Sudan > Khartoum
Today we are doing a 450km drive from Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, to Marawi, a town to north on the banks of the Nile river. We are crossing the so-called Nubian desert, which in turn forms the extreme eastern portion of the colossal Sahara desert of northern Africa.
A convoy of three 4×4 vehicles arrive as appointed, at the Malaysian ambassador’s residence in Khartoum. There are ten people in this adventure — eight of us from Malaysia, plus Ambassador Ashri and his bubbly ma’am, Yahti. Although the main highways are sealed, we can assume anything off them being dirt roads, hence the 4×4 requirement.
I opt for the Landcruiser with Ambassador Ashri, Sabariah and a fellow traveller, Moslim. The driver is Ahmad, a former college lecturer who speaks excellent English, which seems to be a rare commodity in Sudan nowadays. A pity, since Sudan was also a British colony like Malaysia, and gained independence in 1956, just a year before us.
The main road out of Khartoum is well-sealed, but only a lane on each side. Speeding is strictly enforced, and soon enough, one of our cars get a ticket. I must admire the Sudan police for their diligence … in revenue collection.
The desert begins in earnest, but this is a rather popular route to the north, as evidenced by countless discarded tyres along the roadside. Security checkpoints along the way are commonplace, as Sudan is having troubles in other parts of the country.
A while later, the same car which got the speeding ticket has another trick up the sleeve, but quickly fixed, no problem. I see the pattern here — only the highway is sealed, anything off it are dirt roads or tracks. Being a dry place, the dirt roads are pretty good, except for the pesky sand and dust.
The desert scene can get impressive and surreal, except it is almost 40C and very dusty. You can sense the dust floating in the air, and landing on your palms. I hope it doesn’t get into my camera.
Villages occasionally appear, normally graced by mosques.
This seems to be an R&R area as well, with some sort of eatery to the left. The locals simply lay a mat on the ground and eat their meals there. As long as there is a water source, a settlement would sprout.
Homes of the people, and the ubuquitous telecom tower — the highways are pretty well-covered by the cellular system. It’s a matter of life and death if you are stranded in the hot desert, so the cellphone coverage has to be good. The houses seem to lack form — just boring shoebox-like brown mudbricks or something — but I suppose they are functional to withstand the severe desert elements in both summer and winter.
In some spots, sand encroaches the road. In extreme cases, roads have been closed by sand on the road, just like snow.
In the arid desert there are herds of wild camels and donkeys. I always wonder where the critters manage to find water, maybe at the plants?
As we move away from Khartoum, the road gets more desolate than ever. At least the weather is not too hot, and the desert is always breezy. Luckily we have good air-conditioning in the car, and the cellphone works in case of emergency. Otherwise it’s a rather fast drive all the way.
About 4.5 hours after leaving Khartoum, we approach the Nile river again (we left the Nile in Khartoum as it goes northeasterly and makes a tortuous U-turn in the Nubian desert before heading southwesterly, where it is now). The mighty river is just ahead, and there’s a small settlement with a junction. We take a much-needed break after the desert crossing. There’s the mandatory mosque, and next to it a public toilet, in pretty bad shape, only the ones in Tibet were worse!
A hodge-podge of stalls line the road on one side, as kids tail us begging for money. Ignore them and you should be fine, give something to a kid and a whole gang would descend upon you. Rule of thumb when travelling — never give anything to beggars, however pitiful they may look. Such is life.
Dates and oranges seem to be the items of the day, or probably for any other day. The oranges look enticing, peel it, and you find it thick on skin, but short on juice and taste. Best avoided.
Across the road, I notice people milling around a couple of colourful long-distance buses. Seems like a bus stop, letting off passengers while picking up new ones. And yes, roving vendors with wheelbarrows of oranges and dates for sale. It’s 1.30pm, but the desert is a bit cool and breezy.
Just a bit more than an hour after the junction, we arrive at the town of Marawi, right on the eastern bank of the Nile. There’s a new hotel built specifically for visitors like us, and it does look very inviting.
It’s a Friday, a weekend, but things look a bit quiet. Maybe we are at the start of the hot season, or the tail end of the peak season when the weather is much cooler.
The reception looks deserted, and the ladies tell me we are the only guests around, but another group is arriving when we leave. This looks to be a very decent spot, in the desert and all, so I’d like to see it successful.
Check-in is a breeze, with the friendly manager himself handling the matter. Quite comfortable this place.
There’s a large yard behind the reception building, with rooms grouped in separate blocks surrounding this beautiful patch of greenery.
A well-tended courtyard, obviously with precious water from the Nile, just a couple of hundred metres away.
It’s amazing how water can give life to an otherwise barren and arid desert. There’s the whole rich ecosystem here — plants, insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, humans — all made possible by the iconic river.
The blocks of rooms are named after famous people of the past, including a major ruler from 700BC, who actually conquered Egypt at one stage — King Taharqa.
Very well-done landscape, and I find it hard to believe we are in the middle of the Nubian desert.
And this is our block, where all ten of us are housed, for the next two nights.
We have a top floor room, and more fantastic greenery behind the block.
And the room … no double bed unfortunately, otherwise very comfortable. 😀
> TO BE CONTINUED