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Published: January 11th 2010
My LP grimly prophesises seven hours to Atbara from Karima, but it takes just three. This allows me time to transfer - after a another free lunch and lift between bus depots courtesy of an off duty policeman - straight on to Khartoum, rather than waste a day in this uninteresting transport hub. Just under halfway, at my request, I am unceremoniously dumped in the desert at Begrawiya, just shy of the sensational Meroe pyramids.
These crumbling tombs are the last testament to the ancient Kingdom of Kush (800BC - 350AD) of which Meroe was the capital. They are a fantastic sight. Significantly smaller and also narrower in structure than the epic pyramids of Giza, these ruins are appealing because of their solitude. They occupy rises on three sides of a sunken, empty plain and the scenery helps to exaggerate this atmosphere of desertion. I am the sole inhabitant of the site and pitch my tent within spitting distance of one of the outermost pyramids before blissfully strolling around in wonderment. I have a very brief moment of panic when three security guards approach me at sunset, expecting them to charge or, worse, eject me. Not in Sudan! It
turns out they only want to say hello and even offer me a bed in their distant night-time lodgings. This country continues to delight me with its unprecedented hospitality. I go to sleep feeling impossibly happy.
In the morning, after my tent is almost ripped apart and flooded with sand by the howling wind that materialises during the night, I continue leisurely walking around clicking away with my camera. Eventually, sadly, I recognise the need to leave before the full force of the sun becomes too punishing, and I cross the desert back to the main road. After a half hour shower of dust from the lorries passing both ways and two unsympathetic buses speeding by, I board the third for the remaining couple of hours to Khartoum, only the second (after Cairo) and, at this stage, the final big African city which I am actually looking forward to visiting before Cape Town.
I rock up in a filthy state. Sand fills every nook and cranny and my white t-shirt (yes, I made the school boy error of bringing white clothing) is irreversibly tanned. I haven't showered (how?) or changed clothes (what's the point?) in eight
This brilliantly camouflaged praying mantis was only about the size of one segment of your little finger
days. Taking the shoes off my feet is probably a violation of the Geneva Convention. I am now able to look in the mirror for the first time since Dongola and after a shave and relieving cold shower I get to see the full extent of the damage inflicted by Karima's mosquito population - my lokanda there had no doors, meaning it was overrun by an army of them at night. My face looks like its suffering from a localised dose of chicken pox or a horrifying outbreak of herpes. Not pleasant!
Khartoum is hardly much cleaner than Cairo, though it's grid pattern makes it a lot more organised and more easily navigable. The city is actually three cities combined around the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. I am based in Khartoum proper, which comprises different intermingled architectural styles: small, individual houses and huts; numerous large colonial style mansions which seem to be almost exclusively the offices of obscure, pedantic and pompously named government departments; and flash high rises (some finished, many more still in development). Construction of the latter kind is everywhere and I finally start to notice some of the legion of Chinese migrants
who are currently flocking to Sudan to assist in such projects. China has recently been cleverly offering its no-strings-attached support to pariah regimes in Africa, most notably in Angola and Sudan. Why? Oil! 60% of Sudanese oil goes to the Chinese. In return the Chinese government turn a blind eye to any ethical human rights issues (I suppose at least they're not being hypocritical) and bring investment in an attempt to satisfy the Sudanese government's fetish for construction, such as the omnipresent road building I witnessed further north.
I spend an enjoyably, uneventful birthday in Khartoum, visiting museums and relaxing at my campsite by the river, content to celebrate merely by being somewhere foreign and hot. And by God Khartoum is hot! The hottest place so far on my trip and not somewhere to explore after about 10am, as I discover to my cost when I collect my Ethiopian visa one afternoon, with the embassy an hours walk across town. The evening is spent smoking sheesha with a like-minded French traveller I previously met on the ferry, and conversing with locals. I have noticed that it is invariably the older generation of Sudanese who can hold a good
All by myself
Sudan's premier tourist sight all to myself!
conversation in English. This is because President Bashir, upon taking power twenty years ago, quickly abolished English teaching in schools - a purposeful middle finger to Sudan's colonial past and another of his many tools of authoritarian control. Tea is consumed freely that night, but no alcohol for fear of a flogging. Sudan maintains strict Islamic laws (at least in government strongholds) enforced since 1983 when President Numeiri poured $11million worth of alcohol into the Nile. A sad day for party-goers everywhere. A great day for Khartoum's crocodiles, that is, the few crocodiles remaining that had not yet been turned into shoes.
My final day in the city is probably my best. Having passed a relaxing riverside Friday morning I head over to Omdurman's Hamed el-Nil mosque in the afternoon to witness the weekly display of whirling Dervishes. It begins with a couple of guys with hand drums and Beatles-esque sunglasses getting the crowd going and a few people jokingly enter the small circle for a quick dance. However, everyone is soon marshalled to leave a big, ovular, open space. Inside it individuals twirl at ever increasing speeds while a troupe does laps within the enclosure beating drums,
burning incense and chanting. At the perimeter the crowd joins the increasing crescendo of chanting, swaying rhythmically back and forth with their arms as if about to attempt a long-jump from a static position. The whole thing is very exotic and hard not to get caught up in. My beaming smile of fascination is probably inappropriate. I try to picture the same event but 125 years ago, performed the night of the capture of Khartoum. Tens of thousands of Dervishes celebrating victory over the hated Egyptian garrison and the death and decapitation of one of the hated British Empire's great commanders; the infidel General Gordon. What a party that must have been!
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