Sandbags to Sand Dunes Expedition 2010

40,000km overland in an Land Rover

Archive for the ‘Sudan’ Category

Scorching Sudan

Posted by jamesandpolls on April 20, 2010

The weekly ferry from Egypt to Sudan was everything we had expected (and secretly hoped for). Chaos and frustration in equal measures turned to joy as the whole mess turned out, in the end, to come together in a semblance of a result.

To put the whole episode in context you must understand that this small passenger ferry and separate vehicle barge is the only link between Egypt and Sudan, two of the bigger and more populated countries in Africa. There are no roads connecting them (although one is planned for the future – built by the Chinese of course). So, every week passengers, overlanders, and a huge amount of boxes and electrical goods purchased in Eygpt for resale on Sudan make the 18 hours crossing.

Accompanying us was a large group of Spaniards making a documentary, desperate to get to the World Cup after a start full of delays, our Australian friends who we first met in Palmyra, Frederick and Margareet who we had met in Cairo and several times since and Tim, Natasha, Nick and Lana, a US / SA team who were also in Foleys Landrovers and were heading to Cape Town to do Charity Work and also had the deadline of a world cup match.

The day started with a customs official after a quick buck, telling us that for the equivalent of about £10 we could pay him off not to search the vehicle. On principal we declined which meant that he grumpily chose our two largest and most unwieldy bags which we had to get x-rayed. This meant joining the scrum of businessmen and traders who were trying to get all manner of things from boxes of batteries to fridges and wide screen TVs through a single x ray machine. We decide to put Mark (good Aussie muscle) on point while I was on rear guard as we tried to barge in. To call it a scrum is doing a diservice to rugby, there were no prisoners, elbows and fists were allowed and several fights broke out around us as goods were passed overhead or around people who had been in ‘line’ for hours. This was a scene we had not seen before and in retrospect maybe paying the customs offical would have been a better plan! Then followed some classic Egyption bureaucracy, going to get tickets stamped, passports verified, stamped, restamped, countersigned, counter countersigned etc. . all in various offices around the port area. Luckily we had a fixer who we all followed like little ducklings in a stormy, very hot pond.

This all took quite a few hours but eventually we were ready to load up the vehicles and get on the ferry. PAX was to leave on a separate barge carrying 3 other Land Rovers which was due to leave that night but which takes an extra day. After beating the crush to get onto the ferry (one poor woman didn’t see the gap between the side and boat and fell in) we found that the deck was already full of boxes and bags marking off areas of the deck leaving no space for us. This called for action, and what can only be described as colonial enterprise the combined force of 2 Brits, 2 South Africans and 2 Americans were put into effect -first of all eeking out a small territory before pushing out and marking the new borders of our empire by putting up a tarpaulin. Soon we had electrical goods, food containers, blenders etc piled high around us. We had managed to commandeer a large enough part of the deck without touching prayer mats or annoying too many people to ensure shade and horizontal sleep and were suitably pleased with ourselves! It was with a mixture of joy at finally leaving Egypt, trepidation as we headed towards Sudan (we had lost the Sudan guidebook in Eygpt!) and downright nervousness as we left PAX on the barge, that we sailed of into the horizon on Lake Nasser (for the geographers amongst you, Lake Nasser is the largest man made lake in the world and was created by the building of the Aswan High Dam which increased Egyptian electricity production by 50% when it was built in the 70s).

Sudanese man travelling on the ferry

The ferry was a laugh. Cramped as we were under our tarp we had food, water and great company. Perudo also made its first appearance which was hotly contested and would become a regular feature as we tried to while away the hours in Sudan later on. Bar the prayer times when the deck became crowded and bustling (especially enjoyed the 5am prayer), the throbbing of the engines soon lulled everyone to sleep. A particular highlight was seeing Abu Simbel from the lake the following morning. Abu Simbel is a tomb that was built by Ramses II and would have been swamped by the lake waters had it not been meticulously cut up and moved piece by piece to its present location on the shore of the lake. The mountain was even sculptured to look like the original – all at a snip of $30 million.

Abu Simbel Temple

A few hours later we decamped and made to leave the boat to finally set foot in Sudan. On arrival we quickly learnt that the barge which had PAX on had been delayed and so we would be in Wadi Halfa for three days waiting for it.

The old Wadi Halfa which is the Sudanese ‘port’ on the south of Lake Nasser is now under water so to compensate the locals a ‘New Town’ was built. This is a dusty outpost about 5km was our home for the next few days. Wadi Halfa gets a bit of a bad rep from many overlanders and true, without the ferry, the town would probably disappear into the sand, but we liked the place. It had quite a buzz about it and two small cafes to while away the time playing more Perudo.

Our hotel on the other hand was not so nice – our 6 man room had the distinct smell of cats pee so we decided to take our beds outside and sleep under the stars – along other Sudanese ferry passengers who were due to get the once-a-week train from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum the next day. The next day was taken up with registering with the police, buying a photo permit and climbing a hill for sunset. The barge eventually arrrvied on Thursday morning – it took some tricky driving to get off the boat and onto the pontoon all the while being watched and ‘helped’ by about 50 other people. After some more waiting in customs we were off!

The Landrovers make it to Sudan!

The Chinese have taken a different approach to African investment than the West. They do not quibble with politics or internal affairs of the nation, they just build a massive great road and then, I guess, make the deals later. Thus a road now runs the 850km from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum, shortening a previously 5 day dusty bumpy journey to 2 days of ‘Top Gear’ tarmac heaven. We drove through incredible desert/mountain scenery and no traffic at all, and came off the road at regular intervals to travel the old dust road next to the Nile (which is still enormous), taking us through small Nubian villages of houses with pretty painted doors and windows. We also decided, rather than follow the huge S bends of the Nile to cut across 2 deserts, a days driving each, to get to the tourist sights of Meroe to the NE of Khartoum.

Polls with the sudanese family

This route also took us past a Sudanese service station (2 small huts with a jerry-can of fuel) where we had an appointment. In Luxor, Egypt, we had met a couple of cyclists who had stayed at this service station overnight, taken some photos of the family who ran it, developed them and gave them to us to deliver. You can imagine their faces when, 1 month after seeing the cyclists, some other white people rock up and deliver photos of them. We had a lovely cup of chai with them, played some great language charades, took more photos (which no doubt they are expecting in a month or twos time with some more travellers!) and went on our way. Each night on the 6 days to Khartoum we bush camped in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by desert or huge boulder mountains, which we loved. We were forced to drive until late as the only respite we got from the heat was to drive with the windows open (no aircon) – this felt exactly like opening a pre heated oven just before putting the food in – a continuous blast of hot air. Thank god for the fridge though as we average about 7 bottles of water per day!

Camels and Pyramids of Meroe

The only attraction en route other than the experience of camping in the middle of nowhere and the amazing scenery were the Pyramids of Meroe. About 100 (although we couldn’t count more than 30) brick pyramids built in the Kush Empire to house the dead stand on a ridge surrounded by drifting sands. All the tops of the Pyramids have been lopped off by an enthusiastic Italian who thought there might be treasure hidden at the apex, he was lucky at the first try and found some gold but 99 pyramids later he was no richer. The highlight was taking a camel ride the next morning and getting the camels to ‘run’– Polls won the race.

After 6 incredibly hot and dusty days on the road in 43 degrees we finally made it into Khartoum where we spent 4 great days. It was election time but all was very quiet. Most of Bashir’s opposition had pulled out. On our arrival we headed for The Blue Nile Sailing Club, which permits camping in their car park. Sadly, although it has a beautiful position overlooking the Nile, it is very run down. The place has so much potential though with a strong membership, both young (there were some Optimist lessons going on there at the time) and old (seems to be the drinking hole of Khartoum every night– even if the date moonshine is drunk out of plastic bottles!). The club also has one of three of Kitchener’s gunboats that he bought up The Nile to face the Mahdi at the Battle of Omdurman.

Sunset in the desert

 Polls managed meet a yoga teacher there and go to a class along with some girls working for the UN before we’d even set up camp. The next day was spent cleaning the piles of sand from PAX and ourselves and enjoying the delicious juices that were sold from a nearby juice bar. I also managed to persuade a member of the Sailing Club to let us sail his Khartoum One Design on the river. As the sun went down many onlookers watched us as we rigged up and sailed the rickety boat out into the river, getting stranded on the sandbanks several times before getting into the main stream to the amusement of the turban clad men on the bank. The fact that this guy let a stranger take out his pride and joy with no qualms is an insight to Sudanese hospitality, something that we thoroughly enjoyed throughout our stay in Sudan.

Riding by the Nile - these horses will be ridden to Cape Town

We were invited to stay with Matt and SJ Nelson who we had been put in contact with through a friend of Polls. Their generosity knew no bounds and we were thoroughly well looked after for the next three days and nights in their lovely house. Through them we met other expats living in Khartoum, including Billy and Christie who were en route from Turnsia to Cape Town on Horseback! They have been in Sudan for nearly three years whilst they readied themselves and their horses for the next leg. They kindly invited us to ride along The Blue Nile at sunrise the next day, such a great experience and worth the stiffness and a raw bum I now have! We were also lucky enough to be introduced to Ian who is a land rover pro and spent a few hours servicing PAX for the next leg of the journey.

On our last evening SJ and Matt took us to see the Whirling Dervishes in Omdurman. This religious practice has tempted us since Turkey but I am pleased we waited until now. This was not a tourist show but a real ceremony which takes place weekly. A few hundred people gather by a Sufi Mosque, the drumming starts, then the suffi’s get in a circle and start making scooping movements with their arms, chanting. About 20 guys in the middle of the circle start pacing around, with big smiles on their faces – most of them quite elderly, but a few young people.

Whirling Dervishes

The chanting of ‘Allah’ then gets louder, the drumming stronger and more rhythmical, incense gets wafted around and they start free styling in the middle, some hopping, some spinning around, others dancing, whistling or waving sticks in the air, a few looking pretty psycho but all loving it (bit like a trance party for oldies). About two hours later, as the sun descended, they all went to pray. It was incredibly powerful to watch.

We left Khartoum very well rested with clean clothes and fresh energy to enter country number 14. The drive to Ethiopia was a long one, following the Blue Nile south west. After 8 gruelling hours driving with 45 degree winds blowing into the car we camped off the road about 100km from the border in the desert. The next morning, we picked up some roof passengers (hitch hiking policemen!), which was a laugh. The desert gives way to dry grassy plains, and the Sudanese mud brick square roofed houses we’d seen throughout sudan changed to round African style huts with thatched roofs. We really felt we were entering sub Saharan Africa. The border town of Gallabat is a dusty bustling town with both Sudanese and Ethiopian people (they can cross the bridge into the town with no passport, but can’t go any further) There are goats, cattle and donkeys wondering the street, and we would have missed the customs office if it had not been for some guys who started pointing towards the building set back from the road. These were our fixers, we had three in total who for the next two hours took us from one office (or hut) to the next. The process went pretty smoothly, which was lucky as the temp reached 52 degrees! Polls guarded the car and tried to stay cool by chatting to the local men about football under the welcome shade of a tree.

Almost straight away the road starts climbing into the green hills of Ethiopia which was a welcome relief from the stifling heat of the desert. We had been warned about the children in Ethiopia running after the car as you drive through villages and they didn’t disappoint. It is strange as the children get so excited, wave and shout Feranji (foreigner), but the adults seem pretty nonplussed. We drove to Lake Tana (the source of the Blue Nile) and camped at an idyllic spot on its shores, where a Dutch couple are building a small guesthouse/camp. There are beautiful birds everywhere, and a lovely cooling breeze. Tomorrow we head into the Simian mountains to start a three day trek.

Apologies for the lack of photos. We will add some in Addis as the internet is truly snails pace here in Gondar. Well it is 2003!

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