A horse with no name

If you consider Egypt part of the middle east rather than Africa, Sudan was to be the true start of our African adventure but to our frustration we had to wait a little longer.  Due to territorial disputes the land border between Sudan and Egypt remains shut unless your willing to fork out USD 3000 to have the Egyptians escort you to the border in convoy.  We were not, so we had to wait for a barge that could load Delilah and cross lake Aswan, which we hoped would happen on the Saturday after Eid.  However, our barge had been hired by Dragoman, the same Dragoman whose bus was still stuck in Damietta customs.  The situation with Dragoman became increasingly ridiculous as customs insisted their bus be trucked on a lorry to Aswan despite having a perfectly adequate engine.  Nevertheless there was time since we had to wait for Tuesday’s passenger ferry anyway.   After much palaver, we loaded up and headed to the port on Tuesday morning to go through the rigmarole of Egyptian customs.  We met our fixer Mr Abouda outside KFC before setting off in convoy; the Pols (Michal and Kaisha) in their Mitsubishi mini-van being escorted by two land rovers.  Already lifted by the prospect of our departure the feeling of travelling in convoy added a sense of confidence and power, as if nothing stood between us and Sudan. The vehicles were loading and Sudan was a go!

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Upon surrendering our Egyptian driving license and number plates we ramped the barge and left Delilah with the Captain.  The Dragoman truck was still scarce so we didn’t know if or when we’d be seeing Delilah again.  Last on the passenger ferry, we joined our ‘Guy Ritchie’esque’ cast of travelling companions: the Irish, Hugh and Morag, the bikers, the Brazilians, the Polish and the Japanese.  We had reserved a small area of deck next to the bridge where we dropped our belongings and waited in the searing afternoon sun for the ferry’s departure.  A series of blasts from the ships horn signalled it was time to leave, allowing the last stragglers to fling themselves on board before the ferry parted with the quay and set out onto the lake.  At sunset we were treated to a fantastic sky splashed red, pink and blue as the muslim contingent of the ferry assembled on deck for prayers.  In the growing darkness a stern-faced Captain told us all to keep quiet.  His concern soon became apparent as channel buoys and unlit vessels floated by.  In the blackness we drifted into a hazy sleep occasionally broken by murmurs from the bridge and shadowy figures climbing past us.  At 3am a cold wind whipped up over the lake forcing us deeper into our sleeping bags, making us long for the dawn.

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In the glow of the morning light we passed Abu Simbel guarded by its four giant statues of Ramses the II looking east to greet the rising sun.  Four hours later we steamed into Wadi Halfa passing immigration in the dining room before joining a sea of bodies vying to escape the maze of under-deck corridors.  Once a suitable squeeze of people had assembled immigration slowly began pushing people through the doorway and onto the dock.  A fleet of old land rovers greeted us outside the port insistent we pay twenty-five times the local price.  Disgusted by this breach of principle we set off on foot for the ten kilometre walk into town.  About one kilometre down the road the driver of an old Bedford truck took pity on us and granted us a lift.  Our home for the next five days was ‘the Cangan Hotel’ a far cry from the lush gardens and a swimming pool advertised at its entrance.  ‘The compound’, as it came to be affectionately called, comprised a dusty courtyard, windowless rooms, spartan furnishings and cold showers.  To its credit,  it was the hilton of Wadi Halfa!  The town of Wadi Halfa is a desolate dust bowl situated about a kilometre from the shores of lake Aswan.  The local shops, restaurant and bakery provided a daily excuse to escape our concrete prison talking to the  friendly locals who were keen to offer us cups of Chai and discover where we were from.  Strangely several people in Wadi Halfa insisted I was Chinese despite my attempts to correct them.  On one trip to town one of the older locals gave an insightful description of the old Wadi Halfa fondly reminiscing about its streets shaded by palm trees, train station and picturesque corniche all buried under the waters of lake Aswan.  A small group of families forcibly displaced by the lake decided to defy their government and remain, founding the new Wadi Halfa.  It seemed the town was still struggling to find its place in Sudan as farming had received mixed success along the barren shores of the lake..

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The Brazilians, the cyclists, and the bikers (except for Japp) had managed to escape Wadi Halfa by the third day leaving the rest of us to wait for our barge still lost on the waters North of us.  By day four cabin fever had begun setting in having exhausted every means of distraction.  Japp was in a a more depressive mood than the rest of us as the swiss issuers of his Carnet had issued the wrong document leaving his bike stranded in customs facing a return to the dreaded Egyptian border.  On day five we went to the port at nine o’clock to await the supposed arrival of our barge.  Eleven o’clock passed without any news of our barge and Mazar, our fixer, had been unable to reach the Captain on his mobile all morning although he reassured us the barge definitely hadn’t sunk because the Captain’s phone was still ringing.  Around 4pm we heaved a huge sigh of relief as our barge appeared in the distance with all vehicles intact.  Our luck seemed to be turning as Mazar had also been able to get Japp an African carnet.  A quick customs check ended our six-day transit from Aswan to Wadi Halfa. The next morning we set off before dawn, with Hugh and Morag, driving south towards Dongola along a beautiful new tarmac road cutting through the red sandstone mountains of the Nubian desert.

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Just north of Dongola we rejoined the green banks of the Nile with domed Nubian houses and courtyards hidden amongst palm trees along the river bank.  Three days prior we had rather foolishly bet the cyclists we would get to Dongola before they did.  So we stopped to have lunch, pay our debt, and re-unite them with Kyle and Sadbh who had been recovering for a few days in Wadi Halfa.  Thereafter we hit the road again for Karima where down a winding sandy road at the back of town we stumbled across a small group of ruined pyramids nestled underneath Jebel Barkal.  Small and mysterious without a grounds keeper or fence in sight we had the pyramids to ourselves.  When the brutal Saharan sun began wavering we decided to make camp across the river not far from the pyramids of Nuri Merowe.  Hugh led the way, dropping off the tarmac onto a rocky track instinctively finding a campsite seated in an old wadi surrounded by rocky hills.  Setting up camp was simple throwing our sleeping bags onto the ground and starting up the camp fire.  As the embers of the fire faded we climbed into bed to stare up at the milky way, a brilliant mosaic of stars and planets splayed across the sky.  The following day we started early to get to our campsite near the Pyramids of Meroe.  Two hours into our drive between Merowe and Atbara the desert unexpectedly gave wave to a stunning primitive savannah sparsely populated by herds of camel quietly munching on Acacia.  Seeing a good opportunity for a tea break we pulled off the road.  To our alarm a white Toyota full of men waving AK-47s followed us off-road.  They turned out to be the police who thought our off-roading was highly suspicious.  Satisfied our tea party didn’t involve the overthrow of the Bashir government they left us to our tea and mini-rolls.

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Giant cement factories greeted us upon our arrival into Atbara a place full of industry and heat.  Not wishing to stop we turned south along the main motorway full of trucks and buses.  We’d previously experienced Sudanese buses thundering passed us at 160kph overtaking at will and forcing all smaller traffic off the road.  But the addition of the slow-moving trucks made for a lethal mix as dangerous overtaking manoeuvres forced us off the road more than once.  Rounding a rocky outcrop we sighted the temples of Meroe seated atop of a large dune.  We beat a trail off-road once again to where the marauding buses and truckers couldn’t follow.  A look out near the pyramids provided a stunning view of these structures standing in stark contrast to the Great Pyramids of Giza.  Their Nubian architecture and situation on the east bank of the Nile was very different their counterparts in Cairo.  Whilst nowhere near as jaw dropping; abandoned and forgotten an essence of unsolved mystery still clung to their walls.  Leaving us feeling like the explorers of old who had stumbled across these ancient empires buried in the sand.  From the saddle of a hill we retreated into a cool shaded Wadi below.  Our sense of being lost in the desert was interrupted by a couple of camels and a boy selling trinkets.  Bizarrely it had seemed the small but very determined tourist shop had moved three kilometres due south to our campsite.  Eventually realising they had stumbled across a bunch of tight brits they melted back into the dunes, leaving us to enjoy omelets under another starry sky.

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At daybreak we hastily packed up camp and left Hugh and Morag to make for Khartoum where we had to organise our Ethiopian visas.  After a brief chase by an ever determined shopkeeper and his donkey through the dunes we hit the motorway going south.  Two hours later we arrived in the streets of Khartoum where the Mahdi had beheaded general Gordon and overthrown the British in the late 1800s.  After a quick stop at the Ethiopian embassy we headed to the blue Nile sailing club where Kitchener’s old gunboat now rests.  It had played a role at the battle of Omdurmann when Kitchener’s relief force finally arrived to avenge general Gordon, crush the Mahdi forces and re-conquer Sudan.  Sighting the blue waters of the Nile behind the rusting gunboat reminded us to pay a short visit to the confluence of the blue and white Nile.  Supposedly there is a difference in colour between the two but honestly they both looked pretty muddy.  To touch base with the ‘real world’ we went to seek internet in the  ‘Holiday inn’ similar in appearance to the Raffles hotel in Singapore.  Outside we met Aima a giant of a man with a warm smile and a big heart who struck up a conversation enquiring about our travels and what we thought of Sudan.  As we entered the hotel he ushered us into an office containing the head of media for Sudan.  A round of coffee was immediately conjured up and we were shown pictures of the head of media touring football games and rallys with president Bashir as Aima explained the two are very good friends.  It was a little unnerving sitting in a room with the best friend of a man wanted by the international criminal court for genocide.  Nevertheless they were both very friendly and were keen to make sure we had a good and safe experience of Sudan.  That evening we returned to camp at the blue Nile sailing club.  Unfortunately the only place one can legally consume alcohol in Sudan is ‘the Pickwick club’ at the British embassy, so with embassy attaché lacking we had to make do with soft drinks on the banks of the Nile.

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Wednesday morning we emerged from our tent in the car park to the sight of hundreds of birds of prey circling through the thermals of the morning air above Khartoum.  Today was to be a run for the border along the motorway through the green farmland south of Khartoum.  At Wadi Medani we parted ways with the Nile as we continued east towards Al Qadarif where farmland continued to flourish amid arid grassland.  At Al Qadarif we turned off on the road to Gallabat passing several UN refugee projects housing people displaced by the Ethiopian/Eritrean conflict.    Along this road shrub-land and large rocky hills started to appear.  There was also an obvious change in architecture from mud compounds to thatched roofs and wooden walls.  This enlightening change in scenery distracted my attention from the road ahead.  A sharp yell from Richard brought things crashing back to reality as a loud screech and tyre smoke filled the air.  The weight of Delilah carried her through to collide with the back of Hugh and Morag’s land rover giving them a large shunt.  Thanks to Richards sharp warning only the front of Delilah was slightly damaged.  Hugh and Morag’s double swing away wheels had acted as amazing shock absorbers with the back of their land rover having sustained practically no damage at all.  Shaken but relieved everyone was alright we made camp fourteen miles from the border eager to see what Ethiopia would bring in the morning.

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2 Responses to A horse with no name

  1. Mette says:

    Hey Alex, your blog is my favourite reading p.t…looking forward to every new chapter,,,your writing is awesome…colourful and inspiring…I find myself longing to travel your roads and probably will – although in rates :o) You should seriously consider doing this for a living! Safe journey onwards, bro and loads of fun! Hugs, Mette

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