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Archive for July, 2013

The Silk Road Part 1

Thirty hours of cruising on The Aqua Hercules has brought us to the port of Iskenderun in Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. The mountains of the Turkish coastline rise steeply out of the sea. Pale and dry they are covered with blankets of pine trees. Dark clouds obscure the higher peaks. It is the first hint of rain we have seen since leaving Kenya.

No one knows how long we will be kept on the ship, especially after the fiasco in Egypt. Customs agents come aboard. The visa fee is 60 USD. We try to get a transit visa but regardless of our duration they hold firm. It seems such a waste for what is intended to be a 3 day stay in Turkey as we make for the Iranian border.

Our visas are issued but as Marcus has told us time and time again. We have not left Egypt until we are out of the port in Turkey. Marcus is right. We spend the best part of 4 hours being circulated around various buildings and bureaucrats before finally being released. As foot passengers we probably could have left sooner but we have grown fond of our group over the past week and are keen to have one last night together in Adana, before going our separate ways.

The Port of Iskenderun Turkey

The Port of Iskenderun Turkey

Turkey comes as a bit of a shock after spending such a long time in countries where road rules and traffic lights are more suggestion and decoration. There are no goats or donkeys by the side of the road. The traffic flows in a smooth and orderly manner. It feels so organised and sterile.

The streets of Adana are brightly lit and infused with the smell of roasting meats. Pyramids of baklava and mounds of Turkish delight are pushed forward onto the streets like a culinary trap for those with a sweet tooth and no will power. As our time in Turkey is limited we indulge generously with no regard or guilt.

The next morning we bid farewell to our fellow inmates from the Aqua Hercules. It is always a little sad to meet such nice people and then have to say goodbye. Being trapped together on the ship has forged friendships. We are all together now, but in a matter of days we will be scattered apart in different countries.

Our Bus from Adana to Iran border

Our Bus from Adana to Iran border

For over five months we have been heading north, but today that will end. From now on our heading will be east until we reach the Pacific Ocean sometime next year. I stare down the long road. It stretches out of sight but beyond is Iran and Central Asia, Pakistan, India, Nepal and China. Ahead are ancient mosques and Tibetan temples. Endless deserts, dark jungles and the world’s highest mountains. I look back over my right shoulder towards Africa. I think about Mt Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti. Our four day train trip from Zambia to Tanzania. The 17 hours we spent driving from Isiolo to the border of Ethiopia. The deserts of Namibia and the Victoria falls. They are all connected to this very spot, this moment in time. I feel very small, like a match on the ocean. It is a humbling experience to see the world this way. I feel excited and very fortunate. We push forward over shallow green hills and fields of tulips. The sun is setting behind us now, we are heading east.

Our bus is the finest that Mercedes Benz can produce but it still does not make for a comfortable night’s sleep. We arrive drained and decide to rest after 18 hours of travel. Dogubayazit lies 30km from the Iranian border. It is dominated by the hulking shape of Mt Ararat; an extinct volcano that is etched into biblical folklore as the resting place of Noahs Ark. Even in high summer her summit and shoulders are draped in snow. The town is exclusively occupied by Kurds, who will proudly inform you so at every opportunity. High on a ridge behind the village is the beautiful Ishak Pasa palace. It blends into the countryside like a Middle Eastern fairy tale. The clouds above swirl and break allowing streams of sunlight through. Tomorrow we will cross into Iran or Persia as it was once known.

The Ishak Pasa Palace at Dogubayzit Turkey Iran border

The Ishak Pasa Palace at Dogubayzit Turkey Iran border

It is now the 13th of July and we have less than a month to reach Pakistan. Our delays in Egypt have put us even further behind schedule. Hanging in the balance are visas for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. We are fortunate that Kyrgyzstan has now lifted visa requirements for most western countries. Tajikistan will no longer be possible and falls victim to our tight schedule. Another casualty is Iran. It is a major blow. We no longer have enough time to journey south of Tehran. Our time here will be limited to collecting the Uzbek visa and then heading east to the Turkmenistan border. It seems such a shame but we have travelled here before and so it is sacrificed in order to give us more time in the central Asian countries.

Persians are highly polite and curios people. The young woman who interviews us at the border is no exception. She is keen to hear about life in Australia and how we perceive Iran. We discuss world politics and fashion, film and art. I am not entirely sure if we are being questioned, but if we are it is certainly candid and charming.

Our Charming lady at the Iran immagration

Our Charming lady at the Iran immagration

Understanding prices in Iran can be confusing. The currency is the Rial, which is officially valued at around 13,000 per US dollar. The Banks however will give you 25,000 and the black market is 33,000. Prices are generally quoted in Tomans which are ten times the value of rials.

From the border to the first town where we can pick up a bus is around 30km. Our taxi man holds up ten fingers. Is this ten dollars, ten thousand rials or ten thousand tomans. Could it be 100,000 tomans? Calculations flick through my mind, zeros are added and subtracted dividing by three. I remember some of my limited Farsi phrases and ask chand toman? (How much in tomans) Again ten fingers.  I pull out a 100,000 Rial note the equivalent of 10,000 tomans or 3 USD. He nods his head in confirmation. Three dollars for a thirty kilometre cab ride; not bad. I shouldn’t be surprised as fuel in Iran is the cheapest in the world.

We arrive in Tehran after an overnight stop in Tabriz. It is a vast sprawling city surrounded by high dry mountains and cloaked in pollution. Huge freeways filled with traffic intersect in all directions. The national flag is displayed with ubiquitous pride.  It is like a Persian Los Angeles; just without Ford mustangs, cut-off jeans and Rodeo drive. Our hotel is surrounded by shops selling tyres and dashboards but comes with Wi-Fi and an English speaking manager. Our plan is simple collect the Uzbekistan visa and keep heading east.

There is confusion though as to where the Uzbekistan consulate is. Internet research produces conflicting advice. The lonely planet refers us to the New Zealand Embassy of all places. The manager at the hotel thinks it is near some bazaar but is not sure. We start the day by taking a taxi to the NZ consulate. Surely Lonely planet can’t be wrong? I think back to Tanzania when I carried my pack up that steep 4km hill that was supposed to be only 700 meters. I feel a twinge in my calf and expect the worst.

I have drawn a basic map of the surrounding roads in order to help us navigate. Our taxi driver is not impressed and stops to canvas people stood by the side of the road. We are relayed from one to the next until we reach a corner by a park that is close to the embassy. The ride lasts around 30 minutes and costs us about 6 USD. Using my treasure map we find the NZ consulate but there is no Uzbek office attached. Lonely Planet has wrong footed us again. The officer is very helpful and looks up the address. It the same address that we had found on the internet. It’s less than a kilometre away but the streets are tight and twisting. We Pass the Chinese, Swedish and Cameroon embassies and eventually find the street. When we arrive at number 6, the office is empty and in darkness. The Embassy has moved. A tantrum is in the oven and baking.

We panic and resort to asking security guards and innocent bystanders, all of whom can’t speak English, where the Uzbek embassy is? Uzbek is repeated over and over with little impact and no result. In a land of Farsi English has no value, but it does attract a lady who is walking by. She translates for us to one of the security guards who points up the street about a hundred meters. We arrive relieved at the Embassy for Uzbekistan but our joy is short lived. A sign on the gate informs us that visas are issued in a different building. The bell on the oven goes off, my tantrum is now roasted and ready to be served.

Emma in a relative state of calm takes down the details and suggests we go back the NZ embassy for help, but along the way she spots 4th Park Street and saves the day. We handover our letters of invitation and passports with much adrenaline. A delay in issue will see us lose even more time and possibly jeopardise our visa issue for Turkmenistan. We sit on a flight of stairs, outside a small sliding window awaiting our fate. Fifteen minutes later and we are asked to pay 60 USD. We are going to get a visa and better yet it will be issued today. The duration though is only short. We have to cross northern Iran, Turkmenistan and depart Uzbekistan all within 11 days. If we have any problems with the Turkmenistan visa at the border the whole thing will fall apart.

Happy after getting our Uzbek visa

Happy after getting our Uzbek visa

To drive in Tehran requires surgical skill and fortitude. Our brief affair with orderly traffic in Turkey is over. Cars and motor bikes duck and weave around us like champion boxers. Police officers dressed in tight black pants and huge sunglasses wave at the traffic. Their gestures look more suited to swatting flies as opposed to controlling traffic. The drivers must also agree, as there is little response and no respect shown.

Pedestrians equire all the brevity of a D-Day landing. No amount of green walk lights or painted white stripes on the road will afford you any sympathy from the traffic. The general rule is to step out and walk at a constant speed without stopping. The surgical boxers will (in theory) take evasive action missing you by centimetres. With this in mind we take a leap of faith and cross the busy street outside the Central Train Station. We are heading to the city of Mashhad which will place us within striking distance of the Turkmen border.

Mashhad, aside from being of geographical importance to the global overlander, is in its own right a very important city. It is home to the golden domes of the Imam Reza’s shrine. It is a place for pilgrims and prayers. The cities hotels are full and our taxi driver’s contacts are tested. We eventually find an apartment with a lift that plays a pan flute rendition of Love Story every time the door closes.

Persian Coke

Persian Coke

Later that day after a short rest we invest in a guide so we may better understand the history and importance of the complex. A kind faced man well into his seventies with blue eyes meets us at our hotel. We stroll through courtyards decorated with blue flower mosaics. The faithful are gathered but I begin to wonder if our elderly guide counts among them. His comments stray from history and artefact to ideas which are more associated with philosophy and science. When asked why the people are crying his response is measured and cynical. We find ourselves being guided in Iran’s holiest shrine by an atheist. Still his knowledge is without limits and I find the irony highly amusing.

The inside of the shrine is lit with grand chandeliers and glass mosaics that would rival any found in the Palace of Versailles. The floor is a patchwork of green marbles and cool underfoot. The pilgrims gather in close to the central shrine to pay homage to the Imam. For many it is an emotional experience. It was not so long ago that we stood in a Christian Church carved from rock in Ethiopia, now we are in an Islamic Shrine in Northern Iran.

The Imam Reza Shrine

The Imam Reza Shrine

That night we go in search of a restaurant that specialises in Persian deserts. Vitamin Sarah is an odd name but it produces a heavenly mix of sweets and cold drinks. Most famous of which is maajun. A magical mixture of ice-cream, bananas and honey topped with crushed walnuts and pistachios; the combination of which is sublime. We consume three between the two of us and contemplate our next border crossing.

Early the next morning we take a taxi to the Turkmen border. The journey takes us just over three hours through dry broad valleys. We cross a small mountain range and climb up to the border. To arrive at this point has point has taken many weeks of emails, negotiations and red tape. No one can enter Turkmenistan on a tourist visa without a fully escorted tour. You must be supervised while travelling with a guide and driver. It is possible to get a transit visa but long waiting times and an uncertain outcome has ruled it out as an option for us. The cost of our three day sprint across the country, including our precious “letters of Invitation” is a whopping $885.00 USD!

Turkmen tour companies have you over a barrel and they know it. The only saving grace is that the visa can in theory with a Letter of Extortion be issued on the border. It’s a heavy but necessary price to pay. Iran has no border with Uzbekistan and the only other border close by is Afghanistan.

We depart Iran with some sadness. We had hoped to revisit some of our favourite places but on this trip it has not been possible. I wonder only for a short time if the keeping the peel intact is worth it but that feeling of connection and knowing it stretches all the way back to Cape Town pushes those thoughts quickly aside.

Taxi man offers us a last tea in Iran before entering Turkmenistan

Taxi man offers us a last tea in Iran before entering Turkmenistan

The Iranian guards dressed in desert camouflage smile and gesture to us farewell. The Turkmen guards by contrast are dressed in jungle greens and seem out of place given their surroundings. Their eyes are almost Asian in appearance. In only a matter of meters the faces of people all around us have changed again. We are ushered forward into a stark and empty hall. To our left is a closed door, to our right is an old baggage belt and X ray machine. Straight in front of us a man beckons us forward in a language that sounds to my ignorant ears like Russian. He examines our passports and takes our Letters of extortion away for closer scrutiny. My mind contemplates how we pitch a tent in a two meter wide no-man’s land if we are rejected and the Iranians don’t allow us back in.

The customs officer call us again and directs us to the closed door on the left. I open the door but it only reveals a small empty room with no other exit. The man behind the window points to a button on the wall. I push it but no one comes. He indicates to push it again and again and again if I am not mistaken by his many gesticulations. I see and obey, but no one responds. This cycle of stupidity continues for another 40 minutes until finally a woman with a tall head scarf and long flowing gown strolls into the office. She takes our passports and then demands $140 USD. When I try to question the amount which again according to LP is only 12 USD she starts shouting and waving her arms. She is bovine in both stature and attitude.

We pay the money and collect a receipt. We need to get in and don’t want to rock the boat. A bright green Turkmen visa is pasted into our passports. There is no smile and no welcome, it feels like passing through Australian immigration. After a bag search and demonstrating the function of various camping equipment we walk outside into the Turkmenistan sun. There is no one there to meets us. There are no touts or taxis waiting. Just a lone road and an empty desert.

What do we do now….

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Trapped in Egypt

The Entrance hall to Ramses Central is adorned with giant golden papyrus columns like those at the temple of Karnak. It is one of the most beautiful and atmospheric railway stations in the world. Station announcements compete with calls to prayer and the rumble of diesel locomotives. Outside beyond the golden columns waits one of the most beautiful, dirty, entrancing and frustrating cities in the world… Cairo.

Ramses Central in Cairo

Ramses Central in Cairo

Ramses central is surrounded by fences, dead ends and a wall of unmetered taxis. It generates its own gravitational field making escape almost impossible. With heavy bags and a tight deadline we succumb to the taxi cartel and pay 20 EGP to take us to a downtown hotel. Foremost on our minds this morning is our fate at the Chinese embassy. We have travelled 8 days and 1000’s of kilometres across 3 countries to arrive at this point of judgement.

Desperate and anxious we enter the embassy. An assortment of applicants are scattered and waiting on cheap plastic chairs. We take our place among the other hopefuls. A young guard examines our documents which are out of order. It would seem we have completed an old form. A new one is provided containing the same questions arranged in a slightly different order. We sit in frustration filling in the same answers.

The customs officer examines our passports fumbling through the pages, he searches for an Egyptian resident’s stamp that does not exist. He is not able to issue us a visa here in Cairo. It is a blow we have been anticipating. I feel disappointed but prepared to offer more resistance. We still have our secret weapon to deploy. I produce false flight itineraries from Cairo to China and onto Australia with hotels included. He considers them momentarily and offers to make a visa for myself but Emma will have to get her visa in Australia! My mind is slow to react and I stand before him dumb with my mouth wide open. The silence breaks with his laughter. As it turns out the officer is a frustrated comedian and takes great delight in winding up desperate and weary travellers. He will make the visas for us both. A huge piece of our travel puzzle has fallen into place. We can relax and enjoy Cairo… for the next few days at least.

We walk through shady tree lined streets until we come upon the Nile. I think back to Uganda where we saw the river in its childhood. Young and fast flowing along green banks with elephants and waterbuck. I think about the water thundering and hissing as it was squeezed through the gorge at Murchison Falls. Now it flows steady and calm like an old man who has seen so much in life. I think about the weeks it has taken for me to travel here and wonder about the journey the river has taken during that time.

2

Cairo is like a “Tale of Two Cities”. Beauty and charm are never far from rubbish and disorder. Ancient mosques mingle with French maisons. Early 20th century masterpieces are dressed in grime and decorated with pigeons and satellite dishes. Egyptians are both polite and rude, honest and corrupt. A strong pulse flows through even the smallest of lanes. Elderly gentlemen shout at ill-mannered youths. Elegant coffee shops are crowded with men smoking shisha. Every corner is a magnet for conversations. Young and old share tables and reflect on life. The streets around the majestic citadel are so filthy that the local dogs take refuge by sleeping on roofs of cars.

4 (1)

The lift in our building is antique and offers a hesitant ride when available. It is guarded by a man stationed in the foyer. He sits cooled by a fan. Arabic music blares distorted out of his small radio and drifts up the dirty marble staircase. He shouts at us that the lift is coming but it rarely does.

4 (2)

We make plans to return to Upper Egypt and book the sleeper train back down to Luxor. The compartment is small but very clean and the beds ensure a restful journey. If there is a better way to drift asleep I have yet to find it. The sound of the wheels, the motion of the carriage and the promise of new lands tomorrow is a serene experience.

The next morning and the magic of the Upper Egypt pours through our window. The Nile runs blue and slow through green fields dotted with date palms. Men and children are sewing crops with the aid of reluctant white donkeys. The desert is golden, beautiful and never far. If it were not for the Nile there would be no life here.

We cross the longest river on earth for the equivalent of twenty cents. A barge with ancient Egyptian decorations runs back and forth from Sunrise till late at night. The West bank provides a more relaxed and leisurely stay while in Luxor. It’s a place that has been kind to the old ways. The pharaohs must have thought so and made this there capital and final resting place.

Temple of Karnak

Temple of Karnak

Only a trickle of tourists remain in Egypt. The power of the June Sun and the winds of political change have even the most prestigious hotels empty and collecting dust. The people here are hurting and it shows, but the Egyptians are made of strong stuff. They take comfort in their long and famous culture. I am reminded continuously by them that Egypt has lasted for thousands of years. The temples adorning the banks serve as beautiful proof. The most grand and famous of all being the Temple of Karnak. Walking into the main hall is a humbling experience. While it may be impossible to time travel, the temples at Karnak and the tombs in the Valley of the Kings come remarkably close. Life here in the fields has changed little since those times. The pharaohs are gone, the temples are crumbling but that life is still present today.

Choosing a tomb is not easy for the novice Egyptologist. Guide book hints are met with closed tomb disappointments. The man selling tickets offers his advice without being asked. We pay for the tickets but our change is returned slowly one note at a time. The pause between each offering lengthens until the final 10 pounds is withheld. I stand and stare at him expressionless but he is not budging. Finally the balance is handed over.

It’s Midday, incredibly hot and the best time to visit the tombs if you appreciate serenity. We have them to ourselves. The mural on the ceiling of Ramses VI is particularly beautiful and in very good condition. We sit completely still trying not to breath. The sound of absolute silence is a ringing in your ears. Then without warning the lights go out. Complete silence, complete darkness just as Ramses experienced for 3450 years. We have no torch and I begin to panic. Emma on the other hand is loving the sensory deprivation. The lights are only out for 30 seconds but it’s enough to have quickened my pulse, fearing they have forgotten us and closed up the tomb for the day!

Tomb of Ramses VI

That night we learn of terrible and shocking news. Ten tourists have been murdered in Northern Pakistan by terrorists while they slept at their base camp near Nanga Parbit. It fills us with dread and sadness. Suddenly our plans have been thrown into turmoil. We send out messages to all our friends in Pakistan in order to get a better idea of the current security situation. Our immediate thoughts are that we can no longer go. This will be a logistical and geographical roadblock to our journey, not to mention our sadness for the climbers who have been murdered. All our hard work in getting the visas and rushing now feels pointless. We decide the best we can do is to continue as planned and make a decision later when we have more information to hand.

We head back down to Aswan to say goodbye to Richard. He is arriving today after having spent extra time in Ethiopia and Sudan. I can’t help but to feel that we have wasted other opportunities in order to meet the Pakistan deadline. Joining Rick is his brother Ryan who has flown out to see him in the dying days of his African odyssey. I am glad we have been able to say good bye before heading back up to Cairo. We all book a room at the extravagant and historical Old Cataract Hotel. It sits confidently on the banks of the Nile watching feluccas sail by. The hallways are long, grand and adorned with famous guests from yesteryear. That night we dine in the 1902 restaurant. The ceiling soars 28 meters above our heads. Delicate Middle Eastern chandeliers and candles provide an atmospheric mood. We wait for other guest to arrive but there are none. Tonight we dine alone in a room that was once crowded by the rich and famous; how times can change.

The Nile from the Old Cataract Hotel

The Nile from the Old Cataract Hotel

Our conversation turns to pressing matters. Aside from our Pakistan concerns we still need to collect our Iranian visas. The procedure for doing so dictates we must enter the country within 14 days from collection. This is why we are leaving it until our final days in Egypt. Our next big hurdle is vast and blue; the Mediterranean. We are cut off from Asia by the closure of Syria. Our way north is blocked but Emma has been working hard on getting us passage on a cargo ferry that will take passengers. It’s not ideal but it means that “the peel” can remain un-severed by air travel. Our dealings with the agency have been to date frustrating over the phone. At best we must arrive 2 days before the ship is due to depart Port Said, but currently the shipping office is unsure when it will next return? All we can do is proceed as planned and hope for the best. We don’t have any other choice. As if all this were not enough, we learn upon our arrival back in Cairo that the army are planning a military coup! Life a month ago was so simple, now it feels like everything is coming undone. The coup could affect the return of the ferry and leave us stranded.

Dinner at 1902

Dinner at 1902

It’s a cool morning in Cairo at least when we arrive. We make our way back to the Iranian Embassy and collect our visas. The lady at the counter is very friendly and wishes us good luck with our journey; we will need it.

Later that day the streets around our hotel are drained and empty. Everyone is either heading to Tahir square are going home to avoid any traffic jams. I note the irony of Egyptians trying to avoid traffic. The cars that are left, blare their horns. One way signs are ignored and I wonder what other laws will be disregarded.

We walk down to our favourite restaurant Fefella. It is located in a side street only a 100 meters from the square. We only see the ancillary streets but they are bursting with high spirits. Everyone wears a sign around their necks with “GO OUT.” I wonder should it not read GET OUT? This is a peaceful protest with men women and children all united against what appears to be a very unpopular president. Huge army helicopters buzz overhead. Their bodies are crawling with lasers coming from the crowd. The energy of the evening is intoxicating but we keep our distance and ensure we return to our hotel while there are still families in the streets.

We leave for Port Said early while most of Cairo is still sleeping. The army has dissolved the government and taken control. Egyptians don’t like to call it a coup but that is exactly what it is. Having fought so hard for democracy it falls over in 12 months. The army promises new elections but what if they don’t like the result?

Port Said is perched on the entrance to the Suez Canal. All shipping traffic headed for the Red sea and the Indian Ocean passes through this passage squeezed between Africa and Asia. To look across a 150 meter channel and see Asia is disorientating for an Australian. There are no other countries or continents within sight for us on our island home.

The end of Africa

The end of Africa

On route to the port I notice a strange site to my right; a massive container ship is cruising through the desert. The road runs along the canal and the small embankment gives the impression that the ships are sailing over the sands, talk about ships of the desert. Sorry could not resist.

Waiting for our boat is Anton from the US and Adrian from Argentina. Both are on motorbikes and have been waiting in Port Said for 10 days! The Swiss couple Marcus and Anita whom we met in Wadi Halfa when taking the boat to Egypt are also here in their 4WD. They have been touring the world for 5 years. The ship has left Turkey and currently sits anchored of Port Said in the Mediterranean. It is due to sail tomorrow on Friday but no call comes from UET, the shipping agent in Egypt. Early on Saturday morning we get an email from Mr Mahmoud to go to door 21 at the 6pm on the docks. We all report on time but no one is there to meet us. Half an hour later and a man whom none of us have met arrives and tells us all to get into a shared taxi van. Apparently we need to go the customs office to have our passports stamped. Why this was not advised before is a mystery. He tells us to leave our luggage on the street unattended. It will be fine. We all laugh and roll our eyes. The luggage is taken across the road and into the office while we are taken to God knows where. Sat among 20 odd Syrian refugees we are eventually called, stamped and told “Good Bye!

Our fare for crossing the Med is 215 USD each but this just gets us on the boat. Fortunately it comes with private berths and these are only 50 USD each to upgrade to. The cabin is large enough and comes with a private toilet and shower. An extra added bonus when travelling with 100 odd truck drivers. I wake the next morning but can feel no movement. The Mediterranean must be calm this morning. Our cabin is internal with no windows to the outside world. When I make my way to the upper deck I am disturbed to see us still attached to Port Said. We were supposed to have left during the night, but instead of waves and seagulls we see minarets and cranes.

No one apart from the other 4 westerners can speak English, but we manage to work out that the truck drivers are afraid to leave the boat. They are refusing to leave and want to return to Turkey. This of course is a huge issue as all the trucks waiting to go back to Turkey can’t get on. It’s a stale mate. We are prisoners on the boat. We can’t leave and we can’t go forward until the matter is resolved.

Trouble at the docs

Trouble at the docs

The shipping company brings the transport owners on board and even the Egyptian army buoyed by their new power. Nothing is making the truck drivers leave. We go to bed for a second night feeling deflated. The next morning and we are still attached to Port Said. There are more rounds of shouting and hand waving. There is even some pushing but still no one will leave. I begin to feel we have a curse hanging over us but Anton reminds me that this is his 15th day in Port Said.

Happy to see an empty ship after three days

Happy to see an empty ship after three days

Finally that night we emerge from our cabin to find the trucks have left the ship. We walk among the vast decks admiring their emptiness. After yet another dinner on board Aqua Hercules the new trucks start loading. It’s now our third night and surely tomorrow we will see the open ocean.

I have no idea what time it is, but I wake to our boat vibrating, the engines have started. Emma and I go to the upper deck. We are about 1km clear of the port. The Sun is rising in the east and Africa is setting to the south as our boat heads north at 12 knots. Tomorrow morning we will reach Turkey and the Asian continent. We wait and watch The African continent disappear, we are both very sad. So many memories. Thank you Africa.

 

 

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Sudan to Egypt

Its morning and for the first time in weeks I wake naturally in a room filled with sun light. It is at first disorientating. I blink my eyes and the furniture around me comes into focus. My body aches and despite the air conditioning I feel very hot. I look across at Greg who is covered in blankets.

I am forced to sit up by some deep instinct. I feel like a puppet being pulled by strings. A sudden wave of nausea consumes me and I run to the bathroom.  My body takes on a life of its own, the strings go slack and I fall to the floor vomiting. Tears roll down my cheeks from the sheer force. I rest my head in my hands wondering how this could be happening. My diet yesterday consisted of Coca Cola and dried biscuits, hardly a recipe for food poisoning. I panic and start to think of more serious causes. Giardia, Dysentery, Malaria?!

I go over all the meals I have had in the last two weeks, but on a trip like this it’s impossible to pin point anything conclusive. Another violent shudder and once again my body tries to eject whatever is left in my stomach. The air conditioning gives no reprieve to my now increasing temperature. Having travelled the length of Africa from Cape Town without incident, I now fall ill in Khartoum just short of the finish line in Cairo.

I take some solace in the knowledge that we are not required to travel today. Perhaps I should think myself fortunate? I waste no time and start a course of antibiotics and paracetamol. Greg heads out into the sweltering heat to secure bus tickets to Wadi Halfa for the day after tomorrow and the all-important ferry tickets onto Aswan in Egypt. The first class cabins are limited and highly prized.

By mid-afternoon I manage to consume a small tub of cold yoghurt. Greg returns triumphant with both bus and ferry tickets. The clock is ticking, I have another 36 hours to recover before we push on to Cairo. I feel optimistic and pray the antibiotics that we have carried around for so long will work their magic.

The next morning I wake still feeling fragile but my condition is much improved. I feel relieved that if I had to become ill, it has at least happened during this short break in our progress. We have one more task to perform and arrange to have ourselves registered which must be done within three days of entering Sudan. It’s an annoying bureaucratic task made difficult by the infernal heat. Greg assures me that while the people of Khartoum are charming the city itself is somewhat devoid. He takes a long walk along the Blue Nile that started in Ethiopia to a point where it meets its longer brother the White Nile that started back in Uganda. This geographical convergence is a little lost on me but Greg seems to think it is important. So much so that he enters an ageing and rusting theme park and takes a ride on the Ferris wheel, all so he can see the point at which the two rivers become one.

Ferris wheel ride in Khartoum where the White and Blue Nile merge

Ferris wheel ride in Khartoum where the White and Blue Nile merge

My condition improves over the next 24 hours and we have one last early morning bus to face before reaching Cairo. It rolls out of the Khartoum depot at 5.30am with a minimum of fuss. It’s so civilised and calm that I actually miss the minefield of touts we have become accustomed to over the last 4 months. Fellow passengers greet me with a nod and utter assalam alaikum (peace be upon you). I like the Sudanese, they are warm friendly and highly hospitable.

The desert stretches yellow and lifeless as far as I can see. I watch the long shadow of our bus rise and fall over the small dunes. The coach is the best mode of transport we have been on since leaving Namibia and the same must be said of its air conditioning. Within an hour I am freezing. Déjà vu creeps back. I stare at the desert hoping it will act as some sort of visual warming device. When boarding a bus in The Sudan, a fleece is the last thing on your mind.

A warning siren goes off from the driver’s console. The bus slows and we are forced over by the side of the road. Hot dry air pours into the bus. It would seem the fan belt on the radiator has torn and the engine has overheated. We are stuck here for the next hour making repairs.

Have lost count of the number of Bus Breakdowns

Have lost count of the number of Bus Breakdowns

Greg tries to get the assistant to open the luggage door so he can extract our fleeces, but the young man with only one huge eyebrow tuts and wags his finger at the sky. The operation might only take 2 minutes but out here, with nothing to do for an hour in the desert… it’s not possible. He turns his attention instead to loading more songs from his mobile phone onto a USB stick. He plays another one of his favourites and smiles at his captive audience. It is the smile of an idiot. We get someone to translate our request but the grinning eyebrow is having none of it. More tuts, more finger waving, followed by a liberal spraying of the bus with jasmine air freshener. It’s actually so ridiculous that all you can do is laugh and bank it in the vault of precious travel absurdities.

We are moving and freezing again but only for a short time and its back into the pits. This time Greg approaches the driver who gladly opens the luggage compartment. Two fleeces are produced in less time than an F1 tyre change. The assistant seems annoyed and in some attempt to look useful sprays the bus with more freshener. All I can think about is getting to Wadi Halfa but our bus seems reluctant. I prepare myself for worst which fortunately we are spared from. The bus roars back to life after 15 minutes; it will be our second and final breakdown.

Wadi Halfa is a remote frontier town bustling with activity. There would be no reason to come here if it were not for the International ferry crossing to Egypt. Men women and children wonder the dusty dry streets talking and playing. There is an energy in town for tomorrow is the day of the ferry. Everyone is heading to Egypt. Locals and tourists come together, there is a sense of purpose and zest.

Sunset from our Hotel in Wadi Halfa

Sunset from our Hotel in Wadi Halfa

I watch a woman buy fruit for the journey whilst skinny stray cat’s look on, eagerly awaiting a morsel to fall their way. The harsh sun begins to soften and we head back to our hotel. On our way we bump into Ibrahim whom we had met earlier on the bus. He is struggling to find a bed as the demand is so high in the town. Some people are resorting to sleeping outside on string beds, a common practice when the ferry is in.

Ibrahim returns with us to the Cangan hotel which is now heaving with people. Our room or rather cell is clean with just a trace of sand. The air conditioner bellows loudly in protest. It has several settings most of which adjust the volume of protest; none of which alter the temperature.

I’m almost tempted to sleep outside but I know the stuffy room will shelter us from the scorching heat of the day. The shower allows a trickle of warm Nile water to flow. I drench my sheet and lie in front of the mechanical air complainer. This process continues throughout the night and is the only way I can ensure some comfort and sleep.

The Cangan Hotel in Sudan

The Cangan Hotel in Sudan

Its mid-afternoon on Tuesday and by now I am cooking in the heat. The hotel has been very kind and given us late checkout all for 80 SDP. We head through the busy terminal standing in an assortment of queues, receiving stamps on small pieces of paper. We have a ticket cover with no tickets but somehow board the vessel.

There had been two class options for this ferry journey. Sleep on deck for 40 USD, or for an extra 10 USD, purchase a cabin with beds and air conditioning. The deck option might be romantic and adventurous if the ferry were not so full, but this one is bursting at the seams.  The first class floor is a description that does not reflect reality but as promised the cabin has beds and the air conditioning is a welcome relief. It is private and offers refuge from the crowds outside.

Boarding the ship

Boarding the ship

In spite of my observations it’s very exciting. The crossing of Lake Nasser to Egypt is historical and a rite of passage for any Trans African Explorer. On deck we meet 6 other travellers who have taken the option to sleep outside. I admire their brevity but I am secretly glad I have a cabin to retreat to.

Adolfo is from the Basque region in Spain which he is careful to point out. He is bearded and looks like a prophet who has spent 40 days in the desert. In reality he has travelled from Morocco down to Cape Town and back up to Sudan. His journey down the west coast is far more difficult than the eastern route we have taken and we are both very intrigued. We interrogate him over a meal of Chicken, rice, and tahini washed down with cold water and hot black tea. He is naturally talkative and charming and a good story teller.

Adolfo The Basque

Adolfo The Basque

Back up on deck the sun has set but there is still enough light to see one of histories great monuments, Abu Simbel. We sail past the four colossal statues of Ramses II. I can think of no better way to enter Egypt. At the rear of the boat evening prayers are taken.

I explore the bowels of the boat. Hard benches stretch along the length of the deck. Families are preparing food, children are playing. It’s hot and noisy. I clamber over people with cries of “oh so sorry …Thank you… Pardon me… Oh hello again, how are you” so typically foreign. The locals are fascinated by this touristic intrusion, wondering what on earth I am doing down here. To me it’s interesting to see. It’s all part of the journey and I admire their ability to make what is a pretty uncomfortable place very functional. In fact it is one of the things that I have found time and time again on this journey through Africa so commendable. The ability to adapt with such grace and patience. There is a sense of community spirit which I think we have lost.

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Morning breaks but I do not see it. We are in no rush. Not even the lure of a Nile sunrise can pull us from our bunks. Like the boat I am taking a more unperturbed pace and eventually pop onto the top deck to say good morning to the other Westerners. I discover the group looking a little worse for wear. Adolfo informs me that it was so cold last night he was forced to sleep next to the ear piercing engine just to keep warm. I offer them all the option of popping to our cabin for a little respite.

First Class washroom

First Class washroom

The boat docks and we have still not been given an Egyptian visa. Assurances are not very reassuring but we are in the same boat as the others at least. One of the crew emerges through the crowd with our passports. We follow him ashore and up a long ramp to what can only be described as a holding pen. At the far end is a narrow exit guarded carefully and discriminately by customs officers. They seem to pick people out randomly who in turn must push past others in order to escape. It is a system carefully constructed to cause confusion and calamity in the crowd.

I wait at the edge of the mob in no mood to be crushed. The ship steward with our passports has others ideas and beckons us. The lure of your passports disappearing through a crowd is a strong incentive to follow. The discriminator at the exit allows us through. We have somehow acquired a taxi driver. The ship steward is gone. We have lost him but our new friend the taxi driver offers more assurances.

Bags are searched and clothes are tossed on the floor. The purpose of a head torch is explained and we pass through security and into the entrance hall. Still no steward and no passports. The taxi driver leaves us but promises he will return. We are left alone with Adolfo feeling a little uneasy. He returns 5 minutes later clasping the small blue books.  If our journey is a river then our arrival into Egypt has been a class 5 set of rapids. The taxi driver come passport and visa organiser stings us each for 30 EP for the ride into Aswan but he also got us our passports back with a visa for 30 days.

Aswan McDonalds

Aswan McDonalds

Driven on by the need to know our visa fate in Cairo we book tickets for the 7pm sleeper train departing that night. There is time for a traditional Egyptian meal at McDonalds and an afternoon sleep in one of the hotels. We bid farewell to Adolfo and continue north to Cairo.

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