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Camel World  



Travel Diary - 2003
5 January | Senegal
22 January |Gambia
18 January |Guinea
9 February | Mali
22 February | Burkina Faso
3 March | Ghana
19 March | Togo
20 March | Benin
25 March | Niger
12 April | Chad
15 April | Cameroon
16 April | Nigeria
30 April | Congo
24 May | RDC
31 May | Angola
5 June | Namibia
27 June | South Africa
30 August | Lesotho
10 September | Swaziland
9 October | Botswana
17 October | Namibia
19 October |
29 October | Malawi
4 November |Mozambique
16 November | Tanzania
12 December | Rwanda
16 December | RDC
18 December | Uganda
24 December | Kenya

Travel Diary - 2004
9 January | Ethiopia
6 February | Sudan
21 February | Saudi Arabia
23 February | Jordan
3 March | Syria
5 March | Turkey
12 March | Greece
21 March | ...And Home


= Photo link
= Country Info Link


17 months, 43 countries, and 2 vehicles


A Different World

Talk to anybody who's been to Sudan and they'll tell you what lovely people the Sudanese are. And of course they are right. I have a theory which goes something like this. God left the middle bit of Africa until last, and then found out that he'd run out of mountains, trees, and animals, and only had sand and dust left. So he did the best he could with the materials in hand, and then to compensate endowed the people who lived there with the gifts of hospitality and good nature. Well, I never said it was going to be a particularly good story, did I?

The drive fro Gonder takes you along a mediocre piste to the border, and after that it's another hundred-plus click of the same before you hit the tarmac. The transition from fertile Ethiopia to barren desert is by now complete, and dust hangs thick across the horizon even though the Harmattan is months away.

By this time the Camel was suffering from serious power loss and was belching black smoke at the slightest incline. We stopped for the night at a plantation where we made as welcome as language (or lack of it) would permit by the young caretaker. Nanda and Dirk got to enjoy a cool shower before we settled down for some decent chow and an early night.

The next morning I set of ahead of the others to see how the Camel was going to behave - by now I couldn't even stay in fourth gear, so when the Landcriuser caught up they hitched me up and towed me the full 400km into Khartoum.

The National Camping Centre

This unlikely name for a sports academy is the overlander's choice now that the Blue Nile Sailing Club has stopped cleaning their toilets. At times it got pretty busy; Khartoum is a good visa stop, and I was picking up a Jordan visa in order to then apply for a Saudi Visa having decided to take everybody's advice and skip Egypt. Everything was going pretty well except for my search for a good garage to sort out my fuel system.

Khartoum proved to be a pretty sociable place - the campsite offered a laundry service as well as tea, coffee, and a shop. One night there were seven overlanders in the car park. But no bar, of course... for that one has to use a little initiative.

In the course of the next few days I managed to get a good few beers in despite Sudan being dry - the German Club, a Korean Restaurant, and the best of all, the Pickwick club in the British embassy all helped keep me sane and in touch with the Six Nations, and where I got to meet Roger Tomkins, the embassy Transport and Security manager who was fantastic in helping me with my car problems. Eventually I found GMW, a Dutch run garage South of where I was staying, who stripped down my fuel system, cleaning out the sludge that the Ethiopians sell as diesel. After a day's slog the Camel was running better than it ever had, and I roared triumphantly over to the office that issues travel permits, bizarrely situated in the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs. I'd found out from Hans, a 69 year old travel veteran, that I needed a travel permit as Port Sudan was a military area - the normal Wadi Halfa transit didn't need one.

Now the fun starts. An amazing trail of paper, photocopying fests, and patience and smiles and a two day wait results in a sheet of Arabic script topped by my photo. It probably says something like "this bloke is a known camel-shagger", but it seemed to get me to Port Sudan OK. Though some of the camels looked a little worried.

Cowboy in Khartoum

Dirk and Nanda came unstuck because they weren't married, and no amount of forged documents could help them with the required letter saying they were a real couple from their embassy. So no Saudi transit visa for them. I'm still not sure where they are now, but hopefully they'll enjoy Egypt at the very least...

The National Museum was closed for technical reasons. For three months. The technical reason in question was that somebody had broken in one night, somehow evading the alert, highly trained, and well armed guards, and then smashed open all the display cabinets (quietly of course) and pinched all the best exhibits. But not the gold. That was pinched last year. So I was in the library next to the Palace museum killing time while my travel permit was being processed when I got chatting to Peter Scanlon, an Arizonan with a very low-key manner of travelling, except for his insistence on wearing (and showering in) large and conspicuous cowboy hat.

We popped over to Onderman - the Western part of greater Khartoum to check out the whirling dervishes - a pretty touristy show but interesting all the same even if it's just to see the rapturous look on the faces of the dancers as they spin around in the dusk light - Paul Theroux found it a little scary - it's the hysteria which I've seen in African religion a little too often - maybe those guys should just get out more.

We arranged to hook up the following day for the rugby (Peter's interest lay more in the beer), and once I'd decided that he probably wouldn't get me killed in a loudmouth-redneck-lynching scenario I invited him along for the run up the Nile to Meroe and Atbara.

And that of course was the night I was, for the first time in Africa, successfully robbed - by a pickpocket. Getting onto the bus there was a strange kind of log-jam - it seemed to be caused by one guy in a white shirt getting in everybody's way - I was instantly wary - but a crush is a crush. Then I felt my XDA (phone computer thingy) slide out of my pocket. It could only have been one of three guys - the favourite being matey in the white shirt. I was furious - shouting I pushed the guy pretty much on top of the poor driver and screamed at him while blocking the others from escaping. Miraculously my XDA appeared - it was on the floor, and white shirt was evicted without ceremony (and sadly without a lynching). Everybody was terribly nice - I got a free ride and lots of smiles - everybody seemed glad I'd got my XDA back, but no one more so than me.

Shifa, and the Curious Tale of the Tomahawk Cruise Missile Second Hand Part Dealer.

First, though, we had to visit the Mahdi's tomb - a pretty innocuous detour, but one of more then a little historical significance in you know the story of Gordon, Kitchener, and all that. Next it was off to the third city that makes up greater Khartoum - North Khartoum, where in 1998 after a particularly serious session that didn't involve inhaling Clinton somehow got it into his head (and dat man got a lot of head) that the Shifa pharmaceutical factory was manufacturing WMDs and sent over a couple of Tomahawk cruise missiles.

It's pretty impressive to see the destruction that the pair did - the place is a big mess with pill bottles stacked all over the place, and slabs of concrete that are curled like paper. The caretaker let us in, showed us the two craters. I was more interested in the pile of alloy scrap that I'd spotted earlier - it looked suspiciously like the sort of Raytheon Hi-tech engineering that one would find in, say, the engine a Tomahawk cruise missile.

"Now that" I thought, "would make a grade 'A' souvenir". Ali invited us into his hut for chicken, bread, and tea and as we shared his supper I casually raised the matter of the impending sale of said missile parts. The bidding started at $100, and by the time the chicken was consumed the deal was sealed at about $25 and a large plastic water container with tap. Now I just have to think up a good story for when the Saudis decide to search my vehicle.

North to Meroe

The following day the permit was ready, and the pair of us with missile parts safely stowed headed North towards Meroe and the desert ruins en-route. I'd hoped to get the GPS points from Paul Dutson, but his GPS had been pinched; we'd be winging it... Fortunately fate smiled upon us; we met a group of Spaniards at the start of the track to the Temples of Naqa who gave us not only the required points, but also and more importantly two cold beers! It's amazing what you can find in the desert...

We arrived at Musawwarat first, after a brief bit of exercise involving two sand ladders, a badly placed hummock, and lots of sand. There were a few Germans from Berlin University working on digs, but they didn't mind us wandering around the ruins - impressive not only for their scale but also the technical execution that had been so lacking in Ethiopia. The reliefs were to my eye pretty Egyptian - the sort of thing I'd expected to see further down the Nile - so I guess I got some small compensation for my change of route to Saudi after all.

We camped under the stars near the temple, and Peter entertained me with his harmonica and guitar arrangements - it's amazing what some back-packers carry. It was really great to know that the morning sun would wake me, and not:

a. Dogs barking
b. Cockerels crowing, or
c. The 4:30 a.m. call to prayer

In the morning we made straight for Naqa for more ruin-wandering - my words cannot do these places justice because I could never express the delight to be find in their isolation - no tourists, no trinket sellers, no hassle - the way tourism used to be in the days of Holroyd 1837, who seemed to have carved his name everywhere we went. But unlike Holroyd, I at least go home with photographs.

After stopping for a foul breakfast (that's the bean food type of foul) we drove on to Meroe, which the Meroans considerately built next to the main road, and not stuck out in the desert somewhere.

This complex of pyramids is approached by a sandy track that stops at a gate, or if you are in a Camel, by driving around the back through fantastic sand and coming in across the saddle of two Jebels for the optimum backdrops for some photos (did I mention Peter is a photographer?).

In the 1830 or thereabouts some Italian turned up with dynamite and went treasure hunting on a grand scale. By all accounts he did quite well, retiring in opulent style back home in Italy while leaving the Sudanese to ponder over a bunch of decapitated pyramids. He's a much cursed man nowadays of course, but even so it's amazing to find such impressive structures without the burden of hoards of tourists.

Atbara was where Peter and I were to part company - he to Wadi Halfa by bus or train and I across the desert to Suakin to catch my ferry. We found a hotel that had hot showers, I got a puncture which I managed to repair myself (a skill I've learned too late for Africa), and in the morning after the obligatory foul breakfast I was off.

The Desert Crossing

I knew nothing about the route other than the fact that buses used it, so I figured it couldn't be too bad. I didn't know that these buses were actually bus bodies bolted onto Bedford trucks, but then we all live and learn. The route follows a railway line - as long as you remember which side of the track you are on you should never get lost, though I found the piste often deviated many kilometres fro the tracks - well beyond line of site. Add to this the stretches of soft sand that sap your power and leave you panting once you eventually hit firmer surfaces, and you'll get the idea that I wasn't a happy bunny at being alone.

In some ways it was the hardest leg of the whole journey - alone - the demanding conditions - the sand - the risk of a breakdown or a shattered differential from an all too likely submerged rock in the centre strip of a deeply rutted path - it all added to the stress, and at it's worst, about 100km into a 300km route I was tempted to turn back. But after I'd found a hard patch to stop on and let my tyres down the sand seemed to get easier - and I always knew that if I got into trouble I had plenty of water , and these weren't people who would rob or take advantage of me - it's Sudan after all... In the end I made good time, arriving at the tarmac an hour before dusk, with flat batteries (a snapped alternator cable)

I spent the night in a police compound at some fly-blown town on the road where Shoul, the police chief, made me very welcome - people kept on trying to give up their beds for me in Sudan. In the morning I was helped with a push start, and Arrived in Suakin, for the ferry to Saudi Arabia, in time for breakfast.

For the record, here's the procedure for getting onto the boat:

Elfatih Mohamed (Mobile 012981001) can help for a fee
Fatih in customs speaks good English and can do customs for a fee - I paid $20 for both...
1. Buy ticket - SD17,500 per person - you pay for the car on the boat
2. Enter Port - just thro gate:
3. Get car/person on manifest (SD4000) in the container
4. Next door pay fee for Passport (SD1000)
5. Go back out to add yourself to ship manifest
6. Drive car thro gate - it'll be slightly searched later
7. In to present 3x immigration forms to immigration officer
8.then wait for the stamp from the boss-man

Now wait while all the papers are shuffled around by your helpers - it's all pretty chaotic but nothing more needs to be paid. Eventually you drive to the quay side and later drive the car on.

The ferry was quite comfortable - over dinner I was invited by Tarik to sleep in his cabin - I had unpleasant visions of being rogered senseless by a bunch of Arabs, but decided that the offer was another example of splendid hospitality, which of course it was, though later I had to insist that I was happy on a cabin floor so that Tarik wouldn't give his bed up for me.

First though came the serious business of watching Africa disappear off the stern. There it lay in the fading light, the famous coral ruins of Suakin with minarets still standing amid the crumbling stonework. The sun, now low in the sky and obscured to a silver disk by the rising dust of a coming storm, was kind to the decaying old city - it could almost have been Venice, sinking slowly into the sea.