Sudan doesn’t have a shiny reputation as a tourist destination, and is largely avoided by travellers. It has the image among westerners as a place of desert sands, war, fundamentalists and even genocide. Andrea Kaucka and Rene Bauer have a different story to tell.
Travelling from Europe to Sudan, you have to go through Egypt and then load your car onto a ferry, though “rusty tub” would be a more fitting description. This is necessary to cross the Nasser Lake from Assuan to Wadi Halfa, because roads between the two countries are not open to the public.
The experience is rather disconcerting because you have to go on a “passenger ferry” while your vehicle is assigned to a “car barge”. We could only hope and pray that we would be reunited with our trusty Nissan Patrol on the other side of the lake, and not at its bottom!
In this part of the world they don´t appear to know about ratchets and proper tie-downs. The cars were secured by little more than a flimsy piece of string, the car´s handbrake, first gear and a lot of praying.
We left Assuan a day later than the Nissan. Our planned departure was scheduled for 9am, but we ended up leaving at 5pm because the ferry was overloaded with food, tins, fridges, bathtubs and people. As we hadn’t booked a cabin in a bid to save money, we were at the mercy of the burning sun for much of the time. The journey took about 20 hours, and when we arrived in Wadi Halfa we got our first shock – the car barge was nowhere to be seen.
To our relief, we found that the barge had experienced engine trouble in the middle of the lake and had been delayed. This meant we had the opportunity to stay over in one of the locandas (hotels) in Wadi Halfa. Mind you, the name “hotel” was an absolute overstatement. The term “cell” would be a more accurate.
It was several days before our Nissan arrived, and it took all day to unload it after we denied the captain a tip for his efforts.
There were three cars on the barge – a Mitsubishi L300, a newer Patrol 3,0 and our truck, a 1992 Nissan Patrol SWB. As soon as we had checked the vehicles, we hit the dust road for Khartoum. The first night in the desert under a thousand stars was great compensation for the stress of the previous few days.
Lost in Nubian villages
We were lucky to take this road along the Nile before it was tarred. There was gravel, deep sand and nothing but desert around us. Sometimes the Nile would be close by, and sometimes a few kilometres away.
The first thing we noticed when we drove through a Sudanese village was that it was clean and tidy. The villages consist mostly of mud houses, nicely decorated with a colourful entrance gate, with palm trees and swept yards. It felt like travelling back in time.
Whenever we stopped at a shop for a cold drink we were greeted with respect and friendliness.Often the people invited us for a tea or a jebenah, which is a Sudanese coffee with cardamom.
Most of the men wanted to check out our Nissan, so we would open the bonnet to let them have a look at the straight six. They would smile, and give the thumbs up before walking off, their gallabiyas waving in the wind.
As there are no camping grounds in this part of the world, we always camped in the desert. There are lots of beautiful places to spend the night, either behind a sand dune or at the foot of a rocky outcrop.
During the day we collected what little firewood we could find and put it on our roof rack for the evening. Needless to say, we absolutely loved those nights in the Sahara with nothing but sand and peace around us, and the Milky Way overhead.
One of the bigger towns on our way to Khartoum was Dongola, but we stopped there only to replenish our water supply and buy bread and vegetables from the market. To the locals, we were something of an attraction, as they aren’t used to visitors. For us, it was quite an experience.
We left Dongola for a holy mountain that was said to be the site of an ancient civilisation.
Land of the black pharaohs
The mountain soon filled the horizon. Legend has it that this was the residence of the God of the Air, Amun, or Jebel Barkal. In the foothills were the remains of a massive temple and behind it, an old graveyard of nine pyramids.
A few kilometres farther down the road we came to the old tombs of El Kuru. Its pyramids were long gone, but one can still visit the underground tomb of King Tantamani.
The door was locked, and we tried to find a guard with a key. Eventually an old man came shuffling towards us with a lamp and the keys. Inside the tomb, we were amazed by the old paintings, similar to the ones in Egypt.
Once again, we made camp in the desert and reminisced about the events of the day.
In the morning we packed up early before the heat kicked in, and continued towards Meroe, one of the largest pyramid fields in Sudan. At one time there were more than 200, but many have been claimed by the desert winds.
There are still about 40 to be seen. They may not be as impressive and big as those in Egypt, but to us they held much more fascination, because there were no tourists here. We felt like explorers, finding these ancient places. There is just a sea of sand and a wind that has been blowing for thousands of years — blue sky and these ancient pyramids. Absolutely magnificent!
After spending two hours walking among the pyramids, we took a deep sand track through the Bayuda desert and headed for two other mysterious places in the middle of nowhere – the temples of Musawwarat and Naga. These ancient monuments once belonged to a mighty kingdom, which succeeded the Egyptian dynasties and the Kingdom of Kush.
Once a colony of the Egyptian pharaohs, the kingdom gained independence when the Egyptian rulers weakened, in about 2000 BC. The architectural style, reliefs, religion and lifestyle were very similar to those in Egypt, and this is reflected in the temples, pyramids, engravings and paintings.
After a day of sightseeing, the sun set while we were still driving. In Africa it’s a bad idea to travel at night, not only because of possible bandits but also because of animals and children. There were a few occasions when we were startled by the sudden appearance of a cow or camel right in front of us.
There is also the problem of the lack of electricity in the rural areas, so there is no warning of lights when you approach a village. When we stopped that night, we thought we were on a lonely plain. Only in the morning did we find that we had slept right in the middle of a little village! Children had gathered around us and watched us unwind. Slightly embarrassed, we had a quick breakfast and hit the road. And this time there was no sand or gravel track, but lovely, new tar.
The new road cut through an ocean of sand, which was sometimes lined by low shrubs, occasionally with a few goats or camels chewing on the dry branches. We went through a light sandstorm, but other than that there was nothing, and we had trouble keeping our eyes open.
Finally, after about 400km, the settlements were getting bigger, and more and more houses and buildings were popping out of the sand, mostly mud buildings in a typical Arab style.
Khartoum, guns and monkeys
And so to fabled Khartoum, capital city of Sudan. The traffic got heavier and soon we were in the colourful chaos that is typical of a capital city.
We were flagged down by some Sudanese guys in a 4×4, and that´s how we met Abdel Salam, Taha, Hassan and Mohammed — a bunch of off-road fanatics. They confessed later that they often “hunt down” foreign overlanders coming through Khartoum.
Their hospitality was unbelievable. and we ended up staying with Taha for more than a week.
In Khartoum we had to apply for travel permits to enter the south-western regions of the country. There are many roadblocks in Sudan and the officials always want to see your passports and travel permits.
We wanted permits for Darfur, the Red Sea and the Nuba Mountains. The officer immediately crossed out Darfur, as this was a “no go” area for tourists.
Our new friends invited us on a trip to a mango plantation. This proved to be perfect timing as it was 23rd January, Rene´s 30th birthday.
In the beginning everything went well. On the way we had a lovely lunch of grilled Nile perch and shata – a very hot chilli sauce. On resuming the journey, we turned onto a muddy track and drove between the villages.
There was a little dam we had to cross, and unfortunately Rene stalled the truck and nearly put it on its side. We were stuck in a muddy dam in Sudan! The left front wheel was about half a metre in the air. Luckily, our hefty Sudanese friends hung on to the side of the truck to get the wheel back down, and we got out.
As usually happens in the wilds of Africa, a big crowd gathered for the spectacle. It must have been like TV – some white guys, a big car and lots of action!
The mud track soon became sand and at some points was not much more than a metre wide. We had to squeeze our car through the bushes. We looked at each other and both had the same thought. What if these people kidnapped us? What if they stopped their cars, and pulled out guns? Would it be a case of, “That’s it for our adventure in Africa?”
Well, the cars in front of us did stop. Abdelsalam got out, opened his boot … and pulled out guns. We looked at him with big eyes, and he just grinned and told us we were going to shoot monkeys. Phew! What a relief!
Into the unknown
After an eventful day, our friends returned to Khartoum and we continued towards the province of Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains. For us, this felt like a road into the absolute unknown. We had heard of the Nuba, but one of our major concerns was the civil war that had been raging there for 22 years.
We spent the first night in El Obeid, which is halfway to the mountains. Actually, we were sent there to say hello to Taha´s sister, but “hello” in Sudan means having dinner, staying the night, having breakfast and leaving around lunchtime the next day!
From El Obeid it was another 300km to Kadugli, South Kordofan´s capital. The first 80km was bad asphalt and the rest a washed out track, destroyed by the rainy season and heavy trucks.
After a tough, bone shaking journey, we arrived in Kadugli at sunset and made camp outside town in a lovely setting among acacia trees. We were a bit nervous. There were no tourists here, a war was said to be raging and we didn’t know how people would react when they came across us. Curiosity was stronger than fear, though, and the Nuba mountains are home to some very interesting tribes.
This little mountain range is up to 900m high, with villages nestled in the rolling hills. But instead of typical Arab-style houses, there were mainly rondavels and mud huts. It was Africa going sub-Saharan!
Our first contact with people from Kadugli was cautious. The locals were timid and didn’t understand what a white person would want there. When they saw our overland truck they just shook their heads in disbelief at these “tourists”.
Through a friend of Taha, we were directed to the local Sudanese People´s Liberation Movement office to meet Jabir, a young information officer who volunteered to be our guide. Wherever we went in our Nissan, people stopped and looked on in awe.
Kadugli´s main road is tarred, but the rest is dust and gravel with deep potholes. There were lots of people about, many of them walking into town from the surrounding villages.
We met a group of schoolchildren, in neat uniforms. They came to greet and touch us because, for them, white skin is something unusual. Some smaller children even started crying when they saw us.
Later that day we paid a visit to the Miri Miri dam, where Rene and Jabir enjoyed a cooling swim. We were told there was no bilharzia. Although we went to Sudan in winter, it still got close to 40C in January. Even at night the temperature never dipped below 25C.
An ice-cold beer would really have been appreciated, but there’s no such thing in Sudan, a strict Muslim country, unless one sneaks into an unofficial bar in the evening and tries marisa or arragi – local beers made from sorghum and a spirit made from dates. We spent the evenings sitting in a dark alley – there is no power supply – sipping hot coffee.
Our days of exploring Sudan unfortunately came to an end because our visas were expiring. And so we made our way back towards Kosti and on to the Ethiopian border.
On the Sudanese side we were invited for coffee one last time while an official took care of our passports. With heavy hearts, we left Africa´s most friendly and hospitable country.