Day 59 to Day 64 - July 25th – 30th

We got to the customs house around noon on the way to the ferryboat at Wadi Halfa. It was an intense body jam with sweating frenzied people carrying huge bags, pushing far harder than we’re accustomed to even when traveling with German tourists! After clearing customs, we elbowed our way onto the minibus. Every now and then someone would play the “woman card” and people would back off just slightly to let a poor woman get a seat. Boarding the ferry was more of the same. We were elated upon finally departing the Wadi Halfa port. . .

. . .supposedly, next year there will be a road connection between Egypt and Sudan which will make trade easier between the two countries, but I expect it will increase the number of refugees into Egypt. With unemployment as high as it is now, it doesn’t seem attractive to have a better connection to the Sudan than the pathetic one currently in place between Wadi Halfa and Aswan.

As I mentioned before, we originally had two first class cabins reserved for Saturday, but we somehow ended up with one first-class cabin on Wednesday. People rushed onto the ferry and took their favorite spots in the shade of the lifeboats (outside of the railings and allowed areas) and under various blanketed shade contrivances and finally in the large room on the first deck – tightly enclosed with windows that don’t open. This room should have been nicknamed Calcutta based on its odors, stale air and heat. We put all of our bags in our one first-class cabin, and the four of us stretched out there. Later, we gave the ferry’s first mate a “Benjamin” ($100) and were able to spread out in the captain’s cabin, which had a bunk for Roger and the floor for Vincent with a semi-private bathroom that wasn’t awash with various questionable fluids.

At Aswan, we were relieved to see that the barge with our motorcycles had arrived (in the distant background).

The bags you see on the dock are chemicals used for drilling mud. We ran into a Shell engineer and his girlfriend, and he told us he had been drilling out in the Sahara Desert and was now off to another Shell job in West Africa. Fleets of large excursion boats used to carry people up and down the Nile were tied up all along the shore, perhaps 700 of them!

Once we arrived, we discovered that the crew had processed the foreign passports during the previous night, but they had inserted the incorrect date and needed to redo all of them. At the customs building there was more pushing and shoving; I was carrying two bags and a water bottle and had serious problems holding onto to all of it—it was a pickpocket’s Shangri-La. We learned at immigration and customs that the British bureaucratic process is still alive and well here– there were lots of people endlessly asking for passports, stamping papers, and asking questions.

On Thursday, we were only halfway through customs; we got the bikes cleared through immigration and got them off the barge, but our fixer was unable to accomplish anything further. Friday was a holy day of Ramadan and a day off, so we had to wait until Saturday to get things done.

We spent Friday lounging around the fancy hotel, feeling sorry for ourselves for not having been on our bikes for almost a week.

This particular hotel chain had only 6% occupancy and was experiencing a disastrous economic time, with tourism down due to the Arab spring, the meltdown of the Euro, the hottest summer in 30 years, and the crash of the Egyptian real estate market—all of which was occurring during the month of Ramadan when no one travels (except us!). Food markets were still open. . .

. . .but little else was.

The hotel had a remarkable view of the Nile:

Saturday, following more bureaucratic entanglements and lots of crossing hands with baksheesh, we were finally liberated around 3:00 p.m. The fixer recognized that we were a one-shot opportunity and he milked it for all it was worth. He knew how anxious we were to retrieve and bikes and get out of there.

We returned to our hotel, packed hastily, and took a very direct route to Luxor on a new road through the desert that was not even marked on our newly revised maps. We had fancy lodgings at the Sheraton in Luxor. We got up early the next morning for a tour of the west bank of the Nile (the City of the Dead). In the Valley of the Kings, we began to see significant a number of tourists for the first time. Note the lack of head covers on the women – it is very relaxed compared to the Sudan.

We toured three tombs, which were absolutely remarkable, but the tour service could have been better. Although he looked like a Bolshevik, our guide was extremely smart, very knowledgeable and educated to the masters degree level on Egyptian antiquities.

But the guides were not allowed in the tombs with us. Instead the guards led us through them and tried to pawn themselves off as English-speaking with a great understanding of the tombs. Of course, they became much more articulate when it came time to ask for their baksheesh. I would expect the Egyptian tourism authority to have a higher-end means of guiding tourists through the tombs, like using iphones or something electronic to provide greater detail in a selection of languages.

Across the river, we toured the Temple of Karnak at Luxor, the largest temple in the world. This model shows only a part of it:

The temple is dedicated to the King of King’s (the invisible God), in contrast to the Giza Pyramid, which celebrates the Sun God. There is a remarkable collection of artifacts in the process of being assembled for public viewing, a painstaking curatorial process which itself will probably continue for another century.

The scale of the temple that is now visible is hard to believe, and they are still in the process of clearing out houses and uncovering more of it.

This row of 1,350 sphinxes extended for nearly 3 km, linking the large Karnak temple with the smaller Luxor temple.

We took the absolute shortest tour possible, which offended the guide somewhat, but we had to get to Hurghada along the Red Sea by evening. The Valley of the Kings, Karnak, and Luxor probably require 3 days to tour properly; a very knowledgeable guide and lots of advance reading are also essential. It’s not the sort of trip that would be suitable for young children and definitely shouldn’t be done during the summer (or during Ramadan).

Egypt relies heavily on tourism. We could feel how desperate the vendors are, always begging for you to buy a map or a glass of Coke. As the economy has declined, the service levels have also declined to some degree. Morning buffets are sparse.

We booked a sailboat ride in Felucca on the Nile. The sailboat owner arrived two hours late, and of course we had to negotiate the price both before and after our sail.

Egypt has a complicated economy with a great deal of infrastructure. Tourism is its second largest revenue source; the Suez Canal is its first revenue source, apparently. With all that’s happening here economically and politically, the new government has its hands full!

We headed to Hurghada on the Red Sea on a road that again was not on our map. Hurghada is a big tourist spot, teeming with Russians who tended to be enormous in size. Most of the lodging in town includes free meals to attract the gourmands rather than the gourmets, i.e., people more interested in quantity than in quality. Body shape seemed to have nothing to do with their chosen dress. . .

. . .corpulent women in scant bikinis and men with tremendously pendulous bellies in Speedo bathing suits.

The Red Sea is remarkably clear, bordered by deserts, with no river estuaries emptying into it to muddy the waters.

The area is significantly cheaper to visit than the South of France and probably the Spanish coast. Its affordability seems to be attracting a lot of the tourist traffic.

We rented a boat for a snorkeling outing and found some fantastic reefs with gorgeous coral. I was so sorry not to have an underwater camera with me. We were disappointed to see that boats were using anchors rather than mooring balls at reef sites; evidence of coral damage was visible in many places.

Hurghada is a large city that has been drastically overbuilt; perhaps one in five buildings has been left unfinished.

We abandoned the notion of going through the Sahara Desert from Luxor for several reasons: there is a gas shortage (contrived or not), and we thought we might have more trouble obtaining gas in the desert; the desert route is about 600 miles longer; and the temperature is unusually hot—we could expect to encounter temperatures around 120˚F. The Red Sea route along coast is glitzy and certainly likely to be more comfortable, but we’ll miss the desert’s beautiful white sand dunes, which would have provided a nice photo op.

A revised plan includes driving approximately 200 km tomorrow and the following day, rising early and heading directly to Cairo, where we will dump the gear we will carry home with us. The next morning we will ride the bikes to Alexandria, load them onto a container, and return to our hotel in Cairo to catch a plane early the next morning.

We’re all very aware of the incredibly aggressive Egyptian drivers; we’ve had several cases of cabs coming within an inch of us (sometimes on both sides). In the days ahead, we need to be particularly careful.

I’m trying to collect my thoughts on a summary of the African experience, contrasting it to the Silk Road and the Prudhoe Bay to Ushuaia, Argentina trips.

Wadi Halfa, Sudan to Hurghada, Egypt
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