It’s just after sunset and we are heading to the Suez canal. We left Cairo at around 5PM in the rush hour traffic. Normally on a travel day we’d leave in the morning, but today was not a normal travel day. It was cold and my headlight wasn’t working. There are times when you just have to suck it up and ride.
We arrived at the military checkpoint before the tunnel that goes under the Suez canal. I can feel my own heartbeat as we pull up to the front of the queue. We greet the guard with our slowly improving Arabic.
We get a smile in return as they recognise us. This was the third time we were attempting to get through this roadblock. Would this time be different? Would we be turned away again. Were we going to end up bankrupt trying to resolve the mess we had found ourselves in?
Okay… okay, I should really start this story at the beginning. Around about 3 weeks earlier we had arrived in Cairo. Arriving in this city felt significant as it was the beginning of the end of our travels. The traffic was busy and aggressive. Anneen following behind me, and my GPS providing directions to my headphones, we tried to find our way to the hostel where we intended to stay. We’d learn over the next few weeks how the GPS would be really difficult to follow and would sometimes give wrong instructions. Roads would be blocked, preventing turning in certain directions and missing a turn might double your travel time. We found the hostel which was on the roof of a seven story building near the center of Cairo. We were used to just parking our bikes in the foyer or outside the building but for the first time we actually had to go seek out a formal parking lot. I was getting accustomed to the Egyptian way so I knew the first price the parking lot gave me would be negotiable. Luckily my Arabic was good enough to get the price down to half the original price. It was still a little pricey but our accommodation was cheap so it balanced out. We got an early night as we knew we had a busy day ahead of ourselves.
From a travel point of view we had reached the most difficult part of our trip. It was not negotiating a river with no bridge or riding a sand track, it was politics. We had learnt about 5 months after leaving home that Egypt had changed its policy regarding motorcycles being allowed into the Sinai peninsula. This was a problem for us as this is the overland route to Israel from Egypt. We heard from about 4 or 5 overlanders that were not allowed to cross Sinai during the course of the year. The official reason quoted by the government was that motorcycles (and 4x4s) were not allowed for safety reasons. But this didn’t add up, as tourists were allowed to enter on a bus or a regular car. It seems that a few months before there was an incident where a group of tourists were mistaken for terrorists (ISIS) and were killed by the Egyptian army. This was obviously bad publicity for the Egyptian Tourist Authority. I suppose the army was happier with tourists sticking to buses and the normal tourist spots, not going off the beaten track. Also there had been some terrorist activity in the north of Sinai where they were using motorcycles and 4x4s. I suppose the army was trying to reduce the number of vehicles in Sinai that could potentially go off road. Anyway, long story made short is that when we entered Egypt we were not sure that we would be allowed to travel to Israel.
Back in Kenya we had seriously considered leaving our bikes there and continuing using public transport. But we had been listening to some sermons and in one of them a missionary documents how he tried to get into Kosova in a time when Americans were not allowed to enter. Everyone told him he was stupid for trying. He didn’t get the visa but traveled to the land border in any case. He said that no Americans had been allowed to cross but that those people weren’t called by God to go to Kosova. God would make a way. And he did… after much drama. With that testimony we had decided to proceed to Egypt. We really believed (and still do) that it is God’s plan for us to finish our trip in Israel.
Anyway, that next day in Cairo we had planned to go to the ministry of tourism to convince them to let us through. We found the place after the usual Cairo – GPS shenanigans. Meeting with someone from the Egyptian Tourist Authority (ETA) we got our paperwork in order and they helped us draft a letter to the ministry of defense. The ministry of defense had the authority to grant a permit in this instance. Once we had the letter we went to the ministry of defense to talk to more government officials. We met with a very busy man whose phone never stopped ringing. At one point I clocked him talking on two phones at the same time. We spent a few hours in his office but the net result is that we were denied a permit. This was obviously disappointing.
Over the next few days we considered a few other options. Eventually we decided to try crossing Sinai with the bikes in the back of a van. Skipping a lot of details we managed to get a van with a driver and set off for the Suez tunnel which we had been told is where the road block was. The bikes were covered to try and avoid any questions. When we arrived we noticed that there was a large army presence, even by Egypt standards. We passed several military bases on the way. We had some success as we made it passed the first group of army personal. But then the van had to drive through a large gate that I think may have been an x-ray machine. Within 20m the van was stopped so that it could be searched. Denied! Tried to reason, showed them our ETA letter but they would not let us through. Back to Cairo again.
A few days latter we were back at ETA. They told us to wait a few more days for General Ahmed Hamdy to return from a business trip to Saudi Arabia. We was senior at ETA and had a military background. When we met with him he made some phone calls on our behalf. We spent most of the day at ETA but still didn’t have luck getting a permit. He wrote us a new letter that he addressed to the army and told us to show it to the guards. He was convinced that this would get us through. He also gave us his phone number to call should we have any trouble.
So the next morning we find ourselves on a familiar route. This time without the van. Extremely cold. Winter was definitely with us. This time we get stopped before the xray scanners and they begin to explain why we are not allowed through. We pull out the letter which does not impress them. We try to act confident as they go through it. We also try to get the general on the line to defend the letter. Unfortunately we only get voicemail. They try to chase as away but we stand our ground and try to make it their problem. After an hour or two the army (correctly) deduces that General Hamdy does not have authority to grant us permission. We wait around a bit longer but the army assures us that the outcome will not change without the correct permit.
When we left this time we had concluded that we not return to Cairo. Either we made it through or we went to Alexandria to inquire about having the bike shipped to Israel. As you can imagine we were upset at the outcome but I tried to rally the two of us towards a new goal. The rest of the day we road to Alex whiles trying to figure out what we could have done differently at Suez.
Alex is a really pleasant city. This was also the first time we had seen the ocean since Dar-Es-Salaam (Tanzania). It was weird to think that we were so close to Europe. Just the Mediterranean sea in our way. Alex was also the home of the best shwarma we had on the entire trip. It makes me hungry just thinking about it! Also affordable! Egypt has a lot of variety, even on a budget.
Getting the ball rolling we started inquiring about shipping. A very sad prospect as Alex (Egypt) to Ashdod (Israel) can’t be more than a couple hundred kilometers. If anyone wants information check out Gramaldi lines (mentioned on hubb). The quote to ship was UD$500 for both bikes. For reference the bikes are worth $500 each. But that didn’t include taxes and port fees. This can be difficult to nail down but we tried to find out how much this would cost. A fixer wanted $800 to clear both bikes. This was now getting expensive. Would we be willing to pay more than the bikes were worth to ship 300km? Before we could proceed the shipping company also wanted to know which company would be receiving the bikes in Israel. This got us investigating tax and port fees in Israel. From our research it seemed like this could cost $1000. This was now ridiculous. This was basically the rest of the money we had, even after maxing out our credit cards.
At this point we really needed to consider our options. I will spare you the details but abandoning the bikes in Egypt was also a very expensive option. It’s really a rollercoaster ride. Today’s best option becomes tomorrow’s bad option and today’s unthinkable option becomes tomorrow’s best option. We had decided that we had two options, air freight or ride the bike south to Sudan and re-evaluate. There was a time limit on how long the bikes could remain in Egypt and it was becoming a problem. We didn’t have much hope for air freighting as we had heard some very expensive quotes. We began to think that South Africa to Egypt might only be our half way point. We know someone in a similar predicament rode back to South Africa in 4 weeks. This might also be our cheapest option.
The next morning we got a surprise phone call. It’s General Hamdy! He wants to know whether we made it through the Suez tunnel. We bring him up to speed and he seems surprised that we went to Alex. He says that we should go back to ETA. We decide that Cairo might not be a bad option as we can inquire about air freighting and it’s also closer to the Sudan border. So once again we find ourselves on the road unexpectedly. All these sudden changes in plans means the bikes aren’t getting their usual TLC and oil changes but we have no choice. We are at the mercy of the wind. Which way is it blowing today? Sudan?
Back in Cairo we head back to ETA. This time the General seems to be on a mission. On the phone shouting at people, making notes, signing things, stamping things. We sit outside the office trying to make phone calls inquiring about air freighting. We didn’t have much hope for a permit. I think at this point we had about 4 or 5 days to get out of Egypt. A problem as it would take us that long to ride to the border. We also needed to get a new visa which might have required getting a letter from the South African embassy. The General emerges from what sounds like a heated meeting. I wonder if it’s regarding us or something else. We had planned to go to the airport to follow up on air freighting quotes when ETA closed but it was looking increasingly like we would have to make a mad dash for Sudan. 3pm comes by and the General emerges. Every now and again we has a question to ask us or wants to see some specific paperwork. “Would you like to cross Sinai today?”. Looking at the time we reply, “I think tomorrow is better”. We are assuming he wants to know what date should be on this hypothetical permit. “No, no. This is your permit. You need to cross today!”. We look at each other in surprise. After some excitement, thanking and hand shaking we begin to realise what that means. It’s 3pm and the sun sets at around 5pm. We need to get a taxi back to our hotel, retrieve our bikes from parking, pack our bags, negotiate rush hour traffic and ride the one and a half hours to Suez. Surely we would not make it before sunset.
We rush, adrenaline now pumping. Back at the hostel Anneen starts packing and I retrieve the bikes. As was becoming customary I had to argue with the parking lot attendant. The parking lot is so full that to fit everyone in they park a number of vehicles in. Our bikes are in the back corner and the attendant is having a tantrum. He has car keys but doesn’t want to move the cars. I’m struggling to express the urgency in the situation (adrenaline still pumping). He starts to move cars and purposefully makes it more difficult than it has to be to try and make a point.
So here we are. Back in Suez. This time in the dark and with a different piece of paper. They check the permit and make some phone calls. They are very careful not to get in trouble with their superiors. After quite a lengthy phone call he looks up and smiles. There is about 10 or so soldiers with us. The ones that recognise us from our previous attempts, cheer. “Today you will pass”. Just to make sure the soldiers photograph the permit. I suppose evidence for their superiors to investigate. Both the guards and ETA tell us that we are the first motorcycles to be granted a permit since they were banned (some 7 months before). From there we are escorted past the first boom to the second boom. There the police service want to go over our paperwork. After more phone calls we are told to proceed. Just at the entrance to the tunnel two soldiers shout for us to stop. Riffles poised and ready. They assume that we snuck past the previous roadblocks and don’t want to let us past. More phone calls and we are allowed to proceed. In my helmet I celebrate crossing the Suez canal and in so crossing from Africa to the Middle East. On the other side we are stopped by another soldier. All that remains now is to ride by moonlight in the cold and try to find somewhere to stay.
For the record there are many motorcycles in Sinai. Obviously! The military didn’t confiscate motorcycles from locals when the ban came into being. We spent 2 days crossing Sinai. We had to take the Southern coastal route to avoid the dangerous areas. Down to Dahab, which we hope to visit again before returning to South Africa. From there we crossed at Taba to Eilat (Israel), which is the old overland route before the ban came into being.
Crossing the border into Israel was like leaving Africa / the Middle East and arriving in Europe. Super organised and professional.
On the Egypt side more people wanted to see the permit which they took away from us at the border. They also unpacked all our luggage. They freaked out a little when they saw the quadcopter. After showing them a picture of it flying they were happy that they now knew what it was. They told us not to bring it back to Egypt. All in all $8 each to cross on the Egypt side. A lot cheaper than customs at the Alexandria port.
On the Israel side it was smooth. We were not interrogated, which is customary for those with Sudan stamps in their passports. Insurance was expensive!
Next time I’ll give you an update about life in Israel. We will be here a few months, which will allow us to get stuck into post production. There is a lot of work ahead!