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Diving in the Sudanese Red Sea

We left Sawakin at 8am and drove to Port Sudan the country’s major port and hub to the rest of the world. While heading towards the coast during the past two days we observed many huge trucks, also known as “road trains” in Australia, carrying all sorts of goods. Yesterday, we also saw a convoy of 60 or so trucks each carrying approx. 50 soldiers waving at us. Although the friendly gesture we were wondering where those soldiers are going. We hope not to the crisis area around Dafur

We spent 2.5 hours in Port Sudan and since it was up to Pierre and me to do the cooking for the group both of us went shopping. Our budget was 70 Sudanese Pounds (SDP) which is approx. 20 USD to prepare breakfast and dinner for 12 people. While being at home this amount of money feeds only 1-2 persons it’s not an issue to feed 12 for the same amount in Sudan. In addition the exchange rate is at our favour. While the official exchange rate is around 2.7 SDP to the dollar the black market in Sudan pays us 3.5 to 4.0 SDP for the dollar since Sudanese people want US dollar so badly. I changed money with an owner of a small shop at a rate of 3.5. Surprisingly, he only wanted to give me a better rate of 3.8 in exchange for a 100 USD note but not for two 50 USD notes. So far I always assumed that smaller notes are favoured by most African salesmen since it limits their risk of default meaning when one of the two 50 USD notes turns out to be false money they still have the other one and only lose 50 USD instead of 100 USD. However, for whatever reason this salesman was in favour for big notes.

Pierre and I bought tons of vegetables, fruit and yoghurt. We also tried to buy some chicken for dinner but it was too expensive since we could not buy it from the market but restaurants only. I also noted that the local chicken do not carry the amount of meat they carry back home thus they are more bony. These situations always remind me of the genetically modified and manufactured food we’re eating in the western civilization. If you have not yet seen the movie “Food, Inc.” you should add it to your list of must have seen movies.

We left Port Sudan at 12pm for the Sudan Red Sea Resort which lies approx. 30 kilometres north of the city. After being covered in sand and dust for days we were desperate for a swim in the Red Sea. Soon after arrival I checked in at the local diving shop and went out for my first dive in Sudan. Since nobody else wanted to join I went out on my own accompanied by four Sudanese guys. Three of them operated the diving boat and the fourth one called Osman was the guy I was diving with.

When talking about diving in Sudan you need to forget the western standards and don’t be scared about it. The diving shop was no PADI or CMAS diving centre and my dive buddy Osman seemed not to have any diving certification. However, it turned out that Osman was a very skilled diver and therefore it was fun to dive with him. The equipment of the dive shop was somewhat recent featuring brands like Mares and Waterproof. There was only a shortage of O-rings used to seal the diving tank with the regulator thus all regulators were leaking a bit. The reef was a 30 minutes boat ride away from the coast. When we jumped into the water the engine of the boat was still running so that we needed to watch the propeller. Osman and I descended to 25 meters under the surface but there was not much to see, meaning no big fish like sharks, mantas or so. We spent the time to dive along the reef and saw several colourful clam shells, two sting rays and large although bleached corals. Since Osman and I are experienced divers we did not breath heavily so that our 190 bar tank lasted for 60 minutes and we came up with 50 bar each. When returning to the surface you usually do a three minutes safety stop at five metres to avoid decompression sickness. While I spent those minutes at five metres Osman seemed not to care and went straight up to the surface.

Overall, diving in Sudan is fun since there are not many divers around and the reef is kind of untouched. Osman told me that he did only 5-6 dives during the last 6 weeks. The remaining time he works as a tuk-tuk driver in Port Sudan. Personally, I found my dives in Sudan comparable to what I seen underwater in Kenya. If you looking for more impressive diving spots in the Red Sea, Egypt is probably still the number one choice. You also need to have the ability to not be scared of a bit unconventional diving and have the ability to take care of yourself and others. Since I’m a certified diving instructor this was not an issue for me.

In the evening Pierre and I cooked a freestyle Indian dish consisting of rice, vegetables, ground meat and lots of spices. Ground meat is not really Indian but as the chicken was too expensive I did not want to buy any other meat since all the meat I ate in Sudan so far was quite chewy why I decided to use ground meat. Our creation was kind of interesting. The dish was very spicy but still eatable. At least everybody managed to eat it and we had no leftovers.

Coral Ruins of Sawakin

This day was planned as a long driving day. We started driving at 8am and drove approx. 440 kilometres to Sawakin were we arrived around 2:30pm. After a short lunch break we had time to explore some historic ruins consiting of corals on a little island situated in the Red Sea right in front of the town. The ruins are supposed to show a harbour area were slavery trades were conducted in the past. Unfortunately the area was currently under restoration and despite of some piles of stones there was not much to see. Probably it is worth returning in a few years’ time when the restoration work is finalized.

Our plan for the night was to bush camp in the surrounding area of Sawakin but Nasser raised some security concerns since according to him there are bandits in the area. Therefore, we decided to spend the night in a hotel. When we showed up at the hotel Nasser had reserved for us we got refused. I’m not fully sure what the reason was but from what I heard it was them either too risky to host travellers with white skin because they feared that we misbehave or they didn’t know how to deal with a mixed gender group since small Sudanese hotels are split in a men and a women area. So we drove a few streets further and stayed in another hotel which was not fancy at all but at least there was one shower which was shared by all male and female guests of the hotel. It was a great feeling to wash after a few days in the heat. There were also quite some mosquitos around and I saw them landing on my skin. During the night I got bitten 20 times or so.

Tombs of El-Kurru

We left the camp at 8:30am to visit the El-Kurru Tombs which were in 10-15 minutes walking distance. Both tombs were similar to what we seen in Egypt but less well preserved. There was also lots of trash in the surrounding area of the tombs which showed again that tourism is currently not a priority for Sudan. Since it was already 35 degree Celsius in the morning we were pretty sweaty when we arrived back at the camp and took the opportunity for another swim in the Nile.

While we had a relaxing morning our Sudanese guide Nasser tried to obtain the permits for our travel to Port Sudan. Unfortunately he was not able to obtain them since it is weekend and the government officials issuing the permits were not around.

We started driving at 10:30am first to Karima where we stopped for one hour to shop for dinner. When arriving at Atbara at around 5pm Nasser proposed that we could try to pass the checkpoint towards Port Sudan. Nasser’s proposal was that he tries to explain to the police that our permits will for sure be issued on the next day and also the travel company he is working for will guarantee that everything is taken care of when we travel to Port Sudan. So we gave it a try and successfully passed the checkpoint.

Since it started to become dark we only drove a few kilometres past the Atbara checkpoint and bush camped in the desert right next to the highway. On the campfire we discussed several topics about Sudanese culture with Nasser. One of them was the fact that his mother will select his future wife for him. Nasser is now 30 and plans to get married not before he turns 35 to 40 also because he is expected to pay an amount of 40,000 USD for his future wife which he is currently saving up.

Sulb Temple in Wawa and Jebel Barkal Site

We got up at 6am which felt like in the middle of the night since it was still dark. After we packed our camping equipment we walked towards the Nile in the little village of Wawa. Here we took a motorboat which brought us to the west bank of the river were we visited the Sulb Temple. In comparison to the Egyptian sites the Sudanese ones are significantly less crowded. Actually, we are always the only visitors and there are no people trying to sell us souvenirs and such. Due to the low number of visitors there is also no box office selling admission tickets but some random farmer appears requesting an entry fee which is quite pricy, e.g. 7 USD per person for the visit of the Sulb Temple excluding the boat ride. The sites in Sudan are also not too impressive, maybe because there was often no significant restoration done. What you basically see is a pile of stones and only a few pieces of the site are preserved and are kind of interesting.

After the temple visit we started driving at 9am. Our first stop at 12pm was the market in Dongola where we wanted to buy food for dinner. Since the market was closed we continued to Karima and did our shopping there. Afterward we drove to the historic site of Jebel Barkal were we arrived at 4:30pm. At this site we visited a pile of stones which used to be a temple, the “holy mountain”, a tomb and some small pyramids. The site was kind of interesting but far away from being really impressive. On the way to the small pyramids our truck got stuck in the sand but it only took 10-15 minutes to dig it out and continue driving.

Our bush camp for the night was close to the bank of the river Nile and the historic tombs of El-Kurru. Some of us took the opportunity for a swim in the river. Since Sudan is a Muslim country I needed to wear trousers and a shirt instead of a bikini. The current of the Nile is very strong and so I stayed in a distance of 2-3 meters to the beach. There was also a bunch of locals watching us and we took some time to play with the kids of the village. Dinner was some Spaghetti with tuna and baked apple with custard which we ate in a circle around the camp fire.

Drive to Wawa

Daniel, one of our drivers, went off in the early morning to pick-up our truck. However, he was not able to get it until 2pm since a vehicle was blocking the exit of the ferry boat. So everybody needed to wait until the owner of the blocking vehicle showed up. In the meanwhile customs searched our truck for alcohol which is strictly forbidden in Sudan.

As soon as we received our truck we headed south towards a little town called Wawa. Also from now on our tour is accompanied by a guide called Nasser. He works for a Sudanese travel agency which seems to be the only one in the country. Nasser will guide us to places of interest and help us to deal with government officials.

I spent the travel time reading the German weekend newspaper “Zeit” which I downloaded during the hotel stay in Aswan. It’s pretty amazing that Amazon offers free 3G / GPRS access to their Whispernet service over which you can search, purchase and download books, magazines and newspapers. You are only required to pay the price of the Kindle edition, e.g. 2.99 EUR for an issue of the “Zeit” compared to 4.00 EUR for the print edition. There are no additional costs for browsing the Amazon catalogue and downloading your purchase. This makes it very convenient to read a German newspaper while being abroad. However, I was only able to connect to the Whispernet in larger cities such as Cairo, Luxor and Aswan. There was no Whispernet access in Wadi Halfa.

The road between Wadi Halfa and Wawa is in a very good condition so as all major roads in Sudan which were constructed during the last years. We arrived at 5pm and set up our bush camp. Since todays cook group was not able to purchase meat in Wadi Halfa we had a nice vegetarian dinner consisting of potatoes with pan-fried vegetables.

During Dinner we discussed our planned route in Sudan. Based on the information of our Sudan guidebook, our Sudan map and our guide Nasser we decided to travel along the river Nile and visit some more historical sites as well as to do an exploratory drive towards Port Sudan at the Red Sea. Exploratory drive because Dragoman didn’t travel to Port Sudan in the past so as any other overland tour operator. The reason behind were the road conditions which used to be very bad so it just took 2-3 weeks to cross Sudan. With the significant road improvement we now have enough time available to do this exploratory drive. However, to travel towards the Red Sea a special permit is required which Nasser will help us to obtain.

Waiting for the Truck in Wadi Halfa

I woke up pretty late at 10am in our prison like hotel. The rooms do not have any other features than three self-made beds, a fan, a lamp, a power outlet and a number of scratches on the wall. Not fancy at all but all what you need. The hotel also features a men and a women section but for some reason most of us received a room in the men section; maybe because we don’t wear headscarves. Actually, our hotel seems to be the best available one in town. The Dutch motorbike traveller Lorenzo told us that his hotel is just an open-air courtyard surrounded by walls meaning no roof, all beds in one space and no privacy at all. We’ve heard that there is only one hotel in town which is somewhat better than ours which is exclusively for the workers building the road between Sudan and Egypt.

The boat which ships our truck from Aswan (Egypt) to Wadi Halfa (Sudan) had not yet arrived. So I went for a “shower”. Since there is no running water in the hotel, I took a bucket and a pitcher and got some water out of one of the water tanks standing around the hotel. With this I went to a little room which is supposed to be the “shower”. I took the pitcher to get some water out of the bucket and splashed it over my body. Then I washed my body and rinsed it with some more water out of the bucket. What a refreshing feeling. I actually don’t mind the dust on my skin but the sweat so I will try to wash my body every 2-3 days while bush camping.

Some of the locals did not even use the “shower” but were washing and shaving themselves in the middle of the courtyard of the hotel.

The toilets in the hotel are interesting as well. Since there is no running water you need to hit a tiny hole in the ground. If you miss it there is a stick you can use to push your excrements into the hole. The smell in the toilet is also very intense so that you need to take care that you do not fall into an instant coma upon entry of the toilet.

We’ve spent the remaining day hanging around the hotel. There is actually not much to do in Wadi Halfa and it is very hot so that the shadow of the hotel room is most convenient. Since Sudan is a Muslim country the locals were using the courtyard of the hotel for their prayers. It is very interesting to watch although I personally cannot imagine to live in a country were religious acts are regularly performed in public. I’m also wondering how Muslims always know the direction they need to address their prayers to. Probably they have some kind of inner compass since on the ferry boat we watched them turning during the prayer when the boat was making a turn.

In the evening we went out for dinner to one of the tiny restaurants in town. As far as I can judge by now Sudan is for sure not famous for its cuisine. I had some beans mixed with oil and a tiny bit of cheese. The dish had a very strange smell so I was mainly eating bread which I was dipping into the dish. We also heard the boat with our truck arrived at 5:30pm and so we were looking forward to continue our journey tomorrow.

Arrival in Sudan

I had a wonderful sleep on the ferry boat. Since we were crossing a lake there were no waves which could have caused nausea. I was hanging around on the upper deck with the Dutch motorbike traveller Lorenzo I previously met in Luxor and some of the other Western travellers I met the night before. I missed seeing the Abu Simbel temple which the boat was passing by at around 7:30am but I did not really care about it since I visited the temple a few days before. Lorenzo was showing me the pictures he has taken from the temple and it looked like that the boat went by pretty close.

At some point in time we had to hand our passports to some random guy. He did not wear any uniform but seemed somehow to be responsible for collecting the passports. We also needed to fill out some paper which was not so easy without having the passport and knowing the passport number and such. Tom, one of our drivers, had a passenger list with our passport numbers on from which I got mine. Later on it turned out that Tom did not have my correct passport number but had received the number of my second passport from the Dragoman office which is not the one I’m currently travelling with. So I screwed up some of the paperwork since my passport information became somewhat inconsistent. However, later at the border control nobody really noticed it.

Approx. 2-3 hours before arrival I observed that all passports were collected by a motor boat which probably brought them to Wadi Halfa for border control. When the ferry boat arrived at 11:30am in Wadi Halfa it took 2.5 more hours until we received our stamped passports back. People started to leave the ferry boat which was again a very crowded procedure. They also utilized our cabin to pass their luggage through the window. Border control was only at the exit of the ferry boat. There was one guy touching the passport (not really looking inside it) and another guy collecting one of the papers we had filled out (without checking them). We then jumped into a bus which brought us to customs. Here we needed to open and show our bags but the officers did not take any closer look inside. So probably it would have been possible to bring in some alcohol which is otherwise strictly forbidden.

Another minibus brought us to our hotel which is situated in the “city centre”. Probably larger village is a better description for Wadi Halfa since you can cross the “city centre” within 3-4 minutes walking. We climbed a little hill from which we had a nice view over Wadi Halfa. Later in the evening some of us had dinner in one of the local restaurants consisting of some chewy uneatable meat, tasty potatoes and bread. The remaining evening we were hanging around in the hotel and watched some shows such as “How I met your mother” and “Two and a half men” from one of our notebooks.

Ferry Boat Ride from Aswan to Wadi Halfa

We needed to leave the hotel at 12am and so I used the morning to finish the setup of my notebook. I called the Adobe support in Germany hoping to receive a download link for the Photoshop version I’ve purchased in spring this year. However, they were not flexible at all and the only solution they offered me was a download link for the Adobe Master Collection which is a collection of all major Adobe software products I have licensed, including Photoshop. While the Photoshop download is 1GB and might have been manageable during the duration of my travel, the 10GB download of the Master Collection is definitely not. So I forgot the idea to use my licenced software and will use a workaround until I return home for a few days in the first week of January.

Before leaving for the ferry boat at noon I spent my remaining Egyptian Pounds on Mango juice. It took us 30 minutes by minibus to drive down to the ferry boat and another two hours to get onto it. The whole boarding procedure was very crowded and we had to push us through a crowd of locals. Luckily our reserved “first class cabins” were available so we had some private space to hide from the sweating crowd. “First class cabin” is also not what you might imagine. There is one bunk bed per cabin with a blanket which has not been washed in ages. Despite that the cabin was completely empty and far away from the hygienic standards you are used to in Western civilization. So I rolled out my sleeping bag to have a clean space to sleep. The special highlight was the shared toilet of which you can find a picture on the Oct 25 posting. There was actually water standing on the floor of the toilet which was deeper than my flip-flops were high so that going to the toilet was an acrobatic act to not get too wet or dirty.

Since I stayed up late the night before I had a little nap in my cabin lasting from 2pm to 5:30pm when the ferry boat was departing. Shortly before departure we observed that the other boat with our truck was departing as well. This was a bit annoying since we were requested to hand in our truck three days before our own departure which was then shifted to two days before departure. So basically our truck did not move forward after we had handed it in two days ago.

In the evening I went for a walk across the boat which was a tiny bit scary since the boat was crowded with black men starring at you at all times. The guidebook of one of my fellow travellers states that Sudan is visited by approx. 1,000 travellers a year mainly flying into the capital Khartoum so you can imagine which attraction white women are. Most of the local passengers I saw on the boat were male. They were carrying lots of luggage which they either seem to use for trading or these are goods which are hard to get in Sudan. I saw for instance one local guy who was travelling with a washing machine. Due to the huge amount of luggage the boat looked more like a boat full of trash than a passenger ferry boat.

On the deck I met the Dutch motorbike traveller Lorenzo I’ve previously met in Luxor. There were also approx. 10 other travellers including a Brazilian couple travelling on a motorbike around the world and a Dutch couple with their three kids. They have taken their kids in the age between 13 and 17 out of school to travel around the world. In order to do so they are home-schooling their kids who take yearly exams back home. This was very interesting to experience since I never thought about such an option. All Western travellers were already on the ferry boat since the early morning to reserve some space underneath a rescue boat. It seemed that this space of approx. 2×6 meters was declared Western territory and most of the locals seemed to accept this and did not try to hang out there.

Some of the locals were smoking Marihuana and towards the night the crowd became calmer. Before going to bed I exchanged my meal ticket against the only option of strange looking beans, some uncooked vegetables and bread. I only ate the bread to have something to fill my stomach in order to take my Malaria pill.

Regarding the cost of the ferry boat ride I’ve heard that it is quite expensive, e.g. just shipping over the truck costs around 1,000 US dollar. I don’t know how much the average local passenger paid for this 18 hour long ferry boat ride but taken into account that this is the only legal option to travel from Egypt to Sudan and that there is only one ferry boat a week it must be very expensive for them as well.

Aswan High Dam and Philae Temple

During our last day in Aswan some of us visited the Aswan High Dam and the Philae Temple. The High Dam was closely monitored by the Egyptian military and there was even a tank standing right next to it. All visitors got inspected and then had a look at the 111 meter high dam impounding the River Nile to form the Lake Nasser. Due to the flooding the Philae Temple is now situated on an island and we had to ask one of the locals to drive us over with their boat.

In the afternoon we were chilling out in the surrounding area of the hotel such as going to the grocery to stock-up some food for the ferry ride into Sudan or having fish soup for dinner in a sea food restaurant just around the corner. Two female travellers went off to get a full body waxing but got refused with the reason that white women only look for some kind of sexual satisfaction through this. They did not even want to wax their legs…

Tom, our driver, had some good news. All remaining travellers have obtained their Sudanese visa today so we are ready to enter the adventure of Sudan. The ferry is supposed to leave on Monday 4pm. We have reserved first class cabins which are according to Tom more like a prison room but not lockable. Therefore, we need to carry all our belongings with us at all times so that they don’t get stolen.

Once we are arriving in Sudan there will be a local guide waiting for us who will help us on our journey in Sudan. He is expected to help us through customs, guide us to points of interest in Sudan and to take care that we only travel in safe regions without any conflicts. Therefore, our route in Sudan is not yet decided. We might go to Port Sudan for diving and later on to the capital Khartoum. We plan to spend 1-2 nights in the border town Wadi Halfa until our truck arrives by boat from Aswan and then do two weeks of bush camping without any facilities until we arrive in Khartoum. I’ll expect that I’m not able to write any blog updates until than or latest when we enter Ethiopia in maybe three to four weeks.

Abu Simbel Temple and Nubian Village

Shortly before midnight Marek, a fellow traveller from Canada, and I took a minibus from Aswan to Abu Simbel. The distance is approx. 280 km with an expected travel time of three hours. The reason why we started travelling in the middle of the night is a solar phenomenon which only happens twice a year on February 20th and October 22nd. On these two days the rising sun shines directly though the temples entrance and puts light on three of the four sculptures in the very back of the temple. One of the sculptures is of Ramses II, the other two relate to sun gods. It’s said that the two days of the solar phenomenon relate to the birthday of Ramses II and his coronation day. The forth sculpture relates to the god of the underworld and therefore remains in the dark forever.

The minibus drove us to a point in the city were we had to wait until 1am because due to security reasons all vehicles needed to drive in a convoy. The drive was quite bumpy so I didn’t catch much sleep. We arrived at 4:45am and the area around the temple was quite crowded. People were lining-up in front of the temple to view the sunrise and the special light on the three sculptures. The sun was rising as expected at 5:53am and from this point in time there was for 19 minutes light on the three sculptures. It was very well organized that as many people as possible could quickly walk by the sculptures and everybody was very calm and concentrated without any signs of panic. It was forbidden to take pictures inside the temple and the military was closely watching that nobody is taking pictures. On the other hand there were many soldiers standing in front of the sculptures and taking pictures for themselves…

I was very much impressed by the temple since compared to other ancient sights it’s very much intact. The temples location is also not its original one. Due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam the complete temple was moved away from the water.

We were back at the hotel at 11am and I took some time to work again on the setup of my notebook. At 2pm we left for the visit of a Nubian village. We went there by boot and on the way some of us took a refreshing bath in the Lake Nasser. After walking around for a while we had dinner in one of the Nubian houses and two of my female fellow travellers got a Henna tattoo on their hands.

In the evening we went out for a few drinks in a restaurant next to the lake. These were the last alcoholic drinks which we might have for the next weeks since alcohol is strictly forbidden in Sudan. I had some Egyptian wine which was surprisingly good and did not cause any headache the next day.