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Published: March 24th 2009
Aswan->Wadi Halfa ferry
The ferry from Aswan to Wadi Halfa in Sudan leaves from the terminal at the High Dam, and I see a sign saying "Wlecome" (sic) as we drive along the dam's wall. My final shafting from Egypt turns out to be the hotel suggesting that I should take a taxi here as coming by train would still leave me a long way from the terminal - needless to say, the station is right next to it. A guard tells me I need to wait one hour before I go through so I sit on the edge of a disused fountain, in the middle of the rapidly-assembling crowd for the ferry.
The other passengers are predominantly Egyptian and Sudanese, many with astounding quantities of luggage. I see one man with four TVs, another with a fridge/freezer. Bulging, battered suitcases in sizes that would be inconvenient to carry when empty, let alone full, are much in evidence. Conversely I also see people with just a sports bag or even merely the clothes they're standing in. I will hear a few of their tales later.
As we approach 10AM, people start moving their paraphernalia closer and closer to the entry gates in
anticipation. One of the port officials insists on the creation of a narrow queue, a state of affairs not normal for Egyptians based on my experience of the last three weeks. I find myself on the periphery, and am deciding whether to push in or not when I see an official picking out "whities" from the throng. As a tourist, I am to be given priority treatment. Passport control is negotiated quickly and then I am officially out of Egypt. I've found it difficult to love, and am not sorry to leave.
There are nine whities on this ferry. The first I speak to are Tintin and Helen, a German couple retracing part of the 1840s route of the German Karl Richard Lepsius, regarded as the father of Egyptology. The film footage they shoot will be used in an exhibit at the Berlin Museum relating to Lepsius' travels. This is their second trip to Sudan in four months, and it appears that the ties between Khartoum and the museum are sufficiently strong that Helen was able to have tea with the Sudanese ambassador in Berlin and their visa fees were waived. They have the Bradt guide to Sudan, which
Aswan->Wadi Halfa ferry
I borrow for a few hours to supplement the scant 16 pages of info in the WLP.
Later I meet Jessie, a young German who has been studying in Cairo. His vaguely Middle Eastern features come courtesy of a Turkish father. His course is in Arabic (and Turkish) and the delight and amazement that come across the locals' faces when they hear him speak illustrate well the power of communication in breaking down barriers.
Near the end of the voyage, I meet two Singaporean cousins. The elder made his fortune in an Internet start-up, rode its success for three years, then wound it up, invested in property, and has been travelling the world for the last four years living off the rent. He has visited 138 countries in that time. Like me, he has returned home once a year for admin purposes. Unlike me, he intends doing this for the rest of his life. He must be in his early 30s. Much as I enjoy travelling, there are things I wish to accomplish in life for which I'll need to be in one place for a while (earning more money not the least of them). I'm surprised how
Wady Halfa Hotel
little empathy I have with him.
Making up the whitie quota are two young Russian girls, whose gender, non-existent Arabic, and poor English make me impressed, surprised, and shocked at where they're travelling, and a German girl with an African boyfriend who gives off an unfriendly vibe as through she doesn't consider herself a tourist and doesn't want to mix with people of that ilk.
The ferry has an official departure time of midday but it's rare that it leaves before 5PM due to the logistics of loading 570 passengers, their (often extensive) luggage, and cargo. The latter is all carried on board by hand, including large cauldrons of fuul
(bean stew) that form part of the included dinner.
It's hot up on deck and I eventually repair to my cabin for some rest. The accommodation is basic, with a bunk bed, some storage space, a massive AC unit, a couple of life jackets, and a surprisingly large window that can be unscrewed to let in a breeze. It seemed preferable to pay extra for this than to have a hard seat in a smoke-filled area, or a minuscule spot on the deck that would be rather
The good ship Sina
Aka the Aswan->Wadi Halfa ferry
chilly at night. Plus I'm getting too old to be able to suck up too much hardship at a time. My cabinmate arrives mid-afternoon, a distinguished-looking gentleman who turns out to be a broadcaster on Sudanese radio. As such, he's the first Sudanese I've met in my life. He gives a short speech about how excellent Britain is, and seems genuinely pleased to see me whenever our paths cross throughout the voyage, shaking my hand and calling me "friend". He looks slightly aghast at me wearing my boots in bed, but I choose not to tell him that that's preferable to the stench if I remove them in a confined space.
I return to the deck late afternoon and find a changed scene. Most of the passengers are now on board, and the deck space more resembles a refugee camp, with mats and blankets delimiting people's personal areas, and bags and possessions crammed into every available square inch. The prime spots under the lifeboats provide some daytime shade for their lucky occupants. I see Tintin and Helen with a group of Sudanese men and wander over - they are providing entertainment with random Arabic from their phrasebook. I am
Aswan->Wadi Halfa ferry
introduced, and names are exchanged including "black Mohammed" and "white Mohammed", two men with the same name but differing skin tones. Their English is basic but their interest in communicating strong. Another man off to the side chips in occasional translations, his English clearly better but his shyness also apparent. I ask him where he is from and he says Darfur. He has been visiting a friend in Cairo and now faces a long journey home. We talk about football, the BBC, and Barack Obama, all topics he has knowledge and vocabulary for, and I feel like an idiot when he mentions his hometown and I have no idea it is the capital of Northern Darfur. Several loud toots from the ferry's horn help cover my embarrassment and also signify that we are finally departing. It's 6:30PM.
I next come up on deck after sunset, with the temperature dropping, and gingerly place my size 11 hiking boots so as not to tread on anyone. I stop near a group of young Egyptian men and my presence is soon noted. Salaams are exchanged, and it turns out their English is as minimal as my Arabic. Through gestures and lateral thinking,
Aswan->Wadi Halfa ferry
it would appear that the hot topic of the day is whether or not the Russian girls are lesbians, a question outside of the realms of my knowledge. The Egyptians invite me to sit with them, and offer me food and cigarettes. Our conversation is improved immeasurably by another Sudanese eavesdropper with excellent English. These men are first-time visitors to Sudan, their aim to reach Khartoum and find construction work there. Like for me, the trip is an adventure, but for them there is also a hard economic necessity to start earning soon. I'm amazed by their high spirits.
The Sudanese eavesdropper is Bashir from Kordofan. A recent graduate, his dream is to work as a translator for the UN but he has no connections with the organisation and fears that that, rather than his ability, will scupper his prospects. In the meantime he is working in the family motorbike store. His brother, a qualified lawyer, is a barber. His other dream in life is to marry a white English girl, and he asks me if I agree that his blackness and the whiteness of the average English woman will produce the most pleasing colour of offspring. I say
Aswan->Wadi Halfa ferry
that skin colour is only one part of human beauty, and sexual selection has caused the optimal colour to be different in different parts of the world, a dull answer he does well to gloss over. He rails against his country's government, promising me that Sudan has the quantity and fertility of agricultural land to feed the entire world - if only the government had sustainable economic development as a priority rather than killing its own people. I nod in agreement, watching the ferry's smokestack smudge the now-starlit sky with belching exhaust fumes.
With no light and many deck passengers already curled up for sleep, it is a hazardous process making my way below again. I head for the small dining room, surprised and relieved to find it virtually empty. My complimentary dinner of fuul
, bread, a hard-boiled egg, two cheese segments, and some sliced tomato and cucumber is surely healthier than the chocolate and crisps I've been snacking on during the day. The Bradt guide informs me that there is a watery version of fuul
known in Sudan as "bush", as it became widespread in the aftermath of the withdrawal of US aid sanctioned by George Bush Sr,
Aswan->Wadi Halfa ferry
the punishment for Sudan supporting Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. After dinner, I return to the cabin for some pre-sleep reading and am amused to be given a free 7-Up as a nightcap.
The night passes in uninterrupted sleep, and the following morning I bump into Tintin in the washroom. He tells me that we need to hand in our passports to the immigration officer, so I hunt the man down in his small office behind the dining room. He winces when I say that I have no yellow fever certificate, then gives me a freebie by asking if I've ever had one. I summon up an imaginary one from my South America trip that was regrettably left behind in Saltburn, and that passes muster.
Up on deck, I meet again with some of my acquaintances from yesterday. It appears that the night in the open was rather cold indeed and many of them are still bundled up in coats and hats. 14.5 hours into our voyage we pass Abu Simbel, as impressive a sight from the water as it was from land, and a sign that we are soon to cross the border into Sudan.
Aswan->Wadi Halfa ferry
As we approach the port at Wadi Halfa, there is more admin necessary and our passports are then returned to us. The traffic jam to exit the boat is dense and ludicrous, and I'm glad when I'm propelled out onto the dock. A free bus takes me to the Customs Hall where a desultory search of my luggage is conducted, and then I'm in Sudan. I celebrate by changing my remaining Egyptian pounds into their Sudanese equivalent.
With the Singaporeans having gone on ahead, and the Russian girls showing no interest in travelling with anyone, I group with Tintin, Helen, and Jessie, and we take an overpriced pick-up into the town of Wadi Halfa. It's a dusty settlement with few buildings and an end of the world air. We see the Singaporeans again and for some reason they have swallowed a story that they need to register in Atbara, a town far from Wadi Halfa and way off the Nile-hugging route south they had intended taking. We leave them haggling over the price of seats in a 4x4 to Atbara and locate the police station for registration. The policemen are very friendly and keen to practice their English however,
it being 3PM on the one day of the week when large numbers of people are likely to need their services, they decide to do no more work and we are politely requested to return in the morning. "Come very early", says the police chief, "Maybe 10AM". With registration a necessity before moving on, we find the closest lokonda
(dosshouse) and are given a room with 4 bed-frames and thin mattresses for the princely sum of $2.5 each.
The main "square" in Wadi Halfa contains a number of cafes and we randomly choose one in which to grab a late lunch. The owner greets us, beaming, in English and we are shown the contents of various simmering pots in the kitchen - the meat option looks alarmingly grim and, at 5 Sudanese pounds per portion, the same cost as my bed for the night. Instead I choose fuul
(potatoes in a tomato sauce), and rice, for the first of what I'm sure will be many times over the next few weeks. The town appears to be a Pepsi-only outpost when it comes to soft drinks, though frankly in this climate I'll drink anything so long as it's cold.
Aswan->Wadi Halfa ferry
Post-lunch, we take a short wander around the area, climbing a nearby hill for views of the townscape, the southern end of Lake Nasser, and the railway. The train is as much a weekly event as the ferry, and many of our fellow ferry passengers will be boarding its carriages for the slow, hot, 24-48 hour journey to Khartoum tomorrow evening. Much as I love trains, this seems like an unnecessary torture for me when all the views in between are of desert. I'm glad I have other options. The sun sets and we return to the square. It appears now that all the cafes have televisions turned up to earsplitting volume, several with arcs of chairs spread out in front like an outdoor cinema. We choose the least noisy establishment, sipping on more Pepsis (no alcohol here, on pain of forty lashes) served by a young man in a Raul football top. The nocturnal cat population emerges but we hold no interest for them.
With the evening mild and our lokonda
room cramped with four beds, I elect to pull my bed-frame outside and sleep there instead. A young girl comes up and starts chatting at me
in Arabic. She is unfazed by my unintelligible responses, but I amuse her with my head torch (with which she successfully annoys some inhabitants of a nearby room who are trying to sleep) and random pictures of faraway places that I happen to have on my mobile phone. Jessie later tells me that he had been playing with her earlier and that, in the half-light and with one unshaven foreigner looking much like another, she'd probably mistaken me for him. In which case she must have wondered why the guy who spoke good Arabic an hour ago had suddenly turned into an idiot.
Jessie has also been speaking with some of the young Egyptians from the ferry, and it appears that they are not liked by the Sudanese. The locals are not helping them with information about how to get to Khartoum, and even a delay of a day or two will run down their small cash reserves. It seems that previous returnees to Egypt have brought tales of a land brimming with opportunity, lies designed to confer respect on the teller, but the truth is turning out to be somewhat harsher. Their adventure in Sudan is turning sour
just metres in.
With my glasses off, the stars are still bright and numerous enough to overcome my shortsightedness. The onset of sleep is delayed by a noisy game of dominoes taking place in an adjacent room and once we are in the wee small hours it actually becomes cold enough that I need both my fleeces. I drift off, thinking that this definitely feels like travelling again. It's been a while ... Dull but possibly useful info
i. The ferry from Aswan to Wadi Halfa leaves only on Mondays - very occasionally, if there is a great demand for its 570 passenger slots, the company will run a service on Friday too.
ii. I bought my (bed in a cabin) ticket on Saturday morning for the Monday departure, but I don't know if availability at such short notice is the norm. You can also buy tickets in Cairo.
iii. There was a large queue at the ticket office when I went along at 9AM but no queue when I returned at 11AM.
iv. A bed in a cabin costs LE484 (you pay per bed, so if you're a solo traveller you'll probably end up with a random
cabinmate), one on a hard seat below deck LE306, and I didn't see the price for a space on deck.
v. If you have a deck ticket, you should turn up before 10AM to be sure you get in the first wave of boarders in order to snag a decent spot on deck - as a foreigner, you'll be let through first anyway if you're there on time.
vi. In theory, you need a yellow fever certificate to enter Sudan via this route.
vii. Registration in Wadi Halfa requires 1 passport photo, a photocopy of the information and visa pages from your passport (there is a copier next to the entrance to the police station), and SP51. You also need to fill in a form.
viii. I think most of the accommodation in town is of the same standard and costs SP5 per bed in a dorm.
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