‘Hundreds of miles of land border and we have to cross over this f*cking lake’, was the recurring obsessive thought I had for the 24 hours it took to get from Sudan into Egypt. Wadi Halfa, the world’s most inconvenient and needless ferry, has gained infamy amongst overland travellers in Africa and is a rite of passage for those travelling from Cape Town to Cairo. Taking anywhere between 18 and 48 hours, the ferry crosses Lake Nasser from Wadi Halfa in northern Sudan to Aswan in Egypt, and is the only available border crossing for non-commercial travel between the two countries. Quite why this is the case, I’m still not sure, despite neurotic internet research and questioning of fellow travellers. The most information that I can gather is that mutual distrust and apathy between the two countries has allowed the situation to continue. Clearly the ferry company is also happy for this to continue. It riles me just thinking about it.
Like jazz musicians giving their take on a classic standard, travellers across the blogosphere have written blow-by-blow accounts of this journey as badges of dubious honour and guides for those next taking the trip. This is my Wadi Halfa experience.
[Note: like many jazz covers, timings are approximate]
Woken by high pitched barking which was merging with my dreams. We had been sleeping in the open air in a desert a few kilometres outside of Wadi Halfa. I looked up in the moonlight to see two desert foxes scamper across the horizon to hide in some rocks. Dozed for the next hour or so and wake when an amber glow spills across the sky.
6.30 – 8.30
Put away camping gear, finished packing backpacks, ate breakfast, left desert and drove into town.
Arrived in Wadi Halfa – probably the archetypal border town full of travellers, traders, hustlers and hassle on the edge of the desert. In fact you could call this a border hassle black hole, whereby all the hassle gravitates into this one specific point across both space – as hundreds of miles of border is concentrated into one ferry port – and time – as the crossing only takes place once a week. To me it most resembles the town in Star Wars Episode IV ‘A New Hope’, where Han shoots Greedo (apologies if that means nothing to you – check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greedo if you really want to geek out).
9.30 – 12.00
Waited on a call from our local fixer, Mazar – so much is dependent on him. He sorts the paperwork with the authorities, changes currency, navigates the opaque administrative system, and carries out other esoteric activities of which I only have limited knowledge.
The town gradually filled up with people and trucks as the morning progressed.
Picked up lunch in a local café and ate some truly exceptional aubergine curry. Bought around 50 pieces of falafel for take-away in case food of delays on ferry.
Searched town for toilet to use with limited success. Women paid to use toilet in nearby hotel. Grim. Men used nearby building site. Also grim. Some of the men had stomach upsets.
12.00 – 13.00
Received the go-ahead from Mazar to board ferry. Drove a few kilometres to docks. After waiting in traffic, collected our ferry tickets and backpacks and made way to terminal.
13.00 – 14.30
Inside of ferry terminal is a horrific airport check-in.
Departure forms completed and passports stamped after much hustle, pushing and queuing. A jolly and rotund member of the Sudanese passport authority seemed very keen on acquiring a Western wife.
The female members of our group were filtered off into a Kafkaesque customs office, while the men were ushered through security.
Once out into the blinding sunlight on the other side of the terminal we were squeezed onto a minibus which took us a few hundred metres to the ferry itself. Extremely hot.
Another scrum to get onto the ferry. Fifty degree heat didn’t help, and surprised to find my passport taken from me as I boarded. Later found out that this is standard practice.
14.45 – 16.00
Milled about on the searing hot deck and tried to stake out an area where we could sleep for the evening. Some of the more enterprising people in our group appropriated an area of deck and set up shade under a tarpaulin sheet. Deck was quiet but passengers were boarding rapidly. Have I mentioned how hot it was?
Female members of our party finally arrived. Lorna and I found the sole cabin reserved for our group to store our bags. Solitary confinement-small, two bunk beds, enormous wasps, no locks, rumours of rats, but with the all-important air-con. Luxury.
Received news that the barge for our truck (vehicles are transported separately) was late due to delays leaving Aswan. Our driver, Malcolm, had to stay in Wadi Halfa to load it onto the barge and possibly wait for the next passenger ferry in a week’s time. Not envious of his predicament.
Lorna and I worked out that we can sit in the ‘first-class’ restaurant without having first-class tickets, most probably because we are white Westerners. Clean, but very basic, we sat, drank Sprite and enjoyed the air-con.
At around 17.15 we noticed that we left port 30 minutes ago without realising.
Used meal ticket to order dinner. Fried chicken, rice, bread and various bits of vegetables. Edible enough, but no aubergine curry. Not by a mile.
Had a quick look around deck to check on possible sleeping arrangements. Over 200 people now crammed in and occupying every nook and cranny. Difficult to push past bodies, bags and boxes in gangways. Repeatedly stopped by smiling Sudanese guys shaking my hand and saying ‘Welcome’. Very kind, but massively inconvenient.
Passed the ancient Egyptian temple of Abu Simbel at dusk. I would gush over its majestic beauty, but it was difficult to make out as the light was poor.
Decided that it might be a good time to make a claim to a sleeping area on deck. Went down to cabin to collect sleeping bag and Lorna, who was hiding from the heat and the sweaty masses of people. Fought our way through the throng to reach deck again. Timing unfortunate – evening prayers started and half the deck was bowed down in worship. Impossible to pass through to area where the rest of our group kept spaces for us. Hard to see way through as very dark on deck. Stood on various body parts. Tried to walk round front of bridge, but shouted at by captain. Tried various routes through the labyrinth under deck without success. Nowhere else to sleep and prayers still continued. In-depth session quite possibly due to Ramadan. Tried not to panic. Eventually cut through bridge and ignored captain’s complaints.
20.30 – 07.30
Bedded down on deck. Took a couple of heavy-duty antihistamine sleeping pills and fell asleep quickly. Slept deeply, but vaguely aware of call to prayer in the middle of the night on deck.
Woke in the bright sunlight surprised at how well and long I had slept. Lorna and almost everyone else on deck awake. Ate about twenty pieces of
falafel for breakfast. Congratulated myself on having foresight to buy so many. Almost as good as the aubergine curry.
Discovered around fifty bites all over my legs from sand flies.
8.00 – 8.10
Toilets now overflowing with fresh sewage. The water swills around the floor with each heave of the ferry. Repulsive.
8.10 – 10.30
Sat and read in first-class restaurant and enjoyed the air-con. Spoke to a guy from London with a hipster moustache about his motorcycle trip from Cape Town to Camden Town. Felt like a bit of a lightweight traveller in comparison.
Collected stamped passports from a guy with a massive pile of them in one of the cabins. Amazed and delighted to see passport again.
(Apparently nobody can leave the ferry until everybody has picked up their passport. On a previous crossing someone fell off the boat and the authorities did not let anyone leave until they recovered his body. I was briefly worried when they made repeated calls over the tannoy for someone called Abdul.)
Arrived in Aswan – and in good time by all accounts. Brief scrum to get off ferry, but relatively straight-forward. Passed through airport-style security and customs to find an air-conditioned coach waiting for us. Untold lavishness.
Welcome to Egypt – now, I wonder how things panned out with that military coup..?