Crossing to Egypt

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Made it Through
In the past few months the anxieties over the Nubian Desert stage of the journey had been building up. The memory of the bike’s history with overheating in Northern Kenya and the engine’s subsequent seizure was always there. My discomfort with the idea of riding a loaded bike solo in desert conditions was then exacerbated by the clutch beginning to slip. And most particularly were the setback and delays in Addis Abeba due to a neck problem that threatened to end the whole trip.

After an intense final three or four hour ride through an uninhabited and inhospitable rocky part of the Nubian Desert, it wasn’t with excitement, thrill nor even delight I rode slowly into the desert border town of Wadi Halfa, from where a weekly ferry leaves for Aswan in Egypt. Trying now to identify the feeling, the best I can make a stab at was more a subdued exhilaration. (Was this what satisfaction felt like?) And I suspect too there was an underlying comfort that, for a while at least, no matter what else happened I had this. Yes, satisfaction. I had made it. (Of course in retrospect the journey was manageable. Uncomfortable certainly, and not without difficulty, but as with these things, it’s the imagination that builds up most of the threats and challenges.)

After first pulling up in the shade outside a food stall and ordering a cold Coke and a bowl of
fuul, I tracked down Lords shop, where I was greeted with a smile by the girl behind the counter. “Hello, are you the man from Ireland?” Three things got my attention – a female (usually unseen in public), she spoke English (a rarity in Sudan), and my black Ortlieb bag on the floor behind her. I handed over the equivalent of about $12, not a bad price I considered for lightening my load from Dongola, and would recommend the option for any biker in a similar position. The Defintoad Hotel was next door and I checked into one of the cooler inside rooms for $5 - with an overhead fan. This was luxury.

Wadi Halfa is a hole.’
That is the conclusion in the South African journal ‘Cape to Cairo’. My photocopied page from a Bradt guidebook is similarly unimpressed.
‘Wadi Halfa can feel like the end of the world... As a place to either leave or enter Sudan (it) is a disappointment… a forlorn place.’ With low expectations, I actually took a liking to the place. Built a few hundred metres from the edge of Lake Nasser (the original Wadi Halfa was somewhere on the lake bottom after the building of the Aswan dam) it is a bit haphazardly spread out around the desert - a few kilometres separate where the railway ends at the ferry and other parts of town - with little charm it has to be granted. Unlike the rest of the palm-lined Nile, there isn’t one sign of greenery, due to the changing levels of the lakeshore. But after my unpleasant memories of the previous town Abri, Wadi Halfa was refreshingly vibrant. There were people, who moved about, and activity, and a choice of funduqs and where to eat. Five or six large open-air restaurants opposite each other formed a square where Nubians and some Egyptians naturally gathered for the national pastime, hanging out - drinking shai, playing cards or dominoes. Or just chatting. A number were smoking shisha pipes which I was to discover is a cultural institution in Egypt.

Evening Entertainment
In the evening, television sets blared competitively from outside each restaurant attracting hordes of silent viewers, sitting in rows of seats, immersed in the small screen. A punter could choose between news in Arabic, music videos (of devotional Sudanese music), or Egyptian black and white films from the fifties. The most popular attraction was WWF. (This large attentive crowd was not sitting absorbed in a documentary for the World Wildlife Fund, rather World Wrestling Federation with accompanying loud American commentary.) And the strange thing was, nobody was consuming anything from the restaurants. I thought maybe the idea is to attract a crowd, which attracts customers.

The second evening the number of people in town had swelled. The ferry had docked from Aswan. Mark, a soft-spoken and genial South African on a KTM 640 was on his way south, and we spent a few hours swapping information and shooting the breeze. I envied him his upcoming section of the Nile route,
“some of the most enjoyable riding of my whole trip” I told him. We were joined at the table by a wiry Egyptian with Mediterranean features, Ahmed who had been on the ferry with Mark. On hearing I was Irish, he recalled the 1990 World Cup in Italy when Egypt drew with Ireland. “Jack Charlton the coach, Bonner, Quinn, Paul Mac…” Great memory. (I had a vague recollection of Egypt’s defensive strategy involving eleven men camped in their own penalty box for much of the game.) Ahmed sold bread ovens. He excitedly pulled out a brochure from an Italian manufacturer and described how he ordered an oven from them, disassembled it, meticulously drew up the specifications of each part and had them precision machined, bought a German motor, and then sold it as his oven. He was on his way to Darfur in the troubled west of Sudan to install one of his ovens for the UN.

A Photo Taken by a KTM owner
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Muslims recite their prayers five times daily and, on a prayer mat with shoes removed, prostrate themselves in the direction of Mecca. I would like to emphasize the picture above in absolutely no way attempts to infer the gentleman at prayer is paying homage to my BMW F650 Dakar which has done 40,000 kms around Africa – or to Iggy’s BMT Tyres sticker for that matter. And for the record I didn’t take the picture, Mark (a KTM rider!!!) did.

Morning Rituals
Early the next morning, perched on a low plank at a stall outside the Defintoad Hotel I supped a glass of lightly spiced wake-up tea. Other punters stopped for their cuppa. Morning salutations were constantly being exchanged with passers-by, usually with much joviality and grinning, like there was some shared joke I wasn’t party too. Perhaps it was great news that the sun rose today? The greetings followed a ritual – a formal embrace, or right hand touching the other’s shoulder before hand shaking, then an extended exchange of pleasantries (around the theme I was told, of slept ok?, good day ahead, family well I trust, etc) smiling away the while. Hands might be held for minutes on end while this went on. An arm around the shoulder when talking, with eye contact, indicated sincerity. I had the idea these men – for the only women about (black, with Negroid features, from the Muslim south east of Sudan) were making the tea – had probably seen each other just the previous day.

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Red Tape Sudan
I had a day in hand and thought I’d try and sort out the paperwork myself, rather then pay someone. Mr. Magdi, a smooth talking, trim and well dressed individual in his late thirties had appeared at my arrival and introduced himself (how did he know I was here?) confidently assuring me he would look after all the paperwork – tickets, booking the bike on, Customs and Immigration. I had managed by myself without too much trouble through about thirty countries on the journey so far. How difficult could it be?

The first difficulty was changing money into Sudanese pounds to pay for the ticket. The bank didn’t want euros and I wanted to hold on to my dwindling stash of dollars. (We were closer to Europe, and the dollar had been weakening over the past year. Yet it is still the preferred currency of exchange!) Eventually I was directed to a shopkeeper who, after a bit of bargaining, gave me not a bad rate of 3.04. Then over to the Nile Navigation Company’s ticket office. A first class ticket would secure a bunk in an air-conditioned cabin and were, I was told, the first to get snapped up. However I couldn’t justify the cost so went with the alternative – a $44 second-class ticket, with the intention of finding a spot on the deck to unroll my sleeping mat at night.

I had established that Immigration wasn’t open until the following day when the ship departed, so next it was down to the port area about two kms away to try and sort out both Customs and booking my bike on. With the messing around changing money, it was approaching mid-morning and getting warmer. Not being able to find an English speaker, and my Arabic useless, I didn’t get very far. I wasn’t even sure I was in the right building! In the increasing heat I eventually gave up. The next day down at the port, among the crowds jostling in the Waiting Hall to clear Immigration and Customs before boarding, I was guided through the steps effortlessly by Mr. Magdi, secured my bike on a barge that was to follow our ferry and arrive a day later (at $70, less than half the price of loading it onto the passenger ferry), and was one of the first to get on board, allowing me select a seat in the shade below decks before the masses (and their bags, and their families) descended. I had no problem justifying the $10 it cost for Mr Magdi’s services. (His nephew Mr Mazar, a younger, even smoother version was also on hand, and told me proudly he had ‘facilitated’ with border procedures for Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman on their recent documentary trip, including the support vehicles and fifteen-odd crew.)

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During my journey, I’ve had various strokes of good fortune. Sometimes it would register – “Jeez, lucky there” – more often than not I’d vaguely appreciate near misses or a providential outcome, and I’m sure be completely ignorant of others. The morning I rode the short distance to try and sort out the paperwork, I was stopped at the port entrance gate being queried by a guard. A boiling shower of coolant on my bare foot made me jerk it away, and I immediately switched off the ignition. Removing an auxiliary fuel tank I saw, due to the amount of vibration on the previous day’s ride, the hose to the water pump had detached itself. I retightened the clamp firmly, refilled the radiator and everything was fine. It dawned on me - what if that had happened on that long rocky desert track the previous day? With my motocross boots on I wouldn’t have noticed the coolant escape, and the red temperature light would be the first thing to alert me. This is where things get worrying. What would I have done? Normally I would check for the cause and presumably find the detached hose. However because of the bike’s previous overheating problem possibly I would have assumed that was coming back to haunt me, missed the loose hose and not checked the coolant level. And ridden without water in the radiator!

The Ferry
There is a road along Lake Nasser that connects Sudan with Egypt, but that land border has been closed for years – with barbed wire and mines - due to a border dispute between the two countries over territory further east on the Red Sea. (Magdi told me the road was to reopen. The Sudanese Foreign Minister had recently visited Wadi Halfa to inaugurate the building of a new land border post, which was expected to be completed in a few months. So no more Lake Nasser ferry.)

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The boat journey was twenty hours. On board were about four hundred and fifty passengers, and every space on the bench seats in the dining area below decks was taken up with Sudanese returning to their adopted homes in Cairo, or in the case of Egyptians (like the two pictured above), coming back after a spell working in Sudan where a shortage of tradesmen meant attractive wages. The one toilet was kept surprisingly clean I thought for this many passengers - throughout the voyage.

As the main heat of the day had diminished when we departed, most of the time was spent up on deck. I had found a bit of a prayer mat up there and used it to protect my bag from the sun, at the same time reserving a spot for sleeping. It was a leisurely, pleasant journey. In the evening at prayer time, I happened to be positioned next to the
imam or holy man, who led the service in front of about a hundred of the faithful on the deck, facing towards Mecca. It was the first time I’d seen the ritual close up.

Arthur the young Brazilian cyclist I’d met in Khartoum was on board. The only other foreigner was a Korean girl, who had been on the train from Khartoum with Arthur. He rolled his eyes when he saw her. “Can you believe that, man!” He was referring to her appearance – a very lightweight white cotton skirt, pink knickers visible when she walked by, and a very skimpy top. On a ferry, with a mainly male population, ninety nine percent of who were Muslim. Not only must it have been grossly offensive to them, but surely inviting unwelcome attention for her? Surrounded by young blades - keen to practice their English I’m sure – she gaily giggled along, though it appeared she would have preferred not to have maybe so
many admirers. (The words ‘flies’ and ‘sh*t’ did come to mind.) Perhaps ungallantly I didn’t encourage her attempts to get pally with me.

A little later I noticed she had settled on a ‘minder’, a good-looking and charming Egyptian lad delighted with himself to be chaperoning a pretty girl. The ship’s bridge next to us was reserved for women and children - the women were nearly all in traditional black garb, their faces the only skin exposed. Some even had that covered with a black veil. When the chaperone complained to me in French she wasn’t allowed in because of her inappropriate dress, I turned to her and asked was she aware of the problem. She replied in an innocent girlie voice – the Oriental tone made it sound even more Barbie doll – “
no, what problem?” Her dainty smile changed to a look of concern when I repeated her chaperone’s comment. “Oh, really? Well I can change.” (She didn’t.) I found it difficult to believe someone travelling solo, a woman at that in an extremely restrictive Muslim society, could be so ignorant or unaware. Sailing through, I imagined, protected by her veil of naivety.

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The shore was nothing but parched and barren rock. Around midnight we cruised past the massive and extraordinary ancient Egyptian temple of Abu Simbel, spotlit in the distance. Quite a surreal sight.

The next day the ship docked about 1pm, and was boarded by a team from Egyptian Immigration. After all filing past a makeshift Immigration post in the restaurant where passports were examined and stamped we waited to disembark. Three and a half hours later we were eventually allowed disembark, four hundred and fifty people – dragging and hauling luggage - funnelled in a fierce squeeze through the one exit. Four hundred and fifty passengers had been kept below decks all that time, sweltering, for what reason wasn’t clear. When I asked was there a problem I was politely told
“There is no problem,” with no further explanation.

The exercise of authority
It was interesting to observe at such close quarters Egyptian methods of crowd control, or rather the exercise of authority. After a while I began to recognise the characters – all absolutely humourless, a necessity. There was the blank, older officer in charge who issued curt orders; the out of shape desk types there to stamp passports; and the muscle with their clubs who used red-faced roaring and the threat of violence to keep order. These last were obviously trained not to listen to any excuses. After making a few examples, nobody was foolhardy enough to encroach past the barrier.

Occasionally the heat and tiredness got to some, and arguments escalated to shouting, shoving and attempted swinging of fists. Of course with everyone cramped together the space didn’t allow for this and there were too many around anyway to permit a fight develop, the protagonists being calmed by surrounding passengers. I noticed this a few times subsequently in Egypt where the aggressive posturing and shouting – ostentatious taking off of glasses in one case in preparation for fists to be thrown – is nothing more than that. It is understood that others around, or passers-by, will subdue and pull them apart. Arabic can sound such a violent language that any argument – it may just be a heated discussion – seems vicious.

‘Contagious Disease’
For a while Arthur and mine’s white status allowed us hang around in the air-conditioned 1st class dining room undetected until that was cleared for cleaning. He then wanted to maintain a vigil by his bicycle below, but I managed to talk my way up to the deck where at least there was fresh air. Unlike most of the others, I had no train to catch nor was in any rush. My motorbike wasn’t arriving until the following day. Compared to the mad press of sweating, heaving humanity below, sitting with a few of the crew in the shade of one of the two lifeboats (450 passengers!) on the edge of the deck, a pleasant breeze from the lake keeping the temperature tolerable, was quite agreeable!

On a visit below decks to check on progress or whether I was missing any vital procedure, I learned of one rumour that there was someone sick with “a fever” and the passengers weren’t being permitted disembark until the illness was identified. A scenario played in my mind…
a highly contagious disease, all of us cooped up in these hot, sweaty conditions breathing the same air, would my immune system be strong enough to resist it…

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A shared taxi ride the fifteen kms into Aswan from the port at ‘High Dam’, via the train station to drop of a Sudanese family I’d met back in Wadi Halfa returning to their life in Cairo, delivered me to the Philae Hotel. It was now getting out of season, too hot for tourists, and the hotels were desperate for business, offering air-conditioned rooms for budget prices. I had been looking forward to this since I’d heard of it in the unrelenting heat of Khartoum, entertaining this - chaste – fantasy a few hot, uncomfortable nights in the desert. (
God love me, sure didn’t I deserve it, I convinced myself. A little treat to yourself.) Owned by an Egyptian lady who’d lived in Germany for twelve years before returning to run the hotel, The Philae is situated on the ‘Corniche’, or riverfront, the rooms were air-conditioned, balcony with view across the Nile (view pictured above), a fridge (great for keeping a stock of cool water) and satellite TV. I could see by the number of keys on slots they were quiet and managed to agree a price of $15 for the room. I was happy.

Red Tape Egypt
The following day my bike arrived safely on the barge. It took a further two days to get it released from Customs. It is notoriously difficult, and expensive, to get a foreign vehicle into Egypt. The first task was to take a taxi the fourteen kms back to the port at the High Dam, where Mr. Ahmed the Customs man, a burly, heavy-set individual in plain clothes, slightly unkempt, invited me into his office and started the ball rolling by signing a ticket for the police in town acknowledging the bike was indeed there. He was very obliging and polite (“
Do you mind if I smoke?”) which set off the alarm bells - a sure sign I was being lined up to be fleeced. No customs officer in my experience is that courteous. And indeed it came later with demands for various ‘unreceipted’ fees. I managed to reduce these amounts substantially (“I need a receipt for a list I am compiling of the costs, to present to my embassy in Cairo.”) which I could see didn’t go down very well. To my relief he had at this stage stamped my carnet.

The attempt at a more insistent shakedown came the following day when he invited himself into the taxi for a ride back into town, and detailed the various players he had to pay in the process. Declining in a very vague, but firm, manner while remaining polite, I would have loved to tell him where to get off. But this unshaven, unlikeable and shameful specimen of Egyptian ‘civil service’ could make things difficult for me.

After all the necessary repeat visits to police, insurance, back to the port and back into town, I eventually got my obligatory Egyptian number plate and laminated licence card. It was with relief I rode out of the compound back to Aswan, independent again. And my pocket lighter by $150. (This on top off the guarantee Egypt requires on the carnet for 800% of the value of the bike! Which naturally cost quite a few bob back in Ireland before departing.)

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So What do the Tourists Come Here For?
Being in the ancient land of the Pharaohs I thought I’d better start on the cultural exposure, and took the twenty minute walk up to the Nubian Museum in the midday heat - losing in the process a few litres of fluid. It was a worthwhile trip. (And not only for the air-conditioned relief!) The museum details life along the Nile in Nubia, known in ancient times as Balad El-Aman - the Land of Safety and Security, which stretches from Dongola in Sudan north to Aswan. The non-violent and peaceful lifestyle that the Sudanese professors had referred to back in Dongola, was explained here as being a result of basic conditions of everyday life along the Nile - there was cooperative ownership of the water wheel (for distributing irrigation), the palm trees, the fields and the cattle. As an information post suggested, “Limited economic resources forces them to cooperate rather than quarrel about rights and shares.”

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A boat trip across to the Temple of Isis at Philae was also on the cards. (Apparently my aunt’s name Isabel comes from ‘Isis’ and the French ‘belle’). My first Egyptian site!

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“This country, there are no friends.”
At first I revelled in the cultural shock – ATM’s that spewed out ready cash, air-conditioning, a cold beer, Western food, Cadbury’s chocolate, and the excitement of being in the Land of The Pharaohs. My experience releasing my bike from customs had however left me with a bad taste. There had been an unpleasant scene with the Nubian taxi driver who’d looked after me the two days ferrying me around and translating where needed. I’d asked for guidance from the hotel on a fair price, and offered far more, what I reckoned was a generous fee, with a large tip. The taxi man had different ideas, believing I suppose he had a bit of a cash cow riding around in the back of his cab. I recalled the words of a Sudanese on the boat. “From now on take care of everything,” he said. “This country, there are no friends.”

And the culture shock began get me down. As Aswan is a tourist town, prices reflect this. The vast majority of visitors to the place are on package tours of a week or two and tend to spend money comparing prices to those at home. Naturally, over two hundred years (for surely, outside of Europe, Egypt must have the oldest tradition of tourism in the world?) this has affected the local culture. Every Westerner has bundles of cash. Well used to being a target for all kinds of peddlers at this stage, it didn't at first bother me. But over the days, it began to. Everywhere I walked I was being importuned and pestered, to
“just take look” inside a shop, “special price for you my friend”, or “felucca ride, good price”. The most difficult thing to disregard (and they know it) was the constant greetings, “Hi friend, how are you?” Or “Excuse me!” repeated loudly as you walk past. How to ignore it all without being rude and ungracious? “Hi, what country are you from?” Or, “My friend, don’t you recognise me?” Any gateway or opportunity to engage you. I was yearning for Sudan, particularly the generous, friendly people of the north.

Turning Point
But my turning point came.
I was the one getting annoyed and closed off, walking around with a defensive, long face on me. Surely there’s something wrong here. One evening after a delicious meal of fish tagine - local fish rubbed with spices, seared, then finished in a North African 'casserole' - I was strolling back to the hotel in a slightly more benevolent mood ignoring the various calls. One tout asked me where were my friends, to which I replied smiling over my shoulder that I had no friends. “I am your friend,” he shouted after me. I couldn’t help bursting into laughter. And of course that was the secret – treat it all with a lightness. The following day I was eating a falafel in pita bread at a cheap stall, and fell into chatting with some characters, some touts, also at the stall. When they heard I’d come from Sudan, and on a bike, they were genuinely interested. It was great to remember these guys were just regular people, trying to make a living. I was ready to handle Egypt.

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