A Different World
Talk to anybody who's been to Sudan and
they'll tell you what lovely people the Sudanese are. And of course they are
right. I have a theory which goes something like this. God left the middle
bit of Africa until last, and then found out that he'd run out of mountains,
trees, and animals, and only had sand and dust left. So he did the best he
could with the materials in hand, and then to compensate endowed the people
who lived there with the gifts of hospitality and good nature. Well, I never
said it was going to be a particularly good story, did I?
The drive fro Gonder takes you along a
mediocre piste to the border, and after that it's another hundred-plus click
of the same before you hit the tarmac. The transition from fertile Ethiopia
to barren desert is by now complete, and dust hangs thick across the horizon
even though the Harmattan is months away.
By this time the Camel was suffering from
serious power loss and was belching black smoke at the slightest incline. We
stopped for the night at a plantation where we made as welcome as language
(or lack of it) would permit by the young caretaker. Nanda and Dirk got to
enjoy a cool shower before we settled down for some decent chow and an early
The next morning I set of ahead of the
others to see how the Camel was going to behave - by now I couldn't even
stay in fourth gear, so when the Landcriuser caught up they hitched me up
and towed me the full 400km into Khartoum.
The National Camping Centre
This unlikely name for a sports academy is
the overlander's choice now that the Blue Nile Sailing Club has stopped
cleaning their toilets. At times it got pretty busy; Khartoum is a good visa
stop, and I was picking up a Jordan visa in order to then apply for a Saudi
Visa having decided to take everybody's advice and skip Egypt. Everything
was going pretty well except for my search for a good garage to sort out my
Khartoum proved to be a pretty sociable
place - the campsite offered a laundry service as well as tea, coffee, and a
shop. One night there were seven overlanders in the car park. But no bar, of
course... for that one has to use a little initiative.
In the course of the next few days I
managed to get a good few beers in despite Sudan being dry - the German
Club, a Korean Restaurant, and the best of all, the Pickwick club in the
British embassy all helped keep me sane and in touch with the Six Nations,
and where I got to meet Roger Tomkins, the embassy Transport and Security
manager who was fantastic in helping me with my car problems. Eventually I
found GMW, a Dutch run garage South of where I was staying, who stripped
down my fuel system, cleaning out the sludge that the Ethiopians sell as
diesel. After a day's slog the Camel was running better than it ever had,
and I roared triumphantly over to the office that issues travel permits,
bizarrely situated in the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs. I'd found out
from Hans, a 69 year old travel veteran, that I needed a travel permit as
Port Sudan was a military area - the normal Wadi Halfa transit didn't need
Now the fun starts. An amazing trail of
paper, photocopying fests, and patience and smiles and a two day wait
results in a sheet of Arabic script topped by my photo. It probably says
something like "this bloke is a known camel-shagger", but it seemed to get
me to Port Sudan OK. Though some of the camels looked a little worried.
Cowboy in Khartoum
Dirk and Nanda came unstuck because they
weren't married, and no amount of forged documents could help them with the
required letter saying they were a real couple from their embassy. So no
Saudi transit visa for them. I'm still not sure where they are now, but
hopefully they'll enjoy Egypt at the very least...
The National Museum was closed for
technical reasons. For three months. The technical reason in question was
that somebody had broken in one night, somehow evading the alert, highly
trained, and well armed guards, and then smashed open all the display
cabinets (quietly of course) and pinched all the best exhibits. But not the
gold. That was pinched last year. So I was in the library next to the Palace
museum killing time while my travel permit was being processed when I got
chatting to Peter Scanlon, an Arizonan with a very low-key manner of
travelling, except for his insistence on wearing (and showering in) large
and conspicuous cowboy hat.
We popped over to Onderman - the Western
part of greater Khartoum to check out the whirling dervishes - a pretty
touristy show but interesting all the same even if it's just to see the
rapturous look on the faces of the dancers as they spin around in the dusk
light - Paul Theroux found it a little scary - it's the hysteria which I've
seen in African religion a little too often - maybe those guys should just
get out more.
We arranged to hook up the following day
for the rugby (Peter's interest lay more in the beer), and once I'd decided
that he probably wouldn't get me killed in a loudmouth-redneck-lynching
scenario I invited him along for the run up the Nile to Meroe and Atbara.
And that of course was the night I was, for
the first time in Africa, successfully robbed - by a pickpocket. Getting
onto the bus there was a strange kind of log-jam - it seemed to be caused by
one guy in a white shirt getting in everybody's way - I was instantly wary -
but a crush is a crush. Then I felt my XDA (phone computer thingy) slide out
of my pocket. It could only have been one of three guys - the favourite
being matey in the white shirt. I was furious - shouting I pushed the guy
pretty much on top of the poor driver and screamed at him while blocking the
others from escaping. Miraculously my XDA appeared - it was on the floor,
and white shirt was evicted without ceremony (and sadly without a lynching).
Everybody was terribly nice - I got a free ride and lots of smiles -
everybody seemed glad I'd got my XDA back, but no one more so than me.
Shifa, and the Curious Tale of the
Tomahawk Cruise Missile Second Hand Part Dealer.
First, though, we had to visit the Mahdi's
tomb - a pretty innocuous detour, but one of more then a little historical
significance in you know the story of Gordon, Kitchener, and all that. Next
it was off to the third city that makes up greater Khartoum - North
Khartoum, where in 1998 after a particularly serious session that didn't
involve inhaling Clinton somehow got it into his head (and dat man got a lot
of head) that the Shifa pharmaceutical factory was manufacturing WMDs and
sent over a couple of Tomahawk cruise missiles.
It's pretty impressive to see the
destruction that the pair did - the place is a big mess with pill bottles
stacked all over the place, and slabs of concrete that are curled like
paper. The caretaker let us in, showed us the two craters. I was more
interested in the pile of alloy scrap that I'd spotted earlier - it looked
suspiciously like the sort of Raytheon Hi-tech engineering that one would
find in, say, the engine a Tomahawk cruise missile.
"Now that" I thought, "would make a grade
'A' souvenir". Ali invited us into his hut for chicken, bread, and tea and
as we shared his supper I casually raised the matter of the impending sale
of said missile parts. The bidding started at $100, and by the time the
chicken was consumed the deal was sealed at about $25 and a large plastic
water container with tap. Now I just have to think up a good story for when
the Saudis decide to search my vehicle.
North to Meroe
The following day the permit was ready, and
the pair of us with missile parts safely stowed headed North towards Meroe
and the desert ruins en-route. I'd hoped to get the GPS points from Paul
Dutson, but his GPS had been pinched; we'd be winging it... Fortunately fate
smiled upon us; we met a group of Spaniards at the start of the track to the
Temples of Naqa who gave us not only the required points, but also and more
importantly two cold beers! It's amazing what you can find in the desert...
We arrived at Musawwarat first, after a
brief bit of exercise involving two sand ladders, a badly placed hummock,
and lots of sand. There were a few Germans from Berlin University working on
digs, but they didn't mind us wandering around the ruins - impressive not
only for their scale but also the technical execution that had been so
lacking in Ethiopia. The reliefs were to my eye pretty Egyptian - the sort
of thing I'd expected to see further down the Nile - so I guess I got some
small compensation for my change of route to Saudi after all.
We camped under the stars near the temple,
and Peter entertained me with his harmonica and guitar arrangements - it's
amazing what some back-packers carry. It was really great to know that the
morning sun would wake me, and not:
a. Dogs barking
b. Cockerels crowing, or
c. The 4:30 a.m. call to prayer
In the morning we made straight for Naqa
for more ruin-wandering - my words cannot do these places justice because I
could never express the delight to be find in their isolation - no tourists,
no trinket sellers, no hassle - the way tourism used to be in the days of
Holroyd 1837, who seemed to have carved his name everywhere we went. But
unlike Holroyd, I at least go home with photographs.
After stopping for a foul breakfast (that's
the bean food type of foul) we drove on to Meroe, which the Meroans
considerately built next to the main road, and not stuck out in the desert
This complex of pyramids is approached by a
sandy track that stops at a gate, or if you are in a Camel, by driving
around the back through fantastic sand and coming in across the saddle of
two Jebels for the optimum backdrops for some photos (did I mention Peter is
In the 1830 or thereabouts some Italian
turned up with dynamite and went treasure hunting on a grand scale. By all
accounts he did quite well, retiring in opulent style back home in Italy
while leaving the Sudanese to ponder over a bunch of decapitated pyramids.
He's a much cursed man nowadays of course, but even so it's amazing to find
such impressive structures without the burden of hoards of tourists.
Atbara was where Peter and I were to part
company - he to Wadi Halfa by bus or train and I across the desert to Suakin
to catch my ferry. We found a hotel that had hot showers, I got a puncture
which I managed to repair myself (a skill I've learned too late for Africa),
and in the morning after the obligatory foul breakfast I was off.
The Desert Crossing
I knew nothing about the route other than
the fact that buses used it, so I figured it couldn't be too bad. I didn't
know that these buses were actually bus bodies bolted onto Bedford trucks,
but then we all live and learn. The route follows a railway line - as long
as you remember which side of the track you are on you should never get
lost, though I found the piste often deviated many kilometres fro the tracks
- well beyond line of site. Add to this the stretches of soft sand that sap
your power and leave you panting once you eventually hit firmer surfaces,
and you'll get the idea that I wasn't a happy bunny at being alone.
In some ways it was the hardest leg of the
whole journey - alone - the demanding conditions - the sand - the risk of a
breakdown or a shattered differential from an all too likely submerged rock
in the centre strip of a deeply rutted path - it all added to the stress,
and at it's worst, about 100km into a 300km route I was tempted to turn
back. But after I'd found a hard patch to stop on and let my tyres down the
sand seemed to get easier - and I always knew that if I got into trouble I
had plenty of water , and these weren't people who would rob or take
advantage of me - it's Sudan after all... In the end I made good time,
arriving at the tarmac an hour before dusk, with flat batteries (a snapped
I spent the night in a police compound at
some fly-blown town on the road where Shoul, the police chief, made me very
welcome - people kept on trying to give up their beds for me in Sudan. In
the morning I was helped with a push start, and Arrived in Suakin, for the
ferry to Saudi Arabia, in time for breakfast.
For the record, here's the procedure for
getting onto the boat:
Elfatih Mohamed (Mobile 012981001) can help for a fee
Fatih in customs speaks good English and can do customs for a fee - I
paid $20 for both...
1. Buy ticket - SD17,500 per person - you pay for the car on the boat
2. Enter Port - just thro gate:
3. Get car/person on manifest (SD4000) in the container
4. Next door pay fee for Passport (SD1000)
5. Go back out to add yourself to ship manifest
6. Drive car thro gate - it'll be slightly searched later
7. In to present 3x immigration forms to immigration officer
8.then wait for the stamp from the boss-man
Now wait while all the papers are shuffled
around by your helpers - it's all pretty chaotic but nothing more needs
to be paid. Eventually you drive to the quay side and later drive the
The ferry was quite comfortable - over
dinner I was invited by Tarik to sleep in his cabin - I had unpleasant
visions of being rogered senseless by a bunch of Arabs, but decided that the
offer was another example of splendid hospitality, which of course it was,
though later I had to insist that I was happy on a cabin floor so that Tarik
wouldn't give his bed up for me.
First though came the serious business of
watching Africa disappear off the stern. There it lay in the fading light,
the famous coral ruins of Suakin with minarets still standing amid the
crumbling stonework. The sun, now low in the sky and obscured to a silver
disk by the rising dust of a coming storm, was kind to the decaying old city
- it could almost have been Venice, sinking slowly into the sea.