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Published: March 16th 2014
The meeting of the Niles
The exact spot where the Blue Nile and White Nile meet.
November 22, 2012
Being a dry country, most of the alcohol that we were carrying has been consumed before crossing the border. To be honest, some do have a few good bottles of wine hidden away for Christmas and new year’s and we have no intention of drinking them in Sudan. We’ve arrived in Khartoum and after driving around looking for the right place, we’ve once again stopped a taxi and organised to follow him to the yacht club where we’ll be staying for the few nights. The gates are an issue and as it’s situated on one of the main thoroughfares, traffic is banking up behind us and not overly happy. Soon, police arrive to stop traffic and allow us the space to reverse and reverse again and eventually get through, while we hold up overhead wires with brooms so we don’t rip out their power source. It’s just another day for us but we’ve created something of a spectacle for the Sudanese passing by.
Tents are set up on the square grassed area with the truck parked nearby in the carpark. Being a yacht club, we are alongside the Nile; a handful of plastic chairs set up
in twos and threes in front of the low fence overlooking its muddy waters. These will later fill with young couples or friends, chatting and watching the watery world go by. Toilets are adjacent to the mosque next door at the far end of the carpark as well as a fruit juice bar which was to become our new obsession. Much money was spent on the various combinations over the coming days and I’m sure they were sad to see us go!
Khartoum was hot and some were happy to lounge around under the shaded area and sort their belongings or catch up on reading and writing. A boat was organised to take us to where the Blue Nile and the White Nile meet and mingle then move on as one towards Egypt. Obviously having put little thought into what the meeting of two rivers meant, I was somewhat disappointed to arrive at the point with next to no fanfare. What had I expected? Bells and whistles? Well, yes. I guess I did. We took photos of the murky water and headed back to camp.
I spent a day wandering with others through a beautifully kept museum, lunch
Kookie Burger Restaurant
Sadly, it was closed so there were no kookie burgers to be had
at a local favourite, the market place and general meandering. The Sudanese people were some of the most polite and friendly I’d met so far, stopping to say hello and welcome us to their country. Having come from Ethiopia, some (including myself) were at first cynical and wondered what they wanted but after greeting us and moving on, we realised quickly that they wanted nothing. How refreshing.
Evenings were spent a little distance down from the yacht club where women set up coffee stands on the grassed area next to the road. The locals had their favourites and soon so did we, seeking out the same woman each evening. I had my fill of mint tea while others drank the strong coffee and we sat under the dark evening sky amongst groups of friends and families and couples and marvelled at how wrong our preconceptions of Sudan were. Sherry and Jareb had unfortunately missed out as Americans, having to fly from Ethiopia to Egypt where they waited for us in Aswan which was disappointing but had also been expected. We would see them in a week, our stay in the country unfortunately short.
On Friday evening, we took
taxis out to a mosque situated inside a cemetery on the outskirts of town. Here, the Sufi men would twirl around and around, showing their devotion in a way unlike any I’d seen. On a previous visit to Cairo I’d seen them in their colourful dresses, a rainbow of swirling colours but here they wore white or green (the colour of Islam). It is not a tourist attraction though we did see some other white faces and therefore it was slow to get going. But the crowd of mainly men were polite and accommodating, many of us eventually having a new ‘friend’ who explained what was going on. The man I was talking to was honest that he was quite keen on a Western girlfriend which I was surprised at, being such a huge cultural difference but once I said I had a partner, he backed off and was happy to continue the conversation. Again, refreshing.
As the sun had already disappeared behind the hills in the distance, I excused myself to go find the others, having realised I’d lost sight of everyone. Thankfully I didn’t have to worry as most had settled into seats in front of the
coffee stall and were deep in conversation. I found a seat amongst Kevin, Denise and Maria and listened to their conversation as they asked questions about Islam, their thoughts on extremists and other things. It turned out they were talking to an Imam who was happy to answer their queries and I listened, fascinated. Here was the religion that, due to terrorism, some had preconceived ideas and a deep misunderstanding about. Soon the conversation turned to lighter subjects and much laughter and we were invited to the Imam’s house the following day for his niece’s naming day. We accepted, thanked the group and said our goodbyes until tomorrow.
Denise, Maria and I went shopping for appropriate presents while Kevin got some clothes repaired and after much debate, we settled on some clothes for the baby and plastic building blocks that the older children could share. Not knowing how many people to expect and not wanting to impose, we didn’t make our way out there until close to midday, giving the taxi driver the directions that the Imam had written for us. But to our embarrassment, they had been waiting for us for a couple
hours and had prepared a huge feast for us. We felt awful. Introductions were made and presents received and appraised. Shoes were removed and we three women went into a room with the Imam’s sister, mother and other women and children while Kevin went with the men. Thankfully one woman spoke almost fluent English and could translate but before her arrival, there was a lot of smiling and hand gesturing. We were made to feel very comfortable so I was thrilled to have been given this opportunity.
Eventually we were ushered into a different room where various dishes were laid out. The Imam and his sister joined us but no one else. Each dish was described and I had to sit on my left hand and clumsily attempt to eat with my right hand, which I managed to some degree. Needless to say, we weren’t leaving there hungry.
It was long apparent that the unmarried Imam had a thing for Denise and spent much time watching her or engaging her in conversation. While we three giggled privately, Denise was in a predicament. Having explained the kind of trip she was on, that we were leaving Khartoum shortly and
would be out of Sudan only days after that did not deter him. Instead, he said they could be married within the week. Nothing could be said to change his mind! In the end, Denise said she had to ask her parents’ permission and she needed to go home to see them. He understood and it was left at that. Meanwhile, Kevin was being dressed in local attire and we women were covered in soft material, draped over and around us and covering our hair. The family nodded approvingly as we posed for photos and laughed along with us as we tried to wrap ourselves without their help. Of course we couldn’t get it right!
We had henna applied to one of our hands (two signifying that we were married) and sat waiting for it to dry before watching the naming day proceedings. A lock of hair was shaved from the sleeping infant before gently and carefully shaving her whole head. Held by her father, it was performed by the Imam’s brother, a much more devout man of the two. It was obvious he did not share his brother’s passion for an international wife. The women talked and laughed,
standing above them while we stood off to the side, being encouraged to take photos if we wanted to. We couldn’t have been made more welcome.
But soon, we needed to get going. We wanted to be back in time for dinner with everyone before packing up and departing in the morning. Contact information was exchanged and the Imam walked us to the road where he put us on the local minivan and gave the driver instructions where to let us off. Negotiating our price was also extremely helpful! It was dark when we arrived at the campsite to find a BBQ dinner waiting for us! It was a lovely end to a lovely day.
Leaving Khartoum, we’ve driven northeast to the USNESCO World Heritage Site of Meroe where ancient pyramids stand. Suse asked for and was granted permission to camp nearby below the dunes and we drove off, planning to see the pyramids tomorrow morning. Shortly after though the sand softened and we soon found ourselves well and truly stuck. The call for shovels came and we put on (or in some cases, took off) shoes and grabbed one of the four shovels while the
rest gathered large rocks in an attempt to create a path for the wheels. But the soft sand went down quite a way and it became obvious this was going to be a large scale rescue. Tents were pulled out and cook group began to prep dinner in the fading light. The truck was eventually moved and parked on more compact ground and I climbed the dunes with my camera, content with watching the sun set beyond distant hills, the pyramids behind us and the vastness of the desert in all directions. Even almost nine months later, we still giggled as we watched Denise and Maria below, armed with shovels and toilet paper, discussing their options. Some things were not going to change…
The next morning as we opened our tents, we found men and their camels had arrived and set up stalls near us. We had breakfast, packed up and moved amongst the stalls before driving back to the entrance of the pyramids. Again, although there seemed to be nothing for miles in any direction, more stalls were set up here and again I wished I could buy something from everything.
The Nubian pyramids differed
from the Egyptian ones, tending to be narrower at the base and not as tall. Here there are more than 200 pyramids and though most are in ruins, restoration work can be seen with the rebuilding of some. We moved about freely, able to walk into the shallow interiors of some while other doors were bordered up. Hieroglyphs looked somewhat similar to those of their Egyptian counterparts but at the same time, different. Others took a camel ride from one group of pyramids to the other.
Back at the entrance, I was stopped by a French journalist who was interested in finding out where we were from and how we came to visit Meroe. I answered his questions, swapped contact details and bade him farewell as I was one of the last to board the truck. With a stop at another pyramid site further down the road (how cool it was to just see random pyramids on the side of the road!), we spent the night on the outskirts of Wadi Halfa, the border town. Little did we know how intimately we would get to know this area…
November 27, 2012
Our first morning in
Wadi Halfa was supposed to be our last. Suse had secured paperwork in Khartoum that would let us cross at the land border, rather than taking the ferry across. Usually the only way across, the ferry company charges overland trucks a ludicrous price, knowing they have no choice if they want to get to Egypt. Well, Suse had other ideas. But so did the ferry company, though at the time we didn’t know.
So while Suse went to Immigration and Customs, we took turns staying with the truck and exploring the town. We ate falafel from ‘Fat Falafel Man’, drank tea from ‘The Tea Lady’ opposite immigration and couldn’t believe our luck when we found a bakery shop that served pastries and cakes drowned in honey, roughly chopped up and mixed with natural yoghurt. Our previous weight loss was about to come to an abrupt end.
Back at the truck, Suse told us that we couldn’t go today and that we had to wait until tomorrow. So cook group were given money and went off to the market place before it closed to pick up supplies for dinner and breakfast. We’d then make our way past the town
perimeter’s checkpoint and back to the seclusion and quiet of the desert, behind rocky hills that more or less hid us from the main road.
It was windy that night and sand and tents blew. Everyone scrambled for rocks to hold the corners of their tents while they ran to the truck for sleeping bags and mats to weight them down. A fire was started behind the truck with logs that we’d carried for just such an occasion when there was no wood to be found in the surrounds. Chairs were set out and people sat with their backs to the wind. Denise and I went for a walk in one direction while Nico set off in another and we watched as his ant size figure climbed a hill on the opposite side of the empty divide. I realised that the sandstone rocks could be ‘carved’ into shapes and we set about sandpapering and creating and starting again if we accidentally broke the piece. With Denise’s birthday coming up and a definite lack of presents available to purchase in town (hence the reason Kevin and I paid for her dinner in Addis weeks earlier), I decided I’d carve her
something and began looking for the perfect piece to start with.
The next day we went back through the checkpoint, having to stop and explain who we were again and parked outside Immigration. We amused ourselves with Scrabble and when we tired of that, Monopoly. And when tempers flared over the blatant bribing and deals that were going on with property sales, we reverted to card games. Or tea. Or laps around town. Some climbed the hill that overlooked the town for exercise, others went and ate sweets (myself included). By this stage, Suse was getting nowhere and getting frustrated. Our paperwork was in order, what was their holdup? Ah, but no one sent them a copy. Okay, so how long would that take? Tomorrow. Don’t worry, tomorrow. We returned to the desert. The checkpoint tried to stop us again but Suse just waved at them and kept going. They waved back.
The next morning, they waved us through without stopping us.
It was another wasted day. Our kind fixer was doing his utmost to help but was hitting barriers as much as we were. And he lived here. He invited us to
camp near his house in town so that we could attend a festival that was taking place. We agreed and set up tents around his walled house. He even offered us use of his shower block which we gratefully accepted. Most went to the festival and danced around but I took the opportunity to spend a quiet evening reading and catching up on sleep, not even hearing everyone return.
Decisions had to be made the next day. It was clear we might not be getting through for some days and it was cutting into peoples’ time in Egypt. Did we want to take the ferry as foot passengers and meet Suse and the truck in a few days? Nat, being Suse’s friend, chose instantly to stay with Suse, as did I. I’d already been to Egypt and I was content to stay and cross by land. Nico, Kevin and Denise also made the decision to stay though eventually, Denise decided to go. And quite rightly. She hadn’t seen Abu Simbel or Aswan like I had. Tickets were purchased and they’d leave the next day.
For Denise’s birthday, Maria had made a trifle of sorts and convinced
a bakery to let her store it in their fridge to set. She then chose an already decorated bajaj and added balloons and streamers to it before arriving in it at our truck where Denise was waiting. We could hear it long before we saw it and Denise jumped for joy at the sight. The three of us crammed in for a birthday spin around town, arms waving out the window, balloons popping as they bounced off the road, music blaring. Our driver was very accommodating but wouldn’t let us do any more than sit in the driver’s seat. I really don’t blame him.
Back in the desert (we all now waved at the checkpoint soldiers and they waved back), we sang happy birthday and Maria presented the cake. Nico had also managed to find some fireworks and Denise agreed it had been a pretty special birthday.
The following day the truck was parked in ‘our’ spot outside immigration and we took taxis down to the ferry terminal. There were some goodbyes to be made as Fred and Alexis would most likely be on a plane back to Canada before we crossed the border, their flights
already booked out of Cairo. We waved everyone off and took a bajaj back into town, just the five of us now. Food was bought and with a lovely Irish couple that we’d met a few days before in tow, we made for ‘home’.
I could tell you day by day what we did but it was much of the same. Get up, breakfast, head into town, be told ‘tomorrow’, drink tea, buy food, eat pastries and yoghurt (I did eventually get sick of eating it), return to desert, dinner, bed, repeat. This continued for some days. One day we didn't even bother going in, choosing to spend the time playing Scrabble in the shade of the truck and doing washing in buckets. Even Gill and Dan (the Irish) left before us. Suse was doing everything in her power to not give in, now knowing that the ferry company had used contacts to block our land exit so that they wouldn’t lose business. They knew if we managed to get across, we’d pave the way for other overland trucks to do the same. That’s exactly what Suse hoped for and we were therefore at loggerheads. It was
hard to know who was helping who but eventually, Suse got hold of people in Khartoum that couldn’t understand why we were still in Wadi Halfa. The mobile phone was handed to the head of Immigration and the man on the other end of the phone clearly heard to be shouting.
We got our permission to go.
It was too late to go today as the border closed at 7pm and we needed to wait for an Egyptian escort to meet us so it was decided we would leave tomorrow. We would return to the desert for one final night. It was almost bittersweet to be leaving. In town, we went around to our local haunts, saying goodbye to everyone. Nico had documented most of Wadi Halfa’s donkey population with his camera and after one final hiccup, we were on our way to the border.
The road winds through hilly pebbly terrain and spat us out at a river where we had to wait for the barge to return from the other side to carry us across. From there, it was a quiet journey until the border buildings came into view. We whooped and carried on, so
close to victory. The truck was parked, paperwork was filed and we scanned the Egyptian horizon for our escort. Border staff leered and commented on us women so I lay on the seats and worked through my puzzle book, occasionally sitting up to look at Egypt.
Sunset was approaching and mild anxiety kicked in. The staff wanted to leave to make it back for the last ferry so they could get home. We needed them to stay so when the escort arrived, we could cross. I’ve no idea what Suse said to them but they grudgingly agreed to wait.
The escort vehicles finally arrived, several hours late but what could we say? It was dark and ordered off the truck while they searched it, we stood in the headlights joking and carrying on. A look from one of the guards put a stop to that. But when they came up to us with my Swiss army knife and our pet rock we lost it. I was upset about my Swiss army knife but we couldn’t help laughing that they’d taken our white rock with his green pen face. Oddly though, they weren’t laughing along with us so we
quickly stopped. But I wanted my knife back. They kept saying yes, yes and eventually, one of the men took responsibility for both items and told me I’d be able to collect them from him soon enough. I had to settle for that.
We were cleared for Egypt. It's December 13. Victory was sweet!
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