Friday, October 7, 2011

Scorching Sudan

Throughout our trip we have always arrived at border crossings either mid-morning or early afternoon, but this time we had decided to push through to Sudan in the late afternoon. We passed through the Ethiopian border very quickly and went directly to the immigrations office in Sudan. The officials were very friendly,  took our passports and told us to sit.  We sat for about 5 minutes watching them talk and slowly look through our passports. Then they walked outside still holding our passports! Quite confused and concerned we followed them asking if everything was ok. ‘No, no photocopy’ they said pointing at our visas. They had no power at their building to make photocopies so Nick walked back into Ethiopia to use a photocopy machine!
Once that was over we went across to the customs office which was very basic with a few tables and chairs and a few officials standing and sitting about.  Immediately we were told to sit again.  So we sat for a bit until it looked like it was our turn to be helped. The official was rapping on in Arabic and luckily the lady standing next to us could translate that he was telling us to wait until prayer time was over to be helped.  So we sat again and waited, hoping that the customs office wouldn’t close and leave us stranded. Next thing we knew we were being offered to join them for their dinner of bread with a meat stew and a cup of tea! What a welcome into Sudan!  Finally, after we had eaten, the customs official took our passports and carnets and proceeded to walk outside again! After 20 min of waiting and not being told what was going on or where we should be, Nick went looking for the official only to find out that he had been waiting in an office next door for us! We paid the customs charges, got our stamped carnets back and were eventually free to leave after a 2hour process.  Being 6:30pm we needed to find somewhere to sleep and were directed to an interesting accommodation set up just up the road.  It looked very similar to a construction workers sleeping quarters on the side of the road, with basic ablutions.  We were given our own room with two stretcher type beds and welcomed  by all the people who were staying there.  We jumped into bed and Nick spent most of the night playing hide and seek with the resident rat in the room!!

The next morning we were invited by Abdulla, a student on holiday from Khartoum, for tea in the border town. It was interesting learning about the different flavour teas and that most of the coffee ladies throughout Sudan are actually immigrants from Ethiopia.  After getting litres of water we started our trek towards Khartoum.  The first 200kms into Sudan was still pretty green and cool although the landscape was definitely changing, flattening out into a drier, less inhabited area than Ethiopia.  The more we travelled into Sudan the quieter the roads became and it was such a relief to be able to ride along without worrying about donkeys, cattle, goats and people.  We passed a few small villages filled with people smiling and waving, and carried on towards Khartoum.

Around 4pm we came across a very nice looking restaurant and stopped in for lunch/dinner.  We had hoped to camp near to the town of Wad Medani, but it had been quite busy on the sides of the roads that we had pushed onto the town.  After a hearty and delicious chicken and chips we went in search of somewhere to stay in Wad Medani.  Again we were overwhelmed by the kindness of people of Sudan. We found a hotel which was way over our budget, however after speaking to the owner we were graciously given a room at a very discounted rate! So that night we slept in an air conditioned room with comfy beds and had a good scrub in the shower.

The room Nick played hide and seek with the rat

We decided to leave relatively early the next morning knowing that it was likely to get very hot the closer we drove towards Khartoum.  By 9am the temperature was already pretty steamy but being able to travel between 80-100kmph we never once felt that it was too hot for riding.  We found a tea lady under a tree right on the banks of the Blue Nile and enjoyed sweet tea and coffee watching the cars go by and the water rush along.  With all the rain in Ethiopia the Blue Nile was very full and flowing quickly, which also meant that it wasn’t a Blue but rather Brown Nile. 
Sudan landscape

After tea/coffee we only had another 80km to go to Khartoum.  The traffic had increased a bit, but the drivers are considerate and don’t take unnecessary risks making the drive pleasant.  The road network in Khartoum is a little confusing in the beginning as they have two double laned roads heading into town but separated by a concrete barrier.  This means that although you are heading in the right direction, if you get into the wrong double laned highway you could land up being directed to another part of the city.  After a few wrong turns we managed to find the Blue Nile Sailing Club located right on the Blue Nile river.  We treated ourselves to a cold fruit smoothie watching the river flowing quickly under the El Mek Nemer bridge. 

In the afternoon we met some members of the club, before we knew it they had offered us a sunset cruise up the nile! It was awesome to chug along against the current watching the sun set and seeing more Khartoum city, when we turned around we were no longer chugging but moving at great speed back to the club! More and more members arrived that evening to play a card game known as 14 cards.  The game is very similar to rummi, however there are a lot more rules and a lot of counting involved! We enjoyed watching them, while sipping on tea and learning how the game works!  Little did we know that this was a daily routine, and every night the members would play this card game until midnight or 1am.

sunset over El marek nemer bridge

The presidents boat

The Nile bridge brought in second hand from England

Cruise along the Nile

Kamal steering his boat and Mohammed teaching us about what is along the sides of the bank

The next morning we decided to explore Khartoum a bit and walk to the bridge where the Blue and White Nile meet.  It was a lovely walk along the Blue Nile and we passed lots of hotels, interesting buildings and tea/coffee ladies. As we approached the White Nile bridge we noticed a machine gun pointing towards us, we had heard that in Sudan you had to be very careful where you take pictures, and with the machine gun on the entrance to the bridge we decided not to take a picture of where the two Niles meet!  It really was an awesome sight, the White Nile does indeed look white, while the Blue Nile which should be blue, at this point it was brown.  They seem to flow for some distance as separate colours before they eventually mix into the ‘The Nile River’.

On the walk back we realised that walking in the midday heat was a bad idea, and although we walked most of the way back, we just couldn’t make the last 2kms and caught a taxi home.  Nick noticed that the cab driver had two  fresh fruit ice lollies on his front seat, and when we asked him where he had got them, he just passed the ones he had bought for himself back saying ‘your welcome’! Again the amazing Sudanese hospitality!

 That night Kamal invited us to attend his nephews wedding. It was such a special occassion and treat to experience.  The wedding celebration started around 9:30pm and the music had to finish by 11pm, so the moment the bridal couple arrived the music and dancing began.  After 11pm the bridal couplegot changed and returned in their traditional Sudenese attire and the traditional ceremony of blessing the new couple began.
Sneaking onto the bridal throne before the couple arrived!
Beautiful stand next to the bridal couple throne where perfume and gifts were left.
The bridal couple in the western wedding attire

Some of the geusts dressed so beautifully

Kamal, Kamal's sister and Teeny

The bride in traditional attire

The bride and groom were then sprayed with lots of different perfumes

Blue Nile Sailing club right on the blue Nile

Our little home for 2 weeks in Sudan !

The El Malik, Sailed by Kitchener in 1898

Ice cold water machine, our saviour during the scorching hot days

The next day we had to go and register at the ‘alien registration office’.  Another SDG210 (R630) later and about 2 hrs in the office and we were officially registered to be in Sudan.  We tried asking about extending our visa but were blatantly refused any options, so off we went in search of shipping and airfreighting offices.  The quotes we received that day were crazy expensive, so the next day we went in search of cheaper companies.  We met Mario at Emirates Aircargo, and he provided us with a contact, Garo, to assist with building crates for the motorbikes and completion of the dangerous goods paperwork.  After doing rough measurements for the bike crates we waited anxiously for his quote. We had heard from so many travellers and after reading so many blogs that airfreighting is the preferred method of transporting motorbikes, as its quick, relatively easy and possible to get an idea of handling charges on the other side.  Whereas with shipping you can never really get an idea of what charges are going to be laid on top of the shipping charges you have already paid, and in most cases the handling charges nearly double the cost of shipping! 
Taking initial measurements, Garo, the carpenter and Nick
We were smiling when Garo called and gave us good news, it would be affordable to airfreight the bikes to Milan, Italy, and only marginally more expensive than sending the bikes to Port Sudan to be shipped to Italy.  Then started all the planning with dates! Our visa for Sudan was going to expire on the 21st September 2011 (as you are only given 14days tourist visa for the country), but Nicks schegnen visa only started on the 24th September!  We couldn’t believe – just 3 days off! Mohammed (a member of the Blue Nile sailing club) very kindly took us to meet an immigration official to ask about extending our visa.  It was possible but would cost us another SDG200 (R600) each!  This was one option, but very expensive, so we started looking if there was any way to ‘waste’ time at the airports.  This would have been possible but then our bikes may be put in storage for a day or two which was likely to be even more expensive than extending the visa.  We pondered over the best way to handle all of this for a few hours, and then started looking more closely at our travel plans and how the dates would work out to get to England, London to meet up with Teeny’s sister, Vanessa.  We were cutting it tight…so the plan changed again…lets fly directly to Amsterdam! Mario, from Emirates Skycargo, said the rate per kg would not change if we flew into either Milan or Amsterdam – and that sealed the deal for us! It would make more sense to fly into Amsterdam, spend some time there and then ferry to UK, London in time to meet up with Vanessa! This meant of course that we would need to extend our Sudan visa by 3 days! However, we soon found out that if we were flying out of Sudan in 3 days the immigration officials would not be concerned if we overstayed our visa by a few days! Lucky!
The next step of the plan was to get money into Sudan.  It is impossible to draw money in Sudan (even with a Visa card), so all travellers make sure they exchange enough money at the border or have spare US dollars with them to exchange if required.  So the banks weren’t much help and we thought we could just send money via western union.  Now that was a little more difficult and exciting than we had thought it would be! South African banks have a ban on sending money into Sudan via Western union…hmmm ok so who do we use?  As we searched money exchange offices in Khartoum, Lorna, Nicks mom, got bounced around in Durban searching for a place that would deal with Sudan.  Eventually after 2 intense days Lorna found an office in Durban that would send money to a place called Express Money in Khartoum – Success!  What was great, was that when we received money we also received an incentive from the Bank of Khartoum for bringing money into the country! This meant that we got an extra R1500 back which basically covered the cost of sending the money in the first place – awesome!

So with money in finally in our back pockets, we continued finalising dates and plans for crating the bikes.  We visited Garo once again to confirm dimensions for the crates, and explained we would remove the handlebars , front wheel and what ever els we could to ensure that we got the crates as small as possible, cause what they do is charge you either the “weight” of the bikes or the volume, but of course they will charge you on the larger one ! ie. The weight of all we had to send , including the wood for the crates was 622Kg. The volume is as follows:
Bikes: 205cmx78cmx120cm   -  2 off
Panniers: 125cmx66cmx45cm   - 1 off
((205x78x120)x2)\6000 = 639.6 Kg
 (125x66x45)\6000=61 Kg
So using volume the weight they will charge you for is 700.6 Kg
As you can see quiet a difference , so size is everything !

With that all arranged it was time to have some fun on the weekend. We had been told about the Nubian wrestling on Friday afternoons and decided that would be good to go and see.  While waiting for 5 pm to come around we met Andy, a Scotsman currently living in Sudan teaching English, and invited him to join us. We caught public transport through to souk sita, haj housif, and amazingly found our way to the make shift wrestling theatre surrounded by fabric.  We arrived when the wrestling had already begun and in the ring of sand there were already two fighters and a large crowd cheering them on. Nubian wrestling is a traditional ancient sport that has been practiced for over 3000 years. It involves fighters challenging each other, and when an opponent accepts the challenge the object is to get the opponents shoulders down on the floor, not pinning him down just by take down.  We watched some fantastic fights and absorbed the atmosphere of the ring crowded with people chanting their teams and taunting the opposition.

The wrestling usually started with the competitors tapping each other on the head

The action shot!

The champion usually got given money when he won, and the person giving the money would place it on his forehead.
The winner was carried around the arena like this.

The fascinating sook sita (market 6)

The butchery in the market

Kamal heading out on his boat

The next day we decided to take a walk around down town enjoying the fresh fruit juices and searching for a place to do some printing and scanning to get our green card insurance for Europe sorted out.
Day time in Khartoum consisted of doing whatever was absolutely necessary to get done that day and there after returning to our camp , finding a tree and a bottle of water and trying to get our bodies to cool down. When we had the energy we went for a few swims in the blue (brown) nile which was extremely refreshing and lasted for about 10 minutes after you got out the water, thereafter everything was dry and you were hot again!  Every night the members would arrive to play there 14 card game and we would relax chatting to Andy and Anthon (an independent traveller heading up to Egypt from Ethiopia) once the lights were off we felt brave enough to try and face the heat of the tent and catch a few hours of sleep.
Amazing sunsets in the heat of Khartoum, Sudan

Swimming in the Nile

Andy and Anthon cooling off

Anthon action shot!

Inside the club grounds teeny gave up on covering up, but outside the club grounds it was long sleeves and pants!
Yellow Billed Kites fly like flocks of pigeons - Wow!
Nick sleeping outside because the heat was just too much in the tent!

On the 21st September we headed off to the airport to crate our bikes- an interesting experience.  After waiting 45 minutes on the road , hiding under a parked truck for some shade , we were then allowed into the cargo hold area.  Then chaos began….
Man #1:  get on scale
Man #2: get off scale
Man #3: get on scale but take off things
Man #4: what is this other stuff take it out it is not allowed here (our hand luggage for the plane)
Man #2: take out benzene and battery
Man #1: put battery back in
Man #5: have you taken out benzene
Man #6: take out battery again, have you done the other bike?
All this happened in about 5 minutes, oh and in the direct sun, no shade around at all! 
Eventually we just put our heads down and ignored what they said and started taking the one bike apart for crating. We also had to get quite rude and tell them we will do everything ourselves, as we had already lost one screw with their attempts to help.  As if they needed to throw one more final tester at us, with nicks bike in the crate without the lid on, an official comes and ask to see the battery (another official, there about 15 officials) well this was the final straw on Nicks back, he just smiled shook his head and walked away while teeny stepped in to handle this one!!  After 5 gruelling long hours in the blistering sun we were finally done with hard work now the paper work, which we had to come back for another day.

With our bikes crated and feeling homeless, with the tent packed away too, we headed back to the Blue Nile sailing club. Andy had been kind enough to enquire about a place for us to stay , but the hotels only allow you a double room if you have a marriage certificate, so that night we slept at the sailing club on cushions.
Waiting outside the airport cargo area

Crate for the panniers

"Battery out? Battery in? Benzene out? Have you done the other bike?"

Nick's bike just before the crate was closed

Exhausted after the day of crating the bikes and our bed for the night!

Our pet cat we adopted during our stay!

 With nothing to do on Thursday we decided to try visit the Meroe pyramids about 150Km north of Khartoum. This meant getting up early and catching a bus from the Shendi Station in Khartoum North.  When we got ushered into the bus a guy was asking us if we had something, so we showed him our passports and he left.  Only after 2hrs in the bus, when we were pulled off by a policeman, did we realise that he was asking to see our permissions permit to travel further north.  We had been told that it wasn’t necessary to have these permits, and Anthon (who had travelled the day before) had not been asked for this! So it was just our luck that the policeman checked our bus and sent us straight back to Khartoum without any option of seeing the pyramids!  That night we were invited to dinner at Tarik’s house (a cousin of Kamal and friend of Andy’s – what a small city!). It was a fun night in the suburbs of Khartoum, Hal Fire, where we got a taste of a different Khartoum. This was our last night in Africa, and it was so fitting that we got to sleep under the stars enjoying the great weather!!  It was also here that Teeny started feeling ill, and in the morning Nick started feeling even worse.  

Our last day in Khartoum was spent finalising payments and paperwork for airfreighting the bikes.  Nick had gone from bad to terrible in a few hours and if it wasn’t for Andy we are not sure how we would have managed that day!! We got to the airport early hoping to sit in the departure lounge air-conditioning, but were sadly mistaken; because the airport is small they do not allow anyone into the departure area more than 2 hours before the flight! Feeling ill and drained we sat outside in the heat wishing time would go quicker! 
Our Emirates flight left at 7:15pm and arrived in Dubai at 12:15am.  It would have been hysterical to have watched us walking through the arrivals hall.  Everything was so big, clean, organised and shiny such a contrast to what we have experienced for the last 6 months! Because of the long wait for the connecting flight, we were given the opportunity to stay in a hotel near the airport.  This meant we had to get an overnight visa for Dubai, a process which took us nearly 1.5 hrs because of the queues in Dubai airport.  By the time we arrived at the hotel it was 2:30am and we had to leave at 6am to catch our flight.  It may have only been a few hours, but the opportunity to have a hot shower and a comfy bed for those few hours was amazing!

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