Rudely awakened by the burning sun, we pressed on. We watched the kilometres slide past, the landscape intermittently punctuated by ancient pyramids. Even with a solid road it took three full days to cross the desert, North to South. We arrived into central Khartoum almost unexpectedly. In the dead of night the suburbs gave way to the deserted streets, ramshackle buildings, and clouds of swirling rubbish of the city centre. We were exhausted and underfed, which are sensations never conducive to a positive state of mind. We went to bed with our hackles up, worrying about our car on the street outside.
Until now our experiences in Sudan had been universally positive. In fact, we had relaxed more in this country than any other since Greece. More than once we had been lax. On the first such occasion, a member of the team who shall remain nameless (Rich) managed to leave the ‘People’s Folder’ containing three passports, carnet de passage, US dollars, immigration documents, and generally everything we hold dear in a market stall in northern Sudan. On the second such occasion, a member of the team who shall remain nameless (Rich) managed to leave the ‘People’s Toolbox’ by the car on a busy street. On all such occasions we had had our missing items returned to us within hours, or frantically retraced our steps only to find our precious belongings in the grinning hands of the stall owner, with offers of tea and chewing tobacco (generous, but sadly a futile offer in the case of the latter!). Our arrival to Khartoum in such a state sowed the seeds of doubt in our minds, and we wondered if all the doubtful looks and raised eyebrows when we mentioned Sudan in conversation at home had been justified.
We were pleasantly surprised when we awoke in the morning. Bustling and colourful, the streets had transformed into a melee of trade and commerce which felt positively relaxed after the ruckus of central Cairo. We breathed a sigh of relief and went about our business feeling safe and welcomed. We were up and on a mission: car repairs. After a small fiasco where our GPS entertained the belief that it resided in Mali, we made our way to the industrial car area. Here shacks baring the emblems of every car manufacturer imaginable tripped over each other into the compacted earth street. Cannibalised skeletons lined the roads, their stripped chasses serving as benches for overall clad mechanics methodically putting the world to rights over chai. A donkey passed, pulling a cart piled high with modern plastic car body panels, the cart its self supported by a Land Rover Series II axle with hand-made wooden wheels. Nothing is wasted in this country.
After much well-meaning small talk, we found Abdullah, an angle grinder enthusiast with hands made of elephant hide, who happened to also have talents in the area of bodywork reconstruction. Explaining to him the concept of repairing significant portions of our rotten bulkhead required two rounds of incredulously sweet tea, three separate interpreters, much pointing, and most of the morning. It requires a hearty amount of trust, desperation, or perhaps stupidity to let an overly zealous Sudanese man with a blowtorch anywhere near your belov’d Land Rover, even if it does look like a rusty shack. We sat in the sun for two nail-biting days, watching Abdullah slowly reconstruct the wounds he had inflicted on the car, affirming the faith that we had placed in him as he did so.
Our doors were giving up the ghost, and even our complex system of plywood, brackets, and bolts was struggling to hold them together. We found an old Land Rover in the back of a garage who had sadly passed on, and with Abdullah’s help negotiated the salvage of her two back doors. Rust doesn’t exist as a concept here, and they were solid. A further days work saw them hanging proudly on our steed, brightly discordant but gloriously unyielding to rain or rascal.
We were invited to stay with three young employees of the French Embassy in Khartoum. Manicured gardens and tasteful buildings lined the streets of the expat district, and we felt uncouth as we growled our way towards their house in our newly piebald monster. We were ushered into a cool, spacious flat with soft accents and a hint of perfumes long forgotten. We had stepped into a world of saussison, rich chocolate, and Pastice. Conversation was animated, company excellent, and accommodation luxurious. We couldn’t believe our luck.
The expatriate scene in Khartoum turned out to be a close-knit international community. Given Sudan’s political instability, the majority are young workers without families. Alcohol is strictly illegal in Sudan, with the disobedient facing fourty lashes* as punishment. However, a strange agreement exists where embassies arrange regular imports of liqueur for their employees while the authorities look the other way. These two factors results in a strange and vibrant social scene which harks back to the era of American prohibition. The gatherings are highly lubricated, all the more fun because they are forbidden.
Despite the fact we have managed to talk our way across two of the hardest borders of our trip with only half a vehicle identification plate and no chassis number, our apprehension grows that at some point we may encounter a competent border guard. As such, we spent a memorable morning hunting out the shadier car mechanics in Khartoum and trying to persuade them to engrave our car. We were surprised at their absolute refusal. Residents seem to be terrified of the government’s retribution here, giving the country a very safe yet slightly stifled feel. After much hushed discussion we recruited a local chap and set off in a tuk tuk in search of our own equipment. We eventually found a set of roman stamps imported from Germany. We would have to do it ourselves, and soon, before Ethiopia.
*Interestingly the original Aramaic words for ‘fourty’ and ‘many’ were the same, leaving this particular punishment open to interpretation.