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"|