Along the Nile, from Nubia to Egypt

Leaving Karima at dawn, we headed for Dongola, about 400km short of Wadi Halfa – where we would then ship our bikes across Lake Nasser to Egypt. We had originally planned to take the long route from Karima to Dongola, which follows the course of the Nile and describes a little half circle to the South before heading up North again. But we had heard that the road that goes straight across the Bayuda desert (and saves some 200km) was now tarred, and offered some spectacular desert views as well. So we decided to take the shorter track, and were rewarded with an eerily empty desert landscape. We drove for hours on a completely straight road, seeing nothing but sand and rocks for most of the ride, and only the very occasional mudbrick houses on the roadside once we got closer to Dongola. The few people we saw waved at us ecstatically, and we waved back, thinking all the while how one can survive here – let alone live, out of your own free will. We reached the town after a 3-hour ride already at 9am, and, on being not very convinced by the only available local hotel with AC, we decided to push on to Abri. It was a good decision, because Abri offered us a glimpse of truly Nubian hospitality for our last days in Sudan. We stayed at the Nubian Guesthouse, which our host Maghzoub had built in the traditional Nubian style and just opened a few months ago. Abri only has a few hours of electricity every evening, which means: no ACs and no WiFi of course, and charging your phone or laptop or cooling something (at least a bit) in the fridge was limited to these few precious hours. In the morning, we saw a man pulling a cart with blocks of ice through town, and hacking them to smaller blocks which people carried away in plastic bags, for cooling meat and dairy products at home. As it gets easily above 45 degrees (in the shade) during the day, it is not only the food that needs to be cooled down, but also the human bodies. Throughout the country, we had seen the typical metal bedstands with a woven base, placed in the shade under trees in front of houses and hotels for people to sleep on during day and night. In Abri, we learned how to use them properly, basically changing the position of your bed during the day, according to where the wind comes from. And in a traditional Nubian house, there’s always some doors or windows to open letting the wind pass through the courtyard. In Germany, the much dreaded “Zug”, meaning the gush of air created between open windows and doors, is considered a health hazard, inevitably resulting in colds and sore throats. Sudan had taught us to become hunters of the “Zug”. We spent the first day in Abri sitting down at different spots in the guesthouse, chatting to Scott and Sarah, two bicyclists who were on their way down South. These guys have been on the road for a year now, starting in Paris in August 2013, and were full of great tips for Egypt and Turkey, which we hungrily jotted down in our notebooks. They had also learned some Arab during their time in Egypt, and taught us the numbers in Arabic and some useful phrases. In the evening, Maghzoub invited us over to explore a small farm his family runs at the Nile – mostly date palms and ocra, and we were once again invited for coffee and sweets. We headed out again for dinner afterwards, but as the restaurant was already closed, Maghzoub invited us into his family home. All of the family life here happens in the courtyard of the house, to catch some of the cool night air. The TV set had also been rolled out, but nobody was watching as Maghzoub, his sister and mother chatted leisurely in Nubian, and we dipped our bread in fuul and addis (a lentil stew) and flirted with the three adorable nieces, who found us as exciting as we found them cute. This night, we once again slept in the courtyard of the guesthouse like we had already done in Karima, under a sky that looked like someone from Disney had painted it for an especially cheesy animated movie. Feeling wrapped up in good-feeling and beauty and calmness, we fell asleep like little kids after a long day of adventures.

We were sad to already say goodbye to Scott and Sarah the next day – they both wanted to push on, as the heavy wind in Sudan had reduced their distance traveled from 90-100km per day to a mere 40, and thus meant it would take them weeks to go down the 760km to Khartoum. Maghzoub had offered to take us to the temple of Solep, about 30kms South of Abri. After a breakfast of milky-rice-tea (Sachalab) and Shisha (!) to which we were once again invited by a complete stranger, we jumped on the bikes. Magzoub rode pillion with Jan and got very excited about the speed the bike could go (Jan went up to 130 to entertain him). Going there on our bikes also gave us an opportunity to wave at Scott and Sarah twice more – on the way to the ruins and back. That is one of the big differences between motorbike traveling and bicycle traveling, I guess.

For us as visitors the effects of the lack of electricity had something romantic about it, but of course this is different for the people of Abri. Needless to say that our host Maghzoub was very excited about the prospect of a new electricity line coming into town in the next two months. They had nearly finished it, and on our way to Soleb, he waved ecstatically at the workers busy hoisting up the long, silvery glistening electricity cables on the poles, and they happily waved back. Must be a very special feeling to work on this electricity line – everybody around you just loves you for doing what you do. Maybe apart from the guys who own the ice-producing plant, because once there is electricity to run fridges and freezers all day long, we expect that their business will be negatively affected.

To access the ruins of the Temple of Soleb, you first have to find someone to take you across the Nile on his boat, which Maghzoub managed for us. The temple itself we found very impressive, especially as all the rocks lying around in the field of debris around it were covered in murals and hieroglyphs. As all other sited in Sudan so far, we had it completely to ourselves. We concluded the day in Abri with a typical Sudanese meal – egg and fuul – which by now we have to say started to get on our nerves. This night we had another little sandstorm coming up, which unfortunately made sleeping in the open a lot less pleasant. Even after the storm had died down, it did not rain, and the air was thick with dust. We got up early the next morning and pushed the bikes through the door of the courtyard before loading them, and were off with the first light once again.

On the route to Wadi Halfa, we made proper use of the public watering places for the first time, using them to rest in the shade a bit, drink and pour some water on our hot heads and arms. We had some trouble finding our hotel in Wadi Halfa, and as the cooling effect of the watering spot had long since subsided, we were once again feeling exhausted and cranky. Giving in we called our good-natured fixer Mazar, who told us to take a rest and drink some tea, and picked us up where we were to guide us to the place. Drinking tea as a solution to nearly every problem or stressful situation – this always sounded very English to us, but from now on it will be properly Sudanese in our minds. Plus, it works.

Our hotel was not as bad as we expected it to be – having heard some stories from travelers before us. So we jumped on the last free room and arranged for the Irish (who was also going on the ferry to Egypt) to crush on the second bed in our room the next evening. The looks you get from people here when two men and a women declare they want to share a room are sometimes a bit queasy – and we heard that this request is outright denied in some places. The general expectancy which we had already met throughout some African countries is that a woman and a man sharing a room HAVE to have sex (which makes throwing in another man so even more scandalous), and this notion of the determination of male-female relationships is probably more entrenched in a Muslim society like Sudan. Already in Karima our host had not wanted to put Enda in the same room as us – though it was the only room with an AC available, and had ample space and beds to host a whole family. Apart from that though Anne did not experience any limitations or discriminations because of her gender. Some men preferred to speak to Jan and also only look at him while addressing us both, but all shook hands with her (even though one was obviously only doing that because she was a foreigner), and none ever made a negative comment or looked at her disapprovingly. Though of course the experience could be different for a single woman traveller – we don’t know. In any case, we both made an effort to cover up appropriately (not that easy in this heat), and don’t kiss or hold hands publicly. As nobody here does that. Well, men and women don’t, while men often hold hands. I guess you have to find an outlet for your need to touch other people somehow.

 

We had arrived in Wadi Halfa on Sunday, and the ferry was supposed to leave on Tuesday. We had arrived early in the hope that we could put the bikes on the transport barge before we left Wadi Halfa, as the ferry normally only takes passengers. The barge had already landed in Wadi Halfa on Saturday, but as there is not enough space for both the ferry and the barge in the port, the barge has to move when the passenger ferry arrives – unloaded or not. Which is what happened on Monday. We were a bit worried to leave our bikes all alone in Wadi Halfa, especially as we did not see how we could carry all the luggage with us on the ferry (it takes us at least 3 “carry runs” each to unload the bikes when we arrive at a place). Very lucky for us we met two Aussies, Kirsty and Gareth (www.aussieoverlanders.com), who are on the same route up East Africa with their 4WD (nicknamed “Troopy”), and who allowed us to put all our luggage in the back of their car.

So on Tuesday morning we packed a light bag for the ferry and the first days in Aswan, filled the car with the rest and then headed to the port. Enda “the Irish” was also part of the team, and a very important one as he went ahead on the ferry and secured a space for the five of us on the deck, setting up our ground sheet as a sunsail once again. Meanwhile the Aussies and us were hanging around customs with Mazar, who was working his magic to sort out all our paperwork around the vehicles. We waved goodbye to Hamba-hamba, Tokoloshi and Troopy (just so holding back the tears and fears…), and boarded the ferry. Which meant pushing and shoving our way through a tiny hole into the belly of the ship, and then up some stairs onto the deck. Thanks to Enda we found some shade there, but the metal floor of the ship was already so hot that we had to put several layers of fabric, plastic and mats on top before we could sit on it. And then it was: waiting. Waiting for the ferry to leave, waiting for the sun to set, waiting for some cool breeze that only sometimes found its way to our corner. The mostly Sudanese crowd watched us curiously, and sometimes tried to engage us in a chat, but as so often on this trip the lack of English on their side and lack of Arabic on our side hindered a true conversation. A bunch of guys next to us were for a time engaged in a very loud card game. The Sudanese people are generally very laid back and calm, and this was the first time we heard people shouting at each other in Arabic. As nobody killed each other and they all seemed to be friends still afterwards we guess it was not as aggressive as it sounded to us. As the sun started to fade, we were slowly leaving the Sudanese part of lake Nasser and gliding into Egypt – our last country on the African continent.

*We knew that the bikes could go with if there were not many passengers and the port official wrote a special permission letter, but as the ferry had already been fully booked since last Thursday, this was no longer possible.

 

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