The Adventure Starts Here
With land borders closed between Egypt and Sudan, the only way to travel south, overland, is to take the weekly ferry from Aswan to Wadi Halfa. That suited me just fine. In the offices of the Nile River Valley Transport Corporation, the elusive Mr. Azizz sold me a ticket in “deck class” (cattle class) and advised me to be at the port for 08:45 the following morning.
I couldn’t sleep that night; the next day, I would be traveling to Sudan. Despite having been away for nearly six months, I had the feeling that the traveling started here, as I crossed into “Africa proper”. The rules of the game were about to change.
The port lies 13km south of Aswan next to the High Dam, which forms the northern edge of the world’s largest artificial lake, Lake Nasser. Getting off the train to the port, Mr. Azziz’s advice regarding an early arrival seemed rather optimistic; a crowd of people were stood before the locked gates. Goods & suitcases were strewn everywhere. Identical boxes of televisions and food-processors lay on the asphalt. It seems this ferry is the source of quite a few of Sudan’s imports, which suffer from the sanctions imposed on the country by the West.
When the gates finally open, having fought through the bustle, there are ticket inspections, passport inspections, fees to be paid for my backpack, Egyptian exit stamps to be purchased and more passport checks. Bureaucracy is going nowhere fast as I head south.
It is around eleven by the time I set foot on the boat, naïvely bagging a spot on a wooden bench below deck, which would be shared between four people. Sleeping could be interesting. The smell of rice and chicken emanates through as crew are busy chopping vegetables in the dining area next door.
We wait. We wait. And we wait.
The boat fills up, then fills some more. People are on the verge of being squeezed overboard as one ascends the steep, rickety metal staircase to the deck. Whoever estimated the quota of tickets was very optimistic. The cramped seating area below deck is full, as legs extend over bags through the narrow aisles between benches. Above deck in the blistering sun, bodies and boxes are crammed-in over every square inch. Walls of luggage are erected, cordoning off parts of the deck to their occupants. People huddle under the lifeboats for shade. Whoever estimated the quote for these lifeboats was very optimistic.
A choice has to be made between the hot, stuffy air from so many bodies being crammed in below deck, or the heat from the blazing afternoon sun on the shade-less deck. Either option seems unbearable, and we are still firmly docked in Egypt. Hauling up my bag, I opt to spend the night on deck, sharing some space with a group of Egyptians going to work in Sudan, and a small group of fellow khawaaja, who are all over-landing it down to South Africa in two 4x4s. There aren’t many of us Westerners on this boat, and the low numbers of our visas indicate that we won’t cross many more once we arrive.
It is it around 6pm when the loud rumble of the engines increased in pitch and we start out over the darkening waters of Lake Nasser, ten hours after I was told to arrive. When the muezzin’s call blasts over the ship’s speaker, the scores of Muslim men are initially disorientated, trying to determine in which direction lies Mecca for the Maghrib prayer.
Later in the evening, with the moonlight reflecting over the lake’s water, we are called below deck to complete part of the Sudanese registration, clambering across the limbs strewn everywhere. A thermometer is promptly shoved into our ears, ostensibly testing for signs of H5N1; I pity the poor Ozzie who opted to register for all of his compatriots - he received the ear inspection three times.
Thomas, a Belgian guy, strings up his hammock much to the intrigue of our Egyptian buddies. The rest of us lay out sleeping bags on the hard, metal deck, trying to avoid involuntary bouts of footsie as we squeeze into the available space. As my back cracks on the hard metal floor, I fall asleep feeling very content with life. Tomorrow, I will be in the Republic of the Sudan.
Waking at dawn, the ruins of Abu Simbel loom on the desertic banks of the lake, meaning that we have traveled 280km south of Aswan and are only 40km from the Sudanese border. The overlanders have a GPS unit and so a count-down ensues to the frontier; the occasional fishermen that row past in small boats are oblivious to the sense of excitement we feel.
We have to fight our way through the increasing bustle below deck in order to perform a second part of the Sudanese entry process. Three men faithfully copy out the details of passports, profession and intentions for visiting the country into three separate notebooks. Carbon paper provides duplicates of the forms we fill out. A step-back in time, and a small introduction to the infamy of Sudanese bureaucracy.
Arriving in the port, a pontoon lies between us and the shore. Impromptu steps are made from crates, and the men working there seem to be improvising our exit strategy. One could imagine that this is the first time this boat has docked here with the level of disorganisation, but this scene must play itself out every week. A scrum forms to leave the boat, and despite my intentions to just sit it out on the deck and wait for people to disperse, we are ushered off and into the heart—and heat—of it all, wielding backpacks down the steep metal steps as a uniformed Sudanese police officer shoves people back.
And with that, I set foot onto Sudanese soil.
» See all photos from the Aswan - Wadi Halfa ferry.