Wadi Halfa and the ferry

9 May 2013- Aswan, Egypt

We are in Egypt, rested, fed and watered after the ferry journey. The Wadi Halfa to Aswan ferry is something we have heard about for a while now, its one of those (in)famous parts of an overland trip up the east of Africa and I must say it was ok. Not the greatest time ever, but not nearly as bad as we had heard/expected. Just a long day and night.


We arrived as planned in Wadi Halfa Sunday morning after our final night in the desert, which was spent watching the stars before bed, a beautiful big dark sky. As we entered the small dusty town we rang Mazar, our fixer, who asked us to meet him at the 3 story building. It’s an obvious landmark as it’s the only building in town more than one story. We went there and waited for him for a while then rang him again and he asked us to come to the wharf, we could get landy on the barge that morning rather than the next day as planned. Off we went for the couple of minutes drive to the wharf where we finally met Mazar, a friendly funny local guy who stayed right on top of it all throughout. We decided to hard boil our last eggs to munch on over the next few days. Mazar told us he needed our carnet (landy paperwork) and when we were done cooking to get ready as landy was being loaded soon- the barge was leaving that morning! So we finished getting the final things ready, we had packed that morning for the ferry and a few days in Aswan without landy, we heard people usually wait 3 or 4 days before the vehicle arrives.  We still were not sure when landy was to leave or arrive in Aswan or when we were for that matter. Anyway we got landy completely ready and then got the call- meet me in town the ferry is not leaving today. We went for some lunch while waiting for Mazar, it was a bit grim, a filthy place and very oily ful (beans) but what we could find. We then met Mazar for a cup of tea. On every corner in Sudan sits a tea lady- under a tiny spot of makeshift shade, surrounded by a few stools and barrels to put your tea on, she keeps some coals going all day, with her glass jars for her potions of different leaves and spices in front of her and makes tea.  Its fascinating to watch the ritual, a dash of this, a pinch of that, large scoops of sugar and pouring the water through the tea leaves for the perfect time before its served. We sat and chatted to Mazar with our hot sweet tea next to the communal water pots. The communal pots are something I find make me smile in Sudan, they are so endearing. All over, on every block, at least, in every town or village of any size are large earthenware pots on metal stands. They sit in the shade. The pots are porous and water slowly seeps out and evaporates which keeps the water cool. They have a communal cup (often an old tin can) chained to the stand.

Mazar told us the ferry would leave Tuesday some time (not yet known) and the barge for landy would leave the same day (time also unknown). He said we could camp at his house but we ended up taking a drive just out of town near Lake Aswan (which is the Nile damned) and in the heat of the day spreading our awning on the ground in the shade and laying there until the main heat passed. It was a lovely peaceful spot so we thanked Mazar for the invitation and just stayed out there. Monday morning about 8 Mazar rang and asked how close to town we were, the barge was now leaving that day, could we get there now? Yep, off we went and after a cuppa at the tea lady we were back at the wharf (24 hours after doing it the first time) and after waiting, not sure what happened behind the scenes as Mazar did it all, suddenly we were driving landy on the barge! We were not comfortable to leave the keys with the captain as we had no idea who would drive landy off and where it would stay at the other end so we kept our keys (very happy about that!) We were told the barge was leaving now, I was very sceptical about when ‘now’ would be, but sure enough while we were there they started pulling up the ramp and getting things sorted, maybe it would leave that day?! We were told to get into a small truck full of a few other local guys, no idea who and they zoomed us back into town, still didn’t know who there were or where we were going as we were flying down the road to town. When we got to town (Mazar wasn’t with us as he stayed at customs) we got our bag out and had didn’t know where to go to find a hotel. We didnt see any signs in English and hotels don’t really stand out that differently from any other building in Wadi Halfa. We rang Mazar for a hotel suggestion and got in a tuk tuk and put him on the phone to the driver who zoomed off taking us to a hotel (presumably). As always the driver was humming and singing and waving to everyone we passed, he didn’t speak any English and we have no Arabic (aside from the few pleasantries we have learned) but he smiled and waved a lot to us. We pulled up to a hotel just outside of town and Mazar was waiting for us, he got us a room, with A/C!! He told us the ferry left the next day at 5 but we would need to go around 11 or so to make sure we got a space. We spent the hottest part of the day in the room reading then went to town for some food and drink (tea and juice, alcohol is illegal in Sudan). We had a nice meal of ful, taamiya (falafel) and some potatoes in some sauce stuff (we knew our way around a bit now and found much nicer food than the day before). All served with the bread rolls they eat with everything here.  We sat and people watched for a few hours, as the sun faded the town started to come to life again. Things really are dead during the heat of the day. Places were setting rows of chairs out for a football game on tv that night (probably English football, they love it!). Wadi Halfa was bustling as the ferry had arrived and was leaving again tomorrow- no doubt the busiest day of the week, all the night passengers coming and going are in town. We watched people come out to meet friends, have tea and a meal. All washing their hands and rinsing their mouths at the communal bucket and spout. Groups of young men getting ready for the football and families having dinner as well as a steady stream of old sand blasted beat up landies tooting their crazy horns as they came through loaded with passengers and their bags still coming from the ferry. The old landies are taxis that take everyone to and from the weekly ferry.


On the way to the ferry

We had a poor sleep in the hotel. The sheets were dirty so we laid the small blanket we brought with us on the bed and covered ourselves in a sarong (well I was covered) but were too chilly with the A/C on!! Havent had that problem for a while, but found it stifling without (worse than in landy as there was no fresh air). In the morning Olly went for fresh bread while I packed up again and we had a small breakfast in our room. Mazar arrived about 10 saying it was time to go, so we finished our tea and loaded our bags on the roof of the old landy that was taking us to the wharf. The waiting began. We left the hotel after 10 and waited at the ferry ‘terminal’ until just after 1. It was a pleasant enough place to wait, much better than I was expecting. At least we were not in the sun. It was a large building with a few fans and lots of people. Bit smelly and I was not feeling that well, for some reason a bit light-headed and nauseous all morning. About 1 ish Mazar came back and told us to come now. So we did. He took us though immigration and somehow managed to get us into the next waiting area before anyone else. We waited there for a while before a police guy came along and shouted for everyone to get out, back into the other waiting area, at least that what we assume he was shouting with his gestures and what everyone was doing. Soon we were moved outside and it was still all very calm- until the bus arrived. The bus takes people to the boat which is about a ten minute drive away. The craziness began. People went nuts trying to get on the bus. Pushing, shoving and screaming. Mazar was determined to get us on the bus so we could get to the ferry early enough to get a good spot. There was no way I wanted to squeeze on there (I hate being squeezed into small spaces) but knew I would have to get on this bus or the next, which would of course be the same so I had to take a deep breath. Olly was pushed to the back and I held back and asked if I could just stand near the doorway. There is no way we would have gotten on the bus if Mazar had not been there. There were too many people to shut the door so I just held on for dear life in the doorway. When we got there everyone tumbled off and things got worse. Getting on the ferry was an absolute mad scrum. We were now all standing in the hottest time of the day, people screaming at the security who were screaming back and pushing shoving and carrying on. At one point I thought things were going to kick off with the police and security and glanced around to see where we would go if they did. I had not been feeling very well all morning but with the heat, body odour and being pushed all over I started to feel really light-headed. They let a few people on every minute or so but more and more were crowding behind us and they seemed to stop letting people on and at one point starting shutting the doors, the screaming got worse then! I was trying to hold my ground and not get pushed over but was feeling weak. Olly was also just getting crushed, holding our passports high and was dripping with sweat. Suddenly Mazar appeared. He came up and asked if I was ok (I prob didnt look it) and grabbed my arm and did not let go- he screamed and shouted and pointed and gestured and somehow pushed and dragged me though the scrum and I grabbed the passports from Olly as he pushed though. Mazar literally ran with us upstairs on the boat and deposited us in a shady spot closely followed by his other clients (3 Sudanese guys). We found a little patch we liked near the others and rolled out my yoga mat (which I have used exactly once but it was worth taking it all this way for the ferry!) We spent the next 3 hours before the boat left chatting to people, trying to keep our precious space and reading. Just after 5 pm the boat pulled out and us and 600 Sudanese and Egyptians were on our way. It was a long night with people crawling over us, ash from cigarettes, food and general dirt from the ferry blowing onto us, the call to prayer as we were trying to sleep and a very hard surface for sleeping. Obviously not much sleep but we did manage some, more than I expected. At one point during the night I was laying there smiling as it was dark and few people were moving around (people had stopped crawling over us) and I could see stars and feel the boat murmuring away under us, kinda cool. A Sudanese guy who has been living in Sweden for 13 years sort of took it upon himself (as his duty he told us) to help us out, told us where we could get some food- in the scrum to get on someone had thrust a few small bits of paper in my hand but I didn’t really take notice, getting on was like an out-of-body expierence, turns our they were food tickets. He told us how to get our passports back, they take them when you get on and process them overnight and you get them the next day. After the 5 am call to prayer (just when it was nice and cool and still dark) we knew we wouldn’t sleep anymore so we sat up again and listened to some podcasts and watched part of a James Bond film on the ipad and generally tried to battle people off from crawling over us. Finally we could see Aswan, the border town in Egypt and soon we could see landy on the barge sitting there waiting for us, it was a good sight!

We waited on the ferry as everyone trampled each other to get off, partially to stay out of the stampede and also because we did not have our passports back as ours were not ready yet, maybe Sudanese people don’t need a visa for Egypt? Anyway they didn’t have the visa stickers so we waited. Kamal, our fixer on this side was waiting for us and eventually we decided to try to get off the boat (if they would let us without our passports) chat to Kamal and then get back on and get the passports. As we were going for the door Kamal came on and said let’s go start other stuff and come back for passports. We spent a few minutes negotiating fees etc with Kamal and making sure all was clear and off we went. We quickly moved though with Kamal in the lead and started on customs, sorting the carnet. It went quickly and soon we had our passports, with visas in them and Olly was able to drive landy out of the customs area and into the car park and soon Kamal took off to sort things in town, we waited in landy for a bit over an hour and he was back with our Egyptian number plates, Egyptian driving permits and Egyptian insurance. All sorted, we paid Kamal and off we went. We had initially expected we would not have landy as everyone we have spoken to about the ferry had to wait in Aswan for 3 or 4 days before their vehicle arrived so we had heard about a nice guesthouse. We decided to go there, the first time we havent slept in landy when its been possible. I heard the camp site here is basic (as almost all have been for the last few months) and we both really fancied a shower and hoped beyond hope this place would have an actual toilet to sit on! After wading through the horrid mess in the toilets on the ferry we were both wanting to use a toilet and change our very dirty clothes. We arrived at the guesthouse and were shown to a clean room with a bed that has clean sheets (!) and a toilet and shower!!!! Bliss! We had some late lunch/early dinner the host cooked up for us, fresh fish for Olly and delicious veggies cooked in a clay pot for me served with a cold beer, our first in a few weeks (alcohol is illegal in Sudan). After our meal the lack of sleep caught up with us and we retired to our cool room and watched a video on the laptop and went to sleep. What a night!

L and O


Landies take people to and from ferry


Despite the face, the food was great


Communal water station


Dropping landy at the barge- she’s off!

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