06 Egypt

EGYPT (AL-MIŞR) December 1998

We would have preferred to drive (rather than ship) from Jordan to Egypt. (via Israel). However, with an Israeli (or even an Egyptian or Jordanian border post) stamp in the passport many Arab countries, like Syria, will not give you a visa. We reluctantly paid the $150 per vehicle plus $19 pp for the late afternoon ferry from Aqaba. The boat was crammed full of Egyptian workers returning from Kuwait and Iraq for Ramadan. They looked totally exhausted and lay sleeping on the chairs and on the decks. A Syrian teacher who was making a living by trucking apples to Egypt, and oranges back to Syria gave us a seat. We started chatting with a British couple resident in Egypt. “I also have a vehicle on board,” said he “my wife’s Porsche.” When we docked in Nuweiba, it turned out to be true! Side by side Dipli and the Porsche went through the customs procedures.. While Jan and the Brit were running from office to office until midnight, Leoné and the lady with the Porsche were sipping Earl Grey tea in the camper.

The import procedure was very complicated as it involved Insurance, Registration & Licence in Egypt complete with Arabic numberplates! As there are restrictions on the import of Caravans, Diesel & 4WD vehicles; all of which applied to Dipli, more special permissions had to be obtained. Fortunately, to help stimulate tourism, a recently introduced assistance-from-the-Tourist Police program speeded it up to only 3 hours instead of the 6 to 8 hrs it had taken previously (& reduced cost to US$60 vs. US$400).

The next morning we experienced the sand desert of Sinai and went for a warm swim in the Red Sea. From the lighthouse at Sharm El Sheikh resort we did our first snorkelling, but the best snorkelling was at the Southern most point of Sinai Peninsula at the Ras Mohammed National Park. (where the rangers drive Land Rovers). We were glad to learn of this conservation effort, which started in 1983 after Israel had withdrawn from Sinai. The haphazard development and multiplying of hotels and diving resorts elsewhere, was almost frightening.

We drove to Cairo through the tunnel under the Suez Canal. Cairo’s traffic was a nightmare; (but not as bad as Yemen’s). The estimated population is about 20 million. We had to drive right through the city twice, when we went to collect the spares which the Cottons, otherwise known as “World Wide Spares!”, had once again kindly sent. It required 3 hours and $75 to extract the freight pre-paid parcel! We easily obtained Syria and Lebanon visas, but had to insist that we be given the number of entries and the validity we had asked for (requiring corrections & delays). The Pyramids and Sphinx were near our out of town campsite.

In between being stuck and lost in the traffic we saw a papyrus museum, a modern public library and the fabulous Egyptian museum. At Salma Camping we met two Land Rovers with 4 SA vets who had driven from UK. They were really battling to get a ship to Djibouti so that they could drive home from there.

Egypt: Giza

Escorted by heavily armed police

The tourist industry has not recovered since the attack on tourists more than a year ago. There was a very strong police presence everywhere in Egypt, especially at the tourist sights. In many of the temples the machine guns were disguised under Arab robes. We left Cairo for Sakkara, where the oldest pyramid (a stepped one) was built. That night we chose a peaceful overnight camping spot between an obscure pyramid and a cemetery. At 10 pm the tourist police came and insisted on escorting us to a “safe” place. We followed their black pick-up with no rear lights for 27km to the bustling town of Al Faiyum. They deposited us right in the centre of town between a fun fare and a disco.

We left our own armed guards either side of Dilpi and went for a walk. In the market we saw them making threads thinner than vermicelli, which are sold in large bundles and which eventually are wound up and soaked in syrup to become a typical Egyptian sweet. The busiest and most attractive stall was the one pickling vegetables in large jars. The whole night we were surrounded by hooters and sirens and could hear trains and donkeys and mule carts going by. Once the din had subsided a bit in the wee hours of the morning, we were awakened by the voluminous meowing of a kitten, which was crawling around between the engine and the chassis. A duet resulted when the sibling came by! We travelled South along the Nile-route. The bright green of the fields under the palm trees between the Nile and the canals was amazing. Leoné could stare at the boxes of bright red tomatoes on horse carts and the fellahin (peasants) riding on donkeys; Jan had to dodge them. Once he had to take particularly quick evasive action, not to hit a bicycle, which had swerved in front of us, because it was passing a donkey, which was overtaking a camel. (The latter completely covered under a large stack of sugar cane). The green valley was in such contrast to the stark desert where the irrigated fertile soil ends on either side of the Nile.

We had friendly police escorts all the way to Aswan (900km). One night at the temple of Abydos we were instructed to park on the narrow area right in front of the police station. The two guards on night duty and their automatic rifles were within touching distance from the Camper. One day we had about 10 different escorts. Each one radioed ahead and a vehicle would be waiting to accompany us along the next stretch. It seemed as if they took the role of protecting tourists against possible Muslim Fundamentalist attacks very seriously, although we thought the likelihood of an individual vehicle being attacked to be very small.

Luxor was a feast of temples and tombs, which really brought the technical abilities of 4000 years ago home to one. On the way to Aswan we looked at temples at Esna and Edfu, which were Roman copies of the ancient Egyptian style; only 2000 years old and thus in a better state of preservation!

At Aswan we went by felucca (local sailing boat) to the temple of Philae which had been moved to an island out of reach of the waters of the rising Aswan Dam. The road to the Temples of Abu Simbel near the Sudan border, 280km South, was closed to foreigners.

We had to go by plane over lake Nasser to admire the ancient architecture and massive sculptures in the mountain side; as well as the modern feat of having moved and reconstructed the temples in two man made concrete mountains (the latter only visible from within; by a separate entrance).

The sunsets over the Nile at Aswan were beautiful.

We had good local Stella beers and a meal on a floating restaurant on Christmas Eve. The next day Jan was down with “Pharaoh’s Revenge”. Then Dipli played up with no brakes. It was two days of taking booster out and changing master cylinders from right to left. When Leoné was not pumping the brakes she was instructing the Arab camp attendant on how to clean the bathrooms, pick up the ‘kitchera’ (litter) and trim the weeds. In the evenings we had such lovely company: A German couple on motor bikes, two Swiss motorbikers on Honeymoon, Germans in a little red Citroen 2CV (made so that they could sleep inside). A Mercedes camper with a man and a dog. They were all trying to get to Sudan by ferry across Lake Nasser, to drive to South Africa. When we left Aswan we were sent back from a roadblock 12km out of town because there was no escort available. Police HQ told us that we would have to take the convoy the next morning. The next morning we really felt like “sitting ducks” in the large convoy to the Temple of Kom Ombu. We were fed up with convoys and decided to leave the Nile valley and head through the desert Eastwards to the Red Sea Coast. The scenery was attractive with valleys of golden low shrubs on grey sand between black and brown mountains.

We reached the sea at Marsa Alam, and found a lovely parking spot on the beach, to spend New Year’s eve, next to the turquoise sea. We made paella with some shrimps from Dubai. A seldom used table cloth and a candle, bent by the heat of Africa, created quite a festive atmosphere. All along the Red Sea Coast up to Suez there is tourist development, with most around the diving Mecca of Hurghada. The desert coast is flat and unattractive; when one is not under water the only option seems to be a camel Safari.

Under the Suez canal again, to Sinai. We had a few beautiful camps in desert wadis during full moon. Even in the most remote desert spots we could never get away from the ever present clinging Flies of Arabia. Fortunately here it was very dry, so that at sunset, when the Flies retired, it was not just a change of shift to the Mosquito squad, as in Aswan! The high mountains of Mt Sinai, around the 6th Century St.Catherine’s Monastery were most impressive.

We reached Nuweiba to take the return ferry from Egypt back to Aqaba, Jordan. From this side it cost $21 more than the other way. Jan found the mass of Arabic paper work daunting and called for the help of the Tourist Police. The same one who helped us on arrival, helped again to reverse all the documentation created to import Dipli temporarily into Egypt. Another Tourist Policeman presented Jan with a copy of the previous day’s Al Ahram Newspaper, containing a photo of the 3 of us in front of the Jumeira mosque in Dubai and an article in Arabic.

We calculated that we had done 3850km in Egypt and 20 000km since we had left home 4 months before.

The departure time of the ferry was unknown. We hung around the whole day. There were many buses and lots of locals waiting. Just before sunset we noticed little groups putting down newspapers and blankets. They spread out food and then all sat back and waited. Some were even cooking tea and warming flat bread on gas cookers. Next to Dipli two men unpacked meatballs, salad, fruit, dates, cheese, flat bread, and bottled water. They folded their arms and stared at the fare. It was Ramadan and they had fasted all day. When the muezzin called just after sunset, the feasting commenced. We moved our car next to the ferry to wait our turn to be loaded. We sat and watched for three hours while 40 buses were being loaded by reversing into the ship. The passengers walked on board. They were pilgrims on their way to Mecca, about 20 driving hours and two borders away. There were families with tiny babies. Some folks seemed so old they could hardly walk (They most probably had been saving their entire lives to be able to undertake this pilgrimage) All the men wore gallabyas (dresses) and all the women head scarves. We were almost last on board. Most were sitting or lying on the floor sleeping. We were shown to a small room where men were chatting. Space was made for us and Egyptian sweets shared. By midnight some had fallen asleep on the table or on two chairs. A few sat reading the Koran the entire journey. We tried to snatch a nap. Just when we thought all was becoming quiet; one would jump up, grab a towel, exit and return through the creaking door. He would toss a rug on the floor and do his thing, vaguely in the direction of Mecca.

We landed in Aqaba at 3 in the morning and at 4 o’clock were inspecting the road works to try and find the entrance to the camp site where we had slept before; we were still at this when the Police Landrover showed up again to assist in finding our way through the maze of trenches and earth mounds, and to remind us that camping is only allowed in the official site!

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