Crossing The Egyptian-Sudanese Border Not Quite Legally.
Those days back in the 80s nowadays seem so far away it’s almost unreal; major changes & impacts have happened int he last 30-40 years – also for travelling. Back then, an oversea vacation was extraordinary, special and brave. For most people only the Hippie trail to India was well travelled with adventurers in search of higher enlightenment. But I had nothing in common with spiritual adventures, it was rather the open nature with deserts, jungles and indigenous tribes that caught my attention early on in my life.
Getting Ready For Our African Adventure.
After travelling through western Africa a few times, the idea to visit Sudan, the Central African Republic and the back then called Zaire (nowadays Democratic Republic of the Congo) stuck with me. In those days, most of the western population has never even heard of these countries. Beside the occasional cruelty report of course (e.g. King Bokassa of the Central African Republic doing shitty things, or President Mobutu Sese Seko becoming a megalomaniac, of course the first Ebola outbreak and Aids was linked down there as well…). This idea of mine went into the final stage with the purchase of a Mercedes-Benz Unimog 406 truck – only the best would do for this trip (until then, we’ve travelled Africa with an Dodge WC52, a Mercedes-Benz Unimog 411 truck, a Gräf & Stift truck, and and outside broadcasting van from the Austrian Broadcasting cooperation). We added a huge tailored aluminium cube onto the back that served as our miniflat; bedroom, kitchen, storage, sink and closet. The roof rack was used for the transportation of fuel, water supplies, spare tyres and a place to set up the tent at night when the weather was fine. This also gave us some sort protection, because from the top of the vehicle we could scan the area around us better. Nisa’s baby cot was stored between the front seats. I have to admit that everything was a bit cramped, but we were happy to set off to these countries that were hardly ever visited by people just for fun. Oh and of course we had a dog with us as well. The Maier family was set and ready to leave.
Entering Egypt In Alexandria And Continuing To The Nile Valley.
We drove down to Greece via former Yugoslavia. From Athens to Crete by local ferry and from Crete to Alexandria with a huge car/passenger ship. In Egypt, the real adventure started.
It took quite some hours to get the permission to enter Egypt with a private car. We had all the relevant papers (Carnet de Passages, etc.), but in Egypt one needed local number plates as a temporary registration with a local insurance…to cut a long story short, we waited for hours to get all these requirements. The only issue that we had worried about before, turned out to be a non issue at customs: the dog.
We spent the first night sleeping on our roof rack right in front of the pyramids in Giza. It would have been a stunning night, but the barking dogs around us made it impossible. We were told that there are occasional dog chasers if things ran out of control (rabies was a big issue). Sometimes we even had hordes of dogs following us when driving along the Nile river, and at times it was impossible to get out of the car. And when there were no dogs around, we were immediately surrounded by hordes of children once we stopped. It was an exciting trip through Egypt indeed, nevertheless the Nile Valley is one of the densest populated areas in the world, so we didn’t have a single moment without people – even when sneaking behind a bush for our private business one had interested company…
Off We Were To Aswan To Enter Sudan On A Barge.
Contrary to the Nile Valley, Dhakla and Farafra Oasis in the western part of Egypt are remote. Only sparsely populated villages can be found here. For hundreds of kilometres not a single soul can be seen along the road. It was quite a unique experience to camp between strange rock formations without any noise at all except our own heartbeats. The only light came up from the sky (I’ve never seen more stars than that night).
Finally, after visiting the valley of the Kings in Luxor, we arrived in Aswan, home to the Abu Simbel temples and the reservoir dam from where you can travel to Sudan by barge. This is how we wanted to enter Sudan. We’ve done exactly the same a few years before, back then with a smaller car, which made the shifting onboard easy. But now with our big truck, the complications started. First they always tell you that is ‘s possible, but for how much money? Secondly, the timing wasn’t ideal: our Sudanese visa was almost expired, and we were told that you have to arrive in the country a certain amount of time before the visa expires. And thirdly, this barge that would have carried our baby really looked a bit too worn out.
Making New Friends & Decisions.
Decision needed to be made. We sat in Aswan on the one and only campground (if that’s what you want to call it), in the middle of the town with hustle and bustle day and night. It was rather an empty lot where the occasional overland traveller took shelter. The decision was made the next evening when a big MAN truck, followed by two BMW cross-country motorbikes, pulled in.
It only took a bottle of whatever and a bit of brainstorming and our goal was clear. Since there was no chance to get a permission to enter Sudan from Egypt legally (officials had told us there were some incidents with lost travellers in the past), this Austrian-German-Canadian convoy would cross the Egyptian-Sudanese boarder illegally through the desert.
Our Plan: Map, Compass & Sand Dunes.
Our plan was to leave the road into the desert at nighttime. The two Canadians with their BMW’s would drive in front; they were a lot faster and able to check for possible traces of presumed border patrol cars. Our trucks would follow and we would wait together every 5 kilometres. We would do this until our first night stop. It was going to be an exciting and also dangerous trip, yet our Mercedes-Benz Unimog 406 truck, our desert experience and our ability to navigate with nothing but a compass and map (that was all we had) convinced us that we could do it.
First, we decided to drive down to Abu Simbel to look at the possibilities where to get off the road. In Aswan at the checkpoint one had to show papers and in Abu Simbel you had to report to the police station and fill out lots of paperwork. So, as it was a full moon night, we decided to pretend to leave Abu Simbel just before the checkpoint closed in the evening. We told the officers that we’d sleep along the road and drive up to Aswan again the next day. This would give us some time to disappear into the desert.
After being out of sight of the checkpoint, and with no other traffic on the road, we turned off our lights and drove off into the vast desert landscape. Only the moon guided us, with the BMW’s in front. Like this we drove for around 30 kilometres in the southwestern direction to our first night stop; no lights, no fire, nothing that could alert anyone who might be in the area as well.
Sudan Here We Come.
With some of the best sleep we’ve had in a while, we woke up well rested and exited that we already made it this far. We didn’t want to waste any time, so we skipped breakfast, packed up and set off with the same pattern. We only crossed one car track that looked pretty recent, other than that we were on our own.
Our map showed a small mountain range along the border of Sudan and until we reached it, we drove over 10 hours – the distances are unbelievable. We came to the mountain range and drove right through it, in between rocks and sand dunes we finally reached the Sudanese border. There were no signs of course but we were sure that we’ve made it.
This night all of us got out our best food and of course whatever drinks we had. We reached Sudan and now it was just a few more days until we’d arrive in Dongola to do the paperwork for customs. Those nights in the desert, without a single trace of life, not even a single fly was truly an unforgettable experience and it still lasts until today. But it would soon be over.
The First Sudanese Villages Came Into Sight.
We spotted the first signs of the Nile river again; a few palm trees, the first small fields along the banks, and finally the first Sudanese working in his vegetable garden. He was surprised to see us, waved at us and pointed South after we asked for Dongola. We passed more villages along the river, stopped here and there and came across the first bakery in Sudan. The bread we bought here, called Aish merahrah in Arabic, tasted absolutely amazing after all the days with tin food. The it didn’t take long for the first invitation. The family that invited us into their home was so generous, offered great food and an unbelievable hospitality. Actually the entire village was up to get a glimpse of us strangers, especially Nisa and the dog got all the attention. It was one of the few times that the dog had to stay in the truck because we were afraid he’s attack someone with all the shouting, laughing and screaming.
“Welcome To Sudan”.
After yet another remote night in the desert we arrived in Dongola and drove straight up to customs. At first they didn’t know what to do with us, but we showed our documents and the visas and explained that we needed stamps here and there. After some talking we all got the documents stamped and with a Welcome to Sudan we were released. From here on our routes separated, mainly because everyone had different ideas about the travel speed. We always took it easy and stayed in Dongola for a few days, camping in the police station’s yard while drinking tea in the evenings with the officers. We were simply relieved that we had made it to Sudan without a big hassle.
The next part of our adventures through Africa will follow. We’ll write about the trip from Dongola down to the border of the Central African Republic.