sudan-sahara

Desertaholics

Sudan 06 – 11/07/2012

In climatically harsh corners of the world, access for routine measurements and maintenance of a weather station is impractical, so the infrared energy emitted by land can only be detected with NASA satellites. These are their top ten highest ever recorded air temperatures on the planet (in degrees Fahrenheit) and (Celsius):

1. El Azizia, Libya (136) (57,8)
2. Death Valley, California (134) (56,6)
3. Ghadames, Libya (131) (55)
3. Kebili, Tunisia (131) (55)
5. Timbuktu, Mali (130) (54,4)
5. Araouane, Mali (130) (54,4)
7. Tirat Tsvi, Israel (129) (53,9)
8. Ahwaz, Iran (128) (53,3)
8. Agha Jari, Iran (128) (53,3)
10. Wadi Halfa , Sudan (127) (52,7)

Me, Ana and our Yamaha only landed in the place ranked at the bottom of this top ten, so no glory to behold. To our defense, it was July, so at least we had made it to number 10 at the peak of summer. The little town of Halfa, as locals call it, is the only border crossing in use between Sudan and Egypt. In the wake of the 20th century, the egyptians decided to flood it, along with the entire homeland of Nubian people, sinking them both under Lake Nasser, world’s second largest manmade lake. Egypt needed a dam to harvest more Nile. We would learn more about the consequences of that dam a little later. Now our main concern was to cross this water border with the weekly ferry to Aswan. It must be told that there is a brand new overland route, but Egypt keeps postponing its grand inauguration for many months. Reportedly some overland jeeps have already driven on it, after paying thousands of dollars for the privilege and the armed escort.
Our journey across Sudan had been more humbling than ever. Maybe the dreaded ferry was just the right end to it. The Sudanese visa was easy to sort out in Nairobi, requiring just a bogus hotel booking and a letter from our embassy. The funny thing is that even if the Sudanese ATMs don’t take foreign cards (we did not believe that until trying ourselves), we had to hand in for the visa a xerox of our VISA. For the Yamaha we had to wait a couple of hours at the border, while temperatures soared and a soft rain flickered, so that the custom people could enjoy a meal, a nap and a prayer. Time we had plenty, and we got a great deal for waiting patiently. 15 Sudanese pound for the temporary import permit. Again, details on how to overland without a Carnet, our take, on the HUBB.
The question Africans ask us all the time and that we also often ask ourselves is: ‘why do we travel?’ I guess some people travel to get that perfect tan by the side of a pool, but we don’t know many who do. Travel can be a testing gap in what we take for granted. Learning how to fix your bike with whatever you can find and then pull it through difficult terrain, negotiating roadside purchases in a foreign language, mastering a crackling fire where lion footprints are fresh. New skills for the new you reward the decision to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Since traveling, the world has become more ‘real’ to us, but the scope of our journey, besides our subsidiary quest for a ‘home’, has been meeting the people and sharing their lifestyle. If you are like us, and travel for the people, Sudan is a treat. The hospitality of the Sudanese is legendary, and we didn’t need to move away from the border to experience it, as the officers invited us to share their food. Our first bushcamp that night was sketchy, but it was dry, the sky was clear and we were happy to sweat again.

First breakfast was a bit goaty for 7 in the morning (flat unleavened bread with goat soup, lentil soup and goat offal stew), but the cook in blue galabiyya was so happy to feed us, that we couldn’t say no.

Crossing the bridge over the Blue and White Nile confluence in Khartoum, we felt we should wash down the protein loaded breakfast with something raw. We swung by the market and found this juicing joint.

Now, you need to know these are the best fruit juices in the world. Sudan, once the largest country in Africa, after the independence of South Sudan falling into second, is basically a vast, baking desert. Compared to Egypt, the Nile valley is barely a trickle of life across the ocean of dunes and bare rock. But somehow delicious fruit is widely available, and cheap, so are the amazing freshly squeezed juices and homemade yoghurt smoothies. And they will gladly fix you a custom blend of your choice, should you ask. I got mine just right: half guava, half lime.

Actually, all the food is Sudan is very good. Saffron rice, pickles, kebabs, falafel, roasted meats, soups, salads, lentil pancakes and lots of inexpensive flat bread. You can tell the people love to eat and to share their food with strangers, as we were often invited to grab a bite or taste a dish. At every corner of the dusty capital and dotting the national routes between towns, women brew ethiopian coffee and tea. The Sudanese had already impressed us with their beauty and pizzazz, even if there is very little on display, because in Sudan, a muslim country, is enforced a form of sharia.

But the tea ladies were positively gorgeous, even more so in their vividly colored, transparent veils. Their tea stands are minuscule, but somehow kept neat and perfectly organized. The tea lady would sit upright on her stool for hours, brewing, mixing, serving and cleaning, without losing her smile and grace. Like Sayida, for instance:

So was Fatuma, who seemed to like me 🙂

Sayida has, like all tea ladies, a collection of glass jars with cardamon, cinnamon, pomegranate peel, ginger and other spices and aromatic grasses, that you can perfume your tea with. We noticed that many people, particularly the old, are very picky with their tea. One grandpa even walked to the stand with his own blend tucked in a piece of paper. He would only trust the tea lady with boiling the water. Sayida’s palls were hyped we had stopped by the stand.

After a spicy sandwich of stewed eggplants in pita bread, we left, stoping here and there to peel off the melting socks and let our sorry feet breathe. Since entering Sudan we had been recording temperatures of 52-54 Celsius by day, and 27 at dawn. Our routine had changed: drive from 6 to 22, with long breaks around noon.

In this extreme weather people bodies should be rotting along the road, just like dead cattle do on some stretches. This reminded us of Mauritania, only with great food, fabulous people and an amazing lifeline: Free, good drinking water for everyone. Clay amphoras filled with cold water are laid out with a cup for everyone to share, under the shade of brick or concrete kiosks all over the country. Sometimes a chair, a bench, or even a carpet, so that the thirty and the tired can rest and survive. We love the concept, Africa should see more of this. In one of these man made oasis the caretaker heard our Yamaha, and came by to ask if we needed any food. We pushed on to another top notch campsite. After showering in our own sweat for two days, we decided to sacrifice some water to freshen up a bit. We managed to drop-shower and brush our teeth with less than 2 cups.
When we had pitched, it was crazy hot, quiet and beautiful, as only the desert can be. We had missed it. We noticed some distant lightening in the distance, but we took them for harmless wrinkles on the perfectly starlit sky. We were wrong. Not even an hour later, the storm hit. First the wind shook us well and scattered some sand. Then it started to pour, a massive, relentless rain. Lightings stroke. Thunders roared. It was scary. We were alone in the desert, facing the most powerful storm in the whole Africa journey. What was this? Tent quickly filled with water, and we heard the bike falling on one side as the mushy sand gave up under its weight. But we had to stay inside, where it was raining just like in a tropical jungle, or the tent would have been swept away by the wind. I am amazed the poles and the fabric didn’t break, because we had to hold the tent walls against the pounding rain for a couple of hours. We had no clue how to deal with all that, what if the torrents would come sweeping? Miraculously, the wind calmed a bit, so I went out to lift the bike. After serving her well on many thousands of miles, Ana’s old sneaker was sacrificed to make a sidestand for our Yamaha.

Maybe another hour later rain, wind, lighting and thunder all lost intensity. Now we could hear into the desert silence, and it was worrisome. It sounded like water flowing, and coming out of the tent we saw rainwater streaming across the desert, under the moonlight. We had been more lucky than cautious to pitch camp on a patch of higher ground, so we might be safe, even if surrounded by cascading streams. There were distant trucks honking: we had crossed a dry riverbed earlier, which must have been flooded, with the trucks ambushed by storm. It was difficult to sleep that night. The fact that we had taken a thorough shower while hanging for dear life inside the tent, or that our stuff, except for the gizmo backpack, was soaking wet counted less than the paranoia that the storm was not over. The brisk morning was quiet, almost dry, but last night drama was still evident.

Small pools lingered inside

In half an hour everything was dry again. Packed up our bits, and left to find people, and tea. Now I realize that at this point into the story you might have grown impatient with the abundant text, and the lack of supporting photos. We’ll explain why.
After last night’s storm, we felt alienated from the security and assertiveness of human settlements, we missed our friends and families. But the beauty of Sudan melted the panic away. We had reached the fringes of the ochre Nubian desert, where rocks glisten blue under scorching sun.

We enjoy scorching sun, so I revved up my bike and hit the dunes. Until I ended up in a DRC moment, only in the copycat the swamp was blistering sand, instead of cotton mud.

And flashback to DRC

A man arrived on his camel, not too bummed we would not take it for a ride, but rather happy to give a hand.

The light bike felt awesome on dunes, I had a blast. It had possible soared to 54sh Celsius, but I was enjoying my riding, and Ana her shooting. We had almost forgotten to check out the Meroe pyramids behind the dunes. From 592 BC to 350 AC the Meroitic black pharaohs thrived on this land, finally conceding power to the Abyssinians arrived from modern day Ethiopia. Their narrow pyramids cluster in the well preserved Begrawiya site, a geometry even more striking against the soft profile of the desert.

Unfortunately this was our final photo in Sudan. Abruptly, the camera stopped working. I tried in vain to resuscitate it for the next days, it never powered up again. To make our day even ‘better’, minutes after the Canon heart attack, our Garmin GPS died as well. It was the second GPS to lose on the trip. That night in the bush the mood was as bleak as it gets: we had a basic map of East Africa, but without a GPS we would never find customs offices and whatnot to sort our papers in Egypt. Now we were sure prey for the egyptian fixers. We could see no end to the sacrifices that the journey demanded. We were surrounded by clean desert, but we hardly slept.
The next day we arrived in Abu Hamed, the last stop before the final push to Halfa. 340 km more to reach the border we had feared the most. In our original plans from the 2010, before the crash, we had not included Sudan, nor Egypt, knowing that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to cross the border without a Carnet de Passage. Now Yemen and Syria were in turmoil, so without satellite communication or other emergency device we would not attempt to cross them alone. Egypt was the only logical next step. In Abu Hamed the sidewalk was melting. We had developed by now a routine of pouring water over our riding gear and heads whenever we could find it plentiful. Quite effective in the blistering desert wind. But the mix of stress from last day’s events and intense heat made us both feel dizzy. We pulled by a falafel joint to recover with a cup of strong cardamon tea. We were welcomed again with heart melting smiles and incredible hospitality. Hearing that we were about to leave for Halfa, everybody jumped off their chairs: ‘the road is very bad, you cannot go, you must go back and follow the new tarred road!’ So we were not on the new road then? The GPS had broken before Atbara, I guess we must have missed a turn. The Abu Hamed alternate route to Halfa is pure offroad, and it runs parallel to the train rail, with stations every 30 km. Halfway, at station 5 we would find a rest place with water and tea, but should anything go wrong, for the rest of the journey we’d be alone in the desert. ‘There is very little traffic’, the men insisted. After a lengthy debate, we had to concede it was irresponsible to continue. We were in no shape or gear to risk being stranded under intense weather.

So we turned back. Now if we were to catch that damn ferry at all we had to do at least 650 km before the end of the day. Back in Atbara we juiced up for the 200 km stretch of nothing that comes next. We kept thinking about that cyclist met we had a few days ago, wondering how did he cope where there are no settlements, and no amphoras. This new road is like they say in Abu Hamed: super smooth Chinese tar, man made perfection in an imperfect landscape of surreal beauty. The empty space gives one time to think about things. It was rough, but we made it to Dongola with our water reserves just about to end. Dongola had great beat, water was no longer as brown as in Atbara, bakeries baked bread, falafel stands smelled good, people smiled. We filled up the tank, then we camped, assured that we had done our job for the day. We had driven approximatively 730 km. Sun set again as if a huge red bulb had been turned off in the distant haze.
We woke up with only 200 km to do. The game plan for the day was to arrive before noon, find a hotel and buy tickets for the ferry. Wadi Halfa is home to the remaining original inhabitants of the Nubian town of Halfa, now lying on the bottom of Lake Nasser. The few families that resisted forced government relocation founded an unassuming settlement that hardly looks like the important border town that it actually is. Every overlander has heard about Mr. Fix-It-All in Halfa. As much as we hate the ‘fixer’ concept, today, when we are writing this, and are able to put things into perspective, we must admit that Mazar is not a bad guy. We met him on our way to the docks taking home a girl from the UK who had arrived from Aswan. Many travelers stay for free at his place, and he takes care of all their papers and shit. Mazar is considerate, well spoken, and to be honest never asked anything from us. Theoretically we did not need him. The thing is, the ferry has a catch: it leaves on wednesday, but your vehicle travels by a barge, that leaves a day or more after the ferry. So you cannot load your vehicle yourself, unless willing to spend another week in Halfa waiting for the next boat and a hefty fee for storage in Aswan. Here’s comes Mazar, whom we had to relinquish the bike key, to load the Yamaha on the barge that was not even there yet. That night we hit town for a few carafes of the famous Halfa lime juice with Kostas, a greek journalist who is paid to ride different bikes around the world. He had arrived from Egypt and was going to Cape Town, then to South America. The hot topic was his experience on the newly inaugurated RO-RO from Turkey to Port Said, currently the only option in or out of Africa. Back to our hotel, we were anticipating a frenzy on the ferry: the place had filled up to capacity, luggage flooded any available space. But we had no idea.
After a final Sudanese breakfast of fuul with gibna (cheese), rocket and olive oil, we fought with 500 more people onboard for a place under deck. We were embarking for the craziest 24 hours journey. On that Ark, in that Babylon, we would endure every imaginable emotion and smell, experience revolt and awe, and meet and befriend Carola and Joe, who would play a significant part in our future.