Tuesday 4th to Saturday 8th December 2012.
Port Said, Ferry from Port Said to Iskenderun.
We had news a week or two back that we were no longer able to get a visa for Libya. Our lifeline, Jill Wilson from Libya Travel and Tours, told us that they discovered the contact that they had helping them organise business visas was taking money under the table. She said they weren’t willing to condone that so were in the process of organising someone else to help them. This would take a while and it may not be until the New Year that they can start helping travellers with business visas again. She also checked out the information about tourist visas we’d heard from the Libyan embassy in Khartoum. She said that although embassies abroad were often quite enthusiastic, the new Libyan tourism minister had not been in her post long and tourist visas probably wouldn’t be reinstated until mid-2013. The final nail in the coffin was that Jill had reports from several tourists that even with visas, they were not being allowed to leave Egypt into Libya by the land borders. She advised us to consider another route in order to get back to the UK by Christmas. Our advice to other travellers considering a drive through Libya would be to contact Jill. We found her very helpful, responsive and reliable. She also seems to be very up on the current situation and, as we all know, things can change pretty quickly in these parts.
We had two other options for getting back to Europe. One was the ferry from Haifa in Israel to Italy. The other was a roll-on-roll-off (‘ro ro’) ferry from Port Said to Iskenderun in Turkey. We weighed up the costs in terms of money and time and decided on the ro ro. We contacted Sisa Shipping in Turkey to organise our tickets and they said we’d now just need to go to their agent, UET Shipping, in Port Said to pay for the tickets and organise customs formalities. The boat was to leave on Thursday, so we would make our way straight to Port Said so we’d have two days to clear customs as we’d heard this can take time and patience!
The scenery was unremarkable on our drive to Port Said and the driving chaotic. It was a real struggle to get the address for UET Shipping from their manager, Ahmed. In the end we re-contacted Burak from Sisa Shipping in Turkey and he gave Ahmed a little push to get it to us. On the way we also phoned Eslam, the recommended ‘fixer’ to get overlanders’ cars through customs. His fees were pretty expensive, even more than it cost us to enter Egypt. He was asking E£1,500 (about £150) per car just to get us out of the country. We decided to see what UET shipping could offer and agreed to call him once we were in Port Said. We didn’t have any maps of Port Said so it took a few circuits of the town until we eventually found the office. The people in town were friendly and the area looked pretty wealthy. The grand buildings reminded us of some places we’d visited in Europe.
A young man met us at the bottom of the UET stairs, introducing himself as Eslam. He sounded younger than the guy we’d met on the phone, so that got us wondering how many people were calling themselves Eslam! The Eslam in front of us insisted he was the ‘real Eslam’ and called the older Eslam to tell him off. Who knows what was going on, but it didn’t help us trust him greatly. He came with us up to the office and we could see that he already knew Ahmed and the other men working at UET. In the UET office were a group of young men dressed in jeans and brand name sweaters, playing on shiny smart phones. We spoke with Ahmed and the arduous process of printing out our tickets began. He offered us a fixer who was slightly cheaper than Elsam at E£1,000 per car, but he couldn’t speak English and so wouldn’t do for us. With the realisation that we weren’t going to get through customs in a hurry without a fixer to translate the Arabic and processes for us, we negotiated a little with Eslam on the price given we were two cars and then engaged his services. It took an hour or so of waiting around for the tickets to be printed and issued to us. As we left the office Ahmed told us that Eslam could return that evening to collect the ‘shipping order form’, authorising Bluebelle to be loaded onto the ferry. We would only need to return before the boat sailed, to have our passports stamped.
Back in the streets of Port Said, we popped into the hotel Eslam had recommended and were shocked to find the receptionist said a double room cost almost twice as much (E£250) as he’d told us (E£140). The prices listed in a frame on the wall matched the price Eslam had told us. When we asked the receptionist she smiled and said they were “old prices”. We smelled a rat, so asked her to call the manager. She initially refused, then told us to sit down and wait. About 10 minutes later she tried to call and said there was “no answer”. Finally, she agreed to write down the manager’s number for us so we could call. When Luke asked the price, the manager said it was E£140, like Eslam had told us. Passing the phone to the receptionist and then after she again spoke to the manager we learned that she had given us “foreigner prices”. The manager blatantly explained that Egyptians are charged E£140 for a room whilst an “American room” for “any other nationality” is E£250. They are the same rooms, just more expensive for people of different nationalities. Seeing us in person the receptionist could see we were not local, whilst speaking to us just on the phone the manager could not. We felt sick at the unfairness of it all, but there was nothing we could do except take our business elsewhere. Amazingly, the receptionist told us there were about 50 vacant rooms in the hotel. They’d rather not have our business than charge us the same price as locals. We were stunned and offended. This is a familiar story in Egypt and regrettably it really does tarnish the country’s reputation, for what is otherwise a really fantastic destination.
We visited the little male-saturated tea house over the road. Just as we started sipping our glasses of chai and bitter Turkish coffee, a heavy shower of rain cascaded over Port Said. It felt like even the sky was crying at the way people are treated unequally here. It is the first time we’ve seen rain since Ethiopia. The two German bikers who we met briefly in the UET office then came into the café and joined us for a drink. They had not organised their tickets in advance with Sisa Shipping and had been told by Ahmed at UET that there were additional fees to pay if they were going to be issued their ‘shipping form’. Understandably, they weren’t pleased that we had not been charged for this form. It did seem quite unfair. Elsam joined us all in a little while and the German bikers engaged his services as their fixer too. When they spoke about the cost for the shipping form, Eslam insisted that we’d have to pay for it too. This was the first we’d heard of it and we felt pretty frustrated at the thought of yet another charge and reluctant to pay. The German bikers and Eslam decided to go back into the UET office and try negotiating with Ahmed. We asked them all not to mention us or our form, given we’d paid all Ahmed asked us for. We hoped that by keeping out of it we may yet get out of the charge they were being asked for.
Half an hour later, they returned immediately talking about us having to pay the fee too. Needless to say, we were pretty annoyed at having being roped into the fee also. We felt it was a scam so returned to discuss it with Ahmed ourselves. After a lengthy and rather frustrating discussion in which Ahmed insisted it was a legitimate charge that he must have forgotten to mention with all the work he was doing (playing with his smart phone), we realised we had no choice here but to pay up or Bluebelle would not be loaded onto the ship.
Defeated, we left with Eslam to see another hotel, this one the De La Poste. The sincere manager tolerated our questions about the room prices and asked his assistant to show us the rooms before we agreed to stay. It turned out to be perfectly fine and we took rooms with balconies overlooking the street where our cars were parked. When we said goodbye to Eslam we offered to give him the documents and copies that he’d need for tomorrow, to make things smoother. He declined, saying he didn’t plan to do any work that evening and would get what he needed off us tomorrow.
For the next couple of hours we relaxed in our rooms until our stomachs demanded we should take a wander around the streets to hunt for dinner. The streets around De la Poste were crowded with retail stores, mostly selling shoes and clothes. The whole of Port Said is a duty free zone so shopping here is pretty popular. It’s also more affluent than other places in Egypt we’ve seen, with most people earning a good living from trade, import and export. There were few restaurants to choose from and nothing of the street food we’d loved in Aswan and Luxor. After happily wandering for a while we happened upon a pancake stall manned by three bubbly young men. The one in charge seemed to consider his pancakes an artform. He took great care with preparing each one, from lathering the batter in a perfect circle on the hotplate, to grilling meat, vegetables, and savoury stuffings, and folding the filled pancake into a neat triangle that he tucked into several layers of folded paper. We couldn’t resist and weren’t disappointed. The pancakes were delicious and the guys really friendly and welcoming to us.
A few TVs on the streets showed the gathering crowds in Tariah Square as people protested against President Mursi. Some estimates said there were a million people gathered there! On the way back to the hotel we saw a little crowd gathered a few blocks from our hotel. Watching them in the ready were a group of police wearing riot-proof helmets crouched behind plastic shields. We heard later that in a Port Said protest several weeks back someone was shot, so that’s why there was such a strong police presence tonight. Mainly we saw them milling around, just being present. As we walked by Luke cried out “down with Mursi” and got a huge cheer and some chants from the crowd. The police did not look impressed!
At around 10pm Eslam called us saying he’d tried to pick up the shipping order form from UET at 8pm as planned, but their office was closed. When he’d called Ahmed, he said he was too tired so went home but would be back in the office at midnight! Eslam also said he now needed to collect our passports and Egyptian licence to prepare the paperwork for tomorrow. Pretty tired by then and not wanting to go out we asked him to come to the Hotel de la Poste and collect what he needed. Some 30 minutes later he turned up, took the passports to make copies, then returned them to us. He said he’d asked the German bikers to meet him at 9am at our hotel, but he may be as late as 10am. We weren’t holding our breath, so just asked him to call us when he was ready to meet. We just hope that we’re finished in time to catch the Thursday ferry.
The next morning was overcast and cool. We met up with Tom and Klaus then wandered around looking for somewhere to have breakfast. We couldn’t find anywhere appealing so instead sat down to have mint tea at Papaye (Popeye misspelt), the café over the road. Whilst we were there the German bikers, Chris and Frank, arrived. They recommended a falafel stall a few streets away so we made our way down there to eat. It was a delicious breakfast. Locals congregated at the stand, some kindly explaining to us in English what everything was. On their recommendation we ate soft pita breads filled with falafels, babaganoush and a roasted tomato salad. Yummo and just E£1 (about 10p) each!
By the time we got back to the hotel Eslam had arrived. He said he had been down at the court checking whether our licences were clear to leave. He explained that in Egypt traffic offences and fines are just appended to your licence, rather than being given to you on the spot. Locals have to pay when they renew their licence yearly, but foreigners have to pay when they exit the country. It seemed like a strange system to us, as how can people learn what they’ve done wrong let alone be sure they are being punished for genuine offences. Anyway, he said we were all cleared and didn’t have to pay anything. Phew! He also had with him our shipping order form, which we were surprised to see wasn’t gold plated after all. Instead it was a rather unobtrusive A4 document that couldn’t possibly cost E£500. So yes, we were still bitter at being stung for the extra cost.
We then followed him in Bluebelle down to the police station. Our first task was to get cleared to enter the port. It was quite a process that took almost two hours. Eslam got us to tag along with him for a while, so we followed him from office to office whilst he submitted copies of our documents and schmoozed with officials. Eventually he told us he’d meet us back at the cars. Luckily it was an interesting spot to wait as we were there for a while. Free ferries leave from here to the other side of the Suez Canal, conveying cars and passengers back and forth every few minutes. Wooden carts laden with great piles of oranges and bananas stood on the streets, selling their wares to passers-by. We found a juice bar in a nearby street and indulged in a fresh orange and pomegranate juice and a banana smoothie. People stopped to chat to us and street-savvy kids stopped to joke with us in their best English. Finally, Eslam returned. He handed us all a small slip of paper; our port entry passes for the next two days. Later Eslam told us that these had cost him just E£25 per person.
From here we convoyed back through town and along the port to customs. We did some more waiting around before a few of our entry passes were checked and we drove into the port. We stopped alongside a gate protected by lots of men with uniforms and guns. Here a man came down to do a rubbing of our VIN numbers and then Eslam went off to return our Egyptian number plates. When he returned, he led us a little further into the port to a giant shed used for car storage. There was a little ruckus with the owner here; he wanted us to park outside and give him our keys to move Bluebelle inside later. We didn’t want him driving her and couldn’t see why he wasn’t able to move another car, which he already had the keys to. Even his own private car was parked inside. The discussion took a while, but eventually he relented and we tucked Bluebelle inside keeping the keys with us. Elsam then tried to get us to leave the keys so he could get customs to check inside Bluebelle without needing us to be there. “No way” was our response! Again, he ended up relenting as long as we agreed to come down to the parking lot whenever customs wanted to do their final check. By now it was around 4pm and we were glad to be done for the day.
We dropped our things back at the hotel then wandered the streets back to the pancake shop for a bite to eat and a few laughs with the friendly guys manning the hotplates. It was still pretty early, so we then went back to the Hotel de la Poste to relax a little.
It was hard to believe this was our last night in Africa. We have seen, done and learned so much in the past year, but it still feels like only yesterday we were setting off. It’s been an unforgettable journey and will take a while to process all the memories. We all felt like it was well worth celebrating. Frank had found a bar next to our hotel so met us there later that evening for a few beers. It was a bit dank and some of the patrons rather inebriated, so after a few we wandered a few streets away to Cape Dor, a nicer café style bar. They closed at 11.30pm, so after a beer there we wandered back to the dank bar for a couple more. As the night wore on there were some rather funny incidents with Klaus and a large crab. I was first to hit the hay, Luke followed a little later, whilst the Germans didn’t get to bed until around 4am when the barman insisted on shutting up shop for the night.
The next morning we received a text from Ahmed of UET Shipping. He wanted us to drop our passports in at 10am so he could have the immigration formalities completed. We found out last night that the German bikers had been charged an additional US$40 to get their passports stamped. Anticipating the same request for yet another fee, I called the British Consulate in Cairo to see whether this was legal. They weren’t able to offer advice on Egyptian procedures and suggested we either contact a lawyer or the local police station to ask them. Fortunately, at the office we had no requests. Maybe our arguments about the shipping form paid off after all! Ahmed just took our passports and said we should be back in the office around 8pm to prepare to board the ship.
We spent the day in a café with wifi and really yummy milkshakes. Frank and Chris joined us for a little while, before popping back to their hotel to pack. Later that evening we made our last visit to our friends at the pancake stall for dinner. Abdou was especially pleased to see Luke back and made us feel very welcome.
Around 7.30pm we made our way to the UET Shipping office. Ahmed was there, with a bunch of his employees, and Emrah from Sisa Shipping. They told us we’d need to wait an hour or so, until the ship docked and was ready for boarding. It turned out that we were waiting in the office until around 1.30am. We heard whilst we were there that there was a bit of an uproar amongst the drivers at the port. The ship had to leave about 30 trucks behind so that we could collect that number from Haifa in Israel. What was worse, was that the booking order of the trucks had somehow been lost so they didn’t know who arrived first and who arrived last. For all they knew the 30 they selected to leave behind had been some of the first booked in. Emrah said they were blaming him, as he was the representative of Sisa in Port Said. He made a plan to travel to the port with us and disguise himself in one of the motorbiker’s helmets, in order to get on board safely! Finally the call came for us to board. We took a brisk walk through the empty streets to the port. Then we were crammed into a car and taken to the car park where Bluebelle and the other vehicles were stored. On the way we caught our first glimpse of our ship; the Nisos Rodos. It was a behemoth!
Eslam was waiting for us at the car park. That was a relief, as he had our carnets and hadn’t been answering our calls. As we climbed into Bluebelle I asked Eslam if he’d been able to get the carnet stamped already. He said “why would you want that now?”. I asked again and he said the same thing. Feeling pretty tired I decided to let whatever was be, so just said “don’t worry about it” and got into Bluebelle. He peeked in the window and persisted in saying the same thing, so I told him I didn’t understand what he meant. Eventually, Eslam said he was joking and had the stamp after all. We didn’t have a great sense of humour by this point, so there wasn’t a lot of laughter. Still, it was a relief that all the paperwork was completed and we were ready to board the ship! We paid Eslam the rest of his money and thanked him for his help.
For other overlanders, we’d recommend using Eslam as your fixer. We didn’t hear good things about anyone else and he speaks really good English. Whilst is the cost is steep and no doubt a rip off, he is the best option. We think it’d be possible to get yourself through customs if you had the help of someone who can translate Arabic for you. You’d also need a lot of time and even more patience. We’d love to see someone do this in future. We’d also recommend anyone taking this route to contact Burak of Sisa Shipping in Turkey to book tickets for the ferry in advance (US$426 for the car and US$130 per person for a seat. Contact us or check out our Overland Info pages for details). It seemed that by doing this we were scammed and delayed a little less by their Egyptian agent, UET Shipping.
Then we drove through the dark port, weaving between the queued trucks to our ship. By now it was about 2.30am. The staff waved us up the gang-plank and into the giant hull. Here men in fluorescent jackets were doing an amazing job directing drivers to park their huge trucks with millimetre precision. They tucked us in between the trucks then led us up about nine flights of stairs to one of the passenger lounges. The décor was pretty swish; a modern combination of wood, faux leather, and natural coloured fabrics. We were told they’d keep our passports until we disembarked in Turkey and would have the immigration formalities completed for us. Most of the truckers were watching movies in the main lounge whilst the boarding completed. We sat with them for a while, and then ventured down a level to find a deserted lounge to sleep in. We ended up having this part of the boat all to ourselves, with one long faux leather lounge each as our bed for the evening. It was about 4am by the time we went off to sleep. Trucks were still loading and the ship was yet to set sail.
We were woken around 8am by a call over the ship loudspeaker announcing breakfast. We were pretty tired, but decided to join all the truckers in the restaurant area upstairs anyways. Afterwards we retreated to our couches for more sleep and didn’t wake again til around 1pm, when lunch was announced.
Lunch was a tasty Turkish concoction of rice, salad, and chicken breast poached in a rich tomato sauce. Pretty impressive for mass produced food on a ferry, we thought. All that was left to do was relax after that. Luke and I were glad we’d brought our laptops up from the car so we could watch a few movies. We ended up arriving in Haifa, Israel around 2.30pm. We expected it to be a relatively brief stop. We’d been told that we were just to collect 30 trucks, which were waiting for us, and needed to be in Iskenderun that night at the latest. It turned out we were stopped for about nine and a half hours. We weren’t sure why it took all that time, but there was a protracted immigration check to get through. A team of Israeli officials boarded and checked us all against our passports one by one. They were quite strict about their protocols, but perhaps that’s understandable given their history. We later heard that there was an “agent problem” holding up the voyage and that the immigration officials had some issue with several of the passengers’ passports.
Dinner was more tasty Turkish fare; a beef stew served with fried Turkish rice and a nice mixed salad. The movies screening in the communal lounge upstairs were all dubbed in Turkish so we put on one of our English movies for the other overlanders staying downstairs with us. A storm hit Haifa by the time we set off for Turkey. The rain and bright flashes of lightning followed us as we floated out into the Mediterranean sea.
It got really cold throughout the night with the air-conditioning turned to the ‘Arctic’ setting. Luke popped up to ask for some blankets and a kind shipmate came down with several to pile on top of us. When he saw we only had our little travel pillows he disappeared again and returned with soft white pillows to tuck under our heads.
The next morning we did a little research for our time in Turkey whilst nibbling on breakfast. So much for the ship needing to arrive in Iskenderun by Friday night! We spent the morning and much of the afternoon watching movies until we ended up entering the port around 3.30pm. We had spent about 36 hours on the ship and though we’d been treated very well were keen to disembark! It took another 5 hours to get ourselves and Bluebelle through the border so it wasn’t until around 8.30pm that we were driving into the Turkish night.