Aswan remains the easiest place to get a Sudanese visa in Egypt. With your passport, a photocopy of it & two passport photos (incidently it doesn't matter if they're home made and half your head's been chopped off. You're all hair anyway Hannah) head for the Sudanese embassy. Hidden in a housing estate, not far from the train station, are the high waisted officials who will stamp you on in a matter of hours. Once approved you can proceed to Mr Salah's HQ. It's from here, behind a full mirrored glass facade, that the Nile Valley Transport Corporation operate. Book yourself onto the next boat with Salah. The weekly ferry will take you from Aswan in Egypt to Wadi Halfa in Sudan and traverses the length of Lake Nasser - the world's largest man made lake and the only open border post between the giant neighbours.
...Or Aswan is the only place you won't be issued a Sudanese visa. With your passport, a photocopy of it & two passport photos you'll find yourself amidst a bunion of officials, enacting a live role play of Diplomacy with only a fist sized bag of lemon and chili crisps to see you through. I hate lemon and chili crisps. Diplomacy (shout out to the Daz) is a game of old school territorial conquer, of negotiation, alliance building, conspiratorial action and ultimately betrayal. A world where perfectly nice people grow werewolf teeth.
We get to the Embassy early Sunday. With the no visas, no boat tickets and the last ferry for 10 days scheduled to depart in 32 hours time we are surprisingly sure of ourselves. Cocky you could say. It's 8am and with the exception of the young receptionist, whose timid moustache may well be his first, the embassy is empty. Our we is now a three - in the overlanding bottleneck of Aswan solo travellers are catapulted into a world of other Hawajas (Foreigners) - and we'd bumped into Akira the day before. Heading south to Kenya via Sudan, he is an absolute pleasure to hang out with. Occupying the waiting room in it's totality and armed with an A4 file (concertina no less) we tell the receptionist 'we'll wait'.
After a customary inspection of each others passports (ooh you've got a nice emblem haven't you...) the first shards of a strategy take shape. It's quarter to nine and we need to change it up. Uur aim is to get to Mr Salah's HQ by 10.30 at the latest. The boat may or may not - did you hear that Daniel Pratt's mum has a tree for a head? - be full. The boat is usually very busy but the upcoming festival of Eid had allegedly placed the service under a significant additional strain.
'Upstairs?' Upstairs [Level 2] lies an almost identical waiting room but it lacks the captivatingly large portrait of Omar Al Bashir - Sudan's ICC indicted president - we have on Level One, and one of the three wooden chairs is broken. Still, a trickle of post weekend employees have headed that way and the embassy staff on our floor arrive and dive into their offices with a fervour that suggests they won't be right with us.
[Convoy to Level 2] There's already two others in the queue. Shit we'd been swinging our legs in the wrong place. I clock a notice board and turn to check it. TOURIST VISAS TAKE 14 DAYS TO BE PROCESSED. Times New Roman on a canary yellow sheet. Interestingly, I choose to I think nothing of it. We'd spoken to people who had a two hour turn around last week - which with the islamic weekend falling on a Friday and Saturday is equivalent of yesterday. I'm confident - Here Here - there won't be a problem.
It's soon impossible to shake the feeling that staff have been primed to ignore. Polished shoes waft through the stale waiting room but noone engages us directly. Enough is enough. We must breach a mock Mahogany Door. First up is Akira, who returns before I finish my sentence. 'She said that there is a new rule from Khartoum - visas cannot be issued faster than two weeks, we must come back then.'
I compute. Come back in two weeks equals no boat tomorrow, plus no extra boat in 10 days time and ultimately a three week wait for transportation south. That's Tulse Hill to Italy in cyclo time. And the answer? You're having a giraffe.
By 10.30 I've weasled my way into the the office of the man with a form and i'm not moving. Jackpot. Diarmaid has deciphered that contrary to official lines the man with the stamp is off on the hajj and won't be back from Mecca for two weeks. Outside, two slightly puffed up group leaders patrol a waiting room now swamped with a chatter of overland tour groups. A fever of mobile phones has broken out as people try to ascertain who and what might help. Progress in real time has been stunted by the disappearance of the man with the form and his replacement by a nail filing woman with no form. 'Excuse me but may I ask why you are still here?' Now i'm sure that on an ordinary day, one where immigration staff have visas to process, this woman is an asset to her employer but today she's doing an exceptionally poor job of making herself look busy. In the half an hour we've spent together she's not even finished manicuring one hand. 'Er, I'd like to just wait if I may.' We limp on.
Enter the fixers. The human equivalent of stepping off its a Small Small World and onto the Nemsis at Alton Towers, negotiations take a gear change. Hired by the leaders of opposing tour groups, Abouda, Mahmud and Kamal create a commotion even before they sweep onto the scene. Abouda is dressed in perfect prayer whites, his clipped hair decorated by a pair of expensive sunglasses. He chews gum and twitches prayer beads. He never quite meets your eye. Mahmud in contrast is softer. A tall, older, open faced Sudanese man who'd lost a relative that day but daren't miss this appointment. Kamal, variously described as stoned or bonkers, is Mahmud's confusingly likeable, sheesha wielding sidekick. These three men, we would go on to learn can make or break your ticket south.
Minutes turn into hours where progress is measured by the number of times you've run up and down the stairs between [Level 1] and [Level 2]. Bashir, no Bashir, Bashir, No Bashir Bashir, No Bashir, No Bashir, catch your breath, Bashir. There are of course points for pace. A snoopy hairdryer and all expenses paid holiday to Hawaii for speed which convinces others you've had some kind of break through. That's right by now niceties have dissipated and someone has just used the phrase 'Dead weight'. One of the tour group leaders has stopped looking at you altogether.
'We've got cars already on the vehicle barge on route to Wadi Halfa.'
'It'll cost us hundreds if we're not there to pick them up.'
'Half our group have visas we can't send the other half back to Cairo.'
'You're not even travelling south for a fortnight'
'If I don't go now I wont ever get the chance to visit Sudan.'
At some point during what now feels like a badly scripted team building activity, Diarmaid, Akira and I - the only tourists not attached to a fixer paying tour group make an unspoken decision to hang on their tail coats with absolutely no shame.
By 4, having weathered a fruitless rumor that the Ambassador himself was on route and might be able to do something, Abouda offers us a rare piece of free advice:'I think you've done all you can now. It's time for you to go home.'
'Gee Thanks Abouda. You know what you're right. What rotten luck that the second in command has just agreed to do what he can to authorise 5 visas and it's time for us to go home!'
We would later learn that such charm was not unusual for Abouda. Fast forward ten days and after an unsuccesful attempt to set himself up as our friends Anna and Brian's fixer, he threatens to remove their boat booking; going on to gloat to another chum Roberts that he had to power to stop Anna and Brian getting the boat. Bravado that frustratingly seemed to hold weight. In an altogether mindboggling finale to this story Anna and Brian, Ray and Avril and Rob Roy, our new overlanding chums, eventually find themselves pitted against a Lentil Barge (that's right a barge of lentils) fighting until an hour before departure to get their vehicles on and loaded in time. They do but not without sweat and betrayal and they end up in Sudan with no vehicles and nobody answering their phone. Though Aswan's bureacratic hoops are eminently jumpable, whichever way you travel, the Fixers here seek to make themselves indespensible by trying to throw spanners in the works for people who choose to go it alone.
Meanwhile back at the Embassy...
Sorry sunshine (Bureaucratic wrangling oft turns me into a Glaswegian police Inspector) if there's a chance any person in this building has a stamp and the power to use it, we're not going anywhere. And we don't. Just wait Mahmud tells us. Patience. In contrast to his Egyptian counterpart Mahmud was happy to let us in on a no fee ticket.
After 10 dead horse flogging hours we reach a state of un fed delirium. One where doors open and close so quickly I don't know whose corridor I'm in. I've perfected a listless slump, cleaned under my nails and interrogated every portrait and foreign newspaper in the room. Then an hour after official closing, Diarmaid (our chief negotiator) emerges from the Hall of Doors with an air of breakthrough. The second in command has agreed to process a block of visas overnight. With 33 of us vying for approval there are no assurances that ours will make the final cut. The murmurs though are positive. And we're tired and it's time to go home. Come back tomorrow at 10am. There is a chance, after all this, that we'll make that damn boat.
Back to base. Pack the bags. Up at 8. Divide and conquer. Hannah to the pharmacy and to source supplies for the boat. Diarmaid and Akira to the embassy. If all goes to plan we simply pick up visas, taxi to the port and join an orderly queue for last minute tickets. The boat leaves at 4pm but passengers get their elbows out as early as 11am to sneek in a decent spot on deck.
Beeeep beeep beeep. [incoming text]
Diarm Egypt: They only just turned up, all looking good though. Pack bags and get ready to meet outside. Will text you when on way (in taxi) sent 10.30am
Hannah Egypt: How's it going? sent 11.10am
Diarm Egypt: We got them! Just waiting for all forms to be stamped etc Will be with you by 12. sent 11.30am
Hannah Egypt: Any joy? sent 12.15pm
Diarm Egypt: Lots of confusion...think yours hasn't been processed. sent 12.15pm
Hannah Egypt: Whaaaaaaaaaaaaattt? Just mine?
I sit, all bags and no taxi, like a jilted date in a crap blockbuster. Aware that, as ones script might read, hope was slipping away.
Diarm Egypt: On my way. Got them. Be ready in 5 mins
Whaaaat. okay. Lets go. A late 70's Toyota Corolla careers to a stop outside the hotel. With Diarmaid and an anxious looking Akira aboard. We scrabble the bikes to the roof with some luggage straps, ram in eight buxom panniers and go. To the port my man and make no delay. Well almost, first there is an additional stop at Akira's hotel to endure and an episode where D goes walkabout on an unnecessary hunt for water, but we get to the port in good time.
Good time here refers to arrival at port post riot. Yes that's right folks. A lady did/doth throw a stone. This boat marks the last opportunity many have to cross the border for two weeks. More significantly it marks the only chance some have to get home to their family in time for Eid. A festival of equivalent significance to Christmas - emotions run high.
Dozens more people than there are tickets or space for want to get south and for the first time we realise the consequences of a two week delay are for us but that. Frankly it'd feel a bit uneasy to get a ticket at the expense of someone seeing their family for chrimbo. And so although we stuck it out for another hour, as hands from behind a locked gate fed extra golden tickets to the crowd, we didn't fight tooth and nail to get aboard. It wasn't to be. Despite the brilliantly farcycal (excuse the product placement) turn of the events and the glory that would have been had we boarded we bowed out and trundled, windows down, through the afternoon heat and over the high dam back to Aswan.
Over the next 10 days we'd get our first proper taste of Nubian hospitality, fish on the banks of the Nile at sundown, race in a minibus to the Red Sea, snorkle and share dinner with the first Egyptian women we'd met since Cairo and get know a top team of other Overlanders also caught out by the unexpected Eid storm. Rob Roy, Anna & Brian- nice joking! Ray & Avril - your snickers and proscuittio know no bounds. Roberts - nice triangulum & Rick www.climatedenial.org
The story you'll be glad to know ends with us all comfortably aboard a star soaked ship bound for Sudan. Atop the captain's cabin, we'd sail through the night calmed by a deck full of low whispers and rise to the sound of a gentle drum and Kora. Just in time to see the sun rise over Abu Simbel. Just wait as Mahmud said. Patience.