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The Road to Khartoum

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It was with nervous excitement that we made our way from the village of Wadi Halfa, Sudan’s northern frontier town to the port, although we had come to the conclusion that this was a rather grand title for what was in fact a single jetty and crumbling customs building. Wedged into the back of a tuk tuk we watched Africa’s biggest man-made expanse of water consume the visible horizon as we approached. I tried to imagine what the ancient kingdom of Nubia, long drowned by Nasser and his controversial Aswan dam, would have looked like. Suddenly I understood the sadness of these people. Their heyday more than two millennia past, the Nubians were more recently divided by the arbitrarily drawn international border of Egypt and Sudan, and then drowned by Egypt’s developmental progress. The strength of identity both sides of the border had surprised us, and reminded me of my home and the fight to maintain the Welsh culture and language.

 The Road to Khartoum

Thankfully the soft sand only causes a brief hitch in the desert! (Photo: RWH)

In the distance we could see the two cars perched atop a rusty barge, barely visible under a huge mound of assorted goods covering every inch of the deck. My Swiss companion and I perspired our way down the jetty after much prevarication and tea drinking in the customs building. We slowly cooked in the early morning sun while the mountain of fragile wares covering our cars was unloaded by a squadron of unconcerned jumper-wearing locals. Eventually we were called upon to unload our cars. There was much frantic gesticulation and as we teetered our cars precariously down narrow metal ramps several meters above the water. A score of Arabs yelling passionate directions and waving limbs only served to make things worse. Wheel by wheel, we crept to safety. The rotten concrete of the jetty moved an impossibly large amount as the barge was slammed against it by the chop, yet it felt solid and secure to us.

Departure was a joy. We had read many accounts of the treacherous and difficult road through the 1,000 km of Nubian desert to Khartoum. There were historical reports of travellers perishing having strayed miles off the supposed route and becoming stranded in soft sand. We were almost disappointed to find a perfect strip of newly laid tarmac leading us south, another African highway transformed thanks to the Chinese. We soon consoled ourselves however, remembering the challenges of desert driving, and how they are wonderfully satisfying to tackle when optional. Driving in convoy with the Swiss for the first time, we drifted past terracotta dunes, gravel plateaus, jagged hills, and towering stacks of jet black rock. Steering was an intermittent occupation for the driver, required only to avoid the odd donkey and cart. Occasional puffs of diesel smoke on the horizon gave testament to the seekers of the rich resources of the desert, where gold, gypsum, and a whole host of other treasures lie in abundance.  Suddenly the laying of a thousand miles of asphalt seemed a cheap way of acquiring extensive mining rights in this resource rich desert.

The temperature climbed with the sun. Windows agape, air conditioning a concept of the distant future, we forced the Landy on through the wall of heat. We thanked our fortune as we watched the mercury climb to balmy thirty seven that we were here in winter. Occasionally a green line appeared on the horizon, and we knew the road had drifted close to the nurturing moisture of the Nile. The longest river in the world, this huge body of water provides an artery of life blood to thousands of miles of barren moon-scape.

Through the mirage we saw a hunched figure drawing nearer. Emaciated, caked in dust, we recognised Rob, our friend from the Aswan-Wadi Halfa ferry, sitting head in hand in the midday heat. Made of true Lancashire grit, this 23 year old man had cycled his Grandfather’s bicycle from Rotterdam to his current location, 600km shy of Khartoum. Two days ride and 200km away from the nearest town, he was battling a worsening knee injury and dwindling supplies.

 The Road to Khartoum

Exhaustion bites in the midday sun; Rob Lowe, British cyclist struggles on in the Nubian desert. (Photo: RWH)

We hopped out water in hand and held an impromptu orthopaedic consultation in the shade of the car. It sounded to us as though rest was going to be needed before he could continue riding. His eyes flashed defiantly as we suggested he jump in the Landy with us until Khartoum. We prized his bike from his reluctant hands as he begrudgingly caved to our persuasions. We consoled him with promises of food and camaraderie as we emptied the car onto the road in an effort to repack. Rob’s bike Alan, named after his original owner, was absorbed by the roof rack and we were on our way, our ranks bolstered.

The realisation that this journey would encompass New Year sent us looking for supplies in Dongola, a market town shielded from the heat of the desert by the cooling embrace of the Nile. We negotiated our way through the forest of cardboard-roofed market stalls, first wondering at the cost of bread, then perplexed at an apparent run on the price of the tomato. An investment of £1 at the Lord Hotel paid dividends in sleep, and we set off early in light of this windfall. On a particularly remote stretch of road we set a bearing and bounced and slid our way into the wilderness. Overloaded, top-heavy, inappropriately shod with comically small tyres, the Landy powered on defiantly. We were moved with pride.

Eagle-eyed, Bass led us towards a caravan of wild camels in the distance. We followed their path to a small oasis of stunted trees, impossible in their stereotypical perfectness. Safe in our desert bowl, we made an extravagant camp. Logs were set ablaze, blankets unrolled, cauldrons filled. We lost Dan for a time; he was found burrowing in the back of the car with a screwdriver. He emerged triumphant, having produced the last of our single malt from the recesses of our subwoofer, safe there against the inquisition of the customs officials. We made merry and under the brightest of stars, welcomed in the New Year.

 The Road to Khartoum

New Year’s Eve Camp (Photo: RWH)

We wish you all the best in 2013! 

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