The Acropole & The Desert.
After the longest night of my life and a long drive through the desert I arrived in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city at the confluence of the Nile. The Alfa had been struggling in the heat and the traffic. The poor quality fuel and the 50 degree heat caused it to ping very easily. I had to drive the car as if it were made from glass to keep the engine from detonating. I was glad when I found my hotel.
The Acropole is the oldest hotel in Khartoum, set up in 1952 by a greek family, the Pagoulatos family, and it really is the only place to stay. There are other hotels, more luxurious hotels, more expensive hotels, but really you don’t want to be anywhere else. The Acropole is a sanctuary in a city that can be very intimidating. It has been an important part of the city’s modern history, and in the office there are stickers from every charity and news organisation that has passed through its doors, from CNN to The BBC to Bob Geldof. The hotel was destroyed in a terrorist attack in 1988, but the family stayed on. Now it is the go-to hotel in the country, and it’s always full of diplomats, archaeologists, journalists, and writers. At breakfast time I sat and wondered who all the other guests might be, and what could have brought them to the Sudan.
Pablo met me outside, I was exhausted and in the heat I pretty much fell out of the car. The staff moved my bags upstairs and brought me a cold drink while I filled out the necessary paperwork. When you travel in The Sudan you need to register in Khartoum within three days of arriving. The hotel does this on behalf of its guests. In fact, the Acropole’s office can pretty much sort any paperwork problem you might have while traveling in The Sudan. They helped me with my travel permits, my photography permit, my visa, and my registration.
After I had settled into my room, and had let my parents know I wasn’t dead, I took a nice cold shower (the temperature outside was oppressive) and turned the AC down to about -15. That evening, as the sun set, I took a short walk around the city, I was aiming to get to Corinthian Hotel. I didn’t get anywhere close. Walking in Khartoum is not easy, as the traffic is a little mad, but mostly the heat is unbearable, to me at least. After just 20 minutes I was soaked in sweat. I was wiping sweat away from my eyes, it was appalling. I looked at the other people in the street, in their clean clothes and wondered how exactly they managed it. I went back to the hotel and had another cold shower.
I spent the next day resupplying and readying my car for the journey to the Egyptian border, roughly 1300 kilometres away. I refueled all the tanks, reaching my maximum capacity of 135 litres. I visited a shopping mall which was underground. This was a strange experience, as it was perfectly modern. It looked like any shopping mall you might find in South Africa or Europe. There were cafés and bakeries and I even went grocery shopping.
On a Friday morning I decided to head out of the city, heading north-west, in a search for ancient pyramids. It was difficult to leave the hotel. George and Pablos and the rest of the family had made me feel very much at home, this was their motto after all “your home from home”. They had smoothed over my stay in Khartoum to a point that is was actually a pleasure. Besides the big comfy room and all the paperwork there were details that no other hotel would offer. They put a Sudanese sim in my phone, organised a fixer at the border post on the other side of the country, they plotted a good route for me to get there, and even had my car washed.
The lack of traffic on a Friday made getting out of the city very easy. It wasn’t long before I was out in the open spaces of the desert. The road heading to Atbara was in good shape and my progress was swift. There are a lot of military checkpoints on all the roads heading away from Khartoum, but they are easy to navigate. I had photocopies of my travel permit, which I would hand out at each checkpoint, and I would be sent on my way. Easy.
I stopped at a truck stop to buy something for lunch and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to find a cold drink and good food. The stores had plenty to offer and the people running them, often children, were friendly and a pleasure to deal with. Even when there was a complete language barrier I found people were enthusiastic to work around it.
My goal for the day was to find my way to the Pyramids of Meroe, which were in the desert somewhere south-west of Atbara. Meroe was the capital of a Kushite kingdom, which had ruled Nubia from the 10th century BC to the 4th Century AD. Meroe was the last capital of the kingdom.
The Pyramids, the burial sites of Kushite kings and queens, are perched on a sandy ridge, maybe a mile away from the Nile. I turned off the road and onto the soft sand on hard packed dirt of the Nubian Desert. The Alfa handled the terrain really well, but on its narrow wheels it did sink into the sand easily.
I parked up at the base of a sandy dune, paid 50 Sudanese Pounds, and had the entire place to myself. On my desk at home I have had a photograph of Meroe up for a long time. And now I was seeing it in person, and there was no other tourist for 100 miles.
As the sun set I drove my car further into the desert, around the hills of Meroe, to find a nice quiet spot to camp for the night. It was still awfully hot so I found some shade behind a small tree and put up my tent.
The ground radiated heat throughout the night, and I really wished I had a roof-tent, so I lay on top of my mattress and sleeping bag and clothes just trying to get away from the heat. Dinner was granola, which I had stocked up on in Nairobi. I didn’t have the space to carry proper cooking equipment, and the thought of karting around pots and pans and washing equipment was exhausting.
The next morning I got up early to pack up camp before the sun brought back the oppressive heat. While packing up a man on a camel came across my camp and offered me a ride on the camel.
After my short ride on the camel I found my way back to the tarmac and headed for Atbara, where I refueled and bought a few snacks for the road. The bridge here was a checkpoint and it took a fair amount of time to get through and out into the desert, but once I was clear I had a run of 300 kilometres to Karima where I didn’t see another soul.
One of the pleasant things about Sudan is how empty it can feel. I was in the desert, which was beautiful in its own way, but there was a great road, and it was a neat road. There was no left over building supplies, no rubble, and no litter. It was great to look at.
It took me about three hours to cut through the desert from Atbara to Karima. Karma is a small town near the mountain of Jebel Barkal, where the 2nd capital city, Napata, of the Kushites was built. There is not very much left of the city, but a few pyramids remain beside the road out-of-town.
From Karima the road once again cuts through the desert for 175 kilometres, rejoining the Nile at Dongala, one of Sudan’s larger towns. I arrived in Dongola in the late afternoon. I found a small shop and bought some food and something to drink. I also fuelled up again. I hadn’t actually switched over to my long-range tank since my night at the fuel station, Sudan seems to have plenty of fuel stations, even in the more remote areas.
I followed the Nile northwards until the early evening. About 100 kilometres north of Dongola the road winds fairly close to the Nile and I was able to make my way off of the road and down to the edge of the water. I set up camp near some trees, away from any settlements.
I had another dinner of granola and biscuits bought at the roadside shop and spent the evening reading and listening to the sounds of the Nile. It was cooler this time, a pleasant breeze drifted off the water to my camp and I got a much better night’s sleep.
In the morning I got back on the road for the last stretch to the Egyptian border. Wadi Halfa, the border town, was only 400 Kilometres away. The Sudan had always been the big challenge of this trip. This was always the dangerous country that people cautioned me about. When I told people I was going to drive to Europe many would asked specifically “Are you going to Sudan?” Being at the other end of the country I was glad I had gone. It had been an uplifting experience, one I will cherish forever. I’m very glad I got to see The Sudan in its otherworldly beauty. I’m glad I got to meet a few of its friendly, hospitable people.
I was in a good mood as I moved north towards the Egyptian border, and before long I was in the border town of Wadi Halfa. The biggest challenge of the trip was done, I thought. I met George’s contact at the land border who pushed me through Sudanese immigration and customs in about no time at all. So, one day ahead of schedule I made it to Egypt, the last country on my African trip.