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Thursday, 16 December 2010

Sudan - Khartoum & The Meroe Pyramids

After "Desperately Seeking Sudan" as we made our way north from Ethiopia, "Suddenly Sudan" was upon us. (See what I did there? Two really bad jokes based on the same tenuous link of replacing the name "Susan" with "Sudan".) The only things I really knew about this place were that it was hot, it was the largest country in Africa, it was Marjane's favourite African country and it was the place where Kevin Carter (of 'Bang-Bang Club' fame) took his haunting, prize-winning photo of the starving child being stalked by a vulture.

Kevin Carter's notorious Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.

The border-crossing was a little bit more complicated than it could have been - but after all the grief we'd gone through trying to get the visas, we kind of expected this. We had to get passports stamped as usual, but we had to go to some random place first to get visa and details pages photocopied, then we had to fill out various forms and sign a kind of "Guestbook' and once all that was done, we were good to go…apart from the fact that none of us had any cash and there were no ATMs in the whole of the country (actually there were, but the few we saw only accepted cards for domestic banks).

Fortunately, there were lots of money-changing touts stood right outside the immigration office on the Sudan side of the Sudan/Ethiopia border. Unfortunately, the customs guys didn’t like them loitering so they sent them away. Fortunately, the touts had little respect for authority and only moved a few metres away. Unfortunately, they also had little respect for each other and efforts to under-cut each others’ rates ended up in a skirmish between them. Fortunately it was a minor skirmish. Unfortunately - for the touts - it lost them our custom and we found a guy further down the road who amassed a fortune from his extortionate exchange rate…to our misfortune.

With plenty of Sudanese pounds now in our pockets we got back on the truck and drove on for most of the afternoon til we found a very cool bush-camp. Pat and Kimbo were on cook group that night and as they prepared our banquet, Berbs and I headed off on our usual ‘dangerous creature’ hunt...this time accompanied by new recruit, Saffer Rob. We (literally) left no stone unturned in our fruitless effort to find scorpions, snakes or spiders...I tell a lie, it wasn’t fruitless: one small camel spider got us dancing around like cats on a hot tin roof when it shot out from under a wee granite boulder. Back at camp, the team were having similar woes as flying insects invaded the kitchen...I was lucky enough to get one in my bowl of food (it had been cooked with the pasta).

The bush camp with all of the insects.

The next day we arrived in Khartoum mid-afternoon to settle in at the Blue Nile Sailing Club camp grounds. As if it wasn’t hard enough for Roxy to squeeze through the gates, a small car was parked in the way. Ever-resourceful and quick-thinking, Marjane – aided by a couple of locals and Saffer Rob – got their hands underneath the chassis and lifted the car clear off the ground and shuffled it around to a more convenient location allowing Roxy more room to get in. The place was a wee bit run-down but had a laidback atmosphere which was an oasis amidst the hustle and bustle that buzzed on through the night just metres outside the gates. The piece de resistance of the whole place was the giant old boat that had been converted into staff accommodation and offices. It was an old gunboat called “Melik” and once belonged to Kitchener - the famed British General who secured control of Sudan with a victory at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898.

We hadn’t been there long when the bloggers (like Laraldo and I) had sniffed out the wireless connection and the Saffer Brothers had hunted down the beer...albeit alcohol-free (dry country after all!). Lara wasn’t long on the internet when her face dropped and I knew something bad was up. The essence of it was that Lara had only received some sad family news in recent weeks and now there was more. I won’t dwell on this but, Laraldo, being as strong-willed and dependable as she is, had resolved to fly back immediately, no questions asked, and support her family. With little success finding good flights online we got the address of a couple of ‘Emirates’ offices in Khartoum (one of them being at the airport) and planned to head there first thing the following day.

Early next day we were up and ready to go. We got a taxi out to the airport (14 Sudanese pounds, about 5.5USD) where NOBODY could speak any English and nor did they seem willing to help us. We eventually found people behind the ‘Info Desk’ who were happy to inform us that there was no Emirates office at the airport. On our walk to the taxi rank in the airport car park, we stumbled across the Emirates office (less than 30 seconds’ walk from the info desk and only slightly out of view of it). As luck would have it, the place was closed so we jumped in a cab and showed the cabby the address of the OTHER Emirates office (which had been Plan B as we were against the clock and didn’t want to get lost in town). Finally we got Lara’s flights sorted for that afternoon.

Thankfully, the whole time Lara and I had been sorting out her flights and transport to and from the airport and travel agents, the rest of the gang went about organising various formalities. The first of which was registering with the officials in Khartoum (had to be done within three days of entering Sudan). This was a process we all knew we had to go through which essentially acted as proof that we were moving on and not loitering around in the country. The kick in the teeth was that we had to pay for was 110 Sudanese pound on top of the extortionate price we’d paid for our visas (and the accompanying letter – costing 100USD - we’d had to buy from the British Embassy in Nairobi). We also had to get permits for onward travel outside of Khartoum. This same permit was needed if we wanted to use our cameras in Sudan...the police have been known to be strict about confiscating cameras (and Saffer Rob had a close call later on in Sudan just outside a town called Karima...he had a permit but we still weren’t supposed to take photos of police, officials or checkpoints...this was admittedly a pretty inconspicuous checkpoint that caught him off-guard hanging out of the truck with his camera. Luckily for him, they only took his camera, deleted the photo he’d taken and handed it back to him). At least the camera permits were free.

Within less than 24hrs of arriving in Khartoum, Lara and I had an unceremonious (as security wouldn’t even let me inside the airport without a ticket) yet emotional goodbye at the airport. Neither of us could quite believe what had happened at home and nor could we believe how abruptly a trip of a lifetime could end. Today was Wednesday 3rd November; we arrived in Marrakesh at the start of this trip on Thursday 11th March and hadn’t been due home until 5th January.

As my taxi pulled up at the gates of the Blue Nile Sailing Club on its return from the airport, I saw Son, Gab, Saffer Hendrik and Saffer Rob (from now on called the Saffer or Skommel Bros) and Kay haggling with another cabby over a fare. When they saw me they said they were going to go see where the Blue and White Nile converged and I figured I’d join them to keep my mind off things. Son and Rob jumped in with me and the others left in the cab they were planning to get into. I’d got on quite well with my cabby on our trip to and from the airport so I figured he’d give us a good deal.

10 minutes later we jumped out of our taxi at the Hilton to meet the others who told us they’d paid 5 pounds less than us! Friendship counts for nowt when money’s involved out here. More comedy followed when we realised that the Hilton was now called ‘Coral’ and that there was no fabled terrace bar (dry country remember, idiots!) where you could watch the sunset over the convergence of the two Niles. After a Benny Hill-style tour of the hotel foyer and quick elevator stop-off on each floor (just in case there was a bar hidden somewhere), we hot-footed down the road to the bridge between Khartoum and Omdurman that looked out over the convergence.

Ok. We never really saw a confluence. We weren’t even sure if we should be looking for a visible difference in the colour of the two tributaries - we had envisaged a kind of swirly, ‘cordial and water’ type mix...and to be fair, the LP does say that you can see this sort of thing from a Ferris Wheel at the Al-Mogran Family Park ("Al-Mogran" being the local name for the confluence). Jen, Jules and Ish went there but avoided the wheel and went to another bridge where I believe they had better luck seeing the two rivers join forces. Whatever we did or didn’t see, we did have a fun walk out in the city as the setting sun’s rays pierced the smog and painted the sky in all sorts of vivid purples, pinks, reds and oranges. After this light show, we went back to camp for falafel sandwiches put together by Ish and Kerry before I tucked into my sleeping bag for my first night alone in the tent for the whole trip...

On Thursday 4th November we hung around in Khartoum – some exploring the city, some sunning themselves in the grounds of the ‘Blue Nile Sailing Club’ – until mid-afternoon. With everything that happened, I can’t say that I saw much of the city but what I did see impressed me: The place was clammy and clamorous but the people were extremely friendly (especially the taxi drivers, albeit whilst doing their best to get every penny out of you); The promenade along the near side of the river hinted of a prosperous not-too-distant past, whilst some of the architecture we saw on our walk to ‘the confluence’ suggested that Khartoum was a city that at least had some investors - it had been a while since we’d seen big, modern, high-rise buildings like those in Khartoum. (I read that this has something to do with the recent discovery of Sudanese oil and the government's subsequent billion dollar surplus that is funding the "Al-Mogran Development Project"). I think Khartoum had a lot more to offer and I would have loved to have had more time exploring it if circumstances had been different. I'll be interested to see how this place looks in 10 or maybe even just 5 years' time.

That afternoon we had a long drive out of Khartoum to a place called “Meroe” – home of some spectacular pyramids that time and tourists seem to have forgotten. They weren’t as big as their Egyptian cousins (which we were soon to see) but they were no-less there were loads of them AND we got to camp literally right outside of them! We pulled up to them late in the evening - in fact, it was so dark that we could only just about see the outline of a couple of them...and even then, that was using Marjane’s super-bright torch (bought in Cape Union Mart in Cape Town!) or the truck headlights. We settled in, put up the tents and Berbs and Matt cooked us up a mighty dish of cous-cous and veggies. I’ve decided not to write about my trip to the bush toilet and how eagerly ravenous the hordes of dung/scarab beetles I won’t. In honesty, as I got into bed that night I had no idea what to expect the next day...

I woke up to the usual sound of pots and pans being scraped and emptied as cook group went about their breakfast duties and when I finally emerged from my tent like a bearded apeman leaving his cave, I could see the first eager wave of our group heading off into the site. There was nobody else around other than a half dozen camel owners and trinket/souvenir salesmen who had presumably got a sniff of our money on the desert breeze the night before.

The view of the top of some of the pyramids from where the truck was parked.

We paid a small fee of 20 pounds (about 8USD) to enter and then got busy exploring the ancient Royal Cemetery of Meroe and its pyramids. Apparently the Meroitic pharaohs thrived from the 6th century BC up until the Abyssinians kicked their arses in AD 350. The place looked like it could have been the inspiration behind many a Tomb Raider or Indy Jones scene: it had lots of well-preserved hieroglyphs and sand-strewn chambers and in the words of the LP, “even the graffiti here dates back centuries”. It was all a bit ‘other world’.

Just some of the well-preserved hieroglyphs.

On the downside, without Lara I had no model to take photos of in front of the ancient monuments (nor did I have anybody to take photos of me, so had to settle for photos of my own shadow...see below!). On the up side, this is where I met wee Doris...or Dozzer or Dozwald Moseley as we grew to call her. Doris was a perfect companion in Lara’s place and an excellent truck pet. Her mere silent presence boosted the capacity for intelligent conversation on the truck at least twofold...and that was just between me and her.

Without Laraldo around, I resorted to photographing my shadow.

Everyone...I'd like you to meet...


What a mucking foron. This guy didn't even know how to do the 'Egyptian' pose. (Why would you want to do it in Sudan anyway?)

At least Jen, Jules, Ish and Kimbo know how to walk like an Egyptian properly.

Back at the truck, we entertained ourselves racing dung/scarab beetles and soon they were fighting instead of running...and then a rogue wolf spider got thrown into the fray before we sent in Doris to sort it all out. The local sellers were very entertained by the girls’ reactions to the spider and picked it up a few times just to wind them up some more. Despite the girls’ protests about animal cruelty and that she should be released, Dozzer was having none of it. We tried to leave her behind at the pyramids twice, and both times she clambered back on to the truck as a stow-away on Berber’s trouser-leg.

Based on these tracks, I deduce that these scarab beetles met in the middle, had a wee scrap, settled their differences then went on their merry little way.

The view of the truck from the sand dunes at the pyramids.


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