The Fate of the Bushmen

Our route through Botswana was pleasingly obvious: we would enter via the north east border town of Kasane, traverse south west through the huge Chobe and Okovango National Parks, and then take a long straight road west through the Kalahari Desert and into Namibia. This path would take us through the wild north using off road tracks and safari trails, avoiding any major settlements. The roads would be awful and in some areas pretty remote, a good day’s drive from anyone. We would be missing the Botswana of punk metal and Ladies’ Detective Agencies, but this was just what we were looking for, a chance for some prolonged bush camping after the relative civilisation of Zimbabwe. 

Look out  (Photo: RWH)

Look out (Photo: RWH)

The Okovango is the biggest inland delta in the world. The majestic Kavango river is fed by the rains in Angola, taking six months to wend its way downstream to Botswana, where it is completely absorbed by a Kalahari that has not seen rain for months. The Okovango’s own rainy season combined with this paradoxical arrival of water in its dry season means that lush marshland of the delta is kept well hydrated all year round. When the rest of southern Africa is parched the Okovango delta is in flood, supporting a huge variety of wildlife without the need for migration.

This makes Botswana a premier safari destination, something which is very evident in parts of the north from the gleaming tour cars and exclusive game lodges. The creation of national parks is great news for wildlife, but has brought bad fortune on a number of the indigenous tribes, in particular the Gana and Gwi, collectively known as the San (‘Bushmen’). It’s not just national parks that displace these indigenous people however. There are lots of reports of cattle ranches and massive mining projects ejecting the San from their hunter-gathering existence, in particular in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Wherever the truth lies in these stories, with diamond deposits worth an estimated $3.3 billion and a massive tourism industry which is only expanding, the fate of the San is still very much up in the air. he tourism bubble had pushed prices far out of our range, and camping in the park’s official sites wasn’t an option. The solution lay in carefully timing our exits from the parks to take advantage of the fact that the gates are often miles inside the park boundaries. This meant that we could find secluded wild camps outside of the gates but without leaving the reserves.  Sounds great on paper, but some intimate experiences with a selection of huge terrifying beasts made us a bit apprehensive. Driving through dense scrubland attempting to find our first such camp, we couldn’t help but take extra note of trees that had been ripped up by elephants, the huge feline tracks which freshly criss-crossed the sand, and fresh dung on the ground.

We had passed a ranger a kilometre back on the track who had joyfully informed us that there was a pride of nine lions on the road heading this way, and if we were lucky we might bump into them. We grimaced at him and continued off road, selecting a camp as the light failed. We could hear kudu and elephant nearby. It was pitch black now, darkness as only Africa can serve. A fire was our first and only priority – possibly one of the only times when I did not have food on my mind. It and the dubious sanctum of the car were our only defences. We cursed our feeble torches as we scuttled blindly around for firewood, the reflection of a light on the retina of a beast being the only way to reliably spot them in the dark; red for predator, green for prey. Fortunately the wood we found was dry as a boot, and a fine blaze was soon pushing back the black of the night with the distinctive blue flame of acacia hardwood. We set our blackened pots on the makeshift tripod of stones, a technique lifted from the Africans, and sat uncomfortably close to the heat, not wanting to turn our backs on the night. We chewed our curried kidney beans pensively, listening to the curious ‘whooo-oop’ of hyena, now close and then far. We knew from a semi-tame pack in Ethiopia just how heavy and menacing those intelligent beasts were. Despite repeated attempts to make other conversation, we couldn’t help but stray back to discussing just how reliable the information that animals are scared of fire really was. This and the following evenings were vivid, all our senses alive with drops of adrenaline; they displayed the distilled essence of the whole trip, are unforgettable in our minds.

Circle of life!  (Photo: RWH)

Circle of life! (Photo: RWH)

During this period our lives were dictated by the sun, and we rose each day to rake over the fire for coffee and protection. The Milky Way, more known to us now than at any point in our lives before, would peer down blearily, brilliantly, before being rudely extinguished by a spreading crimson from the east. We would be driving by sunrise, camp broken, car serviced. Appearance was a forgotten farce, long hair askew and clothes torn. We felt as close as we could to being bushmen, for this trip at least. We revelled in it, perhaps in naivety – we could opt out of this way of life, we knew it was a temporary state. But for us in these moments it was pure and all consuming.

The wildlife was spectacular. Avoiding entrance fees as much as possible meant taking some unusual routes through the parks, tracks which led us through areas seldom frequented by visitors. Zebras and giraffes strolled around, majestic kudu and dainty impala making elegant retreats, and hippos snorted muddily from the river. Elephants were everywhere; 50,000 of them in this area of Botswana and north western Zimbabwe alone. Intimate experiences with leopard and lion left us breathless and full of wonder. It was a tiny glimpse of how African fauna must have been before population explosion and mass hunting, and it was wonderful.

Stay away!  (Photo: RWH)

Stay away! (Photo: RWH)

At a town called Maun the tarmac began. It stretched west, seemingly endless, two golden highlights igniting in the inevitability of the burning sunset. Its perfection was a mockery of the 500km we had just fought to cross. We celebrated another successful offroad leg, and amused ourselves with the thought of being able to cover the last week’s distance in a day on this new road surface. We gave Tess a proverbial pat on the head, flipped down the sun visors, and set off towards the sun, stopping only to pick up some congratulatory cold beers.

On safari (Photo: SW)

(Photo: SW)

The road to Namibia traverses the northern fields of the Kalahari desert. This is cattle land, dry scrub plains with huge farms claiming the entire landscape. There are endless fences, herds raising dust clouds which linger on the horizon. Cowboys canter along the side of the road, spurs and breeches in evidence, their horses oddly more at home in this terrain than any vehicle. It seemed as though the landscape was on loop for these 800 kilometres, the only variance being a subtle contour in the road. It was a time for reflection. Our trip was beginning to come to an end; flights booked, still unconvinced that we would actually make it, we had a lot to do before we left this mesmerising continent.

We’ve Done It!

Late on the evening of the 10th of June, exactly nine months after the team set off from Perranporth, the Cornwall to Cape Town expedition arrived in Cape Town. The punters of Long St, central Cape Town, found their evenings interrupted by the arrival of a large red Land Rover, complete with three foot Kudu horns on the front, firewood piled on top, and POLICE in large letters on the side. They may have wondered why the occupants appeared so elated. Scarce did they know that this was their 21,758th mile, their 30th country, their 243rd day.

L to R: Bass, Tess, Dan and Rich triumphant in Cape Town (Photo: Guy Wallace)

L to R: Bass, Tess, Dan and Rich triumphant in Cape Town (Photo: Guy Wallace)

We would like to thank our families, friends, and everyone who has made this trip possible. It really has been one of the best experiences of our lives and we could never have achieved without the help we have received.

Please keep popping back to read the rest of the story about how we made it to Cape Town. It’s a fair old yarn. And don’t forget about that big red ‘Donate’ button on the right of your screens!

The overjoyed team on arrival (Photo: Guy Wallace)

The overjoyed team on arrival (Photo: Guy Wallace)

Kenya: The Swahili Coast

Like a worried war-time family gathered around the wireless, we crowded around a small window in a Greek hotel room to see a torrent of protesters surge around the Landie, hurling rocks and abuse at the riot police. In Tahrir Square we ate roasted sweet potatoes bearing inverted impressions of the anti-government pamphlets in which they were wrapped. In Sudan the people marched in anger at the murder and concealment of two student protesters. It has felt to us as we have traveled that the world is in mutinous temper. Kenya revealed itself to be no exception.

While we were discovering Uganda and Rwanda, elections were taking place in Kenya. We had not particularly intended to avoid Kenya during this period but it was a happy coincidence considering their last elections were marred by quite widespread political and intertribal violence.  On our return we crossed Kenya quickly, arriving on the Swahili coast after only the briefest of stops to attend a party that confirmed every rumour we had heard about the Nairobi expatriate scene.

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Our arrival was greeted with the warmest of welcomes from Bas’ parents, William and Lucy Wallace, and their friends Martin and Dawn Whetstone. A wonderful week was spent lounging by the pool, visiting idyllic beaches and mixing with the who’s who of the Malindi social scene. As we sipped cold beers in the Driftwood club we quickly forgot all about our intrepid expedition. We were delighted to be given the opportunity to speak at the Driftwood and tell a few of our tales as part of a cervical cancer screening fundraiser, which was excellent fun.

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On our final night this paradise was sadly a little tarnished. While sitting up late trading safari stories with the Whetstones and Wallaces, conversation was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of gunfire. Five shots echoed from the night and then it was calm. For several minutes we waited for more, hushed, then a crescendo of automatic fire filled the air. The volleys became more regular as shots were traded. It was a pitched battle between two well-armed adversaries and the sound was close by. David, the askari,estimated that the shots were 200 metres away, near the beach. The clash continued for half an hour and then stopped suddenly.

Martin and Dawn were calm and pragmatic as one might expect from old hands in Africa. “We would have heard on the phone if there was something to worry about” said Dawn. We speculated that it might have been Somali pirates fighting the police. Raids on the North Kenya coast were more common a few years previously before the international navy presence in the Gulf of Aden was increased significantly. After a nightcap to settle the nerves we retired to bed.

In the morning, the town was going about business as usual, it takes more than a gunfight to upset the balance in Kenya. It transpired that the police had stumbled across a terrorist militia, training in an abandoned building by the beach. In the resulting battle 4 policemen and 8 militiamen had been killed. The remainder of the militia had scattered. The story at the Driftwood club was that Bob, an 80-year-old ex-pilot and policeman, had spent the night keeping watch on his roof with a rifle, while his two askaris patrolled the grounds. It seems that lessons learned in the Nairobi police force die hard.

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With a fond farewell to the Martin, Dawn, William and Lucy we set off through Tsavo national park on our way towards Tanzania. A few hundred kilometers south and the wet season was in full swing, a mixed blessing. At 6 o’clock in the morning during a particularly miserable camp in the gravel of a petrol station forecourt we found ourselves in the heart of a tropical storm. It became apparent that we had pitched our tents in an almost imperceptible trench, which was quickly filled by the deluge, drowning us and all of our sleeping bags with us. On the other hand, however the recent rains had covered the, normally arid, Tsavo savannah with a lush green blanket. The red dirt track that transected the park was gaudy in its bright contrast to the insufferably verdant plains. The landscape was all the more beautiful, as one is so accustomed to seeing dry African savannah in wildlife documentaries.

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The Tsavo national park was the stage for the story of the infamous Tsavo Lions. In 1898 the Leut. Col. John Henry Patterson led a project to build a bridge over the Tsavo river as part of the Great Kampala to Mombasa railway. During the project two male lions repeatedly broke into the camp by night and dragged the Indian workers away to devour them. In an effort to deter the animals Patterson built huge fires and thorn fences around the camp. For nine months he hunted the cats, wounding them on several occasions. Patterson attempted to trap the lions by equipping a train carriage with steel barred cage in which two workers slept as bait. In the morning he found the carriage destroyed and the workers abducted. After 135 lives had been lost Patterson finally killed the pair and their huge nine-foot skins spent the following 25 years as rugs in his home before they were retired to a museum in Chicago.

The Adventures of Salami Man (Part 1)

Ethiopia, the homeland of Haile Selassi, is the heartland of Rastafarianism. As such Addis Ababa it is still firmly in the thrall of the Reggae that Selassi brought back from his exile in Jamaica. Before Reggae however the music heritage lay in Jazz and Swing. In the first decades of the 20th century Addis moved to the sound of Abyssinian Swing. Unfortunately the music lost popularity and in the 1940s and all of the recorded Abyssinian Swing music was lost in a fire. On the walls of many bars in Addis there remains evidence in grainy monochrome of Africans bopping in slim suits and sharp white shoes. However, sadly no record remains of what it sounded like.

Deep in the backstreets of Addis we walked into one such bar with Colin, a musician from Normandy and our host. Stepping through a heavy wooden door and into the smoky gloom, music struck us like a slap in the face. The attention of the room was gripped and only at natural pauses were ripples of applause allowed to flow from the spellbound crowd. This was not the tinny rendition of ‘the girl from Ipanema’ one might hear whilst waiting to speak to the bank. Our fatigue was grudgingly drawn from us and consumed by the energy of the brass lines. The two saxophonists vied for center stage, relishing the competition for our gaze. Wrapped in this veil of stirring rhythms and strong beer we settled the final plan for an adventure. We would deviate from our path south and away from the road more traveled. We would explore Somalia and visit the sea.

Somaliland

Somaliland fought for its independence from Somalia proper in 1991 and has been operating as a separate country since. It is presently trying to distance itself from its chaotic and politically unstable neighbour to the south. However, the only country in the world that recognises Somaliland as a sovereign state is Ethiopia, probably due to a friendly interest in their new port on the Gulf of Aden. Addis is therefore the only place one can find a Somaliland embassy, which would be our destination the following morning.

The embassy consisted of a steel gate in a residential street with only a hand-painted flag exposing its identity. We knocked and a smiling man in a faded purple T-shirt invited us in. No metal detector and no x-ray, not even a frisk. In an office containing two administrative women, identically overweight and identically dowdy, we handed over dollars, forms and a wad of passport photos. We were rewarded with grim facial expressions transposed directly from a human resources office somewhere in Croydon. The administrative staff were surly but efficient and we had all the visas and car permits necessary by the afternoon.

As we approached the border with Somalia the landscape changed. Rocks and sand replaced soil. Leafy shrubs were traded for knots of wiry bush, each bristling with a thousand three-inch spines. Despite its apparent cruelty we felt at home back in the desert. The desert is simple and minimal; it consists of only land and sky. There are no hoards of curious locals pawing at everything, no one to gather into a suffocating audience any time we attempted to drink a cup of tea. There are no whining mosquitoes or giant war-machine wasps. There are barely any fauna apart from the camels grazing lazily. One can lay serenely under the stars, safe in the knowledge that not even rain will interrupt the stillness.

Beautiful Desert

The border was uncomplicated and we were soon in the capital city of Hargeisa. The differences between Ethiopia and Somaliland were marked. The first thing we noticed was the change from Christianity to Islam. All the scantily clad girls of Ethiopia were gone and in their stead were elegant burkahs in cheerful colours bobbing lightly along the streets like Pac-man’s ghosts. We approached a moneychanger sitting among many of his kind in a street market. He lounged like a prince on a bed of old sacking. Before him was a block of his wares arranged neatly in size order. Each brick of money was tied with elastic and placed carefully in the wall of this currency cube. We exchanged 20 US dollars with his lazy highness and received a wad of notes big enough to chock the wheels of the Landie. As we walked away we saw another moneychanger struggling down the road. Among the donkeys and the potholes he sweated and adroitly picked a path for his laden wheelbarrow, piled head-high with money.

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Hargeisa is small but packed to bursting with minivans and Toyota land cruisers, resulting in permanent gridlock. The bright burkahs are complemented by the jolly shop fronts. All are painted with large, crude impressions of the products found therein. Khat stands line the streets and they are no exception to this rule. They are painted with bunches of green leafy stalks and usually an accompanying image of a lion or lightning bolt to assure the buyer of the potency of the product.

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Even before we arrived in Hargeisa the influence of Khat was noticeable. We had to wrestle for our place on the road with Khat lorries racing to deliver their shipment. Khat is a leafy plant that is farmed all year round to supply the widespread and growing demand as a recreational drug. The leaves of the plant are chewed over a few hours to achieve first a stimulant effect and in higher doses a somnolent effect. The active ingredient in Khat degrades and becomes less potent quite quickly after it is harvested, which explains the terrifying urgency of the delivery lorries.

We settled into a hotel in Hargeisa and went out to dinner with a pair of Somalilanders. The food in Somaliland is confidently spiced and you can taste a strong Indian influence. Berbera on the north coast was a trade stop on the tea run from India during the early 20th century. Supper was an enlightening experience. Somalilanders describe themselves as a chatty people and true enough we sat quietly while our friendly hosts spoke fluently on the history, culture and current politics of Somaliland.

In 1888 Somalia was divided, Djibouti went to the French, the western horn and Mogadishu went to the Italians and Somaliland became the “British Protectorate of Somaliland”. It became independent from British rule in 1960 and unified with Puntland in the west and Somalia in the South under the rule of Siad Barre. Barre instigated a Marxist regime supported by the USSR, which soon became oppressive. Somalilanders became disillusioned with the idea of a unified Somalia under Barre and fought for there independence, achieving it in 1991. Since then they have gone from strength to strength. Today they have a democratic government, competent civil service, their own currency and strong borders. Excluding two suicide attacks by fundamentalists from Mogadishu, attempting to destabilise them, Somaliland has been safe for 20 years.

The International community refuses to recognise Somaliland as a separate country from Somalia. This is due chiefly to fears of “balkanisation” of the region and particularly violent reprisals by the warlords in Mogadishu. All the Somalilanders we spoke to had a strong opinion on this topic and it is presently a hot political issue. Somalilanders have a nostalgic love for Britain and the times of Empire. They feel, quite reasonably, that they have done all they can to foster a stable new democracy in the wake of British rule and that it deserves recognition as such. We could not help but empathise with the Somalilanders. The refusal to support their case has made Somalilanders feel, at best let down by the British government, and at worst betrayed.

The next day we set off to find the beach. The first military checkpoint was about five miles outside Hargeisa and we were fully expecting to be turned back to register as aliens and pick up a military escort. We did our best to appear legitimate. With our grinning checkpoint faces fixed we pointed at the paperwork we had and repeated, this is good, okay, okay. Eventually the soldier got tired of trying to explain why we had to go back and opened the barrier. Excellent news. We were free to explore Somaliland. Five miles down the road our celebrations came to an abrupt stop as we came in sight of another checkpoint. Four hours and eight anxious checkpoints later, we arrived in Berbera.

Berbera is a small coastal town housing Somaliland’s newest and only port. We found a dusty track to the beach and were confronted with a shock of turquoise water. A vista of steep green mountains loomimg over porcelain sand stretched as far east as we could see and further into Puntland. Reunited with the sea after so long, we were too excited for words. We leapt out of our clothes and ran headlong into the surf. The bright water renewed us. The dust and sweat of the desert were washed away. Every mile driven and every nerve-jangling checkpoint was worthwhile. We shared the endless gold haven with a group of five or six Somalilanders. The men were gleefully tearing in and out of the rollers in their bunched up briefs and sopping outsized T-shirts. Layered head to toe in diaphanous fabrics, the women smiled from the shore.

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Washed and worn by the waves we eventually piled back into the car to find a deserted stretch of coastline on which to spend the night. We passed and repassed white colonial buildings along the sea front, dirtied by time but latterly spruced up with bright hand-painted signs depicting the wares if the fruit sellers now residing within. We found ourselves at the tiny airport west of Berbera still looking for the coastal road. I exited the Landie to ask directions.

Despite my walking 50 yards from the car in plain sight, the airport security guard was a little startled by my arrival in front of him. I had, it seemed, interrupted his vacant gazing out to the desert. As he pondered my question, a soldier raised the barrier behind him. Underneath slipped a sleek white saloon car with dark windows and beige furry mat visible on the dash. It stopped and a man stepped out in uniform. He had glinting medals on his breast, mirrored sunglasses and a proud paunch resting on his belt buckle. The officer stepped towards me and waited to be informed of what was going on. The soldier operating the barrier approached.

“Where you go?” said the soldier.

I decided against exposing our plans for illegal camping and said we were on our way from Hargeisa to Berbera and had become lost. I flapped our most official looking documents around while I spoke. The officer barked in Somali, the soldier translated, “where are you soldier, you need soldier!” It was looking like we were busted. It was time to abort this conversation before we found ourselves arrested. Delivering some excuses about being late for Wheel of Fortune and having left the iron on, I made to leave. As I turned, a third man in desert fatigues barred my way.  His hand rested on the stock of his AK47 with an unsettling degree of familiarity.  He explained that we had been found moving illegally in Somaliland and that we were to accompany them back to Berbera. I was ushered into the saloon and a soldier climbed into my seat in the Landie. Bas and Rich who were out of earshot of my conversation looked at me through the windscreen for an explanation. I offered nothing.

As we sped towards Berbera I frantically evaluated the situation. We were in trouble. It couldn’t be big trouble, surely. We have just broken a small bureaucratic rule. In Berbera there would be a small bribe, more stamps and forms and we should be on our way. Somalia is a bit of an unknown quantity though, maybe we were trespassing, maybe we were suspicious! I didn’t want to spend even one night in a Somali prison, thank you. All of a sudden those words I had disregarded on the FCO website came back to me with a shiver “there are is no embassy presence in Somaliland at this time”. I am definitely over reacting, it is time to remain calm and make some friends. I offered the man behind the mirrors a Marlboro Red. He took one without expression and began to smoke leaving the windows firmly shut. I chanced a little pigeon English conversation. I am from UK… Britain?… England? It is very hot today, it is very cold in England. I barked an anxious laugh, too loudly for the still air in the car. He remained silent and smoked. Perhaps he doesn’t speak English. I smoked as well.

Aswan to Wadi Halfa: The Second Half-a

Wadi Halfa is a Nubian town on the Sudanese shores of Lake Nasser. This huge man-made lake has divided the Nubian people and displaced them into southern Egypt and Northern Sudan. The deliberate inundation of the old city of Wadi Halfa is still a source of resentment and a favourite topic of nostalgic lamentation amongst the older tea drinkers of New Wadi Halfa. We awaited the arrival of our car by passing five days received into the rich culture of hot drink socialising in Sudan. As we walked the town every corner found the warm smiles of a tea lady and an eager patron ushering us to sit down on cracked plastic stools in the dust for a chat and a chai. With nothing to do but wait we usually accepted these offers.

 

We learned a lot about Sudan and its people during these kerbside conversations. The Sudanese are the most genuinely friendly and welcoming people we have met so far on our travels and indeed we all felt more at home in Sudan than anywhere we had visited. The Sudanese seem to actually want to talk about their country and the outside world and anything else that comes up, with no agenda whatsoever.

 

In Wadi Halfa and Khartoum alike, chai women line the streets and each has her own faithful clientele. Despite their ubiquity these skilled, quiet matriarchs never appear prosaic. They always make an impression on visitors. Our chosen chai lady carries the air of an alchemist as she sits low before a coal stove that skips and fizzes. Her fingers move slowly over old jars, picking black and purple pinches then placing them in the pot with a dexterity born of quotidian love. Her thick body is wrapped in a richly dyed sari and her round brown face smiles from inside a headscarf lined with dancing coins. Her eyes skip and fizz.

 

In all the time we spent drinking tea in Halfa the locals did not permit us to pay for our own tea. If they invited us to sit down then the tea was, categorically, on them. This inexhaustible generosity was discussed at length on cool nights camping in the desert between Halfa and Khartoum. It raised the question of the ethics of accepting gifts from people that one perceives to be impoverished. Some of us would contend that a westerner ought not to let an African pay for tea, or food or indeed offer gifts. Others have argued that it could be patronising, indeed insulting to overrule a Nubian when he is trying to be hospitable, as it is their culture. If one is comfortable accepting food from an African, then to what extent? Would you accept food even if you felt it might be at the expense of your host’s own meal? Perhaps for a Nubian the shame of not being able to offer hospitality to a guest in his country is even more acute than the discomfort of missing a meal. I know I have endured a few foul meals and a few empty bellies during the course of my life on grounds of trying to be polite to a guest or host. There is, I suppose, no right answer but the debate has supported many an interesting campfire conversation.

 

On our last night in Wadi Halfa we were invited to a Nubian wedding. The Nubian people are Muslim, as are the majority of the Sudanese. They also uphold strongly the traditions of their Nubian heritage. These two value systems are divergent on a few issues and we were interested to see how a wedding, which is at once a religious ceremony and a traditional family celebration, would unfold. Before attending we grabbed a couple of falafels from our favourite vendor. Unfortunately, this prevented the chap from consuming his entire stock himself and forced him to glean at least a little profit from all the hard work his wife had put into preparing the food. We drove to the wedding.

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We arrived at a large outdoor area, hung on all sides with colourful fabric. We were alone apart from children running in all directions, all arms windmilling. Needless to say there was no bar so we sat quietly and waited as the dry mud floor slowly filled with shuffling feet. Soon the wedding party arrived to cheers and ripples of congratulatory snapping of fingers. The groom was late in his forties, this was not his first or even his second wife but that did not detract from his delight at being paraded through the crowd. He beamed, the young bride smiled forcedly at his side keeping her gaze respectfully downturned. The couple was filmed while they bobbed through the crowd and televised live on a large mounted set by the band stage for those who could not get close enough to see. After several tours the master of ceremonies stood on the stage and spoke to the guests. His microphone, already set up for the Nubian band, broadcast his short speech distorted by a thick smog of reverb and then the band were welcomed by more snapping fingers.

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A gloomy adolescent stepped onto the stage in a white traditional robe and sat at the keyboard. He set the antiquated Casio to electric mandolin and rested his long fingers on the keys. Suddenly the air was spangled with a patchwork of syncopated melodies. A simpering vocalist with a pencil moustache joined with a stream of unbroken syllables while the arrangement was driven by a rich, thumping drum machine set to bass bongo.

 

The segregated crowd formed into two opposing banks. Lines formed and the guests joined hands, fingers intertwined. The dance began; the steps were simple, reserved and remarkably similar to those of the Hokey Cokey. A portly businessman was talking me through the moves when some unseen person grabbed my hand a little too firmly and dragged me to join the dance. My guide’s judgement had, it seems, been impaired by an imprudent measure of Nubian moonshine. He hauled me into the no man’s land that lay between the male and female dancers. This, it transpires, is frowned upon. As I stood in front of the whole wedding party all I could do was grin like a fool. Then, Allah knows why, I began to dance. Painful moments expired as my smile weakened and my eyes darted about for an escape. The pain was partly the wash of embarrassment but mostly pulsed from the merciless knot into which the two smallest fingers of my right hand had been twisted in the fist of my boozy acquaintance. Fortunately for my, as yet unrealized, career as a concert pianist there is a system in place at Muslim weddings for handling such an encroachment upon the delicate disposition of the ladies. Several stout men in robes advanced on me from the crowd. They sprayed me in the face with some sort of citrus water (presumably to douse my sexual ardour) and courteously but firmly frog-marched me back to the appropriate side of the wedding. Here my dancing partner was grudgingly wrested from me and bundled off somewhere. I spent what remained of my first Muslim wedding attempting to keep a low profile.

 

The next day we drove to Khartoum.

Aswan to Wadi Halfa: Half-a Tale of Two Cities

It transpires that Aswan is a tourist hotspot. We discovered this when we tried to buy a kofta roll and paid five times the going rate for it. People visit in order to cruise the Nile and visit the colossal tombs at Abu Simbel. We arrived however to catch the ferry to Sudan. For this reason Aswan is also a focus for African overlanders. We arrived in Adam’s home, an overlander’s campsite, hungry and exhausted as had become the norm. We unloaded our belongings into a mud brick hut and were then given the tour by Mohamed, a Nubian who had spent several years working in Cornwall of all places. In honesty we were reluctant to participate in said tour. It had been a long time since we had eaten and we were anxious to start cooking our late supper. Nonetheless we trailed courteously behind Mohamed as he cheerfully explored various huts and facilities. He led us through the kitchen, which was alive with activity. Six Nubian men were performing a complex food preparation waltz. Some rolled rice parcels; others stirred bubbling pots and shook sizzling pans. We surveyed enviously. We would not be eating for an hour at the soonest, even if we could manage to cook without getting tangled in the gears and limbs of this admirable grub machine.

 

Mohamed herded us into the communal area where a low table was laid for an enormous feast, he explained that they were celebrating the birth a of a baby boy to one of the men. The smiling father earnestly encouraged us to sit with them on the wicker mats and eat, in so doing he proffered a bowl of cabbage leaf domadas. Despite our grumbling stomachs Rich and I tried to politely decline. Our limp refusal was halfhearted however as we were starving and furthermore Bas already had a domada in his hand and two in his mouth. We sat.

 

The table was overflowing with dishes. Bowls of tahina, bean fuul and chili sauce, roasted chickens stuffed with risotto rice, curried sausage casserole and pitta breads. We ate until we could not move and then crumbled back onto plump cushions. We lounged there completely immobilized and reminisced about old England with Mohamed until, conquered by the warm cannonball of food in our bellies, we retired.

 

The next day was all business. We had been procrastinating and the time had come for some serious admin. We drained the rear differential and replaced the leaking gasket, changed the engine oil and filter, changed the fuel filter, washed the air filter, wired in the inverter, split charge relay and second battery. Not bad for a mornings work, we were getting better. In the afternoon we went on individual missions for supplies and food for the ferry. My job was a replacement camping gas canister as I had had trouble with this task in the past and was not willing to hand over the baton to anyone else.

 

I walked out onto the streets of Aswan and could not believe my luck; the first person I asked knew exactly where to find gas, as did the following six people. Strangely all of them brought me to the same tourist market selling the same Chinese-made sunglasses and plastic jewelry. In an effort to escape I crossed a railway bridge to the other side of Aswan. This was like walking into another town all together. All of a sudden tourism was a myth and I was in Egypt proper. I stepped off the overpass and was promptly mobbed, not by churlish tat retailers with a sense of entitlement but by boisterous livestock. Chickens, goats and turkeys waddled and skipped among my feet, grocers shouted their wares and prices. Butchers hacked cuts of meat from hanging hooks and fishmongers lustily slapped their slimy produce on slick steel trays.

 

I continued asking my question, and received an assortment of more honest, but still ultimately useless, answers. I wandered behind the stalls and came across a handful of aged souk vendors sitting on low plastic stools. They were talking and laughing volubly so they did not notice my presence for some time. At length, with the help of a small biro diagram on the back of a cabbage, I was able to make my request understood. I waited while the wise old merchants conferred. Minutes passed and I became restless to continue my search. Presently the man seated opposite me wearing a black turban and eyes shot with pink stood up in a hurry as if he had suddenly cracked the riddle. He began rifling through his many layers of smock and with a broad grin produced a gigantic spliff. The men lit up and continued their cheerful dialogue. This was getting me nowhere so I mumbled excuses and ambled shyly away. As I retreated, black turban yelled something to me in Arabic and pointed to the other side of road at a man on a motorbike. I approached the man who said to me in English, “you look for gas can, yes?” Dumbstruck, I glanced back at the merchants and then nodded agreement. He jerked his head at the pillion seat of his motorbike and I climbed on.

 

We bounced over speed bumps and zipped amongst market stalls, skillfully circumnavigating tuk tuks and articulated lorries. After a few minutes of winding lanes I was completely lost and I suddenly had a thought that brought me sharply back to previous memories of traveling. I dwelt on the fact that at that time I was completely at the mercy of this Egyptian stranger. He had only to take me to a group of his mates, somewhere out of town to rob me, or worse. This feeling of vulnerability is a daily concern when traveling alone but I had forgotten about it while traveling as a group. Thankfully, as is often the case, my concerns were not realized. My guide brought me to a small shop far out of town. We crept through a dark tortuous entrance to find a grisled man hunched, smoking a water pipe. My guide spoke to him and the old man pointed to a high shelf where I could see a gas bottle, bright and blue. My heart leapt. I asked to get it down but the old man shook his head. My translator explained that this was because the bottle was empty. Excellent thought I. Well that was a fun waste of time. Deflated I explained that this was not useful to me. My guide seemed more disappointed than me that he could not help, he brought me back to the souk.  I was so close but ultimately foiled again. Perhaps in Wadi Halfa we would get gas. *

DSCF2738

The ferry was a scrum. It was Christmas day and we were lead up the gangway by our perpetually soused fixer Mahmet. We followed as his momentous bulk swung neatly through the crowd tearing a path. We hurried so as not to be caught and lost in the sweating wall of bodies. On the bridge, a few notes in the Captain’s hand secured us a few square feet of deck to rest on. We lay in the sun, lazily burning and watching while the boat slowly filled. Multitudes passed into the hull during the course of the day, each dragging several times his body weight in luggage. The majority were Sudanese traders and their families. Their luggage was produce and electrical products bought in Egypt to sell in Sudan. Countless items were roughly tied or bagged, then hauled up to the deck. Perhaps the significant proportion of goods that are lost to the depths, as a result of absent-minded handling, is written off by the traders as acceptable losses. Indeed no one batted an eyelid when a man next to me turned to speak to a friend and let loose a rope carrying eight magimix blenders allowing them to fall 20 ft, smash apart on the concrete pier and then bob gently away on Lake Nasser.

 

The ferry was a sociable experience. The route from Egypt to Sudan runs weekly and was cancelled the week prior to our arrival. As a result it formed a bottleneck for all the travelers heading south. These consisted of two Swiss overlanders, two Croatian journalists, a Canadian family, an English cyclist and a couple of Germans. The last westerner we had seen was in Turkey so this glut was quite a novelty. Furthermore we had to drink any alcohol we had about us before arrival in Sudan where one receives 40 lashes for possession. A penalty we were, needless to say, keen to avoid.

 

We popped open dusty bottles of beer that had watched our progress from the roof of the Landie since Perranporth. The first drop of Betty Stoggs dragged us back to a Cornish beach and shanty singing on warm September nights. As the ferry pulled us through the still water to Sudan we sang old pirate songs and swigged our ales. The Captain only rarely interrupted our merriment by stepping from the bridge to make his prayers. At these points we would carefully conceal our beer and impose a brief intermission on our raucous shantying. Spirits were high among the traders as well, they were happy to be on their way home. All on the poop deck had a jolly time.

 

We are getting used to not being in on the joke

We are getting used to not being in on the joke

We sang and swapped stories long after the sun had set. We did not understand the naiveté of this behavior until it was time to bed down for the night. More judicious passengers had realised much earlier that a boatload of people occupies a lot more space lying down than they do standing up. As such, on scanning around for a few square feet to lay down our sleeping bags we found none. Rob, our English cyclist from Preston, had flash of an idea. Bag in hand; he darted off for the lifeboats. He strode surely through the marsh of shrouded bodies. In the gloom he aroused frequent sleepy protests when his waivering bare sole found purchase on an unsuspicious face or groin. Sadly Rob’s search was fruitless. Each lifeboat was a snoring can of Sudanese sardines. Rob shambled back disheartened, his feet carefully sparing his earlier victims in favour of a new path of faces and groins. Eventually, we each found a small corner of deck to curl up in and the snug sleeping conditions kept us warm for the few remaining hours before the sun.

 

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

* 8/1/13 – We still have not found gas.

Any Port in a Storm

As we pulled our mud-caked vehicle alongside the twilight outline of the Flintstone’s Cave hostel in Goreme, Cappadocia we were greeted by welcoming staff and a few friendly Erasmus students.

“Looks like you’ve had fun, what have you been up to?” one enquired.

It would be a few days before the obscure images of the past 24 hours had cleared from our eyes enough to answer that question.

Millions of years ago in Cappadocia, a volcanic eruption or two left this desert region strewn with thousands of slabs of igneous rock. Subsequently the sandstone beneath has been eroded by wind and rain creating a dramatic landscape. Long serpentine gullies sweep around basalt capped golden towers. Lofty plateaus frame a striking scene that is littered with ancient dwellings cut directly into the stone by Troglodyte tribes first and Romans after them. In the warm wind we explored the hills and valleys of this fairytale land. Christian imagery remains intact on the walls of Byzantine churches cut from the soaring towers. Thousands of Christians evaded Roman (and later Turkish) persecution here in vast underground cities. The centurion tasked with flushing out the Christians from these five story bunkers would have had to evade traps such as giant rolling rocks and fallingspears. We spent hours exploring tunnels and chambers, playing out scenes from Indiana Jones and generally larking about.

We left Cappadocia wanting to stay longer but our ferry from South East Turkey was imminent. We roared through the hills east of Iskenderun passing tiny sepia villages, unreal in the glow of scant halogen lamps. We smashed the delicate silence of each town into clattering shards, barking and yelping in our wake. As we awaited unpopulated countryside in which to camp Bas stirred from reflection, “how far do you think we are from the Syrian border?” Somehow it at not occurred to us until that point that, as we flashed through the hills, we were fast encroaching on the disputed Turkish-Syrian border. The mood in the car sharpened and the quest for a camp received new urgency.

Eventually we found our way to the top of a bare hill under gathering clouds. We decided that while it was perhaps unwise to park on a hill in an electrical storm pressing further and bumping into Syrian revolutionaries, the Syrian Army or being mistaken by the Turkish army for either of the above was less appealing. That night our dreams were troubled by phantom conflicts between Turkey and Syria played out in the crack and boom of the storm.

We awoke at dawn to a tap tap on the window and the face of a Turkish farmer peering in. The hilltop on which we had narrowly escaped electrocution and an international incident was revealed in the light of day to be an enormous field of parsley. Like surly adolescents we tramped out of the car to receive our reprimand from an appropriately furious farmer. This did not unfold. In fact the farmer seemed heartily amused by the novelty of finding a Land Rover and three bewildered tourists lost in his parsley. After much awkward laughter, manly backslapping and handshaking we were allowed on our way with a generous gift from our host.

We arrived at the port of Iskenderun by 9 o’clock. After a quick breakfast of parsley sandwiches we registered and parked to await our passage to Africa, the Nisos Rodos. We were to depart at midday. By midnight we had started uploading, things were already starting to feel a bit more like Africa.

After a pleasant 24 hours aboard we were downloaded to Port Said, Egypt. Muted by excitement we took our first breaths of African air as the shadow of our car rolled off the ferry. Our tiny vehicle was lost in a mechanized jungle looming black around us. Monstrous grabbers, lifters and haulers were cut out in monochrome by our stark spotlights. Men with uniforms shuffled out of the gloom, we were not going anywhere until morning. They lead us to a locked compound where we were left for the night.

We cast about. Our new home consisted of a large rectangle marked out by razor wire. The ground was made up of years of compacted grime and leaked lubricants resulting in a nonspecific sticky filth. The compound was inhabited only by a handful of lorry drivers sleeping in their cabs. In the far corner was a single dilapidated toilet cubicle. Inside, a steel showerhead hung from the cracked concrete wall over a squat toilet that could have equally been the drain in an abattoir.

There are none as optimistic as the desperate. We looked at each other, “It’s just one night…it will be fine”. Ravenous, we set about making some food. As I chopped the parsley I watched a skeletal cat sizing up a rodent across the compound. Little red eyes glared back at the predator with unsettling hostility. Gripped by this tiny war I almost didn’t notice the hunched figure that stepped silently from shadows behind. As the outline of a man walked slowly towards our car Rich put his hand on my shoulder and I turned to see a pair of sallow eyes my window. Startled, I locked the door. Several more tenebrous shapes gathered around and began exploring our car with there pallid fingers. Growing numbers gave the spectres confidence and they started speaking to us. “What you doing here, my friend?” choked forth the first. “Nisos Rodos” Bas managed and was met with a chorus of whispered echoes. The first croaked again, “you need anything, my friend?” ruthlessly dragging on the words, “you wan’ beercig’retteshashish?”

“We don’t need anything thank you” Rich stated firmly. The potbellied leader pressed his cracked lips then smiled. “We come back tomorrow, maybe you need something tomorrow” the misshapen bodies slowly melted away. We went to sleep uneasy.

DSCF2521The next day we were up early, keen to sort our paperwork and escape this dreadful oubliette without any delay. Guided by our excellent translator/fixer, Mahmut, Rich made his way through 11 offices. Each office housed a slightly fatter man in a slightly sweatier shirt than the last. Rich financed progressively bigger bribes and in return inky stamps endorsed certificates proving all manner of things. Nothing inspires confidence like a large illegible rubber stamp. A bureaucratic tradition left over from the time of Empire, perhaps. All was developing well until one such clammy colossus clawed in his nose and, when satisfied with his findings, shot the same chubby digit at an assistant dispatching him to check our chassis number.

This was a catastrophe we had been hoping to avoid. Our chassis number has been previously galvanized over leaving us with no proof that our car is the same as the vehicle that our registration document discusses and not a stolen one. Luckily this problem was managed in a distinctly Egyptian way. Mahmut phoned his friend Mohammed who soon arrived and knocked the chassis number in with a chisel. Despite Mohammed’s skilled workmanship we held reservations about our being able to convince the border guards of the legitimacy of our forged chassis number on account of it’s being written in Arabic lettering.

These delays resulted in two more nights spent in purgatory. The long hours were passed predominantly trying not to touch anything and periodically batting away probing interest from the vermin and the pushers. On the morning of the fourth day we tried the gate. Mahmut conversed with the officer while we sat in our idling vehicle. The guard surveyed us over the mountain of forms, stamped in triplicate, skillfully devouring salted sunflower seeds as he did so, spitting a cloud of chaff after each one. He ambled lazily over and asked to see the chassis number. Rich mumbled something and pointed. The officer peered into the darkness under our wheel arch. He peered for too long, something was wrong. Mahmut was perspiring. Suddenly he darted around the car and, concealed by his body, mashed a wad of notes into an expectant hand. Stony faced, the officer completed his checks and walked back to his office in silence. In the dense heat we waited.  Minutes ticked past and nobody spoke. The barrier creaked and lifted; we held our breath unwilling to leave without confirmation of success. Mahmut flicked his hand impatiently and we crept out onto the road. Free. We gathered speed on the road to Cairo and began to celebrate. We jigged about boisterously in our seats and all the tension poured out to the tune of “Free falling” by Tom Petty. We were out, and with a full tank of diesel for a tenner we were on the road to Cairo.