Nubian Desert

At midday the expedition left Dongola and pushed north into the desert… For more than a week our world was sand – soft sand, impacted sand, pebbly sand, wind-blown sand that gathered in drifts or rose into dunes… and when we closed our eyes at night we saw nothing but the bouncing plains of sand ahead, stretching out to a sandy horizon.
The Nubian Desert’ – Philip Marsden

Dongola Ferryman 300 1
Coffee with the Professors
Off early the next morning from Dongola accompanied by a lad from Lords with my bag - he was instructed to put it onto a pickup to Kerma on the other side of the river where Mubarek was based - I waited as the disembarking crowd of commuters streamed up the bank with their daily loads. Donkeys struggled to stay upright, slipping under the weight of the carts heavily loaded with vegetables, as the farmers themselves put their shoulders to the wheel, helping push it up the incline.

On the ferry, a distinguished looking gentleman in his fifties was observing me from an air-conditioned Landcruiser. Eventually curiosity must have got the better of him and he climbed out to talk to me. A friendly and energetic character, Professor Awad Hay Ali Ahmed was a statistician (“I was responsible for the most recent census in Sudan”) and vice-chancellor of the University of Khartoum, here on a tour of some of their outreach programs. He was accompanied by some other academics, similarly bearded and turbaned. They were met on the east bank by Professor Mohammed Osman Ahmed, the president, I was told, of the University of Dongola! (To me Dongola was a small desert town. Perhaps my idea of a university was a little restrictive.) He gave me a hearty handshake when introduced, telling me he studied for his Doctorate in Queens University Belfast in the mid seventies. I mentioned my chat with the dermatologist Dr Omar, and his assertion there were 5,000 Sudanese in Ireland. “When I was studying there, there were two or three in the whole country,” he laughed.

Sand and palms 530 1

Professor Awad had offered to bring my bag to the next town of Kerma as they were heading there too. This pleased me, as it would add a little more authority to the delivery. Before that, they were to call into Professor Osman's mother for coffee “a few minutes from here. You must come.” For some reason I thought they were walking, but they all jumped into three Landcruisers and the drivers sped off - with my bag. I had no time to put on helmet or gloves and took off after them, trying to keep them in sight. Tearing along the sealed road at 100 kph was bringing tears to my eyes, but I dared not stop as I would lose them. I hadn’t given them details of Mubarek's address yet. Managing to one-handedly release my sunglasses from the tank bag, I slipped them on which made it a little more comfortable. Five minutes later, in the distance the three Landcruisers peeled off the tarmac and into the desert along a sand track, eventually pulling up outside a large compound surrounded by palms.

Inside the compound, three low mud buildings, painted white, formed a rectangle. Over in a corner, two old silos used in previous times for storing grain and dates, stood disintegrating. I was ushered across the courtyard after the distinguished gentlemen in their crisply laundered, flowing white
jelabiyas as they ducked into a low doorway. In a low ceilinged, sparsely decorated though tidy anteroom an elderly woman, the matriarch of the house, was sitting in a chair. We all trooped in and filed passed, being introduced and shaking her hand, before passing into a separate reception room. This was quite bare, and big enough to contain a large low table in the centre, around which the lads spread themselves on the floor. I took my place at a corner. A bowl of dried dates was offered around, then foil-wrapped chocolates (I wondered why I was the only taker, until I tried unwrapping them, the melted mess coming off on my fingers). A few minutes later little glasses of sweet, spiced coffee were brought in on a small silver tray. “You must think this is very basic,” Professor Awad suggested despite my protestations. “It is a farm in the countryside.” He began stuffing the remaining dates into my jacket pocket. "For the road ahead," he insisted.

Round the bend 530 1

My journey was of some polite interest around the table. When I mentioned how impressed I was with the pyramids of Meroe a few days previously, Professor Awada began expounding on a subject clearly close to his heart, lecturing me on the significance of the Kushite civilisation which he claimed actually predated the more famous pyramids in Egypt. “In fact, the original Egyptians were Nubian. Black. Like this man here,” he said with some pride, indicating the attendant serving the coffee, who was black in complexion with slightly finer facial features than the professors. “He is Nubian.” Nubians have a distinct ethnic and cultural identity, they speak their own language with their own script, and their history goes back well before the Kingdom of Kush.

“Today's Egyptians are from the Middle East and Turkey,” the professor claimed with a dismissive wave of his arm. From the little I knew, I did understand that until independence from Britain in the fifties, Egypt had not been a sovereign state since… before Alexander the Great. From the early sixteenth century they were part of the Ottoman Empire ruled from Istanbul. Hence the claim there are few real Egyptians remaining. “Previously, they were Nubians.” Professor Awad was on a roll. “On the hieroglyphs in the Egyptian tombs, you can see the figures are black, or their faces have been altered.” He continued, describing the complex engineering back then, and the development of
the mechanics of fluid dynamics - as opposed to that used today based on electronics. If I got that right. Using water and gravity in architectural and engineering design. "And the Kushites," he continued, 'were a very advanced, peaceful society. There was no pollution, no misuse of nature. But because they weren't warlike, they were eventually conquered from the north.”

Northwards through the Nubian Desert
After another couple of kilometres, the tarmac stopped and the road reverted to sand. I had remembered a few months previously reading with some anxiety “between Dongola and Kerma is the sandiest stretch of the road in the north”. Now I was looking forward to it with a perverse relish.

It was sandy. And slow, and hot. But the slight difference in the bike's load made it manageable. In fact, after half an hour without a spill and confidence growing, it was becoming really enjoyable! I was travelling with tyres not designed for sand, and had not even deflated them yet. This was going great.

Desert breakdown 530 1

And then the engine stuttered and stopped. After a brief curse, I pushed it over once again to the slight shade a nearby thorn tree offered (above). Off came the luggage, the fuel tanks and fairing. This time I went straight for the fuel pump, hoping that was the source of the breakdown. It was. The repair I'd done in Khartoum had left the wire a little tight, and it had worked itself free with the bumping around. I took it out of the housing again, fixed a wire extension onto it, before replacing the unit again. It worked, and I set off. That feeling of despair (“Oh no, now what?) turning to relief, was very satisfying.

Cross country from Kerma
Ruins in Kerma indicate it was one of the earliest urban settlements in sub-Saharan Africa and was a way station for the trade between the tropical south and Egypt. Now, due to the encroaching desert, in the last four centuries it has become just a small market town on the Nile.

Of course by the time I arrived in Kerma, the nutty professors had long gone. I found Mubarek and the bag. He was apparently impressed with my delivery service - important dignitaries from Khartoum in a Landcruiser - as I was greeted most warmly, and a welcome breakfast pressed on me, along with strong assurances the bag would arrive safely in Wadi Halfa. His man Mr. Mazar (a name I'd come across on the internet researching recommended contacts in Wadi Halfa) would phone him when it arrives.

Desert riding 350 1
After Kerma the choice is to follow the river, or head directly across country cutting off the bend. I had a GPS to help me navigate so leaving Kerma I followed the tyre tracks into the desert. However things got a little confusing, as earthworks a few kilometres in length were pushing me further inland than I was comfortable with. Of course there was no one working on these banks I could confirm the route with, so kept going. Then the tyre tracks were splitting off, until the one I was following became so slight it was difficult to discern. I didn't like this. The problem in riding solo in these situations is you expose yourself to more risk if something goes wrong. There wouldn't be anyone coming this way.

Anxiously I watched as the arrow on my GPS gradually swung around to a more reassuring direction i.e. not straight out east into the desert, and eventually I picked up slightly more defined tracks. Then relief at the sight of corrugations, indicating traffic, something I could never have imagined welcoming! The terrain became mostly rocky and I was making good progress. Two hours after leaving Kerma, over a brow, the deep green of date palms along the Nile could be seen. I was back on a defined track along the Nile.

Bull Dust
Just before the village of Delgo, the track deteriorated into a stretch of particularly fine, grey sand. Also known as 'bull dust', it is a cement-like dust that is notoriously difficult to ride through. The idea is to try and ride around it I was to learn. The bike dug itself in to where I got off it leaving it standing (pictured below). Off came the panniers and I carried each of them along with my helmet and jacket the fifty metres to firmer dirt. Lifting the rear of the now lighter bike free, I got it out of the difficult bit, reloaded and dressed, and continued. In the early afternoon heat I was sweating and weary. It was time for a break (how I would have gulped down a cold drink!).

Bull dust 530 1

Spotting a lean-to I pulled in, and flopped onto the ground in the shade. I had disturbed two travelling salesmen dozing next to their two wheeled gypsy carts, fold-up stalls piled high with cheap, colourful trinkets. These men were continuing an ancient tradition, calling into villages to sell their wares, the only source for many local women of materials, sewing things, pots, and various knickknacks. They had been walking six days from Abri, a town further north on the river. One of them brought over his woven nylon mat for me to lie on. He pointed at my watch to see the time, and then walked over to the wall to do his prayers. It was my turn to lie in the shade and doze.

Afternoon break 530 1

Eddie Murphy’s Village
At the tiny settlement of Delgo, I felt the river beckoning and followed a trail off the main track, across a few fields and through a thicket of palms, coming upon a delightful village square surrounded by mud buildings and shady trees. It was mid afternoon and everything was closed, the only signs of life around the tea stall in the corner. I parked the bike and wandered over, and ordered a tea. About half a dozen men were lying or sitting barefoot on a mat in the shade playing cards, banter and laughter constantly punctuating the concentration. I was invited over to another mat where a few others were eating out of a communal bowl. Tearing off a piece of flatbread, I scooped out some of the substance. A jar of apricot jam had been upended in the bowl and halva, the Middle Eastern sweet made from sesame seeds and honey, had been sprinkled over. It was very sweet - and tasty.

Sipping on my tea, I watched as the lads enthusiastically played 'Trumps', the winner waiting for the last minute before triumphantly slapping down his complete hand in one go. There was great entertainment being had, though it was competitive. Scores were being kept on a piece of paper. A bicycle, the front basket piled high and wide with bread, was leaning against the post as its owner participated in the card game. And that's when I realised I was in Eddie Murphy’s village with his cousins! The bread man, hair and a thin moustache carefully manicured, was the image of the black American comedian, his slick and confident style convincing me further. Some of the other players were surely his cousins.

Afternoon dominoes 530 1

A few more cousins arrived with much hand slap greetings, doing the rounds, including their strange uninvited visitor. Another mat of nylon sacks was spread in the shade and a vigorous game of dominoes commenced with loud clacks as with a shout the pieces were slapped down with gusto.

I wasn't going any further that day, and so joined in the spirit of things, basically just hanging out. Omar's words in Dongola came back to me, that the climate is just too hot for work. And this is how the males of this community appeared to pass the afternoon - sprawled on the ground drinking tea, playing cards and joking.

Nile Beach
Payment was flatly refused for my tea and food. With evening coming on I strolled down a path through the thick cordon of date palms, coming out onto a wide sandy beach. The evening sunlight cast a yellow tint against the intense green of the palms, the deepening blue of the sky a backdrop.

I walked the few hundred metres across the sand to the river. A solitary young lad, about fifteen or sixteen, was squatting on his heels by the shore gazing at the river. I greeted him, asking was it safe. No problem and he waded in up to his knees to demonstrate. “I like the Nil”, said Ram simply. I did some laundry, and had a wash in the waters.

Nile beach 530 1

A group of teenage girls, heads covered by shawls in the Islamic way, had been walking on the beach and now passed me, leaning on my bike, on their way back to the village. Their eyes were averted and heads bowed modestly. Ten minutes later three of them returned and approached me, one of them asking in surprisingly good English - I am supposing it is taught in all schools - if they could help me with anything. I was touched. They were shy, but thoughtful enough to wonder if this stranger needed some help or advice. After some conversation, and a few useful Arabic phrases I wrote down, they skipped off giggling and chatting.

Nile camp 350 1
I had decided to set up my tent in the palms, in the meantime riding back towards Delgo. In the darkness, I asked two men where I could get some food (using my newly learnt phrase). They pulled out a table and sat me down. There was no electricity, and in candlelight I ate fuul with bread. A pickup truck arrived and there was some discussion before I was approached and asked for my 'documents'. Well he'd have to wait, whoever he was, I was eating. No problem. He became a little apologetic but informed me it was necessary, he was 'security'. What he wanted was a photocopy of the passport for 'records'', one of which I eventually found and handed over. He scanned it by torchlight and went off satisfied.

Nile sunset 530 1

'Absolutely lovely riding'
After a trek down to the shore in the early morning light for a wash, I was off, making my way north again following the course of the Nile. My notes record… 'Absolutely lovely riding, continuously curving, up and down, around and over rocky outcrops, sand and occasional bull dust, irrigated patches of villages, painted mud compounds, blue of the Nile, always that green of the date palms.' Passing these little compounds I was constantly being hailed, or beckoned in for tea.

Nubian dwelling 530 1

The road now began to take a more definite shape, and was being graded! I could see signs of a new road - a serious one - being constructed. I had observed indications of roadworks the previous couple of days. It looks like the intention is to have a paved road through the desert, and it seems it won't be more than a year or two before the whole lot is completed. I considered myself very fortunate to be probably one of the last to enjoy the route as it has been for all these generations. In fact I would go as far as to say the riding had been some of the most enjoyable of the journey around Africa so far!

Uncomfortable in Abri
Abri, the last village on the Nile before Wadi Halfa, is based around a central
souq or market. I got a room in the only funduq (lodging). After filling up with petrol from a barrel, re-inflating my tyres, and giving the bike a once over, I spent the rest of the day like the locals, drinking shai and lolling around avoiding expending energy. The town was dead after 2pm. The heat was causing the bites I'd got the previous night, by the Nile sleeping in the date palms, to get bigger and itchier. Abri had turned its back on the river so I had to thread my way through back yards and rubbish to get to the water. On the opposite bank a striking desert vista of palms and dunes disappeared into the west.

Nile bank 530 1

Abri was described in my photocopy from Bradt as 'a typical, laid back Nubian village,' but was losing any romantic appeal I might have harboured. The room had no fan, the flies were incessant, and the heat lay heavily over the afternoon. Actually it was the flies that were the worst nuisance. Flies had never really been a problem for me, but here I couldn't sit for more than a few seconds without them landing on some part of exposed skin. I began to view Abri as a bit of a hole.

It was an uncomfortable night. All the
funduq guests pulled their cots out into the 'lokanda' (courtyard) to sleep. Borrowing an idea from a friend Louise who had lived in India, I wet my silk liner, and draped it over me. The evaporating moisture has a cooling effect and allows a few hours sleep, before the heat awakes you again and the procedure is repeated. The next morning I was out of there early. I still had a day in hand before the ferry in Wadi Halfa but I wasn't going to spend it here.

Kosha 530 1

Beginning of the end of the 'real' journey through Africa
After a bowl of very garlicky 'adees', the yellow split pea soup with bread, I was off on the final leg across the Nubian Desert. A half an hour later the track left the Nile and improved, through a very barren, rocky part of the desert. It was very desolate. The Nile could be seen again at the settlement of Kosha (above) - competing surely with Cobué on the Mozambique shore of Lake Malawi as the most remote village I'd come across - before heading across country, through a lunar landscape on a fairly well graded sand and gravel road. A local species of hyena are to be found here, apparently quite aggressive. I hoped I had no reason to stop. Two years previously a German cyclist disappeared on this road. Months later his bicycle was found, his camera and a few other indigestible items the only evidence found.

Approach to Wadi Halfa 530 1

After two hours, a few more road works appeared, and then some asphalt. My initial joy at reaching it waned as I began to miss the concentration required on the gravel and the adrenalin. I also knew this heralded the beginning of the end of the 'real' journey through Africa. It was all sealed roads in Egypt.

And so it was I arrived at Wadi Halfa, the end of the road in Sudan. From here a weekly ferry, the only border crossing between the two countries, sailed the length of Lake Nasser for Aswan in Egypt. Perhaps more than the anticipated satisfaction of making it to Cairo, I experienced here a feeling of accomplishment. I had made it across this stretch of desert that had daunted me for months. The bike had performed magnificently, not letting me down. And the huge relief - where I had been warned by neurologists to abandon the trip altogether because of a disc problem in my neck - I had got through it physically. I allowed myself indulge a profound sense of satisfaction.