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!

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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.