There's a new dawn over transport options in the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba and it's enough to make veteran overlanders of the Nuweiba to Aqaba route choke on their shisha.
Having to suffer the infamously tardy schedule of the two public ferries that ply the waters between Egypt and Jordan is now a thing of the past; relegated to the back drawer of backpacker history. Yes folks, there's a new rival ferry working this route, offering all kinds of wonderful which I can only gasp in awe at.
Speedy immigration formalities!
No longer will travellers have to navigate the crazed disorder of the Nuweiba immigration building. Known (nearly) affectionately as the Bangkok Hilton* among those of us who journeyed this route at least once a month; the immigration facilities at Nuweiba are the nearest bovine experience a human can have. Imagine being trapped inside what is best described as a vast herding shed and then being crushed within a mad stampede, when the ferry is called, and you get the picture.
This no longer needs to be your last memory of Egypt though. Passengers on the new ferry bypass this chaos completely. Instead they are whisked down to the end of the port, to that rather strange glass pyramid structure (I always wondered what they'd end up using that useless building for), and complete immigration facilities there.
No more queues for miles. No more wooden-slat benches which are always missing their middle-slat. No more crowds squatting on the dirt encrusted floor. No more flies. No more sudden, mad, panicked rush to the gate. I once saw a child get trampled in the crush and while trying to help the mother get her off the floor was belted by a policeman's baton on my back as he tried to control the crowd. Sadly he was more upset about having hit me than about the child getting knocked over.
A definite departure time!
The public 'fast ferry' leaves at 3pm. Supposedly. In reality it leaves at 5.30pm if you're lucky but as luck has never been my strongpoint when travelling for me it usually leaves at 7.30pm, or 9.30pm and once, in a mammoth immigration shed marathon ordeal it left at 12.30am. For a long time I proudly held the record among my friends of 'Longest Wait In The Nuweiba Immigration Shed, Ever!' But then I was beaten by a friend who was left waiting till 4am at the port and then made the huge mistake of deciding to take the 'slow ferry' which was then leaving, only to see the 'fast ferry' merrily overtake her boat at 6am while she was left with another two hours of sailing time in front of her.
The new ferry is guaranteed to leave at 6.30am and takes about 1.5 hours to reach Jordan meaning travellers who don't want to stop in Aqaba (it's actually a very nice town and does deserve a night of your time) will actually be able to catch the morning public transport buses and minibuses to Wadi Rum, Petra and Amman. Why the guaranteed departure? Because this ferry also transports all the one-day Petra tour groups from Sharm el-Sheikh, Taba and Dahab.
At the moment, most independent travellers don't even realise they can take this ferry and believe it's reserved for tour group tourists only doing a one-day-return trip but I am assured by the nice people who operate this ferry service that independent travellers are very welcome to use their service as well.
And what's the price difference you ask?
A one-way ticket for the new 'Babil' ferry costs US$85. That's including the Egyptian departure tax of US$10.
Tickets for the public 'fast ferry' costs US$75 plus departure tax.
Yes, that's right. It's the same price.
I know which one I'll be choosing in the future.
How to get a ticket on the new 'Babil' ferry
In the future it's likely that plenty of the tour operators in Dahab will begin selling tickets for this ferry but right at the moment there is nowhere in Egypt for independent travellers to purchase one. Instead email the helpful staff at Meenagate, who operate this ferry service (email@example.com), to make a pre-booking at least 48 hours in advance. You can then collect your ticket and pay on arrival at Nuweiba Port.
*NOTE (for non-Antipodean readers): Bangkok Hilton is the nickname of Thailand's notorious Bangkwang Jail which should give you a decent idea of the overall atmosphere of the Nuweiba immigration building