Come on, Col, how hard can it be? We’ve all been to France on the ferry.
Well, it turns out to be a little different. And harder. There are no passenger ferries to Africa, only Roll-On Roll-Off (RORO) freight vessels with no possibility of stowing aboard with the vehicle. It’s also possible to pay more and stash your truck in a shipping container. However, that’s not cheap, especially considering that our Roof-Top Tent (RTT) and suspension lift make our truck slightly too tall for a regular container. And “high cube” containers only come in 40ft versions, not the standard 20ft length. So RORO it was.
It would be nice to simply do a quick google, choose a shipping line and book your vehicle on a vessel. Not possible: you have to do a lot of googling, a lot of asking on online forums and Facebook groups, just to find out if it’s possible. Then you need to find which shipping companies operate from Europe to Africa and contact them. Some will get back to you, mostly with sky-high prices and a generally incomprehensible reply. Then you realise you need to speak to the agents for the shipping line, in your intended embarkation port, not the shipping line directly. For us, this was Italy. You’ll get some very vague dates for when their ships will sail, and even more vague dates for when they will arrive. “These are commercial vessels, so the date can move back or forwards at the last minute with no warning”. Nice. The only real possibility we were willing to entertain was to ship into Alexandria, Egypt.
We chose to sail with Grimaldi Lines, who had quoted a higher price than the only competitor we could find, Neptune Lines. The sailing we were aiming for would have taken only four to five days, whereas the Neptune sailing would go via Piraeus in Greece, where the truck would sit on the dock for four days before being loaded onto another vessel to sail to Alexandria, and the entire process would take over nine days. With the amount of pilfering which goes on when overland vehicles are being shipped, those days on the dock didn’t sound good to us.
Vehicle and contents security
There is reportedly a LOT of thefts from overland vehicles whilst they are being shipped. Most people ship RORO, and the keys must be left in the ignition at all times. So one needs to be able to lock down an area of the vehicle separately. We do have such an area, with the boot being completely separated from the cab by aluminium shelving units. However, the boot door is still operated by the same key as the ignition, and hooked up to the central locking. I simply didn’t have time to think this through, change the lock and disconnect the central locking. We did have some flimsy hasps already in place at the sides of the door (vertically opening top and bottom halves to the rear doors). We had some shackleless locks delivered from Amazon to the shipping agent’s office in Salerno, but they didn’t arrive until the last minute so we had no option but to try to fit them at the port in a hurry. They basically didn’t fit the hasps and, despite me brandishing the hacksaw and drill, we didn’t get them fitted. We also couldn’t find the half-dozen Yale padlocks in our rush, so instead we fitted one good padlock and another bright orange padlock from Virgin Active gyms… I’ve never had anything stolen from a gym locker, so maybe these locks are really good?! A liberal application of duct tape completed the under–pressure security measures, and ensured the paint wouldn’t be damaged. Unless the thieves simply jimmied the door open, of course.
Shipping lines don’t treat overlanders very well, it has to be said. They state that we must deliver our vehicles completely empty of personal effects, or at least state very strongly that they are in no way responsible for anything within the car. On dropping our vehicle off, I asked for clarification on what happens if (when?!) the stereo is stolen. Agent: “That isn’t part of the car, so we are not responsible”. Me: “Oh, what about the engine?” That earned me a small laugh and an Italian shrug. He naturally claimed that all pilfering was done by the Africans when it reached the port, so it wasn’t something they (Grimaldi) could control. I’ve since found out that Grimaldi have their own secure area at Alexandria port, where all their vehicles are offloaded to. While our truck wasn’t looted, some wannabe criminal clearly had a go at getting into the boot as one of the rear hasps was bent and there was evidence of trying to force the door open against the (good) padlock. Good job we wrapped Chuck up in duct tape. They also half-inched a beer bottle opener which was tied to the fridge, which is a bit annoying.
What’s involved in shipping a vehicle from Europe to Africa?
Now, you’d think this was all that was needed, right? We’ve ‘booked’ our vehicle on the boat, so we just drop it off and pick it up on the other side, surely? How very wrong you would be to think that. For starters, you don’t really ‘book’ anything. Instead, you let the agent know what your intentions are, quiz them repeatedly for updates on the latest ETA for that ship, and basically just rock up the day before the vessel is due to leave the port. We assumed the agent’s office would be within the port, but it was actually a few miles away, downtown. We parked up nearby – not an easy thing in Salerno – and found their office. Having been quoted over EUR 1k by the agency for our over-height vehicle, and failing to argue the price down, I was both surprised and delighted to be presented with an invoice for EUR 576. “This is the price. Is it okay?” Yes. Yes, it’s okay. I could barely pay fast enough, and made sure not to publish this post until we got our truck out from the port!
You’ll also need a Carnet de Passages en Douane to get your vehicle into Egypt, so you’ll need to procure this and present it to the shipping agent before they will ship your vehicle. That’s another post in itself, so check it out here. They’ll ask to see a scan of it in advance of you turning up – this is a good thing, as they will check it for issues.
Egypt wins Olympic gold every year for bureaucracy. Even in those three interim years with no Olympic Games, they still award them the medal. No other nation even bothers turning up. Really, this place is hell to get things done. To get a vehicle out of the port takes, at best, two whole days. And that’s with the best, most experienced and efficient freight forwarding company in the land – Consolidated Freight Service. They charge a small fortune (EUR 870 for us) but offer a “no hidden costs, virtually guaranteed 48 hour” service, which is mighty attractive when one hears of other overlanders being stranded in Alexandria for weeks and having to frequently travel to the government administration offices in Cairo, which can take over 4 hours by train.
I’ve asked so many stupid questions during this process that even those who know me very well would find it odd. I hate hidden costs, so I was determined to dig them all out proactively. A few days ago, a hidden cost slapped me in the face like a wet fish. The equivalent of about £35 for processing the “delivery order”, payable directly to Grimaldi. On contacting Grimaldi’s agent in Italy, I was told that this wasn’t the “offloading from the ship to the dock” which I had previously asked about and was covered in their price. Argh. Today, when the bill was presented at the Marina Shipping Agencies office in downtown Alexandria, it was more like £50 with taxes included. I’ll be having more chats with CFS about including this in their “all-inclusive” price in future.
So how much is this whole shipping operation costing us?
– Shipping with Grimaldi’s agent, Autuori: EUR 576
– Retrieving the vehicle from the port in Alexandria with CFS: EUR 870
– Sundries: currently about EUR 45 plus multiple cheap taxis – so about EUR 60
– Total: EUR 1506
This doesn’t, of course, include getting ourselves here. That involved (costs are for both of us, total):
– Train from Salerno to Rome (which was delayed): EUR 92
– Train from Rome Termini to Rome Fiumicino Airport: EUR 28
– Flight to Cairo via Amman, Jordan (3.5 hr wait in Amman): EUR 305
– Train from Cairo to Alexandria (4+ hrs, scheduled for just over 2 hrs): EUR 10
– Total: EUR 435
So the total cost to get to Africa, excluding getting from London to Italy, will be about EUR 2k. Which is not cheap, by any means, but when you consider that a car ferry from the UK to Spain will set you back about EUR 500 (one way, 2 adults), and a flight from London to Cairo would cost about EUR 500 each, it’s not that crazy. Yes you have to get to Italy, but we saw Europe as a desirable part of our roadtrip, so you can’t really compare the costs.
As I write this, we are waiting in Alexandria to retrieve our truck from the port. After our sailing departure was delayed three days, with little explanation, and the sailing was already due to take a week, we had time to kill. We contemplated spending yet more time in Italy, but we’d already spent an extra week in Italy getting the air conditioning fixed on our truck. We found a cheap flight to Cairo which stopped in Amman, Jordan, so considered looking into spending a couple of days in Jordan and checking out Petra, etc. We decided that was a little too ‘greedy’ and took the cheap, easy option.
We spent a week in Cairo and while it is an incredibly interesting city, it’s chaotic and harassing. Plus, we felt in limbo, like we were just waiting around, killing time, until we could pick up our truck and continue our roadtrip. We jumped on the First Class train to Alexandria, which thankfully was an express service. Unfortunately, while it didn’t stop in any stations, it did stop just about everywhere else and took over four hours, when it was scheduled for just over two. After meeting our lovely AirBnB host, Rania, we slept well, excited to be getting closer to being back on the road.
We arrived at CFS’s downtown Alexandria office the next morning at 09:30 for our scheduled first meeting, the day before our ship was to arrive. This was Tuesday. Quite quickly, Fathy told us our ship would not arrive until “next Friday”. “NEXT Friday?!” Whoa there, how can that be? We soon realised that he was simply doing what a lot of native English speakers do – “next Friday” means the week after the current week, people! “This Friday” refers to Friday at the end of the current week. So it wasn’t as bad as it sounded, but it was another two-day delay. So “Air Conditioning Week”, plus three days delay on ship departure, plus two days delay on arrival and we’re nearly 2 weeks behind our non-existent schedule.
Under the instruction of the nice people at CFS we took care of some formalities and tried to get the ball rolling, but inertia wasn’t on our side. At the chaotic government offices, we tried to obtain a Temporary Residency Permit stamp in my passport, which is a bizarre requirement in itself for retrieving a temporarily imported vehicle from a port. However, being all clever and digital, we used the new e-Visa programme and hence I didn’t have a visa in my passport. The clerk realised this seconds after stamping my passport so he quickly cancelled it and told us to back go to Cairo to organise a visa. Worrying. The next morning we printed out a new copy of my e-Visa and returned. After misunderstanding the female clerk, thinking she was telling me that a temporary residency permit wasn’t required as my visa covered me for my entire stay, Patricia helped me see that the clerk was simply trying to tell me she would give me temporary residency until the end of the month. I decided to stop arguing with the lady who was, in fact, doing exactly as I had requested, and a couple of minutes later we were all done – not even a fee, which is something unheard of in Egypt since the time of the great Pharaohs. Maybe even since they invented sand, who knows?
It was also on this day, Wednesday, when we were told that Friday was a national holiday: Armed Forces Day. Not only this, but the prime minister had just, apparently, announced that Sunday would also be a national holiday. In Muslim countries, Saturday is the day of rest so this seemed like they were setting up a 3-day weekend, covering the three days from when our ship arrived. More delays. So Friday and Sunday were dead to us, but thankfully not everyone takes Saturday off, it seems. CFS were working so we met Salah, who took us to the offices of Marina Shipping Agencies (who were also working) so we could pay the disembarkation fee. He then took us in another taxi to the far end of town, where the Automobile & Touring Club of Egypt have their offices by the sea. Here we had our Carnet validated (we think this was what we were charged EGP 1240 for, anyway… thankfully it is included in our invoice from CFS, so we don’t really care).
Picking the vehicle up from the port
My original intention was to document this so as to shed some light on the process to would-be travellers. After being involved in what I can only assume is Egypt showing off their bureaucratic muscle with their most impressive construction, I don’t have the willpower. The sheer number of steps involved is absolutely nuts. The way Salah dealt with a multitude of different gatekeepers and jobsworths was bewildering. I don’t even know which was greater, the backhanders or the official payments, because I could rarely see the difference. I don’t see how any Arabic-speaking layperson could perform this task on their own, without help. Nevermind a Northern Irishman who gets mixed up between French and Spanish every time he tries to say anything more complicated than two beers please. That’s me, by the way. No, really, it is.
Checklist – what you should focus on
- Find shipping lines with a good record of not having things stolen from cars (this will be tricky)
- Find out if your vehicle will change ship at any port along the way and, if so, how long that will be. Then weigh up the security consequences of it being sat in a random port for that time
- Ensure you can lock down an area of your car as securely as possible when the passenger compartment will be open (the keys will be in the ignition the whole time). Spend time and money on this before you leave. You do NOT need to leave everything open for customs – you can open it for customs later.
- Find the sailing you want to use and keep in contact with the agency on the embarkation side to track its ETA. Know your backup sailings – you don’t need to book in advance, remember, just get in contact and maybe send them some documents to check
- Ask your agents on both sides LOTS of questions, being firm with them that you want an all-inclusive quote. Ask for them to explain the entire process and ensure that each step is included in their quote, regardless of whether it should be paid directly to them or not(and ask them to pay other costs for you if possible, so you have one payment to make on each side only)
- Expect delays at all points and be patient
- In Africa, expect payments to be cash-only