"Ex Africa semper aliquid novi", quoth Pliny the Elder. There is some debate about what he really meant, but most likely he meant trouble. In this sense has the phrase been used most often since but I hope to reverse the trend and on these pages bring you the exciting, novel and curious out of Africa.

And wherever I am I hope to remain,
Ex Africa Semper Yours,
Berenika


Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Boat to Wadi Halfa


I scarcely remember the uneventful and smooth journey from Cairo to Aswan, other than, a rather unrepresentative for those troubled times, encounter with Egyptian Armed Forces, embodied in a single friendly soldier who bought me my train ticket at the ‘residents’ counter, effectively decimating its price. 


The journey begins
The plan was to get a boat from Aswan to Wadi Halfa – the only way to cross the border between Sudan and Egypt. Why there is no border crossing anywhere else across the hundreds of miles of Egypto-Sudanese border, I shall never now. Perhaps it’s easier to police the one and only ferry that crosses Lake Nasser every week.

There are many myth and legends surrounding the logistics of getting the ferry. It is indeed a harrowing process so I will give my account of them in a separate post for any fellow travellers who are looking for clarification.

For the purpose of this account it suffices to say I miraculously managed to secure a ticket for my passage. Matthias, a fellow-traveller whose acquaintance I struck a few days earlier, also managed to get in and we settled comfortably under a life-raft on the top deck and awaited the boat’s departure while watching our surroundings with interest.

Ahmed in his fortress
The frenzied procedure of boat-loading is a sight not to be missed. It’s worth arriving early not only to secure a good spot, but also to behold it. Other passengers certainly didn’t believe in travelling light. It seemed as if every passenger was carrying a TV set as hand-luggage, in addition to the fridges and ovens sticking out of their bags.

The Sudanese go to Egypt to trade and bring back goods ill-available at home. Due to embargoes and poor state of domestic manufacturing many household appliances are beyond the means of many. Ahmed, a thirty-something teacher of English from Khartoum with whom I spoke during the slow hours of the passage, told me how he tries to go to Egypt every year, financing his journey through the sale of Egyptian T-shirts in Khartoum. He buys household items for himself and his mother. This time he bought a boom-box.

Thanks to this entrepreneurial spirit our boat got filled in no time, with boxes and cartons piled in every available corner, many of them forming impenetrable fortresses behind which lucky owners squatted, jealously guarding their space and belongings. Interestingly, right from the start a large space was enclosed with single wall of boxes – that formed the prayer square.

Extra barge almost loaded
Top-deck was certainly not enough to accommodate all those bags, boxes and baskets so soon a second barge had to be attached to our boat. Loading it looked uncannily like filling a dumpster. Luggage was thrown, protesting owners pushed, loaders yelled at, children lifted overhead, animals dragged under foot. There must have been a method to this madness but not one that I could discern during the six hours of observation.

When I got tired of watching I went back to lie down under my life-raft. I put my rucksack under my head and prepared to nap when suddenly suffocating darkness engulfed me. A big, warm blanket was thrown over my head and body. When I scrambled from under it I saw an excessively bearded face apologetically looming over me. It belonged to a man in a white embroided jellaba who made it clear with his gestures that he wished me to remain covered with it. Obviously, my feminine curves  - in my baggy khaki pants, dirty loose safari shirt and big trekking boots - were just too much to have to endure.

Some men preached, others fished
This was my first encounter with what turned out to be the Conversion Squad, a group of seven imams on their way from Cairo to Sudan on a religious mission. They did not speak English, and would not speak to me directly, so I did not manage to find out who and to what exactly they were trying to convert in Islamic Sudan but they certainly tried their best with my fellow-traveller Matthias.

While they would not address me, nor look at me for long they did however try to connect. Possibly aware of my opposition to the heavy blanket they tried to placate my anger with gifts. First, a piece of sweet candy landed on my blanket dropped by a passing imam. Second, came a little triangle of cheese-spread. Then another. Than a whole round box of cheese, followed by a whole bag of the same sweet candy. All thrown from a respectable distance by a messenger who would then scuttle away before I could make eye contact. Last was thrown a little vial of sweet-smelling perfume.

I must have single-handedly depleted their whole conversion fund for Sudan, they were very generous. I for one thought it better to stay on their good side: one, the blanket turned out to be very useful during the chilly night on the boat; two, someone listening to the radio brought news that the Americans killed Osama bin Laden that very day. There was no visible outburst of emotion at the news, but given the fact Osama used to live in Khartoum and Americans are not very popular in the country anyway Matthias and I decided to keep a low profile on the boat.

Abu Simbel seen from the boat
This did not stop me into the venturing in the hot belly of the boat, its lower decks. Women and children stay below deck, in cabins and open seated areas. This is deemed more decent than the top deck agora where men hold sway. It is also considered healthier than the chilly air. I have my doubts about that one. The humid, stifling, hot air, imbued with thousand smells of food and sweat, the murky water running down the corridors, the rubbish and sheer mass of people made the place a living hell. I went downstairs, exchanged my food voucher for a very dodgy looking gruel, ful and chapatti and resurfaced on the breezy deck again.

The night was peaceful and starry and I slept as soundly as one can while waking it every hour or so to check if my bag was still there. But the morning awakening was glorious for I was shook awake by fellow-passengers to witness the splendour of Ancient Egyptian ruins of Abu Simbel arising from morning haze. Spectacular.

Wadi Halfa Port
A few hours more and there we were, on the Sudanese side. The famous Wadi Halfa - proud outpost of British civilisation during the Mahdi Campaigns, the frontier town on the rail that stretched deep into the unknown, an oasis in the hostile desert. Well, in reality Wadi Halfa is a bit of a let down. Partly because the old Wadi Halfa is no more because of the building of the Nasser Dam and subsequent flooding, partly because the British and their rail are also long gone, the town is not quite the 'the sharp line between civilisation and savagery' that Churchill described in his River War. The port is in the middle of nowhere, nothing but a couple of customs buildings, one short jetty and empty ship carcasses strewn about. The little town is some way off, away from the lake and river, lost in all that blinding sandy whiteness.

But, hey, it’s still a gateway to the proud Sudan and I was very happy to have made it there at last.





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