Reaching the Nile
Once past Dongola, about two-thirds of the way from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa, the road heads north and follows the Nile Valley – in fact there are roads from here all the way to Cairo – more than 1,500 km away, but you can’t overland from Sudan to Egypt – leastways not yet. This is still a great new road – open, smooth tar seal, straight and comfortable; those Chinese road builders again, of course. Great motorbike riding – great visuals; and all the more knowing that we were in reach of Wadi Halfa.
You could see the river off to the left – smooth, green and quiet, and with a narrow border of green vegetation – crops and trees – along either embankment. The proximity of the river made all the difference to riding – and not simply from being able to see it and the sense of the many people living within a few hundred metres of the water’s edge – but from the occasional burst of cool air that covered the road. Sure, this was all relative when you’re riding in 50degC or so, but it dropped the ambient temperature a handful of degrees and refreshed the bits of you it could reach – wrists, face and neck mainly. Like the deserts of the day before, northern Sudan represented the pinnacle of hot riding – only this time there was a veneer of green around the edges. To the right of the road, the grey desert stretched into the distance.
The country has become more mountainous too, with stark heaps of rocks strewn around the base of the hills – enormous rectangular rocks in places as if some kids had been playing with bricks and then discarded them. There were a handful of settlements along the way, but you would have had to turn off the road – LHS remember – and track down to the Nile to find them. The road was simply too new to have established its own settlements, but they will be there within a handful of years – and not least because of the road traffic that will follow and link Khartoum with Aswan. That said, there was a bus halt and collection of buildings on the main highway at the eloquently named El Beer – but no beer, of course. The rail line was >200 km away somewhere out there to the east in that desert country – where just a couple of years ago the long-distance travellers in their 4x4s were assiduously bumping alongside sand trails heading for Atbara. Can you imagine what it must have been like following the rail line in sand – in this heat.
It was hot, but not uncomfortable riding once you got underway – with the realization that Wadi Halfa was literally round that next bend in the river. The bike hummed along; with no traffic about you can look around.
Our second night in the desert wasn’t anywhere near as good as the first. Although there had been no real sand blow that day, we were now travelling through areas that had been lived in since ancient times – few people, sure, but enough that you couldn’t just pull off the roadside and set up behind a bush. We tried following tracks down to the Nile, but they always ended up in someone’s backyard. People would come out to see who was arriving.
We eventually followed a track into the mountains to the right of the road and away from the Nile, but even here you could see that people and their vehicles occasionally passed this way. It was rocky, however, and you could ride over the larger rock hills and find a niche or two away from the more popular trails. We thought we had done well and, notwithstanding a small blow or two that covered everything in sand as we were setting up, we were firm about sleeping outside – that was until the sand storm really took off – an hour or so after we’d eaten and bedded down for the night. You simply could not sleep in that particular one. Quite apart from the noise there was sand into everything including you.
Fortunately, we were in a niche in the rocks so there was a measure of protection, but putting up Kristian’s tent with head torches when everything not fixed down was trying to fly away was the real challenge of the late evening. Sure we got it up – Kristian could put his tent up in his sleep – as he did this time – criss-crossing the plastic bracing rods into the channels set into the fabric, getting weights on to each corner and hustling our sleeping gear, clothes and just about everything else into the security of the tent and zipping it back up. And, five minutes later with everything battened down, we were inside this rigid little two-man tent with the plastic frame bending in the wind and sand pummelling against the fabric. Nothing like a good quality tent then. It was like being on a train in a tunnel inside the tent but, I have to say, I remember nothing more than five minutes before waking up the following morning to a brilliant sunny day – even a little cool. We’d slept though. You could have heard a pin drop it was so quiet. We had not heard the wind and sand blow cease during the night.
Everything round about that we’d left outside – mostly attached to the bikes – was heaped with sand. Time for a scrappy breakfast, load up the bikes and head back to the main highway bumping down out of the hills for around 08.30. It seemed cooler today.
We were stopped a couple of hours later alongside a minibus of people spilling out on to the road because of blasting ahead – the man said – by a gang erecting pylons that were following the new road. Five minutes later there was a boom a couple of hundred metres ahead and to one side of the road and we saw a small cloud of dust. The minibus collected its passengers and we followed them down the road – it was covered in small rocks.
We reached Wadi Halfa for mid-day Monday 28 May. The little town of about 16,000 people seemed to reach out of the desert as the Nile turned into Lake Nasser (well, the bit in Sudan is really called ‘Lake Nubia’); and it was much like a small Australian-look-alike township – spacious, relative well laid out, gardens, shrubs, wide roads and suburbs that gravitated towards the remnants of the original 19th century ex-British colonial town. Everything was low rise. The main road took you around the perimeter towards the commercial centre, which was like small town Sudan anywhere; white rectangular blocks of shops, hotels, restaurants and shaded verandas and wide open dusty roads in between. Hardly a tree in sight. It was relatively clean.
We pulled into a bar for a cold drink, and minutes later our Wadi Halfa fixer Mazar rode over on his little Chinese-made Jialing, parked and came over to introduce himself. How did he know it was us … we were the only foreign bikkies expected. He recommended a newly built hotel just outside the township as a place to stay, and said that he’d come by to check with us once we’d settled in.
The original town owes its existence to the sacking of Khartoum by the Mahdi in 1885 and the establishment of a military staging post that developed into a regional headquarters for the Anglo-Egyptian Expeditionary Force assembled to re-take Khartoum and Sudan. This became the centre of the rail yards, repair shops, military resources and more with which to transport the army – men, horses, equipment, munitions and other stores – south. First, however, that railway across the Northern Sudanese deserts had to be surveyed and built. It’s the same one that you travel on today – assuming you have the time, inclination, stamina and fortitude to do so when the modern air-conditioned coach alternatives are now available.
That original military town lasted a little over 60 years and, eventually, fell victim to the Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser. Look at the early photographs of the town – relatively elegant buildings, the corniche and more from the first half of the century – and reflect upon the changing priorities of recent times. Loss of recent heritage, however, should be seen in the context of the ancient Nubian heritage that also became lost forever. More than 20 years of digging and relocating prior to flooding resulted in buildings, artifacts and more being dismantled and re-assembled – much of it to museums in Khartoum – but the original Nubian civilizations and the people that predate it lived along the entire Nile Valley between the first and sixth cataracts; from Aswan almost to Khartoum. Changing environmental conditions from those times have brought the deserts that dominate into the modern day; and the descendants of the Nubian people have largely been dissipated into the modern towns of both countries. The dam and Lake Nasser simply hastened the Nubian exit from the heart of their ancient lands.
There must have been >50 rooms in the hotel, and we had it to ourselves – we could chose where we wanted the man at reception said – but they recommended the upstairs rooms with the air-cooling system, the en suite shower/toilet and the first floor open deck that ran the full length of the building. It was US$10/night/room. With the ferry due in a couple of days, the hotel would not remain empty for long – and it eventually filled to overflowing with people sleeping all over the open deck and in the enclosed compound at the rear of the ground floor. To one side there was a large dining room – spacious and open to the compound. We rode our bikes round to the back and in through the gate, and chained them together in the compound.
For the first night the hotel was comfortable and quiet. Water flowed, the air-cooling system worked and we were able to sleep well. The air cooling system was a god-send: a steel box tacked on to the outside wall of the bedroom and containing a small pump that lifted water to the top of the box where it filtered back through internal walls of hessian into the reservoir at the base of the box. A fan set into the wall of the room pulled cooled air from the box into the room. Perfect. Second night with the hotel filling the water supply failed – no showers, no toilet and, worse of all, no air cooling. We carried water upstairs from a trailer tanker located outside the hotel – to service the room and the cooling, but even that eventually ran out; and the room remained hot and stuffy. Fortunately, there was no run on the latrine; stomachs were working just fine.
Family Arkesteijn and Geof Henman turned up in Wadi Halfa during day #2 and also checked into the same hotel. Geof was still recuperating and Ilse had continued to drive his Land Rover in convoy with the family Merc. Everyone turned out to ensure that sufficient water was captured to service the three rooms – well, as best could be expected given the limited supplies. The Arkesteijn boys – Klaas and Sjors – ran water convoys with the best of us. But, without any means of verifying things, it’s almost certain that the foreigners lost out to the locals where water supplies were concerned – we were simply not sufficiently well connected. And, I don’t know how you get round that particular issue. No water means, quite simply, no water. If we had been camping – no issue; in a reasonably comfortable hotel it became an issue.
Day in Town
The Tuesday was a day of relaxation; away from the road, wandering the town and surroundings and catching up on the blog. Our agent Mazar came round, and this time on his bike and sidecar – the legacy of a South African rider that had left it behind – he said. He confirmed routines for tomorrow – day of departure. We walked the couple of hundred metres into town, found a local fundi with a treadle sewing machine and got him to make draw bags for our air mattresses – replacing the current ones. Kristian also had a tent bag made.
We enjoyed a drink and a snack at a bar in town and, later, rode out to the harbour offices to check on departure routines for tomorrow. They said: ‘Come back tomorrow’. But they also referred us to their office in town. So, a wasted journey then but we’d only travelled a few kilometres, so we took in a wider loop down to the lake shore following tracks and trails at random to see fishing communities, boats and markets up close and looking all pretty temporary.
Later in the afternoon we climbed one of those characteristic rocky pinnacles that dominate the township – pimples on the landscape little more than 300 metres high, but with some gorgeous views across the area including the hotel where we were staying. The Arkesteijn kids came with us.
I’ve probably said this already, but the value of a fix-it agent easily outweighs the costs involved; and more particularly when there are challenges of language, where the markets are dominated by narrow margins – would you prefer to stay another week in Wadi Halfa for the sake of US$20 (and/or the cost of an additional barge) – it doesn’t bare thinking. Our agent was familiar with people like ourselves – with good manners, an ability to share and/or reduce stress, and the confidence that comes from doing much the same for countless others who have gone before and those still coming. Sure he knew all the angles and the people involved and, almost certainly, he would be susceptible to the hand-outs, bribes and other ‘taxes’ that those in authority in Wadi Halfa Port would be able to load on to him. You simply fit in with the systems and, if this is difficult for you, then you have no place in coming this way.
In the ‘cadeaux’ circus it helps that you’re riding a motorbike (or a push bike or taking the bus, etc.) when compared to those driving what to the locals may seem like riches beyond understanding. Your Land Cruiser, Land Rover or whatever, may seem like a bucket back home – perhaps challenging Africa on its final journey, as-it-were, but here it represents real wealth. Hit the wrong road block or stop at those lights at the wrong junction (in the wrong city) and you could actually lose your vehicle. Theft happens.
So, the fixer represents that little additional insurance that you’re first on the boat, you’ve a friendly face who is expecting you – from e-mails shared during the approach to the Wadi Halfa – and, should things go wrong, then there is someone who may be on your side. What can go wrong here? You may have a road accident – God forbid; or the barge may not accompany the ferry, and you’ll arrive in Aswan with your bike/car still there in Wadi Halfa. That too happens.
So, our agent comes highly recommended.
02 June 2012