04 December 2009

Sudan Roundup


Sudan was country number 10. We well and truly left Africa and returned to the more familiar bosom of the Arab World. It was pleasant to be somewhere familiar after the sweaty otherness of East Africa and the complete alien culture of Ethiopia. To be honest, we raced through Sudan, despite being given a four week pass. There are no ATMs in Sudan, so we had limited amounts of money to spend, plus we had to catch an earlier ferry than we had planned due to the Eid al Ahra holiday. We entered Sudan halfway upcountry with the Nile, took two long driving days to Khartoum, spend a few days in Khartoum and a few dawdly days more or less following the Nile north to the edge of Lake Nasser, seeking out the remains of the Kushite empire. Then we left on the adventure that is the Wadi Halfa ferry.


From Ethiopia the terrain changed completely. After weeks of cool and populated mountains we were back at 500 m altitude and a landscape that is endlessly flat and monotonously yellow and red. The soil is a fertile dark brown where it is irrigated, vast harvested fields running to the horizon. Northwards desert proper begins, black rockscapes on fine red sand. The Nile winds its way through this barrenness, providing a sweep of green and blue in the monotony. Alongside its water life is possible, endless stretches of habitation reliant on the fields and date farms kept alive by pumps and donkey power. Always within reach of the river, but separate, set into the silence of the sands, temples and pyramids of the Kushite civilisation. Rulers of Nubia and for a while, Egypt, the Kushites left sandblasted ruins which German archaeologists are attempting to rescue before they fade into the desert. Pointy pyramids modelled on Giza (but smaller, steeper and altogether different, as if the blueprints were transmitted by Chinese whispers) erupt by the side of the road along with exquisitely decorated temples proclaiming the superiority of the local kings and queens.


Sudan was big earthenware jugs provided as a public water supply, regular features of the road; low mud brick houses enclosed by decorated walls to keep out wind and sand; heat making the asphalt glassy and reflective like a mirror held up to the scorching sky, oncoming trucks wavering in the mirage, seemingly floating. It was camping in the desert again at last, solitude and stars galore, just as soon as we found a place where we wouldn’t get stuck. It was good roads (built by the Chinese to access Sudan’s natural resources, as in Ethiopia), allowing us to drive all day and make good distance. It was also the worst possible traffic snarl I have ever encountered, proving that Khartoum is up there with Dubai, Nairobi and Chennai, filled with lunatic drivers. Sudan was too short (don’t I say that about all our countries?), but it made a powerful impression.


While the panorama was unchallenging to our desert-proven eyes, our human encounters offered unexpected surprises: There was Ahmed the assured money changer in Wad Madani’s gold souq, dispensing cash and foul with equal aplomb; hospitable Magdi at Wadi Halfa who put us up in his new house for the duration; the casual acquaintance we encountered at the petrol station out of Khartoum, who invited us to stay with him for a few days - another time maybe! Such kindness, such honesty and simple friendliness. After the incessant press of people in East Africa and before the anticipated rapaciousness of the Egyptians, what a breath of fresh air to be treated like friends.


And then there were the variously vehicled overlanders we came across: American cyclists Mary and Greg, the Irish bike riders who insisted on completing their Cairo to Cape (or rather Addis to Cape, then fly back to Addis to cycle to Cairo), the Belgian boys on their way South, eager for GPS co-ordinates and information on road conditions, and fortuitously, on the roadside, Monty the Landrover, whose blog is giving us all the info we need to get through Egypt and onwards. Not to forget the crowd of Algerian footie supporters before and after their victory over Egypt, a nicer group of sober football fans you couldn’t hope to meet.


It feels as if Africa is over, and we are entering a new phase in our journey. We have acquired a new travel companion and decided to brave the Middle East route rather than the ferry to Italy, so the drive onwards will be both longer and more interesting. Of course, as of today we are still carless, so right now we are not going anywhere, but as soon as we do, you will know all about it.

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