Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Never smile at a crocodile

Hoorah, we have left those all so honest traders (!) of stinky and dirty Egypt far behind. I am convinced that there is a national conspiracy in Egypt for overcharging foreigners. For example, ask an Egyptian how much they pay for bread- 5 piastres they reply. However, when I go to buy, the price is suddenly 50 piastres per bread or even one pound. It is impossible for me to buy at the same prices as locals. It appears that many vendors would rather watch their bread grow mould or vegetables compost before selling at a reasonable price. Gavin said it was quite funny to watch me shop for groceries. Inevitably at some point I ended up just dumping the bags of groceries on the counter and leaving after they have quoted ridiculous prices and I had no desire to haggle over the price of every single egg and tomato.

Our final day in Aswan did slightly redeem Egypt. After returning from the port we made our way over to Elephantine Island. Again, needless to say the ferryman attempted to overcharge us by 400%. We just gave him the money we knew to be correct and walked off, with him shouting after us. Elephantine Island as been inhabited by the Nubians for generations and generations and although it was only 100metres or so from Aswan it was completely different. The children left us alone, felucca captains did not follow us down the street. It was a herding village with people getting on with their lives. It was cleaner and more organised than Egyptian towns and the Nubians appeared to have alot of pride. The excursion was very refreshing.

Egypt is an incredible place. It has been receiving tourists for 2000 years so I do not think that the approach to tourism is going to change soon. The country has so much to offer. The amazing diving and snorkelling in the Red Sea, The Pyramids, Tombs, Temples and the Nile, but it exhausted me and it just felt that the people were always grabbing at us and I never knew who to trust. So you may have gathered, I was glad to leave.

On the day of ourLake Nasser cruise we arrived at the port bright and early, as we had been requested. At 11am there was no sign of the vehicles being loaded so I went ahead onto the ferry to secure a shady area for our gang. Lunchtime came and went, on a few occasions my marked territory was invaded and in usual style I made it quite clear that the area was reserved. It was interesting watching all the cargo being loaded in a most inefficient and incompetent way. One fridge was dropped and everyone just shrugged their shoulders, another box fell off the quay, again shrugs all round. At one point a tower with lights on it fell off another barge into the water and was rammed into the quayside- more shrugs and arguments ensued. Sunset approached and finally the vehicles were loaded on the barge which does not even travel with the ferry. The ferry had been waiting for the drivers to load the vehicles so we were off immediately. Eventually Gavin and the rest remainders of the gang managed to climb over everyone else to our area. Finally I felt vindicated for reserving such a large area as we all tried to squash into the area. However I did find the other passengers very respectful. Many of them were young Egyptian men travelling to Khartoum for work. Only men were on the deck and women and children were below deck, in what looked like a cattle transporter. The Frenchies had decided to travel first class. After shooing a few sleeping bodies out of their cabin when they arrived and cleaning up the rat poo they could enjoy the air conditioning. Also, we were permitted to use the first class facilities. While they looked cleanish, the stench put hairs on your chest and one wonders what the second class facilities were like.

We eventually started to settle down for the night to find everything was getting wet. An air conditioning pipe was leaking fairly foul water. Interestingly when we tried to do something about it, such as ask for a bowl to collect the water we were told “the water is not a problem”. So, in true annoying British tourist style I asked to be shown the kitchen where I would locate for myself a suitable vessel to collect the water. Finally a bowl was found. Interestingly the next morning some of our Egytpian neighbours also helped with emptying the water and when we erected a sunshade, again our neighbours followed suit. I like to think that we managed to create a little community spirit which seemed to be so lacking in Egypt.

Early in the morning close to the Sudanese border we passed Abu Simbel, a wonderful view from the lake. Within a few hours we arrived at Wadi Halfa, after a rather strange immigration procedure we made our way off the boat. At one point it was so crowded and everyone was so much taller than me I felt myself being picked up by someone around the waist and physically pushed through the crowd it was so tight, thank you that man.

Wadi Halfa used to be an old Nubian city which now lies beneath the water. Now it is a collection of fairly tatty buildings and feels like the end of the world. We stayed in the best hotel in town! Apart from the odd person asking us if we wanted to change money there was no one hassling us for a felucca ride, for a taxi, for this for that, ahhhh we could relax a bit. There is still quite a bit of tension between the Egyptians and the Sudanese and by the next day many of the Egyptians still had not received their passports back, and when they did they had to pay a small fee. There are a few occasions that as foreigners or westerners we do seem to receive different treatment to locals- but it is not always clear that we do have it easier in some ways.

The next day the barge arrived and after a few hours of sitting around the vehicles were released and we all planned to make an early departure the next morning.

Up with the sun we made an interesting convoy, four motorbikes, one Toyota and two Landrovers (one with a campervan body). All of us were travelling at slightly different speeds. The bikes can speed off into the distance but have to stop more frequently for breaks and had to wait for us eventually because we were carrying the bags of three bikes and some of their fuel. We are not a "support vehicle for nothing". That day we travelled mainly though hilly desert with some short sections of tarmac, a new road is being constructed. We passed through one town of about 5 houses but there was not really anything there to sustain a living and after driving about 150km for the day we made camp.

The following day we hit the Nile passing through many Nubian villages with beautifully decorated homes. I sometimes caught a glimpse inside a compound gate to very neat yards with flowers growing and beds in the shade. People were busy working in their cultivated plots. We saw very few other vehicles and the locals always seemed happy to see us. That night we camped right by the Nile and amazingly the mosquitoes were not horrendous. One of the Dutch Boys was brave enough to risk Bilharzia and the crocodiles, taking a quick dip. They do get pretty grimy and dusty on the bikes so I can understand wanting to have a quick wash. Being in our luxurious car we can spare a litre or so of water in the evening for washing.

Our saga of punctures continues and yet again Gavin had to fix a tyre. One of the Dutch boys has been really amazed by Gavin's "manliness, he is always doing such manly things" (said with a deep dutch accent). Although we are making quite slow progress, being so many vehicles, it has been fun travelling with everyone. We are all travelling for different reasons which is interesting because we all see and observe different things, also we are not in a hurry. Louis has made the journey many times before and knows some good spots. The bikes are limited by what they can carry, there has not been much opportunity to buy fuel and all the water comes from the Nile which takes forever to filter because it is so brown.

Evidence of the recent flooding in central Africa was apparent but this was not a problem for us. The bird life is becoming quite interesting, hoopoes, rollers and larks to name a few. One crocodile was spotted by the group and quite a few Nubian homes proudly displayed crocodile skulls on their gate posts.

The following day our merry bunch started to divide. Two of the bikes decided to push on after we decided to stop by the 2nd Cataract, where there are some more ancient Egyptian heiroglyphic rock carvings. There were still a few hours of light left but it was a good place to stop and the going had been quite heavy. So off went the English and South African bikers. We hoped that they would be OK because only the previous day one of them had been suffering with dehydration and was falling off ever such a lot. Also we had been carrying one of their very heavy bags which they would have to carry now making the riding on rough terrain more difficult.

We had a lovely evening. There was a wedding in the local village. I was not sure what all the singing and drum beating was for do I went over and soon I was enveloped by a group of women in their brightly coloured wraps, beating their drums and dancing. Then the men appeared and one even had a video camera. I eventually extricated myself. Later a local lad appeared with what we think was some sort of perch, we agreed a price. It was very fresh and big. I took the tail half, attempted to fillet and fried in flour flavoured with cumin, JF took the head half and steamed it with coriander and cloves. I provided noodles with courgette and JF provided rice with mayonnaise. There was plenty for everyone and we had a feast.

In the morning we were up again with the sun and in the next town we found a fuel station, better than the fuel out of drumspreviously available. There was also clean looking water from a tap. So while the Dutch Boys re-fuelled (we still had plenty of diesel), we filtered more drinking water, this time not having to clean the filter every 5 litres. We then made our way to the ferry to cross to the West bank.

On the other side the road was much improved, not nearly as many corrugations and flatter. I think the bikers were much relieved by such improvements however I admit a sense of disappointment. In a few years there will be a tar seal road all the way to Wadi Halfa. I enjoy the slow roads, the driving is more fun and you see so much more. Also life along the Nile will change very quickly. Yes, infrastructure is progress but people living in these villages seem to have an organised way of life already.

By lunchtime we reached Dongola, a bustling city. That means it had shops, pharmacies, an hotel and a hospital. We shopped for some groceries while the Frenchies took their son to the hospital. When we caught up with them they were deliberating what to do. The doctor wanted to keep him in for 24 hours for observation but had barely done any tests, when JF asked about the tests I had suggested the Doctor had apparently said they would not really show anything- I think it is because they did not have any of those facilities. They decided to carry on to Khartoum to see a doctor there. A good thing they did because the following day he had his appendix removed.

We also headed south to Khartoum, but more slowly camping behind a sand dune. Khartoum is awash with white shiny 4x4 United Nations and NGO vehicles- UNICEF, Save the Children, MSF, World Food Programme to name but a few. The driving is far more civilised than anything we experienced in Egypt and the people are very friendly. More time for personal administration and yesterday we applied for Ethiopian Visas. We had been informed of the hoops to jump through, such a letter of recommendation from own embassy (I was not going to do that again) proof of onward travel etc. The Ethiopian Embassy is the friendliest I have been to. They were apologetic at having to look into my bag, apologised for keeping us waiting etc. At 3pm we returned to collect our passports with visas. All we had to provide was two passport photos, they even photocopied our carnet for us. Also it cost less than we had expected.

We are camped in the National Camping Residence of Sudan which also seems to provide accomodation for groups of Ethiopian refugees in transit. In the evenings hundreds of frogs, some the size of a halfpenny entertain us by jumping in the artificial light. Tomorrow it looks like our gang, which intially formed way back in Luxor, will be disbanding. The Dutch boys and Louis head towards Ethiopia and we head back north for a bit to the Meroe pyramids, before heading towards Ethiopia ourselves. The Frenchies are staying Khartoum for a while. Their eldest son needs to recuperate and has correspondance school work to catch up on.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Camel arrived safe & sound. 3 days tough driving in desert & along Nile, hard going for bikers. 3 cars, 4 bikes in convoy. All well, dust everywhere!