– visited December 2014 –
The border post is in a small village. The main road is not even tarred, little traffic passes over this border. Ethiopia and Sudan are culturally distinct and there seems to be little interest in the “other”. To my surprise, I am not crossing this border alone. A Japanese guy was on the bus to the border and at the border we meet an Italian who is overlanding with his motorbike. It might surprise you but crossing Sudan is the easiest option of going north-south in Africa. In the past, many people overlanded with bikes, jeeps, trucks in all parts of Africa. Terrorism first closed the avenues through the Sahara Desert and later on, tightened visa rules made the trip along the western coast difficult. The eastern option is by far the easiest. Stable countries, yes, the parts of Sudan you have to cross are stable, visas are doable and security is good. The bottleneck is the border between Sudan and Egypt. For many, many years the weekly ferry crossing lake Nasser (Aswan) was the only possibility to cross. Only a few months ago, the road has finally been reopened. Despite of this, I am still trying to time my journey on the departure of the ferry.
Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt are inter-connected by the river Nile. It’s not a happy marriage. Water is life and water is scarce. The shorter Blue Nile comes from the rain-rich Ethiopian highlands and the longer White Nile from somewhere in the mountains of Burundi or Rwanda. The two rivers meet in Sudan’s capital Khartoum and form the Nile. By the time the river has reached its confluence it has left the areas with significant rainfall. All areas downriver are dependent on the water the Nile carries. The satellite picture clearly shows the green ribbon that extends north alongside the river culminating in the green river delta. Egypt’s extensive use of the Nile waters is clearly visible. If Ethiopia and Sudan start to use the river on the same scale, Egypt will suffer. Tension are already there and are likely to get worse in the future.
I am entering a Pariah country. I have been carrying plenty of cash for the last weeks as the place I am about to visit is disconnected from international payment systems. From 1899, the area of today’s Sudan (and South Sudan) was known as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The name indicated that Egypt and Britain exercised power over the area together but in fact Britain was clearly dominant. The ethnic structure of the territory was weird, the north was composed of Muslim Arabs and the south of non-Arab Christians. They did not share an ethnicity, nor a language, nor a religion. From 1924, they were essentially administered as two separate territories. The two parts of Sudan became independent together in 1956 as the British were loath to change colonial boundaries and believed, that the underdeveloped South would not form a viable state. The First Sudanese Civil War (1955 – 1972) was at that time already underway. After 17 years of fighting, South Sudan at least became an autonomous region. As this status was taken away and Islamic Sharia law introduced in 1983 renewed fighting broke out. Things were made more complicated as southern Sudan had oil fields promising riches but the way to bring this oil onto the world market were through northern Sudan. The Second Sudanese Civil War lasted for 22 years until 2005. The peace agreement included a provision that an independence referendum would be held in 2011 and in case the southern population wanted, the two Sudans would thereafter go their separate ways. A great majority of the South Sudanese chose independence and to international surprise the North accepted the decision. In this way, Sudan came into being in its current shape in 2011 and South Sudan the world’s newest country.
As troubled as this history is, the reasons for Sudan’s pariah status lie in a flirt with Islamic extremism in the 1990s (when Osama bin Laden resided in the country) and the war in Darfur, its western region, that began in 2003. Rebel groups began fighting the government, accusing it of oppressing Darfur’s non-Arab population. In fact, the conflict had been building up for a long time before that as natural resources became increasingly scarce, leading to conflict between the sedentary population (usually non-Arab) and nomadic tribes (usually Arab). The government responded to attacks by carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s non-Arabs. The Janjaweed, a local militia mostly relying on horses and camels, gained notoriety in this process. The conflict resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the indictment of Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. Omar al-Bashir had gained power in a military coup in 1989 and been in charge for 25 years at the time of my visit (he was finally sent packing in 2019). Under his rule, Sudan had ever further descended into isolation.
Travelling in a rarely-visited country like Sudan can frankly be intimidating. Many things are foreign and because of a lack of foreigners, little effort has been taken to make things easier for people who are not used to the local ways, who do not understand the language. There is a bus station but no sign that this is a bus station (at least none understandable to me) and of course the buses are only marked in Arabic (or not at all). Having taken some Arabic classes a long time ago, I can at least still identify some letters. But the people are friendly, if asked they are ready to help. Sudan is also intimidating from another perspective, the country is in open dispute with the international community, its president supposed to go to jail. What will happen in case I would run into trouble here? I am certainly more cautious in such a country. There is also no booking.com or something similar (by 2014 it was also still rare in a place like Ethiopia), finding a hotel has to be done the old way, with a guidebook, using advice from other travellers or just asking around. Concerning other travellers, all this leads to the effect that people, in the rare event that they meet, tend to stick together.
After a minibus ride of two hours we (the Japanese guy and me) arrive at the town of al-Qadarif. I have to decide if I want to head east to Kassala or west to Khartoum. The beautiful Taka mountains win and I head east. It will prove a mistake. On the bus to Kassala we meet a Chinese traveller and look for a hotel together. Kassala is a town of about 500.000 inhabitants but has few of the trappings we associate with a town of this size. The hotel is very basic (we were looking for something cheap) but it is even difficult to find something to eat in the evening. We cannot find a proper restaurant, just a stall in the street with filling but not very tasty food. We are an attraction.
I rise early around sunrise. Kassala is dominated by the rounded granite peaks of the Taka mountains. They are just outside town and visible from every corner. Some of the most magnificent mountainscapes I have ever seen. They brought me into town, I wanted to see them with my own eyes. I do have a time problem though, one of the major sights of Sudan are the whirling dervishes. They dance in Omdurman, on the other side of the Nile from Khartoum, on Friday evenings and today is a Friday. Shortly after nine, I am already at the bus station. I give my backpack to the attendant; he does not give me a paper or anything but to my great surprise gets out a black marker and writes a few letters straight on my backpack. I watch in a mixture of shock and excitement. Did that guy really do that? Yes, he did. My information about the travelling times was incorrect, it takes way longer to get to Khartoum and in the afternoon, it becomes obvious that I will miss the dervishes. Coming to Kassala, I tried to have it both ways, to see the Taka mountains and the dervishes on a tight schedule. I ended up doing nothing of both, I had too little time to enjoy the mountains in style (which are difficult/impossible to climb) and missed out on the dervishes altogether.
The taxi driver does not know at all where the youth hostel is. He told me he does, but he does not. I arrived to Khartoum after dark and decided that a taxi would be the best and safest way but if the driver does not know where to go? All I have is a not very detailed map in a guidebook that seems to be incorrect. The youth hostel seems to be the only budget accommodation in Khartoum. And I am surprised, given all the other things about Sudan, to find a Hostelling International associated lodging in Khartoum. Finally, we find it. I need to have a Membership Card and as I do not, I invest a few euros to become a member of Hostelling International Sudan. The membership is valid for a year and can also be used in other hostels. Unfortunately, I never used that Sudanese card again.
I tend to visit cities the following way: I determine a few points of interest and try to combine them into a long walk that will bring me into parts of town that I would otherwise never have visited. It is the antithesis of hunting sights. I often walk ten or fifteen kilometres and sometimes the most interesting things are just found along the way. In Khartoum, a city of more than 10 million people (with its metropolitan area), I am surprised to find fields along the river Nile. I couldn’t really determine what people are growing, but they were working on the fields, goats ran around and pumps supplied water from the river. It felt like in a village. In the city’s neighbourhoods, I am also surprised to see the traditional way of cooling water widely employed. Big pots of clay are standing on pedestals, a certain amount of water evaporates through the clay and keeps the whole pot cool. I had heard about the concept before but never seen it employed in a city. Usually the pots have an attached cup or can, so that everybody can have some fresh drinking water. I refrain from trying, not sure if the water is suitably clean for me.
I am also surprised to find plenty of churches. In fact, churches are more visible than mosques. And that in a country that once adopted Sharia law, colonialism has left a deep mark. At beautiful St. Matthew’s Cathedral, I meet Father Charles. It is difficult, he says, we can worship but to the outside we have to keep a low profile. I head to the National Museum. Sudan, or I should at this point rather say Nubia, has for millennia been part of different civilizations. The Nile provided water and was rich in cultural development and exchanges. The Kerma culture, one of the first to develop in Africa, lasted from 2500 BC until its conquest by the New Kingdom of Egypt around 1500 BC. The kingdom of Kush once turned that relationship around and ruled over mighty Egypt. The National Museum has artefacts from all these periods. In late afternoon, I walk onto the White Nile Bridge to see the confluence of the Blue and White Nile. I am very careful with pictures; a big signboard tells people not to take any photographs of the bridge.
I also have to deal with bureaucracy. I need a Travel and Photo Permit. The guidebook advises to get one and as I take pictures like crazy, I think it might be a good investment. I also just want to have it as a souvenir. I takes a bit of an effort to find the right office but after I found it, the process is rather quick.
I leave Khartoum on a bus. At nearly every checkpoint (of which there are a few) I have to leave the bus and present my papers. Annoying but usually hassle free. Just at one it takes longer and they are also not really happy with my travel permit. I have made a friend, Nurruddin, on the bus and he comes out to help. We soon leave. Nurrudddin speaks good English and finds Sudan stifling. He lived for a few years in Egypt, a place where you can do everything that you want but came back because of his family. You cannot even get a beer in Khartoum.
I get out of the bus in the middle of nowhere, where a small dirt road branches off to the right. I have to walk about a kilometre to the entrance to the Pyramids of Meroë. They have the classical proportions of Nubian pyramids: The pyramid, a small temple in front of the pyramid which was personalized for the deceased. The graves lie beneath the pyramids. Pyramids have been erected in three groups spanning a period of a thousand years. They are a lot smaller than the famous pyramids of Egypt, but there are about 200 of them.
I arrive in late afternoon and the first question the lady in the office asks is if I want to stay the night. I nod. She writes me the ticket and soon thereafter she leaves. The souvenir sellers start to leave as well and soon I am all alone with the pyramids and the sand. It is a World Heritage Site where you can actually sleep in. I sit on my backpack and enjoy the sunset. I am badly equipped for an overnight stay; I have no tent and no proper sleeping bag. I only have a sleeping bag inlay that will not help much in the cold night but at least it will protect me from the sand that the wind will blow around. I have a big bag of dates, some bread and plenty to drink. There is not a single cloud in the sky and the stars shine bright. As the night gets colder, I put on nearly all the clothes I carry with me. I place my backpack as a protective barrier against the sand and wind.
I rise early the next morning, first it is cold and secondly, I have nowhere to leave my bag so I rather explore before people arrive. I just leave my backpack unattended, placing it against a well visible tree, and scramble around the pyramids. Many of them have their tip torn off, as the first adventurer who stumbled upon them in 1834 tried to find their riches. One pyramid contained valuable things but all the others did not. He did not know that the graves are located beneath the pyramids. As he wanted to sell the pieces he had stolen, he faced scepticism. Things of this quality could not come out of black Africa. As I leave, the souvenir sellers have just arrived. I buy a small stone pyramid that is slightly askew.
On the Way North
My time in Sudan is up. I have to make my way north to the town of Wadi Halfa, from where I can either take the ferry or the bus to Egypt. I stand along the road near the pyramids of Meroë and the first bus that comes just speeds past me. I see empty seats, maybe picking up people alongside the road is not the order of the day. Having in mind the great memories from my trip through parts of Ethiopia, I decide to try hitchhiking. Soon a truck stops. Ayn does not speak much English but he loves football. He likes to throw me the name of a player and I have to tell him the club. He knows all the important cities in Germany: Bayern, Dortmund, Schalke, Hoffenheim. Of course, he also knows Stuttgart and is happy as I tell him that this is my team. We have lunch with some fellow truck drivers, we sit around a table and share all the meat and the sauces. Four hours later we have reached Atbara. At the modern bus station, the ticket seller is keen to speak to me. He wants advice on how to get to Europe. He is determined to get there but he already knows a few of the pitfalls. He, for example, is aware that people in Germany speak no English but some other language (many others are not). I tell him I cannot really be of any help; I am sorry, I cannot organize a visa for him and the embassy will frankly not give him one. I know that the way north, across the Mediterranean, is fraught with danger and I do not want to encourage him. This is not the first conversation of that kind, that I had in Sudan. It happened at roughly one conversation per day. In hindsight, I realize that this were the first signs of the wave of refugees that would arrive in Europe in 2015.
The minibus to Wadi Halfa will leave soon. I am expecting a long journey that will last into the night but instead we break the journey at a small hotel at Dongola. I share the room with three other travellers from the minibus and we, the whole group of ten people, head together to a nearby restaurant. I am part of the group and I am not part of the group as only Ahmed speaks a little bit of English. The next morning, we continue our journey. We follow the Nile; the landscape is barren but on both sides the river is lined by a green ribbon. Ahmed is reading in his English textbook. He tries to soak up as much as he can, he expects to need a lot more English in the future. He, as well as a guy called Abuzatar, is on his way to Europe. He proudly shows me his brand-new passport, that will bring him to somewhere else. I doubt it will. Ahmed is from Darfur but he says he is not fleeing violence. There are just no opportunities, there is nothing to do, no path in life that looks remotely attractive. Ahmed carries a small backpack, with a change of clothes and a warm blanket. Abuzatar speaks not a word of English and carries nothing except the clothes he is wearing. We have already shared a room the night before so I offer them to share another room in Wadi Halfa.
I have made it in time, just. For decades, the ferry crossing the length of lake Nasser (which stretches from the Aswan Dam into Sudan) had been the only way to cross from Sudan into Egypt. It runs once a week. I had timed my journey to reach the ferry and here I am, a few hours before departure. But why leave so soon? I could rather spend a bit of time in Wadi Halfa and leave by the new option, the bus, the next morning. I watch the ferry leave and spend time along the shore of lake Nasser. I climb a small hill which allows beautiful views in all directions and beautiful pictures of the birds circling the hill. There is not much to do in Wadi Halfa and I have the full day to go on a photography excursion.
In the evening, Ahmed proposes to go to a milk bar. At first, I don’t get him. Sudan is a dry country so no alcohol is legally available. You have to offer something else to get people to spend money in a bar, at this one, the draw is fancy milk drinks. For Ahmed and Abuzatar, the journey has hit a first roadblock. Sudanese need a visa to cross into Egypt, Abuzatar has one but Ahmed has not. They are easy to get but only in Khartoum and he didn’t know about it. He has struck a deal with a bus company that they will take his passport back to Khartoum, organize the visa for him and bring his passport back. That will stop him for at least two days. Abuzatar is waiting with him.
There are several buses going and I have heard different departure times. I tried to get on the earliest one which is supposed to leave at 7:30 AM. I am supposed to be there at 7 AM. I don’t wake Ahmed and Abuzatar, I leave them a note, nearly all my Sudanese pounds and a few dollars. As I get to the bus stand, the departure is not imminent. Time to have some milky tea and delicious fried stuff. I meet Junhua, the Chinese traveller from Kassala again. In the end, my bus leaves as the last of five buses at around 8 AM. One hour later, we are at the border. Unfortunately, it is still closed. Another hour later the first people are allowed in but the processing is very slow. As I am on the last bus in the line (thank you bus company) we are entering the border post the latest. Three and a half hours after arriving at the border, I have finally left Sudan. Obviously, no one cares about their and your time.