Friday, 14 September 2007

Escape from Aqaba

After both a productive (lots of things on the car fixed) and disappointing (Saudi embassy not wanting to issue us transit visas) sojourn in the Capital, we have left Amman, the Duke, the Good Doctor and his honey farm behind. We got to know Amman quite well in the end. We had our favourite juice stall and found a place that made great chocolate milkshakes. It is not the most beautiful city but it had a bit of a buzz and is fairly unusual in that it is built on so many hills. Some of the roads give San Francisco a run for its money in terms of gradient. On one of the off ramps off the expressway we had to go down into 1st gear it was so steep. During our stay, the Good Doctor, a dentist who in his spare time is the apiarist on the farm we camped on, was very busy preparing his honey stall for a big Food Expo in Amman. Luckily for me this opened before we left so we spent a couple of hours eating our way round this Expo sampling all sorts of Jordanian and Arabic delicacies.

From Amman we headed due south to Madabar to view an interesting mosaic map of the Holy Lands in a Greek orthodox church, and from there to Mount Nebo and the Dead Sea. As we were nearing Mount Nebo the sign post told us it was only 5 km or so away, and yet we could see no mountain. Then we were on Mount Nebo and we realised that were still at quite high altitude (700m) and the Dead Sea in the distance was at over 350m below sea level. Israel and the Palestinian Territories sit on the other side of the Dead Sea so we knew that there would be many military check points in the area which makes it very difficult/ impossible to camp. As soon as we saw a sign stating "checkpoint" we turned around to look for somewhere to camp and found a lovely spot nestled in the hills out of sight of the checkpoint.

The Dead Sea - what a dump. The water was really bizarre. We never expected it to feel so oily and even 5-10 minutes after getting out we had not dried off. It was quite windy so the water was a bit choppy and I splashed some in my mouth - it tasted really foul. I could not have stayed in for very long because everything starts to sting. However I think there could be something in the claims of beautifying properties because after a quick rinse off my skin did feel really smooth.

The drive along the Dead Sea coast was fascinating. There were many small gullies emptying into the Dead Sea. In such a barren landscape it was lovely to see wilding date palms clinging to the steep rocky sides. The largest valley was Wadi Mijub where there is a National Park. We spent a wonderfully refreshing few hours gorge walking, getting completely soaked in neck deep water. At the entrance it was not clear that it was a gorge walk so we were slightly unprepared and took our non-waterproof camera. As the water got deeper I acted as pathfinder- usually finding the deepest parts and telling Gavin not to go in those parts. It was rather incredible to think that what looked like a tiny trickle of water emerging from out of the hillside was a raging torrent in places. Our progress ended when we reached a high waterfall so we turned back.

Our next stop was the Jordanian highlight of Petra. After a 1km walk down through a narrow canyon, which was a fissure created by tectonic activity, we emerged in the ancient city and were greeted by the stunning façade of a tomb carved out of the soft sandstone. We spent the whole day climbing hills and steps, peering down into caves and simply marvelling at the splendour.

Much of the central part of Jordan is at quite high altitude and we really relished the cool nights, especially before heading to the desert and the majestic Wadi Rum.
T. E. Lawrence apparently spent much time here. We had a wonderful 3 days playing in the soft sand… I mean learning about how the car manages soft sand and improving our driving techniques. Luckily, in spite of our weight and skinny tyres, we did not get bogged down to the extent that we needed to get the shovel, or the sand ladders, or let out tyre pressure, or find a local to drag us out. Unlike one party of flash 4 wheel drivers who kept us entertained for nearly an hour as one driver managed to lose parts from his car in the sand and another got well and truly stuck.
We could not pass the opportunity by to ride on a camel of the hairy variety in it’s natural environment, either.

After a couple of nights star gazing it was on to Aqaba to find a way to get to Africa. Our problem is that we did not want to drive through Egypt because they request an unfeasibly high deposit as security against us importing the vehicle permanently. So our carnet specifically excluded Egypt. It is apparently possible to levy a bank guarantee for 250% of the value of the vehicle at the border, which is returned to us when we depart Egypt. However, our bank was decidedly clueless about this and suggested that we visit our local HSBC branch in the UK to discuss. Also, we were not certain that such letter of guarantee would really follow us from Nuweiba to Aswan to be returned to us on our departure. Our other option was to ship from Aqaba to somewhere on the East African coast. Will at Hawknet had a fantastic offer from Suez to Port Sudan, however, we had to get to Suez which means driving into Egypt. We also asked a few shipping companies for a quote. The current going price to ship the car in a container to Port Sudan is in excess of US $1600. The cost without a container is around US$150. What a difference. The most important difference to us is that with the latter option our car would be dumped on the dock in Port Sudan and in all likelihood be stripped of everything by the time we would be able to retrieve it. Our final solution is to get a new carnet issued which will cover Egypt. As I write this, the carnet is hopefully being processed and couriered out to us.

Whilst we are waiting in Aqaba, which is on the Red Sea, we have decided to make the most of our slightly extended stay here. Today I start on a PADI open water diving course whilst Gavin refreshes his diving skills.