It’s Tuesday morning and the traffic is moving as usual around the Tahrir square. It’s almost hard to grasp that this is where it all started, what people here simply call The Revolution. A building that has been burnt is one of very few traces of what has taken place here. It’s a powerful feeling to look out over the square, which is actually more of a roundabout, where the the revolution began.
But business as usual around Tahrir square and the pleasant atmosphere in Cairo isn’t quite what we expected to find in Egypt. Our image of Egypt, I must admit, was not very positive. Other travelers had told us about the persistent and sometimes even aggressive salespeople who gather around tourists like flies, friends had told us about food poisoning, protests and violence earlier this fall led us to wondering whether we would be able to travel through the country at all. So we now came into Egypt with very low expectations, without any plans of spending much time here. Turns out we were in for something else!
On the Sinai Peninsula we stay along the east coast, which is considered reasonably safe according to the travel recommendations. In Nuweiba we relax for a few days among Russian all-inclusive tourists before we make an overnight stop about an hour south in Dahab, a very nice little town with focus on diving and snorkeling. Another hour south we stop in Sharm el Sheik. Finding cheap accommodation amongst luxury hotels and casinos is hard enough, finding somewhere to camp in the car seems out of the question. But the second night we find our way to Ras Mohamed National Park just outside Sharm el Sheik and it will turn out to be the best accommodation we’ve had so far. After a bit of snorkelling at sunset, we say goodbye to the few tourists who come to swim for the day, and then have the entire park to ourselves. It is us, the Landcruiser, some scared crabs on the beach and a bunch of half-wild dogs curiously looking at us in the dark from the top of a sand dune. We eat an evening snack on the roof and watch the stars and the airplanes on their way to land a bit further east. The sun wakes us up early. After breakfast, we take out fins and snorkels again. You just have to walk out into the water and as soon as it gets deep enough to swim you can start looking for fish. Further out, pieces of the reef shoot up like small mountains from the bottom, seemingly gray and dreary from a distance but full of colorful coral and fish when we swim close enough to get the sunlight to help us see it. We rinse off the salt water, pack up camp and leave the park just like the day’s tour buses and boats with tourists start arriving.
We are now going to drive to Cairo and this is a stretch that we’ve been a little nervous about after hearing about road pirates and assault. After talking to several people living in Egypt we decide to follow the advice to drive along the entire Sinai peninsula coast instead of the alternative of going diagonally across. At a checkpoint a little bit north, we’re stopped and have to wait for quite a while before a man starts waving at a bunch of trucks and another car also waiting on the side of the road.
- Follow that car! he says, waving.
In poor English we are informed that after 100 km we will get our Egyptian registration back, the document we show at all checkpoints – we just need to follow the other cars. We do as we’re told and soon realize this is one of the armed escorts that we have heard occur along the coast. We drive in convoy with a bunch of cops in a blue pickup truck right behind us. If it feels more secure we can not say – we haven’t received any information about what to do if a hazardous situation would actually occur! We don’t see anybody along the way, it’s good visibility in every direction and everything seems very calm, but we conclude that it is probably not the time to ask for a pee break.
Tourism has been affected severely by the revolution and the security measures of having the armed escorts gives us an even stronger feeling of actually having quite a value as a tourist. In Cairo, however, it just gets too much. The busloads of tourists who usually gather around the pyramids of Giza are nowhere to be seen and sellers of souvenirs and camel rides are far too many in relation to the number of tourists. We can only take a few steps at a time before we get hassled by a new pushy salesman and sadly they somewhat ruin the experience of seeing one of the world’s most famous historical sites.
We have already spent more time in Egypt than we had planned and it is time to head south to catch the ferry across Lake Nasser to Sudan before our visas expire. Putting the car on a barge and go with a passenger ferry from Aswan in Egypt to Wadi Halfa in Sudan is the only way to cross the border for us overlanders. There are roads in the desert, but they are not open to foreigners. There are a lot of rumors that the roads will open and that it may be possible to fix a permission to drive with a military escort, but after driving around the Sinai peninsula with a slight tummy ache we want to take the safe option and stick to known routes.
We leave Cairo in time to catch a ferry before our visas expire. But what we haven’t calculated on is that it is soon the Islamic holiday of Eid and hundreds of Sudanese people want tickets to go back home to their families before the holiday. There is no place either for us or the handful of other overlanders in the same situation.
- You can come back after Eid, says mr Salah with great authority.
He is the man everyone wants to talk to, the man who has all power over the ticket office. Nobody travels to Sudan without first seeing mr Salah. We are begging, asking again and again to avoid any misunderstandings, maybe there is a little chance? Mr Salah just shakes his head.
Two weeks in Aswan, a city we had not even heard of before we started planning this trip. This is the frustration with this type of trip, to suddenly get stuck in one place without the freedom to being able to move on, stressed about the days passing by, but it’s also the charm of it all. Once we have accepted the fact that we’re not going anywhere we take it easy. After spending a few days finalizing all documents and reserving tickets for the boat trip to Sudan the following week we enjoy a few relaxed days accompanied by the Nubians and some other travelers.
Aswan is located east of the Nile, but on the west bank we live just outside the Nubian village with houses traditionally built with mud and painted in blue or yellow. We take the ferry across the Nile to the city if necessary for one pound, but mostly we just hang around the west bank, going fishing in the river, climbing sand dunes and cooking over an open fire down by the river.
Nubians are known for their hospitality and we can only agree. The atmosphere in the village is friendly. The women stay in the background, almost all of them covered in more or less full veils. One exception is Moshira who lives with her mother and three sisters in the village – when she’s not working as a tourist guide in Aswan, Luxor and Hurghada.
- I am the only female tourist guide here and we are not many women who can speak English. I can actually drive a car too, she says with laughing.
Time after time, Egypt has surprised us and even though we many descriptions have fitted, we are very pleased to also be able to experience a different Egypt.