Sudan on the Sly
Posted on December 27, 2014
After two days at Lake Tana, fuel finally arrived in Gonder at one of the half-dozen petrol stations that we stopped at. There are plenty of petrol stations in Ethiopia, but not much petrol. We descended from the high plateaus of Ethiopia into the desert flats of Sudan and felt the cool air on our faces turn to a hot dry blast.
Coming from Ethiopia, we couldn’t help but ask one another: “Where did all the donkeys go? “ and “Why aren’t there people jumping in front of me on the road?” Sudan is mostly desert and a sharp contrast from the continual roadside village in the highlands of Ethiopia.
At the Ethiopian immigration office my passport wouldn’t scan using their special little passport scanny machine. The first guy checked all of the connections of the machine, turned it on and off 4 times, and then tried three different computers in the office to no avail. When he lost interest, the next guy went through he same process. A woman appeared next and repeated the same process again. Each time, the person who’d previously attempted to scan my passport and failed never said anything to the new person trying to do it even though they were sitting right next to each other. After about an hour of this routine, my passport finally returned back to the original guy who after a few more tries finally seemed to resign himself to typing in the 6 fields of data manually. It took 5 minutes.
The moment of truth came at the Sudanese customs office, when our forged Carnet document was to be put to the test. The customs guy was mellow and I kept him chatting the whole time. I figured the less time he spends staring at our document, the better. I heard that lovely click of a stamp placed on the Carnet and we were sent on our way with a smile. It felt like sneaking into a movie theater when I was twelve.
We blazed into Sudan, bush camping the first night near a watering hole and were woken to a herd of cattle being led to the water after dark. Lulled to sleep by the cattle moo’s, we woke to break our fast on apples with peanut butter and oranges.
Once in Khartoum, we needed to register our passports with the immigration office, which sounds like a simple thing to do, but a very grumpy lady made it pretty difficult. After waiting for an hour to simply hand our passports, application, and photocopies of our visas to her, she handed them back indicating that she would like the pages unfolded and inserted to the passport rather than folded in half. She went on to help some of the other throng of people with their arms jutting in front of me while I unfolded the pages. When she decided to collect ours again 20 minutes later, she scrawled something in Arabic on them and handed them back. I had no idea what had just happened. We were at the Khartoum Airport foreign passport registration office, but of the half dozen people behind the counter, not one spoke a word of English (which is a national language of Sudan). I went off to another office and found a girl who spoke English to help us out. Apparently this lady was saying that we needed to have a Sudanese national complete this registration for us. We were at a loss since we didn’t actually know anyone in Sudan. It seemed utterly ridiculous since this registration was required of all foreigners and would cost us $45 each to boot. After half an hour of discussion someone else decided to process the registration and we were finally on our way.
Our next task in the labyrinth of Sudanese bureaucracy was to obtain a permit to travel beyond Khartoum and to take photos while in Sudan. This turned out to be much easier than the previous task once we found the correct office. Nonetheless, we’d had our fill of Sudanese red tape and were happy to get on the road back into the desert.
We headed north the Pyramids of Meroe – the site of a royal burial ground that dates back to the 8th century BC. There was no one else there and we couldn’t help but feel as though we’d discovered something amazing as we made fresh tracks on the dunes surrounding the tombs.
We appreciated the privacy.
The unfortunate destruction of the pyramids was apparently primarily the work of a single insatiable Italian treasure hunter who took the tops off of most of them looking for gold.
Inside of the tombs were carved pictures illustrating the lives of people who lived and died in this desert thousands of years ago.
Jamie dismounted and Dyna made a major effort to power up the sand to find a fantastic campsite perched on top of the dunes in view of the pyramids as the sun touched down.
As the sun poked above the surrounding hill a golden glow was cast across the scene of one of the most astounding campsites we’ve had the entire trip.
The only person that showed up the whole time was a man who trotted up on his donkey.
We got underway the next morning and came upon more of the tombs built in similar style to those in Meroe that we’d never even known about.
By our second night bush camping, things were looking a bit ugly on several fronts. We didn’t have enough gas to make it to the border town of Wadi Halfa, we’d just put the last cash we had in the tank, and to cap it all off, the front tire had seen better days. Eight thousand miles and lots of donkey-cart-induced hard braking had taken their toll on the Kenda Big Block tire, which now showed patches well below the wear indicators. At every stop I neurotically checked the low spots for signs of steel belting wearing through and wondered how far we would make it.
None of our problems were going to be fixed in the middle of the desert, so we just made dinner and watched the first stars start to beam through the fading light of the dusk.
Just after sunset, as I was cooking dinner a Land Cruiser turned from the highway and make a b-line straight for us, bouncing along the desert plain, kicking up a cloud of dust behind it. We were camped about a kilometer from the highway on a flat, hard packed flat and as the vehicle closed the distance fast, I could see that it contained three men. They skidded to a stop just next to our camp and the three men all got out quickly. A little part of me couldn’t help but think that this was it; this was when the dreaded bandit scenario would go down and they would take everything we had or maybe even kidnap us for a ransom. I fingered the knife sheathed in my boot. The 3 inches of steel would be meager defense if our visitors turned out to be unfriendly, and I really have no idea what I would have done with it. We greeted them with big smiles, “As-Salaam–Alaikum!” When they returned our smiles, I was relieved and felt ridiculous at the apprehension that I’d held just moments ago. In a few words of broken English, we gathered that they just wanted to make sure that we were ok, and that we should be careful of the herds of camels that roamed through the area. They loaded up and drove away from the highway, out onto the desert plain in the direction of what looked to me to be absolutely nowhere.
We found the friendly disposition of our desert visitors to be quite the norm in Sudan. In fact, Sudanese seem to always be looking out for travelers and Sudan is one of the safest countries in all Africa. We diverted course into the town of Dongola in the hopes of finding some cash and petrol. With the US trade embargo on Sudan, ATM cards can be cancelled if they’re used here, so we were reliant on changing our US dollars. Unfortunately it was Friday and all the banks were closed. But as it happens with regularity in Africa, when we need help, it appears. The first random guy sitting on a motorbike in the street who shouted over to us brought me to a some guy who had an electronics shop who could change some US dollars. All cashed up and gassed up, we were back on the road with the modern replacement of the historic desert camel caravans.
Towards the north of Sudan it really begins to feel as though you’re riding to the ends of the earth. In Ethiopia, there were people everywhere and it was nearly impossible to bush camp, or even for Jamie to find a place to pee. In Sudan, we had our pick of stark desert campsites. The moon was only a crescent and rising late, so we always had a thick blanket of stars overhead.
River of Life
Just when you begin to fancy yourself a truly intrepid adventurer in the heart of an unforgiving land, some grizzled guy shows up on a bicycle to remind you that you’re not. This heroic Japanese dude had ridden from Alaska to the bottom of South America, and he is now on route from Cairo to Cape Town. What a legend.
For the people, vegetation, and animals here, the Nile is life. A narrow verdant corridor winds its way through the desert, flanked on either side by the desert waste. There are oases here and there, but for the most part, survival has for millennia been utterly dependent this single river that is the only water source. Away from the river corridor the landscape kind of resembles Mars. Jamie went for a spacewalk.
We’d visited the source of the headwaters of the White Nile in Rwanda, the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and seen their confluence in Khartoum. If all goes as planned, we’ll follow these waters as they twist their way north through the Egyptian desert.
Making it in and out Sudan on a dodgy Carnet was a pretty good trick, but it will be another matter to do so in Egypt, where they have some of the tightest import regulations and exhaustive customs formalities anywhere in Africa. No one has dealt with more of these documents than the Egyptian customs folks and I worried that they would put a premature end to our document deception. We rode on towards the Egyptian border feeling bold and hoping that fortune would indeed favor us.