Caught in a flash flood in Egypt

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We had started before nine am from Cairo in order to reach Hurghada by the early afternoon. It was supposed to be an uneventful, boring bus ride of a few hours through the desert with glimpses of the Red Sea and the Sinai Mountains beyond, and we had brought a sweater against the air-con in the bus but nothing to read or work. After dozing for three hours, the lunch break seemed unnecessary to us. But Zafarana House is the largest rest house along this lonely road and two busloads of Chinese tourists were already eating in the restaurant. Oh had we skipped the break!

Half an hour later we are among the first to be stopped in a roadblock near Ras Gharib, a small town at the Red Sea coast. Our bus stands next to a gas station, and at first everyone is fairly relaxed, buying potato chips from the mini-market, standing around, waiting and chatting. The onward coastal road is closed, nothing unusual, it seems. “Due to the bad weather”, our hotel in Hurghada confirms when we call to say we are delayed. “A few hours,” assures the bus driver when we have relocated to a small cafeteria at the edge of the town. “No, not tomorrow,” he laughs at Natascha’s suggestion.

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Meanwhile it has gone dark, and heavy rain has set in. The workmen fixing the new lighting in the cafeteria abandon the task because water is dripping through the roof in several places; eventually they are ripping off plaster boards to let the water drain and turn the light off altogether for fear of short circuits.

By 10 pm, the two Egyptian women who had been snoring all morning in the rows in front of us are yawning and point to the bus. Like the other remaining passengers – some others have already left back for Cairo in taxis and a minibus passing in the opposite direction – we follow suit and make ourselves comfortable in the bus to sleep.

The water is rising – a flash flood!

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We startle up an hour later when someone shouts and points outside, where brownish water is flowing into the parking lot. The water is surrounding the bus and rising fast. Only a few minutes later, we are in a heated discussion with our fellow passengers: Stay in the bus? Go back to the Cafeteria (the building with the bad roof and no upper floor)? We could climb on the roof and hope the walls will resist the flood. Or should we head towards another bus standing on somewhat higher ground on the asphalt road, but 20 m away and cross to the direction of the flood? Soon, there is no choice left – two men go out and try to move in the hip-high water but the current is too strong.

The water only stops rising after having flooded the luggage compartment and reached the second step of the bus. At 2 am the water level rises again and with it the panic in the bus, but luckily just a few centimeters more before leveling; most passengers then fall into a light slumber. Now and then the lights of two bulldozers cut through the dark. It seems they are operated by individual workmen from constructions sites in the area who are looking for victims trapped in cars or houses.

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No bus for onward travel

By daybreak around 5 am the waters have only just started receding. Some people who have found shelter in the cafeteria go back to their cars and drive to higher grounds. The engine of our bus, however, won’t start anymore, and our fellow passengers have a hard time even to convince the bus company to arrange some onward transport: At 8 am we decide that we will all walk together to another bus belonging to the same company about 1 km away. We extract our luggage from the mud that has filled the luggage compartment and wade through the receding water. The road is covered in slippery mud up to 40 cm thick and soft like a cushion.

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While we wait for the road to be reopened, some truck drivers use their air pressure gun to clean Isa’s laptop from the fine mud that had seeped into the backpack. It might even have worked with water, but the mud was too much for the laptop and the e-readers. Most of our remaining luggage and the mud-drenched backpacks could be cleaned and washed over the course of two sunny days in Hurghada.

The heavy rains and flash floods on 27-29 October affected much of Upper Egypt, killing at least 22, including several people in Ras Gharib. It was the first time such floods occurred in that town.

Meanwhile we are in Aswan hoping to pick up our Sudan visa next week. While it was quite a scary experience we are well and looking forward to Sudan.

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