Saturday, August 6, 2011

Sun-fried Isabel and Captain Solo

After leaving Gonder, we make a very scenic descent from the cold plateau. Once we near Sudan, the temperature rises again. While this warms our bones, our hearts warm at the thought of crossing into another country. It sounds like a fresh start.

But before leaving, the Ethiopians play one last trick on us. When we come to the border post, both the customs and immigration officers are still not back from their lunch break… at 3 o’clock in the afternoon! It takes two hours for them to finally perform their duties. I can’t resist telling the touts around me, as well as the customs officer, how fed up I am with the Ethiopians.

On the Sudanese side the circus starts all over again: immigration, customs, and security service. Most people in Arabic-speaking Sudan don’t master the Roman alphabet well, so you can imagine that documenting our passport data in at least five different notebooks – each time in triplicate, using an unwilling carbon paper – is a tedious procedure. The customs officer on duty refers us then to his superior, who has to stamp a paper and cash some money. Of course he’s eating too at the moment. So we wait. We decline the offer to share lunch with the rest of the staff. Very nice and all, but we just want to go!

After more than five hours we are finally released. Dusk is setting in when we start riding through landscapes that are quite suddenly very Sahel-like: sparse and dry shrubbery and thatched huts instead of the wooden cabins of the Ethiopian highlands. Every kilometer or so, there is a military post consisting of a heavy machinegun, trenches and enthusiastically waving soldiers. We wonder if they are so scared of the Ethiopians, or if it has got something to do with the independence of the South, scheduled for the day after tomorrow. 

We spend the first night in Gedaref, a hot, windy and dusty town on the edge of the desert. We have to get used again to higher prices for accommodation (because of little tourism and the cost of much-needed air-con), the necessity to haggle (Arab-style) and the general islamic atmosphere, but in general we feel very welcome and friendliness is for free. Sadly, there is a huge language barrier, perhaps the most insurmountable from all countries that we have visited until now. Few people speak more than one or two words of English. 

Every tiny village along the road to Khartoum has a fuel station with cheap petrol, a parking lot for mastodon trucks and donkeys eating the waste dumped next to the road. Modern times are also present in the form of a speed gun documenting my outrageous 100km/h, while the limit is 90. I get away with a warning, probably because my Arabic is not good enough to understand I’m being fined. 

All the way to Khartoum, we see dead cows and now and then a donkey or a goat lying next to the road. At first, we think they are road-kill, like in Ethiopia, but it turns out that some of them have died while on transport to Khartoum and were pushed off the trucks. Others might have succumbed to the drought that is affecting not only the Horn of Africa – which has made it to the headlines recently – but also these more inland parts of East-Africa. The heat in this time of the year is almost unbearable indeed. Opening the visor even slightly is like opening an oven door and we are melting away in our biking garment, which makes us think of silly nicknames like Sun-fried Isabel and Captain Solo after the famous butter commercials starring a lump of Solo sizzling in a cooking pan… 

Khartoum must be asleep or praying, because as we arrive on Friday afternoon through the 6-lane boulevards and between the flashy skyscrapers and industrial looking apartment blocks, the streets are practically deserted. To keep up with our schedule we want to leave tomorrow, preferably around midday, but not until we’ve finished a long list of formalities. The first thing we need to do in Khartoum is register with the Aliens Department, a ritual to be performed no later than three days after arrival in the country. Uncle Al-Bashir sure likes to check up on his visitors! Early morning, we start to look for the registration office. It is not where Lonely Planet or T4A say it is. Officials whom we ask for its location look at us like we are asking them to eat their shoes or convert to Christianism. It takes a couple of hours and tens of kilometers of aimlessly riding though the city before we finally find the place.

Of course nobody ever bothered to put English signposts in the Aliens Department, so we are left to ourselves to figure out which of the twelve windows is the right one. The lady behind the counter tries to explain that we need to go back to the hotel to find someone with a Sudanese ID card to be our sponsor. We don’t like the idea and pretend we don’t understand her abdominal English. That’s where Hussam comes to our rescue. He translates and offers to be our guarantor on account of having friends in Belgium and having helped other travelers before. He invites us for dinner, which we accept. By the time we check the last item on our to-do list, it’ll be too late to leave anyway: booking tickets for the Wadi Halfa to Aswan ferry, obtaining a Travel and Photo Permit and going on-line to secure our other boat ticket. Fortunately we’re allowed to consult our email, but all banners on underworld websites like Hotmail or De Standaard are blocked. 

The rest of the afternoon we spend in a family park, where we wait fruitlessly for the Ferris Wheel to open and cast a view on the confluence of the White and Blue Nile. On our way to the exit we stroll past families sitting in the shade and eating sweets, rusted theme park attractions and shooting stalls with Chinese made plastic animal prizes, while the inaugural speech of the new president of the republic of South-Sudan is broadcasted on the radio. A truly surreal experience of a historical moment.

That night, Hussam offers us a nice meal and a personal insight into his country. We learn about the sentence for getting caught drinking alcohol (42 whip lashes for a Sudanese, 40 for a foreigner), the Sudanese’s obsession with uncovered hair justifying why their women can’t dress in accordance to the hot weather, we hear about the official ban on English classes in schools, how The Republic of the Sudan government doesn’t recognize Israel, how they use their centuries-old adage “Divide et impera” to arm tribes and secure their own position, and finally how Al Bashir has lost the support of most people and will probably lose power soon: not by elections (this is Sudan!), but by a coup.

With the obligatory Travel and Photo Permit in our pocket – a peculiar piece of paper that states nonsense like that we should inform government authorities before actually starting to film – we leave in the afternoon for Begarawiya and the famous pyramids of Meroe. We have the whole site to ourselves, to discover the impressive sand-covered tombs with the badly damaged carvings. It hurts to see how restorations have been undertaken in the seventies and eighties, but have stopped thereafter and nowadays it seems as if they just don’t care anymore. A flat tire delays us – once again the valve has been ripped off –and so we arrive in Atbara in the dark. 

Atbara must be among the hottest places on Earth. The burning sun will leave you shriveled and dry even after a short walk to the market to buy a spare inner tube. From Atbara, we no longer follow the meandering course of the Nile, but cross the desert directly to Karima instead. 

The archeological site is again badly littered and vandalized and it requires not only a lot of patience, but also three guards, a translator on the phone, a guy with a suitcase selling us a ticket and another one carrying the key to see the beautiful frescos of the temple of Mut. It makes us curious of visiting Egypt’s patrimony; surely it will be less intimate, but better conserved and professionally managed?  

We continue to Dongola where, tired as we are, we have to check four hotels before we find a room; only – not being married – we can’t sleep in it together unless I pay a visit to the nearby National Security Service office for a stamped authorization certificate. The Security official on duty, sitting in the courtyard in front of the television, wearing his pajamas, is helpful and very friendly, but oh so slow…

The following day we have to complete the 450 km ride to Wadi Halfa despite of the heat and late-night-street-food-induced bowel disturbances! We skip the visits to archeological sites and just ride through the pretty desert scenery, with an occasional glimpse of the green patch bordering the Nile. Upon arrival we decide to go to Mazar – the guy who would provide us ferry tickets – first. He isn’t there, but his mother invites us into the courtyard, where we end up staying the night, sleeping under the stars. 

Next morning, it almost feels as if we are on an organized tour when we ride to the ferry in single file with a group of South-African overlanders. 

It becomes less Thomas Cook-like when we have to wait several hours in the burning sun to embark the bikes on the passenger ferry, while people are doing their best to create chaos. We are lucky the bikes can go with us, because the vehicle barge is not leaving just yet. 

When everything and everybody’s aboard we install ourselves under a rescue boat on the top deck, together with An and Jo and Kristina and Andrew, two young couples driving their 4WD’s through the continent and beyond. They tell us their story of how they tried to cross into Egypt by land, arriving up to the Sudanese border post after driving through the sand for days, seeing the tarmac on the Egyptian side, and not being allowed to continue… Before we go to sleep, we contemplate on the pointlessness of this expensive ferry circus, while gliding past the beautifully lit temples of Abu Simbel...

For more pics see album "Sun-fried Isabel and Captain Solo"

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