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Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
Final Statistics: Martin Total distance: 79,698km
Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

Entry to Egypt

Written by Martin Pitwood. Uploaded 31 October 2005.

Jordan & Egypt, Countries 11 & 12, Diary Entry 24-29th Sep 2005

Finally we arrived in Aqaba and the first thing we saw was a MASSIVE flag fluttering over the town - not the Jordanian flag in fact, which is similar, but instead the flag of the Arab Revolution, being displayed for all to see. Presumably not coincidental that the town is a few km from the town of Eilat in Israel with whom the Arab countries love their good-natured banter.

Arab Revolution flagThe second thing we found was a building housing the local Western fast food outlets. Being normally the person who casts scorn upon the tourists who head for McDonald's when there's plenty of good local food to try, I felt a bit of a hypocrite, but decided that after spending several weeks in a region it's not exactly a sell-out to have something from home. After all, we eat Chinese food in England from time to time (justifying it to myself...) so went into Quiznos to buy ourselves a sub sandwich as a very late lunch. After placing our orders we settled onto their terrace which had the chairs chained to the tables by very short chains, so it was lucky we're all so slim so we could sit comfortably while we wolfed down our subs. Maz was by this time feeling well again and as if to prove a point she wolfed down a whole 12" meatball sub, but between you and me I think she regretted it a bit later!

Next stop was an internet café and we found this in the shape of a very nice little hotel called Radisson SAS where we strolled in as if we owned the place and asked to use their business facilities, no problem sir. Nice pool too, but thought that was taking advantage a little too much! (Or was it just that the sun was starting to set?) After that the next task was to find somewhere to sleep which was a little challenging. Jordan has only about 25km of coastline at the tip of the Red Sea wedged between Israel's even tinier part to the west and Saudi Arabia to the south, and in that short space they managed to fit not the town of Aqaba itself, but the passenger ferry port, an enormous cargo port and much of what was left was taken by the military for whatever top secret hush hush purpose. Finally we found a place to camp in the car park for a short public beach a few km south of the ports, not very nice but we called it home. Unfortunately for us it was routinely patrolled by the army and they came along to investigate us in vehicles large enough to compete with ours but winning the competition with the unfair advantage of having a great big machine gun mounted on the top. With some effort we managed to mime that we were only there to sleep and they seemed satisfied with that (showing our "mission statement" flyer translated into Arabic and our British passports helped), but then the next patrol came along half an hour later and it was a different shift so we had to go through the whole routine again. Half an hour later they were back again but the same troops, so we decided to go to sleep thinking that if they really wanted to disturb us then they would have to try harder and actually wake us up, but fortunately they were happy to just come back and look. Apparently they kept coming back every half hour all though the night but I slept through the lot. I'm obviously getting used to people pointing big guns at me!

After our night providing entertainment for the local troops we headed into the town for breakfast and then we contacted Rawan Nimri, our extremely helpful contact at Arab Bridge Maritime who is the company operating the ferry from Aqaba to Nuweiba in Egypt, just a short hop across the tip of the Red Sea. It would be much quicker to go by land but we have no choice but to use the ferry because the land route is via Israel and we must avoid any evidence of visiting Israel otherwise we would be refused entry to Syria and Iran. Many travellers ask the Israeli immigration to stamp a separate piece of paper but that wouldn't work for us since we have documents for the cars as well as ourselves, so it is much easier to avoid any possible problems by just avoiding Israel. Shame, would have been nice to see it, but it'll be there next time (presumably). Arab Bridge Maritime kindly offered us our ferry tickets and were very keen for us to use their flagship The Princess, a fast ferry capable of making the crossing in about an hour, but unfortunately it was in dry dock so our only option was one of the standard ferries which is supposed to take about 3 hours. Luckily the one scheduled for that day was Scherezade, the newest addition to the fleet so all shiny and new!

We arranged to meet Rawan at her office in the city straight away so we drove up there and had a nice chat over another couple of cups of tea and then arranged to meet again later for dinner with her and her husband Ricardo. Meanwhile her recommendation for how to spend the day was to check out the Royal Diving Centre a few km down the coast past the port. This we did, and they kindly welcomed us in. The Royal Diving Centre consists of a couple of swimming pools, a beach bar and restaurant, a well-equipped and expertly staffed diving centre together with a few hotel rooms. The reef comes right up to the beach so they have built a floating jetty to make getting in and out of the water easier and also to stop people walking on the reef, so we thought why not have a little dive while we're lazing around? Royal Diving Centre The guys at the centre were very helpful showing us on a map the configuration of the reef and then after checking our qualifications wisely allowed us to do our own thing, so the three of us went in by ourselves to have a nose around.

Since our diving is mostly from boats we were a little surprised when we went down there to find immediately a beautiful reef swarming with life! Our first Red Sea dive of the trip and a very pleasant way to start off. We stayed down for an hour or so and came out very satisfied, even though there were no wrecks for Alex to get his nose into.

After a spot of lunch we got down to the hard work of loafing for the afternoon (except on one visit to get something from the car I discovered it had a flat tyre which I had to change, which is more effort than you'd think when the weather's so hot) and we had a long conversation with a delightful English lady called Zed who moved out to Aqaba basically on a whim ten years ago and has been teaching English there ever since! Finally the sun set and the breeze picked up so we decided it was time to head back to the centre of town to meet Rawan and Ricardo who very kindly bought us dinner, then finally to the port for the ferry which was scheduled for 11pm meaning we had to arrive at the port to clear all the formalities at around 9pm. Rawan had given us the name of the person to ask for at the port who would help us - a Mr. Amjad Sarayra who actually turned out to be the general manager of the whole operation! So we went to his office and had a cup of tea and then his staff led us around the port completing the various bits of paperwork for ourselves and for the cars (which was very good news as it was not obvious what to do or where to go) and when all was completed we relaxed as best we could on the comfortable leather armchairs in Mr. Sarayra's air-conditioned office while some important football match was on on the TV in the corner. Approaching 11pm we wondered if we should be with our cars ready to board but there was no sign of anything happening so we assumed that we would be told. 11pm came and went, and finally at just gone midnight we were told to go to our cars as the ferry boarding was starting so we drove along the dock to the ferry where the authorities stopped us from boarding telling us we'd have to wait five minutes. Everything is five minutes, so we took that with a pinch of salt and sat back in the cars to see what would happen. Sheep Pens Firstly the sheep pens containing the ship's capacity of 1500 foot passengers were allowed to open and the people boarded, but there was ONE customs official checking people's travel documents as they passed through the final gate. Then the people had to board the ferry via the vehicle deck, which meant that the vehicles could not begin to load until all of the foot passengers were processed, boarded and clear of the vehicle deck, which often had a long queue of people trying to get up the stairs.

We then tried to sneak on board but we were stopped. It wasn't our turn next, it was the buses that were allowed to board. Backwards. The buses were empty as all of the passengers had been unloaded and processed as foot passengers, but each one had to turn around in the small space available and reverse onto the boat, but stopping as it mounted the ramp for the customs official to check each vehicle's documents and the driver's personal documents.

After the buses we tried to sneak on board again but we were stopped again - next were the trucks, also backwards, but many of the drivers seemed incapable of reversing and also many were incapable of considering that the others might need some space to do so, so it wasn't the most efficiently orchestrated routine. Once again each stopped for the customs official and then finally reversed onto the boat.

Finally it was nearing 3:30am we boarded the boat, in reverse naturally, and mounted the stairs to find an Egyptian official with a desk piled up with passports blocking our path and demanding we leave our passports with him for processing. This was why the foot passengers had taken so long to board! Normally we don't like to let our passports out of our sight but by this time we were so tired we just gave them the passports and walked on.

ShipArab Bridge had kindly arranged for us to have cabins, which was a real godsend by this time as we were ready to either fall asleep standing up, or alternatively kill someone, and every spare horizontal surface was already taken by the foot passengers who had boarded some four and a half hours previously. After going through a few different people we finally found someone with the authority to help us, he gave us cabins which were spotlessly clean and with extremely comfortable beds (like we would have cared) and finally got to sleep at about 4am with the boat still docked in Aqaba.

After being woken up at about 5:30am to collect our passports and returning to the sanctuary of our cabins, we woke up a second time at about 9:00am in a panic that we had overslept and wondered if we were on our way back to Jordan! But on investigation we discovered that sure enough the ship was still pointing towards Egypt and crawling along at it's own pace. Far from being annoyed that the crossing had taken longer than the 3 hours, we were very pleased indeed as it allowed us a lot more sleep than we were expecting. Finally the ship docked at around 9:30am and we made our way to the vehicle deck.

A simple task, you might think, but no. Everyone decided that they should be first to descend to the car deck, whether they were a driver or a foot passenger, and we found ourselves in the middle of an unnecessarily dangerous crush of people. Fortunately Maz and I were close to the exit and we got through before it got too bad, but Alex was a little behind us and when he finally appeared at the cars he was quite shaken, he said it was getting extremely scary up there and he was glad to be out of it!

Finally we drove off the ferry and into Nuweiba port. This was where the REAL fun started!

We had heard that Egypt was one of the most difficult countries for importing vehicles so we were expecting a lengthy, complicated and expensive process, but we were not really prepared for what followed.

Firstly we were told to stop and wait, so we stopped and waited. We soon realised that they'd happily let us wait all day so we went off to find a tourist policeman, who helped us through the process by pointing in general directions of where we should go next, but really he wasn't much use at all. I'll cut the story short and spare you all the tedium of what we went through, but the previous record holder for number of windows (Turkey on 9) was blown right out of the water here. There were only about 13 or 14 different windows but because we had to visit most of them several times we ended up walking past Maz sitting in the car every few minutes who thought it very amusing and started surreptitiously filming us. From playing back the film, Alex rates the final score at 32 windows! At one point, one window held one of our documents until we got a piece of paper from another window. That other window wouldn't give us the piece of paper until we had another piece of paper from a third window, and that window wouldn't give us the piece of paper without seeing the document that the first window wouldn't give us! After pleading, shouting and nearly crying, we wriggled out of that loop but the whole process, despite involving no queuing at any of the windows, still took four hours of walking round in circles.

If you're only going to download one video clip from the whole website, make it this one. Now you can understand what Alex does with the time when Maz is driving. Make sure you have the sound switched on on your computer otherwise it won't make as much sense! Click the thumbnail below!

Egyptian CustomsAfter that experience added to the late night the night before, we decided to have an easy day. The first place we wanted to see in Egypt was Dahab which is conveniently only an hour from Nuweiba along a very scenic road cutting through the desert mountains of southern Sinai. Dahab itself is a small town on the coast which has long been popular with the hippy types, but the main attraction to us was the diving along the coast either side of the town, including the infamous Blue Hole. In this area the coral fringes the shoreline giving a beautiful turquoise colour. The Blue Hole itself is a hole in this reef around 200m across which plunges down to unknown depths so the colour as seen from the surface is a deep blue circle in the turquoise. It has been explored to a depth of 195m but is believed to be more than 300m deep in places! Where the reef encircles the hole on the seaward side the depth is only 7m, and the other side of that the reef leads downwards like a wall to as deep as you like, making this area popular with technical divers wanting to push the limits with mixed gases and also with free (breath hold) divers making their record attempts. As such it has also been the scene of many accidents which has prompted the Egyptian authorities to introduce some new laws which were a surprise to us, not having been in place the last time we visited several years ago: 1. Maximum depth is 30m (unless you're a technical diver). 2. You must have a registered dive guide with you. You can imagine our reaction to finding these rules (i.e. try to find a way around them) but all the operators seemed to be very strict on these points.

Our initial stop was at the Hilton where we found Sinai Divers and we had a long chat with Andree about the diving in the area and she was very interested to hear what we were doing. She recommended that we go to the other branch of Sinai Divers, the one in the town, because it was more geared to independent travellers like ourselves, so we made a bee-line for that and quickly arranged some dives for the next day. After a delicious big pile of fish for dinner we retired to the beach for the night.

The next morning we got up early for our dives and our dive guide was a chap called Ashraf. After clearing a space in my car for him to sit (which gets easier every time I have to do it!) we made our way along the interesting track to the north of the town - definitely 4WD only and snail's pace for some of the tricky parts, as far as our first dive site: The Canyon.

This is a beautiful dive through a fissure in the rocks into a huge cavern under the sea bed, definitely a place you need good buoyancy control because the insides are covered in coral all around, and the exits filled with shoals of glassfish.

After lunch at a Bedouin style camp with western style food, we moved to our second dive site: entering at The Bells and moving along the reef to The Blue Hole for the end of the dive. Blue Hole The entry was rather narrow with a number of divers all trying impatiently to get through it at the same time, but once we were in and descending we got away from them quite easily. The Bells is so called because it is a narrow gap in the coral through which it's easy to bash your tank against the sides as you descend. Exiting the gap onto the wall made for a scenic dive, and we continued along the wall following an unhurried turtle until we ascended to 7m to enter the Blue Hole by its upper opening (there is another entrance at 56m but that's a little deep!). Inside the hole itself there is actually not too much life except in the top few metres, but the idea of crossing the hole knowing that there's nothing except "the big blue" above you for 30m, any direction to the sides for 100m and below you for 300m is a very bizarre experience.

We didn't hang around after the dives because we had arranged to meet Wolfgang from Seamax diving centre in Sharm El Sheikh that evening. Sharm is only about an hour's drive from Dahab but takes more like an hour and a half because of the police checks entering and leaving each place and also the fact that Sharm spreads for ever and Seamax is at the far end. The road was very pleasant though, winding around the desert mountains for which the Sinai peninsula is famous. We arrived in the early evening and met Wolfgang at his house before going out for a meal in the evening where we a fabulous platter of seafood - giant shrimps, grilled fish, calamari and lobster. You know it's good calamari when even people who don't normally like calamari liked it. We then went back to his house where we met his other house guests Rolf and Petra Gross, a German couple who run the Diver's Travel Guide website http://www.divers-travel-guide.com so we had some long conversations about diving spots around the world, looking through their photo galleries and Alex showing her his selection online (/diving/Diving.htm in case you haven't seen it) and Petra was more than keen to link to us and Alex was proud to show off his handiwork to a wider audience! We ended up being invited to spend the night chez Wolfgang - our first night inside a house for quite a while and much more convenient than trying to find a campsite in amongst the sprawl of resort hotels!

The next morning we got up and went out on Seamax's boat for a day's diving. For a change I was the keenest of the bunch doing three dives, Alex and Maz doing two each. Our guide was a very enthusiastic South African named Julian. After a quick chat he seemed to understand our situation, namely that we would prefer not to have a guide at all, and he appreciated that we're all well experienced, so basically his tack was to give us a briefing to tell us what was down there, stress the 30m limit and then really let us get on with it. As a result we could do what we liked, but with him there to point in the general direction we ought to be heading. In addition he seemed to be very good at finding things to look at, particularly the small creatures one might easily swim past if not looking at the detail of the reef. As a result, the dives were good and we didn't feel like we were being led around.

The first of the three dives was The Small Crack, to get us wet and for Julian to check us out. I think we passed the test because we managed over an hour underwater without getting a red card! Julian concentrated more on fixing broken bits of coral than watching us anyway :)

Secondly Jackfish Alley, where there were lots of jackfish. This may sound obvious but standard dive site naming convention requires that once you name a site after an animal it promptly disappears never to be seen at that site again.

Finally three dive sites in one dive... Anemone City (yes there were anemones but let's face it they can't move too far), Shark Reef (no sharks) and Yolanda Reef named after the Yolanda wreck. We didn't do the wreck itself because it's down at 60-something metres but some of its cargo is shallower, basically the cargo consists of a couple of lumps of metal and a big pile of toilets. Not very exciting but after two reef dives Alex was in his element and snapping away left right and centre with his camera. I bet you all look forward to those photos...

After returning to dry land, we met Wolfgang again at his shop and went back to his place for a barbecue. His house is magnificently positioned on the edge of a cliff looking down onto the bay. Unfortunately the pool was out of action but the barbecue was working fine and we had a mountain of food which Petra had spent much of the day preparing, and with full stomachs once again (surprise surprise) we retired to bed.

The next day we got up in no particular hurry and took full advantage of Wolfgang's hospitality by drinking his coffee, eating his peanut butter (presumably procured through his contacts at the Multinational Force of Observers base!) and using his internet connection before heading for lunch at a nearby sandwich shop - a great little place with fantastic toasted sandwiches and even more fantastic cheesecake - over which we discussed the charity and Wolfgang proposed the idea of a charity dive. The idea was that there would be a special trip organised towards the end of our time in Egypt when we would be returning to the area, hopefully to dive the wreck of the Thistlegorm, and the profits from the day would go to CARE on our behalf. Wolfgang said that the South Sinai Association for Diving and Marine Activities (SSDM), which is the overseeing body of diving operators in Sharm, would probably be interested in helping, maybe getting other dive operators to join in, so after we finished lunch we headed round to the SSDM office to meet Captain Halim. More tea was offered and accepted, of course, and The Captain thought it was a really nice idea and promised to push the idea around the other operators in Sharm.

Finally it was time to bid au revoir to Sharm and press on towards Cairo as Maz was flying home for the weekend to attend her friends Ants and Steve's wedding.

Cairo is about 500km by road from Sharm so we allowed about 8 hours for the trip because we didn't know how good the roads would be. The first part was fine and quite straight but then after about 100km we had our first experience of true Egyptian roads - the good old police convoy! The road was blocked and we were not allowed to go ahead. After finding someone to interpret for us, we learned that the police would not allow us to go alone for security reasons and we had to wait for enough vehicles to gather together when we would all set off together with police escort front and rear. It was hard to get a straight answer as to when this would be, but after a 20 minute delay it seemed that about 30 vehicles was enough and we all set off together at about 70-80km/h, and then 20km down the road the police stopped us all to wait again. We found the same interpreter who said it would be like this as far as Cairo... at this rate, Maz would certainly miss her flight! The police pulled over again to hand over to another car and I think we were supposed to stop but we decided to sail on past them. They looked a bit surprised but what could they do? So we continued unhindered to the tunnel under the Suez Canal and then onwards to Cairo airport where we finally arrived about 2 hours before the scheduled flight time. It was delayed, of course, but at least we were there. After some food at the airport it was nearing midnight so I said goodbye to Maz and went to sleep in my car, while Alex waited with her until she left laden like a pack mule with presents for friends and family and all the bits and pieces Alex had broken and wanted fixed.

And then there were two... we decided that the next day being Friday there would be no point trying to see anything in the city as it would all be closed so we headed to the west of the city centre and Giza, home of the Pyramids. After a few minor detours we found the main entrance to the Pyramids at about 2:00am and the tourist police told us to come back later when they were open. Thanks for that! But when we asked if there was somewhere we could camp they helpfully pointed us to the normally US$250 per night Mena House Oberoi hotel, right next door to the Pyramids, where we should be allowed to camp for the night. It took some persuasion before they let us in but eventually we were allowed in and we parked up, erecting our roof tents to their considerable surprise and crashing out for the night.

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Comment from Ant
I guess all this local food, plenty of fish, varied veggies and lots of exercise diving means you're all looking slim and healthy - is that why the craving for McFat occurred?!

just a bit worried - Martin hasn't mentioned ice cream for a whole week or so...

Hope you're not getting too 'saddle sore' with all this driving - your fun on the ferry sounds more amusing than a few hours stop on the M25 anyway.

Will see what state you left the Red Sea in as visiting Sharm next week!

01 Nov 2005 @ 13:58:53