One border, two extremes: from Ethiopia to Sudan

Just your ordinary border crossing.

I leave the Ethiopian highlands and descend into a completely different world. Of course there’s the heat: Sudan must be one of the hottest countries on the continent. After the cool breeze of the mountains the heat hits you like the flames of purgatory. Under these climatic conditions a border crossing had better be a showcase of efficiency, polite officers diligently stamping whatever you present to them, waiting (if any) in comfortable AC rooms, and parking facilities under shady mango trees. After elaborately studying my papers the Ethiopian customs official walks to the car and wants to examine the car inside and out.
“What’s in this box?”
“Food, drinks, stuff like that.”
“And this one?”
“Dirty underwear and smelly socks.”
“Where chassis number?”
“It’s on the carnet you’re holding in your hands.”
“Chassis number on car?” The car is one big muddy mess after the roads near Gonder.
“It’s somewhere under a thick layer of mud. If you want to inspect it, be my guest.” He leaves it at that. Well, all in all the two stamps on the Ethiopian side took just over one hour. Not bad, but there’s room for improvement.

It’s only 12.15 pm and with an optimistic mood I enter Sudan. Friendly people show me the immigration office, which is closed. “Lunch until 14.00 o’clock.” So I park the car in the shade, read Christopher Hitchen’s The Portable Atheist, and listen to some good music to while away the time. As Paul Theroux wrote somewhere, travelling is waiting most of the time, after all. Back to immigration.
“Go to customs first,” the man at the immigration desk commands. So I cross the street and enter the customs office, which is completely dark and empty.
“Closed until Monday.”
“You must be joking! You can’t close a major border for two days.”
“Yes, but it’s a national holiday, you see.” Well, that explains. Back to immigration.
“No, go to tent, NEAR customs, first, then come back.”
I find the tent and a lovely young girl in a Red Cross shirt, white medical gloves and mask. She wants to test me for Ebola, walks me to an office to get the right form. No one there, they’ve all gone home for the weekend. Back to immigration, where the need to test for Ebola first is suddenly considered unnecessary, my passport is stamped, and I am once more directed to customs to get the carnet stamped by someone who has been called to the office. He finishes the paperwork in less than 10 minutes, but the document has to be approved by his boss. We take a tuktuk into the village and he finds his boss who signs the document.
When we get back to the office he says: “I understand that you went mad when you heard that we were closed for the weekend.” And I admit that I did. “But the border is not closed, they just call someone when it’s necessary.” I don’t have to pay anything and feel slightly embarassed. Blame it on the heat.

Sudan is the 29th country on my African roadtrip, and each time I drive the first kilometer in a new country I shout out loud: “I’m in f***ing ……!” (excuse my French). Wow, what a great feeling, once more: “I’m in f***ing Sudan!” Yes!
The roads are pretty much empty. No crowds of people walking beside and on the road, no cows, no donkey carts, no dead dogs. And when I pass a car people smile and wave at me, put their thumbs up. In villages I see people laugh when they spot Thimba. In Khartoum I stay at the youth hostel. Near the centre, shops, and a deli with delicious pizza on the corner. I have an AC room with three beds, two of which are immediately occuppied by Thimba. She’s had a rough couple of days, with the heat and the bad roads in the last part of Ethiopia. She limps with her right front leg and has a bruise on her shoulder. I am staying here for three days to give her time to recover.

In the shade of a mango tree: Youth Hostel, Khartoum

In the shade of a mango tree: Youth Hostel, Khartoum

The hostel comes highly recommended on the HUBB (Horizons Unlimited, the overlanders forum on internet), but it has seen better days. It has a nice, spacious garden, but there’s garbage everywhere. It has a big communal kitchen, but it hasn’t been cleaned in ages and no one uses it. The gentle, old guardian starts his work in the morning by sweeping the garbage from one place to another, and back the next day. But I am not complaining: an AC room and wifi in the middle of Khartoum for just 8 euro is a good deal.

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The HUBB is a great meeting place. Schenkel, a HUBB-member living and working in Khartoum, mails me to invite me for a pizza in town. We have a great evening together, exchanging travel stories, discussing life in Sudan in general and in Khartoum in particular, sharing future travel plans, and why it is sometimes so difficult to explain to non-overlanders what motivates us. I tell Schenkel I am looking for another HUBB-er, Omar, who lives in Alexandria. Since I am shipping the car from Alexandria to Rotterdam, it would be good to meet up with him. I mailed him several times over the last few weeks, but got no reply. According to Schenkel he could very well be in Khartoum right now, having travelled the new road between Egypt and Sudan.

Serendipity
When I start the car the next morning there’s a clear smell of diesel and I see that it’s leaking under the car. I open the bonnet and see and smell fuel everywhere. I switch off the engine, blow the engine clean with the compressor, start again and look for the leak with the torch. Gotscha! It takes a few minutes to fix it. That was simple, but boy it feels good!
I’m driving out of Khartoum with 165 liter of diesel and 100 liter of water to hit the desert of northern Sudan. While I’m waiting for a traffic light a man in the car next to me lowers his window:
“Are you heading north?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I’m from Horizons Unlimited, Omar Mansour.”
What a coincidence! He’s on his way back to Egypt.
“It’s a small world,” Omar says.
“And today it’s a beautiful world!” I add.

“My name Thimba”
I bushcamp in the desert, one hundred meters from the pyramids of Meroe. What a view! These structures are far less impressive than the ones in Egypt, the highest is just over 30 metres. It’s a strange sight: they all miss their top third part, the work of an eccentric, deranged Italian bounty hunter in the 1830’s, Guiseppe Ferlini. Unfortunately he struck gold right at the first one and continued his demolition work only to find some common tools in the others. These are now on exhibition in museums in Berlin and London, leaving the Sudanese with desecrated (they are still graves, after all) and decapitated graves.

The decapitated pyramids of Meroe, Sudan

The decapitated pyramids of Meroe, Sudan

I put up a chair in the shade of the car and have the pyramids all for myself. Well, nearly. An old man on a camel approaches, waving from a distance.
“Hello, how are you?” he says.
“I’m fine, how are you?”
After the usual exchanges of politenes, he points at me:
“My name?”
“My name’s Gee.” I point at him:
“My name?”
“My name Abdul.”
I decline his offer to make a ride on his camel, and he doesn’t insist. I have never been on a camel before, and prefer to keep it that way.

Wildcamp in the desert near Meroe pyramids, Sudan

Wildcamp in the desert near Meroe pyramids, Sudan

Next morning two boys want to sell me some kind of souvenir, but Thimba is in one of her unpredictable, protective moods and chases them away, the boys running for their lives. I don’t want her to do this, but can’t correct it too strongly either. She does what she thinks is appropriate, protecting me and the car. So I whistle, she stops immediately and returns. I reward her for that.
When I’m preparing to leave a young man walks towards me with a camel trodding behind him on a rope. He greets me, points at Thimba and says:
“My name?”
I can’t resist.
“My name Thimba!”

7 thoughts on “One border, two extremes: from Ethiopia to Sudan

    1. Gee Post author

      Ha Ilse,

      Dank je! Meroe is prachtig. Om daar gewoon in the middle of nowhere te staan is een geweldige woestijn ervaring!

      Cheers from Luxor,

      Gee

      Reply
  1. Geert van den Berg

    Hallo Gee,

    het is bewonderenswaardig hoe ver je al gekomen bent. En dat met al die (on)voorspelbare hindernissen. Opvallend is het verschil in bejegening van land tot land. Een studie culturele antropologie zou een mooie aanvulling op deze reis zijn. Prachtige foto van die piramides. verstandig overigens dat je het jongste land in de wereld, Zuid Sudan, gemeden hebt. Een gevaarlijk gebied in deze tijd. Veel succes bij de laatste kilometers van je indrukwekkende reis. By the way, niet ziek worden in Egypte. Een erg smerig en onhygiënisch land!

    Groeten, Geert

    Reply
  2. Ellen&Herman

    Hi Gé ,
    Dit reisverslag kan zo in een boek met als titel ‘My name is Thimba’. Het schiet nu lekker op richting Alexanrdië.Je haalt nu toch zeker de Kerst in Dedemsvaart NL.
    Wordt vervolgd, m.vr. gr. Herman& Ellen

    Reply

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