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Wednesday, November 16

Freecamping in the Sudan

Brett: With our Sudan visas we had a deadline for the first time on the trip, as they were only valid for entry within 2 months of issue. We had got our Sudan visas in Kampala, Uganda, where they were extremely easy to obtain (no letter of recommendation from your Consulate or anything – just pay the money, hand in a photo, fill out most of the questions on the form, and come back in 24 hours to collect), and we had until 6 Nov to enter Sudan. We gave ourselves a day’s margin and headed up to the border on Saturday 5th Nov, reading the guidebook on the way…as it turned out, the next day was the start of Eid al Adha, a 4-5 day public holiday where everything shuts down, so we were glad we had entered early!
Unfortunately for us, we arrived at the border post during their extremely brief 2 hour lunch break, so we waited til 3pm for the office to be reopened. The guy at Customs told us we should have had our Carnet stamped in at Awassa, but in any case they stamped it out for us. We watched from a distance while a small crowd gathered round our car, hanging out in the shade and admiring the stickers – eventually someone gave an admiring kick to one of the tyres and the alarm went off, so everyone scattered. We changed money for Sudanese Pounds on the black market (under the watchful eye of a policeman who was probably getting a slice of the commission, but with a serious pretence at secrecy). Visa and MasterCard don’t operate in Sudan due to the sanctions, and the official FX rate given at the banks is 2.75 SDG to 1 USD, which is poor compared to the real/black market rate of 3.7 SDG : 1 USD (which is the rate we use in the blog – locals do slightly better, getting 4 SDG to 1 USD, so you can easily work out what they make on the transaction). On the Sudan side (Gallabat), the immigration guy was somewhat grumpy, ignoring our questions and chucking our passport at us (or maybe he was just naturally a Shouter??). We wanted to do the Tourist Registration in Gallabat as the alternative is that you have to get to Khartoum within 3 days to register, but he wasn’t very helpful. Getting the Carnet stamped was easy ($4), but seems to require a committee of 4 people and several pieces of paper laboriously copied out, before anything happens. We went back to the immigration office on a whim before we set off and luckily found the cashier who takes the payments for Tourist Registration ($35pp) – he was very helpful and with him on our side the immigration guy was suddenly very polite and friendly too.
It was late when we left the border (having taken about 2 hours in total), so we drove for about an hour and found an excellent free camp spot off the main road under some power lines (N13 17.125 E35 49.448). It was a great spot with nobody around, which was a tonic after so many spectators in Ethiopia. We had a relaxed breakfast, did some stretching & sit ups in the morning and only rolled out of there at about 9am, all without seeing another soul.
We took a 400km detour to Kassala for a sandwich – at least, Kassala seems like a great place, but with the public holiday everything was closed, all we managed was a kebab sandwich (very good) from the only open street stall, with the tumbleweeds rolling around us. Actually it wasn’t totally deserted – we found a place to buy new slops, veggies and some coke (which a local shopper kindly insisted on paying for to welcome us to Sudan) before heading off to the Taka Mountains to camp (N15 24.196 E36 24.801). The mountains are made up of massive boulders and are really beautiful. We scrambled up to get a view for sunset and watched the baboons playing down by the car. The site we had picked would be less than ideal anywhere but Sudan, as it turned out to be a bit of a thoroughfare for locals crossing the mountain even though it was in the middle of the bush. After sunset we were passed by about 6 guys crammed onto 3 tiny donkeys, a bicycle and a guy out walking his camel, but they said hello on their way past and didn’t stop so we felt very safe and relaxed – what a pleasure freecamping in Sudan is! We had a relaxing shower in the open and slept very well despite the wind rattling the tent. In the morning we heard what we thought was gunshot not too far off, so we moved along swiftly, but as we left we saw it was actually a cattle herder trying to frighten off some baboons by cracking his whip, so we probably could have stayed…
Mary: We stopped in at Gederef – the main roads go around the town, so you really have to search for the centre of town. There was a little more happening here, so we stopped for some delicious taamia (kind of falafel) and fresh juice from the fruit stands. The town has a lovely relaxed feel, but was most things were still largely closed, so we headed for the bright lights of Khartoum, passing through surprisingly lush landscape (at least by South African standards). It was great to drive along the smooth, flat, straight tar roads at first, but after some time they became monotonous. We joined up with the main road heading north and merged in with the crazy bus drivers and their kamikaze overtaking manoeuvres (not really the break from monotony we were looking for). We couldn’t make it in to Khartoum before dark so we looked out for a freecamping spot but it was a little tricky as it is so built up along that section of road. We eventually found a quiet spot right on the Nile by taking a random side-road through some fields and camped in what must be some kind of mud-brick making factory (there was a big pile of bricks that we initially thought was someone’s house - N14 57.378 E33 13.518). It was a pretty good spot considering how few options we saw and we were not disturbed, but being quite built up we decided to leave at sunrise. On the way, we stopped at a “motorway rest stop” and had a lovely fry-up, with guys on donkey carts passing us and giving us some interesting looks.
Khartoum is not exactly known as a happening city, but with the holiday there was even less going on. We stopped at the Afra shopping centre, which was almost completely empty; since we couldn’t draw money we were forced to change our precious dollars, but we were worried we would not have enough to pay for the Wadi Halfa ferry, so instead of going mad we just bought the essentials (milk, chocolate, mixy juicy, pasta etc). We stopped in at the Blue Nile Sailing Club and chatted to the only other overlander there (Ben from Austria, heading South) and swapped emails using the free wi-fi outside the building on the other side of the road, but at $15 we decided not to stay the night. We had spotted Steers & Debonairs while driving around town, so headed back there for lunch and ended up staying the whole afternoon in the air-conditioning, catching up on emails & internet. We stayed at the National Camping Residence that night ($4), a bit South of town, where we had the whole campsite/hostel to ourselves and were invited to share some bean-mush type dinner with the security guards. I finally managed to Skype home after weeks – Sudan’s internet is much better than almost non-existant Ethiopian internet….
We passed over the Confluence of the Nile (tick!), taking some technically illegal photos (because we didn’t bother getting a photo permit) of nothing much at all and headed for Meroe Pyramids. The ferry wasn’t running that week because of the public holiday, but would start again the following Wednesday – however the guys at the Nile River Transport Company weren’t sure if a barge would also be sent for vehicles or if it would just operate as a passenger ferry for another week. We ended up camping 3 nights at the pyramids, waiting to hear about the barge, not wanting to head on to Wadi Halfa in case we were delayed by a week as that would mean a trip back to Khartoum to extend our Sudanese visas. After 3 days we managed to get hold of Mr Salah Takourny who is in charge of the ferries who confirmed the barge would be coming as well. Our free campsite at the pyramids (N16 55.965 E33 45.216) was brilliant - we had it to our selves for the first 2 nights and spent the days walking on the dunes, watching the sunset & moonrise, playing uno and reading our books – it is good to take a holiday from travelling sometimes. The pyramids themselves (entry $5pp) were very cool and we had them to ourselves in the mornings, but huge crowds of school tours would pitch up in the afternoons and we ended up getting hassled by the kids and being in everyone’s photographs. 
The road to Wadi Halfa following the Nile has been tarred, but we were more interested in the original route that follows the railway tracks through the desert. We filled up our waters in Atbara with a hose pipe at one of the petrol stations and stocked up on groceries. On the way our of Atbara, there were 20km of very confusing road works. We camped just before Abu Hamed, behind a hill (N18 58.273 E33 36.946) – it was another great spot and we didn’t see a soul.
The tar stops 25km past Abu Hamed and from there we followed the railway. There are hundreds of tyre tracks up to about 2km either side of the railway and the sand is fairly soft, especially in the last 100km to Wadi Halfa where it is like driving on the beach. We let down our tyres to 1.5 front / 1.8 back and kept the revs up when the sand was at its deepest (we were driving at about 40km/h). We didn’t get stuck but saw some locals digging their hilux out. We also saw more local cars than expected – maybe 20 a day – so would have been able to get help if we had been seriously stuck. The scenery is fantastic and the railway itself fun to drive along (the train stopped running a year or more ago). The landscape was very flat and at night we couldn’t find anywhere hidden to camp, so we just drove 1.5km from the train track (N21 00.801 E32 21.814) to be a bit out of the way – it was awesome having so much space all to ourselves. We can really recommend this route if you have a car, but it would be tough on a motorbike.

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