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June 16, 2007

Kayaking Lake Nasser - To the Border (Day 1)

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LOCATION: 12 nautical miles north of Wadi Halfa - Sudan
Longitude: N:21deg.54'27.
Latitude: E: 031deg.16'38.
Kms from Djibouti: 3,336 kms

For the past 24 hours I've been camped on a small island 12 miles north of Wadi Halfa and just 6 miles south of the border with Egypt. My departure from Wadi Halfa late yesterday morning was spur of the moment prompted by an expected turn of events. Earlier in the morning I'd been informed by Mazar (brother to Midhat Mahir in Khartoum and my local fixer in Halfa) that the Sudanese Security had now refused me permission to even paddle to the border and back: my last resort plan in the event that permission from Cairo didn't come through and I was forced into a band-aid solution of picking up from the Egyptian side where I'd left off on the Sudanese side (having taken the ferry in between). Not a very clean way to do it, but acceptable to keep the human-powered thread intact and certainly better than having to backtrack all the way to Mumbai in India.


On hearing the disappointing news I sat on my bed in the 'Deffentoad Hotel' and considered the options available: my Sudan visa had run out by almost a week and the authorities would certainly stick me on the next ferry to Aswan in Egypt due on the 20th, leaving just 4 days for the permission to come through from Cairo. This seemed unlikely to happen given how nothing further had been heard back from the Egyptian Embassy in Khartoum since their initial request for further information several weeks ago. And if I was forced onto the ferry without kayaking at least to the border, then it would certainly mean backtracking all the way to India.

Mazar also seemed keen for me to stay close to the hotel so that Security could keep an eye on me. I was beginning to wonder if Mazar was working more for the authorities than for me! I knew he was in a difficult situation though, having been brought up in this town and knowing all these guys personally. And as he said himself, it was proving harder and harder to find a legitimate 'solution' for me. It was therefore time to take matters into my own hands. I've learnt over the years that often in places like this when you ask official permission to do something you actually create a more of a problem than if you just go ahead and do it: no one wants to take the rap on anything if things goes wrong. However the stakes on this jaunt would be a little higher than usual in so much as I was crossing an international border without permission from either side and the likelihood of getting shot was not that unrealisti - crossing in a clandestine-type craft and at night.


So I told the hotel staff that I was going out for a few hours for a spin in the kayak, pre-paid for two nights so as not to arouse suspicion, locked the door and did away with the room key.

What a wonderful feeling it has been actually getting going! Just paddling on the lake to my campsite here completely rejuvenated my spirits after spending so many days waiting in Wadi Halfa on the whims of others. The 5 hr paddle to cover the 12 nautical miles has given me a proper chance to try out the kayak and in some higher wind conditions (the wind always blows in the afternoon). Although excellent in many of its design qualities the Folbot does let in water in waves over 1.5 feet (via the ill-fitting velcro seals around the cockpit mainly I think), so I'm very glad I went to the trouble and expense of sending a bunch of dry bags from Djibouti to protect the electronic gear from getting wet.

I've taken the liberty of staying on this little island for a full 24-hour cycle: to observe the weather conditions (particularly at night); the clarity of the stars for celestial navigation (I don't want to turn on my head torch at all to read the compass while crossing the border area), and amount of moonlight available both for kayaking and for the observation posts to detect me in silhouette form, and the likelihood of the north wind slackening during the evening making northward progress easier. Once I push away from shore tonight I will only have one shot at getting it right, and I want to make sure that I make good enough progress to be well away from the border observation posts by first light.


My plan is to push off at around 8 pm, taking a couple of hours to paddle the 6 miles to the border post of 'Argin' on the west side of the lake. By the time I reach there it should be completely dark, the moon having dipped below the western horizon, allowing me to head for the middle of the lake for actually crossing the 22 degree line of latitude (the border). Sticking to the middle of the lake should give me between 1 and 2 miles of clearance between observation posts. North of the 22 degree line I enter into unknown territory as far as what additional observation points they have and the patrol vessel I've heard the Egyptians use to patrol the lake with (with infrared capability for night time surveillance?). I'll look to paddle until about 5.15 am, just as first light is appearing in the eastern sky, using the faint light to locate a suitable hideout for the day. I need to be completely hidden by 6 am when people start getting up and about.


Posted on June 16, 2007 4:33 PM