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Sudan. Mark of Khartoum!

23 rd February to 18 th March 2006

After almost crossing the border in to Sudan prematurely, we had both missed the unmarked grass shack that was Ethiopian immigration, and it was only after a group of hustlers and money changers ran after us, stopping us on the bridge, that we realised our mistake.

At last we were free of Ethiopia, the hoards of yelling children and adults, the begging, the stone and stick throwing. We were in Sudan. It was as if we had entered a whole new universe, no hustlers, beggars or You! You! You!

I parked Grommet in front of the customs and immigration and joined a couple of Sudanese officials in the shade while Blanca went and dealt with the formalities. After a short while one of the men asked me with a rye smile, “So how was Ethiopia?”

The piste from the border at Gallabat to Gedaref was not the best and continued in a similar vain to the Ethiopian side, slow, stony and corrugated but at least it was flat and there were alternative tracks so you could avoid the worst bits. Grommet was in his element, purring along the piste. Every now and again we would pass a small hillock with an army post on top complete with a Land Rover pickup equipped with a pintail mounted heavy machine gun in the back, “Black Hawk Down”, Somali style.

I was hopping it was the poor road and bad driving that had produced the wrecks of the tankers whose burnt out shells litter the road side and not just some one being a little trigger happy and trying out a bit of target practice. The road was virtually empty of people, a real contrast to Ethiopia, but now for the acid test, a bit of bush camping. We found a dried up waterhole, it was close to a village, but as it was late and we were tired so what the hell. We’d expected a multitude of visitors but none came, it was heaven, supper and breakfast in peace!

In the morning we headed off again and were surprised by a long section of recently completed asphalt road. I guess it won’t be long before this stretches all the way from Gedaref to the border. It ended a little too soon for my liking but we weren’t that far from Gedaref and the main road, so I didn’t mind that much.

In Gedaref we filled up with cheap Sudanese fuel, it was now asphalt all the way to Khartoum. Well, asphalt of all sorts and this was definitely not smooth but quite badly rutted due to the constant stream of heavy traffic, the trucks here are huge, much bigger even than those in Namibia. Here you get a tractor unit pulling two full trailers, so if you have to overtake say three trucks in a line it’s really the equivalent of trying to pass six! This exercise can be a bit nerve wrecking in the Grommet, I can tell you.

Having left the chilly dizzy heights of Ethiopia we were now only 200m to 300m above sea level and boy oh boy is it hot! You can even see the tarmac sizzle…… After a long, hot, tiring drive we pulled in to the “National Camping” in Khartoum, which is far cheaper at $2 and surprisingly cleaner than the only other camping option “The Blue Nile Sailing Club” at $11. We found “the accountants” already installed along with “the French Explorers,” who were leaving for Port Sudan and a boat to Saudi the next day. There was also a couple of Land Rovers heading south with a couple from Holland and another from Yorkshire, England. There was of course the usual exchange of info, “how’s the route south, are the Ethiopian children really as savage as people say?” along with “is the Wadi Halfa ferry so expensive and is entry to Egypt really that time consuming and difficult?”

Yes, folks you have guessed it, “It’s route change time again!” We hope to enter Egypt at Aswan and meet up with Blanca’s mother in Luxor and if we have the transit visa for Libya, cross to Tunisia and then Algeria? Morocco? and finally Spain, but first we will have to see what the story is with Libya and the Libyan visa. If Libya is out of the question then we will be back to the original plan Jordan, Syria, etc…….. We are in the hands of the Gods, well border officials, burocrats, George Bush, Danish cartoonists and our dwindling budget!

Any way, back to Khartoum and National Camping, in addition to us overlanders the place was packed with “500 army officers” from Southern Sudan being retrained for incorporation in to the main army and off course, this is all a secret, then there are all the students from all over Africa along with a big group of athletes so, all in all, quite a busy place but again surprisingly hassle free. Many of the “officers” that we talked to were a little disappointed that we weren’t visiting the South. They obviously have no idea just how difficult it is to get a visa, let alone get a permit and invitation to visit a very sensitive ex-war zone!

Another great feature of the “National Camping” is that there is free electricity if you look hard enough, so we hooked up. Our auxiliary batteries are now dead and apart from holding enough charge to run the lights are completely useless, I guess one and a half years of constant recharging has taken its toll. I will maybe replace them in Egypt and also invest in a solar panel, but with our non existent budget, it will have to wait and see and we still have our generator for emergencies.

Just as we were preparing to leave Khartoum and head for the desert and some culture, who should turn up but Luke the crazy Dutch historian with the Belgian’s Koen and Heidi just behind. The camp site should really be called International Camping with all the different nationalities; there was even Campbel, a Kiwi motor biker who’d broken the rear shock on his bike just after the Wadi Halfa ferry and was now waiting for the parts. After a little reunion/farewell party it was time to move on plus the sand storm had now stopped. We still hadn’t received any news from Tom and Jan the Canadians we’d met in Ethiopia, who had been very keen to cross the desert with us. In the end it was going to be just us and ‘the accountants’, but we decided to sms them our gps co-ordinates so they could catch up.

We were to discover later that they had an accident on the road to the border involving a local child and as a result were taking things a little easier.

Following the obligatory stop for fuel and provisions we were at last on our way again. The road north to Atbara was in a great state of repair and obviously doesn’t handle the same volume of heavy traffic. As one heads north and away from Khartoum it is amazing to see the landscape changing rapidly right before your very eyes getting dryer and more desert like as you go. But then as the road snakes closer to the River Nile and an endless source of water the dry desert is interrupted by an oasis, emerald fields of wheat, beans and onions. It’s incredible what can be grown with a will and a little water.

Somebody should take some of these Nile farmers and use them to teach some of the other African countries a thing or two. The more you travel here you realise that Africa should look to Africa for an African solution to its problems and not some first world NGO with a desire to help and a hypothesis!

Anyway, with the great road it didn’t take long before I had to reluctantly turn off in to the desert and the dust once more and head for the Temples of Naqa. The Germans had arrived early and laid their archaeological towels out first and were busy with their investigation and restoration, in fact the Germans seem to have laid claim to most of the archaeological sites in Sudan. Still being German they appear to be doing a fabulous job, some of the relieves are in an incredible state of preservation and the restored temple stunning.

Grommet had started to act up again, he was probably feeling a little miffed about leaving the fabulous asphalt road and after ‘the accountants’ got stuck in some soft sand we decided to call it a day and set up camp in the desert. It was also time for Rachel to display her culinary skills with a “potjie”, a South African cast iron cooking pot that resembles a witch’s caldron. We had a number of visitors with their camels and donkeys and we were all amazed by how polite, almost shy they were especially after the ‘in-your-face’ Ethiopians! For Ivan and Rachel the novelty of interaction is still real and this was their first experience of really wild bush camping.

As with most countries in Africa the locals can come up with some strange requests, Ghana it was visas and tractors here it seems everybody has a head ache and stomach upset and think we are doctors, while the kids assume that the cars are full of bicycles! I would love to know were they get these ideas from.

After a great nights sleep, despite the wind, we set off across the desert again to the huge temple complex of Musawwarat es-Sufra and the beautifully restored Lion Temple. We were amazed to have these sites all to our selves. Next we headed back to the road and on to Meroe with its stunning collection of smallish pyramids by Egyptian standards, these were in fairly good order until a passing Italian “Indiana Jones” type decided to pull them apart in search of treasure. It’s handy that it is now possible to buy the entrance tickets at the door rather than in advance at Khartoum or Wadi Halfa. Again it was late by the time we had finished checking them out so we parked up round the back of the pyramids for the night, again surprisingly no hassle and a little cheaper than the $120 per night luxury camp round the corner. The next morning we needed to get a ferry across the Nile at Ed Damer and this is where Blanca got the name “Rambo Ramos!” All was going well, the ferry (sort of ex-landing craft) came and went a number of times and after a couple of hours in the sun it was our turn no problem we crossed the river ok then came time to pay, the price was supposed to be between 1000SD and 2000SD per car but the ticket collector wanted 6000SD per car, a row erupted between Blanca and the ticket collector who was at least three times her size culminating in the man trying to get in the car and Blanca pushing and throwing punches to prevent this……These hot blooded Latins!!! Well after a bit of a fight we paid the 2000SD and went on our way.

Now this was to be our first big desert crossing since Mauritania, the Bayuda Desert. It was a strange route partly existing track, partly smooth graded track ready for the new road and partly nothing, take your pick and guess. The track for the new road would just stop, just as it had begun right in the middle of nowhere and it was up to you to find the old track or make your own……! The sand was very heavy going, compounded with the fairly low octane fuel available here especially were it was very soft, in places so soft it’s like talcum powder and billows out behind in huge blinding clouds. Love it or hate it, you just can’t beat camping in the middle of the desert away from everyone with just the moon and stars for company, and if you are really lucky and there is a full moon it’s almost like day time and we found the perfect spot. We had been tempted to stay and chill for a day or so but we had some more ruins to see and a ferry to catch at Wadi Halfa. So we were back to guessing the route. It’s strange every now and then we would arrive at a section of new road just waiting to be tarmacked right in the middle of nowhere. I guess it’s road building by joining the dots!

It had taken a couple of days to cross the desert so after another short ferry trip across the Nile, this time with out a fight, we set up camp at the foot of Jebel Barkal, the “holy mountain” near some other pyramids. It was fantastic to wander about and explore without having to buy a ticket and the view from the top of the mountain of the emerald green borders of the river Nile was quite something. The high point of all these cultural sights had to be the royal cemetery at El Kurru, with its two beautifully decorated tombs that date from 653BC. I still can’t believe that all you have to do is find the key holder and pay your money to view their delights with their Egyptian style paintings and hieroglyphs which incredibly still retain much of the original colour. The Sudanese do seem a little tetchy for some reason about video cameras at many of these sights, may be the friezes move…………!

Well enough of this culture and time to head across the desert we’ve got another ferry to catch. A top up with fuel, some “fresh” water from outside a mosque and we were ready. The route to Dongola from Karima again started well, with a beautifully smooth freshly graded track leading us off in to the desert, soon this would be a new asphalt road but for now I’d just be content if it stays this way, but then it stopped! We were back to guessing the route but every couple of kilometres or so there are short marker post which act as a guide. The only problem is that the marker posts, the many existing tracks and the GPS don’t always agree with each other so it’s a case of point and hope for the best. After a long tiring days drive, the areas of soft sand require considerable concentration and strength to keep the Grommet (no power steering and 12.5in wide tyres) heading in the right direction, we camped in the shade of what seemed to be the only tree. I was surprised to see many pieces of ostrich egg scattered about the area, especially as the only wild life we had seen was the odd camel, this stretch of desert is truly barren. But considering the wealth of pieces of fossilised trees scattered all around this must not have always been the case and the area was probably once a vast forest killed off as a result of some form of prehistoric global warming. It makes you realise that we could be the “fossils” of the future killed off by our own relentless consumption. Well if you thought that the desert was confusing, you should try and navigate the labyrinth of tiny villages, dykes and irrigation channels that crises cross the east bank of the Nile. We had now left the desert and were back in civilisation. We found a great place to camp at the oasis in a palm grove. The owner came and bid us welcome and was a little disappointed that we were only staying one night and that we were unable to advise him on a cure for the termites that were infesting his palms. Nearby in one of the adjacent fields was a pump irrigating the fields, the water was clean, warm and plenty of it, so we all took turns to wash away the dust of a few days in the desert and fill up our water tanks.

Beyond Dongola the sandy dusty track threads its way north through village and field and the track isn’t the best, when it isn’t badly corrugated, it’s sandy and soft and when it’s smooth it’s like a steeple chase of small mounds so unless you want to break you vehicle or are an African the only serious option is steady, slow going and I do mean slow 20 to 30km/h at best and to make matters worse, we were in a sand storm. It was late so we set up camp in between two villages with a tethered donkey for company near the banks of the Nile and the sand storm still raging. Fortunately we were sheltered by some trees and bushes but still the air born sand and dust was every where and in everything. So much for the shower the previous evening, with the dust we looked like we’d all aged 50 or so years.

I must say one of the greatest things about Sudan is that the people leave you alone, respecting your space, it would be almost impossible to camp near a village in almost any other county in Africa without at least the whole village coming to pay their respects. I do feel sorry for the Sudanese who are “optically challenged” as somehow Sudan has been given all of Buddy Holly’s old spectacles!

In the morning the wind had abated but dust and sand still hung heavy in the air and at last we’d fought our way out of the last of the villages and were back in the desert once again, the road was still bad, really bad, the corrugations can quickly take control of your car making you lose control, while we stopped to take a rest I noticed we’d got a puncture. I can tell you driving these bad roads day in day out, really can get to you, too fast and you’ll break something, too slow and it feels as if the car’s shaking apart. Really there is actually no excuse for the poor state of the roads and they should employ the Namibian system, with a grader, driver and caravan constantly servicing the road and its not as if there aren’t enough graders or people in need of work here in Africa!

Anyway we were all keen to find a spot away from the relentless wind and take a break from the road. We found an isolated spot well away from the road in the shadow of some mountains. I wondered if Tom and Jan, the Canadians, would catch up, they didn’t, but were close behind, having just crossed the river at Dongola. It was great just to sit and relax away from the constant pounding of the road. In Africa you only experience real complete and total silence deep in the desert, well that is when Blanca isn’t talking, away from the barking dogs, the braying of donkeys, the twitter of bird song, the call to prayer or the hum of the traffic. Here, under a star filled sky, the only sound is the beat of your heart and the occasional whisper of the wind.

On our “day off”, I managed to fix the puncture, which was in fact quite a big hole, Ivan checked the security of his roof tent which has developed a habit of working loose since it broke all its fixings earlier on in the desert, hopefully the nylocks I had, should cure this and the girls went about the never ending task of cleaning dust from the inside of the cars. Following the rest day it was time to move on again, we still hadn’t talked to Mazar Mahir and were eager to find out about the ferry situation. I was also a little concerned about our fuel situation, Blanca was convinced that we had plenty of fuel to cover the 100km to Wadi Halfa with some to spare, I wasn’t so sure, we’d already used both gerry cans and the gauge was now on empty! Then the inevitable happened, 40km from Wadi Halfa on a flat sandy plain, Grommet spluttered to a halt. We had run out of petrol…….! Ivan towed us of the piste and then with Blanca and an empty can set off for Wadi Halfa to get some fuel, and there by avoided all the, I told you so’s, I new we should have filled up at that last petrol station, etc, etc, etc,…………and Rachel stayed with me. So there we sat following what little shade there was around the now very static Grommet. After a while a couple of elderly Germans happened along heading south, apparently the ferry had been held up by the sand storm and arrived on Friday when of course, everything was closed so in the end they had been held up one way or another for 4 days! Still they gave a good account of the costs and passed us a couple of very welcome ice cold beers (alcohol free of course). Fortunately we had just received news from Blanca before the Germans arrived or we would have been quite concerned as they hadn’t seen any sign of Ivan and Blanca. Still it must have seemed odd, an English man with a woman who is not his wife sitting in the desert waiting for another man, the wife and some fuel……its funny the “English Patient” kept on coming to my mind as we sat there waiting with the sun beating down. We were fortunate to have been travelling with ‘the accountants’ or it would have been a long wait or walk to get fuel. As it turned out later the two Germans met Tom and Jan, who were 20km behind us, telling a strange tale “of an English man with two earrings and a hat in a blue car with a woman who was not his wife stuck in the desert with no petrol!” Tom who was now travelling slowly in convoy with a German guy, Henning, his Rumanian girlfriend Anna and their dog in a sick MAN truck with suspension trouble. Anyway Blanca and Ivan eventually retuned with some fuel, fresh bread and news of the ferry, as it was way too late to get to Wadi Halfa we found a nice sheltered spot near by and set up camp. Apparently it had all taken so long because they had met the much dreaded Mr Khamal, who actually turned out to be fairly pleasant, and helped with the information of an imminent ferry arriving the following week, which would allow us all travel with our cars…………….

On their trip in to Wadi Halfa, Blanca had spotted a beautiful place to camp just across the lake from the town close to the shores of lake Nasser and just right for some rest and relaxation while we waited for Tom, Jan and the MAN truck to arrive. They arrived later that day having also ventured in to town to investigate the ferry situation but at last we were all reunited.

We were all wondering what to cook when a couple of local guys dropped by with some fish as a gift, which they then cleaned ready for us to grill. This was a far cry from the begging of Ethiopia and long may it remain this way. The next day we all headed in to town in search of Mazar, who had come highly recommended to guide us through the burocracy, ferry and port formalities and we had heard many tales of extortion from other travellers while in the hands of the “friendly” Mr Khamal. We found Mazar at his office, then it was off to the port to be measured as vehicles over 5.2m have to pay double. We were pleased to have Henning and his huge MAN truck along, as Grommet despite his looks is actually not much bigger than a Land Rover 110 but there are always arguments to the contrary so we had to pay the same as Ivan and Rachel $480 which included the fare for Blanca and I. At this point we should have taken a look at our boat but this wasn’t possible as it was still in transit with 200 tonnes of cement and of course being Africa “don’t worry it wont be a problem, rest tomorrow and come back on Wednesday!” Mazar said we could stay at his house but we liked our spot by the lake, despite the tales of “snakes, hyenas and giant crocodiles!” Wednesday, the barge had arrived which was good news, but wouldn’t be ready until Thursday as they were still unloading it. “Come back tomorrow morning but early, 8.00am as there was a lot of paper work still to be done!” 8 o’clock bright and early we arrived at Mazar’s office but as usual, things didn’t really kick off until 11 and it wasn’t until 2.30 or so that we finally set eyes on our “boat.” We arrived at the pier, the only sea worthy boat was an Egyptian Army barge and that was still fully loaded, the next was sitting too high in the water and didn’t have any where for the cars, which left only one option, none of us could believe that we had paid a total of $2400 for this, may be we get to keep the barge afterwards? Now, how do we get on board?, some fairly in-shallah ramps were assembled, first up was Tom and his Land Cruiser with no breaks, well if Tom could do it, lets give Grommet a try, Blanca couldn’t watch as I shot up the ramp which by now was banana shaped, poor Rachel was almost sick as I guided Ivan up the ramp fearing ‘George’ their 110 wouldn’t stop and would drop over the side in to the lake. This left Henning and his truck, the problem was the dock was as wide as his truck was long so there was no space in which to build a ramp. A considerable amount of discussion followed, it was hard to believe that this wasn’t the first time the crew had loaded a car on a barge, after which I managed to convince the crew to move the barge to the end of the pier and build another ramp. Finally by 4.00pm we were all aboard and heading for Egypt our time in Sudan was at an end. Rachel and Ivan unable to open their roof tent set up our spare tent down in one of the empty holds, while we setup the table and chairs for a galley in the other hold. So much for “health and safety” a polished steel deck covered in cement dust and not a hand rail in sight, a little while later another barge with a broken engine was tied up along side, so that in addition to falling over board we now had the added hazard of falling and being crushed between the two barges, and we are paying for the pleasure………. Still on the plus side the toilet was very clean and from what we have heard far better than the ferry, we could travel together, there was plenty of space for Henning to exercise his dog and we could cook our own food. After a while we grew accustomed to the hazards and the crew were great, they even prepared me a Nubian version of “Imodium” a kind of herb tea with seeds and it seamed to work. We spent two nights on board the barge and on the morning of the third day we could see Aswan High Dam, the port and Egypt. I still find it incredible that the only vehicular access between the two civilised countries of Sudan and Egypt is this in-shallah ferry system which for the cost of luxury Nile cruise barely rates as third world.

Coming soon, will we get in to Egypt, rendezvous with Blanca’s mother at Luxor and were do we go from here…

Peace, at last!!

Camel crossing

Taxi, Khartoum

Sand storm

Temple at Naqa

Lion Temple at Naqa

Kiosk at Naqa

Musawwarat es Sufra

Lion Temple at M. es S.

Pyramids at Meroe

Pyramids at Meroe

Ferry across the Nile

More dust…

Pyramids at Jebel Barkal

Blanca picks at Pyramid

Tomb raider

A restoration project

Nubian house

In the desert

At the oasis

Photo, mister?

Camping outside Wadi Halfa

Camping outside Wadi Halfa

Mazar’s office

The tourists


So, which boat?

Waiting to board…

Grommet goes aboard

All ‘safe’ aboard

Grommet on board

Camping below deck

Tom and Jan

A day at the office