Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Out of Africa

A couple of kilometers north of Suez, we take the heavily guarded Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel underneath the Suez Canal. The traffic passes in single file through its gaping mouth and as we follow, we are starting to grasp the reality that we are saying goodbye to Africa. 

On the other side we find ourselves in Sinai Desert. Apart from a few trucks and a number of nearly unoccupied cars – with goods stacked so high on top of the roof that we cannot help but wonder if they’re smuggling to/from the Gaza Strip – we are on our own, with now sandy and then rocky landscapes bordering the road. It’s very palpable that this is still a sensitive region, witness of which are the signposts declaring “road forbidden for foreigners” and the prominent military presence. About forty kilometers before Taba border we turn right towards Nuweiba, a port town on the shore of the Gulf of Aqaba, and continue along the winding mountain road until long after dark. 

Only 60 more kilometers separate us from the Israeli border. We figure that if we leave before two o’clock, we must be able to cross the border within working hours. That leaves us plenty of time for an underwater escapade. We hire goggles, flippers and a snorkel from the camp, walk into the sea and off we go. After about 15 minutes of floating around with our heads submerged we locate the reefs. The amazing beauty and variety of this marine fauna and flora blows our minds, while the sun burns our backs.

But then we have some more serious business to attend to: exiting one country and entering the next. This border crossing will prove by far the worst on this trip, taking a gruesome 9 hours to complete. From the outside, the Egyptian side of the border looked more like a holiday resort than a government facility, but some of the customs officers had taken the holiday spirit all too literally. The Israeli personnel was very polite, professional and even friendly, but scanning, unpacking and rummaging through our luggage, questioning Nicolaas on his private life and business in Sudan and preparing our very expensive insurance papers kept us waiting for a very, very long time! By midnight we arrive at our hotel in the resort town of Eilat.

 To be honest, we didn’t expect to like Israel at first sight as much as we did. But as it turns out, it is a very welcoming country and undeniably a part of the civilized world as we know it. People are friendly without being nosy, traffic is disciplined – I never saw so many cars stop at pedestrian crossings in Belgium – employees act professionally and actually seem to take pride in their work, infrastructure functions as it was intended to, shop shelves are filled with everything one might need, parking lots are guarded by automatic cameras and not by night watchmen, bathrooms don’t scream for a make-over by Plumbers Without Borders, … Unfortunately this comes with a downside, as everything is bloody expensive again! 

Since our boat has already been delayed, we have two days including Nicolaas’ birthday to chill out: swimming in the pool or in the sea, shopping, dinner at the beach side and snorkeling. The experience isn’t nearly as breathtaking as in Egypt. For once we agree with Lonely Planet: Eilat’s coral reef is really deteriorating because of all the hordes of tourists.

On the 25th we ride to Ashdod through the Negev, yet another desert to cross. Apart from the remarkable signposts indicating firing zones and tank crossings the surroundings are pretty, but monotonous and after a while: boring. We barely manage not to fall asleep before we’re checked in into an overpriced but hooker-free hotel close to the harbor. Fortunately it’s only for one night. Tomorrow we’ll sleep aboard the MV Fides, if we manage to get through the formalities, that is.

We start the tedious process in the main building outside the port, where we pick up our “passenger manifests” – in English: entry tickets – and our expensive and obligatory customs forwarding agent. Then we enter the port. The first thing to get through is the very thorough security check, comprising luggage verification and very inquisitive questioning, in which no subject is shunned. Privacy is clearly of inferior importance to presumed national security. After this we continue to customs, then to a ware house, then customs again, then some other office… By the end of the day, it dawns on me why one needs an agent, or should I say a guide. But her most useful interference was perhaps when she persuaded the immigration department to let us stay in their office until the vessel comes in and we can actually board. That saves us quite some hassles and an expensive taxi ride to town.

A strike amongst the port workers prevents the Fides to dock though, so we have to wait all evening, staring at the clock on the wall. Luckily the immigration staff really takes care of us, changing left-over money and buying food in town. Then at 23h we finally get to meet our floating home for the next week or so. The bikes will go on tomorrow and by noon we’ll sail to Haifa first and then across the Mediterranean…

For more pics see album "Out of Africa"

Ride like an Egyptian, visit like a Russian

We wake up at a very unwholesome five o’clock in the morning with the muezzin violently screaming through the vessel’s speakers. Suddenly dozens of men dressed in white night gowns start bowing to the rhythm. It takes until eleven before we reach the port. 
We watch the whole unloading and disembarking scene patiently. It’s no use getting down there along with the rest of the passengers, pushing and shoving for a breath of fresh air. We were the last ones to board and we’ll be the last to leave, as our bikes are inconveniently positioned on the side opposite the exit gate.

When finally everything’s cleared, we cannot disembark, because someone’s disappeared with our passports for the last couple of hours to get entry stamps. Since nobody can provide us with updates on the process, I decide to get off to look for our documents myself. What are they going to do? Arrest me? One of the crew reluctantly accompanies me to the administration building, probably thinking what an arrogant, independent, insubordinate white b*** I am. We go into a couple of offices and within the next ten minutes I’m back with our papers. 

Then we have to get our bikes through customs, a notoriously nerve wrecking process. First we’re told that we’ll have to wait till Saturday (today’s Thursday) because we are late and offices close within half an hour. We give them a piece of our mind and tell them that if their colleagues have decided to take us hostage for a couple of hours, they’ll just have to do overtime. We have to pay a customs fee in Egyptian pounds, 530£ per motorcycle to be exact. Of course there’s no ATM on the grounds and no official forex bureau. Very convenient indeed, for the fixer Kamal, who is the only one changing Euros. At first he wanted to screw me over with the rate, seeing I was desperate, but somehow I managed to haggle a fair deal. 

Maybe because he is going to earn money of us anyway, because he is the only one allowed to mediate with the Traffic Police, to get our Arabic license plates and a special insurance, because although it says so on the yellow card, COMESA isn’t valid in Egypt. We wait outside, together with the South Africans who are clearing their cars. By four o’clock, just as we decided to build a party and barbeque some steaks right there in the parking lot, Kamal comes back with our plates and papers.
Luckily the guard that has to do a baggage check at the gate shows some mercy and only takes a quick peak in our tank bags. Then we’re finally released. I feel like I could drink a whole pool, but I have to go for a bottle of water at three times the normal price instead. By the time we check into our hotel, we’re already seriously pissed off about the Egyptians and their merchant’s spirit. Even going out to do some grocery shopping or buy some falafel involves serious bargaining, where the shop owner will simply refuse to sell you anything at the going rate!

Fortunately the hotel is a gem compared to the usual Sudanese nightmares. It has all the modern luxuries you may want plus a rooftop pool at a reasonable price (breakfast with pancakes included!). It even smells clean! An, Jo, Kristina and Andrew are also staying there and together we have a wonderful time, with interesting talks, duty free beers and a ridiculous game we name “the whirlpool”. 

We take care of all the practicalities – including a chain replacement for Nicolaas’ bike – on our first day in Aswan, so we can visit Abu Simbel on my birthday. This involves waking up at a quarter to three in the morning, stepping into a minibus which joins a convoy, riding for three and a half hours to visit the temples in two hours and then turn back. But I can’t say I regret it. It is very majestic indeed and due to the low season heat and post revolution paranoia, there were very few other tourists. Without the guards that consider it part of their job description to sexually harass female visitors, the visit was even serene. A late afternoon sailing trip on the Nile followed by dinner and late night swimming in the pool complete what has been a wonderful day.

It’s hard to get started again, to saddle the bikes and take off in this heat. The fertile Nile valley is at times beautiful to see, but the many villages, police checkpoints and speed bumps slow us down drastically. We get particularly annoyed with the reckless and selfish driving of the Egyptians. 

In Edfu, we take a detour to the Temple of Horus. The parking lot is completely empty and we have the grounds all to ourselves, to wander through dark alleys, up staircases and around pillars in the magnificently conserved temple complex. 
When we get back on the road, the sunlight has already changed colors. Half an hour later, we are stopped by traffic police for a routine passport control. Just when we hope to get as far as possible before sunset, they keep us waiting and finally want to send us back to Edfu to pick up a police escort. No way. We try to discuss, knowing that the convoy and escort requirement has been cancelled since 2009 on this road, but when they refuse to hand in, we manage to get our passports back and ride off against their will. The whole situation has cost us a lot of time and we are forced to ride the last hours to Luxor in the dark.

Since our last Adventure in Kenya, it has become very tempting to treat ourselves to a little luxury. So we take a nice hotel with a view on the Temple of Luxor, right in front of the alley of the Sphinxes. From there, we explore the monuments on the West Bank: starting with the Valley of the Kings – where a few mostly Russian tour groups don’t prevent us from being completely on our own in the Tomb of Tutanchamon – and ending with the Temple of Hatshepsut, where we witness how these organized tours spend literally 15 minutes on site before the bus starts honking. The guards don’t seem to be used to people who actually show interest and try to earn some baksheesh by luring us into places with restricted access. We loathe their way of ruining the atmosphere with their loud voices and mostly useless comments. 

Back in Luxor, we have a temple-view dinner at McDonald’s before visiting the nicely lit monument in the center of town. After visiting the temple complex in Karnak next day and being sun-fried and saturated with obelisks and hieroglyphs, we stumble across our fellow travelers Jo/An and Andrew/Kristina on the parking lot. The reunion is short, because we have just had the news that we ought to be in Israel on the 22nd of July, well in advance for the boat to Italy. It leaves us with 2 days to cross the 1200km to Cairo via the Western Desert, and even then we will unlikely be in Israel before Shabbat starts on Friday afternoon. Beautiful as it may be, rushing past the White Desert will only leave us more frustrated, so we decide to abandon that plan. Instead, we’ll take the fast highway through the Eastern Desert and along the Red Sea coast.

We ride the incredible 785km to Cairo in one day. It doesn’t feel like we’ve missed anything: after all the sprawling resorts being constructed along the coast from Hurghada to Suez can hardly be called eye candy. 

Crossing Cairo at night is something else though. We have read that it is the largest city in Africa, and for once we tend to believe it. Roads of moderate quality, unfinished but rather well planned, wind through the suburbs to a vast city center. For 40kms we are riding through the city before reaching Giza. On the way, we come closer to several traffic accidents than ever before in any African city, because of the utter life-threatening and ruthless driving of most cars. A rare motorcyclist or quad risks his life in the high speed traffic jams.

For more pics
see album "Ride like an Egyptian, visit like a Russian"
We find the room with pyramid-view, pay a Russian-style quick visit next morning (where we learn that the price of a camel ride has undergone deflation to £2 (€ 0.25) because of the lack of tourists), and then start the horrific ride through the city center, back to the east. 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Sun-fried Isabel and Captain Solo

After leaving Gonder, we make a very scenic descent from the cold plateau. Once we near Sudan, the temperature rises again. While this warms our bones, our hearts warm at the thought of crossing into another country. It sounds like a fresh start.

But before leaving, the Ethiopians play one last trick on us. When we come to the border post, both the customs and immigration officers are still not back from their lunch break… at 3 o’clock in the afternoon! It takes two hours for them to finally perform their duties. I can’t resist telling the touts around me, as well as the customs officer, how fed up I am with the Ethiopians.

On the Sudanese side the circus starts all over again: immigration, customs, and security service. Most people in Arabic-speaking Sudan don’t master the Roman alphabet well, so you can imagine that documenting our passport data in at least five different notebooks – each time in triplicate, using an unwilling carbon paper – is a tedious procedure. The customs officer on duty refers us then to his superior, who has to stamp a paper and cash some money. Of course he’s eating too at the moment. So we wait. We decline the offer to share lunch with the rest of the staff. Very nice and all, but we just want to go!

After more than five hours we are finally released. Dusk is setting in when we start riding through landscapes that are quite suddenly very Sahel-like: sparse and dry shrubbery and thatched huts instead of the wooden cabins of the Ethiopian highlands. Every kilometer or so, there is a military post consisting of a heavy machinegun, trenches and enthusiastically waving soldiers. We wonder if they are so scared of the Ethiopians, or if it has got something to do with the independence of the South, scheduled for the day after tomorrow. 

We spend the first night in Gedaref, a hot, windy and dusty town on the edge of the desert. We have to get used again to higher prices for accommodation (because of little tourism and the cost of much-needed air-con), the necessity to haggle (Arab-style) and the general islamic atmosphere, but in general we feel very welcome and friendliness is for free. Sadly, there is a huge language barrier, perhaps the most insurmountable from all countries that we have visited until now. Few people speak more than one or two words of English. 

Every tiny village along the road to Khartoum has a fuel station with cheap petrol, a parking lot for mastodon trucks and donkeys eating the waste dumped next to the road. Modern times are also present in the form of a speed gun documenting my outrageous 100km/h, while the limit is 90. I get away with a warning, probably because my Arabic is not good enough to understand I’m being fined. 

All the way to Khartoum, we see dead cows and now and then a donkey or a goat lying next to the road. At first, we think they are road-kill, like in Ethiopia, but it turns out that some of them have died while on transport to Khartoum and were pushed off the trucks. Others might have succumbed to the drought that is affecting not only the Horn of Africa – which has made it to the headlines recently – but also these more inland parts of East-Africa. The heat in this time of the year is almost unbearable indeed. Opening the visor even slightly is like opening an oven door and we are melting away in our biking garment, which makes us think of silly nicknames like Sun-fried Isabel and Captain Solo after the famous butter commercials starring a lump of Solo sizzling in a cooking pan… 

Khartoum must be asleep or praying, because as we arrive on Friday afternoon through the 6-lane boulevards and between the flashy skyscrapers and industrial looking apartment blocks, the streets are practically deserted. To keep up with our schedule we want to leave tomorrow, preferably around midday, but not until we’ve finished a long list of formalities. The first thing we need to do in Khartoum is register with the Aliens Department, a ritual to be performed no later than three days after arrival in the country. Uncle Al-Bashir sure likes to check up on his visitors! Early morning, we start to look for the registration office. It is not where Lonely Planet or T4A say it is. Officials whom we ask for its location look at us like we are asking them to eat their shoes or convert to Christianism. It takes a couple of hours and tens of kilometers of aimlessly riding though the city before we finally find the place.

Of course nobody ever bothered to put English signposts in the Aliens Department, so we are left to ourselves to figure out which of the twelve windows is the right one. The lady behind the counter tries to explain that we need to go back to the hotel to find someone with a Sudanese ID card to be our sponsor. We don’t like the idea and pretend we don’t understand her abdominal English. That’s where Hussam comes to our rescue. He translates and offers to be our guarantor on account of having friends in Belgium and having helped other travelers before. He invites us for dinner, which we accept. By the time we check the last item on our to-do list, it’ll be too late to leave anyway: booking tickets for the Wadi Halfa to Aswan ferry, obtaining a Travel and Photo Permit and going on-line to secure our other boat ticket. Fortunately we’re allowed to consult our email, but all banners on underworld websites like Hotmail or De Standaard are blocked. 

The rest of the afternoon we spend in a family park, where we wait fruitlessly for the Ferris Wheel to open and cast a view on the confluence of the White and Blue Nile. On our way to the exit we stroll past families sitting in the shade and eating sweets, rusted theme park attractions and shooting stalls with Chinese made plastic animal prizes, while the inaugural speech of the new president of the republic of South-Sudan is broadcasted on the radio. A truly surreal experience of a historical moment.

That night, Hussam offers us a nice meal and a personal insight into his country. We learn about the sentence for getting caught drinking alcohol (42 whip lashes for a Sudanese, 40 for a foreigner), the Sudanese’s obsession with uncovered hair justifying why their women can’t dress in accordance to the hot weather, we hear about the official ban on English classes in schools, how The Republic of the Sudan government doesn’t recognize Israel, how they use their centuries-old adage “Divide et impera” to arm tribes and secure their own position, and finally how Al Bashir has lost the support of most people and will probably lose power soon: not by elections (this is Sudan!), but by a coup.

With the obligatory Travel and Photo Permit in our pocket – a peculiar piece of paper that states nonsense like that we should inform government authorities before actually starting to film – we leave in the afternoon for Begarawiya and the famous pyramids of Meroe. We have the whole site to ourselves, to discover the impressive sand-covered tombs with the badly damaged carvings. It hurts to see how restorations have been undertaken in the seventies and eighties, but have stopped thereafter and nowadays it seems as if they just don’t care anymore. A flat tire delays us – once again the valve has been ripped off –and so we arrive in Atbara in the dark. 

Atbara must be among the hottest places on Earth. The burning sun will leave you shriveled and dry even after a short walk to the market to buy a spare inner tube. From Atbara, we no longer follow the meandering course of the Nile, but cross the desert directly to Karima instead. 

The archeological site is again badly littered and vandalized and it requires not only a lot of patience, but also three guards, a translator on the phone, a guy with a suitcase selling us a ticket and another one carrying the key to see the beautiful frescos of the temple of Mut. It makes us curious of visiting Egypt’s patrimony; surely it will be less intimate, but better conserved and professionally managed?  

We continue to Dongola where, tired as we are, we have to check four hotels before we find a room; only – not being married – we can’t sleep in it together unless I pay a visit to the nearby National Security Service office for a stamped authorization certificate. The Security official on duty, sitting in the courtyard in front of the television, wearing his pajamas, is helpful and very friendly, but oh so slow…

The following day we have to complete the 450 km ride to Wadi Halfa despite of the heat and late-night-street-food-induced bowel disturbances! We skip the visits to archeological sites and just ride through the pretty desert scenery, with an occasional glimpse of the green patch bordering the Nile. Upon arrival we decide to go to Mazar – the guy who would provide us ferry tickets – first. He isn’t there, but his mother invites us into the courtyard, where we end up staying the night, sleeping under the stars. 

Next morning, it almost feels as if we are on an organized tour when we ride to the ferry in single file with a group of South-African overlanders. 

It becomes less Thomas Cook-like when we have to wait several hours in the burning sun to embark the bikes on the passenger ferry, while people are doing their best to create chaos. We are lucky the bikes can go with us, because the vehicle barge is not leaving just yet. 

When everything and everybody’s aboard we install ourselves under a rescue boat on the top deck, together with An and Jo and Kristina and Andrew, two young couples driving their 4WD’s through the continent and beyond. They tell us their story of how they tried to cross into Egypt by land, arriving up to the Sudanese border post after driving through the sand for days, seeing the tarmac on the Egyptian side, and not being allowed to continue… Before we go to sleep, we contemplate on the pointlessness of this expensive ferry circus, while gliding past the beautifully lit temples of Abu Simbel...

For more pics see album "Sun-fried Isabel and Captain Solo"