Honesty and Integrity (of doors)

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.

Image

Ancient pyramids rise out of the Sudanese desert. (Photo: RWH)

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.

Landy Patching (Photo: RWH)

Landy Patching (Photo: RWH)

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.

Advertisements

The Road to Khartoum

It was with nervous excitement that we made our way from the village of Wadi Halfa, Sudan’s northern frontier town to the port, although we had come to the conclusion that this was a rather grand title for what was in fact a single jetty and crumbling customs building. Wedged into the back of a tuk tuk we watched Africa’s biggest man-made expanse of water consume the visible horizon as we approached. I tried to imagine what the ancient kingdom of Nubia, long drowned by Nasser and his controversial Aswan dam, would have looked like. Suddenly I understood the sadness of these people. Their heyday more than two millennia past, the Nubians were more recently divided by the arbitrarily drawn international border of Egypt and Sudan, and then drowned by Egypt’s developmental progress. The strength of identity both sides of the border had surprised us, and reminded me of my home and the fight to maintain the Welsh culture and language.

Thankfully the soft sand only causes a brief hitch in the desert! (Photo: RWH)

Thankfully the soft sand only causes a brief hitch in the desert! (Photo: RWH)

In the distance we could see the two cars perched atop a rusty barge, barely visible under a huge mound of assorted goods covering every inch of the deck. My Swiss companion and I perspired our way down the jetty after much prevarication and tea drinking in the customs building. We slowly cooked in the early morning sun while the mountain of fragile wares covering our cars was unloaded by a squadron of unconcerned jumper-wearing locals. Eventually we were called upon to unload our cars. There was much frantic gesticulation and as we teetered our cars precariously down narrow metal ramps several meters above the water. A score of Arabs yelling passionate directions and waving limbs only served to make things worse. Wheel by wheel, we crept to safety. The rotten concrete of the jetty moved an impossibly large amount as the barge was slammed against it by the chop, yet it felt solid and secure to us.

Departure was a joy. We had read many accounts of the treacherous and difficult road through the 1,000 km of Nubian desert to Khartoum. There were historical reports of travellers perishing having strayed miles off the supposed route and becoming stranded in soft sand. We were almost disappointed to find a perfect strip of newly laid tarmac leading us south, another African highway transformed thanks to the Chinese. We soon consoled ourselves however, remembering the challenges of desert driving, and how they are wonderfully satisfying to tackle when optional. Driving in convoy with the Swiss for the first time, we drifted past terracotta dunes, gravel plateaus, jagged hills, and towering stacks of jet black rock. Steering was an intermittent occupation for the driver, required only to avoid the odd donkey and cart. Occasional puffs of diesel smoke on the horizon gave testament to the seekers of the rich resources of the desert, where gold, gypsum, and a whole host of other treasures lie in abundance.  Suddenly the laying of a thousand miles of asphalt seemed a cheap way of acquiring extensive mining rights in this resource rich desert.

The temperature climbed with the sun. Windows agape, air conditioning a concept of the distant future, we forced the Landy on through the wall of heat. We thanked our fortune as we watched the mercury climb to balmy thirty seven that we were here in winter. Occasionally a green line appeared on the horizon, and we knew the road had drifted close to the nurturing moisture of the Nile. The longest river in the world, this huge body of water provides an artery of life blood to thousands of miles of barren moon-scape.

Through the mirage we saw a hunched figure drawing nearer. Emaciated, caked in dust, we recognised Rob, our friend from the Aswan-Wadi Halfa ferry, sitting head in hand in the midday heat. Made of true Lancashire grit, this 23 year old man had cycled his Grandfather’s bicycle from Rotterdam to his current location, 600km shy of Khartoum. Two days ride and 200km away from the nearest town, he was battling a worsening knee injury and dwindling supplies.

Exhaustion bites in the midday sun; Rob Lowe, British cyclist struggles on in the Nubian desert. (Photo: RWH)

Exhaustion bites in the midday sun; Rob Lowe, British cyclist struggles on in the Nubian desert. (Photo: RWH)

We hopped out water in hand and held an impromptu orthopaedic consultation in the shade of the car. It sounded to us as though rest was going to be needed before he could continue riding. His eyes flashed defiantly as we suggested he jump in the Landy with us until Khartoum. We prized his bike from his reluctant hands as he begrudgingly caved to our persuasions. We consoled him with promises of food and camaraderie as we emptied the car onto the road in an effort to repack. Rob’s bike Alan, named after his original owner, was absorbed by the roof rack and we were on our way, our ranks bolstered.

The realisation that this journey would encompass New Year sent us looking for supplies in Dongola, a market town shielded from the heat of the desert by the cooling embrace of the Nile. We negotiated our way through the forest of cardboard-roofed market stalls, first wondering at the cost of bread, then perplexed at an apparent run on the price of the tomato. An investment of £1 at the Lord Hotel paid dividends in sleep, and we set off early in light of this windfall. On a particularly remote stretch of road we set a bearing and bounced and slid our way into the wilderness. Overloaded, top-heavy, inappropriately shod with comically small tyres, the Landy powered on defiantly. We were moved with pride.

Eagle-eyed, Bass led us towards a caravan of wild camels in the distance. We followed their path to a small oasis of stunted trees, impossible in their stereotypical perfectness. Safe in our desert bowl, we made an extravagant camp. Logs were set ablaze, blankets unrolled, cauldrons filled. We lost Dan for a time; he was found burrowing in the back of the car with a screwdriver. He emerged triumphant, having produced the last of our single malt from the recesses of our subwoofer, safe there against the inquisition of the customs officials. We made merry and under the brightest of stars, welcomed in the New Year.

New Year's Eve Camp

New Year’s Eve Camp (Photo: RWH)

We wish you all the best in 2013!