VIII. Swallowed by Sand

Galabat, Sudan – April 22nd, 2017

Mileage: 14.663 km

The Ethiopian border in Galabat is nigh 600km away from Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and my travel companion Florian and I knew it was going to be a tough task. We settled into the fact that we would arrive late at night, if at all. Immigration, customs and the additional security checks were made easy by a border official who recognised two helpless white people as we entered Sudanese territory. Upon greeting us, I responded with »Wa-Alaikum-Salaam!«, which is the only Arabic phrase that I know. He smiled. »You speak Arabic?« »No, I’m very sorry. Only English I am afraid« as I submissively smiled back.

»No problem. Let me help you where you need to go. Where are you from?«

»I’m from Germany and he’s from France.« »Ah, Germany,« responds the soldier in a positively surprised manner and proceeds to tell me that he has family living there. »Germany is a very good country. My family is very happy in Berlin. Welcome to Sudan, my friend!« What a great introduction to Sudan, I thought. The welcoming soldier escorts us to the immigration office, the customs office and helps us pass the security checkpoints and fill out the paperwork. His help was greatly appreciated as most forms are printed in Arabic. Arabic, a truly artistic writing. Though, neither Florian nor I can read a single word. From the border, there is only one official bus to Khartoum which however departs in the early morning hours. We missed it and found ourselves stranded amidst the relentless beating of the midday sun. Small houses lined up along the single road that stretched into the vast parched valley of Sudan. We saw minibuses parked in front of narrow shops and coffee places and found several Sudanese gentlemen, dressed in white robes and tarboosh haggling with banknotes and tickets. We hurried towards the gentlemen and asked if a minivan was going to Khartoum. We eventually found a bus to Al-Qadarif (approximately halfway) and were told that this was our best bet to reach Khartoum today. We hesitated whether he spoke the truth but then didn’t think twice as we were keen to escape the heat. I handed over some disintegrating bank notes, worth fractions of a Euro that I had exchanged at the border.

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The road took us through the wide open plains of Sudan. Sudan wasn’t what I expected, I thought we would cross the border and immediately see endless sand dunes. The opposite was true. Vast grain fields as far as the eye could see drowned by a burning, sulfur-yellow sun, resentful of life and soaking the land with its spite. It’s hot – oppressively so –  45°C (113°F). The last time I experienced such heat was in California’s Death Valley but cocooned in a comfortable air-conditioned car. A/C didn’t work and once we were assembled into the minibus like a game of human Tetris and left, we noticed that driving with closed windows, i.e. being baked in the car at such melting temperatures was, in fact, less exhausting than having hot air stream into the bus. To our relief, Al-Qadarif was only three hours away. From here the Buses put an end to minivans for a change. Large Chinese-build tour buses roamed the lands from here; luxurious, compared to all the previous minibuses that we had ridden in before. Air-conditioning, reclining chairs, leg room, a TV and drinks and snacks were handed out as soon as we departed.

Some things, however, hadn´t changed after all, like the music they streamed in the bus for the majority of our journey throughout Sudan. It merely changed from Ethiopian to Arabic music and better yet this exotic genre was accompanied by music videos with shoulder flapping, torso-jerking, scandalously dressed singers and musicians. While Ethiopians were obsessed with plastering their busses with famous football team logos; in Sudan, the buses were colourfully carpeted in cartoon colours. It felt like entering a tour bus to Disneyworld. The more contradicting was the viewing of one of Hollywoods proudest moments: Sylvester Stallone in Rambo.

Khartoum, Sudan – April 22nd, 2017

Mileage: 14.663 km

We arrived in Khartoum close to midnight just after Rambo saved Vietnam singlehandedly from hundreds of terrorists. The city was alive. People strolling the streets, food courts, markets, shops, restaurants and countless mango juice bars.  Everything appeared to just have opened. Temperatures were still far beyond the 30°C (86°F) mark but it was the only time of day where people could linger the streets at nearly acceptable temperatures. Florian and I received a heartwarming welcome from Ahmed and Hisham and other friends that were keen to meet us. Florian had made Ahmed’s and Hisham’s acquaintance in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia. They had promised to help us once we arrived. And help they did. They went above and beyond: organised a two bedroom apartment in the city centre at almost no price, worked black market magic exchange rates triple the official rate (Sudan is a closed economy. It is impossible to bring money in or out unless you have cash), took us to delicious Arabic coffee shops, fresh mango juice bars and introduced us to the delicious Arabic cuisine. The next couple of days, they took hours off work and chauffeured us to all the viewable sights in Khartoum. Their hospitality towards two complete strangers from Europe was overwhelming and I couldn’t have thanked them enough only to promise that I would love to return that favour one day should they ever pass through Hamburg. The biggest highlight of them all, however, was the wedding that we were invited to the following day. We were told that a Sudanese wedding can last for several days, and when we arrived family and friends had come from near and far. Visitors like Florian and I often stayed with the family, adding to the cost of this elaborate, exotic and costly series of celebrations.

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‘Henna’ is the gathering that we attended. Here the young and the elder men from both families had come together to meet and become acquainted with each other; it is also the time where the two fathers negotiate the wedding contract. After the contract was signed food was served and Arabic music filled the tent. People started to eat and dance. At some point, a whip was handed over to the father of the groom and guests started to kneel in front of him taking their shirts off. Ahmed took us by our arms and told us that we have to watch this. Periodically, the father of the groom started to whip their guests, though rather lightly. »It is our tradition to have this lashing ceremony at all wedding celebrations,« said Ahmed. »Sometimes the lashing is considered a debt meaning that if you lashed somebody in one celebration you should expect to be lashed by that person the next time round,« he said.

This somewhat bizarre practice, known locally as ‘Al-Potan’, has been passed down through generations. It’s seen as a sign of dignity to take part in the ceremony and young boys, in particular, were keen to be chosen to be whipped to demonstrate their maturity and braveness.

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Meroë Pyramids, Sudan – April 26th, 2017

Mileage: 14.890 km

After four wonderful days in Khartoum Florian and I said our farewells to Ahmed who kindly escorted us to the bus terminal, purchased our bus tickets and made sure that we received comfortable seats within the bus to Shendi, the closest town to the archaeological sites of Meroë. Once we escaped the outer reaches of Khartoum I finally started seeing the Sudan that I had long imagined in my head. Miles and miles of shifting sands of the largest desert on earth. A fount of solitude, the Sahara Desert is like nowhere else on earth. The world’s largest desert, both continental in its scale and exquisite in its detail. The more disturbing was the observation of countless burst tires and plastic bags along the roadside. Plastic, the scourge of Africa! Sudan is so far the worst culprit. Plastic bags, in particular, bejewel every tree, shrub and bush, thousands of synthetic bags move like a shoal of fish through the baked wastelands. Some even completely covered in plastic bags like absurd pieces of modern art. It is the winds that gently roll these flimsy bags across these remote areas and eventually in front of me that remained a fixed image. I’ve travelled to some of the most far-flung corners of this continent and regardless of where I’ve gone, the story is generally the same: the landscapes are littered with evidence of human activity. Check any wire fence, compound or petrol station, even in Khartoum – the gaily coloured plastic trash reminds you of Tibetan prayer flags.

Once in Shendi I stopped outside a supermarket and spent a while explaining to a kid hidden behind a tall counter that I would like to purchase large bottles of water, not the 300ml bottles on dusty display. I pointed at the small bottles then opened my arms to signal big. Once again I found myself in a game of charades acting out words in all sorts of ridiculous ways – he piled three 300ml bottles on top of each other. »No! No! No!« I wagged my finger, pointing at the 2l Coca-Cola in the fridge. »Like zeeees« I said in my best Arabic. The kid smiled, disappeared behind mountains of unpacked boxes and returns with 1.5l water bottles. »How muchee?« more colloquial Sudanese by me. The kid fired up the calculator but an older gentleman arrived and wrestled the calculator from him. Tap tap tap. Confusion. The old man beckons for the neighbouring shopkeeper. Then more tap tap tap. Enter. »40 Sudanese pounds.« 2 EUR for six 1.5l bottles? »Deal!« Florian in the meantime managed to organise an entire chicken with rice wrapped in aluminium foil for much the same price and we tended to our taxi driver with whom we had bargained to take us to the Meroë tombs for the price of a subway ticket. A distance of approximately 60 km.

We drove deep into ancient Nubia and sand as far as the eye can see surrounded us. We were now on the alert for ancient ruins. All four window doors were rolled down in a misfiring attempt to imitate air-conditioning. Hot dry air streamed into the car and scalded my face. Florian lit a cigarette while I opened my first water bottle to quench my never-ending thirst. »Gulp, gulp, gulp…« water ran down my oesophagus like a draining pipe. Finally, distant peaks of stone dotted a silhouette of rippling sand waves. Pyramids! The inner treasure hunter in me had awoken as I snapped out of Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and marvelled at the ingenuity of ancient monuments. These hauntingly beautiful images reveal what’s left of a long forgotten empire of gods and pharaohs. A once prosperous domain swallowed by sand.

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Best of all, we had the pyramids all to ourselves and in all my childish excitement, I convinced Florian to spend the night here in the desert. Juvenile memories of playing detective and archaeologist in my parents garden unveiled the child within me once more as I wandered the tombs searching for treasures. By now the sun had dealt as much as it could muster, the blistering breeze had dissipated and I walked back up the dune to witness the sunset. There was a haze across the desert and the sun nestled comfortably in a silver bed of fine dust on the distant horizon, the colours were incredible. This was the arid land of the Sahara, where almost no plant ever grows and few animals ever dare live.

In the amber light of a mesmerising sunset, before the full night sky appeared we ate our dinner. Our campsite was one of the best ever. I rolled out my large blanket took out my sleeping bag and laid down facing the slow moving cloak of despair-black dismissing the last sunrays of the day. Ever so often a gentle breeze picked up gently sliding over my skin like a soft blanket. More and more stars appeared in their shining brilliance from a bottomless infinity, beautiful and scattered – it’s been a long day, a magnificent day crowned with my first ancient pyramids in the most awe-inspiring setting imaginable.

Abu Simbel, Egypt – April 26th, 2017

Mileage: 16.004 km

Florian and I clearly couldn’t get enough of these ancient ruins. We hurried northbound along the magnificent Nile that became wider and wider until we got to Wadi Halfa. Here, we bid farewell to remarkable Sudan and clinked jugs of freshly pressed mango juice for the last time. Wadi Halfa sits at Lake Nassar a giant barrier lake fed by the Nile. On the other side of the Lake sits Egypt and the famous Great Temple of Abu Simbel. The colossal temple of Ramesses II. This temple is dedicated to Ramesses himself and to gods Ra-Horakhty, Amun and Ptah. The facade features four 20m high statues of Ramesses II, of which one is badly damaged. The other smaller ones resemble his wife and children.

Once inside, one realises that the Temple isn’t just astronomically tall and wide but also deep, adding a third dimension to this enormous monument.  In the hypostyle, massive pillars again in the shape of Ramesses as the god, Osiris supports the temple. The engravings depict Ramesses II paying homage to the gods and the battle of Kadesh. Plenty of small alleys and side rooms allow for some time of exploration. Abu Simbel is without a doubt one of the most spectacular temples I saw in Egypt. It sits rather remote compared to other attractions dotted along the Nile. There was barely anyone here and besides being very far from other main attractions in Egypt, the current political situation in Egypt is not helping tourism. But our visit was trouble-free, like the rest of the trip in Egypt.

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With a screech of iron on iron, the desert express drew into Aswan’s train station a sandy station on the shores of the Nile just before dawn. My final segment of my long northbound journey to Europe would take place on colonial train tracks built by the British. After a relaxing break in Aswan, daybreak found us travelling through the greenbelt, Egypt’s agricultural lifeline irrigated by the Nile. Between small towns dominated by minarets, wheat fields, rice paddies, orchards and banana plantations stretched down to the river much as they have for thousands of years.

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Both Aswan and Luxor have an incredible concentration of monuments and Luxor, in particular, is often referred to as the world’s largest open-air museum. Fortunately for us, some of the temples in Egypt are still standing, albeit in different states of conservation. We spent the day in Luxor visiting the Valley of the Kings by Balloon and the great temple at Karnak. As I approached it, down the long avenue of sphinx-like animals, I could not help but feel a bit overwhelmed. The grandest feature of Karnak is the Great Hypostyle Hall with its mighty 134 columns symmetrically spread across 16 rows – a true engineering wonder to the eyes of the beholder. The centre 12 columns are larger, standing some 21 meters tall, with open capitals, while the remaining 122 columns outside of this stand 15 meters high and have closed capitals. It is difficult to fathom their exuding ruined grandeur, their elaborately ornamented walls and towering pillars continue to demonstrate the overwhelming power long extinct. I got lost within a labyrinth of pillars. The fact that I am able to take the same approach like mighty gods and rulers before me, to feel the same sensation of wonderment and intimidation sent shivers down my spine.

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Florian and I reached Cairo faster than I had imagined. Here we would pay a final visit to Egypt’s seemingly endless ruins and monuments, the Pyramids of Giza. As with any place, the more you see of something the more you take it for granted and I felt somewhat uninterested by the sight of these mighty remains. Perhaps it was the sheer volume of tourists crowding the sphinx and the pyramids rather obsessed with taking an endless number of selfies instead of soaking in the impressive display itself.

My delightful last stretch across Africa with Florian had come to an end. Florian flew back to Paris the day after and I took the bus to South Sinai to the Red Sea for some recommended scuba diving at the Red Sea. From there I would enter my final chapter of this eye-opening experience: Israel and Jordan.

While Sinai is technically still Africa, I knew that I was leaving Africa as my bus disappeared into the tunnel beneath the Suez Canal. On the other side, I reached the Red Sea. I could not help but feel overwhelmed by the spectacle of rhythmic percussions of waves on the mountainous shores of the Sinai peninsula. Instead, there was something completely different on my mind. The unbelievable sensation that I had reached North Africa all the way from Namibia. 17,142 km travelled. It is not simply a bus trip from A to B, it was a way of experiencing Africa and planet earth, like never before. Little did I know how much Africa would get into my soul, tug at my heart, inform life choices not common in my culture, and teach me to notice things in ways I wouldn’t have without my African experience. A surreal feeling to have travelled this far. My eyes steady on the horizon, face aglow with the last orange rays before twilight beckons the stars. My lips bore the semblance of a smile, just enough to fight accumulating water in my eyes. Tears of happiness and overcome by this life changing experience.

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3 thoughts on “VIII. Swallowed by Sand

  1. Great adventure Sam , thank you for sharing with us , in all this Afrika has grown in your heart , occupies space in your mind and has already lured you into another adventure.Its always a pleasure to have visitors of your caliber in our continent

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I continue to be amazed and delighted to read what you are sharing about your trip. It has been an experience par excellence…for me, sitting at home looking at my computer! You must write a book and I must buy a copy!

    Liked by 1 person

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