North Sudan

Three pyramids 250 1

I was keen to get going towards the desert, and had had enough of the hot city. After spending the best part of the day on my attempts to register as a foreign visitor in the Aliens Office, I left Khartoum mid-afternoon crossing the Nile and heading north following the railway track. The same railway that Lord Kitchener had constructed across the Nubian Desert in the last years of the 19th century, from the edge of British rule in Upper Egypt, south through the sand to Khartoum. It was an extraordinary engineering and logistical feat, and enabled him to efficiently move troops and armaments south. With superior weaponry he subsequently defeated the Mahdist troops with relative ease at the Battle of Omdurman, next to present day Khartoum, killed the Khalifa duly avenging his hero General Gordon's death fifteen years previously in the siege of Khartoum, and took control of Sudan for Britain.

Where are the Pyramids?
Two and a half hours into the desert and I was glad to have the auxiliary fuel tanks as backup. The two fuel stations on the way only had diesel available. I was looking for the Meroe pyramids. In a country not exactly welcoming to tourists, and very nervous about travel movements on the road (which made it even more surprising for me to hear of the raid on the capital a week after I'd left, by rebel troops that had made their way - undetected - disguised I read as regular troops, across from the west of the country), there was very little information available on the pyramids. Perhaps I was pronouncing it wrong but asking at two checkpoints, then a man on the side of the road waiting for a lift - even making pyramid shapes with my hands - they were baffled by my enquiry.

Little is known about the Meroe pyramids - most of them have been plundered, more recently by an Italian explorer in the 19th century who knocked the tops off all of them to access any treasure he could find inside. It is believed the area was fertile enough back then - due to different weather patterns than those of today - to sustain a much larger population, and before the time of Christ, the rulers of this advanced Kushite civilisation could afford to construct these huge burial tombs. Due to their relative inaccessibility, and the proximity of the more famous pyramids in Egypt, these see few visitors. There were no signs advertising their proximity.

Meroe 530 1

But then there they were! Unmistakable, stone structures rising out of the amber desert sands. The first set on the left of the road I went to investigate, and found them to be in an advanced state of disintegration. Returning to the road I continued a little further to where a grander grouping could be seen off to the right. Set back about a kilometre, I took off across the sand in the evening light hoping to get some photographs of these strange edifices before the light had gone.

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A camel and his owner were hanging around and for a dollar he took me the ten minutes to the back of the ruins. It was a tourist pleasure swaying along on the camel in this environment in the dying light, the soft pad of the camels step in the sand the only sound. A number of the pyramids had been renovated, suggesting what they would have been like 2,500 years ago. The ones that weren't had more of a sense of antiquity, the sand and wind blasted surface of the blocks giving a more convincing impression of time passed. With no houses, or other signs of human activity, the desert was slowly reclaiming these ancient pyramids. In the setting sun the atmosphere was heightened by the silence, and the absence of any other people. My first ancient civilisation experience.

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Riding in the Dunes
Intending to camp the night in the dunes, I rode the bike around the back of the pyramids - to find two Land Rovers. I had met the two couples, one Dutch the other South African, in Khartoum, and they were on their way on a loop to Port Said on the coast before continuing south to the cool highlands of Ethiopia.

The sand was soft and as it began an incline, the bike was having trouble. In sand, a bike obviously has much less traction. The front wheel wants to plough into the sand, and the rear tends to dig itself in if given a chance. So the idea is to keep a momentum going, usually involving keeping the revs up, the rear wheel driving the bike forward
through the front wheel's wish to dig in. The heavier the bike, the more difficult that is, and when it is loaded like mine was, it is asking quite a lot of the engine (and the rider!). A slope was just a bit much. I was alongside the bike coaxing it, and an alarming 'clack, clack, clack' could be heard above the loud revs as it battled to move through the sand. It was either the chain slipping or, worse, the clutch. I unloaded all the luggage. The two couples came over offering to carry it, and unburdened, the bike took off. This was fun!

But with the desert ahead, this little test concerned me. I tightened the chain a little (wary of straining it). The next morning returning to the road, I got a bit more of the '
clacking'. Not good. I didn't know if it needed new clutch plates, but I did know Cairo was the next place I could get something done - and there was a fair bit of desert between here and there.

Pasted Graphic

'Landies' and South Africans
That evening's camp was an example of the attractions of overlanding - on a sea of warm golden sand, next to the ancient pyramids, the sun having set. The evening temperature in the desert was a little more manageable than the discomfort of Khartoum. I was kindly invited to join the two couples for dinner - and got a good look at how comfortably they had kitted out their vehicles. (First item to come out was the little billycan pictured below. A metal jacket contains the water, small twigs and paper are burnt in the centre and underneath. A cup of tea in no time, with hardly any fuel. Ingenious. A sticker on the side said designed and made in Ballina, Ireland!).

Bruce and Sarah, outdoor types in their early thirties, had outgoing, friendly natures - typical of many of their English-speaking fellow countrymen, which I remembered from my time in South Africa. “Yah, we've been planning this for years now,” said Bruce with just a slight suggestion of an Afrikaner drawl. When I noted he'd lost some of his accent, he agreed. “Eight years in bleddy London man. But we're going home now, to get married. I've a small plot near Ballito on the coast north of Durban.
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I'm a builder, Sarah's a physio so we plan to try and settle there.” We chatted about the situation in South Africa. I was drawn to the place - the scenery is beautiful and dramatic, the climate perfect, developed infrastructure, great food and wine, cheap cost of living… But what eventually got to me after two months, as it does to many, was the huge divide socially and economically between whites and blacks, and the tension. Eventually everyone is affected personally, or through someone close, by stories of violence. I asked Bruce what he thought about living in a country where a constant awareness of personal security is the norm. He shrugged. “Well, that's Africa man.“

Once again I was reminded of the difference in attitudes I encountered while there. The older generation - educated, successful, some indeed considering themselves 'liberal' - invariably would refer back to a better, safer and more desirable recent past when things ran efficiently, the streets were clean and safe, and the future secure. (The obvious question I didn't ask was 'what was it like if you were black?') The younger generation I met however, in marked contrast, had a refreshing optimism about their country, the 'new' South Africa. (They had their gripes - the unpopular 'positive discrimination' laws by the government most disliked.)

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Bruce (pictured with Sarah right. She is the one with blond hair) showed me his 'Landy' with pride. Previously a British Telecom vehicle, they'd bought it two years ago and evenings and weekends had been spent customising it for their trip. With sliding racks, built-in cupboards, and sleeping quarters it looked very homely. My understanding was the the Toyota Landcruiser - the 1989 model in particular - is seen as more reliable, comfortable, as well as easier to access parts. Bruce agreed, admitting the Land Rover needed constant care and attention and was really more a romantic choice.

The Policeman's Warning
The next day at Atbara, after filling up with 'benzene' (petrol) I turned directly west, crossing the Nile by a small vehicle ferry (pictured loading below). Eventually, jammed with people, produce, mules, scooters and a couple of Toyota pickups, it chugged its way the kilometre across to the far bank. My fare was $1 for the ten-minute crossing.

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The Nile River snakes in a westerly direction across the Bayuda Desert from the town of Atbara, through Kerima where it is dammed at the fifth cataract, and around to Dongola, before heading north again on its journey towards the Mediterranean. The route from Atbara leads directly west linking those towns. I understood there was a new tarmac road right across the four hundred kilometres to Dongola, through some very inhospitable terrain. I just had to find it. Disembarking, I followed a friendly policeman on his 100cc bike for a kilometre over a rough track before our ways parted, and he indicated the direction I should go the tarmac road. His parting words in halting English were less than reassuring. “Be careful of yourself,” he said. Did he mean bandits, or what? Pointing west towards the expanse of uninhabited desert he repeated, “Three hundred kilometres, no water, no people. Be careful of yourself.”

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I picked my way along until rounding a bend, I disbelievingly saw the track was flooded! But this is the desert. An irrigation hose from the river was responsible for turning the track into mud. Dismounting, I tried to find another way across the ground without success, so walked the thirty or forty metres of water, deciding it wasn't too deep or muddy underfoot. The same happened around the next bend. Again I walked it and then proceeded. This would be interesting if there was an impassable stretch. Fortunately I reached the beginning of the new road without further little 'surprises' and took off west.

Breakfast and an Islamist 'Faux Pas'
The few words of warning from the policeman were sitting uncomfortably in the back of my mind. I recounted again my supplies - I had about four litres of water, enough fuel, and food if needed. I hadn't eaten breakfast and it became quite apparent there was nothing ahead in the empty desert. After half an hour, a roadwork’s camp appeared with a couple of trucks parked up and I gratefully pulled in. About a dozen workers lay about inside the relative cool of the mud building, and returned my “Salaam aleikum”. I made eating motions, wondering if I could buy food, and was ushered over to a mat on the packed earth floor in dimness to the rear, where one of them was finishing off the remains of their breakfast. I sat on the ground trying to keep my motocross boots off the mat. A few pieces of flatbread appeared and the communal bowl of 'fuul', a fava bean stew, a staple throughout the country, was pushed in front of me. It was tasty and hit the spot. I was the centre of attention. A large tin cup of water was filled from the earthenware jar by the door and handed to me.

I must have been a very unusual visitor, out here in the empty desert, arriving on an overland motorbike. After breakfast over a cup of tea, we pieced together bits of conversation. With much grinning and attention, I was asked how much did the bike cost, how fast, what country was I from. We established Americans were ok, but Bush was bad. I felt the urge to emphasise that in my country, people do not like Bush. Then the man who had the few words of English said across the room, “Dinamarka very bad!” I guffawed out loud. Denmark? But it is such a small country, who cares about Denmark? Then I picked up some reference to “the prophet”, and suddenly realised what a gaff I'd made. Of course, the controversy about cartoons printed in the Danish press about the prophet Mohammed. (And this was rural Sudan a country where, only a few weeks before I'd arrived, there was an international incident over, and threatened death sentence for, a British volunteer schoolteacher allowing her students to nickname the class pet Mohammed.) I put on my serious face, conveying that indeed I now understood to what he was referring, tut-tutted with a shaking of the head, etc., until I felt the issue had passed. It struck me how difficult it must be for Danish travelling in Muslim countries.

Desert Heat
The day was getting on, I had quite a distance to travel, and so I prepared to leave. It had been a lovely respite. Payment for my breakfast was out of the question. The intense heat of the day hit me as I stepped out into the sun. It was the beginning of summer in the Sudanese desert.

After three hundred kilometres of desert - there was no habitation, no trees, animals or people, and just one vehicle passed - I was happy to reach the next bend of the Nile. The new road crossed the Nile by bridge and skirted the town of Kerima, nestled under the only hill in the whole area, the Jebel Barkal (‘holy mountain’ in Arabic), which indicated the 'fifth cataracts' on the Nile. I stopped into a straw teahouse on the side of the road for a rest. It was a relief to step out of the direct heat of the sun into shade. A large African woman squatted on a tiny stool behind her charcoal brazier and array of jars. I stripped off my jacket and unashamedly my boots before ordering a '
shai, schwaya sukkr' - black tea not swamped in sugar, the default practice - and tucked into my sandwich of pita bread packed with fuul the road workers that morning had urged me to take with. Mark, a South African on a KTM I was to meet a few days later coming south subsequently emailed to report when he came through this town of Kerima his digital thermometer read 53.7 degrees in the shade at 2pm. (He then measured the temperature in the sun. It climbed to 69.9 before switching off, and not working again.)

Leaving Kerima, the road passed about twenty more Kushite pyramids. It was only another hour and a half across the next stretch of desert on the newly completed Chinese built road, before welcoming greenery announced the presence of the Nile again. This was Dongola, the main town on the northern reaches of the Nile in Sudan and my destination for the night. Continuing parallel to the river, finding the ferry across to the town on the west bank wasn't so easy, and eventually I stopped a car to ask. “Follow us,” the passenger instructed and we retraced my path eight kilometres back.

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Omar, though originally from south of Khartoum, was a dermatologist in town and we chatted on the riverbank while awaiting the ferry. He pointed over my shoulder at the bridge being built across the Nile. “In three months we will be able to drive across.” Interested to hear I was from Ireland, he informed me there were 5,000 Sudanese there, which was a surprise to learn. I asked him how things were here in the north of the country. “Sudan is a poor country,” he replied, sweeping his hand around him. Asking him if that had anything to do with the US blacklisting, cutting off trade potential, he shook his head. “No, it is not the US blacklist that is the problem. It is our problem. Many things. The climate - it is too hot for people to work for most of the day. Malnutrition is everywhere; people cannot afford to feed themselves properly. I see it everyday in my work. And then there is bad government,” he added, shaking his head. The ferry had nudged into the riverbank. Omar explained where his surgery was if I needed any help, before getting back into his air-conditioned cab. I was looking forward to crossing to Dongola, with its ‘oasis-in-the-desert’ feel. Maybe even a cold drink.

Dongola is the last major town on the Nile as it flows north through the Nubian Desert. Surrounded by greenery, it earns most of its income from agriculture – irrigating the land with the Nile, sending nuts, fruits and vegetables to the market… and of course dates from the huge plantations of date palms. I checked in to a $5 room with a plastic string cot at 'Lords Hotel'. It did have a fan! (View from shade of room pictured below.) The shared bucket shower and bathroom were ‘basic’. Dongola had a laid back feel to it.
View from bed 300 1
I ate deep fried Nile perch for $2 (which looked more appetising than it was. Not one morsel could I eat without picking bones from my teeth). The fuul was lovely (I was discovering there was little else on offer in the north apart from this staple), mashed with the end of a Sprite bottle, then sprinkled with a few spices before yoghurt and salad were added. At $1.50 including bread it made a tasty meal. And amazingly, little tubs of ice cream were for sale. There was an Internet office - with a fast connection - and it was air-conditioned! (I emailed a few friends getting ready for the annual Kilkenny Roots Festival weekend, the second one in a row I was now going to miss. It used to be a highlight of the year, and outlining my circumstances here in the Nubian Desert, I felt a jab of homesickness). These were a few attractions that detained me an extra day in Dongola.

The F650 website informed me the first thing to consider if the clutch is slipping is the oil. Did the 20w-50 Shell oil I used for my last change in Addis Abeba have ‘EC’ – indicating energy conserving but not suitable for our bikes – printed on it? I really didn't know, so found some SAE 50 mineral oil and did another oil change just in case. The other provision I took was to arrange with Mubarek, the proprietor of Lords, to have my Ortlieb bag, which lies strapped across the back seat, put on a pickup truck to be delivered to his shop in Wadi Halfa (where I would be getting the ferry to Egypt). This would ease the workload the bike had to deal with through the sand and I hoped take the pressure off the clutch, if that's what the slipping problem was. Of course it was a bit of a leap of faith to let my bag out of my hands for the next five days, trusting it would just be there when I arrived. I had been carrying a wire mesh security cover since leaving Ireland and had used it only once on the whole journey, when leaving my bike gear and helmet in the YWCA in Dar es Salaam while visiting the island of Zanzibar. Enclosing the bag in that, with the destination on a label in Arabic and English, I left it in Mubarek's hands. He assured me it would be fine, and from my impressions of the culture here in Sudan I had little reason to doubt him.

With the weight now eased by the absence of one bag, my excitement at the upcoming challenge was allowed to balance out the anxiety. So far so good. Just five more days and I will have managed it! I had photocopied a few pages from Bruce’s Bradt guidebook in Khartoum, which included the following cautionary words ‘
…sand is the order of the day, with the road surfaces continually switching from hard gravel to fine dust and all conditions in between’. I expected the terrain ahead to be some of the most demanding on the trip up the east coast so far.

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