Wednesday, August 5

Exploring Sudan

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GUY LAWRENCE takes us on a camel ride through a desert that is as mysterious as Africa.

Forget the sound of ice tinkling in drinks as the evening falls or the smell of cuisine wafting through the cooling air. Forget about the dawn thrum of sophisticated diesel engines in expensive 4WD vehicles getting ready for a day of shock absorbing travel.

Forget all the trappings of the 21st century “safari.” Ours was the real thing. A trek across the Sudanese desert by camel. No backup trucks, no portable pool. No staff in uniform offering another helping of Beef Wellington and Merlot. Just people and camels moving across a beautiful wilderness to the sounds of their own footfalls.

Sudan is the meeting place not only of the Blue and White Niles, but also of the Arab and African worlds. From the stark deserts in the north to the thick forest grasslands in the south, Sudanis the largest country in Africa and the most fascinating. It has split into two vast states. Before it did, we organized a 300-kilometre unsupported camel expedition across the Bayuda desert in Northern Sudan, one of the greatest present day desert exploration trips

The sunlight had faded into the evening when we touched down at Khartoum International Airport in mid January 2011, the exact day that the South was voting for secession. The customs clearance was swift and efficient and we soon found ourselves winding through city streets to our destination for the evening.

The Acropole Hotel is one of the oldest in Khartoum with comfortable accommodation and wholesome cuisine. Traditionally catering to NGOs, news reporters and the UN, it now had 12 adventure tourists staying within its safe walls. Without a doubtthe highlight of the Acropole is the ever-energetic eager- to-please manager, George, and his home made chocolate icecreams.

The first full day in Sudan was spent preparing equipment and sightseeing. The city streets were wide, logically laid out with citizens and vehicles obeying the rule of the road (Something we were not used to in Kenya). Time was spent visiting the National Museum, Ethnographic Museum (learning about all of Sudan’s differing tribes), the Blue Nile Sailing Club housing Kitchener’s last existing gunboat, and finally the Madhi’s tomb before the heat sent us scuttling back to the hotel for some ice cream.

Riding the bus out of Khartoum the next day, we passed the sixth cataract and then the new Chineseoil refineries. China has an interesting relationship in Sudan and was only too willing to step in to fill the gap, when the Western oil companies moved out due to alledged human rights abuses. Our destination was Metemma, about three hours drive, and the rendezvous with the camels, the lifeline of the expedition. Sudanese are passionate about camels and after Somalia; Sudan hosts the second highest number of camels in the world.

The local guide/ expert for this trip was Michael Asher, author of 20 books largely on Michael’s speciality, the desert, and the first recorded westerner to walk across the Sahara from West to East. Michael has a wealth of experience in Northern Sudan and with camels.

The expedition comprised of 21 camels, 12 for the guests, five for the herders, one for the cook and the rest for any extra luggage. The cook carried everything on his camel including starting the trip with an entire tray of eggs on his lap. This was fine until day six when he dropped them and we feasted like kings on scrambled eggs that day.
Everyone was designated their own camel for the entire duration of the trip to feed, saddle and hobble.

It creates a personal bond (in most cases) with the animal that will take you safely through the desert. My camel for the trip was the largest (and hairiest) and was quite quickly given the nickname “Fuzzy Wuzzy”. Sudanese camels are extremely well trained and can be directed by a simple pull of the lone rope that you hold. The saddles are actually baggage saddles but are in fact extremely comfortable to ride.

After an initial and apparently haphazard loading, we were off for the opening walk, an easy-going 12 kilometres. Ahead of us lay the Bayuda desert, 300 kilometres of sand, rock, dunes and acacia desert. As we left the Nile we didn’t expect to see the mighty river for the next two weeks when we reached it again at Korti. This is a participatory trip where everyone assists to pitch camp, clean up and cook. Settling in our sleeping bags on the desert ground on the first night, the entire African night sky – stars, planets, and shooting stars – sparkled. The wind started to pick up and just after midnight I had to add extra clothing as the wind chill factor pulled the temperature down to 5 Deg C. This may be one of the hotter places in the world but the nights were cold.

Mornings started early to get some solid walking in before the sun started beating down. We stopped every hour for five minutes for refreshments, changing between camels and walking, and relieving ourselves. All water is carried and is only enough for cooking and drinking. We all became semi-experts at the “wet wipe” shower at the end of the day. At lunchtime we pitched the one mess tent for an hour and half whilst we rested in the beating midday heat.

By day four of the expedition, there was no sense of time and our bodies started getting into a natural rhythm in tune with the environment. The trip is free of any modern technology and is specifically organised like this to free you from the trappings of modern society. It had been some time, or perhaps never, since the members of the expedition went two weeks without any mobile phone contact. This planted incredible feelings of freedom.

There is nothing like walking through the desert whilst the kilometers rack up under foot and camel. The desert is the quietest and most remote place I have ever been. The sand crunches under your feet as you walk through a constantly changing landscape. Every day the sights and sounds are different, from Acacia scrubland, flat sand pans, black rock desert, granite massifs and the sea of sand dunes. Huge petrified tree trunks had been uncovered by the wind over time and lay pristine in the sand. Who knows how old they were?

Whilst the desert looks empty, there is a surprisingly large biodiversity that survives. We saw desert gerbils, snakes, hares, scorpions along the route and plenty of tracks of some type of fox or jackal and gazelle. Understandably, many of the animals like to come out at night because it’s cooler. Birdlife was more sporadic with a few indigenous birds and some migratory specieson their way out of Europe to Africa.

The nomads in the Bayuda desert comprise the Jaaliyyin around Metemma, Hassaniyya in the central area and the Hawawir, who are based in the north and where all our camel men came from. They are fascinating and as traditional pastoralist nomads, their whole lives revolve around their livestock, predominantly camels. We saw Nomadic dwellings and encountered a traditional well where leather hide buckets were being pulled out of a 50 metre hole using donkeys, slings and ropes. All the nomads that we met en route (which cannot have numbered more than 15 in total) were incredibly courteous, polite and hospitable.

The actual route taken by this expedition was the reverse of the Gordon relief expedition (1884-1885) sent by the British government to save Major General Gordon in Khartoum from the Madhi’s awesome forces. We camped at Abu Klea wells, the scene of a bloody battle in which the invincible British square was breached, and Jak Dul wells. Jak Dul is the only open water in the whole of the Bayuda desert and is at the end of a huge granite massif range of hills. We needed to get to Jak Dul on day six of the expedition to top up our water supplies and this was the longest day on foot at 45 kilometres. It was worth the trek as the plunge in the water at the end of the day was instantly refreshing albeit somewhat cold.

It was with a feeling of incredible satisfaction and then sadness that the adventure was coming to an end when we saw the great Nile snaking its way through the desert near Korti. We approached the town and pitched camp next to an irrigation channel leading from the Nile to rich green farmland in the middle of the desert. We immediately jumped in the channel to wash off two weeks of sand, dirt and grime (Interestingly one rarely sweats in this intense dry heat) The adventure had not stopped and one of the absolute highlights of the trip was visiting the Whirling Dervishes in Omdurman.

Hundreds of people in green, white and redclad robes linked hands and for two hours built up their rhythmic hypnotic chanting and dancing for the whirling dervishes in the centre of this circle. It was impossible not to get drawn into this sea of people and faith.

There were many other memorable moments such as camping at the foot of a large dune next to the pyramids of Meroe (which number more than their famous Egyptian counterparts), visiting Musawwarat as-Sufra, where we looked at the ancient temples of the Meroitic Kings and Queens who ruled from 300 BCD to 300 Ad, interactions with wild camels in the desert, trouble with the Sudanese police when we jumped into an irrigation channel at the end of the trek at Korti or even the horrors of the Chinese businessmen filling the Souk in Khartoum openly buying carved and raw ivory etc. There is not enough room to write about these and other stories and you will have to visit this amazing country yourself.

Westminster Safaris Africa leads and organizes specialized safaris and expeditions. Whilst most of them concentrate on the more well known locations, we also organize at least two exploratory expeditions a year. Apart from the Sudan trek, recent expeditions include the Eastern Congo to explore volcanoes and visit the rare Mountain and Eastern Lowland gorilla’s, overland to Lake Turkana, and Tiger trekking in Bandhavgarh National Park in India. Future trips planned include Southern Sudan, Gabon and more of India.


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