David Rich 1300 Words
$1 US=200 Sudan Dinar
S U D A N B Y D A M
The easiest entry to the hidden treasures of Sudan's northern desert is by the weekly ferry embarking behind the High Dam in Aswan, Egypt. Grab a bunk in one of the few private cabins, wedge your body for sixteen social hours onto the jam-packed deck, or melt into the stifling bilge classes below, traversing Lake Nasser to the dusty abomination of Wadi Halfa, Sudan.
An interesting question is how to later get out of Sudan without violating the first male commandment, to never ever backtrack. The Eritrean border has been closed by threat of war while the Darfur genocide blocks the Sudanese borders with Chad and the Central African Republic. Few venture across the road-less wastes to Libya, risk the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, or brave the bandits south to Kenya. Perhaps like me you'll jump on the ferry anyway, copying the world's power brokers to figure out an exit strategy later.
The few tourists escaping Egypt's tourist traps for Sudan are immediately impressed by the shyly genteel Sudanese, always and forever waving at the few intrepid white faces venturing into their tortured land. Wouldn't you know that Sudan is Arabic for land of (really nice) black people, historically called Nubian. These lovely folk are uniformly tall, slender and inquisitive, the men dressed in white robes and turbans while the women sport colorful sarongs edged with gold brocade, swirled to frame exquisite features. Within seconds of seeing Europeans stopping to fix lunch in the desert or pitch lonesome tents, locals converge to politely watch. These aren't the beggars and hardcore salesmen associated with such as Morocco. Instead the Sudanese flock on donkeys and camels to observe the funny foreigners, try their spotty English, volunteer Arabic translations, and uniformly welcome you to Sudan. Apparently not a single one has contemplated the possibility of parting comparatively rich tourists from their filthy lucre, which wafts a breath of fresh air over those flying the coop of tourist-saturated Egypt.
Our little overland group provided more fascination than the average tourist band because our truck driver was a woman. The local men were gob-smacked, squinting and staring, while one opined the enormous privilege he'd savor if the lady would consent to bear his progeny, a suggestion we raptly ignored. Few women are seen working in Sudan except as tea sellers, wielding kettles for tea, coffee and chocolate on every dusty corner. The attitude toward women was summed up by the lead editorial in the Khartoum Monitor on December 23, 2006, that those females wearing cosmetics, much less airing an ounce of skin, were like a plate of meat set before a dog, justifying spot rape. The dusty dogs of Sudan may be eternally ravenous, but our only indication was an almost diplomatic suggestion of a willingness to parent.
Dusty is an innocuous word, the true significance of which necessarily escapes those denied the opportunity to continuously inhale white, beige, brown, orange, black, and tan Sudanese sand and dust as it saturates, seeps and scratches into every surface from glasses to food, eyes, and clothes. It's palpably choking to chance upon a dust devil swirling inside an overland truck.
Pulverized sand whirls the length of Africa's largest country, over almost a million square miles (2 ½ million sq. km.) of the Sahara south of Wadi Halfa. The first five hundred kilometers of road, before tarmac is appreciatively reached, is pitted with hundreds of meters of dust troughs a foot deep, tender snares for every vehicle in Sudan, and a particular trap for trucks. Sand tracks came in continuously handy during three long and dusty days of spin in and dig out. The unremitting dust eddies all the way to the verge of the Nile, relieved only by the narrow green corridor the Nile bisects from Khartoum north, doubly split by the White and Blue Niles from Khartoum south.
Why visit an perpetually dusty country racked by war? Besides the raw temptation of adventure travel and endearing people, it's for the temples and pyramids seen by few, plus exuberant dervishes and sprawling architecture. Unfortunately, the deserted archeological sites are unsigned, but we'd programmed the coordinates for each gem into a GPS. The first hit led us to Suleb Temple built by Amenhotep III (circa 1300 B.C.E.), the same pharaoh who built Karnak hundreds of miles north in Luxor, Egypt's largest tabernacle. A visit to the more reserved Sudan version requires taking a small boat across the Nile while skirting giant sunning crocodiles that slyly slip into turgid waters, terrorizing timid tourists.
See the pyramids across the Nile, the tops of which were all lopped off in 1834 by energetic Giuseppe Ferlini, a French treasure hunter. He actually found a small trove of gold jewelry and plopped it into a foreign museum, leaving uniformly tip-less pyramids strewn all over Sudan. Jebel Barkal, Arabic for Holy Mountain, is a topped-pyramid site situated at the base of a high sandstone mesa with a giant pinnacle split off the end. The site sprawls with several dozen pyramids and two temples, while the pinnacle intended for carving as a giant cobra or the latest Pharaoh before his untimely demise, has perhaps been left to an eternity of unblemished solitude.
The most impressive pyramid site is Sudan's largest, the Royal Tombs at Meroe, a few hundred kilometers north of Khartoum. Besides huge pyramids without tops, the huge complex is surrounded by golden dunes and quaint hawkers of camel rides, swords, and knickknacks of dubious origin. However, no other tourists intruded.
On the way to Khartoum we triangulated the ruins at Al Musawarat, replete with ramps for parading elephants inside a grand enclosure and a well-preserved Lion Temple right next door. Naqa featured two temples built during the lifetime of their Gods, strategically adjacent to an active well supporting dozens of camels, donkeys hoisting water bags, herds of goats, and dust galore. All desert antiquities cost $12.50 for admission and strangely enough, no receipt or ticket was offered. Compare the fifty cent entrance fee to the National Museum in Khartoum, which offers four temples, dozens of Coptic murals, and hundreds of artifacts rescued from the encroaching waters of Lake Nubia aka Nasser in Egypt. Perhaps even more pleasingly aesthetic were local houses of orangey gold trimmed in blue, or whitewashed with blue garnish like refugees from a Greek island, central courtyards open to the breeze and side enclosures for shade.
Besides the National Museum Khartoum offers authentic and non-touristy whirling dervishes, sincere spiritual types who fling themselves about for sheer fun and exuberance, forgetting to charge onlookers a single Dinar. These happy fellows twirl poles while dressed all in white, in red and green, or in patchwork costumes while bedecked with funny hats, beards, and beads. A fun time is always had by all. And for curious non-backtracking males the easiest escape from Sudan is to normally peaceful Ethiopia, which in December, 2006, declared war on Somalia.
When you go: My visa cost $315, approximately the annual income of the average Sudanese. This grand sum bought the mandatory letter of invitation from a Khartoum travel agency. With visa in hand you can fly to Khartoum from most anywhere, or take the interesting ferry from Aswan to Wadi Halfa. But be prepared for the most primitive and overpriced hotels known to Ripley's. My Wadi Halfa room cost ten dollars but its sandy cobwebbed floors, bamboo roof sifting sand onto thin mattresses topped with grungy cloth, and bucket shower offering cold murky water from Lake Nubia, were worth less than twelve cents. My $20 room in Khartoum was little better, though pricier and of equal filth, because not only don't men backtrack, they also don't clean hotels. Internet doesn't exist outside of Khartoum. At the Meridien Hotel fast internet is $2.50/hour.