Hot hot hot
4 May 2013- northern Sudan
Its been 45 degrees in the shade but we are slowly getting used to it. It’s not too awful if you have some shade and don’t move between 11 till 4.
Sudan is wonderful! We really didn’t have much of a mental image of Sudan or much idea of what to expect, this has been the case in plenty of new countries we have been, but much more so here. After our long border crossing and our first night under the stars we carried on north and started noticing the differences, the main one we noticed straight away is that Sudan only has one foot in Africa, and at times you could forget that you are in Africa at all. We started to notice large herds of camels and in some areas they were being used more than donkeys for riding and carrying goods. Sudan is the first fully Muslim country we have come to on the trip, 99% of the population is Muslim and in addition to that its a Muslim state with sharia law. Most of the men wear long white flowing pyjama type things, which actually look rather cool to wear. Most of the women wear much more and of course all have their heads covered to varying degrees. The architecture is very different, the houses and structures are all low with flat roofs made of mud (or in towns bricks or metal) rather than the mud and stick, with thatched roof huts of all rural Africa we have been in so far. But truthfully the main thing we noticed the first few days was the heat- its stifling. Like an oven. Our A/C broke as we left Ethiopia (awful timing!) so we were driving through the sand and dust widows open, lethargic with a damp towel on our head- it works!
We arrived in Khartoum in the afternoon and found the YHA where we camped in the car park. There were no other foreign visitors there. Sudan has no tourist industry to speak of, to say tourism is in its infancy here is an understatement. The country has had so many years of war and conflict which heartbreakingly continues still, many years of US sanctions, and was a real pariah in the 1990’s after supporting Saddam Hussein and harbouring Osama. As in many places politics has held the country back. There is an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court in The Hague for multiple counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for the president. Grim.
Once we got over the heat, the overwhelming impression is the absolute beautiful hospitality of Sudanese people. They want you to you know they are not defined by there politics. Its touching. Hospitality to strangers is a matter of fact, a duty to others but never even a hint of it being a burden. Even in Khartoum, which of course has foreigners living there, mostly UN workers, loads of people go out of their way to literally walk across the road to say Welcome to Sudan, how are you, offer you tea, to share their meal, do we need help with anything etc etc. Their warmth is infectious and comes with no strings attached- they don’t want to sell you anything, offer you a service of any kind, ask you to shop in their place, they just want to engage with you and make sure you are ok and are delighted with visitors to their country.
Khartoum is a large modern city with good infrastructure and of course very hot right now! But there is ice cream, which was glorious as its been ages since we had ice cream. It was cooling down to 30 degrees at night and eventually our second night there we were tired enough, after only a few hours of very fitful sleep the previous nights, to pass out with the help of a wet towel draped over us. The soundtrack of Sudan is of course the calls to prayer that boom out from the many many mosques numerous times a day. Depending on where you are you can often hear it from more than one mosque. There are currently heavy travel advisories for Sudan, the Australian government recommends no travel and British government currently has travel warnings for Khartoum (risk of kidnapping of westerners) so we tried to keep a low profile, left landy in the compound of the YHA and stayed close to ‘home’ at night. We also told anyone who asked (as we have been doing for a while now) we are going the opposite direction to what we are.
We decided to see if getting the A/C fixed was a possibility so asked around and found a ramshackle A/C mechanic who had a look and found a hole worn through one of the metal pipes, it was a bit tricky to get out and took a while. Olly stayed to help out in the sun and I hoped in a tuk tuk for a nearby cafe. It was bliss, great A/C , internet and mango juices so I was happy to sit there a few hours. Olly of course ended up getting invited to share in endless cups of tea, served with half a cup of sugar as is the taste here, and their lunch. We are so happy we got it fixed! It’s still a landy A/C so not like other vehicles but its cool air and its a lifesaver not only keeping the temperature down but also saves having the windows wide open when a sand storm passes. While in Khartoum we caught up on all the blogs we had written offline and other internet stuff, did a bit of a shop and got our photography permit, which is a requirement in Sudan. It was an easy process, filling a form in (only one!) and (another passport photo, glad we have so many with us) and is basically a list of things we can and can’t photograph – things not allowed include bridges, petrol stations, any government buildings, anything to do with police or military and anything that could defame Sudan including beggars or slum areas. This is the only place I have ever travelled where you get a far better exchange rate on the black market than at a bank, dollars are in demand here. Due to US sanctions you can’t use MasterCard or Visa to get cash out of ATMs so we had to rely on changing US dollars for Sudanese pounds. As recommended we limited our time in Khartoum due to the travel warnings and headed off to see our first pyramids, Meroe.
It was a few hours drive away from the city (but much longer for us because 60 km out we had to turn around as we had left the computer charger in the cafe and took ages to get back to the city to get it!) and we arrived late afternoon. We found a place just behind a small ridge from the pyramids, it was windy so we tucked ourselves in their and walked up and overlooked the ancient ruins for a bit before dark. Wow! We were camping next to pyramids! We had a peaceful night, watching the stars and a great sleep that seemed a bit cooler to us which was brilliant. The next morning we got up just before sunrise and walked up the dune to see the sunrise and the pyramids in the beautiful morning light. We then went and walked around them, amazing and surreal to be walking amongst well over 200 year old pyramids!! Each one was a little different, some with a stepped outside and some with straight walls. All had carvings inside the small offering chapels, attached to the pyramid facing the rising sun. We wondered about all the people we were following in the footsteps of over the past several thousand years.
By the time we left about 10 it was boiling hot and we drove on to Karima where we asked a few locals if we could camp up near the Nile and after a string of people came up saying hi (those with a few words of english) and others giving us a thumbs up they all went home and we cooked up cabbage, beans and rice and crashed out for the night, a little cooler close to the river in our spot amongst the date palms. People here are very curious about us but not at all in your face, its a very noticeable difference after Ethiopia. People just said “Salem” shook our hand and left us alone to sleep in their field. In Karima we got up early again to beat the heat and go have a look at some pyramids there and walk up the most striking feature for miles- a big sandstone bluff overlooking the Nile. What a view, it really gave us such a stark picture of the importance of the river – there would be no Sudan without it. Brown brown brown for as far as you can see with a strip of green along with house cutting through it. Although you are in the middle of the desert, you can buy bananas, mangos, eggplant, dates and other yummies because of the river, it’s the heart of Sudan. From the top of the hill we could also see the ruins of Jebel Barkel, old Egyptian style temples. We decided to go and have a look from the ground and had a brief walk around in the hot hot sun when we met a couple from Zimbabwe who work at the embassy in Khartoum. Lucky for us they were there as a worker had the door open to an area of a temple that is carved into the side of the hill- it was incredible. We walked in and found an amazingly well preserved 2,700 year old temple. Hieroglyphs all over the walls and some of the carvings still had paint on them. Being indoors it is protected from the destroying effects of sun and sand being blasted at them. The guy there showed us around and told us about some of them, we thought it was impressive he knew what the hyroglifics said but while chatting to him on the walk back to the office found out he is an archeologist excavating the area with a Canadian archaeologist, they only excavate during the winter due to the heat.
Sudan is the only country we have been stopped at more road blocks than the locals. We occasionally get waved through but most often stopped. The people manning them are often security services who are plain clothed so its weird handing your passport to them. They often record the details of our passports and vehicle but are always friendly and wish us well.
We have just had a few days in Dongola. After leaving Karima we cut through the desert again, on almost perfect roads, in a largely featureless flat hot desert. As with all towns it is based on the Nile. We stayed in the car park of a nice little guest house that had been suggested to us by some overlanders. An oasis of clean (squat) toilets and a shower that sometimes has water. There was an upstairs terrace with plenty of shade and a rope bed typical of the area to lie still for the hottest part of the day, which is HOT! These simple rope beds are all over, outside of homes and shops for people to lie around during the heat of the day. I was caught out last night in the shower, for the first time on the trip the water stopped when I had soap all over me. The place is run by a very friendly Korean family who have lived in Sudan for 8 years and Africa far longer. Isa and his fun and boisterous sons welcomed us so warmly and we had such fun swimming with them in the Nile, playing football on the beach as well as going on a great old wooden boat yesterday and finding a perfect bit to swim- a spot with a sand island and a strong enough current so the water wasn’t too mucky (after our first swim in more stagnant water we both had a sore throat the next day) the current was strong enough for us to run up the bank, jump into the deep water and get swept down to get out and do it all over again- it was great fun, and ended up doing it over and over and over. To the shrieks and antics of the boys (about 9, 13 and 15 in age). We sailed back right as the sun was setting, gorgeous!
One afternoon we were on our way to the River Nile, all in Isa’s car when ahead of us on the road we could see some sort of convoy, as the cars in front of us pulled over and Isa did the same my first thought was a politician? Then about 20 army vehicles came through town and the scene made us feel uneasy, Isa very quickly and firmly told me not to take any photos (I had the camera on my lap but as soon as I saw it put it under my legs- I no intention of photographing these guys, photographing anything like this anywhere in Africa would be a recipe for trouble). We could tell Isa was uneasy, which made us even more uncomfortable. The convoy was a collection of open backed land cruisers and landys with large rear mounted machine guns. As they passed people on the side of road waved and shouted. To us they looked like a group of surprisingly young revved up men. They were posing, revving engines and waving like royalty. Isa said he had never seen that in Dongola before and was most curious what was going on. The day we left we asked him if there was anything we needed to know about the road ahead or if he had heard why the army were in town, he told us people were saying they had come because there was talk of rebels in the area. He said the rebels come from the west and would never go on the east side of Nile which was the side we were travelling north on.
We enjoyed Dongola, just walking around town and having lots of cups of tea (served piping hot and very very sweet, not what I want when its 45 in the shade but it’s everywhere and when in Rome…). Our first day out we intended to just have a cuppa but saw some yummy food at one of the tiny street cafes and ordered some fuul (a national dish of sorts) which is cooked broad beans poured into a silver serving dish squeezed with the bottom of a glass coke bottle and served sprinkled with raw onion, tomato and oil as well as some green powered stuff and a separate dish of chilli sauce stuff (turns out it has crushed peanuts in it which Olly discovered very quickly!) Of course you eat with your hands, in this case using bread as the scoop. DELICIOUS! Within a minute or two we had people chatting to us (they are so so nice) and wondering how are travels are going and an English teacher wanting to practise his English and learn some new words to teach his students. We also had lunch one afternoon with the night watchman’s family at the guesthouse. They were so so lovely and served several dishes (we paid for the ingredients as to not be a burden, as suggested by Isa the owner of the guesthouse). Their simple home is home to the mum with her two adult sons, one is single and the other has a wife and five children. We squeezed around a few small tables and dug in tasting the dishes being intently watched by the elderly gran making sure we ate and ate and ate. She was very concerned when I stopped eating thinking I needed more and more. Both of our favourites was a smoky eggplant dish. Two of the others were a weird slimy texture which I found hard to get over but of course ate it anyway.
Today we are driving north again, we will go most of the way to Wadi Halfa as we need to be there in the morning by 10am to meet the fixer to sort the barge (for landy) and the ferry (for us). The fixer is a local guy who organises things for us, to get us on the ferry and landy on the barge. Apparently it’s virtually impossible to do it yourself if you are not Sudanese or Egyptian and don’t understand the finer details of the ‘timetable’ as well as speak fluent Arabic, and besides he has to drive landy onto the barge after we have left on the ferry. We have been in touch with him all along, while in Sudan, making sure things are ticking away. He rang yesterday saying he can get landy onto a different barge the day before our ferry leaves (in theory anyway). So off we left mid morning this morning. If all goes well we will put landy on the barge Monday and we will get on the ferry Tuesday. It’s a 18 hour sailing time for us but much more than that with immigration etc and we are assuming there will be a hiccup or two along the way.