Ben – As Jen said yesterday in the big market in Omdurman-Khartom, “It’s not about the Market. Its about the people”, this is ‘cos A) The Market is basically a jumbled pile of imported Chinese plastic items & Shoe vendors & B) the people here in Sudan are fabulous.
We arrived in Wadi Halfa on the Nasser Lake Ferry from Egypt. Following all the craziness getting onto the ferry, the 16 hour journey on it was quite nice, and we had an excellent view of the Abu Simbel Temple on the shore as we glided past, which was an early morning treat. On the ferry we’d got to know some fellow “Overlanders” better:
Klaus, a really low-key and genuine German guy in a Landcruiser who’d been this way 4 time before on a motorbike. He described Wadi Halfa something like “It’s like the end of the world, I like it there!”. He wasn’t wrong, it’s a dusty nothing kind of a place, that serves the port, but there is a real nice energy about the place, smiling faces, stuff going on, but real life stuff, not “you want a taxi / boat ride / silver bracelet / Egyptian Banjo” type tourist stuff like in Egypt. It was a real breath of fresh air (metaphorically, the actual air is full of sand, and it’s scent probably wouldn’t make it as an Airwick plug-in).
Roy, Jerry & Chris, the leader, cameraman & hitchhiker from a Dutch project called “Thumbs up Africa”. Chris is trying to hitch his way to Capetown via a collection of charity projects whilst fairly constantly updating facebook and various other Media with news&stories in order to try and use the crazy journey to raise awareness of some global/African issues. Roy is driving a Landrover Discovery the same route to do all the project organising & offer Chris support as required & deal with the social media complexities. It seems a great project, but far from easy.
Then there is the Dragoman team of Ross & Anki + 6 passengers (I cant believe we bumped into a Drago truck so soon, brought back so many good memories of my time working for them). Last but not least is Nick, the driver of another overland tour truck, who is getting the truck to Sudan ahead of his group, he’ll spend 10 days in Wadi Half waiting for them!
We spend a night in Halfa so we can finish our paperwork the next day, then drive on at about lunch time. We agreed to give Chris the Hitch-hiker a lift to our first camp in Sudan, and find a great spot right next to the Nile. It’s a little way off the road down some good tracks, so Roy & Jerry (who join us to camp up) decide to do “Off-road filming” for their project. Roy does such a good job of smiling for the camera that he manages to drive over a huge boulder and get his Disco very wedged, so a couple of hours of vehicle recovery practise take priority over relaxing to take in the view. Eventually the wagon is free and Jen cooks up a lovely pot of camp food for us all, including Klaus who’d joined us too thanks to the wonders of GPS.
Jen: Driving into our little camp spot by the Nile that afternoon I’d also managed to forget my 4×4 training and hit a rather nasty rock which scraped the fuel tank. Fortunately I’d caused no major damage but did feel like quite a numpty, I was therefore very grateful to Roy for driving over such a huge bolder in such spectacular fashion just half an hour later as it made me feel a whole lot better!
Tech on this kind of journey is new to me. I’m used to a dog-eared map and a set of out-of-date route notes from Drago days, but times have changed. We’re using a Garmin GPS/SatNav loaded with “Tracks4Africa” maps on this trip, and its so good it feels like cheating (we call her Sally Traffic). It’s not quite like home where you set a destination then blindly follow the cheerful “Turn right in 400 meters” type instructions, but in conjunction with a map & a plan, it is brilliant, especially in towns & cities. I did have to photograph the first instruction to “Turn right in 320km” which is simply brilliant. We’ve also got a mobile phone with us, I know, a phone you can take with you, astonishing. And even more astonishing we have a Satellite Phone in case things really go wrong. This is all new to me on the road, as is the laptop I’m writing this on. Things have changed since my last trip to Egypt 15 years ago!
Sally Traffic did help us to take a little excursion into Sudan proper. It is possible to take nice new tarmac all the way through Sudan, but you drive past all the real life if you do that, and that’s not what it’s all about, so we decided to take the “road less travelled” and attempt a loop round the inside of a 300km curve in the Nile between Dongola, Old Dongola & Karima. It was certainly the road less travelled, even finding the start of the dessert track proved tricky, and as we headed out across the Sahara the engine revs started to die, Jen went for the down-change, but before she had chance to let the clutch out, we ground to a halt, deep in soft sand. Now we’d not set off that morning mentally prepared for digging the wagon out of soft sand, we expected a reasonable track to follow, but luckily we are kitted to deal with this kind of thing, so out came the sand mats and shovels, and in an hour we were motoring again on the firm stuff, and following other tracks. Every so often we’d loose the tracks, and Sally would do a brilliant job of guiding us along some kind of known route. The trouble in the dessert is the shifting route though, the dunes move about. At times it would be lucky dip as I tried to keep some momentum whilst inventing a desert path. Inevitably the luck ran out. As we came into a small village the tracks disappeared, the sand softened, and I was caught in the wrong gear climbing a dune, the revs died, then so did progress, we were properly stuck, after a few attempts to get moving, the disco was belly high in the sand, even with our mats. Two local ladies appeared and helped drag some sand from the Disco underside, then a few men, and finally I counted 25 locals digging, pushing & rocking us free in the 45 degrees burning heat of the desert day, it was incredible. Once back on terra-firma we offered the group the little suitable food & cold drinks we had.
Only then did it really strike us how much things had changed between villages along the tarmac the day before, and the place we were now. The day before we’d stopped in Wawa to take a journey across the Nile to see the ruins of the Temple of Solub. The people of Wawa welcomed us taking us to get breakfast & bread before contacting the boatman and helping us to sort our little excursion. Mohey particularly helped us, spending most of his day helping us out, and not wanting a penny. Wawa is a pretty poor place, but I guess the passing road has bought some kind of income to some, and life seemed good there. Where we had got too on our desert adventure seemed very different. This is a place where nothing passes, the Nile brings the only water / greenery / food / shade for miles, the air is thick with sand and the sun beats down from about 6am to 6pm. We realised we’d been a bit naïve in our plan. The track we expected became less and less evident, and the happy/shy waves from the locals as we passed turned into something more desperate. We stopped in a couple of villages where people surrounded our car asking for things, food, food for their children, money, anything at all in fact. We know we’re going to experience this loads on our journey, and we’ve experienced this kind of thing before, but this felt very different to me. These people hadn’t learned to see a western face and try to make a few dollars, there was desperation in the air. One lad tried to steal my sunglasses right off my face, two girls started tugging at Jens watch. Given this and the ever present worry of getting stuck, we decided to turn back just short of Old Dongola. We both felt we’d like to help these people, but handouts in the street are not the way to do it. We’d get out of their faces for now, and think about what we could do longer term, Supporting Oxfam always seems like step one to me, it’s easy to set up a monthly donation on-line!
Reconciling our trip against these kind of experiences is impossible, and simply highlights the selfish nature of the cash we are spending doing it. It is however generally amazing the reception we’re getting here in Sudan. Many people shout “Welcome to Sudan” as you drive through their town or pass them in the street, and its genuine, they seem happy that they’re not forgotten, and people want to come here. When you say “the people in Sudan are so friendly, we love Sudan”, there is genuine Pride in their response. I expected Khartoum to be a pretty nasty place before we arrived, but actually it’s a very relaxed place to be, stinking hot, but friendly & we feel very safe & happy. The goods in the market may all be Chinese, but there is nothing plastic about the welcome the people give you.
Sites wise, the Pyramids at Meroe are striking and pretty impressive, on a lesser scale to Egypt, but interesting. We’ve visited others in Karima, and temples elsewhere which helped guide a route for us, but always it’s the Sudanese people that make this part of the journey worthwhile. That and the refreshing fresh juices and delicious Sudanese Spiced Coffee, ummm
We’ve again had some beautiful desert camps, and were particularly lucky on the day of getting stuck in all the sand as we found an amazing spot with huge dunes all around us. The desert offers so many fantastic camping spots and quite surprisingly we’ve only been approached by locals once during our trip. Some men in a landcruiser in Egypt must have spied us from the road and drove 10 minutes or so to come and check we were ok before turning back onto the road. It’s going to feel a bit strange in Ethiopia when we have to stay in hotels and guest houses as generally our disco is far nicer.
Tomorrow we may head on a little side trip up to Kassala near the Eritrean border (the coffee is even better there we’re told), or we may head directly into Ethiopia, we’ll decide in the morning. Sorry if I’ve waffle on in this instalment! We hope your all well, Ben