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Published: December 16th 2009
I wake bright and early at 3am for my ferry trip across the border to Wadi Halfa in Sudan.
Wait! 3am?! That's not right!
My hostel roommate is taking a tour to see Abu Simbel (four hours south of Aswan) so the proprietor and his goons are hammering on our door as a wake-up call. Shouting does not make the pounding desist and even after we open the door they merrily move onto the next poor guest's room and recommence the bludgeoning, as if everyone wasn't awake already. Room by room, floor by floor this continues.
After getting a couple of hours more sleep I catch an early train to the ferry port. I am heartened by one of my final interactions with locals when two men briefly stop to chat and offer me bread and honey on the platform. Egypt is truly fascinating and culturally rich, but it is undoubtedly also an exasperating place to visit. Tourists are usually regarded as cash cows to be milked thoroughly and I’d be lying if I said I’d formed a positive overall impression of people here. Therefore this friendly gesture of kindness while waiting for the train
Foreigners get on first, so we had the whole deck to choose from
greatly lifts my spirits just as I prepare to leave the country.
At the dock foreigners are given priority boarding, allowing us first pick on the deck. The cabins have all been booked out by an overland truck group so the only sleeping space is in the hard, smelly hold or on the floor out in the open. There are significantly more westerners on board than I expected (probably because the ferry last week was cancelled for Eid) and most are doing something similar to myself, at least as far as their time/money allows, though most are in their own shiny 4x4s. Very few people are going to the Sudan for any other reason than purposes of transit.
Loading takes forever, during which for the first time I witness group Muslim prayer when at sunset the entire deck prostrates itself, heads towards Mecca and arses up to the west. Eventually, a full twelve hours after I initially produced my passport the lights black out and we set off.
Arriving late the following afternoon my next new experience is the pleasure of Sudanese bureaucracy. With only two guys on duty, who infuriatingly insist on handing
It got a little busy later
out the necessary forms only upon each individual's arrival at their desk, the bulging queues take ages to move, not helped by a number of people cutting in, much to the annoyance of one American over-lander. I would sympathize with his impatience - it is an interminable process - but later hear him whinging about having to carry his "own goddamn luggage" a couple of hundred metres to customs.
The morning after brings round two of this red tape rigmarole. Not satiated by my combined sacrifice of $150 for visa and ferry ticket, the Sudanese government insists on a further $40 alien registration fee for the privilege of having them keep tabs on me. I feel like the ball in a table tennis rally as I am bounced back and forth six times, including three stops at the same office and two trips to see 'the Captain'.
Finally I leave tiny Wadi Halfa and catch a minibus to Abri. I had heard that this route following the Nile was gruelling, being nothing more than a bumpy desert track. In fact the whole road to Dongola, which I hastily continue on to, is fresh tarmac and the
estimated journey times in my LP are halved in actuality. I am desperately disappointed!
The bland bus rides do however give me plenty of opportunity to interact with local Sudanese, who are without doubt some of the kindest, most welcoming people I have ever met. Sudan, geographically the largest country in Africa (1/4 the size of the USA), has an immensely varied population with 134 languages/cultural groups. Africa as a whole has over 2000, which contravenes the patronising tendency of us ignorant outsiders to view it merely as one homogenous behemoth, and apparently makes the continent more diverse than the rest of the world put together. Such variation is immediately evident once I cross the border. Although Nubians are predominant in the north of Sudan, Arabic and Muslim culture is still on display. The men are more polite and innocent in their friendliness, the children are beautiful, with shiny dark skin and handsome round cheeks, and the women joyfully defy Islamic gravity by covering up only with colourful and ostentatiously flowery dress, far removed from the drab, dour attire of their larger, grumpier Egyptian cousins.
As a solitary traveller I am of particular interest to the
Sudan takes over from Egypt
My first African border crossing
Sudanese. They seem puzzled as to why I'm not part of a group and I am asked on more than a few occasions whether I'm married. My answer of "only 22, no wife yet, but someday Inshallah" does not appear to be an adequate response to such a baffling marital status. Nevertheless the tea biscuits flow freely and after only a day I already feel very welcome and safe in this country.
In Dongola (the largest northern town) I find very little to do, bar complete the registration process required in every town and wander the backstreets photographing the many dazzling doorways which seem to be a serious investment and status symbol for the Sudanese. There are supposed to be a few minor ruins along the Nile route but without my own vehicle they are not easily accessible. I therefore regretfully board another bus after only a day in Dongola and blast through the Nubian desert across more crisp tarmac accompanied by the soundtrack of a man on the radio praising Allah so hard he must be about to climax.
Karima is a much perkier place. Locating a disorganised 'lokanda' (the cheapest form of accommodation available
Typical Sudanese budget accomodation
in Sudan) I ask about where might be open for lunch - it is Friday and I have just heard the muezzin so am not hopeful of many dining options. The only other occupant of a bed stirs and suggests a place. But then comes more. He offers to drive me. I hop in his car without a second thought, disarmed perhaps by his gentle-giant appearance (he looks startlingly like Hightower from the Police Academy films). Would I instantly get into the car of a stranger, so big he could quite easily squash me flat, anywhere else, even at home? I doubt it. It turns out to be a great idea however. He not only pays for lunch, despite my protests, but insists I return the next morning to his brunch only fish restaurant. Upon spotting me approaching his face blossoms into an enormous, radiant smile and I am presented with another free meal and treated as if I were his own brother (who I am also introduced to).
On my second afternoon I visit my first proper sight since entering Sudan; Jebel Barkal. Rising like an imposing Chateau d'If out of the tempestuous sand sea, this monstrous
mountain glowers over me like... ah who am I kidding, it's just a big rock. And not even that big - a hill just under 100m high. Uluru or Table Mountain it most certainly ain't. However, this sacred lump that marked the southernmost point of the Egyptian pharaohs' empire in the middle of the second millennium BC, is worth the visit. It is a pleasant afternoon walk and having been deprived of some adventurous travel along the Nile, it's a relief to actually see something tangibly touristy. Scattered around are a few woefully dilapidated "pyramids". Some are so small as to be almost insulting to those buried inside. However, they do wet my appetite for the next destination, Sudan's premier sight; the ancient royal city of Meroe.
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