11 December – 20 December 2012
After our night on the ferry and cruising past Abu Simbel, we had finally crossed the watery border into Sudan. At around 11am we caught a glimpse of the port in the distance and after several attempts and ramming the pier a few times, we were docked. We were told we had to go to the cafeteria to fill out yet another set of forms before we could leave, so we grabbed our bags and headed down there. However even trying to get to the cafeteria was a mission: it was chaos with everyone trying to get off the ferry. A man was shouting to us to come through the door, but with the people and boxes/luggage completely blocking the corridors it took a good 10/15 mins to cross the three metres to get there.
Once the forms had been completed it was our turn to try and get out. After about ten minutes of getting caught up in the crushing, pushing and shoving, we broke free and went back up on deck to wait for it all to calm down, watching bags, washing machines and all sorts being carried and lowered from the ferry. Once we’d made it out, we caught up with the others and our fixer (Masar) and made our way towards customs. Unfortunately by this point it had been confirmed that the barge carrying our cars was still making its way along the lake, so we would be spending the night in Wadi Halfa.
After a quick inspection of our bags we were through customs and squeezing into the back of a taxi (of the pick-up/buckie variety) to take us into town and our hotel for the night. We’d all read that there wasn’t much to Wadi Halfa and the hotels are very basic. This wasn’t an understatement when it came to the accommodation, which reminded us more of a prison wing than a hotel. However, it was somewhere to rest our heads and had to be warmer than the ferry the night before.
Wadi Halfa itself actually had more on offer than we’d expected, albeit no running water. There were various shops/huts selling groceries, mobile phones (there seemed to be a plethora of these shops!), hardware, a market, a couple of restaurants and, a favourite of ours, lots of tea ladies. The ladies have various teas, coffee and herbs in jars and obviously mix their own recipes, with a kettle constantly boiling over coals. We found one who we particularly liked, who added cloves to the tea and ginger to the coffee, as well as assorted other herbal teas we tasted and guessed at.
The next day we were all hopeful that the barge would have arrived and a few of our fellow overlanders climbed one of the hills near the hotel to get a view of the port. Alas, no sign of the barge. As the day wore on we accepted that we were likely to be staying in Wadi Halfa for another night as the port closed at 2pm, so we had a good wander around the town and some more tea (perhaps not only a British thing to solve the world’s problems with a cup of tea then?!). Shortly after lunch we got the news that the barge had arrived – music to our ears – and we would definitely be on our way tomorrow. We celebrated at the top of one of the pyramid-like hills with a Pepsi and out-of-date chocolate bar watching the sun set. We did however have to tread very carefully on the way down as we soon realised that the area around the hills was the local “crapper”!
In the morning the drivers headed down to the port to clear the cars. Luckily this was a far easier process than in Egypt and they were back by mid-morning. After picking up a few supplies for the drive through the desert and getting our photo permit (they’re very strict on what you can and can’t take photos of in Sudan), we were on the road again, convoying with Daniel and Maud. It was a great feeling and we were really looking forward to our first night of wild camping in the desert.
We’d chosen to take the road along the Nile to Dongola and then across via Karima and Meroe rather than driving right through the middle of the desert alongside the railway tracks (and not much else). The road was a lot better than we’d been expecting – it was asphalt the whole way rather than the gravel road that we could still see signs of. We spent our first night camped by the Nile not far from a village called Abri. It was a lovely setting, but unfortunately the wind was whipping up the sand up around us. We didn’t let it get the better of us though and we were soon enjoying some food around a campfire and admiring the stars and milky ways.
Our second day started off with a visit to a local family. A couple of years ago some friends of Daniel and Maud’s did a similar trip and had camped in a village where they met one of the local families. They took some photos with them and a few months down the line when some friends of theirs set off on a trip through Africa, asked them to drop the photos off to the family. When they did this, they also took photos of themselves with the family holding the photos they’d delivered, and these were given to the next people they knew travelling through. Daniel and Maud were the fourth couple to be tasked with delivering photos and it was lovely to be a part of it.
We arrived early and regrettably appeared to have woken them up. Although looking a little bemused, they were obviously starting to get used to random overlanders dropping in on them. They were incredibly hospitable and made us tea and brought out biscuits and dates and we tried to communicate with a few words of Arabic and sign language. The father, who was away working, called several times to say thank you and recommend places to visit. Then, once new photos were taken, we were back to the road.
After a short while, we took a bit of a detour off the road to some wall carvings that were in the points of interest of our GPS. On finding them we were a little sceptical as to whether they were genuine ancient carvings or just the work of local kids. It was a break from the road and a nice setting for a quick cheese and jam sandwich though. Our main destination for the day was the site of some pyramids at Merowe. These are the best preserved pyramids in Sudan and were built around the turn of the 3rd Century BC. They are much smaller and steeper than those in Egypt, with the tombs having been carved into the rock below rather than contained within the pyramid itself. It was a wonderful sight just before the sun set and we couldn’t believe it was just open to the road and with so few people around.
We then needed to look for a camping spot before it got dark, although it wasn’t that easy as the area all around was inhabited. After a while we turned down a lane next to a date plantation and Marcello asked the farmer (Osman) if it was okay for us to camp there. All along the route we’d encountered nothing but friendly, smiling people waving to us, but it really brought home to us just how hospitable the Sudanese people are when, after thanking him for agreeing to us staying there, he simply said that it was his duty.
It was a fantastic spot: not only out of the wind, but the farmer had water pumping up from a well from which he’d built channels to water his date palms. The water was piped into a smaller well before running down the channel and was warm, providing us with water to wash both ourselves and our dishes. It was one of the best baths either of us has ever taken – especially after a few days of dusty driving!
One of the things that had struck us after these few days of driving through the desert was how interchangeable the desert landscape was. At some points with rocky hills jutting out of the sand, sometimes just great expanses of nothing but golden sand (as probably expected) and then the sand would change to a red colour. You could also always tell where the Nile was, as this would be the only area with abundant date palms and other vegetation. This area, particularly along the first stretch of the route, is also scattered with numerous Nubian villages, with their familiar mud-brick houses built within the frame of a courtyard.
Our next day’s destination was another site of pyramids; this time the better known pyramids of Meroe. Here there are apparently over 100 pyramids in two clusters: some very well preserved and others less so. We didn’t see this many, but just seeing the number that we did rising out of the sand dunes was striking. We were also the only other tourists there which made it feel particularly special. After spending some time wandering amongst the ruins, we drove around behind the hill nearby and set up camp. Here we really got our remote desert camping wish, with sand dunes all around and not another person in sight.
After another peaceful and starlit night, we had reached our final day of desert driving before hitting Khartoum. Khartoum isn’t that far from the site of the pyramids, so we decided to visit some temples at Naqa and Musawwarat es Sufra on the way. The site of these is about 30km off the road and we got to experience what it must have been like before the asphalt roads had been built. It sure was dusty driving and everything had a reddish tinge to it afterwards, but it was fun to be offroad.
When we reached Khartoum it was strange to be in such a built up area again. We stayed at the National Camping site, which seems to be used by police or military for a training ground. We’d been recommended the site over the infamous Blue Nile Sailing Club as the toilets and showers are more bearable: we didn’t need telling twice!
After a final night around the braai and campfire with Daniel and Maud, we bid them goodbye as they set off to catch up with their friends who’d slowed down to wait for them. We then headed into the city to get our Ethiopian visas. After a bit of a goose-chase we finally found the embassy and tried to figure out which of the queues we were meant to be in. After witnessing much pushing and shoving, Marcello made it inside the embassy, where things were a lot calmer and we were told we could collect our visas later that day.
The rest of our time in Khartoum was mainly spent catching up on the usual jobs. We also took a trip to the camel market, although there wasn’t much activity going on on this particular day. It was still interesting to see the market and more of the city on the drive through though and we noticed how there are obviously specific areas for different goods, as there would be an array of furniture being sold along one section and then it would change to something else, for example, wood. Organised chaos.
After three nights in Khartoum we set off towards the Ethiopian border at Gallabat and spent another night wild camping about 20km shy of it. We were therefore at the border early the next morning and, other than having to wait for nearly an hour for a man to arrive with the right stamp, the process was very smooth and we were through within a couple of hours.
We were only in Sudan for a short time, but we can safely say it’s one of the friendliest places we’ve ever been to. We obviously only saw part of the North and East of the country and were away from the troubled border with South Sudan, but from what we experienced Sudan appears to have gained an unfair reputation. It’s one of the poorest countries in Africa, if not the world, however the people we met were nothing but generous: be it with wanting to help or with their time. If they asked how you were or whether you were enjoying their country, it was out of genuine interest and they wanted nothing in return. Whilst we’ve also encountered this in other countries, it’s never been as extensive and it was incredibly refreshing.