Thursday 15th to Friday 16th November 2012.
The next morning was a gorgeous one at our wild camp. The air was so still and the land so quiet. The long shadows from the small hills shaded us, so the temperature was a lovely cool. It was a nice contrast to the heat of the days here. We had not long been up when a man arrived with several donkeys. He was friendly and wanted “backsheesh” for a photo with his donkeys. As we were declining an old Toyota crammed full of men in white robes pulled off the road towards us. The car was colourful and at its front wore a long strand of flowers ending in a bunch of black feathers. They pulled up near us and came over to say hello. We couldn’t speak the same language but quickly worked out they needed air to pump up one of their tyres. We got our compressor out and set about pumping it up for them. When they opened the bonnet, we noticed the radiator had no cap on. It was amazing the old girl was still running! Where they were coming from or going to we had no idea. They were really friendly though and it was a nice interaction. Once they had the air, they all piled back into the old Toyota and went on their way. We then made ourselves breakfast before getting back on the road.
Our first stop today was the Meroe pyramids. We could see them from the road as we approached and they were an impressive sight. We had no idea there were so many. It was a royal burial ground for the Merotic Pharaohs some 2,500 years ago. About 30 pyramids stand in various states of decay amidst peach coloured sand dunes. Some had been restored and reconstructed in recent years. As we pulled up at the entrance, children and adults rushed out of the shaded spot where they had been sitting. They sat in front of their market stalls calling to us to look at their curios on our way to the pyramids. One man even got out a five stringed calabash instrument to serenade us into buying from him. A little further in, a row of men stood by a row of camels. On our approach they waved and called out to us to take a ride around the pyramids. Some even stood on their camel’s saddles to get our attention. By now the day was really hot so we decided to take them up on their offer. Tom, Luke and I each chose our camel and driver then we climbed aboard. The saddles were padded with many blankets and it was much more comfortable than our last camel ride! We dismounted near the pyramids and wandered around in the stifling heat. It felt amazing to be amongst constructions of such ancient history. We tried to imagine what it would have been like here all those years ago and marvelled at the technology of those days. The giant blocks are so neatly cut and fitted together. The carvings and hieroglyphs had been worn by the years, but in some places they were well defined and quite incredible.
We drove on to Atbara from here, the sun remaining stubbornly hot. Tyre pieces still litter the roadside, casualties of the fierce heat here. Atbara was dusty but welcoming. As we were looking around the streets for a lunch stop several people stopped to help us with restaurant suggestions. In a street crowded with market stalls and tiny shops we found a falafel store. The Egyptian owner, Ishmael, welcomed us. Enormous numbers of golden falafel were heaped on metal stands out the front of his restaurant. He ushered us into the fan cooled seats inside. We ate delicious falafel sandwiches for just S£1.50 (about 17p!!). The bread was the fluffy Sudanese kind and it was stuffed with the spiced falafel, chunks of cucumber, a rocket-like leaf, chilli sauce and humus. Delicious! It was so good that Thomas went back for seconds and we all ordered extra falafels and breads to take away for the road ahead. At the end of it all, as we went to pay, Ishmael said he’d like to give it all to us for free! We were so touched by his kind gesture, but insisted on paying since there were four of us and he’d crammed our take-away bag full of his tasty falafels.
Around town we were blown away with more and more Sudanese warmth. The man at the juice stand we parked next to gave us a free orange and huge smiles. People waved warmly as they drove by and others stopped in the street to shake our hands and tell us “you’re welcome”. It was wonderful.
We noticed that the little leak we had in our diesel tank seemed to be getting worse. With Ishmael’s directions, we found our way to the mechanical end of town. There we found streets and streets of greasy earth, pieces of metal, the sound of tools, and men in blackened overalls. We located a welder who could empty and remove our tank, weld the hole for us, then refit it for S£200. There ended up being about six men on the job working for a couple of hours. As we sat waiting, one of the mechanics went to a nearby shop to bring us all back bottles of cold coke; more Sudanese kindness.
It ended up being a difficult job, with two bolts sheering off in the process of getting the tank off. By sunset they had only just managed to remove the tank. Two hours later, the tank was welded and refitted. We couldn’t understand why it was taking so long. We refilled the tank, bled the fuel system of air, then started the engine. It ran for some five minutes then spluttered to a stop. Our spirits dropped with the revs. When Luke looked underneath he then discovered that in the process of removing the tank the mechanic had severed the main ‘sender’ pipe that feeds fuel from the tank to the engine. Not telling us, they had welded a piece of pipe to the plastic ‘fuel gauge sender unit’, melting some of the plastic in the process. The mechanic had then loosely joined the welded pipe with the main fuel line using another piece of plastic pipe. Even in the dark we could see it was a dodgy job. He didn’t even use any glue to stick the pipes together. Even if it were to work for a while we had serious doubts whether this would hold on corrugated roads. The last thing we wanted was to get stuck in the middle of the desert! Needless to say, the mechanic was not our favourite person right then. We were surprised that they were all willing to let us drive off in the knowledge that it was barely held together! We also noticed that the welding wasn’t a great job and there was still a small leak there too. It didn’t help us much that we weren’t able to speak Arabic at all and their English was very limited. They seemed to think the problem was in the fuel filter, whilst we could see it was with the bodge-job on the fuel line. We decided to call Mazar, the Sudanese fixer we’d asked to help us organise our Wadi Halfa ferry tickets. He spoke excellent English so we were hoping he could translate for us. He helped us no end, patiently helping us converse with our mechanics and welders as the phone was passed from one to the other. In the end they acknowledged it was the fuel line, said they’d need to drop the tank again to get it fixed, but would do that tomorrow morning. We decided the best we could do was get the tank repaired and refitted, then try to get a replacement ‘fuel gauge sender unit’ to carry as a spare, in case it does break down the line.
By now it was around 8pm and, understandably, the team were all keen to go home. We weren’t able to drive anywhere, so had to camp in the greasy mechanic’s yard for the night. As they walked by, the people of Atbara stopped to say hello and see what the problem was. Overall, we found they were all incredibly kind and welcoming. It was very touching. Many people offered for us to come to their homes to shower, eat and sleep. Whilst it sounded very appealing, we ended up deciding against it as we didn’t want to leave Bluebelle alone here. Amongst the people we met was Omar, a graduate doctor walking home after a shift at the local hospital. He spoke excellent English and tried hard to convince us to come to stay at his place around the corner. Though we declined, he stayed with us for a good few hours chatting.
As well as really enjoying his company, we were grateful he was with us when the police arrived. They tried to get us to leave the cars and go to a hotel, saying the street wasn’t safe for a woman to sleep in. Omar translated for us and helped us convince the police that we’d be okay. In the end, they gave us their number to call if we have any problems. As it was nearing 11pm by then, they said if we were going to stay there we should at least go to bed so that we’re not on the street. We wished Omar goodnight and planned to see him in the morning.
We woke early in the greasy yard with the Friday morning call to prayer echoing around Atbara’s streets. As we wiped the sleep out of our eyes we noticed a little tea stall had opened up next to our makeshift camp. Men crowded around sipping hot drinks and chatting quietly. One really friendly man insisted on buying us all glasses of hot spiced tea and coffee. He spoke only a little English so we couldn’t chat. It was another really touching experience of Sudanese kindness. He showed us his workshop in the next street, where he designed and fabricated all sorts of stoves and cooking appliances.
When the mechanics had not arrived by the promised time of 8am, we decided to get started on the work ourselves. Tom and I assisted Luke, draining the fuel tank whilst he took off the anti-roll bar, and then dropping the fuel tank. All the while, we thought about how we could fix the fuel line. Omar’s Dad had a Land Rover Defender and he told us that there was pretty much no chance of getting new parts quickly north of Khartoum. We would have to find a way to fix the broken line ourselves, unless we wanted to wait a week or so to get moving again. Once we got the fuel gauge sender unit out, the kindly man who bought us coffee agreed to help us work out a way to fix it.
Finally, an hour or so later, the welder arrived and tried to help out. We decided to get them to re-do the welding and fix the leak we came in for. Later still the mechanic turned up. We turned him away, deciding we didn’t want to risk any more problems or poor-fixes, given the desolate parts of the country we are now heading through.
As we worked the sun got hotter and hotter, the shade shrinking to a tiny pool beneath Bluebelle. Thank goodness for our Engel fridge and solar panel, which kept us with a steady supply of cold water to keep hydrated with. Out of the fridge, the water bottles became tepid, igniting rather than quenching our thirst. From working under the car, Luke became covered in a slick coating of oil and diesel with a film of dust forming a skin on top of it all.
Omar came down to help after a night in the hospital. We chatted for a few hours and then he had to go to the mosque to pray. He insisted we come over after we were finished, to shower and eat. Throughout the day, other people popped by to say hello, welcome us, and invite us over to their homes. A traffic policeman called Nassir stopped by on his moped to say that he had a vacant house that we could stay in that night if we wanted. A very sweet shy girl from over the road scampered over to invite me to come and rest with her whilst the men worked. The kind gestures and hospitality was almost endless. It was very touching. It made us wish we could stay in Atbara for longer and get to know the people there.
By 3pm we were finished. We were also hot, sweaty, filthy, and quite famished. We followed the map that Omar had drawn for us to his family home. There we cooled off in his shower, then all sat together in their living room eating delicious ‘soft cookies’ made by Omar’s Mum and drinking cool hibiscus juice. After a time, Omar’s Mum joined us. She had lived in Sheffield for five years whilst Omar’s Dad was studying, so she spoke good English. She had a twinkle in her eye and a great laugh. We felt so comfortable with them so quickly. Omar’s Mum disappeared for a bit then reappeared with a platter of food for us all. She had a plate of rice and roasted chicken, plates of home cooked beans, and fluffy loaves of bread. Omar showed us how they ate with their hands in Sudan and we all ate from the one huge plate. It was delicious. Later on, Omar’s sister joined us and then two of their neighbours. We drank sweet tea and chatted and laughed together. They invited us to stay the night but we felt we needed to keep moving if we were to make the next Wadi Halfa ferry into Egypt. We said a fond goodbye and hoped that this would not be the last time we see them. Although the mechanic’s mistake caused us a lot of problems, we wouldn’t have met Omar and his family without being stuck here.
When we started up Bluebelle she sounded a little spluttery, but was still running fine. Not 2km out of Atbara and Bluebelle chugged to a steady and disheartening halt. With a little bit of investigation we discovered that the fuel line was not quite sealed and air was getting sucked through to the engine, rather than fuel. We bled the system, hoping we’d then be able to drive back into town. Bluebelle started up again but drove not more than a few hundred metres before spluttering to a halt. Bluebelle had made our decision for us; we would camp right there. The road wasn’t too busy and no one seemed too worried about us there. There were a few fields nearby and a single roomed house. As we were looking over Bluebelle a man came over to us. We couldn’t speak the same language but he motioned that he understood and it was fine for us to stay there. It had been too long a day to do any more that evening, so we popped our tents and tucked up to sleep.