Welcome To Egypt.
My day off in Aswan had been my first non-driving day since leaving Nairobi. It was a nice opportunity to rest up a little, and do some travel basics such as laundry. But the mood in Aswan wasn’t great for travellers, so I set my sights on the Israeli border at Eilat. I got an early start out of Aswan in the morning and headed back to the desert road I had used from Abu Simbel. I stopped for fuel (80 Octane) on my way out of the city. I attached my Egyptian number plates to my car with some electrical wire and checked the Alfa’s oil levels.
The town of Edfu was like stepping back in time to the dark ages. It was busy and chaotic and it took forever to get through. The streets were full of livestock and people in traditional Islamic dress and burkas. At this point I decided to move away from the Nile Valley and head to the Red Sea Road, which was easier going, apparently. So I crossed the bridge in Edfu and ran into a military road block on the eastern side.
I was immediately pulled over and ordered to park my car and hand over all my paperwork. A solider in uniform pawed through my documents for a few minutes before marching off and ordering me to stay where I was. 10 minutes later he returned and summoned me to a small make shift office where a military big-shot sat behind a school desk. He had my passport, drivers license, international drivers permits, trip ticket, and carnet on the desk in front of him. He was a big Arab man with a moustache and aviator sunglasses. His white uniform reminded me of the police in Tanzania, he looked like a deckhand on a Russian yacht. He looked me up and down and quizzed me about my movements in Egypt. After a few minutes he handed my documents back and said “welcome to Egypt” in a very sinister way.
I was now on the desert road to Marsa Alam, heading away from the Chaos of the Nile Valley. The road was cracked by the sun and bumpy, but it was empty and I made good time into the desert. I stopped for something to eat at a bus stop in the desert, the owner told me how difficult it was now that there were no tourists. I could tell that the shop was built to cope with bus loads of tourists at a time, but I was the only one in on that day.
Towards the end of the Marsa Alam road, where I could see the blue waters of the Red Sea beyond the town of Marsa Alam I came across another military checkpoint. Once again I was asked to park and wait for an official.
A man with a pink shirt and a pistol came to take my documents away. A solider in a white uniform, with rotting teeth began to empty my car of luggage. He spread everything down on the hot tarmac and began to search through everything. The man in pink took my documents into a prefab building and when I tried to follow him another solider levelled his Kalashnikov at me and told me to wait where I was. “Welcome to Egypt” he smirked.
The two soldiers sat in the shade under a small mud structure, near my luggage, while I waited in the sun next to my car in the 45 degree heat. The hours seemed to blur. The soldiers had taken my phone, so I don’t know exactly how long I was in the sun, it was between three and four hours. Eventually a 4×4 arrived and out stepped another big-shot with aviators and a pot belly. The men returned with my paperwork and told me to pack my car. Then they handed me my phone and documents and smiled “Welcome to Egypt”. I asked why I was detained and they said that it was “Routine”. Welcome to Egypt.
By the time I was back on the road the sun was low in the sky and the blue of the sea had changed to red, as it reflected the afternoon light from the mountains, hence its name; The Red Sea. I arrived in Marsa Alam near the end of the day, the time I saved from my early start was destroyed but sitting at the checkpoint all afternoon. I filled up with fuel and prepared myself mentally for a long drive in the dark to Hurghada, a few hundred kilometres up the coast.
The drive was long and I was exhausted. I’m sure, in retrospect, I was suffering from mild heat stroke. The road was in fairly good condition so I made good time, but along the entire stretch, for almost 300 kilometres it was littered with rubble and incomplete resorts and hotels. The tourism industry had been destroyed and abandoned projects were left all over the region. I don’t know how they could ever be cleaned up. The concrete monsters were so huge that they could never be removed. The Red Sea coast has been irreversibly scarred by nasty developments and resorts, most of which will never be finished.
I arrived in Hurghada late that night, around 9pm. My hotel was an enormous place on the beach with 500 rooms. It was from the 1950s and was quite grand. There was one other guest. At breakfast the next day I saw him on the other side of the huge dinning hall. I didn’t hang around in Hurghada, It was a confusing town, many of the roads were blocked off, making it difficult to find my way out and the roadblocks funnelled cars towards the military checkpoints on the edges of town, luckily on that morning I got through in a relatively short time.
In better days one could take the ferry from Hurghada to Sharm El Sheikh, 80 kilometres away on the Sinai Peninsular. Now the boats had stopped and I had no choice but to make the trip to Suez and down to Sharm, a distance of 800 kilometres. I got on the road, with the sun on my right hand side as I drove north. The road was still littered with rubble and abandoned and unfinished construction projects.
I arrived at Suez at around noon. My plan was to use the tunnel that goes underneath the Suez Canal. There was a huge backlog of traffic going through security checks. All cars and trucks were X-rayed before being allowed into the tunnel. I was once again pulled aside for a more thorough search before being let through. It must have been 3pm before I got to the other side of the canal.
I got on the road heading South to Sharm El Sheikh in the afternoon. I now had the sun on my right again as I headed south, back in the direction I had just come. I was quite badly sunburned by the end of the day.
At Sharm El Sheikh, around 6pm I arrived at the main gate to the city. There was a checkpoint and the police were actually quite friendly, having heard I had driven all the way from Hurghada they let me through in a few minutes. Sharm El Sheikh is completely different to the rest of Egypt. Suddenly there were shopping malls and hotels and amusements parks. There were tourists everywhere and it was actually quite busy. I found my hotel, a huge place on the beach and parked outside on the street and carried my heavy bags inside on my own as the porters in golf karts watched on. At reception I was told to wait. I had driven 800 kilometes in desert heat and all I wanted was to take a shower and have dinner.
Some soldiers marched into the reception and wanted to know who had the foreign vehicle outside; and so I was interrogated in the hotel lobby by another fat soldier in aviators. I wanted more than anything to not be in Egypt. Israel was so close, I abandoned any plans to relax for a while in Sharm and decided to make a dash for the border the next morning.
In the morning I had breakfast in a crowded restaurant full of Russians before checking out. I found my car in on the street where someone had driven into the side of it in the night, leaving a dent in the left rear wing.
From Sharm El Sheikh to the Isreali border is only 230 kilometres, but of course it took all day as I was stopped at every checkpoint. At one checkpoint a chinless man in a pink shirt found my iPod and shouted at me “WHAT IS THIS HUH? WHAT IT THIS?” which was strange because he had the Samsung smartphone, so he was no stranger to technology. The closer I got to the border the more checkpoints there were, and it became obvious I was heading for Israel which didn’t help the mood of the police. The road along the Gulf of Aqaba was also littered with unfinished and abandoned resorts, but occasionally it moved away from the sea and wound through the rugged Sinai Mountains, which was great.
In the late afternoon, after a difficult process in the disorganised Egyptian border compound, I rolled out past my last set of white-uniformed police and into Israel. Egypt had not been a good experience. I can’t say if it had been this way thanks to the Revolution or not. I found people were mostly unfriendly and unhelpful except for a small minority such Jacob. I decided not to drive into Cairo based on the horror stories of the traffic I had heard from fellow travellers, and judging by what I had seen in Aswan, they were not far off from the truth. It wasn’t worth wrecking my car to get a photograph with the pyramids.
There were so many other confrontations and difficulties that I don’t want to bore my readers with. It’s a shame that Egypt, a land of such mythology and history, seems to be just another unpleasant land of cinderblock cities and unrest. In my last two days of driving I had become so focused on my goal of getting to Israel that one fact had slipped my mind, when I crossed the border I would no longer be in Africa. I had officially crossed Africa in an Alfa Romeo, unassisted and alone.