Ruinous red tape

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Africa » Sudan » North » Dongola
March 1st 2009
Published: April 6th 2009
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Having exhausted Kerma's attractions, I move on to Dongola. The transport - a minibus rather than a boksi - is shockingly convenient, leaving just ten minutes after I find it and containing only four passengers. The pattern certainly seems to be that the infrastructure is improving the further south I come. There's a tremendous amount of road-building underway here and it won't be long before the whole stretch from Wadi Halfa to Dongola will be paved - possibly within a year.

Dongola lies on the west bank of the Nile and the final leg of the trip is on board a ferry (though I see a half-completed bridge a little further downstream). The ferry has just one deck and the passengers - human and animal - stream in first, so the minibus driver has to reverse into the milling crowd. I ask to be dropped at a specific lokonda but, despite him saying "Yes, yes", the driver drops me at another. I decide to have a look anyway and am heartened by the excellent English of the two guys at the reception. They then show me their available room - I've had enough of communal sleeping for a while and fancy some privacy.

This may be the most luxurious lokonda room in all of Sudan. It comes with a fan, 24 hour electricity, and a working light. The en suite bathroom contains a shower - obviously cold water only and I later discover the pressure is just a trickle - but a shower nonetheless. The only downer is the stench from the squat toilet but even that is cleared out later in the day. As I marvel at this unexpected oasis, a small mouse appears from a hole under the bed, skitters across the floor, sees me, then bolts back to its refuge. So I even have a pet. Or imminent hantavirus.

Soon after settling in, there is a knock at the door and I open it to find a pair of young German backpackers. They are heading north, having come through from Ethiopia, so we swap information. Their views of Ethiopia aren't particularly inspiring, and I have to hope my own experience will be different.

Unfortunately Dongola gives me a solid introduction to Sudanese bureaucracy. First, I have to register with the authorities, a free but necessary process. In a theme to be repeated throughout my stay, the local people insist that I need to see "security" to do this. They explicitly state that I do NOT need to see the police. However the tuk tuk drivers don't understand "security" whereas they do recognise "police", so I continually end up at the police station for all my bureaucratic needs - and they are able to deal with it all. I still don't know who "security" are or what they do.

On my first visit to the police station, the men inside are clustered around a TV watching a Bollywood production with Arabic subtitles. In a country where so far I have not glimpsed more than a woman's face or hands, the exposed tummy and short skirt of the leading actress are positively pornographic. Registration is fast, and I am given a slip of paper to present to the lokonda.

Walking back to the lodgings, I am accosted by a man who runs out of a telephone store and asks me to spend some time with him. He owns the store, with sidelines in electrical goods and a petrol franchise, and is eager to practice his English. We are constantly interrupted by his various minions,

who he deals with imperiously.

My first dinner in Dongola is an unsatisfactory affair. The waiter takes my order of fish, salad, and rice, and asks me to take a seat. I do as bidden and wait. And wait. And wait. When I finally realise that I've been waiting an hour, the waiter (the irony ...) has disappeared and I have no common language with any of the other staff to discuss the whereabouts of my food. I leave, frustrated, but then find bread and some La Vache Qui Rit segments in a nearby shop.

Dongola is the capital of Northern state, a vast tract occupying a space almost equivalent in size to Germany but containing only just over 600,000 people. The town's main street is similar to Saltburn's in terms of width and variety of businesses. Donkeys seem to be a favoured local transport option, and donkey carts are a frequent sight on the roads. Tuk tuks are available and are cheaper than taxis. Bargaining over the fare is necessary but the drivers tend to agree to whatever counteroffer you throw out there. I'm already noticing that the country runs on small bills - tuk tuks, falafel,
Mercedes bathroom doorMercedes bathroom doorMercedes bathroom door

Room 9, Lord Hotel
water, tea are all less than SP2 (about $1). Producing a SP10 note generally causes a trawl of nearby shops to get change. Once again, I'm struck by the contrast with how easy it is for me to accumulate a pocket full of shrapnel in the UK.

My luxury room is fumigated with an incense stick in the evening, but morning reveals several new mossie bites, and the stream of yellow gunk that comes out of my nose suggests an incipient cold. My first shave for a week leaves me feeling more human, and I head out into a sunny and breezy day with the aim of visiting the Temple of Kawa, a few kilometres south on the east bank.

At the ferry, I have a second encounter with Sudanese bureaucracy. I buy my ticket and am about to board when I hear a shout from behind. A man beckons me over and tells me I need a permit to cross the river. I show him my passport but he shakes his head. I must go to "security" and obtain a permit.

I return to the lokonda and query this with the owners. "Oh yes", they say matter-of-factly, "All foreigners need a permit to cross the river." I trudge back to the police station, obtain the free permit, and return to the ferry where this time my attempt to cross is successful. I chat briefly with a man working for an organisation helping people displaced from Darfur.

I am approached on the other side by an English-speaking guy who asks where I want to go, and I say I need a boksi to Kawa. He leads me to the appropriate section of the boksi car park and I am introduced to a driver. My lokonda had said that it would cost SP1 in a boksi so I'm surprised when the driver's opening quote is SP5. It soon comes down to SP3 and I realise this is actually a negotiation for a private hire. This doesn't seem too bad a price for that so I accept, saying "Talata" and holding up three fingers.

We bump across the desert to the paved road, then drive past people working in fields with camels and cows. We stop so the driver can let down the pressure in the tyres then head into the desert once more. We finally halt at a single-strand barbed wire fence around an area little different from its surroundings. This is Kawa.

Sudan has had three currencies over the last twenty years, which would be confusing enough if two of them hadn't been called pounds and they weren't all related by multiples of 10 or 100. Some people still give prices in one of the old currencies, or lop off zeroes for compactness of speech, so there is ample scope for misunderstandings or deception. I realise this when, on arrival at Kawa, the driver looks in disgust at my proffered SP3 and, when I then write the Arabic symbol for three in the sand, he leans down and adds the dot that indicates a zero.

I assume at this point that the price must include some wait-time, so I arrange via sign language for an hour to see the site before we return. This is significantly more than the site needs. Though in an appealingly desolate location overlooking the Nile, and with a wind drifting hissing sand across the ground, there is little there bar some small sections of wall and a scattering of old stones. Given the excessive price I've paid to get here, I stretch out my sightseeing to 45 minutes then we return to the ferry. The driver wants another SP10 on top of what we'd agreed but I feel as though he's already had a more than generous price so I wave him off. Disappointed at how the day has gone, I watch the ferry coming over from the opposite side and see camels and donkeys in amongst the people and cars. This is an amusing scene, so I take out my camera and snap a photo.

Seconds later, two men appear at my elbow, one with a frown on his face. "What is this?" he demands, as I slip my camera back into my bag. "Tourist police. Show passport". I oblige, and we are joined by a uniformed policeman. I am not sure what, if anything, I have done wrong but I explain that I have done all the appropriate registration and am merely trying to get back to Dongola after visiting Kawa. They seem to already know this. I am then asked if I have a ticket for Kawa. Seeing as there was no ticket office at the site, I say no and am told I should have bought one at the bus station. The plain clothes tourist policeman and his sidekick then say they will accompany me to the ticket office. I wonder vaguely if my disgruntled taxi driver has grassed me up.

Even if I had known I needed a ticket, I would've been unlikely to be able to buy one as the booth is completely unsigned and unmanned. The tourist policeman asks me where I am staying - he then phones the owners and gives me the handset. They don't know what the problem is and neither do I. I am then told to get on the ferry, miraculously not requiring a permit for that (it's seemingly a west to east thing) and I return to the lokonda. I ask them if I'm supposed to be buying a ticket from them and they say no. The whole incident leaves me confused and annoyed, also disappointed that the generally BS-free nature of Sudan until this point has been asterisked.

That evening, I am buying more cheese from the corner store when a group of three men enters. One speaks excellent English, introducing himself as Abdul. He attempts to help me with my purchase, though I have mastered the art of pointing at things that I want. It turns out that one of his companions is from the tourist police, and is looking for me in order to sell me my Kawa ticket after the fact. Only being a French speaker, he has roped in Abdul to assist with this. We sit down for tea, and it takes an inordinate amount of time to fill out the ticket and receipt. Another $10 of mine disappears, in one of the worst value for money bits of sightseeing I've ever done.

Fortunately Abdul is an interesting conversationalist. He had worked as a tour guide for ten years but now is a vet specialising in poultry. He still has dreams of developing tourism in this part of Sudan and is intensely proud of his people's hospitality but he also knows there is an excess of bureaucracy currently. He mentions that large groups of tourists do occasionally come through Dongola, an event I find hard to square with the few I've seen (essentially the young Germans heading north, and a reacquaintance with Tintin and Helen). There are a couple of long-term foreign residents here - a

German lady working as a nurse for 15 years, and a Turk in an electrician's shop. I can not imagine living here.

My final brush with Dongola bureaucracy occurs on the day I leave. I correctly guess that I will need another permit to cross the river to pick up a minibus to my next destination, Karima, but the lokonda owners say I can just take a photocopy of the hotel permit I'd been issued when I registered. I'm not sure why they hadn't suggested this the first time I said I needed a river crossing permit, but I'll forgive them that if it saves having to return to the police station.

Except it doesn't. I lug my rucksack to the ferry and present the photocopied permit. The man shakes his head slowly, pointing out that this is a hotel permit, not a river crossing one. You don't say. I plod wearily back to the lokonda and then on to the police station. The guys at the lokonda seem unapologetic that their permit information has been entirely incorrect.

My return to the ferry is successful this time and I finally cross the river, chatting with a man

with two wives, seven children, and a pair of Italian shoes he is inordinately proud of. I find the appropriate minibus and sit in it out of the sun. I have a stream of visitors eager to talk to the khawaja.

First up is a guy who looks vaguely familiar. His English is nonexistent but he mentions "police" a few times and I eventually remember he is the tourist policeman's sidekick from the previous day. He wants money. My repeated interactions with the police here are beginning to annoy me and I refuse. He rubs his belly, miming hunger, so I offer him some bread. "No, no, no", he says, shaking his finger at me. Clearly he just wants money. His friend, the tourist policeman, then appears and I fully expect an extortion attempt from this tag team. However the guy is all smiles when he sees me, we shake hands, and the two walk off.

Next is a farmer, who has a sociology degree from some university in Egypt. He gives me a crash course in local politics, stating that the histories of Egypt and Sudan are one and the same. However he really just wants to

practise his English. He knows Abdul the vet and is jealous that Abdul attended Khartoum University, where all the teaching was in English.

My final conversation partner is an English teacher from near Karima but his English is dismal. He has been in Dongola for a phonetics course but frankly he just needs conversation practice. He complains that the standard of English in the country used to be much higher, but it is less of a priority for the government now.

About an hour and a half after the scheduled departure time, we leave for Karima.

Dull but possibly useful info
i. I don't know when the minibus I caught from Kerma to Dongola was supposed to leave, but it left at 8AM. I've no idea how many departures there are per day. It cost SP10 and took just over 2 hours.
ii. I stayed at the Lord Hotel, run by 2 guys who speak good English though their information is sometimes a little off. I paid SP15 for the room described above (the guys independently quoted me SP15 and SP20 so naturally I went for the cheaper).
iii. You need to register at the police station

in Dongola (this requires simply filling in a form - it is free). I heard from other travellers that some hotels won't let you take a room until you've registered, which could be a pain if you turn up late at night.
iv. You need a permit (free from the police station) every time you want to cross the river from west to east. This permit is one use only, as it will be taken from you when you buy your ferry ticket.
v. The ferry costs SP0.25 each way.
vi. Tuk tuks cost SP2 per journey within the town (I think the local price is SP1 but I couldn't get anyone to accept that).
vii. I paid SP30 for a private taxi to Kawa and back, from the ferry terminal on the east side of the river, though read the above to see this wasn't quite what I intended.
viii. Unless there are more interesting parts to Kawa, the bit I saw would not have been worth visiting even for free, let alone paying the $10 entry and $15 taxi for.

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My room doorMy room door
My room door

Lord Hotel
Inside room 9Inside room 9
Inside room 9

Lord Hotel

6th April 2009

in my heart forever
Nice writing. I stayed at the Lord Hotel a few years ago. I love northern Sudan - some of the nicest people on earth. I never had any probs with the police and stuff, maybe things have changed. Something about Sudan will stay in my heart forever. A paved road all thee way to Wadi Haifi??? No, no,no,no.

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