Friday, February 4, 2011

In the Sudan with Michael Asher: January 2011

A introductory day in Khartoum, eleven on the road with ten of those camel trekking, and three more decompressing in Khartoum - thus began 2011 and a good beginning it was. Full of varied sights and sounds including agonizing groans of protesting camels as they were packed up in the early AMs. Then there was finding a place to unroll the sleeping bag, somewhere between the camel leavings and the snake holes after cleaning away the rocks. And one morning, awakening to find a camel seated just in front of my nose. If it had been Sam, my cat, he would have fought to the death for inclusion in the sleeping bag.

This was an expedition I had wanted to take on for several years but it had been canceled as either not enough travelers signed up or was thought too dangerous. Subsequently, I did go on one of Michael Asher’s Moroccan treks and survived. But Morocco is not the Sudan with an itinerary rich in British military history - the trail of the failed Camel Relief operations for Gordon in the 1880s when the dervishes attacked Khartoum. In fact, Asher, an author and the last of the great desert explorers, wrote the definitive book about that “Ultimate Imperial Adventure”, Khartoum.

Five of us had traveled with Asher before while seven came from Kenya, including their trip organizer. Ages ranged from twenties to myself, one of four Seniors. We were Brits, Americans, Germans, Kenyans and a South Korean. Our backup? Thirteen camels, four camel men with their mounts and a cook: “participatory camping” as the tour books label it. Everyone pitched in with the Kenyans doing more than their share. Tents were available, but for me, the joy in this kind of travel requires sleeping in the open, counting stars as best I can, nearsighted as I am.

Khartoum was not impressive. A combination of the old and dusty with the new and incomplete. Someone (Bashir?) saw Khartoum as a potential Dubai (and we can carry that back to Dubai’s genesis, Las Vegas - and why would anyone want to copy that?) so there are bits and pieces of “Moderne” architecture, incongruent with itself and certainly, with the landscape of the country. For example, the old brick post office, left over from colonial days, could have been the basis of government. offices, at peace with the surroundings. The City Planner, if any, was not in touch with Frank Lloyd Wright’s precepts. There was not even a theme of Islamic styling which would have made sense for a Moslem state, guided by Sharia law. Anyway, the country didn’t have the money to finish the Dubai-inspired building spree. A work not in progress?

The two Niles, Blue and White, converge at Khartoum, which is a three part city. Khartoum proper where we stayed, the old City of Omdurman with its souk, the Mahdi’s tomb and the Khalifa’s House, and North Khartoum, a more industrialize area. Before starting off on the camels, there was time to tour the City with stops at several museums. I was most interested in seeing two of the existent gunboats remaining from the Sudan War with the Madhi. I did miss the Commonwealth War Cemetery - for some reason, I like the old burial grounds and am certainly glad I saw the British cemeteries at Gilgit and Kabul. Actually, I even enjoyed the day spent wandering around Arlington some years back.

The trek started at Metemma (near Shendi) and went through the Bayuda Desert to Kosti. From there we drove to the final camp site near the Old Meroe pyramids and the Lion Temple at Musawarat es Sufra. The terrain was mixed: sandy to scrub to shaley to rocky. The trek totaled some 287K of which I walked about half. The longest day was some 40K, coming into Jakdul Wells, an alcove of greenery in a very rocky land. Arrival was after dark and I had made the mistake of walking the last segment, figuring I’d trust myself trekking in, rather than the camel. Bad decision. I had no flashlight and was trailing far enough behind that I. lost sight of our group. A couple of shouts and the German veterinarian - who walked almost the entire trip - dropped back to give aid and comfort. Without his help, I might still be there.

Earlier we camped at Abu Klea, where the bloodiest battle of the Sudan War was fought. Nearby was a monument to the bravery the doomed soldiers. As I - or the camel - trudged along, I thought of those guys, over a hundred years ago, coming across this same land with hopes of saving their fellows from the enemy. Mike’s familiarity with the area and the history made it come alive for me. It is always the historical bit that catches my fancy - trekking in the footsteps of the past, as it were. And except for the first and last days, no signs of “civilization”.

There were some nomads herding goats, donkey riders passing by, camels grazing and car/truck tracks occasionally - but no vehicles. Water was gotten from local springs and wells. At one bleak spot, there was well used by the locals. For a price, a man and a young girl, with the aid of a donkey, would haul water up. They appeared to live nearby in a quite basic shelter. The meeting spot of the Bayuda. Wall Drug Store lives! (and E-mail me if you miss that allusion!)

The drill: a break every hour. I tried to alternate between walking and riding; certainly, I did better in the saddle than on the Moroccan trek. But often it was a toss up between bum butt and bum feet. Noon time gave us a ninety minute rest. Though nippy in the early AM it was quite warm in the afternoon . A couple of days there was a really significant wind chill factor. In fact, the first night, I was quite cold - it was the first and last night I changed into my nightshirt. From there on, it was sleep with clothes on. But on finding out this trip has been done in 100F weather, I realized how lucky we were.

For the most part, I manged with my camel - though we did not become close. Several of the women were devoted cameleers who identified with their mounts. But a early on, head-over-heels fall over the top when I thought to get off and he thought to get up, probably influenced our relationship: I didn't really trust him nor he, me! Neither of us were damaged though I had a sore pelvic bone from contact with the saddle horn.

The pyramids and the temples were impressive, though smaller than the Egyptian ones at Giza. The tops of the pyramids had been sheared off by an Italian treasure hunter circa 1834, There is a model showing how they would have appeared had not the Italian drifted by. We drove (for by now, we were in a minibus) on a non existent dirt road to the other artifacts: the Great Enclosure and the Lion Temple. And after a final camp lunch in a lovely shaded garden, we left for Khartoum. There was a coffee/chai stop at Ed Damer, a local market town, and a conversation with a friendly Nubian. Then back to the Acropole where the real world came to life as people sorted out their flights home.

But before leaving, there several hours with the Whirling Dervishes. A combination of county fair and religious ceremony, it was for the Sudanese. It was not a performance for tourists but was an expression of their religious belief. The grounds around the mosque were crowded with locals. The drumming was insistent and repetitious. In the early hours, would-be dervishes moved about, jumping and spinning. Later, the real pros appeared, dressed in green with red trim, circled by believers who undulated back and forth as they chanted to the drums’ rhythms. It all came to a halt with the evening Call to Prayer. I saw about a dozen Westerners and about the same number of photographers. It was a mind blowing experience, similar to some Ogalala Sioux ceremonies I’ve seen.

I had two days left after the rest had gone which I treasured. After two weeks as part of a group, I enjoyed being on my own. I wandered about, confirmed my fight, bought some scarves at a nearby souk and cleared off E-mails. The last day, the hotel proprietor arranged for me to go to Sabalooqa Falls, the Sixth and final Cataract of the Nile. A most tranquil place, I basically crashed for the half day there before heading back through the nearby small village, to town. And a 2:30 AM call for the ride to the Airport.

Khartoum was quiet during my time there, excepting some student activity in concert with the Egyptian protests. I heard some of this on the last day but saw nothing. The energy centered on the referendum occurring in the South, land of oil. The North had the refineries, built and run by Chinese, with no benefit to local workers - the Chinese brought their own. As we finished the trek, infrastructure set up for industrial use made its presence known. Cars, pickups and trailer trucks rumbled by. A sadness really, after the time of walking and riding in the isolated desert setting.

Impressions: The roads, even asphalted ones, were full of all sorts of travelers, ie: walkers, wheelchairs, donkey carts, three-wheelers, cars, pickups, buses, and trucks up to two trailers. A safe country: never felt ill at ease. People were very friendly and helpful. But you do not travel freely: there are numerous checkpoints where one’s authority to travel out of Khartoum is carefully examined.

Accommodations: When not wrapped in my sleeping bag, I stayed at the Acropole Hotel, an oldie but goodie. Marvelous place with a proprietor who was very solicitous of our well being. and a long time friend of Mike Asher. The hotel has atmosphere and good food. I have no reservations in recommending it. Full board was about $150/daily.

Food: The first question I always get from friends: what did you eat? At the hotel, ate regular food. Traveling, the camels carried our food. So much was concocted with canned this and that after the first few days of fresh fruits and vegetables. Often in the mornings, lovely pancakes with cheese or honey. Salads of one kind or another at noon. Pasta/beans at night. It took a creative genius to come up with some of the combinations. By trip’s end, the camels must have been relieved as they certainly had less to tote - no food, no riders!

Clothing: There seemed no requirement in Sudan the women be covered. though most local women were. Some men wore Western attire while others, the long, often white, gown and with a turban or pillbox hat. One of our camel men did the trek, wearing leather soled, shinny pseudo-alligator skin loafers while another was mostly barefoot.

Visas: That can get complicated. For the US, there appears to be a visa approval authorized in The Sudan, which is sent to Sudanese authorities in the US who have your passport and visa application. As I always do whenever it becomes too complex, I contact G3 in Washington DC to sort it out. I got the passport back with the visa shortly before I left.

The tour cost about $3000; air fare was $1500; tips were $200: extra time in Khartoum was $300 for he hotel and $200 for the trip to the Sixth Cataract. Care for Sam: $780.

Good trip and well worth the cost.


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Eva said...

Go on a camel ride and explore this adventurous African destination. Go on a cheap flight to Khartoum and spend your vacation in the Sudanese way.