31 December 2009

Top blog posts of 2009

I guess everyone has a list of top this that or the other, so here is mine. I wrote a lot this year, what with all the travelling and moving countries yet again. You may have missed these, my favourite posts of the last year:

24th January: ...in which the cat is an Internet star

29th January: A milestone

7th March: Ruminations on the train

9th May: Photographers

12th May: Geography and Politics

10th July: Best day ever - since Tuesday

21st July: Bottrop Heimatmuseum in Namibia

1st August: When baboons attack

14th August: African Nights

14th September: Doing the Maasai Mara crush

29th October: The dreaded Marsabit Rd

19th November: More money lessons

12th December: How to ... Get your car out of customs in Egypt

27th December: GPS-less in the Middle East

Syria photos

Only three days, but what sights we saw! Feast your eyes on a crusader castle in the mist, skeletons for sale and aging olive soap.


30 December 2009

Data update Jordan and Syria

Jordan: Zain came to the rescue again with a cheap pre-pay card and quick activation of mobile data in the shop in Aqaba (APN: internetpre, username: fastlink, password: fastlink). Data is 1JD per MB, and roaming is possible, but not easy as a prefix number is required. There is no 3G in Jordan, but Egde works in most places.

Syria: We were only there for three days, so didn’t even try to get a SIM card. In a related note, Facebook is blocked, although Flickr is not

Both countries have slow networks although wifi is frequent in hotels and cafes, and usually free.

26 December 2009

GPS-less in the Middle East

Oh, how we love Sally, our voluble GPS, who has been guiding us through Africa with the help of Tracks4Africa, Garmin’s East Africa streetmaps and a useful Mac program for route planning called Roadtrip. With the help of Sally we have been able to cross deserts (although Anja and Jörg’s GPX tracks of the new Sudan roads helped a lot), been able to pinpoint those elusive ferry crossings in Kazangula, Dar Es Salaam and points North; and make sure that we always found a camp site every night, even in the wilds of Ethiopia (although for some reason it didn’t list Tim and Kim’s). But the further North we went the sparser T4A got and when we left Egypt, our GPSing finally stopped and we were officially back to paper maps. Unfortunately the Middle East is neither well mapped nor blessed with book stores where a lost traveller might pick up a route book, so we have mostly been relying on the US basemap Sally falls back on when she is as clueless as we are, and the - utterly unsuited to driving - town maps of various Lonely Planets and Rough Guides (the Bradt guides weren’t even in the running as navigation aides, as their maps seem to have been lovingly hand drawn by a casual visitor to the region without access to any of the freely available satellite imagery, i.e. Google maps). This has resulted in a lot of aimless driving round Arab city centres trying to establish where we are, where we are trying to get to and generally being aggravated with each other. Here is an example of our attempt to find the Baron Hotel in Aleppo:


As you can see we took a spiral approach to our destination, in fact we drove past the hotel a few times before we found it, despite asking a variety of extremely helpful but cartographically challenged pedestrians, peering at miniscule street signs in the dark and trying to divine the direction of North by trying to remember where the sun set an hour ago.

So now you know that GPSless driving in foreign countries can lead to frustration, arguments and eventually divorce. Don’t do it!

25 December 2009

Best of Jordan

We only had a week - damn those transit visas - but we crammed in as much as possible in the way of ancient history and art. So here are the pictures, including a prancing horse, a truckload of tomatoes, abandoned racing chariots and a very tall flagpole that is visible from four countries.


24 December 2009

Has John Cleese been moonlighting?

Looking at the endless roadside portraits of former and current heroes of Syria, which appeared in regular intervals along the motorways, we couldn't help but be weirded out by the strange resemblance between former Syrian president Hafez Al Assad (father of the current president) and comic genius John Cleese - it got us to wondering about the opportunities for hilarity that Cleese would have undoubtedly found in the American accusation of Syria as part of the Axis of Evil or the local destruction of Danish cheese during the demonstrations against the Mohammed cartoons. Plus, one of Assad's sons was called Basil, so there has to be a connection there somewhere, surely? Judge for yourself:
John Cleese
Hafez Al Assad, or is he?

23 December 2009

The Madly Memorable Madaba Mosaic Manufacturers are most motivated


Madaba is famous for its mosaics. Churches and ruins of private houses have floors covered in them, dotted all around this typical small Jordanian town. Most of them date from the Byzantine period, after 500AD, and they depict everything from maps to animals, biblical characters and elaborate patterns. And the best thing?


There is a mosaic school, where people learn to make these cool designs. Unfortunately there seems to be no way for a foreigner to learn to make mosaics, surely a missed tourist opportunity.

We dropped into a mosaic shop, where a young man showed us the mosaic he was making for a French customer. Basically it goes like this:

1 Acquire stones from all over Jordan and cut into thin slices. Cut these slices into strips. Snip small pieces of stone off the strips with pincers to make your mosaic pieces.

2 Draw a design onto a piece of muslin. Keep it simple and use outline and colour gradation to best effect. Remember to draw your design in mirror image.

3 Assemble your ingredients: wallpaper paste to stick the stones down onto the muslin, lots of stone pieces, tweezers and endless patience.

4 Make your mosaic.

5 Cover a piece of wood with cement and place your finished mosaic onto it face down. The cement fills in any uneven areas and gaps.

6 Soak the muslin and wallpaper paste off to reveal your smooth and lovely mosaic.

Day 176 - Madaba - 103

We spent a happy day wandering around the town’s museums, ambling down the Roman road and finding that even modern local houses still use mosaics for decoration. Often this kind of craft is reduced to becoming yet more tourist tat, but here the skills are still in everyday use.

Day 176 - Madaba - 115

22 December 2009

How low can you go?


Yesterday, while passing the Dead Sea, we reached minus altitude. After a long drive down into one of the wadis feeding the dying Dead Sea (too much water being taken out of the system for irrigation, not enough water going into the Dead Sea to replace the million litres lost every day to evaporation) we achieved -391 meters. It didn’t feel any different from being at sea level, though. Disappointing.

Pictures from the road - Madaba


As everywhere else we have been, here truck drivers take inordinate amounts of pride in their vehicles. In this case decoration is in the form of extra bits welded and painted on to the body of the pick-ups.


Chickens keep fresh longer if you don’t wring their necks until after you find a buyer. These guys are kept in cages at the back of the butcher shop - although the rooster is allowed to strut around free.


A front porch to admire. Definitely the sign of a sociable family.


Buffy gets around. We have also spotted a very young Brad Pitt, a smooth Alec Baldwin and a pouty Leonardo di Caprio. These shops sell a range of things, mostly fashion or hair cuts.


While Jordan is a predominantly Muslim country, Madaba has a bunch of (orthodox) churches, but I think the reason for this shop’s success is just that everyone likes a good excuse to decorate their house with glittery things.

View from above

Here you can see how we are arranged up top. The spare wheel on the bonnet goes with the spare on the back door. The two water and two fuel jerry cans are mostly empty unless we go somewhere remote. The water is a backup in case we spring a leak in the main water tank. The blue boxes hold dive kit, food stashes and camping gear. The middle box has been rigged with three small solar panels that can be connected to the spare battery to top it up. The lid comes off so we can prop it up at an angle to catch optimum sunlight. The box is filled with spare tent covers. Between the jerry cans at the front is the Hilton, our guest tent of choice, and the green square at the back is our own roof tent, home for the last six months. On the right the rolled up awning is just visible.


It's been a while since we've seen clouds (Uganda, to be precise), so we got quite excited this morning, when we looked out of our window here in Madaba, Jordan. Not only fluffy shapes in the sky, but also rain and some sharp winds are letting us know that we have left the permanent summer climes and are heading towards winter in Europe.

21 December 2009

Did you know...

...that there is a flagpole in Aqaba that is visible from four countries? Me neither. It was also news to me that Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia all share a few kilometers of coast line at the top of the Red Sea in the Gulf of Aqaba. Well, not share in a friendly, 'what’s yours is mine’ kind of way, rather in a 'I’m watching you with all the military-strength listening equipment I have at my disposal' kind of way, but share they do.


From the beach at Aqaba it’s possible to see the radar-spiked hills of Egypt opposite and the holiday apartment blocks of Eilat to the North equally well, and if this was a sane place, Aqaba and Elita would by now be almost one city, being located right next to each other. Here, as all along the King’s Highway towards Amman, Israel and the West Bank are visible in the distance across the misty waters of the Dead Sea. From looking at a Middle East Map these feuding countries always looked so big and separate from each other, but in reality there are no geographical dividers, enemies are cheek by jowl here. If there was co-operation, what great things could be achieved!

20 December 2009

From Norway to the Red Sea

Yet another ferry, I thought, oh great! Just what I need after the traumatic trip from Sudan to Egypt. But we had to cross the Red Sea to get from Egypt to Jordan, as the alternative (crossing through the tip of Israel at Eilat) would prevent us from going on to Syria: some Arab nations are not happy to see an Israeli stamp in your passport. So the ferry it had to be: if it meant getting out of Egypt asap, that was OK with me.


So we battled our way through yet another tangle of Egyptian border bureaucracy, taking 4 hours just to get clearance to leave - the process interrupted by prayer sessions, being given the runaround by officials with nothing better to do than sit around drinking tea and held up by yet another stamp requiring baksheesh. So when we were finally allowed to drive up to the ferry we were starving. As it looked like we were only three or four cars from getting on board, Stuart and Alex wandered up to find a good lunch spot while I waited as cars and lorries were backed into the mouth of the ro-ro ferry. As it turned out I had two hours to contemplate not only the mystery of having to reverse cars into a ferry expressly designed for cars to roll on at one end and off at their destination but also the strange sight of a Norwegian ferry in this hot and dusty Red Sea port.


Yes, this used to be the Kristiansand, later the Skagen, which, after being superseded in the Baltic by fancier models, has found a home here in Nuweiba, shuttling passengers back and forth between Egypt and Jordan. When I finally got to drive on to the car deck and wandered up to the passenger levels, it was slightly surreal to see the original names scratched out from the signage to be replaced with the boat’s new name of “M/S Shehrazade”, although there were still signs advising customers that due to Danish customs regulations, the restaurant would be closed until the ship left the port. Emergency evacuation signs in English and German were overlaid with photocopies in Arabic, and there were other printed signs exhorting us to “show your opinion to get your rights”. Not sure that would go down so well with Egyptian customs. We never did work out what those were about.


After spending some time in the overfilled cafe, loud with Arabic television and heaving with smoking Jordanian truckers (all other passengers apart from us whiteys were kept up on deck), we managed to score a ghostly empty restaurant room, decorated with Skandiwegian summer scenes, where we holed up with our laptops for the duration.


19 December 2009

The Best of Egypt

As promised, here are the selected highlights of Egypt. Enjoy!

Sign of the Times


A closed down cinema in the middle of Aqaba, symbolic of the failing movie industry, unable to keep punters to keep shelling out to visit the temple of flickering lights, because... Noticed the cardboard box in the bottom left corner, on the steps of the entrance? I will give you a close-up and you’ll see the root of the problem:


Yes, TV killed the video star!

Lost in Cairo

Day 169 - Eastern Desert to Cairo - 043

This sign on the way into Cairo should have given us pause for thought. You want to go to Cairo? Sure, all roads lead there, pick a road, any road....

Day 170 - Cairo Pyramids - 003

Shame that the GPS co-ordinates for “The Great Pyramids at Giza" on the increasingly unreliable Tracks4Africa map were who knows where, certainly not anywhere near the actual pyramids. So after spinning round the scuzzy suburbs of Cairo’s West Bank we tried following signs for a change.

Day 170 - Cairo Pyramids - 004

I think we had just forgotten they exist, as the last reliable road sign we had spotted would have been somewhere around Maun in Botswana.

Long story short, we got there, in the middle of a sand storm. Cairo hazy in the background, pyramids barely visible, we returned looking a lot younger, having been micro-abraded thoroughly.

Egypt Roundup

Day 152 to 159 - Aswan - 075

I think this will be my last roundup covering just one country, as we are now picking up the speed for the last leg through the Middle East and back to Europe. As you might have noticed, we have found ourselves suddenly tacking on a whirlwind tour of the Eastern Mediterranean, mainly due to our newly acquired horror of ferry journeys (I write this on the Nuweiba-Aqaba ferry, having experienced another fine example of streamlined government processes while leaving).

Anyway, Egypt. Or should I say, Aswan, as we spent the bulk of our time there. Being pedestrians once again has been a new experience. We had to catch taxis and buses (and boats), which was not always a bad thing. The public bus to Abu Simbel turned out to be almost fun (as much fun as a three hour drive through a flat sand desert can be) with our breakfast box provided by the hotel and plenty of reading matter imported by Alex. Yes, Alex has joined us, and fitting right in, has become holder of the kitty and chef extraordinaire. We are now three again, and it feels good.

Day 163-7 - Aswan - 101

Being in one place had other advantages, specially somewhere like Aswan where most interaction between foreigners and locals is reduced to the level of selling/buying tourist goods and services. After a few days of passing the same spot the spice seller stopped offering his wares and started joking, the fellucca captains took us for granted and the souq touts offered karkady rather than hassling us. We started telling people we were Nubians from Aswan and found that behind the intense selling pitch were a bunch of friendly, hospitable and interesting people.

Day 168 - Aswan to Eastern Desert via Karnak - 108

Egypt was, obviously, temples and tombs and ruins and pyramids. It was the magnificent temple at Karnak, where ruins are being reassembled by crane, to the envy of the pharaohs watching from the hereafter; it was hard sell from the guides and postcard sellers at every location, hordes of bus tourists crowding the sites and all the tack not being able to overshadow the bombast of Ramses II who was obviously so insecure that he needed colossi in his own image and self portraits as he smites his enemies and pals with the gods.

Day 168 - Aswan to Eastern Desert via Karnak - 086

There were not as many temple visits as I’d liked, but they will have to wait for another time. Instead Egypt turned out to be about making new friends and meeting old ones: It was getting behind the facade and discovering a fellucca captain concerned with his colleagues’ hardline sales patter ruining business for all of them; a fixer who hates the local bureaucracy that is making his job of getting overlanders across the border so unpleasant; a waiter who loves the kitten that hangs around the restaurant tables begging for scraps, the hotel clerk who made sure we always knew the real price for things so we wouldn’t get ripped off. It was days and days of doing absolutely nothing, wandering from hotel roof terrace to Corniche to waterside restaurant, waiting for the day to end so that maybe, tomorrow, Inshallah, there would be news of the car. Eventually it was the battle with Egyptian bureaucracy, which everyone had told us was ridiculous, but which we never in our wildest nightmares could have imagined to be this inefficient. It was finally leaving Aswan, back on the open road, and driving, driving all day, the Nile passing by, people passing by, desert passing by and not stopping ever again.

Photos are here.

18 December 2009

Hurghada explained: Sign Language

Day 169 - Eastern Desert to Cairo - 036

So the main nationality of visitors is German...

Day 169 - Eastern Desert to Cairo - 047

and Russian.

Day 169 - Eastern Desert to Cairo - 048

The age group is young...

Day 169 - Eastern Desert to Cairo - 055

but surely not that young!

16 December 2009

Irony of the Day

Cairo suburbs are the filthiest, most disgusting areas of any metropolis I have ever visited. Heaps of sewage are piled alongside the irrigation channel, rubbish bags are strewn on the road side, and a scum of plastic bottles floats on the water near the bridges.

This guy, therefore, has the most futile job in Cairo.


14 December 2009

Leaving Aswan

Day 160 - Felucca Ride Aswan - 032

After two weeks of idling, waiting for the car to catch up with us, it was surprisingly hard to leave Aswan. We had found favourite haunts for dinner, sunset watching and beer drinking, we had made connections: Mahmoud, keeping us up to date with the non-progress of the barge that - Inshallah - would bring our car; Shahad, fellucca captain extraordinaire and his brother Shazy, hospitable Nubians serving karkady (hibiscus tea) on his boat; Mohammed from the Keylany Hotel reception, dispenser of information and correct pricing for all manner of things, and Hamid and his three brothers, wily sellers of tourist tack in the souq, who could also arrange for the sale of anything else required.

Still, the most friendly encounters since we left Sudan took place on our way out of the tourist metropolises of Luxor and Aswan. Attempting to buy bread, we stopped at a falafel cafe in a small village, where my request for “Eish" (my Arabic is obviously coming along in leaps and bounds) resulted in a group discussion by all other customers until we found an English speaker, who, after giving me a big bag of freshly fried bright green falafel, initially refused my attempt at payment, and eventually accepted a few Euros worth of Egyptian Pounds for six flatbreads, 25 falafel and a bag of tomatoes.

Day 163-7 - Aswan - 083

Later, looking for crisps and water at a roadside shop near Qena, my miserable Arabic had everyone falling about laughing. The shopkeeper eventually rescued me with stern looks in the direction of his son and daughter, who were wrestling over the privilege of packing my purchases into a bag. For some reason everything I did, pointing to things, getting out my money, even just standing there shrugging my shoulders, made them collapse into heaps of giggles. It still makes me smile now.

We stopped for lunch on a side road, and after convincing the soldiers at the road block - there is a road block at every junction on the Nile Road - that we were not going to get ourselves blown up or machine-gunned on their watch, we ate those lovely falafel with sweet chilli sauce, made all the more tasty by the fact that not one passer-by stopped to stare, and the old man over the road cutting fodder never even threw us a glance. Just as we got ready to leave a young man stopped his donkey cart next to our car and wandered off into a palm grove. He returned a few minutes later with a handful of fresh dates, just picked and thick with honey sweetness, which he offered us, smiling. Asking nothing in return, he got back onto his cart, waved and disappeared.

13 December 2009

Photos from Aswan

On the occasion of having actually managed to get our car legalised into Egypt, including acquiring Arabic number plates and Egyptian insurance, circumventing attempted bribery and completing much form filling, I have posted some photos our soon-to-end stay in Aswan. It's been two weeks, so I feel like I live here. In fact, the felucca captains have stopped hassling us for trade, which is a sure sign that we are considered locals. Warning, there are quite a few pictures. There are ancient faces, cats, boats, foul bowls, graffiti in serif font, Nubian architecture, some sacred altars, as well as graphic images of smitings. If that's too much, wait a few days and look at the Best of Egypt album. I'll let you know. Enjoy

12 December 2009

Stuart's Latest Offering

...is here, covering the drive from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa. Enjoy!

How to ... Get your car out of customs in Egypt

We managed to extract the car from Egyptian customs, but only after witnessing the most flamboyant display of ineptitude, corruption and disorganisation so far on this trip.

Day 163-7 - Aswan - 036

The setting: Aswan’s ferry port, witness to weekly passenger ferries and occasional cargo barges from and to Wadi Halfa in Sudan, and a suburban hellhole complete with sewage repairs and begging children, site of the Aswan traffic police department.

The actors: various overlanders, both amateurs like us and professional drivers of overland trucks; M., the fixer extraordinaire; K., his slow-witted taxi driver (employed by M. only because his uncle is the head of the customs department); a near-blind customs official and assorted policemen on the hunt for baksheesh.

The mission: to convince Egyptian customs, traffic police and various other unmentioned government agents to release nine cars and trucks from the customs zone of the ferry port so that we can bloody well finish our journey.

The backstory: most of us have been waiting to move on for more than two weeks, variously in Aswan, Wadi Halfa and assorted locations in the Sudanese desert. The barge carrying the cars (which runs on a separate schedule from the passenger ferry) was delayed due to Eid, weekends (Fridays) and other unexplained vagaries of Arabic origin. The barge had arrived on Thursday afternoon, complete with five Landrovers, two overland trucks, one MAN truck and a Landcruiser, as well as three dogs. It was now Saturday. Everyone was tense in a different way, everyone wanted to get out of Aswan as soon as possible.

Day 163-7 - Aswan - 074

The timeline:

8am - waiting for K. and a second taxi driver to pick us up. Fourteen people sizing each other up at the hotel; I don’t like what I see. Two stroppy Australians and a South African motorbiker who has been heard to call the locals kaffirs. Great.

8.30 - The taxis arrive. We drive to the police station. K. and two members of the group disappear inside with carnets, passports and money. The rest of us get acquainted while leaning on the bonnets of banged-up taxis (ours has done 750,000 km). The Dragoman driver is reading the Daily Express. She must be homesick.

9.30 - The others re-appear, the grand total of their achievements a collection of blank forms in Arabic. We pile back into the cars and take the bumpy road to the port.

10am - Arrival at the ferry port. K. takes the first group through to the offices, while we in the second group are left behind to fend off baksheesh attempts by the gate keeper, who is trying to charge us to pick up our cars.

11am - After a series of phone calls to M. and strong words with the various fixers he sends, we are let into the office as well. We spend an eternity watching the near-blind official painstakingly copying driver names, chassis numbers and registrations from the English forms to the Arabic version. This takes two hours for nine carnets, with multiple breaks for tea and smokes.

Day 163-7 - Aswan - 075

12.30 - The barge is now available, sort of. M. has managed to convince the crew that just because the normal pier is blocked by the Minister of Agriculture’s boat (he is returning from a visit to Sudan, and seen speeding off in a very shiny black Merc), we should still be able proceed with unloading. So in order to drive the cars off the barge, we have to manhandle the strangely engine-less craft to shore by all together pulling on a rope, while the captain and his crew shouts encouragement. Taking the trucks and cars off takes a grand total of 15 minutes.

1.30pm - We are still waiting in the port car park for something to happen. M. brings tea. Suddenly a customs official appears, spends 2 minutes peering through the door of each car, asking if we have knives (?!?), and vanishes. Silence returns. We haven’t had lunch. In desperation I spend some time cleaning the fridge and kitchen in our Landrover.

2.30pm - A policeman, ferried in by K. for the occasion, takes rubbings of our chassis and engine numbers before demanding payment for overtime. After collecting E£10 per car he is taken back to town by K. and ennui descends one more.

3pm - We are told to come back tomorrow to complete formalities, as the traffic police has gone home. Aargh!

Day 163-7 - Aswan - 060

The denouement: Stuart spent all of Sunday at the traffic police to arrange insurance and registration. He was finally allowed to leave, sporting Egyptian number plates, after yet another official tried to extract a bribe for not doing a proper check. Our fixer, to his credit, called his bluff and told him they’d be happy to unpack the cars so he could do a more thorough search. Luckily the official decided he valued knocking off on time more than the money and let them depart at 4pm.

10 December 2009

How to ... Do Nothing in Aswan

We’ve been here for nigh on two weeks now, and while Aswan has many attractions (Temple of Isis! Nubian Museum! Tombs of the Nobles!), two weeks is a long time to be waiting for your car to arrive (and your spare clothing, and, yes, stationery - I can’t last long without my stationery bag). But we are still here, so I thought I’d give you an insight into our day and how we stave off boredom:

9.30am - Roll out of bed and climb up to the roof terrace for breakfast - it’s the same every day but at least you don’t need to brave the streets in search of nourishment. We have pancakes and fruit, lemonade, tea, toast with butter and jam and triangles of cream cheese. It took us a few days of trying to change some parts of the order (cold milk instead of hot, scrambled eggs with the toast) to realise that it’s not worth the trouble explaining this to the Manuel-like waiter every morning. Now we just eat what we’re given. Thanks to Alex we have a supply of magazines to read over breakfast, and there is wifi internet, so Stuart can get his fix of email.

11am - If the weather is hot (not that it’s ever really cold, but on occasion we’ve had cloud and the temperature drops to a chilly 20C) someone might sunbathe on one of the two loungers, and there is even the possibility of jumping in the plunge pool on the roof. It’s freezing, so perfect for an overheated holiday maker. The roof terrace sits above the busy Salah-en-Din Road, so there is an orchestra of toots and shouts to listen to. It’s easy to while away most of the morning here.


1pm - We are rationing ourselves to one item of touristing a day, so by this time we may get on the ferry to the west bank of the Nile for a visit to the Tombs of the Nobles, or take a fellucca boat to visit the botanical gardens at Kitchener Island. It’s not hot through the day, so practically any amount of wandering round ruins is still a pleasant activity. Unfortunately going to a tourist attraction always involves a huge amount of bargaining with the local 'business men’, fellucca captains or ferry ticket sellers, guides and assorted vendors of food and tack. It’s still hard work, even after our varied experiences throughout Africa, and here bargaining is much more a normal part of the day, unlike further south, where bargaining is mostly part of the tourism infrastructure (i.e. locals pay a fixed price and mzungus/faranjis are charged as much as possible). So we tend to start with a certain amount of hesitation, because we know that the first price we are quoted will be massively inflated compared to the prices charged to locals. Still, with a bit of good humour we normally manage to keep relations civil, and we spend a few hours acting as if we were the average tourist.


4pm - Hunger sets in. We seem to manage with two meals a day here, which might be due to the climate or just that we don’t actually do anything all day. Whatever, we retire to our local haunt, the Aswan Moon, discovered after a thorough investigation of the local eateries (we tried two other ones before settling on this one). The restaurant is set partly on the bank and partly on a pontoon set on the river. A fabric-covered awning keeps out the sun, so it’s a good place to spend the rest of the afternoon till sunset, watching the felluccas pass by, herons coming in to land and generally admire the light on the sand dunes on the other bank where they are not obscured by the hideous construct of the Mövenpick Hotel on Elephantine Island. Our late lunch consists of lentil soup with a squeeze of lemon, grilled chicken with rice, hummus, babaganoush and flatbread, strawberry juice and Om Ali for desert followed by a Turkish coffee. We have learnt to spin this out until it’s dark, chatting with the waiter or Shahad, the fellucca captain, and sometimes we get a visit from Mahmoud, who is arranging for the car to get here from Wadi Halfa (Inshallah) and who regularly gives us updates that turn out to be incorrect.  


7pm - Back to the hotel to watch movies (thanks to the blessings of iTunes, Pirate Bay and the hotel’s fast internet connection). There is more tea drunk while sprawled on the bed in the room, eating the chocolate Alex brought from England - thanks, Alex! Early nights are a given, since there are so many reasons to get up in the morning - not.

06 December 2009

Views from the road - pedestrian edition


The view from the roof terrace includes the herd of sheep living in the ruined plot below us.


Two kinds of people you can depend on for constant hassle as you walk down the street: The caleche driver who will take you anywhere for 5 pounds and the fellucca captain with a good price.


The souq is split between selling glittery things for tourists and useful stuff, like these huge foul bowls for the locals.


We are close to the beginning of the high season in Egypt and many cruise boats are anchored here to be refitted and cleaned up before they go back to Luxor for the winter rush.


More random specialisation of Egyptian shops. This one concentrates on blenders and sewing machines, presumably on the premise that it doesn’t matter why things whirr round, as long as they do.

05 December 2009

Mobile Data Update - Egypt

After multiple visits to both Mobinil and Vodaphone Egypt it transpires that there is no mobile internet for pre-paid phones in Egypt. To think how relatively easy it was to get mobile data in Sudan...


04 December 2009

Sudan Roundup


Sudan was country number 10. We well and truly left Africa and returned to the more familiar bosom of the Arab World. It was pleasant to be somewhere familiar after the sweaty otherness of East Africa and the complete alien culture of Ethiopia. To be honest, we raced through Sudan, despite being given a four week pass. There are no ATMs in Sudan, so we had limited amounts of money to spend, plus we had to catch an earlier ferry than we had planned due to the Eid al Ahra holiday. We entered Sudan halfway upcountry with the Nile, took two long driving days to Khartoum, spend a few days in Khartoum and a few dawdly days more or less following the Nile north to the edge of Lake Nasser, seeking out the remains of the Kushite empire. Then we left on the adventure that is the Wadi Halfa ferry.


From Ethiopia the terrain changed completely. After weeks of cool and populated mountains we were back at 500 m altitude and a landscape that is endlessly flat and monotonously yellow and red. The soil is a fertile dark brown where it is irrigated, vast harvested fields running to the horizon. Northwards desert proper begins, black rockscapes on fine red sand. The Nile winds its way through this barrenness, providing a sweep of green and blue in the monotony. Alongside its water life is possible, endless stretches of habitation reliant on the fields and date farms kept alive by pumps and donkey power. Always within reach of the river, but separate, set into the silence of the sands, temples and pyramids of the Kushite civilisation. Rulers of Nubia and for a while, Egypt, the Kushites left sandblasted ruins which German archaeologists are attempting to rescue before they fade into the desert. Pointy pyramids modelled on Giza (but smaller, steeper and altogether different, as if the blueprints were transmitted by Chinese whispers) erupt by the side of the road along with exquisitely decorated temples proclaiming the superiority of the local kings and queens.


Sudan was big earthenware jugs provided as a public water supply, regular features of the road; low mud brick houses enclosed by decorated walls to keep out wind and sand; heat making the asphalt glassy and reflective like a mirror held up to the scorching sky, oncoming trucks wavering in the mirage, seemingly floating. It was camping in the desert again at last, solitude and stars galore, just as soon as we found a place where we wouldn’t get stuck. It was good roads (built by the Chinese to access Sudan’s natural resources, as in Ethiopia), allowing us to drive all day and make good distance. It was also the worst possible traffic snarl I have ever encountered, proving that Khartoum is up there with Dubai, Nairobi and Chennai, filled with lunatic drivers. Sudan was too short (don’t I say that about all our countries?), but it made a powerful impression.


While the panorama was unchallenging to our desert-proven eyes, our human encounters offered unexpected surprises: There was Ahmed the assured money changer in Wad Madani’s gold souq, dispensing cash and foul with equal aplomb; hospitable Magdi at Wadi Halfa who put us up in his new house for the duration; the casual acquaintance we encountered at the petrol station out of Khartoum, who invited us to stay with him for a few days - another time maybe! Such kindness, such honesty and simple friendliness. After the incessant press of people in East Africa and before the anticipated rapaciousness of the Egyptians, what a breath of fresh air to be treated like friends.


And then there were the variously vehicled overlanders we came across: American cyclists Mary and Greg, the Irish bike riders who insisted on completing their Cairo to Cape (or rather Addis to Cape, then fly back to Addis to cycle to Cairo), the Belgian boys on their way South, eager for GPS co-ordinates and information on road conditions, and fortuitously, on the roadside, Monty the Landrover, whose blog is giving us all the info we need to get through Egypt and onwards. Not to forget the crowd of Algerian footie supporters before and after their victory over Egypt, a nicer group of sober football fans you couldn’t hope to meet.


It feels as if Africa is over, and we are entering a new phase in our journey. We have acquired a new travel companion and decided to brave the Middle East route rather than the ferry to Italy, so the drive onwards will be both longer and more interesting. Of course, as of today we are still carless, so right now we are not going anywhere, but as soon as we do, you will know all about it.