Trying new routes into and out of Egypt

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Egypt >> 18 – 29 Sep >> 1,697 km

We’re neither pioneering voyagers nor daredevil globetrotters but perhaps you could describe us as cautiously adventurous wanderers. We enjoy experimenting a little, whether it’s being part of one of the first crossings of Myanmar in recent times, or the first to cross from Turkana into Ethiopia after border crossing problems for other overlanders, exploring routes that are not recorded anywhere in Mongolia, and generally going off the beaten track. We even find a certain satisfaction in finding a unique spot for the night, like in a castle overlooking the sea in Montenegro.

From Sudan to Egypt this is no exception, though it’s only taking a new, not particularly adventurous route. In the old days the crossing between the two countries was one of the typical overlander trials that brought travellers together, each with a tale to tell and involved a ferry trip from Wadi Halfa in Sudan across Lake Nasser to Aswan in Egypt, while your vehicle followed on a separate boat, arriving sometimes a week later. You can still take a ferry, these days with your car, but just a short hop across to Abu Simbel.

We decided to cross slightly differently and followed an idea posted by a motorbiker on one of our preferred forums. We still took a 3-minute ferry ride across the Nile, but a tiny one that fitted 4 cars and a few people and I wondered it didn’t sink with the weight of us all. Then after the night in Soleb we found a brand new, smoothly tarred, un-potholed, little driven road straight to the border post at Argeen. A huge entrance way greeted us, several two-storey blocks, shaded by towering, metal canopies. But there’s not much going on, no hustle and bustle of a normal border, just about 20 people lounging around, no officers in uniform no queues of people, no hum of activity. We wonder whether it’s actually open for business today. After a little investigation we learn the electricity is off and they have no diesel to power their generators! Would 150 litres siphoned out of Bruce’s tanks help?! Expected opening time 2pm. It’s only 10am. A moneychanger befriends us and we chat with him for a while, otherwise it’s frustrated thumb-twiddling. Sure enough at 2.10pm the power comes back on. How did they know it would be like that?! We spend the next 6 hours exiting Sudan and entering Egypt, being issued with permits by a credit card-like machine (at a border station that suffers from a lack of electricity!), processed in a bedroom-cum-office, looking like teenager’s experiment meets spy station, by a man in jogging bottoms and flip-flops to handing out bits of cash for services we don’t particularly want, insurance we don’t need, ‘fixers’ who organise the process for you (or not in our case) and get all the paperwork done, lounging around waiting for our turn, answering Yes to most questions, questioning why an extra sheet was removed from our Carnet des Passages (car passport) and getting number plates made and affixed. One of those pieces of information is important later! After a long day, we’re into our final non-European country. The thought makes our hearts sink a little.

Abu Simbel is one of the few sites we didn’t visit on a holiday in Egypt 10 years ago and it’s as impressive as the photos or Indiana Jones film make it look. It is generally considered the grandest and most beautiful of the temples commissioned during the reign of Rameses II (ca. 1264 BC), and one of the most stunning in Egypt. Heightening its magnificence is the fact that the complex now stands 65 meters higher and 200 meters further back from the river and its original location. For four years from 1964, in one of the greatest challenges of archaeological engineering in history,1 a multinational team of archaeologists, engineers and skilled heavy equipment operators working together under the UNESCO banner, on a project costing some USD $40 million at the time (equal to $300 million in 2017 dollars), carefully cut the temples into large blocks (up to 30 tons, averaging 20 tons), dismantled, lifted and reassembled them in their new location. (Info from Wikipedia).

But our appetite for sight-seeing has otherwise waned considerably. We are nervous about the shipping procedures, we’re behind on our blog and outside it remains desert-hot. Visiting historical temples we’ve already seen, in searing sunny temperatures is not as attractive as renting an apartment in Luxor for a couple of days and getting organised. We do manage smart drinks in the luxurious Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, appreciating the worlds of Churchill or Agatha Christie in the warm evening air in elegant, modernised Victorian surroundings.

As well as the excellent Nubian museum in Aswan and this temple here:

Then it’s the desert highway shortcut to our very last stop, Alexandria. Here we witness the modern colliding with the traditional, in the clothes, the food, the restaurants and the bureaucracy.

Leaving the county, as entering, we opt for a lesser-used procedure. The route is mundane, between Egypt and Greece, but the operator, Neptune Lines relatively new for overlanders. As we can’t travel on the ship with Bruce, and he’s not in a nicely-secured container, like sailing down to Cape Town from Iran, we want to make sure nothing is stolen or damaged on the crossing: horrific tales among the travelling community abound! Our old-school, and actually old, ‘fixer’ huffs and puffs us around the harbour and offices for 3 half days. The number of stops far exceeds those at the Kazakh border on the Caspian Sea and there is no way you could get through it all without him, paying the fees and the bribes under and over the table, every step of the way. We also invest in some thick steel chains and heavy-duty padlocks and Jens’ plan and estimates work an absolute dream in making everything secure and tamper-proof. We meet the modern, professional manager for Neptune Lines and sign the various papers and everything seems to be settled. We kiss Bruce goodbye in the harbour, hoping to be reunited in about a week. Imagine our utter shock and despair, when 3 hours later and just 5 hours before departure, we receive an email entitled, “TOP TOP URGENT”:

Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 09.43.38What?!?! Our fixer tells us he’s never had this before and presumes a bribe will help. We’ve already cottoned on that that won’t help and go about placating and convincing the Line through inventory lists, photos and signing waivers that Bruce is a trustworthy, legal ‘passenger.’ It’s an enormous relief to be accepted in the end and hear next morning that the M/V Okeanis is under steam with Bruce on board.

But that’s not even the end of the story. We’ve got a couple more short posts on our trip, coming soon, and now we are back in Europe, we have another little story to tell: having returned our Carnets to the ADAC (German Automobile Association) and expecting a prompt repayment of our not insubstantial deposit, we were recently informed that the customs officer at Argeen had indeed made a “grave mistake,” the cynical may even say extortion attempt. Until our Carnet expires in August 2018, we will not receive our deposit, nor can our Carnet be annulled, despite Bruce having been inspected by German customs officers: the nice Egyptian may well wish to declare that the car is now in his country and the ADAC would need to pay him the deposit after 6 months or so at the latest, considering our car “imported!” if we can not prove in return that the car is in fact not in Egypt – hope Bruce doesn’t get stolen in the meantime!


Bye Bye!