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Into Sudan on the Wadi Haifa ferry

Windows down, stereo blazing and lost, bouncing over an ocean of sand-dunes, Mr Tamer’s maroon scarf blew over his eyes, blustering around his head. Sand and dust filled our battered old Toyota while Tamer, the barking-mad Bedouin guide, grinned constantly, muttering to himself.

He drove with his eyes-peeled and nose pressed against the cracked windscreen. We charged through Egypt’s White Desert, our tracks quickly erased by the billowing sand, past bizarrely shaped surreal rock formations until, inevitably I guess, we crashed into a dune and got stuck. The desert had caught me.

The White Desert, Egypt

Nine tea-spoons of sugar into every coffee made him nuts. Singing, dancing, randomly shouting at the desert like some early-morning foul-mouthed drunk, he also forgot to pack a tent when we tried to make camp. He was the Bedouin Basil Fawlty. And so it was a very cold, tentless night in the over-one-million-stars hotel. Tomorrow I would head south to Sudan.

In the 90’s, I remember being hopelessly glued to my parents’ television week by week watching Michael Palin’s ‘Pole to Pole’ journey. In one episode, he took a train from a dusty desert town at the top of Sudan called Wadi Halfa, down to the capital Khartoum.

He was oh-so-British in the face of these incomprehensible, tall, sinewy, dark-skinned locals. They sat on the roof of a train that eased through this vast, lifeless yellow desert in the middle of nowhere. I was compelled to catch that train.

Twenty years on, in the southern Egyptian city of Aswan, imagine my disappointment at a grimy ticket desk for the ferry to Wadi Halfa when the agent said of the train, ‘No, no! Its history! It was cancelled two years ago!’

Dejected, I made my way to the Nasser Lake steamer where I bumped into Guru, a clean-cut 36 year old Indian backpacker on a bold mission to visit every country on earth and Emmit, a mad Irishman with a Bin Laden-esque beard fresh out of a 7 week bender in Dahab, a boozy Egyptian tourist resort; ‘They picked me up aff the street wan marnin after too many Xanax!’ I liked him immediately.

All day we waited in the searing heat on the top-deck of the MV Sagalnaam for cargo to be loaded: flat-screen TVs, fresh vegetables, the contents of peoples’ homes. A fight broke out between a Sudanese man and a 12 year old boy over the space on a bench. Until South Sudan split away, Sudan was the largest country in Africa and with so much empty space, you’d think quarrelling over territory wouldn’t be an issue. Here on this boat, not even in Sudan, the fighting continued. You can take the man out his country but perhaps not the country out the man.

Emmit volunteered two valiums around sunset and I was knocked out in a flash. I did wake up once though to a bright Milky Way sky screaming with shooting stars. We glided smoothly between a benign valley of sand dunes southwards through darkness. We neither rocked nor rowed. The Nile, so still at night, shimmered silver and black, disturbed only just by the slick rippling wake of our ferry.

On the ferry to SudanIt was so cold outside. I ambled past dozens of snorers, all huddled together under tarpaulin roofs and cardboard walls. I felt my way to the back of the top deck, carefully descended two flights of stairs, past the noisy, growling generators. The air was thick with diesel fumes and I still high off the pills, feeling really spaced out, so it didn’t bother me at all to lie down on the filthy cafeteria floor alongside a sea of African bodies, all sleeping in the warmth of the ship’s belly. I slept like a baby.

Next morning, in Sudanese waters I met a friendly 22 year old called Mohammed, going home to Khartoum after what he described as ‘hospital’, pointing morbidly to his head. Later, I met the businessmen who brought the flat-screen TVs aboard, also going home from a trip to Cairo. They shared their breakfast with me.

The ship docked quietly in Wadi Halfa. Finally, here I was, for no other reason other than that such random far-off places just appeal. If you’ve ever flown over a continent, peered out the window and wondered what’s going on down there in those tiny, dimly lit towns and villages, hundreds of miles from anywhere, then to arrive somewhere like Wadi Halfa is to be on the other end of that looking glass, somewhat magnified.

There really was no train. I took a generic minivan to the town of Abri, sighing as it bumped across the now defunct railway tracks. Lord Kitchener’s steel rails were disappearing fast under the Nubian Desert sand, soon to be enveloped forever. It catches everything eventually. I arrived as the sun plunged over the Nile, pulling with it a spectacular mix of purples, oranges, blues and then, shining brightly, Venus.

I dumped my bag and took a walk along the banks of the Nile. Some distance away, a group of silhouettes appeared and grew larger, maybe 8 or 10 towering males, washing, shouting, laughing. I shouted a hello from about 30 meters. They were slapping wet football shirts off rocks to dry out, while others scrubbed soap vigorously up and down their ripped, glistening black torsos. Two of them bathed naked, completely indifferent to me.

‘Where are you going?’ one of them asked.

‘I don’t know’, I shrugged, pointing feebly ahead.

He shrugged back, offering no advice.

‘I heard there are crocodiles in there…’ I said, fishing for conversation, knowing that there weren’t.

They laughed and assured me there were none.

That night, in our sandy-floored dorm room Emmit, Guru and I were watching a movie when a giant Sudanese guy stumbled in, quite, quite drunk. He was huge. He carried a flimsy bed under one arm and drank from a bottle of Arak with the other. It was our first night in Sudan, a country where alcohol is illegal and yet we were drinking with this Nubian giant. He dumped his bed on the sand opposite ours, asked in broken English if we had a sex-movie to watch, mumbled drunkenly in his mystical desert language before passing out. Welcome to Sudan.

I left Guru and Emmit next morning. I headed 250km south, again by minibus, to Karima. After a puncture and some new friends later, I got dropped off accidentally a few kilometers outside town. As I walked along the empty highway in almost total darkness, desert on either side, I spotted the sharp peaks of three steep pyramids behind some wavy dunes. It was a pretty euphoric feeling after the day’s travelling.

The following day I woke up to a huge sand-storm smothering little Karima. It was impossible to go outside; like a thick fog with claws scratching your eyeballs. I ate bananas and yoghurt alone, bored on my bed, constantly swatting flies. By midday the winds had died down, enough to venture outside, although the air was still brimming with dust.

A row of round white-walled houses with conical roofs and bright aqua-coloured doors led towards an 11 year old boy who called me over from his bicycle. We spoke in Arabic until I reached the limit of my vocabulary. Apart from him, there were no signs of life anywhere. Beyond these homes, to my surprise, the railway tracks appeared again; Karima station and some disused sidings with carriages lying idle, forgotten in the shifting sands.

Sand had built up where the wind had blown over time into soothing shapes against the train-tracks, signals and wagons; it even curled and swept beautifully around plastic bottles and other detritus littering this train graveyard. Anything in its way was enveloped by the benign mono-coloured monster.

Karima railway station, Sudan

Karima station was eerily silent but for the dying howls of the storm – a town temporarily held hostage by the elements. Wind gusted and whistled down the tracks into the deserted ticket-office bringing with it relentless clouds of dust. A wooden board swung above the abandoned office saying ‘Second Class Tickets’ a bit like one of those saloon bar-signs from wild west movies. A boy walked down the platform, oblivious of me. He ignored my greeting too. This was an old forgotten windswept place and when the gusts paused momentarily, a dreamlike silence hung over it.

Nearby the station, the Nile swept a wide arc around the town, itself being whipped into frothy melee by the dust. Hauled up on the dry banks were four rusty old steamers and a cargo vessel rotting in the elements.

Leeward of the cargo hulk, I paused for rest bite from the perpetual wind. A solitary pocket of calm; no sand, no wind, no sound, except for the creaky swing of a metal door as it slammed to and fro in the wind. This was horror movie soundtrack one-o-one. Perhaps the ghost of this once proud steamer, its long-forgotten captain, still roamed around his skeleton ship. Above me, the screech of two circling kestrels surfing the breeze reminded me I wasn’t entirely alone. This place was a graveyard; life had left here long ago.

Around 4pm I set out for the pyramids I’d snatched a view of last night. I walked two kilometers through Karima’s back streets as kids came out to play football and stalls began opening again after the storm. It was very hot and thirsty work just walking over the gentle dune beyond the town. An old bearded man beckoned me over to his veranda where I saw two others eating a veritable feast of bread, beans, some goat meat and vegetables. He invited me to eat in that I’m not asking, I’m telling you way that Arabs often do when they want you to join them. I was so hungry, just the smell of their simple food was mouth-watering.

We chatted a while, he showed me his feisty goats, told me their names and that he even had a favourite. His two daughters ceased eating their lunch and began ferrying plates of food and umpteen cups of seriously sugary tea until I was about to burst. Mohammed sat leaning against a dried up old tree that gave us shade from the sun, dressed in a long white thobe known as a jalabiyya in Sudan and wearing a little a white prayer cap, an Imama. We chatted quite happily in English about our homes, work, travelling, until out of the blue Mohammed looked at me and said, ‘Money’, and disappeared into his house.

I began to wonder if this generous hospitality wasn’t genuine and that he was about to demand some kind of payment for lunch. I hesitated but said nothing as he left the veranda. He returned clutching three pink 100 Thai Baht notes, remembering that I had told him I lived in Thailand. What a surprise to see them here in the middle of nowhere!

“Can you change them into Sudanese pounds and send me the money?”

I promised.

“Why do you have 300 Thai Baht when you live here in Sudan?” I asked, obviously.

“Many years ago a man came here alone, much like you and said he didn’t need these anymore. He just gave them to me. You are the next person I met, so maybe you can help.”

What a strange coincidence in this remote corner of the world, that the next person he should come across happened to live in the very country his money belonged to.

I carried on, eager to reach the pyramids before sunset. This whole area, dominated by the impressive Jebel Barkal (Barkal Mountain), its pyramids and the nearby town are remnants of the Pharaoh’s forays into the Nubian Desert. The pyramids, much like their three bigger and more famous cousins in Egypt, are Royal burial sites, some over 2000 years old. And even before then, as early as 750BC, the city here, called Napata, was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush, a thriving developed gold-trading centre. But like much else in the desert, you’d have to dig deep or have a good imagination to see it, for the sand has reclaimed everything which once stood here, but for these striking pyramids.

Pyramids, Sudan

I placed my hand on one of the many decaying stone slabs that make up the Temple of Amun, the most important God to be symbolised here. It was hot from the sun. It has stood here in the sun for eons. It’s a humbling thought that right on this spot, a pious cult spanning generations once flocked here to worship, donate offerings, enjoy festivals, talk to their God and even dream (ancient Egyptians believed the Gods communicated to them through their dreams). Now there is nothing but drifts of sand and the occasional traveler.

The sun was dropping like a stone. I had to climb the Jebel, all 98 meters of it and take some photos of this amazing place. If you want to know what Mars must be like, come here, for the scenery is positively Martian. When dusk falls, orange rocks and sand fuse into the sky and this whole empty wilderness, strewn with dunes and debris becomes warped in an almost other-worldly reddish hue

Crowds of locals, perhaps two hundred or more were also climbing up alongside me for some reason. All of us scrambled, lost our footing on crumbling rock and became exhausted in the long sandy escarpment leading up to the summit. Intermittently I had to take a breather, for the heat, sand and exertion was greater than anticipated at the bottom.

Upon reaching the rocky summit, the wind was strong; peoples’ hats were being blown away quite comically, little groups of whispering girls huddled in secluded coves, young boys smoked cigarettes presumably out of view from their parents, men and women walked around chatting. At one point a fight broke out between about twenty angry teenagers, over what I have no idea, but it quickly resolved, the loser disappearing down the mountainside in tears.

Pyramids, Sudan

I sat on the cliff edge, admiring this tremendous view of the pyramids, the swerving Nile river, little Karima and the endless desert. Then I figured out why the locals came up here everyday – they made all that effort climbing up here just to enjoy rolling, running and tumbling back down the long sandy slope. Like a messy ski accident, villagers en-masse careened, cart wheeled and lurched awkwardly downhill; the contents of their pockets sent flying like shrapnel in all directions, until they ‘landed’ like winners at the bottom. Everybody was laughing.

And as I sat there on the precipice of this remote outpost I realised for the first time in the emptiness of the seemingly lifeless desert that life was happening right in front of me in all its glory. All the little things people do were being done up here on this mountain. All I had seen before; the disappearing railway and its deserted train station, rusting steamers and empty villages were but a mirage of reality. The fact is, if you know where to look in the shifting sands of the Nubia, you will find all the life you want.

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