Part 5: Into the Sudan

And here I am, still alive and back with you after the heat and drought of the Sudan. After crossing the immense lake Nasser (named after the former Egyptian president and created since the 1960s by the Aswan High Dam, flooding countless ancient sites and Nubian villages in the process) we had a short stop at Abu Simbel (one of the more impressive temples of ancient Egypt, rescued from the rising waters and relocated entirely to higher ground but now sadly a prime example of a tourist trap), where we played ping pong, smoked hashish, drank what would be the last alcohol for a while and slept on the roof of the hotel to dodge the actual room cost.

Crossing the lake once more we hitched a ride to the actual Sudanese border, driving 180km/h through the desert. Our hopes, however, that the border would be a piece of cake, were dashed when a man lazing in front of the gate informed us that we would need to pay an exit fee. Upon our request to fetch the official in charge of this, he promptly disappeared behind a building, only to reappear inside the office as the official in charge. After politely overcharging us, he further informed us we would not be allowed to walk past the gate: being in a vehicle is mandatory for probably no reason at all.

Helping us out, he flagged down a commercial bus which had turned us down earlier because it was completely full, and made a deal for the driver to take us to the next town, Wadi Halfa, for the outrageous amount of 200 Egyptian pounds. Not having any other options, we reluctantly boarded and demanded we would pay afterwards. This turned out to be the most crowded bus we had ever seen, as the Sudanese all bought household appliances en masse from Egypt because their own currency makes imported goods prohibitively expensive. Fully one third of the bus was filled with everything from fridges to pans and microwaves, while the amount of passengers still corresponded to the total amount of seats.

At customs we played chess for three hours as everything was unloaded, documented and loaded back into the bus. The ensuing Sudanese immigration process went smoothly (a local official immediately picked us out of the line, arranged our affairs and sent us the Lonely Planet Africa section for Sudan in PDF for free!) and we dashed through customs, hoping to find a lone taxi: waiting once more for customs and the subsequent packing of the bus was beyond our patience. Emerging from the entrance terminal, we noticed that not only had the sun long since disappeared, we were also beset by a unusually heavy sandstorm! The lone taxi driver drove us through the desert with less than five meters sight, and even with the windows closed did the finer dust manage to seep in in such amounts that smartphone screens were completely obscured in minutes.

Eventually we arrived in the small regional city of Wadi Halfa, covering our heads with scarves and shades and dashing for the nearest hotel, where we blocked the cracks in the walls and windows of our ‘room’ with various clothes, only to wake up next day in a world of grey, with everything covered in a thick layer of sand and dust. Our mission for registration and regional permits was short and sweet: the regional officer told us that “between you and me, it’s all bullshit designed to get some extra money, no one will check it anyway”.

All in all, our first impression of the Sudan was good: very friendly people but not as rude and intrusive, ogling you and demanding your attention all the time, as the Egyptians had been. It is a pastoral culture, devoutly religious, with simple, tasty meals made from local products. The unnamed Nile fish we had in the local eatery were a prime example of this: a whole fried fish, eaten with fresh bread, accompanied by a large refreshing mug of lemon-flavoured drink, freshly made from lemons, sugar and water. Simple but amazing. The staple food is Foul, a mixture of vegetable oil, mashed beans, raw onion and spices, to be eaten with bread and side dishes of meat for the more wealthy. My basic Arabic, acquired in the previous countries, was to serve us well in the whole country, where the local languages like Nubian are spoken in addition to the Muslim lingua franca.

Making our way further up the Nile, we eventually reached the bigger town of Dongola. it had become clear to us that the Nile was much more scarcely populated here than in overcrowded Egypt. The shores can be seen from far away in the desert as a green ribbon of trees, stretching from horizon to horizon, amidst a sea of sand and barren rock, perennially baking in the scorching desert sun. Occasional towns dot the river banks, though settlement size and diversity of products and services do not seem correlated: bigger towns like Dongola offer the same limited combination of market stalls, phone & internet shops, mini markets, mosques, basic eateries, fresh juice stands and coffee-women (exclusively a female occupation, they sit next to a small wood fire making arabic coffee or tea surrounded by a couple of plastic or wooden seats).

There is no entertainment, even in the capital: no bars, dancing, pool or cinemas and for foreigners not even ATMs. Public life closes down before 22:00 every night. It is a restrictive country, with low wages, corruption and, most crippling: massive fuel shortages. Cars stand in line for the gas station for a day or more, with dozens of people with jerrycans crowding around the police in the hopes of pushing their way through the throng and gaining access to the one working pump. This is mostly the fault of their international relations (the Saudi’s aren’t selling anymore and South Sudan seceded in 2011, taking the oil reserves with it) but the current hyperinflation isn’t helping either. A good example of a country with very friendly people who have very close to nothing. Except for the elite of course: their positions are stable (partly because their money is denominated is stable, foreign currency) and their affluence is astounding.

From Dongola we hitched a ride (losing a couple of hours while our driver went hunting for fuel), getting off at the edge of the desert. We hiked through the desert, through the pastures as we got closer to the Nile, took a ferry across, ate lunch with a very friendly local couple before finally reaching the stretch of desert where the ruins of Old Dongola are located. A ticket official tanked us ten dollars each (a small fortune here, seeing as our hotel rooms averaged about a euro fifty per person per night) before waving vaguely in the direction of the desert, insinuating that whatever we paid for was to be found there. After a short while a huge fortress arose on the horizon, situated on top of a hill. When we finally reached the base, having slogged through the hot sand and the burning sun, we noticed it was closed! Defeated, we sat down in the shade, when we noticed the ghost town on the other side. Apparently a whole town had been abandoned, suddenly and not to thoroughly in the indeterminable past. Walking through sand covered alleys, past collapsed buildings and the detritus of the slow but steady erosion of the desert was a great experience. One thing that is great about this country is that it seems you are visiting before UNESCO, teams of western archaeologists and the whole international touristic parade have swung by, each in turn making a visit safer, more informative, more convenient and infinitely less romantic and immersive.

On the edge of the town was what in hindsight was perhaps the true attraction: the ancient Sufi tombs. These mystics’ bodies were interred in cone-like earthen structures, and the doors were open. Walking in with a torch we fortunately brought, we first saw the ceremonial bed containing the decaying sages. Shining upwards, though, there were hundreds and hundreds of bats, all of whom had long ago found these places as ideal shelters from the desert sun, and they descended upon us like a black, screeching storm. We dashed out and, accustoming our eyes to the sun, we noticed the tombs were not alone: we were actually standing in a huge graveyard, graves in various stages of fading demarcated by river pebbles and toppled headstones, stretching as far as the eye could see. With those images on our retinas, we trudged back in the slowly setting sun towards the road far away.

We hitchhiked to the next town, found a hotel, walked to the top floor, found a gang of international workers from all over the Arab world watching football and together we watched, cheered and shouted as Bayern gave Dortmund a historic beating. Next day we arrived in Karima, an unremarkable town noteworthy only because of its proximity to the old center of the great kingdom of Kush, which at one time held sway over areas as far as the Nile delta and the lower Levant. The biggest landmark is the lonely sacred mountain of Jebel Barkal. When we climbed it in the morning, I decided to record my next composition there later in the day. The hike towards the pyramids on the other river bank was long, too long for our unprotected skins (for whatever reason, we had both forgotten to bring our scarves and long sleeves), and by the time we reached the pyramid complex in the desert, we knew we had gotten severely sunburned.

At the site we met a lone Basque traveler, Mikhel, and we immediately clicked. He liked our plan and hiked with us back up the holy mountain. The day had taken its toll, however: after all the walking and climbing, with headaches from the sunburn and weighed down by our heavy backpacks, Edu and me were at the end of our strength as we rushed up the mountain in order for me to record my video in the light of the setting sun. We made it and laughed and cheered as we watched the sun go down on that mountain, showing on one side a expansive view over the fertile Nile and on the other side the Nubian pyramids casting their long shadows over the endless desert expanse. Friendship was born and we had a great night camping there, not at all diminished by the cold desert wind that made us shiver in our sleeping bags.

We reached Khartoum, the capital, sleep deprived and fuzzy, but soon found our way in the bustling city. By far the biggest and metropolitan city in Sudan, it is incomparable to the rest of the country around it. The neighborhood al Sheik al Araby (Araby for short, as heard by the incessant, repetitive shouting mini-bus attendants) soon felt like home, with its many shops and hotels. We met students, ate at amazing restaurants, visited the mall (the favoured hangout for the rich youth, this new but already stale mall is the local marvel, with its overpriced shitty American pizza and occasionally functioning escalators. Needless to say, we were not impressed) and marveled at the National Museum.

We had promised Mikhel to meet him around 17:00 a few days later at the main sight in Sudan, the great pyramid complex of Meroƫ, which boasts more than 200 pyramids built in a span of over a thousand years. However our bus was severely delayed by the police. It carried spare fuel, not a bad idea in this country. Unfortunately, the police have outlawed carrying surplus fuel as it might constitute a form of fuel smuggling. After heavy arguing and shouting, the police finally carted off our barrel of figurative gold. We were dropped in the desert at 20:00, in utter darkness and hours after the entrance office closed. Hiking up to the pyramids, it felt adventurous: being in the middle of the desert with just a torch and our backpacks, trying to find a bunch of age-old pyramids at night. The entrance was deserted so we skipped past the gate and started exploring the pyramids.

They come in all sizes and conditions and there are many so we took our time. As we approached one of the larger ones, we suddenly fell silent. The heavy door was ajar and a piece of clothing had been used to stuff the gap. Fearing we might have been heard by whoever might be inside, we heard nothing but our heartbeats for a few seconds. Finally curiosity got the better of me and I took the torch, saying they would have heard us anyway by now. I pushed the door open a little bit and shone in and I saw a figure lying on the ground. After a long second I realized it was Mikel, sleeping inside the pyramid!!! We woke him up and he told us how he had been waiting for us, and eventually, realizing we probably wouldn’t make it anymore, had gone to sleep inside one of the pyramids once the guards were gone. We feasted on some cans of food, talked and made music and set up our tents less than twenty meters from the pyramids, a great camping spot to end the day.

After a last day in Khartoum with Mikhel, visiting the traditional wrestling and looking in vain for some kind of nightlife, we celebrated Edu’s birthday with an overpriced, imported malt beer, before setting off the next morning to the east. In Al Qaddarif we attempted to visit Dinder National Park, which is truly vast and seemed to be close on google maps. Locals informed us we were quite far, and it would be hard reaching the park from there. In fact, nobody had ever been there. We finally found a local guy with a 4-wheel drive who could be convinced to leave his family for a couple of days to drive us there, in exchange for an astronomical amount of local money (about 250 dollars for us). Changing the money involved handing over those few precious, fragile Benjamin Franklins to receive a veritable bag of cash in return, almost 500 bills in total.

We used a substantial amount to bribe the police in order to get to the front of the line at the petrol station. Driving all day on little more than direction, we soon left the main road and started cruising through the savannah, hoping we would strike the town of Dinder where the park entrance was supposedly located. We finally found it after half a day’s driving, and the soldiers running the facility took us inside the compound. The colonel in charge spoke good English, and he introduced us to our guide (a supremely useless parasite of a man who happens to carry a Kalashnikov). He showed us the tiny zoo showcasing the animals which were to be found in the park, which, if I had been allowed to make pictures, would have brought on outrage from multiple animal protection agencies. A lion in a 2 by 3 cage and three monkeys stuffed in an enclosure the size of a closet were among the exhibitions.

We spent the next day driving to and through the park and saw an amazing variety of wildlife, from ostriches to baboons, huge storks and boars and all sorts of exotic deer. We returned to the central camp to have a rest and soon discovered that our beefy driver, who likes his dinners big, had finished all the food for the evening already, leaving us with nothing but some stale bread to nibble. We had long since become tired of the guy, with his endless complaining and asking for more money. His best qualities were his driving skills and his inability to speak English, which made it a lot easier to ignore him.

Late on the third day we got back to Qadarif, where we spent our last money on a cheap pension, expecting to leave the country the next day. However, when we reached the border after a three hour bus ride, we were informed that the visa on arrival applies only at the airport! We were kindly requested to go back to the last town to find the consulate. The next day we rose early, determined to make up for lost time. I didn’t feel well, though, and I soon succumbed to food poisoning, leaving Edu to do all the work. Long story short: he found the consulate, was told they only accepted dollars. Spent half the day trying to change euros to dollars. Finally returned with the cash and the filled in form only to be drily informed the consulate is closed that day. Just like the next. It apparently only issues visa on Wednesday and Saturday and no one bothered to tell him before. Livid, Edu decided to stand stubbornly in the waiting room until his problems were solved. And call it fate, call it coincidence: after half an hour two important diplomats ran in who needed their visa ASAP and demanded the responsible people were fetched from their homes immediately. Edu stood next to the diplomats as their visa were issued by the harried officials, gloatingly waving our passports. Ten minutes later he walked out of the consulate with two shiny new visas, and the next day we finally left that fatiguing, intriguing, magical desert country, the Sudan.

PS: In het Nederlands waren er zoveel betere titels voor deze post te bedenken. Soebatten in de Soedan en Zo gezegd, zo Soedan zijn mijn favorieten.


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