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Friday, November 25

The Infamous Ferry

Brett: When overlanders meet and exchange tips, everyone wants to know about the Marsabit road and the Wadi Halfa-to-Aswan ferry. We had heard so many stories ups describing the filthy, overcrowded ferry so we really expected the worst and were beginning to dread it. We passed through the last pointless checkpoint and entered Wadi Halfa, which is much bigger than we expected. We bumped into the Richards, who we had travelled into Ethiopia with – they had seen our names in the guestbook at Tim & Kim’s and had been expecting us. We free camped on the edge of the lake (N21 47.477 E31 19.413), between the town and the port and weren’t bothered by anyone – it was a good spot and we saw tons of shooting stars in the evenings, but don’t go too close to the water or you will get stuck like the Richards did. There is a lot more going on in Wadi and the local restaurants were good and cheap. Mazar the fixer had been recommended to us by several people but our first impression wasn’t great – he seemed too smooth, but we got to like him as we got to know him better. Mazar bought the ferry tickets for us, took our passports and carnets to be stamped in advance, and took us to the Egyptian embassy in Wadi to sort out our visas. South Africans are supposed to get visas in advance, which we hadn’t done, and although we could have used our British passports to get a visa on the ferry we wanted to keep things simple instead of changing passports and running the risk of confusing the officials. It was here that we first saw how well he was able to smooth the way, as he organised our free visas in our South African passports in about 10 minutes flat – although it is convenient to know there is an embassy in Wadi I’m not sure they could be persuaded to issue a visa without using one of the fixers. Dropping Mazar’s name at the gates to the port, the guards didn’t need to see our passports; we were taken to the front of the queue for the paperwork, didn’t have to have our bags inspected and the customs guys that came to inspect our cars were very “efficient”. We had originally wanted to avoid using a fixer but ultimately the main reason for using Mazar when heading north is that it is common for the passenger ferry to leave before the vehicle barge is ready for the cars to be loaded, so you need someone you can trust to drive the car on for you. (Oh, and when we finally found the ferry ticket office in town, they wouldn’t sell us a ticket and asked where Mazar was). We were glad we could lock up the canopy separately when handing over the car key. I would suggest to anyone to email Mazar (phone: +249122380740/+249911075226, email: mansharti@yahoo.com) in advance and book everything you need and then just turn up in Wadi on the Tuesday night before the ferry.

Brett: Eventually they day to board the infamous ferry arrived. We were really lucky - with the recent holiday there were only about 200 passengers instead of the normal 600+. There was also very little cargo cluttering up the passageways and decks, normally one of the hazards of the ferry. The main deck was fairly empty when we boarded and we found a good spot near captain’s door, mostly out of the wind and sun. There was plenty of space to walk around and as the ferry got ready to leave everybody came out onto the main deck to watch the tiny port disappear into the distance. It was a happy mix of locals and tourists, all posing for photos with each other on their mobile phones. We watched the sunset and read our books, and gradually people started drifting off back to their cabins. At about 7pm we passed Abu Simbel. It looked a lot more developed than when we were there last but the lights were really pretty and we could see some of the big statues. We went downstairs for a really good dinner of crumbed chicken, boiled eggs, cheese, bread and a some kind of garlicky hummus dip. We were reasonably comfortable in the night thanks to our sleeping bags and pillows, but it would have been freezing if we hadn’t come prepared. We stuffed our bags down into the bottom of our sleeping bags to deter any would-be thieves and woke up with the sunrise - soon after we came into the Aswan dock. Our passports had been stamped in the previous night on the boat, but we had not been given them back like everybody else (we suspect they hadn’t seen a Wadi Halfa-issued visa before and needed to check it was legit). It took about 2 hours from docking to leaving the boat and then another 40 minutes before they opened the gate to the Arrivals “Hole”. The delay caused a mini riot with the locals and there was much pushing & shoving, so we stood back and let them get on with it until Kamal, our fixer, arrived and whisked us through.

Mary: Kamal the fixer (phone: +20121393492) is also a taxi driver in the classic Egyptian mould, so the journey from the port into town was a little hair-raising. He looked totally spaced out, rubbing his head slowly and thoughtfully while driving and closing his eyes for short spells and rifling through some papers on the dashboard every few minutes (although he never seemed to find what he was looking for). He took us to the Paradise Hotel ($20), which was nicely located overlooking the souk, but was fairly dark and dingy. Their advertised free wifi didn’t work and one of the boilers broke and flooded the lift, so we moved onto the Hathor Hotel ($18) on the Corniche, which had been recommended by the Turkeys. Hathor is popular with overlanders, so a good place to meet people – they have wi-fi, a pool on the roof (empty in winter, unfortunately) and brilliant views over the Nile. Our room overlooked the main street, which was fairly noisy, but we got a good view of the various local weddings held at the hotel opposite, as well as the pre-election protests going past on the Corniche.

We had a lot of time in Aswan - each day we called Kamal and he would tell us of another delay caused by the barge engine breaking down, or similar, which would add an extra day to our wait. In the end we had to wait in Aswan 8 days, which felt really long, but we have heard of many people being delayed much longer than that, so I guess we were lucky. Most people fill the time going on tours to Abu Simbel, but we had done that on our previous trip and didn’t fancy the 3 hour death-bus ride each way. We met the lovely Dee & James, waiting for the ferry heading south, so we spent our time with them & the Richards, loafing around at various restaurants, walking round town, and visiting a couple of the local sights. We did a self guided tour of the Unfinished Obelisk and on the way back wandered through the local cemetery by mistake. We took a felucca to Elephantine Island (the ferry charges a very reasonable 1EP for locals and a crazy 5EP for foreigners, so it ended up cheaper renting a whole felucca for ourselves rather than going  on the public ferry). While wandering round the Nubian village on the island, we were accosted by one of the school teachers who invited us in for a tour and some tea. The teacher was studying for his PhD so was in heaven meeting Dee, who has just finished hers in a similar topic, and the two of them chatted about various authors & important research paper. We found another tiny & fairly unstable felucca steered by Captain Ali and bobbed over to Kitchener Island to explore the Botanical Gardens. Ali was a lovely guy with crazy teeth, but his boat was not really big enough for 6 people – the rim of the boat was only about 10cm above the water and we took in some water crossing through the wake of the bigger boats, which all of us except Dee found quite funny...

Brett: We spent some time in the souk, competing to see who could negotiate the lowest prices for the same items, which was invariably Richard II by a mile (both on the prices he paid and the sheer volume of tat bought). Once we knew roughly what the going rates were (still higher for tourists than locals), the haggling becomes easy – in general the first price offered is about 3 or 4x what you should pay. Aswan has plenty of good food and I think we tried most of what was on offer – we can highly recommend pretty much everything at Farahat, the amazing roast chicken at El Mistry (easily enough to feed 2 people for $7), the burgers at the Isis Hotel, the rotisserie chickens at Dar es Salaam and of course, the ice-creams at McDonalds.

Tourism has dropped a lot in Egypt – on the positive side you can actually see the sights without having hundreds of tourists pressing up against you, but in Aswan there were probably 20 felucca captains for every 1 tourist, and it gets tiring to be continually hounded to go on felucca rides. You do get a lot of hassle and conversations become really predictable…

Felucca captains: “Felucca, motorboat, felucca?” “no thanks” “Good price!” “no thanks” “one hour! you want felucca, motorboat?”

Horse carriage drivers: “Egyptian ferrari! you want ride?” “no thanks”…(slows down and drives right alongside you, or stops in your path) “Come on, good price!”

Taxi drivers: “Taxi?” “no thanks” “why not? – good price” “I’m enjoying just walking thanks” “aah come on man you’re breaking my heart!”

Tat sellers: “welcome to Alaska! where are you from?” “South Africa” “Aah, Nelson Mandela, Bafana Bafana” “yep” (standing right in your path) “Come in my store, no money no funny no honey! No hassle, man.”

Unfortunately, the best approach seems to be to ignore them completely, which feels really rude, but once you start a conversation there is an assumption that they will make a sale. 

Brett: Finally, Kamal called us to say that we could collect the cars. He collected us at 8:30am and took us to the port, where we waited til 12:00 because the barge had actually not arrived yet. It was a Thursday, and we were really worried we would not be able to get all the admin done before the end of the day (especially as the police and customs offices close at 2pm) as the port is closed on Fridays & Sundays, Saturday was another public holiday, and Monday was the election so everything would have been closed up til the following Tuesday). Fortunately, Kamal had done some of the admin the day before to speed things up, but it was still a huge rush once the barge pulled up (billowing black smoke from the engine problems) to get through all the bureaucracy. Customs was first, where we were all rushing, but the Customs official took his time to savour the date rolls we gave him… he could hardly read and got very annoyed when I asked why he was completing both the entry and exit sections of the Carnet (and he confirmed that he had been responsible for a large portion of the misery for most overlanders for the last 17 years  - although those weren’t his exact words). Then, an “engineer” was sent to scratch a copy of the VIN numbers from the cars and Kamal rushed off to the police station to collect the licence plates and drivers licences just in time. At 14:00, just in time, Kamal bribed the customs guys $10 to forget to inspect our vehicles and we were on our way. (We aren’t really counting this as a bribe in our stats, because it wasn’t under our control). In total, it had taken 10 days to cross a border – and we were very lucky it didn’t 5 days extra. We didn’t trust Kamal at first but he proved to be very effective at getting things done, and he really earned his $35 fee.

Finally done, we grabbed a last rotisserie chicken for dinner and headed for Adam’s Camp just outside Aswan ($7) where we discovered we had left our pillows at Hathor Hotel. This gave us a chance to say our goodbyes to Dee & James over a last McDonalds strawberry sundae (Mary) & McFlurry (me) then next day before we headed to Luxor.

Notes for Overlanders:

The ferry delays have their up-side – we met several overlanders in Wadi Halfa and Aswan:

Getting the Beast into Egypt: Total Cost: $556

  • Barge Ticket for Car + driver (<6m): $324
  • Ferry Ticket 1 additional passenger (Deck): $28
  • Wadi Port Tax: $9
  • Mazar (Wadi Halfa fixer): $30
  • Egypt Customs: $88
  • Entry to Aswan port: $2
  • Egyptian number plates and drivers licence: $25
  • Egypt Insurance: $15
  • Kamal (Aswan fixer): $35

Carnet: the deposit for the Carnet is always much more if Egypt is included as one of the countries – you will also probably not get the deposit back if you have an accident here (whereas you will in other countries). You also need Egyptian plates and licence. 3rd party insurance from COMESA can include Egypt, but they don’t accept it and require you to buy local insurance instead.

Going North seems to be cheaper than going South, as we didn’t have to buy the ridiculously expensive fire extinguishers (Dee & James had to pay almost $150 each for 2 of these as they had none, but you will still have to buy at least one even if you already have several in your vehicle). Compared to a few people coming South, our insurance also seemed to be quite a bit cheaper…

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