Northern Sudan | Dust, sweat and tears
Six nights’ waiting in a filthy Sudan hotel for their Landy taxed Matt and Halszka Covarr’s patience, but that was nothing compared to what still waited for them in the Sahara on a six-day trek along the Nile to Khartoum.
A mountain of junk is still piled up around my vehicle on the rusty cargo barge.
Also barely visible under mounds of cardboard boxes and sacks of grain packed tightly around and on top of them, are two German motorcycles and a British-registered Land Cruiser.
The grubby barge captain and his band of deckhands notice me stepping carefully over dead fish and quayside debris as I head down the slipway towards them.
“Aah, not today my friend, maybe tomorrow … inshallah,” he shouts, confirming my worst fears.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard the now familiar, inshallah, Arabic for “If Allah wills it” or “God willing”. It’s used in just about any situation requiring patience or less haste in North Africa.
And patience is what’s called for.
On our journey from England to Plettenberg Bay, we’ve been stuck in the Sudanese village of Wadi Halfa for nearly a week now, having braved the ageing passenger ferry from Aswan in Egypt down Lake Nasser due to land-border closures between the two countries.
While the crowded 22-hour ferry journey was bad enough, the cargo barge carrying our trusty Land Rover travels separately and only arrives in Wadi Halfa two days later.
Our vehicle and three others are buried under a mass of kitchen appliances, grain, TVs, bicycles and just about anything that Egyptian traders can flog in Sudan before returning the next week.
With my patience wearing thin, I take a daily 2-km pilgrimage back and forth from Wadi Halfa village to the port on Lake Nubia – as Lake Nasser is known in Sudan – in the desperate hope that the barge may have been unloaded.
Once the cargo has been off-loaded, the barge will rise up to the quay level, which will enable me to drive the Landy onto dry land.
Apart from the unloading process being painfully slow, Sudanese customs officials are in no hurry to clear the vehicles, resulting in us spending six nights in Wadi Halfa’s El Nile Hotel, easily Africa’s dirtiest establishment.
P2 | Desert escape
Escape from a desert prison
For four fellow overlanders and us travelling from Europe to South Africa, Wadi Halfa has become a prison cell in the middle of the desert.
Apart from filling out mountains of paperwork to register ourselves as aliens in Sudan, there hasn’t been much to keep us busy here and we’re all dying to see the back of this collection of shacks and satellite dishes and hit the road south towards Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.
On second thought: road? What road?
Stretching over 1 000 lonely yet evocative kilometres south from here to the capital, the road is little more than a sand track following the path of the Nile across the southern Sahara.
However, the alternative is a featureless road heading southeast along a railway from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum.
I know we’re in for a gruelling journey, but it still beats another night at the El Nile Hotel.
Back at the El Nile, evening has set in on what may be our last night in Wadi Halfa.
In the yellow glow of candlelight dancing on the corrugated-iron walls and across the sand floor, my five fellow “prisoners” sit around a crate drinking copious amounts of chai (spiced tea drunk sweet and black here) at the little restaurant attached to the hotel building.
I tell them what the barge captain has reported on the lack of progress. “No ways, that’s what he said three days ago,” shouts Simon, a South African heading to KwaZulu-Natal with a friend in his Land Cruiser.
“Ja, ja, we’ll see about that,” adds a German couple travelling to Cape Town by motorbike.
Over yet another meal of fried tilapia (freshwater fish) and beans everyone adds their five-cents-worth of predictions as to how tomorrow may pan out.
The next morning I’m already stuffing my sleeping bag into its pouch when the first call to prayer resonates over the village rooftops.
I don’t feel like enduring another night in the El Nile Hotel. Apart from it having neither running water and electricity nor mattresses, you have to ensure every last cockroach in the long drop has scurried down the tiny aperture before you get down to business, which puts a damper on the start to every Wadi Halfa day.
After I return from my daily pilgrimage with the surprising news that our vehicles have been off-loaded, the rest of the overland gang are raring to go.
On arrival at the port we’re all ushered into a large warehouse. I feel uneasy as the doors are shut behind us.
A corpulent high-ranking official slowly mops up the remains of his breakfast with a piece of bread. He looks up, rubbing his hands together at the sight of fresh prey.
“The import fee for each car will be US $500,” he casually mentions, shoving the wedge of bread into his mouth.
A long and increasingly heated debate on the validity of our carnet documents begins.
Looking even more exhausted than we’re feeling after a gruelling two-hour argument, the officer crumbles and gives up on his salary top-up demand.
He grabs the release stamp and bangs it down on the carnet documents.
Today, the Nile
The German motorbikers and the Cruiser team waste no time.
Unsure if we’ll cross paths again, we wish them safe travels and watch as they skirt the maze of shacks in a trail of dust.
We stock up on last-minute supplies and make for the landmark minaret on the outskirts of the village marking the exit onto the road south.
A tangle of vehicle tracks cut out across the sand like a child’s crayon scribble on a sheet of paper. “Take that one … no that one! OK, that one,” Halszka shouts as we try to keep the little arrow on the GPS pointing south.
Ahead of us lie nothing but rocky hills and a vast expanse of sand.
The tracks soon hit a harder surface and the vehicle thumps out into the desert across a washboard of corrugations and thick patches of sand.
The reality of the route we’re undertaking and the remote and possibly hostile part of Africa that it crosses only begins to sink in as we sit around our humble campfire that evening.
Utterly alone and caked in dust and sand, the feeling that we may be out of our depth couldn’t be stronger.
We’ve managed to gather a few dead twigs from a landscape seemingly devoid of all life. Staring into the jumping flames, I can’t help but wonder how long it would take for anyone to find us should we not make it through the night.
The following morning a sharp gust of wind is all it takes to wake me from my Sahara slumber on the Landy’s roof rack. “Today we see the Nile,” announces Halszka optimistically.
The first 80 km from Wadi Halfa cuts southwest to join with the river near the village of Semna.
Approaching the village from high-lying ground, the sluggish brown waters of the Nile come into view. It runs through the dusty expanse like a piece of thread through a massive sheet of cloth.
Clinging to the eastern bank is a narrow strip of tall palms and irrigated fields that form the lifeblood for the scattering of inhabitants that depend on the river to water crops.
Semna and most other villages we pass through during the midday heat are seemingly deserted, their inhabitants sheltering indoors while the sun is at its fiercest.
Characteristic of every settlement along the route are large terracotta urns of drinking water, placed under the shade of trees at the side of the track.
Like canvas water bags hung in front of a vehicle, evaporation from these urns keeps the contents cool for any passerby.
Socially, the urns symbolise the hospitality of villagers along this section of the Nile, and we seldom pass them without interacting with locals and the now-familiar invite to drink chai.
A seemingly endless shady strip along the riverbank provides respite from the sun grilling the landscape.
We tuck ourselves into the relative cool at midday and dig into the few scraps of tinned food and onions we’ve managed to get in Wadi Halfa.
With the heat topping 50 ºC, lethargy has us in its grips, and when a farmer tending his crops gestures that we can camp under his palm trees, we jump at the chance.
The temperature hardly drops as evening sets in, and after a bath in the murky Nile we lie down under wet towels on the roof rack in an effort to get some sleep in the uncomfortable heat.
Rustling palm leaves and the rhythmical put-put of an old diesel water pump send us off to sleep under a star-laden sky.
P3 | A mercy dash
A mercy dash
Things don’t look too good the following morning as we roll into the little village of Varka further down river.
A small crowd has gathered around two familiar-looking motorbikes. But the German couple are nowhere to be seen.
I jump out and ask where the riders are.
A young boy leads me through a clump of mud buildings and into the dark interior of one.
At the end of a drip suspended from the roof by wire, lies a partly conscious Klaus, one of the German motorcyclists. His partner, Dagma, says he keeps fainting and is so weak he can’t stand. “We’ve had to push the bikes most of the time through deep sand,” she explains.
The doctor, an ageing senior citizen, shuffles up to me squinting through a pair of armoured-glass spectacles.
“This is your friend?” he inquires in broken English.
“Yes, I know him. What is wrong?” I ask nervously.
“He must go to hospital in Abri (35 km south along the same road). He is dehydrated and exhausted. You must take him,” he sternly tells me.
We load Klaus and his drip into the back of the Land Rover and place a wet sponge between his lips as the old doctor has suggested.
Dagma, who is remaining behind to organise transport for the motorbikes, passes us their German-made medical kit. It probably has more medical equipment than the average Sudanese state hospital.
The road to Abri is particularly treacherous and we’re forced to take it at speed in an attempt to fly over the massive corrugations and get to the hospital.
A deafening bang from underneath the vehicle causes Klaus to briefly open his eyes in shock before passing out again.
Grey smoke and a strong burning smell wafts out from one of the Landy’s back wheel arches.
A gas shock absorber has exploded due to the constant hammering and high temperature and it’s been reduced to a mass of molten rubber and steel.
I crawl in under the vehicle while Halszka plugs Klaus’ sponge back into his mouth.
Feeling like a piece of meat in a frying pan, I slide around on the hot gravel beneath the vehicle.
I manage to remove the remains of the shock absorber from its mountings and we’re soon moving again, the back of the vehicle now bouncing around uncontrollably with only one shock.
In Abri, Klaus is admitted into the empty ward of a hospital built by the British in colonial times. The only doctor in town rummages through the German medical kit and hooks Klaus up to another drip.
“You must feed him and stay with him tonight,” he tells us.
The ward has four steel bed frames and no mattresses. A small basin on the far wall is full of sand.
“There is no water here,” announces the doctor. “You will find containers at the gate.”
We drive the vehicle up to the ward entrance, set up camp inside the empty room and Halszka cooks a meal of onions and tinned tuna.
As evening sets in, Klaus starts to rehydrate and perk up a little.
While a sandstorm rages outside, we battle to sleep on our camping mattresses laid out on top of the hospital bed frames. Banging windows and doors and flapping sheet metal keep us awake all night.
Klaus is discharged from the hospital the next morning.
While I’m fitting a spare shock absorber, Dagma arrives on a small bakkie from Varka with the two motorbikes.
Thanks to legendary North African hospitality, she was put up in Varka for the night until someone could get her and the bikes to the hospital.
With Klaus looking much better, we wish them luck and bid them farewell, again.
Shelter from the desert storm
The Nile takes a sharp turn north at the town of Dongola, and that night we pitch camp along the river for the last time.
Under the now familiar palm leaves, we chop up our last onion and with a few flat breads purchased en route, we sit inside the baking vehicle trying desperately to shelter from another sand storm lashing our camp.
Massive palm leaves crash down onto the vehicle.
After several hours of black jack and rummy, the storm dies down and we emerge from our shelter into what looks like a war zone of sand, palm branches and camping equipment.
While no one said this journey would be easy, the Sahara certainly seems to be bent on putting the boot into us.
Having hardly slept, we line up with a cargo of donkeys and brightly clad locals the next morning to board the pontoon across the river.
From here the route continues south across the desert. Soon after passing through the bustling junction town, we stop at a small water pump on the side of the track to fill our tanks.
A farmer walks over to us, gesturing that we join him for chai.
He speaks a few words of English and as we sit down under the shade of his palm trees, he manages by drawing in the sand to ask if we like watermelon.
With the sun beating down on us, I quickly accept his offer.
His son disappears over a small bank and appears seconds later with two gigantic watermelons, which are quickly cut up and served on a large silver tray.
As we tuck into the refreshing meal, I recall far-fetche
d stories we’d heard about the dangers and hostility we’d be facing while travelling in northern Sudan.
While the challenges so far have worn us both down slightly, the people here certainly don’t fit the stereotypical description.
That evening, after tackling a gruelling 200 km stretch of thick sand before the 300 km-odd tarred section to Khartoum, we stop at a tiny oasis − a small vegetable garden in the middle of the desert.
Sudan’s warm hospitality wins us over once again as we’re invited to spend the evening with Mohammed and his family.
Mohammed speaks good English and doesn’t tire at our continuous queries about life in Sudan.
On telling him that Sudan’s heat is something we just can’t get used to, Mohammed insists that we borrow some traditional Arab attire for the evening and assures us that Western clothes are no good for desert temperatures.
Clad in white robes and admittedly feeling far cooler, we feast on the various trays of food that are laid out across the floor in front of us.
While Mohammed’s wives teach Halszka the various ways of wearing the taub, a single sheet of cloth that covers the head and the body, he gives me all the information I need on the final stretch to Khartoum.
P4 | We’ve made it
We’ve made it!
Busses churn past us through the last kilometres of thick Sahara sand as we approach the newly-laid tar road into Khartoum.
Passengers clutch onto bus roof racks, letting go only to wave as they leave us in plumes of dust.
Our final day across the desert has been no less demanding than the other five.
The floor of the Land Rover became so hot that the rubber mats melted onto its surface.
Halszka pressed her feet up against the inside of the windscreen to keep cool as we plunged into deep pockets of fine powder dust that oozed in through every gap in the vehicle’s bodywork.
With the grey smog of Khartoum hanging over the horizon and the appearance of the first tar road we’ve seen in over 1 000 km, I stop the Landy near a small outcrop of rock and take a swig of near-boiling water from a water bottle.
We climb out of the blistering vehicle into a breeze that feels like a hairdryer blowing in our faces.
Exhausted, we stare out at an old truck loaded to the hilt with passengers, droning towards us through the deep sand. The driver stops and sticks his head out of the window.
“You are OK?” he shouts above the clatter of the idling engine. I give him the thumbs-up, saying we’re just resting.
“You are going to Khartoum?” he adds.
“Yes, from Wadi Halfa,” I reply wearily.
“From Halfa! You and your car are very strong. Khartoum is close now; you will make it,” he assures us.
His fascinated passengers gawk blankly at the two dust-smothered South Africans standing in the middle of their desert. I stare back thinking of something to say.
One word springs to mind − “Inshallah,” I shout.
With a chorus of inshallahs shouted back at us, the old truck pulls away and rattles off across the sand.
With God willing, after six days of dust, hospitals, sweat and tears we’ve made it.