Our boat pulled into to the Sudanese port of Wadi Halfa at around 10 the next morning and for a few hours before that the boat had been buzzing with anticipation. Traders packing up their belongings, people filling out visa forms. We had drifted past the great Egyptian temple Abu Sible that morning, it a spectacular sight that is made all the more staggering when you consider that the temples were actually moved in the 1960’s in order to save them from the Nile’s rising waters, which in turn were caused by the creation of the Aswan Dam and indeed the creation Lake Nasser itself. Not without it’s criticisms, it’s hard to deny that the 200m relocation is an incredible example of engineering in history. After Abu Simble we passed the slightly less staggering landmark of the Sudanese border, literally just a line of water bottles tied together in the water.
The on board cafe doubles as an immigration office for the final few hours of the journey, and this is where you get your first taste of Sudanese bureaucracy. Your status as a non-Sudanese or Egyptian national is punished with countless registration forms, on all of which you basically just write out your passport information and make up hotel names and addresses to keep the authorities happy. Due to the fact that we had packed pretty light we had a pretty easy time getting of the boat, as you get of the dock you walk through what seems like an old warehouse and get your belongings halfheartedly searched. Top tip, if you pack your underwear at the top of your bag I’ve found the whoever searching gets embarrassed out of any real desire to search your belongings, in short you’ll have a much easier time.
Walking out of that customs building, for the first time, I was hit with goosebumps. I was now well into the unknown, as far as I was concerned Sudan may as well have been Mars.
The port town of Wadi Halfa has a real final frontier to it, if it wasn’t for the once weekly boat from Egypt you get the impression that it wouldn’t exist. Our aim was to get to Khartoum, the capital, as quickly as possibly. Partly because the north of Sudan is overwhelmingly just desert, which, call me cynical, does get a bit repetitive after a while. We’d also been told that we had to register with the police in Khartoum within 3 days of arriving in the country and not wanting to risk a fine or other sort of repercussions figured it was best to get there in good time.
After grabbing a quick bit of food we jumped in a minibus, or Boxsi as the locals call them. These wagons of discomfort don’t leave until full, and by full, I mean crammed with twice as many people as there are seats . They aren’t particularly pleasant, especially in a country as large as Sudan where you’re likely to be stuck in them for upwards of 4/5 hours. We hit the road and where heading for a town called Dongola. Knowing next to nothing about it, we chose it because of its convenient location en-route to Khartoum and due to the fact that we had the name of what sounded like a decent place to stay.
Well, a good 7 hours later (it was supposed to be 4 1/2), bewildered, fatigued and generally not having had a good first couple of hours in the country we pulled into Dongola’s shanty little bus station. I was in an incredibly bad mood, the light was starting to fade. It was time to find a bed. We spent a depressingly long hour wandering around the town, yet had no luck finding our hotel. Swallowing our pride, we eventually ventured in to a pharmacy, where I found 3 well dressed men in suits who spoke English. The relief that overcame me when they told me they knew the hotel could have pulled a small nation out of poverty. The men started asking why I was in Dongola, as I began what had, by this time, become quite a rehearsed answer about my trip plans another chap entered. The first thing that hit me was the stench of booze that preceded him, the smell could have intoxicated made the elephant extinct in Sudan if ivory poaching hadn’t already achieved such a tragedy. As I turned to see the source of this fine stench, I was met by a skinny fellow, dark skinned and with an uncontrollable sway brought on by what would appear to be a solid few hours of boozing. He introduced himself as James, from Juba. Juba being the capital of South Sudan, the worlds newest nation after it seceded from the rest of Sudan in 2011 taking with it most of the north’s oil too. Ethnically the split made sense, the North is Islamic and populated mainly by Arabs but also many Nubians. The south is noticeably different in the sense that Christianity dominates, the overwhelming majority of people are black as appose to Arab. It’s definitely where the transition from the Middle East to Sub Saharan Africa takes place.
The three gentlemen gave James a little bit of cash and asked him to show us to our lokanda. These are the Sudanese equivalent of hostels, cheap and basic accommodation. Perfect for the unwashed and unfazed traveler. We checked in and paid the still unbelievable price of 1.50 for a double room.
We didn’t really get to see much of Dongola, and to be honest I’m pretty sure we didn’t miss a huge amount but are short few hours there were still pretty interesting. Up at 6.00 the next morning and we were on the bus to Khartoum. The bus service this time was actually surprising. Firstly, it was a coach and that much taken for granted rule of 1 person per seat was back in play, happy days. The bus ticket included a bizarre packed lunch of bread, cold chicken nuggets and a rather suspect pineapple drink. We also had the pleasure of watching 5 hours of Sudanese talent shows. Despite a lack of talent these were pretty hilarious at times. On a few occasions the camera panned to audience members who had fallen asleep as well as the stars of the show forgetting the lyrics and not even trying to blag it.
Happy to stretch my legs, the bus dropped us off the side of the road, it didn’t really seem like the capital. There were a few metal shacks and some rickety old minibuses offering us lifts. Initially I thought we had got off too early, however a quick scout of the horizon and I spotted the one recognizable landmark in Khartoum. The Corinthia hotel, built with Libyan money, it was Colonel Qaddafi’s attempt at exerting influence in the part of the world. However it didn’t really work out, the Colonel ended up dead in a storm drain (that’s a story for another day) and Khartoum an unnecessary plush hotel that will never be more than 25% full.
Wandering around the city center we found a cheap hotel and checked in for the extortionate rate of 2.50 a night. Our first mission was to get some cash and this was where things started to get difficult…
For various reasons, although particularly because of Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir’s rather smelly record on human rights the United States of
Freedom America has in place a significant sanctions package aginst Sudan. As a consequence companies like Visa and Mastercard are prohibited from doing business with Sudan. And so, for the duration of my time in Sudan, the dwindling funds of my bank account were off limits and I needed to find another way to access money. I spent the next few days running around the city, jumping from internet cafe to internet cafe. Eventually it was, perhaps predictably, my parent who saved the day. They wired me some money via Western Union, I was able to pick the cash up the same day, settle my not so extortionate hotel bill and starting planning my escape from Sudan. It had been a very stressful few days and it was almost entirely down to poor planning on my part. I had wandered round Khartoum’s sights, tasted its incredibly cheap street food (2.50 for a whole BBQ Chicken!) and had enough Shaii to sink a small shi p. Despite all this, I really couldn’t wait to get out of Sudan and into Ethiopia, my visit to the country had been tainted with stress and frustration. Maybe one day I’ll return but after such an experience I was relishing the prospect of not being in an Islamic country for the first time in quite a few months.