Friday, 30 November 2012

Customs stole my Mars bars...

We thought we had left the byzantines behind in Istanbul, but it turns out they have been re-incarnated in Egypt. Our first week or so in Egypt mainly consisted of mountains of bureaucracy - whether it be the 4 days we waited for our car to clear customs in Damietta, or the pointless 2 hour wait at the British Embassy for a letter telling the Sudanese Embassy that we didn’t need a letter, we’ve suffered from our fair share.

Still, it gave us a good opportunity to develop our waiting skills in various seedy, fly filled offices and cafes.  We could have even set up a business if we’d been feeling a bit more entrepreneurial.  Whilst sitting in the cafe at customs in Damietta, we were approached by Yassim, a very enterprising man who wanted to know why two foreigners were waiting in the port (it wasn’t tourist friendly!) and whether he could start any business with us. We were a bit lacking in Turkish business contacts so couldn't really help him, but if you are interested in Egyptian retail opportunities / getting items into Egypt 'no questions', we have his email...

Other highlights of trying to get the car to Egypt included finally getting the car back only to find customs had searched everything in the car, from top to toe and just thrown it back into the car when they were done. Annoying enough, until you find out they’ve half inched a ratchet strap, a pair of sunnies, and worst of all, most of a pack of mini mars bars!  On the more positive side, one of the policemen managed to split his trousers at the crotch whilst hand making us the most amateurish pair of Egyptian numberplates you’ve ever seen – people have been laughing at them all the rest of our travels.

Rather blurry photo of our arrival in Egypt

After a lot of frustration, we were back on the road, the crazy-cars-driving-anywhere-they-like, skimming-through-traffic, driving-in-the-wrong-direction-roads of Egypt.  Since then our trip has been fantastic. We drove down past the Suez canal to see the ships sailing through the desert, before camping within sight of the Pyramids in Cairo.  There, our wonderful hosts, Helal and Sue, arranged for us to pony trek through the desert to approach the pyramids from the quiet far side. They really are just amazing – I was totally prepared to be underwhelmed but you just can’t be unimpressed!. Epic in scale (you can see them from all over the city), and still so striking compared to all of the surrounding buildings, 5,000 years on.

Our guide had a good line in cheesy photos...

That said, there, and at other sites around the city, there really aren’t many tourists.  It felt like we saw the same four Americans, six Japanese and a party of Indians everywhere we went, and that was about it (apart from wildly overexcited Egyptian school trips). They’ve all been scared off by the latest news of protests. As ever, the media is massively overplaying the impact. We drove right up to the barriers at Tahrir square, where the local boys are making blockades to stop the police entering, and didn’t feel unsafe.  We think it’s probably a bit like when we had the riots in London – bad if you’re in the spot where the trouble is, but absolutely fine on the other 99% of streets. The huge tourist industry here just hasn’t been the same since the revolution though and a lot of people seem pretty despondent.  You can see that every hotel or restaurant you walk into is built for about ten times as many people as are actually there.  Everyone here is very forthright with their views on politics and the riots, which surprised us a bit.  When we were in Tunisia last year, people were pretty reserved about anything like that but in Egypt everyone has an opinion on the revolution, Morsi, the protests etc.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Sailing Past Trouble

We have finally landed in Africa, after a 24 hour ferry from Turkey to Egypt. We now face a barrage of administration to get the car through customs, after what was a surprising ferry trip....

If we had done this trip 2 years ago, we would have driven on from here, through Syria, and into Jordan before meeting Africa in Egypt: instead we have had to catch the ferry and sail south passing this, and other, trouble by. If we needed a reminder of the fact it came in the form of the score of Syrian families who met us at the port.  This livened up the ferry trip as we had to be on the alert to stop toddlers from hurling themselves off the dock or under HGVs, but it also gave us a chance to talk to those who had some English (our Arabic being currently limited to hello, thank you and let’s go!)

They are travelling to Egypt to look for work, perhaps with the help of family already there, or some just on the off chance. They say that everyone is catching up with people they know, exchanging stories of where the fighting is worst, and crossing off names of those who have died.  We’ve seen a lot of sign language of planes dropping bombs and houses collapsing.

Amer, a multi-lingual HR director for a large supermarket chain before the trouble has told me how all business has dissolved now. There are no safe parts of the country, the only goods available are imports, and inflation is rife. Worse, banks won’t allow anyone access to their money.

Still, these families have hope. They have enough cash to make this expensive trip, and buy their way across the borders. The thought of the many left behind has made this an incredibly humbling bit of the journey, and made us all the more grateful for the excitement that now lies ahead.

We now sit in Port Damietta, at the gateway to our Africa trip proper. This is where the trip really begins...

The Beast waits for the ferry at Iskenderun

Travel Through Europe

Probably a boring bit for most, but potentially useful for those that follow. I had put least effort into planning this part of the trip, so was mostly reliant on the Sat Nav and Google maps.

We travelled the most direct route (through Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia), though if you had an extra day, the route through Hungary and Romania would undoubtedly be more fun, and save you some money on insurance (see below).

Things to remember:


These are licences to drive on the motorway, which you will need to buy for Austria, Slovenia and Bulgaria

They cost up to about €10, and can be purchased at the border, but do make sure you stop to pick them up


Your UK insurance is likely to be valid in the EU, but most do not cover Serbia, Montenegro and Turkey


Serbia has now signed a reciprocal arrangement with the EU, which should mean it is illegal for your insurer not to cover you there, but none of the insurers have caught on yet, so you might need to do a bit of negotiation before leaving home

If you have no cover (like me), you can purchase it at the border at a cost of €110 (cash only)

At the Croatian / Serb border, it is available on the Serbian side, from some booths off to the right, which will probably be obscured by trucks

The process takes about 15 mins, and you will need your V5C


The process is similar in Turkey, but you buy it from the bank in no mans land. Here is costs €55

KGS Card in Turkey

This is a card to get you through the toll roads in Turkey, and is incredibly difficult to obtain. You should try to buy one at the bank at the border (not sure if they sell them though).

The card costs 5 TL, and you will need around 50TL credit to get you all the way to Iskenderun to catch the ferry

Failing that, you can try to stop at the first toll gate

There was nowhere obvious to buy them there, but it may work

After paying an enterprising local guy who turned up at the first barrier a rip off 20TL to get through, we managed to buy a card in a Ziraat bank in Istanbul (this is the only bank that sell them)

This card worked fine, but we didn’t put enough credit on it, and despite advice, couldn’t top it up anywhere but a bank, so had to pay another single trip fee as we entered Iskenderun

A thoroughly frustrating system – good luck!

Safety Equipment

Bear in mind you now need a long series of equipment in the car if cross Europe

  • Fire extinguisher
  • 2 x Breathiliser mouth pieces
  • 2 x Warning triangles (one will suffice if not going to Turkey)
  • High vis vest in car (not boot)
  • First aid kit
  • Spare set of bulbs for the car
  • Beam benders (bring at least 2 sets, they fall off in the rain!)


Having indulged ourselves in Istanbul and shivered our way through the ‘fairy chimneys’ of Cappadocia, we accelerated on down a spanking new motorway through stunning mountain ranges and arrived in Iskenderun, the port for the ferry to Egypt.

Hmmm – something familiar about this place we thought.  Why yes!

“During the Crusades, three Knights of the First Crusade discovered the Holy Grail and stayed with it in the Temple of the Sun. When two of the knights left for Europe, they left behind two markers that led to the Grail's location, listing Alexandretta [now Iskenderun] as the starting point...In 1938, after discovering the second marker in Venice, Indiana Jones sent Marcus Brody ahead to Iskenderun to meet up with Sallah and start the search for the Holy Grail while Jones went with Elsa Schneider to rescue Henry Jones, Sr.. Brody and Sallah met up at the train station, but Brody was kidnapped by Nazi agents, who took the map. Days later, Sallah met up with Jones and his father in the town, and drove them out to the desert, where they spied Walter Donovan's convoy and attempted a rescue”

Thank you Indiana Jones Wiki.

We liked Iskenderun. Maybe because it is 10 degrees warmer than where we’ve come from, but it had a feel of freedom about it, which I think only comes in towns distant from their administrative centre. It is comfortable in its own personality, subtlety influenced by the outside world through its large port, and friendly to fault.

James and I arrive in Iskenderun

Monday, 19 November 2012

Trip Preparation

The below is a summary of all I have learnt over the last couple of years planning this trip, I hope it is helpful, it is as yet incomplete, but I will endeavour to add to it as I get time on the trip.

Useful Sources
I have made use of many sources for planning the trip, but some of the most useful have been:

The Hubb – Horizons Unlimited – a site primarily for bikers but summarily used by overlanders – a fountain of searchable knowledge –

4x4 Cafe – catalogue of info about planning an overland trip – I found looking at the spec of cars for sale particularly useful –

GapYear4x4 – blog of a couple who did London to Capetown a couple of years back, which is the definitive source for border crossings –

Carnet to Passage

The Carnet is essential for taking your car to most African countries. It acts as a kind of passport for your car, and involves a bond, held in your home country, to prevent you importing the car without paying import duty.

The issuing body in the UK is the RAC. The process is very simple, and they are more than happy to talk you through it on the phone. Try to arrange at least one month before you leave.

The most important thing to consider is the value of your car. The bond you need to hold will be a multiple of that (note, this is book value, rather than market value, which can be much lower in older cars)

The best way to find out the book value is to buy a copy of Glasses guide, but the only place I know you can buy these is at a DCA car auction (though your local car dealer will have one for their own use).

The bond multiple is 2 or 3 times the value for most countries, but for Egypt, it's 8x, so if you plan to go through there, buy an old car!

There are three ways to hold the bond.

1. Arrange a bank guarantee through your mortgage provider (if you own a house)
2. Find a lot of cash
3. Take out bond insurance with RL Davidson (again though, all arranged through the RAC)

The insurance option costs 10% of the value of the bond (ie if going to Egypt, value of car x 8 x 10%), but you get half of it back when you return the carnet after your trip


We only got Ethiopian visas before travel, and expect to be able to do the rest at borders. We'll see how that goes!


There are 3 ferries involved in our trip:

Dover - Calais: Easy – you could even take the train if you were feeling flash

Turkey (Iskenduren) - Egypt (Port Said)

This ferry has primarily come into existence to serve truckers no longer able to navigate the route to Africa via Syria, so will hopefully be short lived.

There is an excellent post on the Hubb by Ben, which you can see here:.

Some thoughts / additions from our experience:

The optional $60 charge by the travel company to navigate customs is exorbitant, but you need to bear in mind that nearly everyone else just pays it, so there is no system / support for those who don’t

Some notes which should help you navigate:

You need to secure 2 stamps in your passport before you can join the ferry
  • The customs stamp (car owner only)
  • Visa exit stamp

The process you need to follow after arrival at Liman B (to be safe I would aim to be there by c.9am on the day of departure – even though the ferry is unlikely to depart before dark, it will be easier to get the paperwork done earlier in the day):

Arrive at gate and park up behind the portacabins

Take car insurance / ownership docs and passports to customs official (light blue uniform)

He will review these docs, check over the car, and then will probably get security to escort you to where you will wait for the ferry (these security guards are from a company called Securitas and wear transparent uniforms)

Once at this car park, expect no more help / direction, you are on your own!

From around 9.30am, you will start to see a medium sized blue bus running people back and forth (it may park behind the waiting room building so keep a keen eye)

Get on this bus with all your documents, it will run back the way you came, past the Liman B entrance, and over to Liman A

There, exit the bus, show the guards your passports and ask for customs / Gumruk

You will then need to walk away from the port for c.5 mins, before taking the first right, follow this around until you see a very tall building with a blue frontage – customs is located on the 9th floor (this is open 9-5, with an hour closure for lunch 12-1 – it’s also outside the port complex, so you could probably have a go the day before)

Show your insurance, ownership docs and passport here to get a customs exit stamp

Return to your car via the same bus

You will then need to get a visa exit stamp from the police – here we showed our passports without a stamp, and were ushered off to the right place, but if that doesn’t work, the police are in the furthest office at the back of the block of buildings where the waiting rooms are (about 5 mins walk)

These guys speak a bit of English, and are helpful, but for some reason wear no uniforms
After that, follow the crowd / Ben's directions and you’ll be fine!

Aswan (Egypt) – Wadi Halfa (Sudan)

This is the only way to get between Egypt and Sudan (there is a road, but no land border at present).

There are lots and lots of posts about this on the hubb, but this is the one I found the most useful:

Roof Tent (and getting on the roof)

Having deliberated long and hard about getting a roof tent for the trip, I am so glad I did. It’s really simple, and comfortable, and has the added benefit of allowing you to camp in RV parks / car parks where there is only a hard surface.

They are very pricey, but you can save a lot by shopping wisely on ebay, where a stream of decent tents comes up at 2-3 per month.

A couple of lessons I learnt in the process which I didn’t read anywhere before buying:
  • These things are massive, and unlikely to fit in the back of any car – if buying second hand you need to have a roof rack / bars / a big van to put it on / in to get it home
  • Getting it on the roof is a 2/3/4 man job (they are 65kg and very large), though if you’re struggling to get enough friends around, and you have a tailgate, there is a way you can just about get it on the roof on your own
  • See video here on how to get a roof tent on the roof with only one person – effectively involves flipping it on to the tailgate, then on the rear of the car (which you protect with a tarp of similar), then slide it on to the back of the roof bars / rack, before levering it onto the top – worked for me! -

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Crossing a Continent

Slavonski Brod, Croatia to Ankara, Turkey (c.1,800 Km)

Today we rolled on into Asia, marking the completion of the European leg of our journey. Having whipped across the Balkans, we even managed to give the Beast a day off in view of the Bosphorous and give ourselves up to the delights of Istanbul.  

The biggest change on this leg, has been that we’ve started camping...

Key traveller tip: it is too cold to camp in Europe in November unless you're feeling tough!

Nevertheless, we need the practise and the motel bills were stacking up, so we’ve rolled out the long johns.

Our first night under canvas was oddly in the garden of an Englishman who has settled in southern Bulgaria (it was a campsite, we didn’t just invite ourselves) There, we braved the roof tent for the first time, with mixed success. It’s really very comfortable, but very much built for African climes, and a shivering night ensued.

Our procession through slightly odd camp sites continues: staying in the car park of a football club by the sea front in Istanbul was pretty unusual (they played football for more hours that we were awake, so there was always someone watching the car!) and now we find ourselves parked out the back of the Turkish answer to Center Parks.

After gifting ourselves a day off, today was a slog behind the wheel (especially given only James is insured here), so we’ll keep observations on the countries we visited brief
  • Serbians have an unquenchable thirst to see pictures of Novak Djockovic
  • Serbia is rather how we imagine the 1970s - a bit dull, full of terrible food and smelling of fags
  • Sofia has cafes and bars cooler than we should ever be allowed in to
  • Istanbul is a great place to spend money

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Friends Old and New

Cambridge, UK to Slavonski Brod, Croatia (c.2,000 Km)

Following a couple of days of manic packing (thanks to both of our sets of parents for last minute assistance!) we are now finally on the move!  We set out in the wee hours from Anna’s parents’ in Cambridge, and have spent the last 5 days crossing an incredibly wet Europe. There is limited excitement to report, since we’re putting our foot down (well, as much as you can in a car weighing nearly 3 tonnes!), to give us more time in Africa.

However, we have managed to spice up the beginning of our trip, by detours to see friends living on the continent. We had a great night out in Paris with Jess and her ‘married friends’, followed by a lovely dinner with Alex and Steffi near Munich, where we met their very new son Raphael.

Since then it has been hard yards, briefly interrupted by the stunning scenery of the Austrian Alps, northern Slovenia and Lake Bled; a wander through the quirky back streets of Ljubljana; and our stop for the night tonight at a gorgeous vineyard in eastern Croatia.

The roads have been amazing thus far, and the borders simple, let’s see how things change as we head further into the Balkans over the next couple of days...

PS for those ski nuts out there, I can confirm it has been snowing in the Alps

Anna proves she can drive!

James in the Slovenian mountains