Having traversed sparse desert, bumbled over rocky moonscapes and glided down sand dunes; we are now in Aswan awaiting our ferry across Lake Nasser to Wadi Halfa in Sudan.
The last ferry experience was, to say the least, an accurate example of this ‘African timing’ we had been hearing all about… We eventually boarded the ferry in Izkenderun around midnight after a long day in the port. The upside was that we had plenty of time to get to know fellow overlanders doing similar journeys. There were 6 Germans: 3 trucks following Bernd, their ‘Off-Road Kangaroo’ guide, a pair of Swiss boys in a questionable Mitsubishi and 2 Dutch brothers, Erik and Frank, who were soon to become our trusty desert companions. Also in the port, being held in an enclosed space separate from where we were free to wander around near our vehicles, were around 200 Syrians including families with children, off to start new lives in Egypt, Libya and the UAE. During the 26hour journey we were ogle-fodder for the Syrian kids and supposed sources of information about European universities for young men and women dreaming of studying in the West. My overall impression was that Syrian people are very friendly and they take, on average, 10 sugars in their tea.
We approached Port Said late at night, carving a path through all the ships patiently waiting their turn to transit the Suez canal. We were slightly surprised to see riot police lining the gangway off the ferry. I was more surprised that some of the young riot police were wearing jeans and seemingly their own choice of shirt as long as it matched the ‘beige’ dress code. Clearly the police uniform budget is not a priority in Egypt. We were ushered into a non-descript concrete space before later, after much negotiating with our fixer, being led to another area of the port watched over by some army officers and a couple of tanks. As we were there for 2 days and nights (the result of a huge amount of unnecessary paperwork and a small amount of efficiency and office opening hours…) the army guys became more sociable and not only enjoyed an Egypt vs. Europe game of footy but also let us hold their AK47s for fun. Imagine some Egyptian tourists on holiday in England and the British army letting them play with their guns!?!
On day 2 of our incarceration in the purgatorial port, hope of a pre-sunset departure was evaporating. Eventually, Eslaam emerged with our Egyptian plates – giving us very little daylight to navigate around Cairo to our hopeful destination, Giza. This treacherous journey happened to fall on Harry’s birthday and the nice idea of an evening meal in sight of the last surviving Wonder of the Ancient World was thwarted. We missed one turn onto the ring road and ended up far nearer central Cairo than we had ever intended…
Thankfully, a leisurely morning stroll around Egypt’s primary assets (without the expected coach-loads of photo-snapping, pavement-hogging tour-groups) put the stress of the journey into perspective. Aside from the obvious awe that ensued at the sheer size of the Pyramids, there is one theory that Lonely Planet had to offer that I found interesting: It has often been suggested that the enormous work-force required to build the Pyramids was made up of slaves who were, by nature of their task, ill-treated and often left to die following the unthinkable injuries they would have sustained. However, there is evidence that the surrounding area hosted canteens, sick-bays and housing for the workers – suggesting that they were an employed work-force, possibly farmers who could not cultivate their land during the flooding of the Nile each year. During the flooding it was also far easier to transport the stone required to build the Pharaohs’ grand tombs – so the new theory stands that, alongside their role as gateways to the afterlife, the Pyramids were a mass-employment scheme for annually redundant farmers. It is an interesting theory. Slaves or farmers, the people that built the Pyramids followed unfathomably precise measurements to align the structures with astrological phenomena. Whilst their intention may have been to launch their Pharaohs’ souls into the afterlife, the bi-product was that they created some of the longest lasting, weather enduring man-made structures on earth. On travelling past the oasis of Dahkla we saw many natural pyramids emerging from the landscape. The result of wind, time and vast tracks of sedimentary rock. Harry mused over the idea that the Ancient Egyptians saw these formations towering over the landscape and decided to mimic their shape, endurance and strength.
At Giza we said farewell to our European comrades, and a huge thank you to Bernd for giving us essential co-ordinates that were to guide us across the Western Desert… We were excited to begin a real adventure in a dramatic landscape miles from civilisation. This dream only became a reality when we teamed up with the Dutch brothers (I fear that if Ambi got stuck in the sand, I wouldn’t be much use pushing by myself!). Since the revolution there have been ongoing fuel shortages in Egypt, particularly diesel and, unlike our trusty Ambi’s easy options of petrol or LPG, the Dutch brothers’ Toyota drinks diesel. As a result they were forced to (expensively) fuel up in a dodgy dealer’s back yard, syphoning diesel into their tank from large rusty drums… Another cup of chai (never say no!) and an hour later, we were back on the road, prepared to make camp before starting our off-road adventure first thing in the morning. Our intention was to head through the Black Desert, past Crystal Mountain before tracking East and then South-East into the White Desert…
We soon learnt that Frank was the younger, and perhaps slightly more reckless of the two brothers, as he drove straight into soft sand within 5 minutes of leaving the tarmac and let the wheels spin to bury their dear Toyota even deeper. This was a chance for Harry to shine… Having equipped Ambi with two bright orange, maxtrax sand ladders that proved to be worth there weight in gold, we helped dig their Toyota’s rear end out of the sand and successfully got her on the ladders. We deduced that Frank had done it on purpose to learn how to deal with the sand early in the day while we all had the energy!? We had a great time following compass directions to Bernd’s co-ordinates, stopping every few minutes to gauge the imminent landscape, deflate/inflate the tyres or do some cartwheels in the sand.
Over much rocky ground, and a nerve-racking but exhilarating first descent of an escarpment via a large sand dune we arrived mid-afternoon at ‘The Magic Spring’, which was literally, paradise. Three pools of warm mineral water surrounded by overhanging palm trees and desert as far as the eye can see… there was no hanging about, we all stank! It was lovely to think how valuable a site like this would have been to desperate desert travelers in times gone by. My favourite campsite so far by a long shot, 5* even by Ollie and Ellie’s ratings!
Clearly sad to leave the beauty of the Magic Spring, the next morning we headed towards another of Bernd’s co-ordinates, called ‘The Mushroom Field’. On arrival we saw other people for the first time in over 24 hours… about 12 Japanese with Egyptian, Nubian and Italian guides. They had obviously stopped for lunch right in front of the most outstanding mushroom-shaped rock structure, so we decided to postpone ours for a quieter place, but not before gleaning some valuable information from their guides! These amazing ‘mushroom’ chalk structures are created by sandstorms whirling around the soft chalky rock but geology aside, we once again felt like we had landed on the moon (after a similar experience in Cappadocia) or fallen into a Dali painting.
We briefly visited an 13th century Ottoman town in Al-Qasr, where Harry found his favourite mosque – a simple mudbrick building with an impressive minaret allowing us to view the whole area from a height.
Another notable experience in the Western Desert was a cheery police escort through Al-Kharga. We’d like to think it was because the chief was entranced by our jangles, however, they then gave us a warning flash of lights each time a dangerous speed bump was coming up… so maybe they just thought that our suspension needed looking after!
We then had a starlit race toward the Nile after discovering that we needed to get to Aswan before Sunday morning to load Ambi onto the barge. The ferry only goes once a week and although I wouldn’t have minded another day lying in the sun by the Magic Spring, a week would set us back considerably on our (very vague) schedule. Loading Ambi onto the barge was the most scary moment of our trip so far… Harry was being shouted at by 4 different men which way to turn the wheels to guide her safely onto two planks at a steep angle while I held my head in my hands, watching from behind. Wheels spinning, she needed a hefty push – 6 Egyptian men appropriately appeared out of the woodwork – and with a loud clatter and clang, the planks shot away behind her and she was on. Phew! This being the first, and hopefully only time we will be apart from her, we are obviously a little concerned about her safety. However being without her is a clear-cut reason to stay in a hotel for a night!
I hope the tracker has been giving readings for the majority of our route… we obviously went off radar for a while in the desert as it relies on mobile phone reception. To give you an idea, when Ambi meets us in Wadi Halfa on Wednesday we will be heading through Dongola to Khartoum, onto Al-Qadarif and through the Dinder National Park into Ethiopia. Hopefully we’ll post again before we reach Ethiopia but no promises!
Much love to everyone and thank you for all your encouraging messages!
Ta-ta for now xx