Unpleasant Customs (Officers) in Alexandria!

Post No. 3 — Looking back forty-years to 20 January 1981

The ferry across the Mediterranean from Greece to Egypt took just under 36 hours and we arrived shortly after daybreak.

My new-found friend Tom McDade switched from being a laid-back English driving instructor on an adventurous holiday with his Land Rover in Egypt to something more like one of Rommel’s panzer tank drivers in a bad mood when the customs men in Alexandria corruptly tried to rip us off. In this photo, we had paused on the Delta Road, from Alex’ to Cairo, pleased to have evaded a bit of blackmail! {:-) [Copyright image.]

On the way across the Med’, however, we had enjoyed an unusual view of the mountains of Crete, away to our west, completely blanketed in snow. And while everyone was looking at the unexpectedly white mountains, one of the crew from the ship’s bridge made an announcement that snow was actually falling in the Sahara Desert, not too far from Alexandria where we were heading — it was a ‘first time in many years’ event.

in the meanwhile, I had made friends with a couple of fellow Englishmen, one of whom was Tom McDade, a driving instructor from Hampshire. He told me that he found his job stressful and had got into the habit of taking a couple of months off, every two years, and driving alone in his 1970 Land Rover around different parts of North Africa.

He told me that he had landed at Alexandria before, and I believe on that occasion he had headed west through Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, before crossing back into Europe by ferry, across the Straits of Gibraltar. I think in terms of stress, many people might find that being a driving instructor was a much easier option, and he laughed when I told him that.

“Where are you heading, after we land?” Tom asked me.

“I need to get to Cairo,” I said.

“Well the Customs people at Alex’ will try to rip all of us ‘overlanders’ off. They’ll search your possessions and lie about you having things you shouldn’t. And then they’ll tell you that they’ll turn a blind eye to it if you slip them enough pounds or U.S. dollars. Pure blackmail,” said Tom. “You and I will both be safer going through together, and anyway I’m heading for Cairo first, as well, so if you wish, I’ll drop you off in Cairo.”

This was far too good an offer to miss. Up until then I knew only that I would have to get into the centre of Alexandria then get either a bus or a train between the two cities, and my inability to speak Arabic would certainly not help.

Sure enough, once we had docked and Tom had driven us the short distance to the customs enclosure, we were stopped and we were treated very curtly indeed.

The officers got our passports from us then told Tom to go with them to their offices.

“See if you can stay here, within sight of the vehicle,” Tom said to me. “Otherwise stuff will go missing.”

Very bizarrely, I was left sitting in the Land Rover. Nobody came to speak to me and nobody even cursorily examined the contents either of the vehicle or of my huge backpack. It was all the more surprising because other vehicles alongside ours were stripped right down; perhaps those people looked richer than us… it certainly wouldn’t be difficult, given our rough-and-ready style of dress!

Almost three hours later, Tom was accompanied back to the vehicle and was looking furious. He climbed in and told me that he had been asked for U.S. $50 or neither of us would get our passports back.

Indeed, the officer standing by Tom’s door was brandishing our passports and grinning at us.

Without warning, the bold Tom — and remember that this was the likable chap who was stressed by learner drivers — grabbed the passports from the officer and banged the accelerator to the floor!

But it was an old Land Rover…. We accelerated only slightly quicker than a sloth.

“I’m not stopping if they signal me to. Fasten your seatbelt,” said Tom.

My driver apparently was James Bond in disguise, but sadly without an Aston Martin for his planned escape.

Sure enough, an officer near the gate did signal us to stop, but Tom was having none of it, and the next moment we were out of the docks and onto an Alexandria street. If there had been a ‘Formula Landie’ racing series, Tom would have been a contender.

Way before the days of GPS or mobile phones, plus maps that were only in Arabic, a good sense of direction and an eye on the direction of the sun were necessary attributes. [Copyright image, 1981]

Heading for the city centre, we eventually came across a roundabout but — as I was to learn repeatedly — in Egypt there are no rules of the road. It is more a case of look for the gap and drive straight for it.

Sure enough, part way around the roundabout, we were in collision with a large, cream coloured Peugot car. Tom and the other driver — clearly a European — got out to speak. Meanwhile the Peugot, as was to be expected, was looking considerably more dented than the Land Rover.

Tom got back in and re-started the engine to move off.

“He’s a German that works in Egypt,” he said. “All he wanted was for us all to be gone before the police come, or they will ask for lots of money or arrest us.”

“Oh, that again?” I said.

“Yes. that again,” said Tom.

But a short while later, the exact opposite happened.

We had stopped at the roadside and Tom was staring at a large, battered Michelin map of northern Egypt, trying to work out which road he needed to get us towards Cairo.

At that point, a taxi pulled up alongside us — who cares about double-parking in Egypt — and the driver said, in broken English: “Where do you go?”

“Cairo,” said Tom.

“Follow me to right road,” said the taxi driver.

“How much money?” asked Tom.

“No. No money. Egypt is my country. We welcome visitors.”

And sure enough, when we reached the correct road, the taxi driver simply waved to us pointed the right way for us to go, then beeped his horn and kept on going.

“Damn,” said Tom. “If he had stopped, I would have given him some money,”

“Yes, me too,” I said.

That was the first of countless very kind deeds from local people that I was to experience on my trip.

And then, at old-Land Rover speeds, we had a long drive to Cairo. (See the top photograph.)

Several hours later, after battling with infinitely worse traffic on the way into Cairo, Tom dropped me off exactly where I needed to be.

As he was about to drive away, he said: “Welcome to Africa — well, North Africa, Eddie. It can be fun!”

But a final, very pleasant surprise was to be had, over a month later. At the same campsite in Luxor as I was at, I thought to myself that Land Rover looks familiar…. “Hello, Tom!

An unexpected reunion, several weeks later, in Luxor. [Copyright image, 1981)

And in a nearby bar, that evening, Tom and I had plenty ‘war stories’ to exchange, and a lot of laughs.

Thanks again, Tom.

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