Sunday, December 07, 2008


In a way we are lucky we waited an extra year before going to Sudan (we originally planned to go south from Egypt). Like everywhere else in Africa, Sudan has been busy engaging in road work and where once Sudan was notorious for terrible desert roads of dust and sand, most of the way we proposed to take was recently paved. Sudan, in contrast to Ethiopia, and in spite of its reputation in the western media is well known by travellers that have been there as one of the friendliest and hassle-free countries in the world. Yes, they have serious problems and yes it is difficult and expensive to get a visa and they do have some terrible bureaucracy to deal with but on the day to day, street level it is supposed to be great. At the border Kees and Ben disappeared for a long time dealing with customs, not because they were having problems but because they were being loaded with coffee. Ah, back to the Islamic hospitality.....
Despite all the problems in Sudan (and I did mention the south before) the area of the country between Ethiopia, Khartoum and up the Nile to Egypt is quite safe and and any problems are almost always mechanical or related to the heat. Having come out of the cool mountains of Ethiopia to the low dry desert of Sudan we immediately noticed the change in temperature (it was now 38C instead of 22C during the day) and a sudden need for more water as our bodies dried out. The population density of Sudan is quite low in the north so it is possible and common to bush camp anywhere without any problems at all. Northern Sudan really is what you picture in your mind. Flat, sandy desert with nothing to see. There are a few villages and although on the way to Khartoum almost everyone was black, it was obvious that we'd left "Africa" and had arrived in the Middle East. The men wear the long white robes and the homes are the same mud-brick Middle Eastern style and no longer little round huts. Women were covered or non-existant of course. The strangest thing was that all along the road to Khartoum (and even after for a while but not nearly as common) were dead animals. Camels, donkeys, cattle, sheep and goats all in various states of slow decomposition and desiccation and smelling terrible were just scattered along the road with nobody seeming to care. Lots of police checks along the way and the police tended to be rather curt and a little on the power-trippy and demanding side, though did not give us any problems.
Khartoum was another surprise. Much more modern and busy than we were expecting. It looks like the capital of a wannabe rich oil country. Khartoum is not actually very old and so doesn't have the rich Islamic history or architecture of capitals like Cairo or Damascus, in fact there are quite a few large cathedrals in addition to the mosques. Khartoum was built up by the British because of the strategic advantages of being on the confluence of the two Niles. We were camped at the Sailing Club, right on the Blue Nile with a great view over the river. Just downstream was the confluence, where the White Nile, coming from Uganda and south Sudan, joins the Blue Nile, coming from Ethiopia. Because it has a shorter route and doesn't evaporate in the swampy regions of south Sudan, the Blue Nile provides ~80% of the water at Khartoum. The river then continues north to Egypt and the Med with only one other tributary flowing into it over the next ~2500km. The thing that amazes me is that over that distance the river only drops 400m as that is the elevation at Khartoum. That gives you an idea of how flat Sudan and Egypt are if you follow the river.
We spent 2 days in Khartoum. Kees had to fix another broken leaf spring (the road out of Ethiopia was rough) and Ben and I had to register all of our passports. All foreigners have to register their passports within 3 days in Sudan though the whole system is quite stupid now and amounts to nothing more than another money-grab for them and a wasted day for us. But Khartoum doesn't seem like a bad place to get stuck if you can afford it. The internet was good for the first time in a long time, the people speak good english and generally seem friendly and educated. Ben even got a few emails from curious locals in Khartoum that saw this trip website on the side of his truck as he drove through town. Goods are expensive because of the sanctions I guess and it is a cash-only country. We went to one bank that was rumoured to have an ATM or give advances on a credit card but once their we learned that they were doing it by routing it all through their head office in Beirut but the Americans recently forced them to shut the link down. The more chaotic areas of town around the market reminded us more of Egypt than Africa and we did have one road rage incident with a crazy old man. A must say, I absolutely cannot stand people that get all pious and high and mighty and think that just because they get respect from people for their religious devotion that they should get extra powers too. Just because you can quote chapter and verse, in any religion, and they exist in all, does not mean that you can break the rules, cut in line or drive like a maniac with impunity. Speaking of religious devotion, the mosques don't seem overpoweringly numerous in Sudan, nor the calls to prayer as loud or as long. I was quite surprised that I usually did not hear it at all, even in the middle of Khartoum.
The biggest logistical hassle in the whole Cairo to Cape Town overland route, and I think everyone will agree, is the Egypt-Sudan ferry on Lake Nasser. Because of travel restrictions (and also because it is a huge cash cow for somebody) from both countries (though I largely suspect Egypt is mostly to blame) no foreigners are allowed to cross between the countries by road, they must take the ferry. There is a passenger ferry that runs only once a week and vehicles have to take a separate barge. The barges don't run on a set schedule but only on demand. If you hire one yourself then it costs $3500US so most people try to find one already going or get a group together to split the costs. In Khartoum we learned that there was a barge scheduled to leave the following day with an overland company's truck but that it would wait a day or two for us if we paid the port fees to keep it there. As this would save Kees and Ben a small fortune the plans were immediately changed to a mad dash to Wadi Halfa to catch the barge. We left that afternoon heading north and camped in front of the most popular tourist attraction of Sudan, the pyramids of Meroe. The northern part of Sudan was part of the kingdoms of ancient Egypt and some of the later dynasties were actually centered around these southern parts. Their power had waned considerably by then but they still copied many of the old traditions like pyramid tombs, though on a much, much smaller scale. Some of the pyramids at Meroe were built as late as the 4th century AD. There were ~100 in the area but only about 2 dozen are still standing. Some have been rebuilt and in comparison to Egypt they cannot compete. We did a quick run around in the dark and then at sunrise before the gates officially opened and then hit the road again for a drive that was to last until 2:30am to get to Abri ~200km south of Wadi Halfa. We were lucky that the old sand tracks were now paved and there was beautiful road with no traffic passing through the middle of nowhere with no sign of life around for hours at a time. If only we could go faster than 75 km/h!
At Karima we visited Jebel Barkal, a "mountain" once believed to be the home of the Egyptian god Amun. I had to visit! At the base of the mountain was once an important temple that is nothing more than rubble and ruins now, and nearby are some more pyramids from an earlier period than those at Meroe. We were quickly back on the road again and at Dongola the road disappeared. We were back to a terrible, dusty, bumpy, half-constructed mess, but this time in the dark until we finally had to give up at 2:30am and get a little sleep beside the river.
The next morning we took off again to finish off the last 200km of bad road. In another year it'll be perfect like the rest but in the meantime I think that if I have to see one more dusty, bumpy, bad road I will scream uncontrollably or just lay down and die. I am at the end of my limit and I simply cannot stand the thought of another bad road right now. In Wadi Halfa we were met by Magdy the general fixer for most people passing through. There was another guy, also helpful that we met but Magdy must be about the nicest guy on the continent. His services aren't cheap or essential but when you see the amount of paperwork and office visits required to get yourself, or especially a vehicle, in or out of Sudan by ferry, you'll think him well worth it. Everyone knows him and he knows everyone in all the right places and while all that is going on he keeps bringing you tea and lets you just sit back and relax. The problem with the ferry to Egypt is that it is subjected to the most retarded and illogical system possible, which could only have been imagined in the bureaucracy of Egypt. They more or less run the show and have made the rule that nobody is allowed to ride with the vehicles on the barge but must take the ferry. The Sudan side complained and now going north only, the driver only is allowed to go with the vehicle. Heading south absolutely nobody gets on. The problem with this was that we were going to be a split group because the ferry didn't leave for another 4 days. The girls were pissed and Savannah managed to freak out enough about being stuck on a ferry full of Egyptians that Magdy arranged for her to be on the barge with Ben and Kees as another "driver" for the big overland truck. Mom, dad, Bre and I then had to sit around Wadi Halfa for 4 days but Magdy to great care of us, helping us to lots of tea and fuul (the beans that are pretty much all they eat in town), getting our hotel, tickets and paperwork organized and just being friendly. For the most part we just hung out in our little hotel hiding from the heat and flies and trying to pass the time. Wadi Halfa is very quiet and empty feeling most of the time and then gets busy when the ferry arrives. The port is pretty much the town's reason to be now, since the old town was drowned with the creation of Lake Nasser and most of the original inhabitants moved away. According to Magdy there is a road being built to Egypt that will link up with a small ferry to Abu Simbel that foreigners will soon be able to use (late next year, inshallah!) to bypass the current hassle.


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