We were off of the ferry and heading toward Eshkeet, the border we’d cross into Sudan from Abu Simbel. After a two hour wait at the Sudanese border and a bit of worrying on my part, we were all cleared to enter! Sudanese/American relations are so bad for a few reasons. In the 90s America’s less than favorite person, Osama Bin Laden, was given shelter in Sudan. There he built their main highway, since like his father, he was in construction. He was known for training Saudis and later Afghans to fight in jihad against the infidels, and was on many wanted lists. Over time he was finally expelled by Sudan as international pressure mounted, and around that time President Clinton ordered a chemical factory in Sudan to be bombed. The factory was said to be used to make weapons, however it was later found out to be a veterinary chemical manufacturer. Sudan remains on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, and the US has imposed strict sanctions against them. During the week we’d spend in the country I’d typically let Sissy answer when we were asked where we were from. Germany was a well-liked answer, drawing lots of smiles.
Our first day we drove in the 50 degree Celsius heat for a short bit to Wadi Halfa, a small border town with some markets to stock up on food and cold drinks. It’s illegal to take pictures in Sudan without a special permit that we didn’t have, but we quickly learned that the law isn’t well enforced. We headed into the market and immediately noticed that while Egypt was only miles away, the people in the two countries were worlds different. While most of the Egyptians we encountered were tan skinned, loud, and aggressive, the Sudanese were extremely dark skinned, friendly, and curious about us. Egypt relied on tourism heavily for years, and because of the revolution and following military coup, there is very little tourism anymore. This seems to have bred a manner of aggression for money and desperation. Sudan has never relied on or received much tourism, and the locals seemed very happy to have us.
We stopped and had some local food, which was flat bread with lamb and some spicy sauce, and bought some cold drinks for the equivalent of $0.40 each. A local fixer exchanged our money from Egyptian pounds and US Dollars to Sudanese pounds on the black market, which got us a considerable amount more than it should have, as the dollar and Egyptian pound are both very sought after. Instead of six pounds to the dollar we were given nine. When we wandered back by the truck we saw it was gaining a group of locals which consisted of a few young boys, probably around eight years old, and a few middle aged men. One of the men spoke English and told us he traveled a few hundred kilometers once a week to visit Wadi Halfa and ensure the boys, which were homeless, were doing alright. The man also spoke in cartoon voices to members of our group, putting a few of us near tears because he was so good at it.
They were incredibly nice, the young boys posing for photos and the man asking us about where we were from and going. There was no asking for money or soliciting help that wasn’t needed, just people wanting to know about what we were up to. We said our goodbyes and headed on to our first bush camp, which was supposed to be at the Nile. After a long drive down a dirt/sand road we came upon the site, however we also came across 40+ men who were working on quarrying rock at the site. Not wanting to sleep in the midst of so many strangers, especially men who worked in the desert for long lengths of time, we drove back a ways and set up camp in the sand.
The next morning we broke down camp, ate breakfast, and were on the road by 7:30am. Around 1pm we stopped at a spot on the side of the road to set up lunch. When we parked there was a small family sitting under a tree nearby, so we joined them as we set up tables to prepare our food. Almost immediately a lady came over and handed me a bowl of dates they had been eating. They sat back and smiled at us, watching as we prepared our food. While we ate we noticed the family seemed to be growing, from six people to ten, from ten to fifteen. When we were finishing up lunch Sissy gave the family a plate of cut up watermelon, which they passed around the ever growing group.
A lady showed up who spoke English and told us she was an English teacher at a nearby school. Groups of children dressed in uniforms started to gather, smiling and waving at us. Most were shy about getting their picture taken, but after getting the okay from their teacher and some of the older members of the group, they started posing and smiling. I showed them pictures of our journeys over the past month and a half, with gasps of “ooh” and “ahh” coming from some. When we were preparing to leave there must have been around 40 people, mostly school children, gathered around us. We waved bye and headed on down the road.
We drove until shortly before dusk, when we stopped at a site called Jebel Barkal. Jebel Barkal was erected in 1450 BC by the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III as the southern limit of the Egyptian empire. It later became the capital of the kingdom of Kush as well as a place of importance during the Nubian reign. We could see the ancient pyramids from the road, which are very short and have steep angles to them. Most of us were so exhausted from the long day in the intense heat in the truck, so we moved on quickly. We set up a bush camp a bit later in a flat sandy patch, and had decided to sleep under the stars since it was so hot. As we were finishing dinner the winds picked up and sand started flying at us with an unforgiving ferocity. Sissy and I quickly scrambled to build our tent in the dark, where we’d spend a hot and sweaty night out of the storm.
The next morning we shook the sand out of our tent and shoes and loaded up the truck in search of water. Our truck has a large water tank in it, however we were running very low. We headed into a nearby town, Karima, and found a shop that was willing to let us fill up off their tap. We quickly learned that while they had water, there wasn’t enough pressure to run a hose from their taps, so we grabbed our two jerry cans and every water bottle we could find and started filling them. One of the guys made a makeshift funnel out of a couple of water bottles and we set about the slow task of filling our truck, Calypso’s tank. As we filled we noticed more and more locals gathering to watch us work. One joined in, filling a bottle and running it back and forth from the truck to the tap. A few worked up the nerve to ask some of us for pictures with them, including a few guys that were excited to get a picture with Sissy.
A little over an hour later our tank was full and off we went into the desert. Our stopping point and camp site for the night would be the Meroe Pyramids. The city of Meroe was known in ancient times for producing and trading metals, especially iron, to India, China, and other parts of Africa. Meroitic iron was considered among the best in the world, and the city thrived for hundreds of years. When we arrived at the site it was getting late, so we drove to the opposite side of a sand dune that bordered the site and set up camp. Before dinner we walked over the dune to take a brief look at the pyramids before heading back to camp. A number of locals had appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and were offering to sell souvenirs and camel rides. In typical Sudanese fashion, they were very polite and respectful about everything.
That night we decided to set up the tent even though it was very hot out. We were surrounding by sandy desert and didn’t want another sand storm to pick up and bury us. Around 2am a loud crash woke us up, followed by brilliant flashes. Claps of thunder were roaring overhead and lightning was striking intermittently at first, and then every two to three seconds for the next hour or two. We heard the light tapping of raindrops on our tent, but didn’t think much of it. Soon after the light tapping was replaced by a loud crashing rain which was getting into the tent through our open door and windows. The tents we are using are heavy duty and a bit old, and for whatever reason only have access to the windows and door flap from the outside.
Out I went into the now freezing rain, wearing my boxers, flip flops, and a headlamp. I rolled the windows down and zipped them shut, rolled the door down, and jumped back inside. In the morning we noticed that most of the sand remained wet, which gave it a dark orange color, while the tops of the dunes had already dried.
After breakfast we headed around our dune to the entrance to the site. There are 200 pyramids at Meroe split into three groups, we would see somewhere around 30 that day. The pyramids were in phenomenal condition until the 1820s when an Italian doctor turned explorer blew the tops off of them in search for treasure. Some had been reconstructed to show how they had looked before, but most remained topless, exposed to the world. We were the only people at the pyramids besides a few men on camels selling rides and souvenirs and the gatekeeper. We hiked up an extremely fine sand dune to reach the main portion of the site, and were rewarded with beautiful ruins surrounding us.
Some pyramids were open to walk inside of, some seemed to have their doors still buried in the sand. These pyramids were very short, especially compared to the pyramids of Giza, however they felt more special since there were no tourists around and we could go inside or wander as we pleased. We spent a long time talking about how the site must have looked thousands of years ago, and what still must lie beneath the sand. The entire place had our imaginations running wild with the thoughts of temples and a city that must lie somewhere beneath. As the day heated up we headed off, excited to make it to Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum and more importantly after three days of bush camping in the scorching hot desert, showers. As we were driving on normally deserted roads, we came upon a deadlock of cars. As we got out to see what was going on we saw that a flash flood from the rains the night before had severely overtaken the road. While no one wanted to drive across the fast moving river, our driver decided that Calypso was tough enough and heavy enough to make it, so off we went. The trip across was nerve racking, but we made it without any problems, to the cheering of the watching crowd. We would have to ford three more rivers before the day was done.
When we arrived in Khartoum a few hours later we pulled up to our campsite, which was on the Nile at the foot of a bridge. The Blue Nile Sailing Club isn’t far from the confluence of the Nile, which is where the Blue Nile and White Nile meet to form The Nile. We didn’t know what to expect from Khartoum, so when we started exploring we were very pleasantly surprised. The roads were new and well maintained, some buildings were extremely modern and evoked thoughts of the Arab city of Dubai, and the people were extremely polite and friendly.
We went to dinner as a group and Sissy and I split a pizza, which was very good, and used the restaurant’s wifi to catch up with the outside world. We would have bought some wine or beer, but Sudan is a dry country, with alcohol being strictly forbidden. Khartoum is generally cooler than the north of the country, and it hovered around 37 Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) that day. When we walked back to the campsite a few blocks away, we noticed that areas that we would consider dangerous in the US or UK were very safe in Khartoum. Normally you may not walk under a dark overpass or down a shady looking alley, but here all the locals would smile and leave you to your business.
That night we made the mistake of leaving our tent door and screen open so we could finally cool off a bit, not thinking about the fact that we were camping in grass, which tends to attract bugs. After counting my bites in the camp restroom I came up with around 100 for the nearest estimate I could get, with a mix of ant and mosquitos as the culprits. We spent the day exploring, first making the long walk to the national museum where we spent about a half hour (it was relatively small), and then to the confluence of the Nile. We ate great street food and caught up with our Irish friends to walk a bit further through the city.
While 37 C was about 13 degrees cooler than we had endured recently, it still wasn’t exactly pleasant for walking, so we asked a local for the best way back to where we were staying. In very broken English he informed us that tuk tuks weren’t allowed on the street we were staying on, so we’d need to take a taxi or a minibus. He hailed a minibus for us after some time of trying, and politely refused the money I put in his hand for his troubles. The minibuses in Khartoum tend to pack about 15 people inside and may have some rhyme or reason to where they go, but we couldn’t find one and no one aboard spoke English. When we noticed we had veered a bit farther from where we needed to be than we were comfortable with, we hopped off and paid our four pound fares, which was about 70 cents at the official exchange rate for our 15 minute ride. We walked for a bit and caught another minibus, which took us the remainder of the way. When we tried to pay the driver and his female companion politely refused our money and bid us farewell. That night we would shower again, happy to have the option to, and head back to Papa Costa, the restaurant from the night before.
The next morning we left Khartoum bright and early. We had learned through our 5 days of camping in heat that you can’t stay in the tent after dawn as the sun turns them into ovens, so most days we were on the road around 7:30am or so. That day ended up being a long drive day, putting us in the truck for somewhere around 10 hours. Our bush camp for the night was among a group of a hundred or more goats, which were being herded by shepherds on camels and donkeys. They slowly moved on from our new site, and we set up camp. The area was lightly vegetated and green, and before long we had encountered a praying mantis, multiple beetles, and a few large spiders, including one on our tent.
That night it rained again, so again into the rain I went to close the tent up. When the light from my headlamp hit the tent I noticed something new, we had neighbors. I counted five large black spiders darting around on the tent, frantically trying to get out of the rain. I quickly and carefully zipped the windows up and timed my entrance into the tent perfectly to barely avoid one of the big hairy spiders following me in. Sissy hates spiders with a passion, and was less than thrilled when I told her what I had seen. In the morning I had the pleasure of dispatching two of the spiders that loitered too long on our tent, sending them to an early afterlife.
Our drive to the border of Ethiopia was marked with an even greater change in landscape than the previous day. The color green was seeping back into the landscape, and thus into our lives, which had been absent for almost a month. The southern portion of Sudan, not to be confused with the country South Sudan, was beautiful as we neared the Ethiopian border. People were farming in the fields, still waving at us every chance they got.
Our arrival at the Ethiopian border was announced with the sentence, “Welcome to the dodgiest border in the world,” by our guide. She seemed to be right. Locals freely moved back and forth over the border unchecked, and the people instructing us on where to park and what to do looked like they may or may not have homes. Regardless, everyone was still very courteous and helped move us along over the course of an hour or so. On the way into Ethiopia we were each scanned with a thermometer to test for Ebola, and put into what looked to me like a horse stable to wait while an official dressed in a football jersey and sweatpants filled out the necessary paperwork. The security to keep vehicles from crossing the border is literally a piece of string tied across the road, so with the security string up, we continued on into the highlands of Ethiopia.
- The people. I can’t imagine meeting nicer, more accommodating people than the Sudanese. The people that had nothing would give you anything they could. They could be poor but would help you and refuse your money.
- The city is clean, modern in places, and exciting to be in.
- The ancient sites, mainly Meroe. No tourists and no real guidelines allows the mind to wander and imagine a world long gone.
- Always ask permission before photographing anyone. Some locals were very clear they didn’t want their pictures taken, some were less shy. In a country where photography is illegal, the last thing you want is to take the wrong picture. We heard about another overland group not far before us that got in big trouble for taking pictures.
- Be very open and talkative with the people, even if you don’t speak the same language. They are so friendly and funny, constantly smiling at the sight of such strange people.
- If you’re an American find a fixer to arrange your visa and allow at least three or four days once it’s issued to hassle with the embassy. You will be turned away, you’ll be told to come back again, it’ll be a pain. If you’re any other nationality give it two or three days anyway, they aren’t always efficient at the embassies.