We knew we had crossed the border from Sudan to Egypt when the beautifully-lit temple of Abu Simbel turned up on the Western bank of the Nile. Together with the crowd of Sudanese and Egyptians on the ferry, we watched mesmerized as the temple came into view and the huge statues of Ramses II seemed to grow out of the rock. The original site of the temple was a few metres below us, covered by the rising level of Lake Nasser some 40 years ago. To rescue Abu Simbel – as well as some other temples – the UNESCO-led international operation had to build a dam around the temple, before they could start cutting up and removing the statues. They rebuilt the temple on higher ground, taking care to position it exactly as the old one was placed, to allow the morning sun to shine into the inner temple rooms as it did the x -thousand years before.
Shortly after Abu Simbel, the people on the upper deck started retiring. The last prayer was spoken – impressive sight of all these men kneeling in the same direction – the last games were finished, and we all tried to get some sleep before the sun would creep up to burn us again. We had removed our sun-sail to give us some view of the night sky and let the breeze cool us better. So we fell asleep under the stars, among a whole deck of snoring people spread out on blankets and sheets.
On Wednesday morning Jan and I woke up early enough to catch the sunrise over Lake Nasser, accompanied by a cup of hot mint tea. The port was not far away now, and we rejoiced when we reached it at 10am, thinking we could leave the ferry before the midday heat would hit us. Alas, it came different. A few people left the boat, and we also saw our Egyptian fixer Kamal waving at us from the quai. But after a couple of minutes the boat left again. We actually turned back the way we had come before. Nobody could explain to us why, but also nobody seemed too worry about it, so we figured we just had to be patient. After about half an hour, we stopped again and a boat with Egyptian custom officers came alongside. Turned out that they were stamping the passports of the Sudanese on the lake – no idea why, but that is how it went.
We finally were able to leave the boat at 12:30pm. These last 2,5 hours on the boat were really the worst – we all had anticipated we could leave soon once we reached the port, and the turning-around had affected our good humour that had lasted throughout the heat and the hectic of the day before.
Once we had left the boat, Kamal picked us up and we started the entry process on the other side. This lasted about 1.5 hours, and in retrospect we were kind of happy that the bikes had not arrived with us, because we would have never made it out of the port in daylight with all the paperwork needed for the vehicles. Happy to have our Visa stamps in the passports, we crammed ourselves in Kamal’s ancient Peugeot 504 and drove off to the town centre. After some search and hard negotiations of our Irish, we ended up in the Orchida Hotel in an air-conditioned room with a working shower, a Western toilet, clean water, and not to forget clean fridge, sheets and floors. The hotel had a tiny pool on the upper level terrace, from which one could see the Nile and the promenade. A member of staff brought us cool beer to the terrace, our very first after the alcohol-free time in Sudan. We sat there and marveled at all these luxuries, and it was hard to bring this experience in line with our last months of travel, especially the last weeks in Ethiopia and Sudan.
Aswan was a good place to wait for the barge from Wadi Halfa. We were happy that it was not the other way around, and we had to wait in Wadi Halfa (as some Overlanders we had met there had to). The Sudanese are great people, but there is just not that much to do and see in Wadi Halfa, and it is certainly not pretty. What a difference to Aswan. The souq stretches over several blocks, the streets covered with colourful striped fabrics to provide some shade, and a myriad of shops targeting locals and tourists alike. Thanks to the Aswan dam, the Nile is a beautiful dark blue colour, very different to the muddy brown on the Sudanese side. The “green belt” along the Nile is a lot more lush and broader, and the yellow sand dunes and sandy mountains majestically rise behind it. A proper promenade with walkways and some shady trees stretches along the river. We spent our days in Aswan strolling around, trying every dish we did not know or had not eaten for a long while, riding on a Felucca across the Nile and generally building up our energy levels after the strenuous time in Sudan. With the help of the friendly DHL guy Ahmed, we also sent a spare part to our friends Birgit and Rainer, who had taken the ferry a week earlier and had already arrived in Luxor. There they had unfortunately run into some trouble with one of their bikes’ water pumps. And as we had brought two spares with we could easily send them one.
The barge with the bikes arrived sooner then expected. On Saturday morning Kamal picked us and the Aussies up to drive to the port. We basically arrived when the barge pulled in the harbour, and craned our necks to see if our bikes and Troopy were truly on board and looking well. I think we were all a bit paranoid, but after several months on the road we feel very much connected to our vehicles, and were therefore hovering around as the proverbial hen around her chicks.
All was well though. The bikes had been crammed tightly between Troopy and another car, and as we had asked Mazar they had used the centre stand, not the side stands, to put them up. Mazar had told us to keep our keys, as he could shove the bikes on board – which we very happily did as it saved us the worries of what would happen if someone without any experience with big motorbikes tried to ride our bikes up a steep ramp. We rode them off the ferry in our very own typical style – Anne, who was a bit nervous, decided to follow the “speed stabilizes” route and basically jumped the bike up the ramp and off the boat, while Jan shoved it calmly up the ramp and down the other side. Good luck to us all that Troopy was so well equipped, as the Aussies had to help with their so-far unused tow-rope to get the other car of the ferry. The Sudanese guy to whom it belonged was very happy indeed.
Getting the bikes off was just the first step of a very long procedure to get them “official status” in Egypt. Kamal did all the work for us, but we had to run around with him, sometimes pay a receipt or a fee, and generally wait a lot. In between we had some unexpected (and unwished for) excitement, as we could witness a little shooting scene in front of a police station, when a police officer in civil clothing ran after and shot at a fugitive. We know the guy got hit, but don’t know how bad. We heard later that he was supposed to be involved in the arson attack on a police post two days before. We had seen the flames back then from the other side of the road – it was not easy to miss, right at the Nile promenade, and it looked like half the building had caught fire – and also the mess left behind the next day. A burned out car as well as two floor levels, and the rest of the building did not look too well.
From these two incidents, and from what we had heard on the news, it was clear to us that the police in Egypt was a major target for people who were, for various reasons, unhappy and militant. So we were of course not very thrilled when, after the little shootout, we had to go into the police station and wait there for what felt like two hours, to get some documents sorted. Nothing happened of course, apart from the commander in chief being very grumpy and screaming at Kamal and a lady, and us watching a clerk playing Solitaire on his PC. Gareth was standing next to the backdoor, which was locked, but as people continuously kept knocking he went and opened it. Which was apparently ok, as nobody complained, so he became something like the unofficial bouncer of the police station while we waited for things to get going. At some stage Kamal vanished, then turned up again and triumphantly waved some offical-looking papers. We went around the corner, entered the building through another door and there he sat, the magic man with his rows and rows of license plates. Each of us equipped with a pair, we went back to the port and attached them with the help of some cable ties. Et voila! We are done! 7 hours in total, but we were happy.
We spent two more nights in Aswan, this time not at the hotel but at Michele’s apartment, an Australian living in Aswan who had invited us over. Michele had originally come to Aswan to start her tourist agency, but as all people in Aswan she felt the lack of tourists since the 2011 revolution severely. Michele showed us around some places in town we would never have seen, and we witnessed two Nubian weddings in front of her house – no big novelty for her, as the photo studio down in her block is always full of weddings, but certainly a sight for us! The night before we left we were invited to drink a tea with her neighbour Abdullah, who was also working in tourism before the revolution and now runs a small corner shop. He did not complain about his situation, but it was obvious he had known better times economically, when he told us how he had had to sell off his fleet of vehicles for tourists one by one over the last years. During the whole evening, the kids from the weddings two houses further down came down to buy some snacks and drinks, but also to ogle at us and take some snapshots with us. We hope we could thus at least contribute a bit to his business by attracting customers – which is something we had already experienced in other countries before: put two Muzungus on the bus / in the cafe / in the shop, and other people will come in out of curiosity and a chance for entertainment.