Monday, 1 October 2007

"Welcome in Egypt"

Finally we have made our escape from Aqaba. The Arab Bridge Maritime ferry, which was in a previous incarnation MS Skagen from Kristiansand, left Aqaba an hour late, we have no idea of why, as ours was the last vehicle to embark. She then sailed at about the speed Gavin and I could have pushed the car. We arrived at Nuweiba, Egypt, as the sun set. Just in time for everyone to break their fast (Ramadan began over a week previously). First of all we were told we could disembark in two hours, bearing in mind we were expecting a fairly gruelling border crossing in Nuweiba. “Wow”, we thought, these people will surely be able to eat a lot in two hours, in a slightly disgruntled manner. We had only taken dry bread on to the ferry which we had been covertly nibbling the past five hours. We realised that a few of the other passengers also felt they did not need two hours for breakfast and a fight almost broke out between some passengers and boat crew when the passengers realised that we had actually all been locked in. We do not know of the outcome because someone triggered the emergency doors isolating them from everyone else.

When we were eventually allowed off the boat, Khaled from the Tourist Police assited us with the customs procedures. First he escorted Gavin to the bank to change a not insignificant amount of money. We got a bit of a shock when we were told that in the last 2 months the compulsory 3rd party insurance premium had increased from 80 LE (Egyptian pounds) to 545 LE. A few hours later, after Gavin was issued with (obviously paying for each) an Egyptian drivers licence, Egyptian car registration, number plates, insurance, customs document, 4X4 tax, chassis number writing and copies of files, we were on our way. By now it was 11pm. We had started our journey at the Aqaba passenger terminal at noon. It really was a very slow thirty or so kilometres. All of this to avoid any evidence of travel to Israel in our passports and travel documents.
We tanked with diesel and headed towards Dahab looking for a suitable camp. We immediately started on quite a steep climb and with 200 litres of fuel and 90 litres of water we were a little on the heavy side, so it was not long before we were nearly overheating. We crawled up to 800 metres elevation and found a lovely camping spot in the hill/ sand dunes. There was no wind, so we had our first peaceful night since Wadi Rum (Aqaba was exceedingly windy). In the morning we were awoken by a family of roaming camels.

We spent three relaxing days at Dahab and enjoyed a couple of dives. We saw a fantastic variety of marine animals and plants and although the Egyptian Red Sea is hailed as being far superior for diving to Aqaba, at least Aqaba does not have the same destruction of the coral reef, primarily from over-diving. There were a lot of people diving and this is not even the peak period. The dives sights in Aqaba felt positively pristine in comparison.

Dahab is a very pleasant touristy town and there was a pub was showing the World Cup games (Rugby, that is) so we became regulars for a few days. There were not a huge number of spectators in the pub but the All Blacks-Scotland game seemed to draw the largest crowd. Although not many of them were Kiwis, the All Blacks were held in quite high esteem and each time they scored a polite round of applause would follow. On our last night we maintained our tradition of participating in pub quizzes wherever we go, yet again we did not win.

From Dahab we headed south to the Nabq National Park. After driving around some very exclusive looking hotels a few times, in an area reminiscent of a fairly flash Los Angeles suburb and finding nothing indicating where we might find the Park finally we took an unmarked dirt track and found ourselves in the Park. First we had to drive through a partially cleared mine field (a relic from the Egyptian-Israeli wars) before the desertscape met the Red Sea at a mangrove forest. We spent the evening watching crabs scurry up and down the shore line while the full moon rose in the night sky.

On exploring further up the coast the next day we found the twisted, rusting wreck of the Marie Schroder. In the low tide reef holes we saw hundred of furry long legged star fish and hermit crabs. I even found a fossilised giant clam shell. Unfortunately the tide was far too low to snorkel around the mangroves.

We then skipped through Na’ama Bay and Sharm el Sheikh resorts, which are more sprawling tourists towns hugging the beaches in an otherwise arid, windy landscape, making for Ras Mohammed National Park, right on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Here the lunaresque landscape meeting the milky turquoise sea was amazing. On closer inspection it became apparent that much of the park was under the sea at some point in ancient history as the hills and everything were in fact reef and coral with shells and fossils embedded in the hillsides. Also many trenches were still evident in the hills, again more relics from the Egyptian-Israeli wars.

The snorkelling on Ras Mohammed was the best yet and just metres from where we camped Gavin spotted a stingray and we saw cornet fish jumping out of the water, lots of masked puffer fish, crescent wrasse (which look fluorescent underwater) and common jelly fish amongst the hundreds of other species. At the “Shark Observatory” we walked over a shelf of coral with a big hole in it to the entry point to what we thought was just another snorkelling spot. After jumping I got rather a surprise. This was a “Blue Hole” which descended to apparently 800 metres- just a huge hole in the reef, quite amazing. I understand that such sudden descents are very rare, which is one of the reasons why the Sinai Peninsula is such a renowned diving destination. Over the course of the morning many tour buses began to trickle through the park, usually carrying Russian tourists. I admit that to Gavin’s horror I ended up telling someone off, again. This poor Russian tourist’s folly was to feed the fish. Indeed, there were many signs indicating that it is forbidden to feed the fish and it really is not fashionable to feed wild animals anymore. Also I have already had enough fish trying to nibble me underwater I really do not want people training them to see people as a food source, literally.

The west coast of Sinai had a particularly bleak atmosphere. It was very flat, gradually drifting into the Gulf of Suez to the west and high mountains to the east with great howling winds. There were a few towns of little evident interest and numerous resorts in the middle of nowhere, which looked to be derelict- but using previous recent experience, one really cannot always tell. We made our way back inland to visit Mount Sinai and the St Katherine Monastery, a small Greek Orthodox monastery founded in the fourth century, next to where the Burning Bush is purported to stood. There was a car park nearby which we camped in overnight, only to be awoken at 2 am by the arrival of more than twenty tour buses. They disgorged their passengers, most heading straight for the toilets which had been shut when we arrived at 16.30. I think they had travelled quite a long distance. They then started to climb the mountain. After telling another man off who was peeing by the car we went back to sleep. When we woke all the buses were gone and everyone was up on the mountain admiring the sunrise in the cold- it was not so warm where we were. As we started to climb Mount Sinai we met them all coming down again, some on camels, some walking and some looking like it had not been such a good idea. Mount Sinai certainly exceeds Mount Snowdon in the tourism stakes. There were kiosks selling all manner of packaged food and drink all the way up to 2285 metres. Sadly only some of the discarded packaging made it into the numerous rubbish bins, although it did give the goats something to chew on.

The views from the top were certainly impressive, whilst the detritus left by the previous visitors was not. How they all fitted up there earlier in the morning I do not know, but we had the place completely to ourselves, it was very peaceful. Apart from numerous stalls selling souvenirs which were closed (I think all the vendors had gone to bed) there was a small chapel right at the top which unfortunately but understandably was locked. We climbed down the 3000 “Steps of Repentance” to descend again barely seeing a soul until we were back at the Monastery. Although twenty-two monks still reside there, the Monastery opens for few hours each morning. We had heard it was interesting so decided to go inside. However, while we were up the mountain even more tour buses had arrived and how they all squeezed into the Monastery I do not know. We ended up squeezing out again because it was really hard to even look at anything. Such a circus, I am surprised that there are no attempts to limit the numbers.

By midday we were back on the road again, hoping to make it to Cairo before sunset. Not just because we do not like travelling in the dark but also because around sunset lots of people are rushing to get home to break their fast. We did not quite make that deadline we rolled into the “Selma Camp” at 9pm, 3 ½ hours after the sunset having enjoyed the crazy driving in Cairo. At least in daylight you can see the pedestrians with a death wish and other vehicles, be they motor powered, person powered or animal powered.

Having spent so much time looking for the only camp in Cairo we decided to leave it the next morning paying only half the original price after having a bit of a falling out with Selma. We found a hotel barely twice the price of the camp with hot and cold showers, air-conditioning, free WiFi, en-suite, clean, breakfast and right in the middle of town rather than ¾ hour drive away. After 3 months we are finally in a hotel and it is great, but I have to say that we have missed our tent.

Cairo is a frenetic city with numerous touts and taxi drivers who must think that westerners are unable to walk 10 metres. There are also many genuinely friendly people. Every afternoon at around 4pm trestle tables and chairs are unloaded from the pavements and the streets become a big dining room. Gradually the tables fill up with people waiting for the sun to go down and to break their fast. It looks like a street party.

Today we obtained our visas for Sudan. It has taken the best part of two days. Yesterday we visited the British and Kiwi embassies to obtain “letters of introduction” which the Sudanese embassy insists upon. Gavin’s cost less than £ 13 sterling. Mine cost a whacking £ 30 sterling, in reality it is supposed to be £27 but they only accept local currency converted to that amount at a conversion rate set by the embassy. Then to add insult to injury the “letter” was presented to me on a blank piece of paper basically stating that they no longer issue such letters and that the bearer of this is a British citizen as it states on their passport and that the British government does not impose traveling restrictions on it’s citizens. The signatory was, the British Embassy Cairo- not even a name. It appears that I paid £30 for the official stamp. Anyway, it still did the trick. After sitting around for 4 hours in the Sudanese Embassy and another US$100 apiece we have our visas for Sudan.

Tomorrow we are heading out to view the pyramids, go on a few errands for the car, stock up at “Carrefour” and head south west to the Western Oases.

Reading this back it looks like I am a whingeing pom, maybe I am but occasionally I throw a hissy fit about being ripped off and then I get over it…. eventually.