Similar to Ethiopia, Sudan doesn’t issue visas on the border. This country has been in the grips of a civil war for years and even though it was split between the two different factions, north and south, the conflict still rages. The conditions are so bad that the embassy in Pretoria advised my sister against sending me my passport, she collected on my behalf, if she loved me at all. It took quite a bit of cajoling before she agreed to send it to me.
Research told me that the Sudanese would treat me like royalty and fuelled me on to read article upon article, because it didn’t make sense to me that a country suffering through civil war would treat a stranger like a king. I had barely taken my first step in Sudan when I learned from four men that I had been duped into paying an exorbitant exchange rate for the wrong currency, because Sudanese customs only accept dollars. Accompanied by these men I returned to the border post in Ethiopia, where they rather violently “persuaded” the official to take back his currency and return mine to me. I couldn’t really say that he had done me in, he had set his rate and I had paid it, like an Ultra City Garage charges R15.00 for a Coke and a regular supermarket only R8.00. The Sudanese didn’t see it that way. I had barely set foot in Sudan and had already experienced the hospitality and protection of its people, just by receiving a fair exchange rate. Safety is a great concern in Sudan, given the war. Since the border post shut down between 13h00 and 15h00 every day and I had arrived there just after 13h00, I walked into town to enjoy a tasty traditional meal. Sudan is situated in the Sahara Desert, but I was still tremendously excited to learn more about the surroundings and the people.
The border crossing went smoothly and just after 15h00 I made my way to Gedaref, where I would spend another night all alone in a great big hotel. As I travelled there the climate and terrain became sweltering hot desert, a welcome change to the constant rain and dampness of Ethiopia. After breakfast the next morning I set out for the capital, Khartoum, a tricky city for a motorbike with its many fuel trucks commuting between Sudan and Ethiopia. Stopping at a small little shop for a Pepsi, the owner immediately urged me in broken English to push my bike in out of the sun and promptly offered me a bed to rest. After explaining to him that I was only looking for something cold to drink, he told me to rest a while on the bed while he went to see what he could find. I was speechless, as he left me there alone in the shop. So I lay down on the bed and fifteen minutes later he was back with two Pepsis so cold the ice hadn’t even melted yet, I could hardly believe it. Then it was back to the road with its trucks and potholes. Safely back in Khartoum, I was pleased to find traffic a breeze on the city’s double-lane highway. Unlike South Africa, here traffic lights tick off the seconds of each different phase (green, amber and red) and at the last second, before the light even turns green, you set off (see photo).
You have to show proof of accommodation to obtain a Sudanese visa and the owner has to confirm this in writing, citing the relevant dates of your stay. It was the only booking I had made and I was even a day early. Arriving at the youth hostel I was met with the rather strange sight of all these young people walking along with briefcases and computers. It turned out to be college students holding a meeting in one of the buildings. I waited around until the meeting broke up and the manager could show me to my room, a large room with quite a few beds that I would have all to myself. I also enquired about obtaining a permanent visa, since customs only issues a three-day visa at the border and then you go to Khartoum to apply for a three-month visa. The next morning he arranged a three-wheel motorcycle taxi for me to take me in and out of the city. I stood around confused in front of the visa offices, unsure of where to go, when someone came to my aid and offered to guide me through the process. We negotiated and I accepted his offer. A mere hour later all the legalities were in place and I kind of wondered why everything was going so smoothly.
Upon our return to the hostel I also learned that the hotel owner had already paid for the taxi, about which he could have lied to pocket some extra cash and yet he didn’t. The manager of the hotel also refused the money and then I remembered, in this country they treat you like royalty.
The only way to reach Aswan in Egypt is by ferry from the border town of Wadi Halfa. The manager would take me to the train station to book a seat that afternoon, once the meetings with students were over. So late that afternoon we set out first on foot, then by bus and even a taxi. There is no way that I would have found it on my own. He was quite surprised that I opted for second class, but I knew from my research that in second class you get to enjoy the spectacular view with hundreds of other folks on the deck (without fear of rain, since it doesn’t rain in Egypt and Sudan), whereas in first class you are confined to a compartment with one or two people.
Having booked my passage we returned to the bus stop by taxi and then feasted on the local food in a nearby restaurant, to then return by bus and on foot. Back at the hostel I insisted on repaying his generosity, but he steadfastly refused. I was struck dumb by the hospitality of these people.
The road to Egypt had meanwhile opened and taking the ferry was no longer necessary. Since the desert town of Wadi Halfa was only a two-day ride away and I had another five days in Sudan, I decided to rather remain in Khartoum.
A service for my bike was in order, having just reached the 10 000km mark since leaving South Africa, but all I could find was a Suzuki garage. They did not service Hondas, but my request to simply make use of their tools and workshop, having brought my own oil filter and plugs, was immediately granted. They even helped me push the bike inside. I was further astounded when the manager referred me to another man who would take me to a wholesaler, because the oil at the garage was much too expensive, and here I had intended to support this business by buying its products. Someone even lent a hand with the bike’s service. Once it was all done I went over to pay the manager, but he absolutely refused to accept a cent and I only managed to compensate the man who assisted me with the bike. Where do you still get people like this in the world!
Upon my return to the hotel, the manager informed me that the government had commandeered the hotel for wounded soldiers and then took me to another equally nice hotel, where he even negotiated a good rate for me. He felt awful, but had no choice.
During my stay in this city, I took the opportunity to get a haircut and since it was so safe, I went out to dinner every night. The final day in Khartoum, while lunching outside at a hamburger spot, a man pulled up in a F100 USA truck who told me of his owned Africa Twin. I refused to believe him and after a nice chat, we first stopped at my hotel and then went on to his home. The first sight that met you when you walked into his garage was a chrome Harley Davidson, but we just passed on by the monstrosity without a glance and there it stood, his Africa Twin. His bike sported well-known German panniers and he was so disappointed when he say my Hipco Bekker ones, also German. The difference in quality was clear and I was quite pleased, because the choice of panniers is rather important. Since he had the money, he decided there and then to replace his panniers. I then enquired about the best route to Wadi Halfa, because many are quite bad, and he immediately offered to take me part of the way.
Next morning at 06h00 he already sat waiting outside my hotel and we rode, chatting all the away, to the police checkpoint to be searched. He spoke to the officers a moment and as we rode through the gate unchecked, I wondered just what kind of power he had in this country. Here I hugged and thanked him, heading out to Dongola on the new tarmac through the Sahara, regularly pulling over at water points and little towns. In one of the villages, I stopped to fuel up, they insisted on first feeding me before feeding my bike’s tank. We all took off our shoes and sat on this large rug. Saying grace before the meal I thanked the Father for the kindness these people were showing in sharing this meal with me, refusing any offer of payment, and it once again struck me just how generous the Muslims of this country are – every single day. In no time I reached Dongola, booked into a hotel, changed into cooler clothes and immediately set out to report my accommodation at the police station, because they’re strict on safety in this part of Sudan. It was quite a struggle to actually find it, since not a single soul understood me. Eventually I found it, had the hotel manager’s letter stamp and returned to the hotel. I set out for dinner that evening with a hankering for chicken and it didn’t disappoint.
The next day I was back on the new highway headed to Wadi Halfa. There a man awaited me, arranged by the F100 truck man, to aid me with the ferry and accommodation for the two days until the ferry took to the water, all at a very reasonable price. Late that afternoon three Muslims invited me to dinner, completely at their expense, and the same again the next day and that evening, refusing each and every offer I made to pay. My respect for the Muslim community of the Sudan just kept on growing, nowhere else in the world will you find people so generous as in Sudan.
The ferry docked, bringing with it two South Africans to my hotel, whose bikes would only arrive the next day, for their tour from Cairo to Cape Town. They struggled for 18 days to get their bikes from customs and was tired before they had even begun their trip. The first day of their tour they bunked down behind a sand dune at the side of the road, where the police promptly kicked them out of their tents, ordered them to lie flat on the ground, kicked them and even shot at their feet, when one of them tried to get up. They were eventually robbed of their cameras and money, now only able to record their trip on cell phones, and couldn’t wait to leave Egypt.
This made me even more negative about Egypt, since I already knew how arduous the process is to get a motorbike into the country and to obtain Egyptian number plates (could take two to three days). The next morning I packed up to leave and wished my Muslim friends farewell, sadly thinking how I would never see them again and kicking myself for not having a business card to keep in touch. The ferry left late that afternoon and I could only look on as my bike remained on the dock. My agent made every effort to arrange for me to take it with me on the ferry, all to no avail. It would only be transported two days later on a trailer ferry. They even take your passport and return it upon arrival in Egypt, for some reason.
I found a spot on the deck, glad I had not opted for first class in this stuffy ferry, when a Muslim offered me his prayer mat to keep my trousers clean. He would come fetch it for prayer time and then return it afterwards. I stood beside them as they prayed and at no point did I need to buy myself anything, they simply provided me with tea, soft drinks and food. You must think I’m lying, but these were simply the most generous people alive. A man woke me that night to see the temple of Kalabasha as we sailed past it at 12h00. Even though it was well lit, I would have liked to see it during the day.
Many of the Muslims, who had a good command of English, advised and even pleaded against crossing Syria to Turkey, suggesting I take the safer option of Iraq. It was the final obstacle to overcome on this trip.