There are 2 Halfas in Sudan (WHERE ARE WE??!!)

In the morning, everything was fine. Ali, the manager of our hotel in Khartoum, had arranged a taxi for us and even paid for our ride to the bus station. The taxi picked us up on time and we arrived at the station early in the morning. We told people that we wanted to go to Wadi Halfa (the departure point for the weekly ferry to Egypt), and we were directed to a desk where a man sold us tickets. We found our bus and our seats, registered our departure with the police, and by 8:00am we were on the road.

Although the Arabic videos were deafening, the bus had air conditioning and was comfortable enough. We dropped in and out of sleep, and snacked on biscuits and dates. Around 4:00pm, the bus pulled into a station and everyone began to disembark. “Wadi Halfa?” we asked fellow passengers, and they nodded yes. Not bad, we thought. We had arrived earlier than expected and there was plenty of time to get to the port to buy our tickets for the ferry the next day.

We got off the bus and began to ask people for directions to the port. It was difficult to make ourselves understood, as nobody spoke English. We tried different words. “Ferry? Port? Egypt? Aswan? Nile? Wadi Halfa?” People shook their heads, no. Finally, someone said “Wadi Halfa” and shook his head, and pointed in the distance. He then pointed to the ground and said “New Halfa”. Wadi Halfa, there. New Halfa, here.

A horrible, sick, empty feeling began to sink into our stomachs. At first, we thought that we were at a bus station just outside town and needed to take a taxi to reach the centre of Wadi Halfa. But as we enquired further, it became clear that we were nowhere near our intended destination. When we asked for Wadi Halfa, people pointed into the distance. They even said “Khartoum, Wadi Halfa” while gesturing emphatically back toward the road, as if to indicate that we must first return to Khartoum and then take another bus to reach Wadi Halfa.

WHERE WERE WE?!??

We pulled out our small map of Sudan and tried to ask for the nearest large town. Eventually, someone said “Kassala”. We looked at the map, and were horrified to find Kassala far on the eastern side of Sudan, near to the border with Eritrea, rather than in northern Sudan near Egypt. We tried to clarify, asking “Eritrea?” To our dismay, people answered yes.

Finding ourselves on the wrong side of Sudan and unable to communicate with anyone, the only thing we could think of doing was to buy a SIM card and telephone for help. We called Ali at our hotel in Khartoum. We also called a travel agent named Midhat Mahir, whose number we found in the Lonely Planet and who we had read about online for assisting travellers with the ferry. The next few hours were spent in a series of telephone calls and translations between Ali, Midhat, and a few local men who stayed around to assist us. A few things quickly became clear:

  1. We had just taken the bus for 10 hours in the wrong direction and were now very far away from Wadi Halfa;
  2. The weekly ferry to Aswan (the only way to cross the border to Egypt overland) was leaving the next day at 5:00pm, and the only way that we could make it in time was to hire a private car to drive non-stop to Wadi Halfa;
  3. If we missed the ferry, we would have to return to Khartoum and either extend our visas to remain in Sudan for another week or purchase a flight to Cairo; and
  4. No matter what we decided to do, we would have to spend a lot of money.

We began to search for a car and driver to negotiate a price. The first few drivers we spoke to were unwilling to take on such an arduous job. Ali did not believe it was possible. He wanted us to come back to Khartoum, and even offered that we could spend a week in his hotel for free. It was a generous offer, but the thought of a further week waiting in Khartoum while our costs and indebtedness accumulated was unappealing.

Finally, around 6:30pm, Midhat telephoned to inform us that he had found a car and two drivers, via his cousin who lived in New Halfa. We negotiated an all-inclusive fee of US$400 – which was a heavy price to pay, but seemed reasonable given that Wafi Halfa was over 1500km away. Weighing our options, we decided to attempt the journey to Wadi Halfa.

As soon as we agreed, Midhat told us that the car was on its way. Within a few minutes, it pulled up in front of us. We were relieved to see that it was a newer Hyundai sedan, which looked as if it would make the journey. The drivers, two young men named Osman and Khaled, seemed amiable and motivated. We made quick stops at their homes (where they took showers) and to pick up various tools for the car (including a spare tire and jack). Around 8pm, just after darkness fell, we set out on the highway at high speed.

The route was outlined to us: New Halfa → Atbara → Karima → Dongola → Wadi Halfa. We were told that it would take four hours to reach Atbara, and then eight hours to Wadi Halfa. Around 10:30pm, we stopped for dinner at a roadside restaurant. We asked Osman and Khaled where we were. “Kassala,” they replied. We looked at our map. WHAT???

We suddenly understood exactly where we were. The distance to Atbara looked monstrous – at least 700km – and certainly not doable within 4 hours. It also became clear to us that our bus to New Halfa had traversed (in reverse) exactly the same route, from Khartoum to Gedaref, that we had taken when we arrived in Sudan from Ethiopia… and we hadn’t even noticed. Such is the beauty of the desert landscape.

Fearing the worst, we asked the drivers what time they thought we would arrive in Wadi Halfa. “Nine o’clock tomorrow morning”, Khaled replied confidently. We looked at each other disbelievingly, both thinking the same thing. “Insh’ Allah”, was all we could say.

We continued to drive through the night, stopping a few times to refill petrol and for the drivers to refresh themselves. We passed numerous truck stops full of enormous lorries, with their drivers asleep on desert beds out in the open air. We watched the car’s digital clock as the hours clicked by, unable to sleep from anxiety. Dawn came, but we had not yet reached Atbara.

Finally, around 8am, we arrived at Atbara. From the map, it looked as if we had only travelled halfway to Wadi Halfa in the past 12 hours. At this rate, we would never arrive in time for the ferry, and our US$400 would be wasted. We kept asking the drivers whether we would make it on time, and they said yes. We also telephoned Midhat, and he reassured us that if the drive went well, we would reach Wadi Halfa within 8 hours. We tried to believe them, reasoning to ourselves that the road had improved (recently paved by the Chinese, thank goodness) and that we could drive more quickly in the daytime than at night.

And then, an hour outside Atbara, a rear tire burst. Osman and Khaled jumped out of the car to put on the spare. We watched as they tried to remove the lug nuts on the tire, and realized with a sinking feeling that the sockets on their wrench were the wrong shape. We were sure it was over.

But somehow, through sheer force and persistence, they succeeded in changing the tire. We hopped back in the car and continued speeding down the highway. We kept watching the clock and the odometer, and looking at our map. The car pushed on. At 11am, we arrived in Karima. At 1pm, we arrived in Dongola. 400km to go. Could we make it in time?

The final 400km were a blur of stress. Osman and Khaled took turns driving, pushing the car above 150km/hour whenever possible. The kilometres on the signs for Wadi Halfa kept decreasing, but not quickly enough. We kept telephoning Midhat with updates on our location. Somewhere in the midst of this, we learned that his name was not Midhat, but Mazar (Lonely Planet “made a mistake” – but Midhat was his brother), and that he was not in Khartoum, but in Wadi Halfa, where he was making arrangements for our immigration clearance and ferry tickets. It was 4pm, then 4:30pm, then 4:45pm. We saw the sign for Wadi Halfa!

As we entered Wadi Halfa, a motorcycle with South African plates pulled out in front of us, its driver gesturing at us to follow. We followed it left, then right, then straight, and then pulled up to a stop in front of a government building. We jumped out and met its driver, an energetic laughing man who introduced himself as Mazar.

We followed Mazar as he ran into the government building, asked us for our passports, and quickly filled out a ledger and some forms, which he thrust with our passports at a sleepy looking official who stamped them mechanically. We ran back out to the car and rode together to the ferry dock, where we again followed him as he ran around to various places, spoke to various officials, and told us to fill out various forms. He laughed throughout, explaining our debacle to the ferry officials (we understood the words “New Halfa” and “Wadi Halfa”) and saying to us “See, I told you that you would make it! Don’t worry, I told the ferry to wait!”

Mazar arranged for us to get a ride down to the ferry on the customs officials’ pickup truck. Indeed, the ferry seemed to be waiting for us, as we were the only people left to board. Mazar accompanied us onto the ferry and advised us on where to sit on deck (as we only had enough Sudanese pounds left for second class, buying tickets for a private cabin was not possible, and by now, the deck was completely full).

As we bid farewell to Mazar, we tried to thrust US$10 into his hand, slightly embarrassed by the inadequacy of the amount. He refused, saying that we had spent a lot of money and needed to save our cash for Egypt. Sudanese hospitality? Perhaps. On the other hand, we had paid 300 Sudanese pounds for our “ferry tickets and departure tax” directly to him, but no tickets ever made it into our hands. No matter, whatever money had gone to Mazar was well-deserved.

Finally, we could breathe a sigh of relief. It was our second night without a bed or shower, but we found ourselves a small private space in the corner of the deck. We laid out our emergency blanket and pinned down its edges with our backpacks. We conversed with our fellow passengers, who all seemed to be Sudanese. We took turns going down to the dining room for the dinner of bread and fuul (included in the ticket price). We used our last few Sudanese pounds to buy some bottles of cold water. We finally went to the bathroom, washed our hands, and brushed our teeth.

Then we looked over the side of the ferry at the Nile flowing by, and enjoyed the (slightly cooler) river breeze. The sunset coloured the desert a rosy pink on the shores of the Nile. Darkness began to fall and the crowd on deck began to quieten. Someone told us that we had crossed the border, and around 10pm the great temple of Abu Simbel appeared illuminated on the shores of the Nile to our left. We lay on our crinkled emergency blanket and used our backpacks as pillows, enjoying the wind blowing over us and the stars above. And to our surprise, we slept like babies on the hard deck floor until the call to prayer of “Allahu akbar” resonated through the boat the next morning.

We made it. We were in Egypt.