did elect to do was to cross the two long desert roads from Atbara to Karima and then from Karima to Dongola – of the order 300 km and 175 km, respectively. You don’t consider the alternative sand roads in this heat given the hardship and dangers involved, and this notwithstanding our SATNAV telling us that the road track alongside the railway was the recommended route. We knew better. Read stories from 2008 and earlier of people driving the rail tracks (actually on the tracks) in their 4x4s and/or getting bogged down in sand for kilometre after kilometre. With modern tar seal highways recently constructed on the basis of the development of the Merowe dam (in reality, Sudan’s equivalent to the Aswan High Dam of the 1960/70s) these previously isolated desert-lands have been earmarked for food and industrial crops production into the next period. You can’t encourage socio-economic development and move people in without good roads.

Khartoum-Port Sudan road – Images of the modern state

Images of the busiest road in the country from the road are essentially negative. Forget the heritage and traditions of the Nubian people who once lived and prospered across the region and who pre-date the better known ancient Pharoic kingdoms of Egypt – and the clusters of small and pointed pyramids surrounded by hill country (and sometimes looking like small hills themselves where they have fallen down or been vandalized) that they left behind in their graveyards.

The real images of the region are all modern – modern highways, modern diesel trucks (like road trains really), Chinese-built coaches – full of people – that chase each other at speeds in excess of 140 km/h – dangerously overtaking and zigzagging in between the lines of trucks that sometimes stretch for five kilometres or more on this narrow modern road. The coaches all have paint jobs that emphasis the grotesqueness of the front image – eyes, eyebrows, flash-points and aggression. The road is fast but single lane with a ‘mowing’ strip along each side, and raised a couple of metres above the surrounding country. The roadside is littered with thousands upon thousands of spent tyres, strips of tyre tread, pieces of rubber and other truck trash. Occasionally you pass a truck with trailer jacked and a wheel change underway. These are 24 wheel monsters and the pragmatic truck management choice appears to be one of run the tyres until they fail. Roadside truck halts or private compounds have perimeters of old truck tyres, but no one clears up the highway.

Images of the modern state can be found everywhere on the equally modern highways; Chinese roads and European trucks.

Images of the modern state can be found everywhere on the equally modern highways; Chinese roads and European trucks.

And the other image of the modern state is travelling plastic bags; these blow in the winds and literally cross the country to become snagged on fence-lines, bushes or trees. The inhabited parts of the country are awash with plastic trash, but it is the winds that roll these flimsy bags across the road in front of you that remain a fixed image. The same bags are rolling along the roads in the trading centre of Wadi Halfa as we record these thoughts on the laptop; they were rolling across the desert kilometres from anywhere, having travelled what distance? Check any wire fence around a paddock, compound or petrol station – the gaily coloured plastic trash reminds you of Tibetan prayer flags in another culture.

Security is everywhere

We had come prepared for those security issues in that we had photocopied just about every piece of official paper available to us, and packaged them into clipped hand-outs. We had a dozen copies available – just as well to ‘Be prepared’. Between Khartoum and Atbara we passed through eight check points – both formal (where a structure has been built across the road – like a motorway toll station) and informal (where a police pick-up truck had simply pulled into line with the road and people wave you down).

All the small communities had public water points, and we rarely passed one without stopping for a reasonably cold drink and to fill our bottles.

All the small communities had public water points, and we rarely passed one without stopping for a reasonably cold drink and to fill our bottles.

Concerned about our lack of a ‘Permit to travel’, we’d figured that the further we got from Khartoum the less likely we would be sent back – with the later check-points simply confirming the decisions taken by the earlier check-points. Once past the first couple of check-points our confidence increased, but the approach remained the same – friendliness, openness, asking directions, confirming that we were bonifide travellers en route to Wadi Halfa and, when asked, handing over a photocopied package of official documents. In the end we gave out three sets of papers.

Language remained a serious barrier to the fineness of exchange given the lack of English amongst the majority security people and our inability to move on from some Arabic simple phrases for ‘How are you’, ‘How much’, ‘What is your name’ and so on. Then you lose the opportunity of banter and jokes. If you can’t communicate, you can’t use second-level messages and skill with negotiation.

But a summary of our experience from day one was the relative friendliness of the official police and/or military officials, but the potential menace and/or hassles that could have arisen from ‘Security officials’ – those who would approach you in a small settlement or at a petrol station and demand your time, attention and papers. There was never any exchange or official status confirmed – and we could not request it without raising the ante; we had too much to lose by allowing a confrontation to arise. You are always in a weaker position – so you acquiesce.

The oldest pyramids in Sudan - dating around 3,000 years and near to the Forth Cataract on the Nile. A pyramid field to yourself then; and really hot.

The oldest pyramids in Sudan at Karima – dating around 3,000 years and near to the Forth Cataract on the Nile. A pyramid field to yourself then; and really hot.

Taking pictures

Security also crept into ‘Picture taking’ opportunities on the road – for we remained uncertain of whether someone would approach when they saw us with cameras in hand. You don’t take pictures of infrastructure, etc. that may have strategic importance – roads, bridges, power lines and so on – except that they are everywhere (but then we knew this). We were also reticent about taking pictures of the Meroe pyramids (given that these are designated sights – with signboards, and we had no ‘permit’) and similar ancient structures. (Meaning that our selection of Sudanese photos is going to look pretty basic – bikes and riders, and little else.)

Earlier in Khartoum we’d been stopped from taking pictures of the Catholic Cathedral – great looking structure behind a high wall on the Corniche overlooking the Nile. And, similarly, a military post in the main train station insisted that I check back on the pictures taken in the station and show them – one of dogs asleep on the platform and the other of a picture of a train hanging in the main hall. There was a begrudging OK.

Located on the Corniche overlooking the Nile and celebrating  150  years of Christianity in Central Africa, but locked to the casual visitor.

St Mathews Catholic Cathedral. Located on the Corniche overlooking the Nile and celebrating 150 years of Christianity in Central Africa, but locked to the casual visitor.

If you’re coming this way then the recommendation is one of awareness and, if in doubt, don’t. You can’t, for example and according to tourist feedback, take pictures of the confluence of the Nile in Khartoum from the White Nile Bridge, but this is a deal easier leaning over the small wall that surrounds the Al-Morgan Family Park located in the angle of the two rivers. You have to pay a couple of pounds (SPs) to get into the park – and then wander the delight of an antiquated fairground of rides and ferris wheel, snack shops and seats. Riverside and along the bridges – this is the domain of the courting couples, the families and those seeking a breath of cool air of an evening. The two rivers looked brown and sluggish but, at times of the year, they vary considerable in soil load, colour and flow. Fully 80% of the flow in Khartoum is Blue Nile – ex-Ethiopia.

Sand storms

The sky has been heavily overcast with sand blow since arriving in Khartoum – blurring the sun, the edges of buildings in the city and covering everything in a layer of fine dust. Distances are reduced. The one redeeming feature of sand filled skies is lower temperatures. The sand storms cross the sky in front of the bikes like rain clouds in a temperate climate – with the sun shining from bright to dull as the winds carry the clouds of sand. Sand covers the cities, but it is in the country where the full force is met; and typically when riding roads that cross stretches of sand deserts.

We’d by-passed Atbara seeking to make another 100 km or so into the Bayuda Desert on the road to Katima before camping for the night. There had been severe winds for most of the day, but you learn to ride leaning at an angle and hunched over the handlebars. Then the wind began to capture and lift the sand alongside the road, and you couldn’t see a thing. It was a case of following the white line in the middle of the road for positioning and to stop yourself from driving off the road – although these new roads are literally dead straight – given the disorientation of blind riding. Then the danger becomes one of vehicles doing the same from the opposite direction. Fortunately, the desert crossing is part of the Merowe Dam project and, for the moment, there are few settlements along the road. Perhaps we passed/were passed by a dozen vehicles in a two hour ride before stopping for the night.

The route from Atbara to Marawi by-passes the Nile and crosses the  desert  where the sand blows on to the road.  In parts it was completely covered.

The route from Atbara to Marawi by-passes the Nile and crosses the desert where the sand blows on to the road. In parts it was completely covered.

Fortunately, the desert is as much rock and gravel as sand and, notwithstanding constant wind, the sand blow typically petered out after short bouts of difficult riding. Time to stop and clear those holes in your face that had filled with sand – ears are always the most difficult – time to take ANOTHER HOT DRINK – all the liquids on the bikes were HOT.

Desert camping

Ride a desert and you can’t miss the opportunity of desert camping. We had the best of both worlds too – modern highways surrounded by desert landscape. With a new road, there is always that legacy of materials excavation and feeder roads – and it is sometimes difficult to determine what is natural erosion and what’s been left behind by the Chinese road-building teams. The wind had died down and we were surrounded by bleak black coloured hills which seemed to stretch into infinity. Switch of the engine and the silence is deafening.

Plastic sheet, roll-up mattress and sleeping bag in that hollow in the sand; and the surrounding desert of nothingness. Lots of empty plastic bottles too.

Desert camping. Plastic sheet, roll-up mattress and sleeping bag in that hollow in the sand; and the surrounding nothingness. Lots of empty plastic bottles too.

We headed off road – easy, over firm ground and found a convenient flat platform left by a digger; you couldn’t see the road from the other side of a small hill, but it was close enough to hear. Camping alfresco then and no cost. And I slept comfortably outside – a fresh 20+degC night. In winter you can’t do it that easily – it’s simply too cold – but a reasonable sleeping bag and tent would cover basic issues of that kind. Fortunately there was no sand blow that night.

Wadi Halfa
29 May 2012


Khartoum: Anna Out and Peter In – Last Rides

Flying in

Converging on Khartoum by air from Cairo, the Egyptair pilot had warned of sand storms over the Sudanese capital which could, in a worst case scenario, mean re-routing the plane back to Aswan in Egypt – so he said; but he had permission to try to land. The main airport is slap bang in the centre of the city – reminiscent of airports of old (for just about everyone has by now constructed new airports 50 km or more outside the main city) – and you skim in over the flat roofs of the driest capital city in the Middle East/North Africa. Arriving at 3.30 am meant waking many of those in the flight path – none of those sensitivities from back home about arrival flights stopping at 11.00 pm the night before then.

Waiting for K&A meant taking some tourist time off - the Nile; with Osman Ibrabim on hand.

Waiting for K&A meant taking some tourist time off – the Nile; with Osman Ibrabim on hand.

First impressions are pleasantly surprising

You could see the sand blow in the street lights of the city below – in the long boulevards that seem to make up the main cross-city highways; and certainly those around the airport. In fact, the city has turned out to be something of a pleasant surprise – well laid-out, wide roads, modern, new structures everywhere and the roads flowing with relatively new cars and trucks – no congestion; brash even with billboards hugging the roadsides, fast-food restaurants on just about every corner and green but dusty suburbs of recently built houses. Sure, this may be a biased view when seen from the plane, when staying at a comfortable guest house in Riyadh just south of the airport (where Osama bin Laden once lived) and after just a handful of days in which to orientate, catch up with Kristian & Anna and then get on the road. But it’s a fair impression.

Growing up on British history and aware or the Anglo-Sudanese colonial war of the turn of the 19th century (when the traditional authorities vested in the Mahdi of Omdurman to the west of the Nile came up against the British army – and the fighting resulted in the destruction of the Anglo-Egyptian military post that represented Pax Britannica) and images of the past tend to dominate. You can still see the Republican Palace where the British Governor General Gordon was killed, and visit the museum nearby containing memorabilia of those times. Enter Sudan overland from Egypt and you track the railway that the British built – during mid-year and hot season too – with which to transport their army of attrition to reclaim the city and the country. That same railway is still there, looks much like it did 100 years ago, and still works – of sorts.

Stopping over for a couple of nights

It took all of an hour to escape the airport that night/morning, but there was the taxi from the guest house waiting for the 10 minute run to the place booked over the Internet a couple of weeks back. The Bougainvilla Guest House is listed in Lonely Planet and, this time round, well deserved the description provided – clean, presentable and comfortable, and with a pleasant open-air roof-top restaurant cum bar. May-June is not the time to spend outside and, notwithstanding breakfast overlooking this part of the city – looking at more roofs mainly – newcomers tend to remain with the air/con interior for much of the time. Khartoum, perhaps more than the country around about here is REALLY HOT mid-year.

Breakfast bar and roof top view  Bougainvilla Guest House Khartoum. Early morning & hot.

Breakfast bar and roof top view Bougainvilla Guest House Khartoum. Early morning & hot.

It was a case of bed in a comfortable cool single room – with en suite – by 6.00am; and the management was good with costs, etc. on this one. They gave a reduction on the US$70/night quoted (charging US$60 instead) including breakfast, covered the one evening meal that I took and the occasional drinks from the ‘courtesy fridge’ on the roof, and the early check in six hours before my room was booked – thus enabling me to get my head down first thing. Well, I missed breakfast that day – I just didn’t wake up by 9.00 am. Khartoum is only five hours flying from Rome – two short hops through Cairo – but a world apart from the familiar.

Introducing the climate

And, perhaps more than most, it’s the climate the makes that difference; you get used to handling the day in two part – early morning and late afternoon/early evening – to escape the mid-day sun. You drink copious quantities of liquids – all non-alcoholic of course – and you slow down. And that’s without actually riding the bikes of course.

Half way through the next day – the Thursday (I’d arrived early Wednesday), a cell message from K&A confirmed that they were through the Ethiopian/Sudanese border and just 200 km from Khartoum – expecting to arrive later that same day. So, plans were working out well and everyone was on schedule for the change of rider.

Meeting up

We’d exchanged another SMS messages as K&A got closer to the city, and they eventually arrived early evening and slotted into a corner ice cream shop in the suburbs not far from the Bougainvilla Guest House; only we couldn’t find them. I’d met up with an ex-colleague – Osman Ibrahim – recently returned home and now working as a Consultant in Khartoum, and we had spent much of the day sight-seeing. He had taken on the role of guide – I was the tourist. (But more on this later.)

Ice cream shop on street corner in quiet neighbourhood. Couple of tired riders pleased to be off bikes.

Ice cream shop on street corner in quiet Khartoum neighbourhood. Couple of tired riders pleased to be off bikes.

We eventually found the bikes piled high with gear and leaning heavily to one side with K&A seated at an outside table tucking into their ice creams – with a regular line of clients queuing behind them for the same thing. We joined them – queue and ice cream eaters. In fact, it was such a boisterous reception that people looked round to share in the event, and we eventually got our extra ice creams as a gift from management. Several people spoke to K&A about their ride. We had last seen each other at Lusaka Airport Zambia 8 April and, in the six weeks that had passed, Anna, Kristian and Shaun had been on the roads through Central and East Africa.

Celebrating Anna’s ride to Khartoum

We all agreed to meet at a pizza restaurant in Khartoum North that evening – near to the railway station where we had to go to buy tickets for the Wadi Halfa ferry earlier the next day, and near to where Osman lived – he knew the restaurant well. Coming from Rome and eating pizza in Khartoum is something of a paradox, but we tried. I don’t even like pizza with cheese; and this proved the crunch point – the restaurant couldn’t serve pizzas without cheese, and they had nothing else available on the menu. So, we set out to a popular fish restaurant in Omdurman, just across the Nile from Khartoum North. It turned out to be a best-choice option.

Celebrating paying the bill at the fish restaurant in Omdurman; friendly staff on hand.

Celebrating paying the bill at the fish restaurant in Omdurman; friendly staff on hand.

The fish restaurant was delightful – traditional, large open span building, locals everywhere and barely a knife & fork in site. We selected sufficient fish from a range of refrigerated boxes – there were five of us – washed our hands at the stand-up sinks nearby, plonked ourselves down at a table and, minutes later it seemed the salads, bread, pickles, sauces and fish were spread out. Fish never tasted so good. Management and waiters were as enthusiastic as ever, and pleased to join us in front of those ubiquitous digital cameras.

Anna ends her ride

With just the three days in Sudan, Anna was on her way out; sad but elated at the achievements of riding three long stints from Cape Town to Khartoum; hers was one of negotiating the airlines for the best deals coming into Johannesburg, Lusaka and Addis Ababa and leaving respectively from Windhoek, Nairobi and Khartoum. Meantime, she has travelled all over the Middle East changing planes. Anna was not unhappy to leave the climate behind and the rising temperatures since the highlands of Ethiopia – way back in Gonder. Get below 2,000 metres hereabouts in this part of Africa and it gets mighty HOT mid-year. Let me just emphasis that point: KHARTOUM IS REALLY HOT IN MAY.

Paying for the pleasure

Anna had paid dearly for her three days of Sudanese hospitality. We all did – for those of us riding to Wadi Halfa at least we had the additional few days over which to spread those expenses. First you need a visa – from the Sudanese Embassy back home; mine cost 90 euro. Crossing the border K&A had paid a local tax (each 13 Sudanese pounds – SP), and in Khartoum we all had to ‘register’ – cost SP235. You are also advised to get a ‘Permit to travel’ even though this is not strictly true for northern Sudan – just for everywhere else; this costs SP75. (And, in reality, we tried to check this one out, but failed to find the ‘office’ in the ‘ministry’ where you seek information/pay – so we rode north not having one; and simply talked our way through the various check points with our other ‘formal’ documents.) You also need a ‘Permit to take photographs’, which we also never knew about – and did not obtain. Oh, and on leaving, you pay a departure tax of US$20. So, in dollars, Anna had paid close on US$200 for the pleasure of being there (and would have paid more if we’d paid for travel/photographs permits). But more on this one later. (And, it turned out – you only pay the departure tax at the airport; taking the overland route to Egypt saved us twenty dollars each.)

Friend and friendly guide for our time in Khartoum. Checking out places where K&A might stay.

Friend and friendly guide for our time in Khartoum. Checking out places where K&A might stay.

Exchange rates

And this thing about local costs …. it all depends on the prevailing exchange rates. At the time of our visit, government had recently posted changes from current parity with the US dollar of SD2.88 to approximately half this value. I obtained the former at the airport coming in. Private – but legal – currency exchange rates around the city reflected the newly promoted rates – around SD5/US$. So, you can argue that Anna would have paid getting on for US$300 for her three day stay taking the out-going rate of exchange as a guide. Expensive paper.

Enter Osman Ibrahim

My good friend and ex-colleague (ex-Ethiopia and ex-Afghanistan) had retired a year back and moved home to Khartoum. No visit to his home city would have been complete without catching up with him; and we’d been in contact for more than six months regarding the bike ride. He had covered many of the key issues with respect to travel, tickets and roads and, more importantly, took us ‘under his wing’ as guests in his country. He’d checked out my hotel, together we checked out the Blue Nile Sailing Club where K&A were due to stay, and he took us around the city showing us the sights and sharing a couple of meals. He helped us buy our tickets at Khartoum North railway station for the Wadi Halfa ferry to Aswan.

Currently working as an agricultural consultant for land development around the newly constructed dam on the Nile at Merowe in the Bayudu Desert, he was a fund of information on the state of the roads between Khartoum and Merowe covering the first part of our ride to Wadi Halfa.

Osman Ibrahim's Canadian family fly in as Anna departs.

Osman Ibrahim’s Canadian family fly in as Anna departs.

We saw Anna on to the Emirates flight on Friday evening and then rode round to the Arrivals terminal to say goodbye to Osman – who was meeting his brother and family from Canada that same evening; well-educated Sudanese settle everywhere in the new world.

Staying in Khartoum – consider the Khartoum Youth Hostel

The Blue Nile Sailing Club is a great place to share a drink and to over-look the Nile of a friendly evening; but you would need to be something of a masochist to want to camp there mid-year. Khartoum in May is REALLY REALLY HOT. (Just in case you need a reminder.) Apart from the covered bar and a minimum of trees around one of the two small patches of grass, the compound is open. It is also dusty, rather dilapidated and located next to the busy Corniche road that runs alongside the Nile. This is car road rather than walking road.

Gun boat from an earlier era - beached and ending its days as an office cum club house.

Gun boat from an earlier era – beached and ending its days as an office cum club house.

The custodian showed us around the toilet/shower block, and suggested costs of around US$10/person. What the club does have is a club house made from a gunboat that dates from the 19th century British colonial administration – dry docked and also dilapidated. Fixed to one wall of the gun boat are plaques commemorating those who won all those local yachting regattas from the time before Christ (so it seemed) through to the last one that dated from the mid-1950s. Gunboat, plaques or not, you would still not stay here mid-year.

So, we all chose to stay at the Khartoum Youth Hostel – two-bed air/con room with a refrigerator; and take your pick of the numerous showers/toilets in a modern three story building – we were the only guests. Cost SD35/night. As Anna moved out, I moved in – so that we could leave early the next day – Saturday. Pending our not obtaining a ‘Permit to travel’ helpful KYH staff provided a formal letter ‘To whom it may concern’ that we were bonafide travellers heading for Wadi Halfa. KYH? It comes highly recommended.

Wadi Halfa
29 May 2012


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