The Sudan Friday, 16 May 2008


That's "Hello, you alright?" in Sudanese. At first I thought they were inquiring about my state of health, as I was in on the brink of expiring from heat exhaustion during most of my time in The Sudan. The Sudanese summer is serious.

After my lengthy delay awaiting this famed ferry to The Sudan, I was very excited to get back on the bike and ride to the port on Lake Nasser. There I completed the el-Gippo customs release formalities and also met two couples of travellers, both in vehicles. Raidar & Ella from Norway in a Landcruiser and Gary & Joan from Aus/New Zealand in a VW transporter. We then drove our three vehicles onto a barge (separate to the ferry) which was to make its own way (much slower) in the same direction as the ferry. The others had opted for the grubby bunk bed cabins on the and I chose to rough it by sleeping on the top deck of the boat. There were apparently in the region of 700 other citizens on the ferry (about 400% of the boats capacity) so I sat patiently on the deck from 10:30am until we set sail just before sunset to ensure I saved some space for myself to sleep. With no shade the heat was intense, so I made things more comfortable by flattening my hip flask of Captain Morgan rum. I had little option as any alcohol is strictly forbidden (and unavailable) in The Sudan. After a brief altercation with a neighbouring Egyptian felah who was encroaching on my meagre sleeping area I settled to a good nights kip under the stars. There were bodies occupying every tiny space on the deck. Being out on the lake and in the desert the star gazing was very vivid, with several moving satellites in eyeshot just about anywhere you looked in the sky.

In the early afternoon of the next day we arrived at the Sudanese port of Wadi Halfa, conducted our immigration & customs tasks and then headed to the dump of a town centre to the best hotel money could by - where the stench of the shared open latrine was available in all of the rooms, and a bucket of water was provided for showering. It was here I met an Irish biker by the name of Hugh who was heading North after almost a whole lap of Africa. As per this blasphemous photo I took, his bike was parked in the reception and obviously at an Eastern tangent, which meant a local chap bowed down to the almighty BMW 650 (and Allah).

The barge containing our vehicles and enough goods to sustain Wadi Halfa for several months (pictured to left) arrived at midday and after yet more customs tasks our convoy hit the road out of Wadi Halfa. For the obvious advantage of not breathing in pure dust I lead the way and after a brief spell of tarmac we were on a gravel road. I was delighted to be slipping around on the dirt after all the tar or Egypt, and being in front I could give the odd burst ahead of the others. The terrain could only be described as like that of the moon - rocky & sandy and totally devoid of any plant or animal life. At an opportune time before sunset we stopped at a tiny village and made our way to the banks of the Nile, where we set up camp for the night (pictured to right). After some keen interest by the locals they wandered off to their village and we were left to a pleasant evening & camp fire, made even more so by Raidar & Gary revealing a small stock of beers they'd concealed in their vehicles. I made a mental note to ignore all alcohol forbiddance in future.

The next morning the VW & I were keen on an earlier start so we hit the road further South. Due to various navigational nuances that was to be the last we saw of Raidar & Ella on the road to Khartoum. As we made our way south the terrain was becoming more sandy and less rocky. I was revelling in these conditions so pushed ahead of the VW and agreed to stop & wait for them every few hours. The villages I past through all seemed to be deserted, although I later found out most folk get indoors for shade during the hottest part of the day (from 10am - 4pm).

My swagger in the soft stuff was ever increasing and then suddenly and without warning my bike observed a particularly soft patch and I found myself spitting out sand a few metres ahead of my bike. Thanks to the armour in my jacket, and the knee protectors which I had replaced in Egypt I was left with nothing more than a few bruises after flying over the handlebars. I took the opportunity to wait for the others under a shady tree, where a local family appeared and served us some very nice mint tea when Gary & Joan arrived. Shortly after the break we hit a patch of incredibly soft sand (called bull dust in Australian). I made it through (very slowly) but there was no obviously easy route through for the VW and it got stuck just before the end of the soft stuff, impaled on the centre ridge of the tracks, that was higher than the VW's ground clearance. Gary & I spent some time (and perspiration) digging the sand out, placing rocks under the wheels, and jacking up the rear, but all to no avail. We employed the digging services of some of the men from the local village but in the end a 4X4 pickup drove past and effortlessly pulled Gary out. We were quite fatigued by this endeavour in the heat of the day so after a short while found another even more pleasant spot on the Nile to make camp. We were suitably covered in dust so had a bath in the Nile while the local boys kept their litchi's peeled for Crocodylus niloticus (Nile Crocodile). At one point they started gesticulating and throwing stones into the river close to me, but thankfully it was not a croc and only my bottle of soap which was heading downstream and needed retrieval.

Another early start the next morning and briefly further South along the Nile before we cut inland to cross the Nubian desert where the Nile was meandering around for a few hundred km's. Again I headed out in front and after a few km's there was no longer any road but rather an extensive choice of tracks that previous vehicles had taken. I opted for the most enjoyable looking hard-ish surface and had a really good ride (featured in video below) until my tracks faded away. I was obviously on an old track which slowly weathered away into nothing. With a GPS pretty useless in this location I cracked out my old fashioned compass and made a line through the desert towards the East where I knew the Nile would be. It was very soft & slow going at times but I eventually found the river. The going was just as slow through thick sand for the rest of the mornings ride and at one point I came a cropper again. This was a slower 'off' but I had used my right leg to try & correct the fall and it was now trapped under my right pannier luggage bag - facing at a precarious angle in the wrong direction. I was pinned-down and in some discomfort as I was unable to lift the fully laden bike while on the floor. I whistled some locals over from a nearby settlement and they lifted the bike just enough for me to pull free and realise a healthy & functioning leg. Thanks only to my very sturdy motocross boots, and some miracle of a supple knee joint I was in good (yet somewhat John Wayne) shape. This was another advantage of wearing good protective gear, regardless of the discomfort in heat.

I pushed on to the town of Dongola and then a faultless tarmac road, the first since leaving Wadi Halfa three days previously. Gary & Joan had found more fortune on the desert crossing and were there before me. We took this perfectly tarred road (thanks to the Chinese) across the desert for 200kms to cut off yet another long meander of the Nile. I parted company with Gary & Joan at this point as I wanted to push further east before the day was out, but it was certainly not the last I would see of them. The hot wind while riding was furnace-like and not sufficient to cool my bike, even at high speed. I stopped several times for a cool-down break. At one stop I measured the temperature with the little digital thermometer I carry. It was 53.7 in the shade at 2pm. I placed it in the sun and it stopped working at 69.9 and hasn't since. That day I consumed almost 10 litres of water.

The following day was a tarred but tiring slog down to Khartoum due to a large amount of trucks on the road - making their way from The Sudan's only port towards the capital. There were however some very unspoilt and interesting looking Pyramids to stop & look at along the way.

I pulled into the famed overlanders haunt of the Blue Nile Sailing Club in central Khartoum. Its a pretty much derelict sailing club on the banks of the Nile which now uses its green lawn to offer camping. The reception is Kitcheners old gunboat, perched on the sandy banks (pictured to left). After hot cold water shower I walked into the city centre to try & locate some internet access. I had only sent a few emails when the owner came running in asking me to vacate as there was violence in the streets and he had to close his shop. Outside there was a distinct trend in people running in one direction (out of the centre of town) and all shops were locking their doors closed. I was told that there was some shooting in the neighbouring district of Omdurman which had spilled over into the town centre. The gunfire sounded quite close but then it would in a built-up area. After double-taking at a couple of tanks rolling past at a high speed I shed my flipflops and legged it back to the campsite. That evening we watched a delightful display of mortar fire across the river from us in neighbouring Omdurman. We were reassured by a boat load of soldiers who tied-up at the jetty to check for crooks in the campsite, and periodically by pickup loads of soldiers jeering and shouting as they road past, obviously victorious and fresh from the front-line. The next morning I rose very early in an attempt to escape the city. There were road blocks at least every 200m, all operating independently from each other as I was able to pass some by not others. At one roadblock I encountered a particularly slovenly looking warrior who insisted on going through my luggage. His interest was fixed on my very large and expensive digital SLR camera & lens. He slung it over his shoulder and ushered me to move on back into town. This philistine couldn't understand any English (nor could his comrades) so I simply refused to move. Eventually a senior looking officer drove past and I pleaded my case with him. After giving him a short slide show of the pyramids & desert photo's on the camera he let me have it back and I headed back to the campsite. I had tested each of the three exits roads from the city that I knew and had eventually hit brick walls with each.

So I spent the rest of that day at the sailing club, whiling away the heat & the tedium of a military curfew in very good company; an English couple travelling South by public transport and a young German guy travelling South on a DT125 (small bike) - all pictured to the left. I don't know who was more brave. The curfew & checkpoints meant that we couldn't leave the camp and were reduced to emergency rations. Unfortunately we didn't run short enough of food for me to switch over to Roy Mears mode and cook up a pot of sand.

The next morning the number of roadblocks had subsided enough for me to make a run for it and I didn't stop running - riding all day and into Ethiopia. I was looking forward to exploring the interesting area of Omdurman (epicentre of the gunfire) but instead had to leave it with a bitter taste in my mouth - I think it was cordite from the mortars.

I was really looking forward to leaving the desert terrain that I had been in since day three of my trip in Tunisia, and longing for the cool and rainy highlands of Ethiopia.

The parting shot is of this weeks hot finalist, a panting Mr Sudan in 50 degree heat.

PS, here are a few clips showing the terrain in the Nubian desert. Again, if its slow to play press the pause button & wait for the video to load.

# posted by Mark @ 08:34