Predictably, Egyptian customs held up the arrival of the spring by an extra day, and levied a 100% import duty, but despite this it arrived, was fitted (a perfect fit), Julien was thanked profusely and we were on our way. Bidding farewell to Mr. Rezeiky, we headed out of Luxor. South, we crossed the Nile and headed down a road which rapidly degenerated into plough-furrowed writhing mass of snake-like ruts, tugging the bikes from side to side: road-cobras. With the sun glaring off the road, and traffic blaring past us, we had quickly had enough. Heading off the agricultural road and into the desert road, the surface improved, the traffic dropped off, and the bikes settled into their usual throbbing hum. It was good to be back moving.
Arriving in Aswan the next morning, we crossed the low dam, and headed into town. Aswan was the first large city we’d been to since Cairo, and had a much more healthy tourist population: the city seemed more relaxed as a consequence. Heading across the new bridge, about 10km North of the city to Garb-Aswan, the towns on the west bank, we searched out Ashraf’s place, a campsite which had been recommended to us. Completely unable to find it, we arrived at the Nubian tombs, and sat watching the traffic on the Nile while waiting for Ashraf to appear (as ever, someone knew someone, and he was called and came shortly).
Ashraf is a lovely guy: a Nubian who ran a fleet of feluccas (broad, short iron gaff-rigged sailing boats. He also has a house: like a courtyard of sand with rooms off it, and a broad bench under a woven canopy. The only guests there, he tells a a similar story to the one we’ve been hearing all down the Nile. “Before it was great, we had many guests, but now…” and it tails off. But he remains upbeat. He’s just bought a car, and maybe he’ll have a go at driving to make a living, he tells us. We’re doing about 100kmph the wrong way down a road through nowhere when he tells us this. “Oh, and how long have you been driving?” - “I bought this car three months ago; ees beautiful?” “yes, yes. how long did you drive er… before that?” “No drive before that. No car”.
Ashraf knew one of the local shipping agents for the aswan - wadi halfa ferry, Mohammed Abouda. He confirmed we were very lucky: there was space for the bikes on the next cargo barge. We would load on Sunday. Ecstatic, we stripped the luggage off the bikes and rode, light-as-a-feather up to Darau, to see the national camel market, a sea of hobbling, vomiting, bellowing beasts of all sizes and purposes, from Racing to Meat. Further on, we visited the beautiful temple of Kom Ombo, dedicated jointly to the two pharaonic gods that we have chosen as our personal deities: Sobek, the crocodile-headed god chosen by Tom, and Horus, the Falcon-headed god by Rich. The temple features a deep shaft with a spiral staircase around the outside wall, supposedly to contain a venerated crocodile in pharaonic days: Sobek in person, as it were. People would bring offerings of wine and mummified crocodiles for this beast and in return ask it to bring fertility to their land and to predict the height of the next flood. The obvious cruelty of barking at a furious reptile while pouring wine in it’s eyes and throwing its dead brothers at it obviously not too apparent back then.
Loading day at Aswan port was as baffling a process as our ordeal in Damietta, but thanks to Mohammed, considerably swifter and more reasonably priced. He requests that overlanders call or email him two weeks in advance, so he can reserve them a place on the cargo barge. Eventually, having satisfied the egyptian police and customs that we had indeed ridden from Damietta, and that we had killed noone on the way, our doodled-arabic number plates were removed, our licenses revoked, and we were ushered into the port. The scene was one of unrivalled chaos. The barge had, earlier, been completely loaded with trade goods, and hands had been hired to unload some of this, load vehicles (three land cruisers, our motorcycles, and two others), and reload some of the goods. There were several fist-fights ongoing concerning the finer points of this plan. A palette, serving as a loading ramp, cracked under a Honda Africa Twin, but fortunately did not dump the rider in Lake Nasser. Meanwhile a handler, possibly trying to surreptitiously load his sugar-cane crusher/juicer, wheeled the trolley a bit too close to the dock’s edge. With a crash, a ton of metal thumped into the gap between barge and dock. The man howling in anguish, and suddenly surrounded by howling abuse. Cadging an aluminium gangway, the bikes were put aboard, amid a torrent of shrieked, mutually contradictory orders and unhelpful if well-meaning hands manhandling bikes and riders around the deck.
Meeting the other overlanders, we swapped stories and, the next day, boarded the passenger ferry. Built to carry about 200, it is pressed into service with between 600 and 700 passengers for it’s 19-hour passage. Mohammed greased the appropriate palms and hurried us onto the boat, encouraging us to scramble up the side rather than wait for the doors to open, and we settled in. The lower decks were chock-full of the friendliest and most welcoming people imaginable, full of chat and invitations of hospitality, demanding only information and stories. We were particularly entranced by Attar, a bowling-ball of a man with a boisterous manner and a face capable of expressing boundless glee and utter desolation at nothing more worrying than a plate or two of chicken. We must come and stay with him in Khartoum! Of Course!!!
The other foreigners travelling were a couple (James and Anna) in a well-equipped land cruiser, two overland motorcyclists from UAE and Egypt (Omar, from the HuBB), two chinese land cruisers which now had to make it to cape town in three weeks, having been waylaid for a month by egyptian customs (it would be nice to sympathise with them, but they tried to enter egypt without carnets… bold, of which more later), a few hitch-hikers british, polish, japanese and dutch, and a couple of cyclists: Tim and Sharon. They’d set off from the top of Norway 6 months earlier planning to ride to cape town, then ship to tierra del fuego and ride back north through the americas. Feeling hopelessly outclassed in terms of journey calibre, we settled on deck, to the sound of sudanese Uch (a mandolin-like instrument) and singing, drifted in and out of sleep, the boat periodically beaming a spotlight to measure progress against various navigation buoys on this notoriously shallow reservoir. As dawn broke, the ferry drifted past the temple of Abu Simbel, not close, but close enough to see the coach-loads of tourists who’d endure 5 hour journeys to be there, and would shortly be repeating the journey. Ugh…
The ferry docked in the middle of nowhere. there was a wharf and… sand. Mohammed had called his counterpart in sudan and told him to expect us. Magdi appeared, calm, unflappable, and extremely polite. He’d booked us a hotel, but we told him it might be beyond our price range. Some taxis (1950s land rovers with bald tyres) appeared offering us a ride into halfa. Tuk-tuks milled aimlessly like ants or wading birds around the dessert. Money-lenders appeared and gave us 6.5 sudanese pounds (Pounds Gee-NAY, Attar booms, his eyes bulging with enthusiasm) per US Dollar: there was no haggling, and it seems we got a good rate (certainly better than the official rate of 5.6!) We boarded an amjad (mini-bus) with attar and his entourage and trundled to a hotel: it was full. Attar looked about as dejected as it is possible to be, and whinnied a little. We went to another hotel and took sufficient rooms to sleep the whole party. Attar emerged from his room, his eyes watering slightly. “Ah…” he said “is not beautiful”. Indeed, but at 10 sudanese pounds (GeeNAY!!) per night, it was certainly affordable!! We ambled around town, with attar’s friends, and were invited to eat nile-fish by a sudanese man who was returning from six months in Cairo, studying the Qu’ran. Over Bolti (Nile tilapia, Oreochromis niloticus) we were urged to consider Islam. We did. The fish was delicious, with lemon squeezed over it in it’s spicy fried batter.
Afterwards, we wandered round the town and out to a petrol station, anxious to check that petrol wasn’t going to have jumped from Egypt’s 20pence per litre. Standing at the pump, mental calculators flailing at the exchange rate (30p per litre: alright sudan, we’re still in business!), a european wandered up with a 5litre jerry can in one hand and the instantly-recognisable thousand-mile stare. Roman was a Pole who, though living in New Jersey, had set out from poland on a BMW oil-cooler boxer nine months before, ridden down the west coast of africa, and was now returning via the east coast. His GPS had led him along a 350km schlepp through the desert from abu hamed to wadi halfa: noone had told it about the network of chinese-built roads following the nile. He was filthy, shattered, and his bike had run out of fuel (fortunately in Halfa, not the dessert). He was camped with the cyclists from the ferry, but we walked into town and traded info: the road nort & the road south. He wanted to avoid the ferry from egypt to turkey: too expensive. Could he go through syria (no)? What about israel and iraq? Oh dear… But his tales were tremendous. He’s done the entire trip so far without carnet de passages, sometimes blasting the bike out of customs with officials running after him; and while halted in brazzaville-congo for a visa to cross DRC he’s actually charged through a border post and almost crossed the country without a visa before being dragged back the way he’d come. Roman: it would be good to hear how you’re getting on in Egypt with no carnet…
We woke on our first morning in Wadi Halfa and walked through the sandy streets to declare our arrival in Sudan at the police station. Here we met cyclists Tim and Sharon. For all the inconvenience experienced in loading and offloading their bikes onto the passenger ferry (squeezing impractically laden bikes by hand over railings, down stairwells and through a crammed lower deck about to kick off if a Japanese tourist didn’t share his bench with a Sudanese electronics merchant) their composure at the station was justifiably earned and their kit astonishing: each sitting comfortably in the shade above the dusty floor on a folding stool. Whoever it was responsible to deal with processing tourists had gone for breakfast so we frittered an hour comparing notes with the cyclists, watching locals being vaccinated against the recent wave of Yellow Fever in Sudan and talking with geology and mining students of a local university. Responsibility returned from breakfast he ushered us to a different office within the same courtyard of buildings where we waited with completed arrivals forms to pay to register our arrival. Behind the counter in this accounting office were two female employees wetting rows of postal stamps and attaching them to official looking documents, by way of validating the document as opposed to paying for them to be mailed. Soon they had accepted 213 of our Sudanese Guinea (SDG) apiece – roughly $30 – and our applications were handled into the adjacent room where they were promptly signed by the officer in charge and returned. We were in Sudan!
Returning to Sharon, who’d been sitting with their bicycles while Tim joined us in queue, she delivered news that the cargo barge had arrived. We bade them both “bon voyage”, folded ourselves into a tuk-tuk and made for the port. The hot glare of the midday sun made the unlit terminus building feel even darker but we found our fixer, Magdi, in a small side corridor, away from the bare echoey walls in the main hall where noisy crowds were amassing for the Egypt bound ferry, busying himself in completing the paperwork for the arrival of the bikes. The bikes were ready to unload. Passing motorcyclists Omar and his UAE chum on the slipway, we noticed how tall their modern bikes seemed, closer in size and stature to a small car than with what we were accustomed: meaty rear suspension, enormous telescopic forks front suspension, front/rear disc brakes, a foot of ground clearance, perspex weather screens, metal grilles over their headlight lenses, multiple pannier boxes. They seemed heavily over-laden but, Omar’s fourth overland excursion into Africa “careful, you’ll get addicted”, we wondered if it was we who were under-equipped. Tied alongside the sloping slipway we were lucky to find the height of barge and slipway more or less even where the bikes were stowed and offing easy, a blessing not bestowed upon Toyota-overlanders James and Anna who had their hands full marshalling the bevy of local hands arranging gangways to bridge a larger gap nearer the stern.
We rode the bikes to the top of the slipway to finish the bike’s entry into Sudan by completing another page in the Carnet de Passage, Magdi efficiently relieving us of any control in the exchange with the Arabic-only police officer. Bikes cleared, a rickety gate was open and they entered Sudan. Back in Halfa we met Attar outside the donkey-hotel and, to quell his concerns at approaching the entrance, made it clear that we were only entering to collect our bags and, being mid-afternoon, would gladly follow him to a new hotel for a second night prior to hitting the road. Attar, as big a man as his heart, plus two sizeable companions shoe-horned themselves into the rear bench of a tuk-tuk whose driver’s bitten lip and bulged eyes conveyed the cold terror of a costly dilemma: rejecting the fare or inevitable repairs. 50 metres from the donkey-hotel’s door the tuk-tuk’s clutch imploded attacking a small but unavoidable rise. Attar’s plus-two alighted, leading us to Hotel Kilopatra by foot, leaving the tuk-tuk driver to enrol passers-by to shoulder him over the hump and trickle 100 metres across the small opening to deliver his smug remaining fare to the door.
From Southern Egypt when we’d first met Sudanese and getting to know a few a little during the boat crossing, we felt incredibly welcomed by these people, their faces and eyes warmly engaging with ours to ask “Tammam?” or “Are you fine?”. Our first 24 hours in the country had only served to reinforce this experience: a sense of respectful interest in us and our motorcycles. We left the bikes unlocked by the hotel and wandered down the sand streets with Attar in search of local sim-cards and dinner. Attar, who we had understood to be in electronics, took charge of the negotiation for a phone for Tom and browbeat the shopkeeper down to what he deemed an acceptable price, whilst assuring us that the Indian made battery was “more beauteeful” than its China-made equivalent. Attar insisted to pay for both sim-cards and the phone. He also bought scratch-card credit top-ups for each and demonstrated how topping-up was achieved and how much each cost (“Five.. Pound.. GeeNAY” - his face opened, his eyes and mouth grin wide like a conjurer performed a trick awaiting his audience’s response). After dinner we strolled around Halfa and found a teenage boy under a strip light in a shop, without the slightest concession to safety, panning gold from bags of silty sand with water and mercury. The water removes much of the impurities in solution and is carefully poured off the top leaving a pool of silvery mercury becoming increasingly stiff as even the finest particles of gold become attached. The town is full of tales of kind and virtuous men making large accidental finds under cooking pots and of government corruption at the highest level, indeed we were later told in Khartoum that the government prints money to buy this gold to sell on the international market.
As Attar was leaving in the early hours of the following morning to take the 12 hour coach ride to Khartoum, we said our goodbyes and made our promises to get in touch on arrival in Khartoum that night, even going so far as to agree a rendez-vous at hotel “Salama Rotana” when we made it.
And so it was that, armed only with a map of the battlefields of late 19th century British - Sudan exchanges that we entered the Nubian desert. The scenery was instantly dramatic and deadly, making the deserts we’d crossed in Egypt look like a beach-club: Hard sharp rocks, Martian red and black, with no vegetation or animals for the first 150 miles out of Halfa save for the occasional prospector shoulder-deep in a pit beside the road. Other more technically equipped prospectors seemed comically incongruous to the surroundings, wandering through low earthy ridges with a metal detector in hand and large headphones on their head. Even here, though, the generosity of the Sudanese was apparent: when turning to leave a small supplies-stall we discovered our coffees had been bought by the truck driver who’d waved at us from another table and left shortly before. Steep sided buttes stood in solitude. Their peaks were sharp, dark black and featureless, and left the impression of being shaded by a cloud in the contrast to the lighter coloured earth and sands at their bases.
After many hours we came to the Nile for the first time since leaving Halfa. Unlike in Egypt, where extensive irrigation forms a 20-40 mile belt of green hiding the river, in Sudan the Nile arrives like a small oasis: a single line of tall palms at its edge in places, none in others; sometimes with irrigated fields on its banks, sometimes none. A short way on a pair of wraithy silhouettes came into sight, thinned by the strong light behind them they seemed whispy, too fragile to be battling this road. Up close they looked determined and resilient if a little sun-burned: we’d caught the cyclists. Dependant on food for their fuel, rather than the varying qualities of benzine that Africa treats the bikes to, where we carry spares, Tim and Sharon carry a veritable larder and treated us to our first cups (bowls) of PG Tips on the trip. When we’d said goodbye and time came to leave they mounted their bikes and just peddled off. Given the capricious and sometimes totally disobedient nature of our bikes to start, this seemed elegantly simple: “What, you just peddle? Weird!”
We pulled off the road for the night at an abandoned single storey window-less building near a small town. Behind the building we found a long area that had been marked out with long white lines at the verges. The compacted earth led us to believe it was a runway, evidently disused, a suspicion confirmed by a small mud hut we saw on the other side of the road the next morning with “Airport Café” painted on the door. Just when we were wondering where the cyclists would be spending the night, and a little sorrowful not to share more of their company, the pair of stealthy wraiths slipped silently past and only was it for our facing the road at the moment they past did we spot them. In the low light of sunset and a hundred metres from the road they disregarded our calls and beckons for well wishers or village idiots and cycled on. Tom gave chase by moto and they soon joined us for dinner and camp.
The next day we headed South again. We stopped to climb one of the tall buttes. 400 feet we stumbled in leather trousers up steep scree and loose rocks which reported a resonant ping if hit. The wind continued to grow in ferocity till nearing the peak you could play at leaning on the wind and had to raise our voices to be heard. We became 7-year olds again taking the largest rocks we could lift and casting them downhill (away from the bikes) and grinning in the destruction they wrought en route. We found sea shells in the highest soil layers and then looked out across the seafloor, imperceptibly flat from our height, and the road, an insignificant pencil line of charcoal black in an ocean of brown. We left the Nile at Dongola and headed East to begin to cross the first of two desertous legs where the Nile makes a large S-shaped North-South meander from Dongola to Merowe and Merowe to Atbara. The road here was empty and we made an early start the following morning in a numbingly cold cross wind. We stopped after two hours to huddle out of the wind in the lee of a small hill with three small cairns of the resonant black rocks. Blood back in the hands we set off for Merowe arriving for a breakfast of Foul beans roadside. To the Southwest of Merowe are the mountain of Jebal Barkal and the pyramids and temple ruins of a once thriving town. No hawkers, no touts, no camel rides. We pulled off the road and parked at the base of pyramids, much shorter than Giza or Maydum but far more slender, their condition more surprising for their steepness. Further west are the royal tombs of El Kurru. With little of remark on the surface to distinguish them from the neighbouring mud brick houses we weren’t sure what we had found. A group of local urchins gestured towards an old man who, for a small fee, unlocked the doors and we descended beneath an intricate herring-bone mud-brick roof into simple antechambers and tombs covered in hieroglyphs and decorations. A visible high tide mark and faded ‘glyphs beneath this line showed where the tombs had previously been flooded. We camped that night just off the quiet road halfway between Merowe and Atbara beside a small acacia tree under a carpet of stars.
Atbara we found a big a bustling town. We had lunch and lazed into the afternoon and, approaching Christmas day, both found excuses to venture into the hot, mostly fruit, market in search of suitable coloured stockings, lumps of coal, oranges, dates, chillis and other traditional seasonal gifts. After what seemed like a long day at the office (another cold winter’s morning in the desert, many hours sitting at our desks watching the desert roll by, mad last minute dash down the high street) and confident that Khartoum had to be getting close we called it a day shortly before Shendi. We found a basic village: thatched huts, goats and sheep wandering freely, dogs inviting us to leave and asked permission to camp nearby. We indulged in a shower from our jerry can of water reserves and were invited to join the village chief for tea. Through a near-impenetrable language barrier we understood the chief was trying to tell us something about the number 7 and camels when at 7 o’clock on the dot a man arrived on a camel from Atbara, over 40 miles away. The animal lay down in its dismantling fashion and begun to crunch its way through 5 kilos of a rock-hard white grain which it was offered, belching wafts of cud from one of its stomachs throughout. After tea we were sent to be on fresh heated sweetened goats milk.
Leaving the village on Christmas Eve morning after another round of heated goats-milk we discovered the staggering complex of Kushitic pyramids of Meroe little more than a mile down the road. In Khartoum’s excellent national musem we discovered that during his reign the Kushitic king would erect the monument of the pyramid to his predecessor on top of his burial chamber and have a site excavated for his own burial (essentially digging his own grave) but presumably with the benefit of seeing that his accomplishments were favourably hieroglyphed.
South of Shendi we came off the road for the night. A busier route showing few signs of slowing down after dark we had our work cut out to find a suitable camp. We headed 500 metres away from the asphalt to a line of Acacias and promptly became stuck in the soft sandy river bed in which they were rooted. The ground was fine silt-like dry quicksand and the bike tyres disappeared into it, there were huge acacia thorns everywhere, and we were rapidly getting stuck. Pushing the bikes together, one-at-a-time, through the dust, we got to some harder standing. The tent was erected and a foraging party dispatched to look for firewood. Everything looked dead: by all rights in this wilderness it should have been, but eventually enough twigs and scraps were assembled to make a little fire. It was lit, dinner was eaten, and, too excited to wait for the morning, Tom got Richard’s presents out: a stocking full of dates, some rocks, more dates, and a desert gourd! Desert gourds had been discovered a couple of days earlier: by the side of the road, growing in the sand: thousands of small gourds: some green and hard, like watermelon, but foully bitter! Others dry and floaty-lite like maraccas. The green ones were bisected and arranged on the road like a troop of tortoises crossing as a family, only to be exploded crueely by callous HGVs thundering past, while the dry ones became makeshift snowballs for two homesick brits in the midst of a parchingly dry, scorchingly hot winter of sand.
Then the main presents were opened. Steel mugs, large enough to make and drink sudanese coffee, with coffee, ground ginger, and sugar: glad we didn’t wait till christmas morning. Tom got his stocking, full of chillis, (char)coal and a single citrus, and coffee was made. At the boil, an old toothy sudanese man came out of the night: he sat down at our request and shared our coffee, glad we could repay some of the kindness sudan had shown us to date. We shared the dates with him, and he pocketed huge handfuls. Expressing interest in the citrus, we offered it to him: he took a mouthful and pocketed the rest. Now jabbering excitedly in Arabic, and with eyes slightly aflame (above the flickering embers of the dying fire), he started picking up everything, muttering in a language noone could possibly have spoken. He strolled off, and we left it at that, leaving him presents of chilis and tiger balm on the rocks by the fire should he return. He’s probably eatent them, too.
Christmas morning was celebrated with a less-than-traditional pushing-of-the-velocettes out of a silty riverbed. Pouring with sweat, liberally dusted with sudanese dirt, but grinning at the memorability of this christmas, we started the last ride into Khartoum. The road, tagged the “Osama Road” by Theroux, financed as it was by OBL, starts fine, but as khartoum is approached, degrades fairly rapidly into a metalled mess of potholes, cobras, and piles of sand. Gouge-marks signify the frequent explosions of the threadbare, cracked sudanese HGV tyres, leaving twisted curles of tread writhing in the wayside (more cobras! Tyre-cobras?). With tuk-tuks re-appearing, a bank of dust visible on the horizon, and traffic building, we sensed the imminent approach of Khartoum, and stopped for lunch at the Garri Free Zone: noting the astonishing absence of Garri, we ate an immense bowl of ripped up bread (Khubs) topped with stews, sauces, and foul. Delicious. After coffee and the customary chat with the coffee, we set off again into Khartoum. The road completely disintegrated into a chessboard of sand and tarmac. Khartoum loomed up on either side of the road: Neon-lit, baking-hot, dusty, and sprawling. Plunging headlong and without direction through the city (south is good, we’re going south) we burst onto a bridge and blink in the cool air, and beautiful, huge expanse of emptiness in the middle of the teaming city. The nile laps at gentle banks. Huge glass-and-concrete skyscrapers dot the scenery, a huge girder-bridge spans the same incredible river to the left. To the right is an island, and a bend in the river, which means… this must be moghran! The joining of the blue and white niles! It is beautiful, and huge! The bridge plunges us back into the airless traffic. But it’s good-natured. No tempers. No horns! That’s the big change from Egypt. We stop and ask directions to the hotel we are meeting Attar at: the directions are always onward. Surely khartoum can’t be this big? We drive past an entire airport runway, and still they wave us onward. At last we arrive at the hotel. Attar is called, and will arrive shortly. We lounge, and chat to the man sweeping the perfect pavement by the perfectly manicured lawn: he’s come from Ethiopia, promised high salaries and ready work in khartoum atfter graduating in ethiopia. Soon he plans to return: khartoum is not paved with gold… Attar arrives in an amjad, and we follow him to a restaurant for lunch: we are stuffed full: it really is Christmas day, we joke. Then he takes us to his flat and installs us in the flat one down from him: relax! We have a balcony and kitchen and bathroom: truly, this is luxurious. We luxuriate, before heading up to see Attar for a night-time, whistle-stop tour of Khartoum’s ice cream parlours and pastry shacks, before retiring, shattered but thrilled to have arrived in Khartoum.
The next day, boxing day, Attar and Abubakri, his friend, took us on a lap of the embassies we needed: the journey had initially planned to go straight into Ethiopia, but pouring over maps of al-havasha: the horn of africa, had piqued our curiousity: could we ride through eritrea? The border with ethiopia was closed; a war zone, but into djibouti then ethiopia? Possible. The FCO advised against it, but accounts of parts of the jounrey showed it to be possible… we’d ask. Eritrea would consider our application, but it was unusual for english to apply in Khartoum: it could take two or three weeks, and we would need a letter or request from our own embassy: regardless, we should come back the next day to discuss the matter with the Consul. Djibouti simply required a letter from our embassy, and Ethiopia just wanted a few dollars. The British embassy, however, was closed. For the next ten days. Not ideal.
Attar took us for a howlingly fast tour of the sights of Khartoum and, white-knuckled, we agreed to wait for the eritrean visa then get the others and take it from there. We explained this to Attar who looked like we had just to eat his dashboard, such was his disgust and astonishment. He made a few telephone calls and announced that he knew someone who knew someone who could arrange the visas for 200USD per head. Steep: we said we’d give the embassy a fortnight then have a think. OK, said Attar, screaming past a flipped korean car on one of the “Chinese” bridges. and an army Barracks. But, said Attar, the general the boat, not sleep here. the general the boat, he sleep in khartoum in the boat. Baffling. Furthermore, the general the blane, he sleep khartoum in big blane. We’d lost him here. “I show you!” he squeaked with glee, peeling through lanes of crossing traffic. Tearing through khartoum, we came to the ministry of defence, built like lego toys in the shape of a boat and an aeroplane (complete with navigation lights!). “SEE?! Is beautiful??”
Bridges in Khartoum are “British” or “Chinese”: All large-scale construction in this country has been undertaken by foreign powers, presumably for their own reasons, however benign they may or may not be. With the current US embargo, however, Sudan grows increasingly closer to China, evidenced by the goods available on the markets and the huge chinese construction projects scattered through the country with their camps of chinese workers and support. It is this embargo that sees our VISA and Mastercard cards useless in sudanese banks: reports of widespread ATMs on travel forums had reassured us that, although we would not meet an ATM between Halfa and Khartum, cash would be forthcoming in the capital. The reassurance was false: nothing worked. Even Tom’s internet banking account refused to accept a login, sensing a sudanese IP address. Somehow, however, western union, very much the tuk-tuk of the financial world, seems to have overcome the embargo, and emergency funds were snuck in thanks to Tom’s parents.
Meeting the Eritrean Consul (Soloman, a wonderfully pleasant man of immense calm and obviously great intelligence) got us no further, other than a quiet warning that some visa applications on his desk had been waiting many months for a decision from Asmara: “Please Hold” is so much more polite than “No way!”, but considerably less helpful if that is the actuality.
Meeting an Eritrean while scouting for a workshop, Richard explains how we want to visit Eritrea. He finds this funny, as he is desperately applying for residence in any other country, having left Eritrea with no passport. We are invited to take traditional coffe at his house. Over the etheric aromas of coffee, ginger, resin-incense, and charcoal, he showed us his applications for asylum. The story tells of summary arrest, detainment without charge, torture, escape, and flight through jungles at night. But why do we want to visit Eritrea? He asks. Our answer seems both ridiculous and perfect: to know what it is like. We cannot change how it is; we can’t reasonably help him; but if enough people know how things are, maybe things will change? Or maybe that’s ridiculous: still, you’re reading this.
After cleaning the bikes, routine maintenance, and touring the sights of Khartoum, we had only one major task: to find chain wax for the motorcycles. Overlanders take heed: this product is not attainable in Africa: take all you will need, fit a scottoiler, or by a BMW shafty (we cooked the chains in a baking tray full of grease: seemed to work!). On a fruitless sortie around Khartoum looking for this (we never learn), a sudanese man stopped by us at the lights. “This bike” he said “I think it is a BSA! I have many like this” We had met Ibrahim Zanatee, who would soon become a good friend, a fellow enthusiast for outmoded machinery, and our window on life in Khartoum. Over the next few days, he took us round and showed us his own sights of Khartum: his collection of 36 BSAs, all ex-british army or (post-independence; 1956) ex-sudanese army; his friends who collect and maintain ex-army brit-bikes from Sudan (BSA) and Egypt (Norton); the vintage cars of Khartoum, which extend from a 1903 three-piston oddity to many american behemoths of the post-independence military and presidencies, to a battered but rust-free frogeye sprite, and other british oddities; his current mechanical projects and friends, an ex-GB 19th century steam-crane at the Egyptian Nile-watching station in Al-Shagara he is determined to resurrect; and his friend Mr. Omar and his Yemeni Mendi restaurant. Mr. Omar was sudanese champion, and international competitor in scramble riding in the 1970s, a hobby he has handed down to his son, with considerable success: he races throughout the arab world, and now runs a mendi restaurant. This is a huge drum-like oven built into the floor, with walls surrounded by cracked glass and salt to retain heat. A raging fire is burnt to embers in the bottom, a 40kg pot of basmati rice lowered over this, and about 40 dressed chickens racked above this before the oven is closed with a heavy steel lid. The rice steams the chicken which drip oils and spices back into the rice, until, in a few hours’ time, the oven is opened to produce: KAFSA! Food of saudi royalty and overland motorcyclists, it seems. A delicious plate of lightly seasoned saffron rice with tender chicken, it is a staple on our khartum schedule.
Mr. Ibrahim also introduced us to many of his friends, including Mr. Usama, a friend who worked at the Egyptian Nile-watching station. Hospitable and extremely generous, he is an engineer by trade: he’d left his previous job in Luxur, as well as his family, driven by a desire for new challenges and areas of work, and had been in Khartum for about 6 months. He loved the place, not as cold as luxur in winter, but missed his family. His large colonial-era house had a spare bedroom and we were invited to stay, an offer we were delighted to accept. Usama was very excited to learn Richard worked in wind energy and turbines, as he had in mind a project to use renewables to irrigate the Egyptian dessert, and Richard’s brain was picked by a man obviously keen to run an interesting-sounding scheme, and with an obvious interest in renewable energy. One evening he seemed despondent: his scheme to import into Cairo 50 tonnes of sesame seed (simsim) for the festival of muhammad’s birthday had fallen through: his seller had reneged on his deal: simsim makes the traditional sweet for the festival, and he needed a new supplier. The place to go was Gadaref, but it was a day away. “What can I do?”
Meanwhile, we discovered that the standard ethiopian tourist visa was three months, so we went and acquired yet another festive, less-than-legible script in our passports, and planned how best to occupy ourselves while waiting for Eritrea to consider our request. Having explored the desert well, not fancying a round-trip of over a thousand miles to see port sudan, and excluded from Kordofan, Darfur, and Blue Nile by conflict, we decided to visit Dinder National Park. Mr. Ibrahim took us to meet the secretary to the minister for tourism who prepared our permits himself, not to mentioning hand-drawing us a map to get there. A long round-tour of the overlanders and tourists of Mr. Ibrahim’s circle rendered the verdict that our journey was a good idea, and safe, and so Mr. Ibrahim led us out of Khartum on the Madani road in the breaking dawn to point us off towards Dinder.
Riding south in the hot dusty air our departure was marred only by the fact that Richard’s bike, suffering from difficulty in starting from the outset, had broken its kickstart return spring. Not a fatal break, we were carrying no spares, as removing the broken spring and tying the kickstart up renders the bike fully running, but richard now has taken to parking only at the top of hills, and has a competition running to see how many push-starts he can get from the gun-toting policemen at the roadblocks and stations. He’s doing well!
Pushing hard on roads of fair to sub-fair quality, we made wad madani by lunch, sinnar a few hours later, and then got lost on a detour over the sinnar dam. Obviously British (RANSOMES & RAPIER, IPSWICH, ENGLAND calmly stated on all sluicegates), the dam staunched a river of decidedly non-british proportions. Fading to a point in the distance, and ripping water through so fast it cavitated into sucking whirlpools of spume on the downstream side, the sight was hypnotic and we were distracted from our navigation. The police pointed onwards: DINDER!, but after fifteen minutes of rutted dirt-track, it was obvious this wasn’t the road, so we retraced our steps, found the right road, and crossed the nile after senga: this matched the ministry-endorsed map! Eventually, as the sun set, and the day ran out, so did the road. half an hour later and dusk was ending on a dirt-track of corrugated dust. Finally, within sight of the glow of Dinder town’s lights, Tom’s clutch cable gave out. Camp here or replace the cable and slog into town? Close call. We fished a spare out and fitted it: of course, it didn’t fit properly: bloody classic parts. Never mind, it’ll get us there. Shattered, we flopped into the police station and fell asleep in some spare beds.
The next day they explain no motorcycles are allowed in Dinder, but no problem: someone russles up a battered-beyond-recognition landcruiser flatbed (350 guinea per day complete with driver and AK-47-toting “security”); the bikes are secured in the guardhouse; all food, water, clothing is loaded, and we’re off, amid shouted enthusiasms “There are trees, more trees. All trees in Dinder National Park! And Birds! More Birds! And animals! It is amazing!”
Six hours’ drive later (during which the theme of unreliable historic vehicles is maintained when the landcruiser rolls noiselessly to a halt in the middle of a jungle), and we arrive at Camp Galagu: a bafflingly well-manned police station in the wilderness of the park, under an immense GSM antenna (WHY?). Madad, a newly-qualified vet and lieutenant (they say it properly: leff-tennant!) in the wildlife police brings us an unreasonable bill for our stay: we point out the nonsense of paying 12 times as much for a hut with no electricity or running water than our unreasonably chic flat in Khartoum’s Riyadh district. We suggest 700 Guinea for three days. Smiles.
Shortly after we go for our first drive into the park in the setting sun. Baboons (AH! Local name… “TIGIL” calls Madad), Waterbuck (Ah! Local name… Katambor!), Antelope (Aaah! Local name … Basmaak!), and Guinea Fowl(Ah! Local name… Geedad Al-Wadi! This means river-chicken, and we find funny: christening them aqua-Jeems: Jeem being the arabic letter for the guinea currency.) Shortly Tom shouts “Back! Stop! Lions!!!” Facing suspicion, the driver reluctantly wheels us about, the lions are hiding “Sure there were…” then silently one pads into view from behind a clump of grass. Huge and slow-moving, she walks to the base of a tree before turning and sitting, watching us. Another lies still in the grass, despite a slowly advancing toyota.
Satisfied, we leave them alone. The next day we went out for a couple of drives. Buffalo, ostrich, mongoose, pelican, heron, gazelle: the area teems! The rivers full of fish (delicious, incidentally…). A trip to a completely isolated village (Um-Elkhir), the next day revealed people living completely off nature in an environment bone dry for two months of the year, and sodden to malarial swamp for four. Tom visited the MSF-built rural hospital: he was surprised. WHO-stocked western drugs in the pharmacy (quite a good range), a lab which although offered only basic tests, probably had a shorter turnaround than most teaching hospitals in the UK, and almost certainly never lost a sample! What was the majority of the caseload? 1: Malaria, 2: Kala-Azar (It had it’s own ward) 3: typhoid. what about hepatitis? HIV? He had 90 cases of HBV on his books, but HIV and HCV? Not really. A tour of the wards showed exactly this, along with an old woman: a repeat admission: she was diabetic, but did not take her medicines, because she did not trust them, so came in HONKing regularly. The doctor looked at me, suggesting she was ridiculously backwards: people would not be like this in Europe? Hmmm….
With our time in Dinder up, we rode back out. passing through Madani, we thought about Gadaref and Osama’s Simsim. We called him: did he still need simsim? yes? OK!!
We rattled down and camped halfway there. The proximity to Ethiopia was brought home when two ethiopians walked past: they had taken their savings, run away from home, and were off to seek fortunes in Sudan. They would apply for refugee status, and had high hopes. We didn’t tell them about the many ethiopians with terrible jobs on minimal pay in Khartum wishing they could go back home we’d met.
Arriving in Gadaref, we made our way to a simsim plant. Oh my, the simsim. The foreman confirmed they had more than enough for our needs, but we would need to talk to the manager: he was called: he’d come over. 45 minutes later he hadn’t arrived, so another merchant offered to show us where he was. We followed him to a large hall full of seats: gestured to sit, the hall quickly filled. Before long an auction was in full flow, and over 10 million guinea pounds of simsim had changed hands.
Unfortunately, the cruel mistress of simsim had bitten, and the price had fluctuated beyond Osama’s margin. We left empty handed, a town of sudanese wondering if we’d really come all the way from london to fail to buy such a trifling amount of simsim. They’ll never know.
Back in Khartum, we met Mark, an english teacher working there for the last 2 1/2 years. We’d been to Dinder? Recently? Did we see any evidence of the battle? “what battle?” oh, well, apparently there’d been an islamist camp training people to fight jihad in Mali and other western countries. They’d attacked the police camp at galagu. rockets, machine guns, carnage. Sounds unbelievable: if you’ve gone to the effort of driving into the middle of a huge wilderness, why on earth would you seek out the only military presence there? He left us with a decent warning, too: he’d just come back from eritrea. travel was not permitted more than 50km from the capital, and his visa had taken months to obtain, and even then only after his brother, an MEP in brussels had asked the right questions. If we had a contact, use it now, and 400 USD sounded reasonable for the impossible. I think we’ll take that advice.