Friday, 17 September 2010

Sea voyage to Sudan

We awoke on our last day in Egypt with excitement and a certain amount of trepidation as we rushed around getting as much money out as our bank cards would allow before heading to the ferry. We had heard that our cards wouldn't work at all in Sudan.

The ferry to Sudan only leaves once a week and it is the only allowed overland route in. This acts as a funnel for all those heading south - the majority going in jeeps. We've now met about 12 westerners on the same journey. Two of those were doing the same as us, but in reverse - Cape Town to England, and were waiting in Aswan for their 4x4 to follow on the separate barge that takes vehicles and cargo. They gave us this priceless info about the bank cards and also encouraged us greatly with how good and safe a trip they have had so far and how sad they were to leave sub-Saharan Africa. The others were not doing so well as they'd been told they had to wait another 2 weeks before a ferry + barge combo would sail.

We worked out a safe amount of money that we might need and then proceeded to be able to get much less than that out because Cate's card isn't working and mine has a daily limit. Do not fear, we have some spare dollars and we were being quite safe, especially as we rather wonderfully are going to be staying with some friends of a friend in Khartoum.

We didn't know what time the ferry was - we only knew that the norm is to turn up at 10am and for it to leave at 6pm. Still, we were a bit nervous as it was nearly 10 when we got our taxi for the 20 mile trip to the port - but we kept our heads and went via the tiny hidden coffee shop that we had found to buy some excellent felafel sandwiches. When we got to the port, all the others were there - negotiating a possibility of some of them travelling with us and a few staying with the vehicles and sailing a week later.

The Aswan to Wadi Halfa ferry has always been excitedly anticipated on our itinerary. Maybe it was the exotic voyage from Egypt to Sudan. Maybe it was sleeping on the water. Maybe it was delving deeper into Africa. Or maybe all three – but I must admit this romantic exhilaration slowly seeped out of me as we battled our way through endless customs before boarding. It was blazing hot and our bags were heavy. We felt self-conscious drinking water as everyone is fasting for Ramadan and every two minutes yet another uniformless dude would ask for our passports. Eventually we got on this medium-sized, tired and dirty boat, knowing when we stepped off we would step foot on Sudanese soil.

But we had 24 hours to face before that. Our room, with a bunkbed and a table, was grimy to say the least. Dirt seemed to be stuck onto everything and a mini cockroach scuttled under Nick’s foot. Initially grateful for air-conditioning, the system progressively froze the air until we were reaching for sleeping bags, cardigans, anything. Outside men shouted and banged various gigantic boxes about the boat. Romance, me and this ferry parted ways.

After boarding at 10am, the boat didn’t set off until 5pm. When it did however, we got up on deck and relaxed. We bumped into the British travelers, which was fun, and watched the sun set in a rich sky of pink gold over the water. As the sun sank into the water, everyone’s fast was broken and food was guzzled down. Darker Sudanese faces were dotted around, and each face beamed a brilliant white smile at us – so refreshing after the stares and smirks of Egypt. Romance was nudging its way back on board.

We slept surprisingly well and after some sweet tea and an egg in the cramped ferry restaurant, we arrived on the promised Sudanese soil – or sand. We boarded a truck with the Brits and were thrown out in Wadi Halfa, a tiny desert town, which one traveller deemed ‘the hottest place on earth’. We were shown what seemed to be the best hotel – one room had air-conditioning and the lobby had swanky chairs and wooden tables. Discovering this hotel had been built for the government by the government, we searched for another place to rest our heads. What we found was different to anywhere we have stayed so far. The rooms were dirty, the corridor was old stone, leading to the open air and a couple of long drops (yes – cockroach infected, yes – I preferred to pee in a bottle than brave them). The water to drink was kept in old orange stone jars and our open light switch had a threatening hanging wire. It was also 40C and though we had a fan Nick
likened it to a fan oven. Leaving Nick to rest, I snuck out to see the sunset and discovered a little family of cats – a mother and her two miniscule kittens. Fascinated I watched them for ages, and when I returned I found Nick in his sleeping bag at 40C. He was ‘testing a theory’ that once the body is at a certain heat, a sleeping bag would cool it down. The only theory I saw was that extreme heat fuels extreme peculiarity.

Walking round Wadi Halfa was delightful – a colourful shop, a donkey there, smoking coals for tea here, smiles there, all surrounded by relentless desert. Nick was seriously pummelled by some youngsters at a football PlayStation game - in a games console cafe - excatly like an internet one, but full of PlayStations and excited boys. Evening fell, and we ate beans, surrounded by men in long white kaftans drinking tea and watching the village television. We staggered home through the darkness. We needed all the sleep we could get - we were tired, it was hot and we had a 12 hour bus journey the next morning. Khartoum, Sudan's capital, awaited us.