The last month or two have been marked by extreme contrasts and have without doubt been the most testing of our journey thus far, hence the delayed update (including the fact that blogspot.com is still censored by the Ethio government) of our blog. Our apologies.
Our journey from Rumbek to Aweil (the last leg of our route through Southern Sudan) was marked by much the same as up to Rumbek: soldiers, checkpoints, searches and inches-thick red tape. From Rumbek our vehicles take further beating and another shock-absorber throws in the towel. In Wau, an odd little town marked by hordes of Tuc-tucs buzzing about, we find refuge in yet another demining-compound, this time abandoned. Our host Jim Gardener, an expat Zimbabwean-Kenyan and ex ostrich farmer lays out the laws of the land over a cold beer whilst expressing his excitement in leaving this place in a few days. We reach a checkpoint about 150km north-west of Aweil. Another 100km or so will leave us clear of G.O.S.S (Government Of Southern Sudan) governance. We start the all-to-familiar proceedings of explaining our 'business' here and all goes to plan except for an apparent missing stamp. What missing stamp? "The stamp you were to get in Aweil..." First word we hear about this and a heated discussion ensues. "No stamp, no go.." We have no choice but to backtrack +-150km on the dodgiest road yet back to Aweil in the company of two checkpoint officials, one armed. We go straight to the G.O.S.S Police compound where we find a few beds under a tree in the courtyard, carrying various officials. Its already late afternoon. The chain-of-command is exercised and a few handshakes follow. We are left to laze on the beds whilst chairs appear in circle some meters away. Suddenly everybody comes to attention and a much younger-than-the-rest man enters the circle, well but casually dressed. Various figures bring their superior up-to-speed. We explain ourselves once more. "No problem" the man says, "I just have to go talk to the Police commissioner, he lives around the corner.." We arrive at the Police Chief's house greeted by a man banging on the sheet-metal roof of an outhouse with a stick, causing swarms of giant birds to scatter from the tree branches above. "They shit.." our facilitator explains. We wait under the tree while he enters a modest house built next to a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser VX. We don't get to meet the Police Chief. Everything seems to be OK, we will be helped in the morning. We are welcome to stay in the Police compound. When we arrive back at the compound we find more people have gathered and they have busted out a TV and dvd player, chairs re-arranged. Movie night. Our well-dressed official asks about dinner and assigns a young man to show us around town in search of food. He takes us to a restaurant where we enjoy Ful (beans), meat (goat i think) and bread, the first of many to come further north as apparently the Aweil population are under some northern Sudan influence. We sense the change in attitude.
The next morning everything goes smoothly and we're on our way in no-time. Back to the checkpoint and beyond, another 150km and the landscape changes dramatically, the thermometer ticks a few degrees over, sand. We arrive at a dusty town called Meiram. We realise that we might well have passed the invisible frontier between south and north Sudan and that we will have to register here with Immigration. Fumbling around town looking for any structure that looks somewhat official, we meet a man called Hamdan, an elderly man in a white robe. He takes us to the immigration office on the outskirts of town and helps us through the formalities. Afterwards we offer him a ride back into town which he accepts on the condition that we're hungry. Back in town we go to a local eatery and food is served, complete with cold bottles of mineral water followed by Pepsi. No bill arrives and after enquiring Hamdan shrugs it off, our money is no good here. We must have tea now (the first in a spree of coffee and tea drinking sessions throughout our travels in the North) and again our money has no value. Hamdan asks about our route ahead and introduces us to Fudl. We will follow Fudl to El Mugled and on to Babanusa along the various sand tracks that generally lead in that direction. No official road or even track, just sand and trees and bush and sun. A few fellows jump on the back of Fudl's Land Cruiser pickup and we speed away, however not before more cold Pepsi's arrive "for the road". Did we miss something? We thank Hamdan for his hospitality and dissappear in a dust clowd, indebted. We glide through the sand for an hour and a bit trying to keep up with Fudl and his passengers seated on the roof of the pick-up, coming to an abrupt stop in a little settlement en route. Time to rest, tea-time. Cups of overly-sweet tea arrives and disappears slowly. More cold bottles of mineral water. We try to pick-up the bill with no luck. Fudl collects more passengers and we continue into the unknown. Just before sunset we roll into El-Mugled, Fudl's hometown. Food first, again Fudl sternly refuses our offer to pay. We are the guests, period. Afterwards we visit the local Immigration office to register, as is required when spending the night in any town in northern Sudan. The official decides to hang on to our passports and asks us to return the next day. We reluctantly depart without our passports, heading for Fudl's house. Mohammed, Fudl's brother, greets us as we get out of vehicles. a Modest clay structure encloses a courtyard with a few beds and a TV on a stand. We try to explain that we have tents and that we're OK but the brothers will have none of it. More beds are busted out as we meet the woman of the family, all of whom lives across the street. We will sleep with the men in the courtyard, outside. Stephanie feels slightly uncomfortable being the only woman around but it seems to be completely fine within our status as foreign guests. We are knackered. We wash-up in a small out-house using a bucket and a jerrycan of water before retiring under the stars, our minds comfortably puzzled about the latter half of the day. The next morning we awake at dawn and are offered tea, coffee and biscuits. We have some time to kill before collecting our passports at the immigration office at 9 O'clock. Fudl and Mohammed takes us on a tea-drinking tour through town, introducing friends. We leave El-Mugled after exchanging gifts and saying our farewells. Thank you, we will never forget your hospitality.
Travelling toward El-Obeyed via Babanusa we drive through semi-desert landscapes following various sand tracks, guided by our home-made GPS tracks and way points derived from a UN logistics map downloaded from the web. Surprisingly accurate. Many colourfully overloaded and friendly trucks cross our path in various directions and we make a point of stopping at every rest stop along the way to enjoy the sweet Sudanese tea and spicy coffee. At every stop cool water in large clay pots are offered and we wave caution to the wind. The water in our tanks have reached around 30°C or more and we couldn't care less where the potted water comes from. Smiling faces, friendly conversation (not all verbal) and more offers of tea and coffee. Exhausted we grind to a halt in the middle of nowhere, time to set up camp. We sleep on the roof of our vehicles, no tents, just stars and a soothing evening breeze. The next day our journey continues much the same way. We Love this Place. At El-Obeyed we find a newly paved road (a decision which i regret to this day, as it is possible to keep travelling all the way north to Khartoum along these desert tracks, a sentiment not shared by all) which takes us on to Kosti and all the way up to Khartoum, a two-day journey. Khartoum is unlike any other African city we encountered, as is much of northern Sudan. Organised, complete with contemporary architectural marvels built by Libya and the UAE. Hospitable and HOT. Sudan in summer is no joke, seriously. Stephanie spontaneously burst into tears on the outskirts of Khartoum because of the relentless heat.The city traps the 48°C daily temperatures in the concrete and asphalt, transforming them into 38°C nights. Simply unheard of as far as we're concerned. In a matter of 2 days we all lost our appetites, slaves to any form of liquid on offer. Water, fresh fruit juice (tons on offer in Khartoum, surprisingly), Pepsi, Mirinda and Karkaday (made from Hibiscus flowers). We never had so much soda in our lives as water at some stage ceased to be adequate enough and the fruit juice was just too expensive to keep drinking continuously. Again many friends were made and the hospitality we were introduced to in Meiram continued. Thanks to Mohammed, Awat, Marwan and the many friendly strangers we had met in Khartoum.
At this point we decided not to travel further north to Egypt and beyond. This decision has been knock'n about for a long time now. Initially we kind of had it in mind to travel all the way to Belgium but since our early drastic change of plans on account of no Angola visas we are not so much phased about what might only be a novelty idea, you know, travelling from SA to Belgium. We don't want to be finished with Africa yet, or at least East Africa, so south we go. We can travel all the way back to South Africa and repeat only one country, Tanzania, and since we only traveled western Tanzania, eastern Tanzania is still up for grabs, adding Ethiopia, Kenya and Mozambique. Perfect, been missing the coast...
After a quick three day stint north to the ancient pyramids (older than Egyptian) of Jebel Barkal, Nubia and Meroe (including a camel ride) we return to Khartoum to arrange our Ethiopian visas. No sweat (figuratively). Joel's (Canadian) health deteriorates as a result of the heat (on top of whatever else he has been suffering from since Uganda) and can't seem to keep anything down. He's lost about 15kg in one month. He's Land Rover (sorry Joel!) is in much the same state and after finding new springs for it (rear suspension) and fixing some other bits we're on our way toward Gedaref and on to Ethiopia. We leave Sudan sadly and reluctantly but we must press on. There is something welcoming and inviting about this harsh and barren place, aside from it's generous people. As we spend our last night in the bush just outside Gedaref we think about our time in Sudan. It is not surprising that succession is looming for the south early next year given how almost incompatible they seem to appear. This is not to say i support the separation but they sure as hell are from completely different planets. The predominately Christian tribal peoples from the lush south (where the oil is) versus the Muslim Arab people from the arid north (where the oil is refined). Good luck folks. As for the northern Sudanese hospitality, we figure it has to have roots and tradition in desert culture, typically so around any harsh environment. It doesn't matter who you are or where you travel in northern Sudan, you will always be offered water for your thirst, unconditionally. May i return one day.