Tag Archives: Sudan

Out Of The Desert And Into The Freezer

The Sahara adventure is over. We escaped Wadi Halfa on Wednesday afternoon and drove all evening and night straight to Khartoum, almost in a convoy with the other two vehicles that were stuck on that barge with poor Troopy. The road was very smooth (in most places) and we managed to avoid most of the field desert mice that kept running across the road in the dark hours. The reason for this dash to Khartoum was to get to the Ethiopian embassy bright and early to get our next visas. We stopped at a sort of truck stop just outside the city and slept for a couple of hours.

In the morning, with some help from a tuk tuk driver and our friends Jack, Eneko and Alba, we managed to find the embassy. It was most certainly not where google maps or the gps said it was supposed to be, but that is becoming quite the norm in these parts. Sometimes I cannot rely on addresses and maps and directions unless they are coming from a local. There is also the added stress of not having a proper map for Sudan and Ethiopia but I seem to be managing navigating just fine.

The Ethiopian visa took about two hours from the moment we got paperwork to fill out until we got handed our passports back with the fresh new handwritten visa. Afterwards we said goodbye to our friends, who were all going to drive to the border, whereas we decided to chill out for the day at the International Camp south of the Khartoum airport, clean out the car, get some supplies, and drive to the border first thing in the morning.

The campsite was anything but luxury. We were told to park our car in some sort of open theater turned football field, and of course we were the only ones camping there, although there were other people staying in little accommodation houses. The facilities were clean but very drab, the many toilets were squats and some of them didn’t have running water. The showers were either ones that closed but had no water, or didn’t close and had cold water. But we made the most of what we had, we filled up our water supplies and I even did some laundry.

The next day we packed up, got fuel and zoomed off to the border. It was a very interesting drive, finishing the Sahara and seeing fields of green. My guess is they had a a very dry season just before this month, because all the greenery is fresh but there were so many dead animals in the fields, and the animals we saw grazing were very skinny. Some places were flooded with muddy water, but overall the scenery was overwhelming for the eyes, having spent over a month in the desert climate and seeing mostly yellow, orange and brown.

We got to the border just in time before they closed for the night. We had to dash around the small border town to get to immigration and customs on the Sudanese side, and then immigration and customs on the Ethiopian side. The border town was bustling with people and activity, and many stared at me as I sat in the car, waiting for Jonathan to get the Carnet stamped.

Finally after crossing the border we were in yet another country! Ethiopia was even more lush and green, almost immediately after the border. The animals looked very well fed, the people wore different clothing, many were waving as we passed, children ran around shouting “hello” and “you” (apparently the Ethiopian equivalent of “hey!”), women were not wearing headscarves and many were seen on the road, including police women! Such a change from the previous two Muslim countries. We stopped at a market town to get some fresh tomatoes and onions, and as we approached the veg stall, we were surrounded by fifteen or twenty children. All of them staring, pointing, saying something to each other, and two particular girls who stood right next to me kept poking me and stroking my wolf tattoo. Quite weird! Then we bought two veg samosas from a shy adolescent boy who hung around our car when we were getting ready to drive off again. The samosas were very good!

We camped just off the road by a stream, next to some trees. The bushes were alive with insects and sounds, so we had to close ourselves in the car, and even then a bunch of midges and a couple of moths got inside and hung around the lights. In the morning we were visited by three children, two girls and one little boy. They hung around looking at us and the car, and eventually I gave them some fruit in exchange for taking their picture. The bananas were eaten immediately, but the orange was still intact by the time we packed up and drove away. Some other villagers passed our car but all were polite and held their distance, unlike our previous village experience in Turkey.

As we continued to Gonder, we started climbing up in altitude and drove through clouds that passed the road. All of a sudden the road would almost disappear, and people or animals would emerge out of the white dense fog like ghosts. We got to Gonder in one piece though, and spent the day chasing spare tires. Two men were helping us out on this quest, and we were assured that the tires will arrive on Tuesday, and we were asked to pay half the price in advance. After all this we drove to Debark, the town with the Simien Mountains park headquarters, and camped in a really crappy parking lot of a dying hotel. There was no running water and the toilet.. well, at least it was just us using it. The night got very cold, I slept in a sweater and socks. Quite a change from sweating into the sheets in Wadi Halfa.

The next morning we went to the headquarters, got assigned a scout (it is illegal to access the park without a scout) and off we went! Our scout’s name was Frey and he spoke about 5 words in English. He brought only what he was wearing and his ancient rifle. Troopy doesn’t really have a second passenger seat, so me and Frey were cramped in the elongated front seat, luckily our scout was small and skinny. The mountains were absolutely nothing compared to any mountains I have seen before. They have flat tops, and rise up very high with long dramatic drops into nothingness. The clouds can be seen below, above and on the level of the road. Everything was covered in green and the earth was very wet. There were some patches of the road that was just mud and puddles, it was a miracle we didn’t get stuck like the other trucks we saw on the way carrying people. From the first impression, it looks like the mountains are lonely and empty, but in fact they are bustling with life: people, horses, mules, donkeys, sheep, cows, and then a whole lot of wildlife, the most impressive being the baboons. Those long-haired mammals hang around on hills and along the road, seemingly unafraid of humans. We saw a group of them grooming and fighting, then another group sitting around pulling out grass and eating it. By their scary large teeth you wouldn’t think these baboons were vegetarians!

We stopped to camp at Chenek, and spent the day making food, drinking hot tea and coffee, lounging around mostly. The weather was getting more cold and severe, so we had to climb into the car for all of evening to escape the rain. Eventually our scout said goodbye and left to go to the “lodge” where there were other scouts and some women who I am guessing live there. The night was very tough, the wind was insane, and with every gust we felt that the car would topple over. Or at least I felt that way. It was very loud, and unable to sleep, we moved downstairs and pulled the roof down to minimize the rocking and the noise. In the morning the hardest was climbing out of the warmth and into the chilling air.

We drove back to Debark and then south to Gonder, to spend the night and get our tires today. However, as we walked around the town last night, our previous “helper” informed us that there might be a problem with the tires. So it is with a heavy heart we start out today, hoping to get our tires, and if not, then get our deposit back and change our plans once more to get the tires first before heading to Mekele.

Sweating it out in Wadi Halfa

Sunset on Our Egyptian Adventures
Sunset on Our Egyptian Adventures

Wadi Halfa has grown on me. It is still a searingly hot, dusty, ramshackle, sprawling collection of mud and concrete shacks deposited in the desert a few kilometres from the lake which drowned its original home. It seems even now to be finding its place, and half-built or half-demolished little buildings are thinly scattered across the grey-brown sand between the ‘centre’ – where we go for food when the sun goes down – and our hotel. But the people are what makes this place, and they are unfailingly good all round.

Wadi Halfa - Pink Hotel
Wadi Halfa – Pink Hotel

The improvement started after finding the fruit and veg market which gave us fresh food to eat – against a background of 2 meals a day and 2 vegan options available in town…ful (cooked brown beans smothered in vegetable oil), or falafel – both with pita bread. Its not even very good beans or falafel. We are losing weight while we wait, despite downing a couple of pints of mango/sugar juice each evening. But small things like fresh tomatoes make a big difference here.

It was all looking good when we boarded the ferry as I had my glass-half-full head on – no crowded stuffy cabin for us, we were given an area of deck by the bridge to sleep in and the front deck to ourselves. There was shade, and some rolled up blankets. Having slept on the deck of a Mediterranean ferry before, this looked like a top sleeping spot to me. It didn’t last. The private deck area (secured by our ‘fixer’ Kamal thanks to a 50 EGP each baksheesh to the captain) was soon invaded by a whole lot of other people…no doubt the further temptation of cash was too much to resist, but it soon turned into a fairly crowded and shrinking shady patch. Then some of the crew turned up and started shouting at us all to move and taking the blankets away…clearly the captain hadn’t let them in on the whole plan to sell their sleeping spot to a bunch of tourists. 18 hours on a hard metal deck was beginning to look like another ordeal to add to the Egyptian Experience so far, and only slightly improved by the kind donation from some other crew of a fleece blanket to sit on. Thinking we were going to be sleeping in a cabin (which we had paid for), we hadn’t brought a lot of stuff out of Troopy onto the boat with us.

Not bringing a lot of stuff with us was also looking like a strategic error as it became clear that we were going to be sitting in Wadi Halfa for the best part of a week before the barge with Troopy on board turned up. Just a change of clothes, our documents and valuables, and the washbag. But we’re staying in a hotel so thats OK? Hmm…well more on the hotel later, but lets just say its short on pretty much everything apart from a basic bed and soaring desert temperatures.

Back on the ferry, we finally set off down Lake Nasser as evening approached, and a cooling breeze made life more pleasant – though Katana was suffering from too much sun exposure (the factor 30 didn’t seem to be helping) and had to hide in the wandering shade and under her scarf. The sunset over the desert and lake was a long, slow transition through colours I wouldn’t know how to name as the light shrunk back through a diminishing letterbox in the West.

Evening on Lake Nasser
Evening on Lake Nasser

The toilets down below were avoided as long as possible – in the dark with no lights, and flooding the floor whenever flushed, it was not a place for the squeamish…or those with any sense of smell. We tried to sleep, with people climbing over and stepping on us, or coming to letch at the blond girl, or drop cigarette ash on us.

Our Special Accommodation
Our Special Accommodation

I gave up for a while and sat watching the stars and the smooth water of the lake passing by – figuring I’d take the first night watch to make sure nothing happened to us or our possessions – but had to lie down again after a bit to defend my sleeping space. In the early hours, Katana was woken shivering in the chilling breeze, but fortunately there was enough blanket available to roll her up and leave me a bit to lie on (there’s never been much fat on my bones, but I’m all out of padding after the last month in the desert, so that thin fleece was a sanity saver!). We got some much needed but bruising sleep.

In the morning we passed close by Abu Simbel – where temples rescued from the flooding of the lake have been recreated. And where there are some relatively new ferries bought to serve the short crossing here as part of the ‘new’ road route to Sudan. I don’t know how many years they have been there, but the completed road still shows no sign of opening and avoiding the need for this whole episode in getting from Egypt to Sudan. They lie moored up and rusting, waiting for the Egyptian army to agree to the road being opened.

Passing Abu Simbel
Passing Abu Simbel

Eventually we arrived in Wadi Halfa and the difference from arrival in Egypt was massive and in a very good way. We were met by Mazar, the local ‘fixer’ who was able to guide us through all the form filling and expedite our passage through customs, then take us into town in one of the numerous and ancient Land Rover taxis where we were delivered to our hotel.

Unfortunately for us, used to air conditioning and plentiful water, things here are a bit different. Our room was a basic box with a shuttered window with no glass, just a torn mosquito net and bars. The best they could do for cooling was a squeaky, wobbling ceiling fan which we dare not put above medium speed for fear of bringing the ceiling down.

The view from our cell as Tony prepares to escape.
The view from our cell as Tony prepares to escape.

We slept at night on top of the single sheets, and merged into the sagging foam ‘mattress’. A brief window of operable temperature in the morning allowed for a breakfast coffee, before a day of hiding in the room with doors and windows open to catch any light air movement, sweating into our beds waiting for the sun to go down. The facilities consisted of dilapidated cubicles at the end of the corridor, each combining a squat toilet and bare shower head…efficient I guess, everything in 1 place. I even wash my 1 set of clothes each morning at the same time. Frogs hop in and out of the cubicles and venture up the corridor at night.

Efficient use of Space
Efficient use of Space

After about 5 days, some rooms with evaporation air-cooling and a private ‘bathroom’ (see above) became available and we moved upstairs to luxury. With a fridge! This was borrowed from another room, and powered by shoving the bare wires into a socket…plugs are obviously scarce. Perspectives and standards change.

Upstairs - The Luxury View!
Upstairs – The Luxury View!

First impressions of the people here were of genuine goodwilll and friendliness, with none of the hassling or trickery we had become used to in Egypt. The week here has only gone on to expand that feeling of friendliness and welcome – the people making up in a huge part for the inhospitable desert environment. Make no mistake, this a harsh place to live with little in the way of comforts. But life thrives here and the people go about their business with smiles and good humour; they ask where you come from not as a precursor to selling you useless tat or pulling a scam, but because they are interested. Egypt could learn a big lesson from the Sudanese people if this is anything to go by. Maybe we can too.

Meanwhile, it is now a week since we arrived and the next ferry from Aswan is due any time now. The barge with Troopy onboard is slowly making its way down the lake and should arrive tomorrow night. In some ways our enforced stay has been like torture – the hotel room for the first 5 days was just an oven we lay in waiting for the sun to go down; we don’t have an unlimited time for the trip and each day spent here was 1 day less for watching elephants or swimming in the sea. But if we hadn’t been stuck here, and instead blown straight through and into the desert again towards Khartoum, we would have missed getting to know these people a little; we would not have been invited round to Mazar’s house for tea and met his wife (and cats) in the tranquility of his walled garden home.

It is a deliberate choice here not to follow the Egyptian practice of charging visitors inflated prices, in the hope that more people will come and visit when they understand how honest and fair these people are, and because they just think its the right way to go about life. I really hope that they succeed for their sakes and ours – we really don’t need more charge-what-you-can-get-away-with consumerism in the world. Personally – and I am surprised to say this after my first impressions of this hostile desert environment – but I’ll be a little sad to leave. I do look forward to some more variety in the diet though!