Life is full of surprises, some good and some not so good. Mention to friends “I’m off to Sudan”, and I confidently predict that their element of surprise will be placed in the ‘not so good’ pile. The inevitable question “Why?” follows as generally the perception of Africa’s 3rd largest country isn’t positive.
For me, the ‘why’ is easy. Ever since I was at school I’ve wanted to visit Khartoum. I don’t know if it came from reading stories of African explorers or learning about the Nile and its journey from the heart of Africa but I’ve harboured a rather odd bucket list ambition to stand at the confluence of the White and Blue Nile. Yet I seemed destined not to get there. In one of those odd quirks of unintended consequences, whilst in Addis Ababa in 1995 an assassination attempt of President Mubarak of Egypt ensured that my planned overland journey from Addis to Cairo, via Khartoum didn’t happen. Changing jobs in the early 2000’s thwarted my attempt to lead the inaugural Cairo to Khartoum trip.
So when the opportunity came round in January to take a travel writer to the country I jumped at it. After years of anticipation, a few hours after landing in Khartoum, Hatim the Explore Leader walked us along a path that followed one branch of the Nile to a point where the Blue and White Nile came together before thundering north to Cairo and beyond. An ambition fulfilled but this was only the beginning of a fantastic journey.
Highlights really are just too many to list. What became evident very early was that relatively few travellers make it to Sudan so it isn’t uncommon to have magnificent sites to yourself. Of course the pyramids, of which there are more in Sudan than in Egypt, and the temples were amazing; being able to walk from our accommodation to the temple at Soleb for both sunset and sunrise and spend uninterrupted time there was incredibly special.
It was magical sitting around a fire at our remote desert camp, with only the milky way as illumination listening to Hatim telling stories and tales that kept us all spellbound. We even wondered if he arranged the shooting star that made the evening perfect! Throughout the trip there bubbled an inextricable link to Egypt, both ancient and modern – with the feeling that ‘this is what Egypt must have been like 100 years ago’. We criss-crossed the desert, driving through small and welcoming Nubian villages. Hatim took us into a home of one of his friends, where we spent time drinking coffee.
My highlights continued when we crossed the Nile by ferry, standing alongside the captain watching him manoeuvre the boat, the lifeline between east and west banks. We came across desert nomads as they drew water from a well and watching quietly and becoming slowly absorbed into their world. Buying a bucket of dates in the local market for those I had left behind at Explore HQ, or adding Sudan to the list of countries in the world where I have had my haircut when Hatim found a small barbers in a dusty village just before call to prayer on a Friday. Drinking mint tea in the great market of Omdurman, sharing a foul (fava bean) and melon lunch with truck drivers alongside a desert road and making a spontaneous visit to Nubian wrestling…the list goes on and on.
Suffice to say Sudan encapsulates just about everything that is great on an Explore trip and in my opinion it should be high up on everyone’s bucket list. As for my friends, their surprise on me telling them that I was off to Sudan has been surpassed by the surprise when they see my photos of my time there and say “Wow…that looks amazing”. “Yes it is” I smugly reply….