Subtitle: Caveat Emptor (the buyer beware!)
The stay in Libya had been much too short, and we soon found ourselves in Egypt. The day did not start very well, as soon as we reached the first checkpoint, our guide was sent back to the last town, since he didn't have enough copies of our permits! After that things continued to go slowly. At the next stop, we were told that to get our money back for the license plates and to turn them in we would have to return to the last village. Didn't we just do this! Anyway, even after that it didn't get better, the Egyptian border wasn't open yet, so more delays. In the end it took us about an hour and a half to get out of Libya. It didn't help that, we apparently didn't even have a visa! In the end the guide had to do a lot of talking and he managed to sort everything out and we were on our way.
If we though that was bad, things just got worse. The Egyptian side set new records for making entry procedures convoluted and made an art form of how to make something as complicated as possible. Luckily for us an official helped us through the procedure, and we were always treated very well by all the officials, who were all very helpful and friendly. In the end it took us a bit over 3 hours to get into Egypt, and we could finally continue our journey. The complete formalities can be found at either Formalities: Libya or Formalities: Egypt.
*Egypt: First impressions
1 - Everyone was very welcoming
2 - Extremely bureaucratic
3 - same landscape as Libya
4 - poorer than Libya
5 - Money hungry, if not to say greedy people
1: Nearly to a man, everyone we met in Egypt would greet us with the words "Welcome" or "You are Welcome", even if it was the only english they spoke. We supposed that there must be some kind of advertising campaign and that this was the slogan?
2: Witness the 3 hour entry procedure. Egypt simply has a bureaucracy which is of a magnitude larger than anything we had previously encountered. Even the central american countries which we have visited could learn something here.
3: There is no major geological division of the two countries, so the landscape is simply a continuation of what we had already been driving across for the past week. Only when we hit the Nile valley did things change, as they are apt to when that much water is found in the vicinity of a desert!
4: The border post on the Egyptian side is huge, on the Libyan side they are also building like crazy. The reason was apparent as soon as we got there. Tons of people, mostly guest workers from Egypt going to or back from Libya, and while doing so, bringing lots of goods back across the border. Not directly a sign of economic well being, but this was the impression we had.
5: At the border we were directly asked for Baksheesh from the official who helped us get all the paperwork straightened out. We agreed that he was worth it, but nevertheless, this was the first time that someone directly asked us for money for services rendered, which we had not originally asked for, as he "attached" himself to us as we started to go through the procedure. Welcome to Egypt.
* Not really"First" impressions as we had been to Egypt 4 times previously for a total of over 2 months, so we already had a "First" impression.
Once past the entry formalities we headed into Egypt, and the first destination was the town of Marsa Mathruh, which turned out to be a fairly large seaside resort. As there was no camping anywhere near here, we searched for and found the hotels (at least the fairly decent ones) and checked out a couple of them. At the first one I was quoted 120E£ for a room. When I looked at the room it matched the hotel; pretty run down, and certainly not worth 120E£, and after talking to the manager he dropped the price down to 90E£ which was better. Cecilia checked the hotel next door and this one had very nice rooms for 95E£, so it was no contest. We moved all our stuff into the room and lay down to relax. Ten minutes later the lady from the reception called and informed us that she had made a mistake and quoted us the price for a single room, the actual price was 125E£. We were too tired to bother moving so we just paid, welcome to Egypt! For details of the accommodations check out Accommodations: Egypt here you will find more info regarding all our accommodations here and elsewhere. It had been a long day so we just crashed.
The following morning refreshed and in a new country
we were ready to get on the road. The destination was Cairo, this was
something we both dreaded but, since this was where the Egypt Museum,
with all the dummies, oops, mummies, is, we just couldn't pass up a chance
to see it. So there was no choice. The roads were excellent and we made
good time. By now with our experiences in these countries a minor issue
like a truck coming at you going the wrong way on a major divided highway,
doesn't even raise eyebrows. The roads were also for the most part devoid
of traffic, we were very surprised! So far the Egyptians drive just as
bad as anyone we have seen, very noisily and totally inconsiderate, but
at least they were doing it slower than the Libyans! You have to be grateful
for small things, right?
Shortly after El Alamein we headed south on a great toll road across the desert. No traffic and very fast. At the end of this road we hit the junction road into Cairo, and that is when the fun started. First, lot and lots of traffic. The whole road was covered in billboards on both sides of the road. In some places there must have been 10-15 billboards advertising the same product. Totally out of control. The closer we came to Cairo and the Nile valley the more traffic, more people, more green, and more billboards!
Since we only had a vague idea of where the camping was, we started to ride around looking for it. Even asking the cab drivers didn't help, they either spoke no english, or didn't know where the camping was. In the end after riding around a couple of hours on the outskirts of Cairo we found it by asking for the directions to the area Herraniya, and once there stopping every couple of hundred meters until someone could tell us where it was. The camping wasn't much, and very expensive, but the proprietor a Mr. Said, was a fascinating character. It turns out he had lived in Switzerland and worked at a number of high class hotels. Even being the personal waiter to Prince Rainer and Princess Grace when they spent their honeymoon in Gstaad! It got even more surreal, he had also lived in Norway and had had a Norwegian wife, so we got to speak some Norwegian and Swiss German together, sitting in the shadow of the Pyramids. You couldn't script something stranger. In the end it turns out he had been married to a Swiss, a Dutch, and a Norwegian, and was now married to a Palestinian, and his daughter was about to get married, his son starting pilot school, to be a helicopter pilot. Of course, I should mention that his mother was part of the royal family and his father a diplomat, who amongst other things signed the peace treaty ending the Algerian/French war. During the revolution in the late 50's his family lost most of their possessions, but they had managed to keep this strip of land where he had this Campground, and a number of bungalows for tourists. He said business used to be really good, but now with the war in Iraq and the terrorist attacks in Egypt there was hardly any business at all. We really enjoyed the talks we had with him, and he was also very helpful full of tips for other places to see and stay while in Egypt.
We spent a week here, visiting the Pyramids, and Cairo. We always took taxis as the traffic was more than we really wanted to deal with. Here my tips for dealing with taxis in Cairo.
- Know the general costs of any destination you want to go to. (ask a local, the hotel, campground)
- Agree on a price before getting into the cab.
- Do not allow yourself to be extorted to pay a different fare. Drivers will often agree on a price and when you reach the destination they will ask for more. Don't pay it, just walk away.
- Know the name of a well known landmark near the destination you are trying to get to. For example for the Cairo Museum, just ask to be taken to the Hilton; the museum is just behind it.
- Don't agree to any price which is more than 5-10% of the general cost. Trust me there is no way a tourist will ever pay what a local would pay, so whatever price the cabbies agrees to will certainly be more than he would get from a local.
Of all the taxi rides which we took in Cairo, I am convinced that only on one occasion did we pay the "normal" rate. The rest of the time, we paid a price which was fair but certainly more than what locals would pay. Nevertheless, it is certainly preferable to having to deal with the traffic yourself. There is plenty of small and large busses, but we chose, as a concession to our "old" age to take cabs!
A few words about Cairo. It is a mess. Too much traffic, smog, noise and just much too hectic for our tastes. Having said that, it was certainly worth visiting, to get a look. The area around the river is very nice, particularly in the evening, when the lights of the cruise boats going back and forth, as well as the lights of the city make everything almost romantic!
The museum, is unbelievable. There is so much stuff, just lying around you need to have a degree in Egyptology just to make sense of it all. Barring that, rent the electronic guides, which if nothing else give you a little info on a couple of items in most of the rooms. There is so much stuff to see that it is impossible in anything less than a month. We did 3 days and got a general idea of how much stuff there is, but didn't see "everything", if that is at all possible. The most annoying thing is that many of the exhibits aren't labeled, and most of those that are the labels are from the early 30's and simply not very well done. The museum is always busy, so it is sometimes interesting to listen to one of the tour guides while they show tourist a number of "must" see items. These are always the same, so if you stand somewhere for longer than 10 minutes you will have heard the same explanation in English, French, and Spanish for certain, and if you stand a little longer, you will probably catch, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and a half dozen other languages. I particularly enjoyed the Russian explanations! Nothing like watching bored, russians with sunburns in swimming suits wandering around this place.
We also visited the some parts of the city briefly, and found it very interesting, as it looked like the whole town is an oversized souk. Small, dimly lit alleys, housing street vendors and small shops everywhere. Did I mention the noise, smog, and traffic. Not, to forget the hustlers, in one case, we were in a mall looking for the internet cafe, that we knew was there, this guy asks us if we are looking for the internet cafe? We said yes, and he goes follow me, so we did, and he took us outside and wanted to take us down the road (we assume to another cafe), we just turned around and went back in, and found the cafe, exactly where it was supposed to be!
Besides the museum, we were here to see the pyramids. So we had a look. In short, they are big, and old. What more is there to say? Somewhere I read that many people over the ages have tried to do them justice in print, and none have succeeded, so I am not going to bother trying. Check out the Pictures: Egypt. Here are a couple of more if you still haven't gotten enough!
No, not more desert, yes more desert. After Cairo, we were really looking forward to some solitude again, and it didn't take long. Just south of Giza we took the turn off and headed past October 24 city, after which we were out in the desert again. Empty horizons, that is just what we needed (ok, we could have done without the flies!). After a few dusty towns and a couple hundred kilometers we made it to the Bahariyya oasis where we tanked up. Here was a good example of the problems faced by tourists to Egypt. At the MISR gas station the attendant put just over 40 liters in Cecilia's gas tank. Pretty amazing considering the tank has a capacity of 31 liters! Well, as you can imagine this started a pretty heated debate. I managed eventually to convince the guy that it was not possible, and in the end, we "negotiated" how much gas actually went into the tank. I paid for approximately 1 liter more than it had actually taken, a relative issue as the gasoline was around 0.25 Sfr/liter, but it is the principle! He was nevertheless very friendly! Which is nice, I don't like being fleeced and treated badly at the same time! In the Bahariyya oasis we found a really nice oasis camp called Eden Garden Camp definitely worth a look if you are in the area. (again for more info see Accommodations: Egypt)
We later heard from Matt & Halszka who had left early that day, that it had been pretty bad, and that we were really lucky to have missed it, as riding a bike would not have been possible. In the car it was very difficult, not to mention dangerous.
Another plus at this oasis, was they have a "hot spring". Basically they run a diesel pump twice or three times a day to provide water for the oasis and they have a basin where the locals and tourist can take a dip and soak while the pump is running. The water coming out is very hot, around 45°C and contains plenty of sulfur, so you have to get used to the smell. Nevertheless, it is really nice to soak, and watch the sunset over the hills in the distance.
After spending a few days here we continued towards the "White" desert, first passing the "Black" desert. Well, since our bikes are too heavy to really go off-road we just drove through. It is the same as what we had seen lots of in Libya, which by no means made it any less interesting. The Libyans have just not gotten around to turning their desert into a tourist destination the way the Egyptians have, although they both have the same thing. Large expanses of desert floor and hills covered with black rocks, making it look like so many chocolate sprinkles strewn on the ground. What has happened is that the lighter sand has just blown away to create dunes further on, and left the heavier rocks on the hard sand or limestone ground. Looks cool though. The guy at the Eden Garden Camp makes his money primarily from running tours into the various deserts around this area. The "Black" desert, the "White" desert, the "Western" desert, and the various oasis around here. So there is plenty to do and see, but you have to get off the road, and that takes special equipment (vehicles). So we would have to be happy with just passing by.
When we got to the "White" desert, we decided to try and drive in a bit to have a look. In some places it was pretty bad, with very deep, powder sand, but we stayed near the hard rocks and made it a couple of kilometers in. At a nice bluff we hiked up to have a look around and decided that we were going to spend the night here and enjoy some wild camping. It turned out to be a fantastic spot, with a nice view of the whole area. We left the bikes there and spent 3 hours hiking around the various rock formations. Incredible what the wind can do. The whole area seems to be made out of limestone and the softer rock has just been eroded away leaving some fantastic shapes standing. And, everything is white, snow white. On film it is indistinguishable from snow! Check out more pictures under Pictures: Egypt.
We were often stopped, at various checkpoints, on this oasis circuit road, and the police always wanted to know the next destination, if not the actual hotel where we were headed for. As we had no such plans we just mentioned the next town on our map, and although they don't understand that we didn't know where we were going to be sleeping, they just shook their heads and let us pass. In Mut (Dahkla Oasis) we stopped at another oasis bedouin camp(!), which had nothing Bedouin about it. But the cabins were reasonable priced, and a German couple Dagmar & Klaus-Peter whom we been leapfrogging since the "Black" desert were also staying here, so we took a room, and made arrangements to have dinner together, later.
Over dinner than night they told us about their plans to head to South Africa in 5 months from Germany. They had been on the road now for 3 weeks!, and Dagmar had just gotten her MC license before leaving. Pretty brave. We mentioned to them about the Matt & Halszka who were heading the same direction in their Jeep, so we figured they would meet somewhere along the way. They gave us some tips about Syria and Jordan which was nice. The following day we parted company and headed to Luxor. Just outside Mut at Al Kharijah, we picked up an escort (police), who then followed us until the checkpoint north of Baris. Here we took the turn-off to Luxor, and just outside of Luxor we camp wild in the desert. Again very nice, totally alone, quiet, endless horizon, what else could you want.
As soon as we got out of the desert, at the first police checkpoint, they stopped us and would not allow us to continue without an escort. So we waited at the checkpoint for 20 minutes until a small pickup with 6 soldiers or so showed up, and we followed this car along the Nile valley north to Luxor. They then let us continue alone once we reached the bridge over the Nile.
As soon as we came within 6-7km from the Nile everything turned green. We drove along a large canal along which a lot of very poor looking houses were hugging the banks. Across the canal before the Nile itself there is a very lush farming area. As we rode along behind the escort, every bridge over this canal, was guarded by people carrying rifles and no uniforms. They always waved at the police, when passing by, but no idea who they are!
Luxor itself, is dominated by the river promenade, where a lot of cruise boats are tied up, and of course the Luxor temple. The boats are basically, huge, multi-storied barges, with all the amenities of a modern cruise line ship, pool, bar, discos etc. They make the run between Aswan and Cairo, and stop at all the various archeological sights along the nile valley.
There is a very nice camping spot in the hear of Luxor, Rezeiky Camp, where pretty much anyone coming through (with their own transport) will stop. Talk to Tony, and remember you are in Egypt, everything is negotiable. From here we walked to the Luxor and had a look. Superlatives are pretty much wasted here. As the pyramids, it is big, and old, and very impressive. It is also in the heart of a middle sized city! It is impossible to take in all the details and history represented by this huge monument. We spent a half a day just wandering around dazed and confused. I really enjoyed seeing the hieroglyphics engraved on every available surface, of course the row of sphinxes was also very impressive. Particularly when I read that it used to stretch more than 3km to the Karnak temple complex further north. This is also a very, very busy tourist attraction, and groups were going in and out in a regular rhythm, I think the package tours do it in around 30-45 minutes and they are off to the next attraction. Karnak, Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, and various other temples are also in this area, so there is plenty to see.
The following day we visited the Karnak temple just north of the campground (which lies between the two major sights here). We decided to go very early in the morning to see if we could avoid some of the crowds. We were at the gate at 05:55, 5 minutes before it opened and there were already two large buses of Japanese tourists. We couldn't believe it. We also couldn't believe the scale of this thing. It was huge, as in "extremely large". The whole Luxor temple complex could fit in a corner and pretty much get lost. This meant that the tourist didn't really bother us, we walked a bit in and were alone. They were pretty much all gone 40 minutes later anyway! This size of this thing didn't really do it for me (Americanism for "I didn't really like it"), in the end I found the Luxor complex much more interesting than this one. Nevertheless, here I found some excellent examples of the colors that they had used to decorate their temples, as it was still visible in some places. Nearly everything we had seen to date was plain sandstone so seeing some color gave us a whole different dimension to the way the ancients decorated their monuments. My favorite items here are the hieroglyphics which had been edited by subsequent generations. They basically edited the history written on the monuments, by re-engraving them (see picture below) pretty cool.
The next day, we headed for the valley of the Kings to see a couple of the tombs. Again, a very busy place. We visited three tombs (Ramses I, Tutmosis III, and Tawusret & Sethnakt, a double tomb). Ramses was nice as the entry was very short, the tomb itself has plenty of colorful wall paintings. The second was the oldest tomb here, and you could see that the style of painting was completely different than what we usually associate with the Egyptian dynasties. In this case there were more than 700 stick figure drawings of gods, and demigods, decorating the ante-chamber (the tomb was in two layers). The last was great as it had a couple of very large rooms, and again every square inch was covered with reliefs in various state of decay, in the first chamber there is a huge very colorful relief of a bird figure which I particularly liked.
A couple of things about the Valley of the Kings
- A lot of tourists take donkeys up to the valley from the village below, this seems to be the in thing to do! Seems pretty much like torture to me.
- there are little open trolleys to take people up the slope to the entrance (it is only a couple of hundred meters, save your money and walk!)
- the ticket allows you to see any three of the tombs, if you want to see more, you have to buy another ticket.
- it is very hot up there, in the late spring and early summer, bring something to drink
- to really enjoy it, bring plenty of time.
- bring a flash light to see in the coffins still there. The guards will shine their lights in there for you for baksheesh. It isn't worth it there is nothing to see but an empty coffin, usually with some trash in it, although some have inscriptions in them.
- If you want to get fleeced, there are plenty of tourist shops both before the gate, and in the village below, knock yourself out. We have rarely seen so much junk in our life, and it never seizes to amaze us what people are willing to spend money on.
- If you have your own transport there are a number of other sights nearby. Additionally, the village itself and the nearby area is interesting, if for nothing else the extreme poverty which the people here live. For many years they made their money dealing in grave robbing, but this is getting more and more difficult as the government has cracked down on illicit digging.
Back in Luxor, we went and visited the Luxor museum. Now that is the way antiquities should be displayed. Very professional and very interesting. Someone, tell Cairo to do the same thing!
From Luxor we headed to Aswan. We talked to everyone we could, to find out about the situation regarding convoys. Apparently traveling anywhere along the Nile requires going with a police escort. These escorts left at certain times of the day for a particular destination. We were adamant about avoiding this hassle, yes I know it is for our own protection. The question is from what. From what I gathered some parts of Egypt aren't in the control of the government. For example some northern parts of the Sinai, which, apparently, have provided the people for the various bombings which have taken place in Egypt in recent years. The same seems to be true of parts of the Nile valley. No one could give me any specific information. Whenever asked, everyone says that there is no problem (mish mushkula), you can go anywhere! The reality seems to be a bit different, as you really cannot go anywhere without an escort. You might manage to bypass one checkpoint, but there are checkpoints at nearly every town, and major crossroad, so there is little chance of getting through.
We chose to head back into the desert, this would avoid the "conflict" area, as there are not supposed to be any convoys here. So as soon as we crossed the Nile we were stopped at the first checkpoint, they provided an escort to the last checkpoint before the desert. They in turn, made us take an escort into the desert (we had told them that we were headed for Bari, 200km away), oh, no! It looked like they were going to escort us there! In the end they only took us 5-6 km inland before turning around, the turn off to the southern route was just 1km further on, man, that was close. Once they were out of sight we turned south and made the drive to Aswan without further problem. The day turned out to be a real scorchers and set a new temperature record 44.7°C. In Aswan we found a nice reasonable hotel, as the campground was pretty bad and far out of town (not suited for camping, but ok for a camping van).
In Aswan we saw the cruise boats again. In town it was just too hot to do much of anything! We did try to go and have a look at the dam, but they wanted to charge us a horrendous amount, so we just turned around. It was definitely to hot to go look at any of the temples or monuments around. Most of them had had to be moved when the dam was built. We did manage to stroll through the souks after dark. The Souks here are supposed to bee one of the best in Egypt because of all the Nubian stuff on sale. To us it looked like more of the same. Ourt two days here were very relaxing and I enjoyed the heat. It got very hot, another record today, 45.7°C (or 114.26°F) (by the way that is in the shade!). Luckily the hotel had air conditioning, and we would just go out late in the afternoon for our daily constitutional, and to check out the area.
The nicest thing about Aswan is the Nile and watching the sunset. We enjoyed sitting on the restaurant boats down at the river and watching the tourists hire feluccas to sail up and down the Nile. Not much wind so in most cases they were towed upstream and then just floated downstream! By the way that is the other major tourist "to do" thing around here. Hire a sailboat and cruise down the Nile, either per hour locally, or a two/three day trip to destinations further north. Aswan is also the point at which the tourist go south in buses to the ruins at Abu Simbel, which are supposed to be spectacular, as they had to be moved to when the dam was built. Also, Aswan is the point where the ferries to the Sudan are, so everyone who is going overland further south has to come here, as there roads are closed. We ran into both the German couple and our South African friend in their jeep, and managed to say our goodbyes and wish them godspeed.
After a couple of days in the oven of Aswan, we were ready to head north. Our destination was actually Marsa Alam but we had heard that the road was closed. We had tried to find out what the convoy situation was at the tourist office, and they "assured" us that we would have no problem going to Marsa Alam, not only would we not need a convoy, but we could take the road that we had heard was "closed". So this was going to be interesting, rule 1, not everything the police tell you is true! In order to stack the odds in our favor we decided to leave early (6:00) to see if we could get to the turn off before everyone was up. Everything started great, the first couple of checkpoints didn't know what to do with us so they just sent us on. By Kaw Umbud, they finally had to do some checking, so they stopped us and made us wait 20 minutes or so while they made some phone calls. We were then surprise when they just said ok, and let us continue. The next problem showed up later in Idfu, here they positively refused to let us continue, even though the turn-off which we wanted could be seen 150 meters up the road. We waited, they telephoned, told us that we weren't allowed on that road, and we would have to take the convoy to Hurghada and take the coast road south again. We explained patiently that, that wasn't what we wanted to do. I even gave away a pack of cigarette to see if this had any influence, no dice. So we waited some more. I asked for explanation why couldn't we go on the road, is there a problem. No problem (mish mushkula), but we still weren't allowed to go. After about 40 minutes, suddenly they came back and said, we could continue. Without any comment we took off as fast as it was prudent. Took the turn-off and in less than 15 minutes were back in the desert. Smooth sailing from here on out!
The area along the Nile was interesting, if for no other reason that there was something to see, not the endless waste of the desert. Around every corner there would be some village, plenty of fields, mostly with Sugarcane, and the associated traffic. We certainly didn't see any reason why there was a need for convoys here (or anywhere else in Egypt for that matter). We were happy to be back in the desert and alone. This road was a dream come true for us. We had spied it a couple of time when flying in to Marsa Alam to go on our dive vacations. From the air the road goes through some spectacular desert mountain landscape, and seems very inhospitable. From the ground it was a lot of fun. Plenty of curves as the road follows various valleys between the mountains. It was great until we started to come out on the other end, where the wind hit us, and out of the mountains it turned out to be pretty strong, which makes riding quite a challenge.
The checkpoint at the coast side seemed very surprise to see us, but let us pass in short order. We had made it to the Red Sea coast! Because of the wind we decided to head north, and passed the various resorts which we knew from our diving excursions. This was a very funny feeling, being somewhere so far from home and actually recognizing something although you had never driven yourself around here.
From here we continued north and in short (ok, long) order made it to Hurghada. The coast is beautiful ride, if it hadn't been for the wind we would have take a lot longer and had a picnic or maybe even camped somewhere, but it was really annoying so we continued. In Hurghada we couldn't find any camping so we found a reasonable hotel. We were going to be here a few days as I had to do an oil change and get our package from DHL, with spare parts, and a heli coil kit for the loose engine stud. Hurghada is a fairly large resort town, with plenty of all the usual amenities so it was convenient. But I doubt that we would ever return here to spend a vacation! I did the oil and oil filter change, took a look at the loose stud, and decided to carry on. I was simply too chicken to do the work here. I am not sure what I was waiting for, but I didn't find it here. We also purchased our tickets for the Ferry between here and Sharm El Sheik, which we wanted to take to avoid having to drive up and then down the whole peninsula. The next place we wanted to visit was the St. Catherine monastery on the Sinai peninsula.
We got everything packed and headed to the port to catch our ferry. Unfortunately, at 7:00 (the time the port opened) someone came out and said "No ferry today". Apparently the wind was still so strong that the ferry wasn't going. So now it was back to the agent who sold the tickets to get our money back, they of course weren't open until 10:00, so we just had to wait. Finally, we got our money and headed north on the coast road. Guess what, yes, a checkpoint, and we weren't allowed to continue without an escort! We couldn't believe it, all our information was that there were no convoys here! Wrong!
They made us wait for over an hour as the convoy was scheduled to leave around 12:00, and by the time it left, there was a large amount of "tourist" vehicles which had to be escorted. These were mainly tour buses, a couple full of the passengers who had also wanted to take the ferry. All our protests didn't work, there simply wasn't any way to avoid this convoy. Too bad, we had almost managed to do most of Egypt without the dreaded convoy. We did manage to make life pretty miserable for them though. First, we went last, and the trailing police car was forced to go very slowly. After a while, they gave up and speed ahead. Later we caught up with them, as they apparently had gotten orders to not let us alone! Further on, we met the convoy at a rest stop, where we were stopped and had to wait for the convoy to get going again. We went last, and nearing Suez, the trailing police car stopped for someone else who seemed to have vehicle problem, so we were alone. The convoy ahead was gone, no idea where, and we went into Suez alone. Here we took a break, before continuing.
Only after we had crossed (gone under), the canal were we stopped again at a checkpoint. We had wanted to camp wild, but unfortunately it had gotten dark, so we decided to push on to a camping in Ras Sudr, which we had on our GPS. But at the check point they wanted to know where we wanted to go, and setup a private escort to take us to the next town. Then things got very interesting. I told them where I wanted to go, but they simply didn't understand and took us to a beach hotel, where after talking to the manager by phone, they took us to a type of holiday village where they offered us a condo for 50E£ by now it was almost midnight, and we were dead, or nearly there, so we capitulated and took the condo. Before going to bed, they asked us where we were headed in the morning, and what time we were leaving. They also left a police watchman in front of our door. In the morning the watchman was still there, as well as a car with another officer in it. I was very curious to see where exactly the camping in my GPS was, so instead of heading out of town, we headed along the beach (this caused some commotion with the police officer as he pointed us to the road out of town, I made it clear we were only going to look at something so he capitulated). Sure enough, 500 meters from where we had been the night before there was the public beach, where we were supposed to be allowed to camp. In contrast to what the manager told me on the phone the night before, as he had said there was no public beach camping in this town!
Anyway, we stopped in the town and did some shopping with the police car as escort tagging along behind. We finished and headed out of town, and the escort turned around and headed back, I guess they only wanted to make sure that we left town. All, in all not a very confidence inspiring situation. There is something going on here, but how serious is difficult to gauge. After leaving Ras Sudr the road turns into the desert and we are back in a mountainous desert environment. In short order we got to St. Catherine and got a nice spot in one of the campground there (after negotiations of course). But not before going through a number of small bedouin villages, a young boy ran into the street and hit me with a stick! I quickly stopped, and turned around and he took off running. He was running so fast his shoes went flying, it was really funny. In the next village, another boy bent down and picked up a rock after Cecilia passed, and when he saw that I was slowing down he dropped it and gave me a sheepish look. Not very nice, I still have no idea why they do it. This makes 4 times where we have been met with something approaching hostility.
We then walked to the monastery and up mount Sinai, we wanted to catch the sunset from up there, in contrast to most tourist, who apparently come to catch the sunrise from the top of Mt. Sinai. This was one of the tips that we got from Matt & Halszka. There were practically no people, and only minimal hassles from people offering, donkey or camel rides up the mountain. We took the long way around (the camel track) and it took us around 2hours to make it to the top. From there, totally alone we enjoyed the sundown, which was very nice and peaceful. The desert colors really come out, and there is a great view back into the valley across from Mt. Catherine. We then walked down in the dark, taking the "stairs" which is the direct way up/down. We had of course taken flashlights, but with the moonlight they weren't even necessary! I preferred the climb down, which was really spooky, not to mention a bit dangerous.
Back at the campground we met a Swiss couple in a VW camper van. Francesco and Manuela, from Tessin. We compared notes on a number of issues, as they had also come from Morocco, with the addition of Algeria, which we had skipped. So we had seen a lot of the same things. They had managed to get transit visas to Libya, something we had only heard about, but never met anyone who had actually managed. They gave us the lowdown on how they managed, check out Formalities: Libya for full details.
The following morning we continued on while Francesco and Manuela were going to climb up the mountain. We said our goodbyes and exchanged co-ordinates. It looked like we would probably run into each other again, either on the coast or in Jordan, as there are only a few ways to go north and we were both more or less planning the same route.
We then headed to Nuweiba where there is a ferry terminal for boats going to Aqaba, our next destination. Since the bombing recently in Dahab, just south of here, Nuweiba was totally deserted. There were practically no tourists. We headed for a camp recommended by our friend Mr. Said back in Cairo. The Petra camp. This turned out to be a little slice of heaven, mostly because it was deserted, and the price (negotiated) was very good. We ended up staying an extra day, and since ferries ran everyday, it wasn't a big deal.
Initially we had wanted to buy the ferry ticket in advance, but this didn't work, as the guy would only sell us tickets for the day we were leaving. So ok, the next day we showed up got our tickets and waited in front of the port until they came and got us. The rest of the formalities can be found under Formalities: Egypt.
Egypt: Last impressions
- despite all the police checks, it is a wonderful country to travel in. Everyone is very friendly and helpful when asked, and often even when not asked!
- You will be hard pressed to ever find out what the actual price of anything is (unless posted). This is the major drawback of independent travel in Egypt. You, as a western tourist will invariably pay more, much more than the actual cost of items. Even if you know the price, they will often not sell it to you at that price! What most tourist don't realize is that the issue is not what the cost is, it may be cheap relative to their expectations, but you need to pay the price relative to the local value.
- You need to know a few words of Arabic, it makes everything much more fun, both for you and for the locals.
- Take your time and concentrate on a couple of items, but spend some time to really explore it, this is true for everything from Museums to the coral reefs.
- Learn to cope with the "special price for you my friend", or "come into my shop, no hassle". They are all just trying to make a living, smile and walk on, or even answer in a friendly but firm tone, "no thanks".
- We will be back, and will bring more time with us.