Suakin – Sudan
Overnight, our ferry “MV RAHAL” of Namma Shipping Lines crosses the Red Sea towards Sudan. Again we have caught a thunderstorm front, but are sitting in our cabin on dry land. The MV RAHAL was built in Germany in 1972 and was then in service with Finnlines. At the age of 47 she is still providing the passenger and Ro-Ro service from Jeddah to Suakin. With a length of about 100m and a width of 17m it is only about half as big as the big ferries from Italy to Greece. Everywhere the Sudanese sit and lie. Very few can afford one of the miserably narrow cabins. The toilet is broken and smells, there is no shower. Nevertheless we have a good night behind us. Until we arrive in Suakin, but it still takes a while. We are several hours late, we can see that due to the position on our navigation device. The explanation is that we drove slowly because of the passengers – we think it’s more because of the cargo, because the vehicles are not moored.
The entry is actually quite simple and takes a maximum of 2 hours. Our passports were taken from us on the ship and not given back. They are now at the immigration. “But I’m not going to immigration without my passport – I don’t even know who has it”. After we have to pay some kind of “fee” (it was the bill of unloading) a ship officer accompanies us to the immigration and helps us to find our passports. Ah, there they are, lying around in a cabin with lots of paper.
The immigration clearance is going fast. Soon the stamp is in the passport. But that costs – but we haven’t had the chance to change money into Sudanese Pounds yet. I give the customs officer a Saudi Ryal Note – he goes to change it for us and settles up with us afterwards in detail.
The vehicle clearance is another story. We have to drive up to a fenced area, but we are not allowed to enter it. Here a man dressed in white takes our carnet from us and since the people here all look the same to us, we somehow lose control. But at some point we are admitted to the customs yard. An officer looks at the vehicle inside and is satisfied. Now turn around and drive out again. Wait again. Finally the necessary stamps are made and we have to pay the harbour tax at a booth. The agent in white, demands 100 US$ for his services. I protest and tell him that this is much too much for the price level here. Instead of the requested 370 Saudi Ryal I give him 275 Ryal. Finally he thinks that money is not everything, gets into his Mercedes “G” and drives away. And we also drive out of the harbour and after three “times falling” over we turn right to the water. Here, next to a canteen there is a sandy place directly at the water, which is very quiet.
Although Port Sudan is the only major port in Sudan and is said to be a city of millions – the largest, after Khartoum – we feel nothing of it. Port Sudan looks more like a provincial town. Probably the millions of inhabitants live in the meagre housing areas on the outskirts of the city. This region is the tribal region of the Beja nomads. One month before, the Beja massacred members of other tribes in the city, very bad things that I don’t want to write here. 22 people died and many were injured. But since the city is militarily secured, we feel safe in this city.
We have arrived in a completely different world. Truly Africa! In Port Sudan we buy a SIM card from MTN, change money (1 US$ = 80 pounds) and buy food. This takes time due to the dense traffic. But in the evening we make it in time to the Sudan Red Sea Resort, 30 km outside the city.
Sudan Red Sea Resort
Does the resort even still exist? Everything we see from afar seems run-down. But, truthfully, we are greeted by a young guy. We’re allowed to camp here. At night we are alone with some pathetic howling dogs and cats. During the day, sometimes few visitors come here to Pick Nick. Actually we want to update our website here, but unfortunately we have no reception here with MTN. Therefore we edit pictures and do the laundry. We are allowed to fill up water directly from the cistern. Fortunately we have a reserve system to fill up in such situations, because no tap has the necessary pressure. And fortunately we have a water purification system on board. For writing some emails and the groundsman offers a hotspot via his telephone.
Drive to Khartoum
Due to the lack of internet reception, we decide to make our way to Khartoum. We manage the more than 750 km in two days in spite of partly bad road. Afterwards, however, are properly exhausted. Before Atbara, in the middle of the desert, many hundred barrels of diesel – here the diesel black market is at home.
After Atbara, one police control follows the other. Several times we experience it that one of the policemen waves us through, but another one stops us and wants to let us drive to the side. But I refuse to drive to the side and I am not willing to pay any amount of money. If you stand at the side, it can take quite some time and you are at the mercy of the police. Only at military control do I follow the instructions. But they behave very correctly and let us drive on immediately. About 40 km before Khartoum begins Khartoum. The traffic becomes more demanding and denser. Many people on the road and the vehicles close together. A miracle that we get through without scratches to the Blue Nile Sayling Club where we will stand. But before that the bridge over the Nile is closed. When we want to turn onto the next bridge, a policeman directs all trucks in another direction. Since we are not familiar with the place, I insist on being able to drive over this bridge. After 5 minutes we are allowed to cross the bridge and reach the Sailing Club shortly after sunset. But before that we have to pass under a bridge, which is certainly only 3 cm higher than our MAN. Are we happy to have come through down there…not to mention the many trees, whose branches we touch…
Khartoum lies at the confluence of the White Nile coming from Lake Victoria and the Blue Nile flowing from Ethiopia. The capital is home to a population of about 2.7 million people. The entire agglomeration with the cities of Ombdurman and Bahri (North Khartoum) is inhabited by over 8 million people.
The Blue Nile in the golden evening light. Confluence of the two Nile rivers, white Nile on the left, blue Nile on the right.
If one drives from Atbara into the city, the first suburbs begin already approximately 40 km before the city centre. Although the access road is two-lane in each direction, because the right lane is often used for parking and stopping, there is only more or less one lane available. In the area of markets and turnstiles the confusion of vehicles, tuk-tuks and pedestrians becomes complete. Often there are only a few centimetres from our bumper to the next body – on both sides. Even small cars try to push us trucks away to get ahead faster and the proverbial friendliness of the Sudanese can turn into an angry honking or shouting in traffic. Especially in the afternoon, when everything wants to go back home, the vehicles are standing all over the place and the progress is sometimes measured in (somewhat exaggerated) centimeters.
Not enough effort in city traffic. Policemen can suddenly divert you from our planned route for reasons unknown to us (but then we put up a fight). I also drove away from a policeman two or three times, because there is no signalling and their commands are often unfathomable for us – yes, and as a stranger you don’t know your way around town.
Low hanging branches of trees are a problem especially at the Nile, as well as some bridges, where you have to measure the clearance height to make sure that you don’t get stuck.
But the worst thing are open, deep shafts and canals, sometimes in the middle of the road or hard at the roadside. So even as a pedestrian keep an eye open at all times.
Diesel is not easy to get. Also we had to search and found a “well-disposed” gas station, which sold us once 100 litres and a second time 150 litres. At the moment we hope to get 200 litres there for the onward journey to Ethiopia.
After we drove several times with our MAN through the city to fill up with diesel and to go shopping, we are displeased and we found a young, serious taxi driver, who chauffeurs us wonderfully and sets his prices fairly. Moueyd is his name and he belongs to the wonderful people here in the country.
We stay on the parking lot of the “Blue Nile Sailing Club” – on the blue Nile, on the edge of the city center. Here and in the city we experience amazing emotional moments.
December 19, 2019 marked the first anniversary of the beginning of the revolution. Since a counter-demonstration was announced the following day, we moved our base to one of the churches in the city. Meanwhile the traffic volume is already enormous and the military redirects us again and again. So we are on the road for more than two hours for a distance of 14 km – in the middle of loudly cheering and singing people. The whole city echoes the cheers. We are carried away with them, showing our enthusiasm by honking and waving. A truck loaded with young people slowly passes by us, whose cheers affect us. They cheer loudly into the night: “Thank you Abdalla Hamdok (new Prime Minister), thanks to you such foreigners are now coming to us”!
We never even thought about Christmas, let alone a festive one. A few days before Christmas, the Sudanese government decided to make December 25 an official Christmas Day. So far so good. On Christmas Eve of December 24th, suddenly loud and clear orchestral Christmas music from loudspeakers from the Catholic Church opposite suddenly resounds through the traffic to us. All evening, until deep into the night, this music exudes a festive mood around us. In the early morning of 25 December this music resounds again. The climax was then the mighty ringing of bells, which rang in the Christmas Day. On this occasion the raclette cheese was taken out of the freezer and of course prepared on the two-person candle oven. So we had an unplanned Christmas and Christmas spirit after all.
Machine gun and bombs
It’s January 14th. The MAN workshop in Khartoum is a knockout. Very friendly and we have the impression that they also work professionally. But before work starts, there’s a 9 o’clock break. After a long wait our mechanic appears again, but first with two big chicken sandwiches and drinks for us. The following work we supervise as usual. So far so good.
Why are all the roads so congested? We finally turn into Nile Street and are surprised about the massive police presence. What is going on here?. We park our car at the Sailing Club and hear machine gun clattering loud and clear. First we think that there are fireworks or a wedding, until we hear the first bombs exploding.
Actually, on the opposite bank of the Nile there is fighting, not on TV, but real. From late afternoon until deep into the night machine guns and huge bomb detonations. We inquire with a friend, try to check our safety as well, but the responsible persons of the Sailing Club are absent. The secret service organization of former president Bashir committed an armed uprising, which fortunately could be suppressed by the army that night.
Fighting took place in three different places, on the opposite bank of the Nile and around the airport. All within a few miles of our location.
In one of the winding and inconspicuous alleys, behind high walls, there is a small but fine polyclinic, which today is run under the roof of the Episcopal Church. Many of the daily 150 to 200 patients are internally displaced persons and victims of the civil wars in Darfur and Southern Sudan. They live far away on the outskirts of the city in mostly poor conditions. 2/3 of the patients are children and women.
The clinic was founded during the time of the English occupation and was continued by Swiss after the withdrawal of the English. In 2013, the regime at the time ordered the expulsion of the Swiss within a few days. The fact that the polyclinic still exists today is due in part to the fact that a competent local management was able to start work for it.
We were allowed to visit the clinic in detail. Another highlight on our trip through Sudan.
We will provide further information on a separate page as soon as possible.
A bad cold keeps us in Khartoum. But on January 3rd we are fed up with it and set off for the north. We want to see more of Sudan. Our first destination is Old Dongola. For this we first have to cross the desert in bad weather. A strong and cold north wind is blowing. It constantly blows sand and dust over the landscape and the road and dries the air even more than it already is.
Before Old Dongola we cross the mighty Nile for the first time, which flows through the sandy desert. Often accompanied on both sides by a more or less wide fertile belt, which gives the people here a modest prosperity.
Old Dongola was founded around 500 AD as a fortress and soon developed into a fortified town with a strategic location on the Nile. Until the invasion of the Arabs in the 13th century, who brought Islam into the country, Old Dongola was the capital of the Christian kingdom of Makuria, which extended as far as Atbara. Christianity was therefore already in the country about 800 years before Islam.
The ruins of a later Islamic settlement and an Islamic cemetery with its dome graves are also scattered throughout the ruins, with only a few traces. And of course it happens right here, we sanded up, but we can free ourselves again in two attempts with the sand plates.
The most striking building is the “Throne Room”, a massive building on a rocky outcrop that has survived the centuries. From up here you can enjoy a beautiful view of the Nile and the adjacent palm gardens.
In Old Dongola, the first churches representing the Christian era were also excavated. The “granite pillar church” was built in the 7th century, over a predecessor church made of clay, with solid granite. Fragments of other churches and of multi-storey villas can be found on the site.
If you turn onto a dirt road towards the desert at El Kurru, about 8 km before Karima, you will reach a petrified forest after about 3 km, which is slowly being exposed by erosion. We are surprised to find such a “dense” petrified forest in Sudan. The remains of this “forest” fascinate us, also because of the (still) lonely situation. Let’s hope that it will stay that way for a long time. In the light of the golden evening sun we roam the area and see whole trunks peeping out of the surrounding gravel / sand. Here and there it seems as if someone had prepared logs for the winter. The absolute silence and the soft whispering of the wind intensify the mood. We are in our element and we puzzle what it must have looked like here when the area was still properly forested.
Near El Kurru there are some graves of former rulers of the Nubian city Napata. The oldest graves are dated to about 860 B.C. At that time the building of pyramids was not yet the state of the art.
We are allowed to visit one of the graves. We enter through a small opening at the front of a barrel-shaped vault and a steep staircase leads down several meters into the rock where the burial chamber is located. Unfortunately the lighting does not work and we only see the grave in the light of a flashlight. It is impressively painted and inscribed with hieroglyphics.
The other graves are closed for tourists, the UNESCO cultural heritage is a bit sparse.
Barkal Mountain and the Pyramids
The *holy* mountain Barkal is visible from far away. At its foot is a temple dedicated to the ancient god Amun. Also at the foot of the mountain is a pyramid complex, typical for the country “Kush”. The local rulers – the “Black Pharaohs” extended their influence to Upper Egypt.
The pyramids trigger a natural fascination. Here we also meet a group of young Sudanese, who later spontaneously invite us by whatsapp to “breakfast” the next morning.
Visiting the aunt
The next day we visit the Sudanese we met at the pyramids for breakfast at 11 am. Our MAN can show nicely that he also fits into the narrow streets of a Sudanese village. The “breakfast” that the aunt prepared is more like lunch. The flat bread is dipped into the bean sauce with three fingers of the right hand, the other vegetables, etc. are also picked up in this way and put into the mouth. It tastes excellent. Again and again we are spontaneously invited to eat, that is how hospitable the people in Sudan are. Simply incredible, this spontaneous hospitality.
Later we are accompanied for a stroll through the palm gardens to the Nile. We are allowed to look at the “stables” within a clay wall. A cow with her calf, some hens, two donkeys and some goats are the stock of the farm.
An extremely peaceful atmosphere surrounds us and the greenery is good for our eyes after so much desert, sand and dust.
From Karima to Atbara we drive on a distance of 300 km through the Nubian desert. Fortunately it is no longer as dusty and sandy as at the beginning of the journey. But the air is very dry and irritates the mucous membranes.
About 70 km before Atbara we turn off at two ruins and drive down into a dry river bed in order to spend the night here protected from views. A lonely shepherd – armed with an impressive knife – comes over to us, just to greet us. The night is very quiet afterwards.
Atbara is the railway centre of the country with a huge railway station complex. There is said to be a railway museum here. Actually we can find the small museum in the former British Quarter. The entrance is free. The most precious exhibit is the steam locomotive that secured the English supplies from Egypt during the English-Sudanese war. The railway line from Wadi Halfa at the Egyptian border through the Nubian desert still exists, also the line from Port Sudan and to Khartoum up to the Ethiopian border. Unfortunately, we do not find anybody who can give us information whether we are allowed to photograph the railway facilities, so we leave it at the museum.
We reach the pyramid field of Meroe in the evening. But photography and filming is only partly possible. Groups of students populate the area and everyone wants to make a selfie with us. What the heck – these encounters make up the charm of a trip to Sudan. Finally, school classes from a girls’ school flock to the pyramids. As always when they are in groups, the girls are exuberant and full of life. We end our visit, but we are delighted at the cheerfulness of these young people.
At sunrise we are back at the pyramids and see them in the golden sunlight. Except for the camel riders it is quiet now and we have time for sightseeing.
The Sudanese pyramids are smaller and steeper than the Egyptian pyramids, but far superior in numbers to the Egyptian pyramids. Alone in the surroundings of Meroe one counts about 900 pyramids. They served the kings, queens and high court officials of the Cushitic Empire as burial places. The burial chambers are located under the pyramid and are no longer accessible. Some pyramids have a small mortuary temple in front of the pyramid with the typical H-front. They are between 10 and 30 meters high and run at an angle of 72°. Their construction period is dated around 300 BC to 300 AD.
Today we drive to the two temples of Naqa. A tarred road leads into the desert and suddenly ends there somewhere. With the help of a Sudanese guide we find the right track and continue for about 20 km over mostly hard or then well-traced soft sand.
Who would have suspected that in Sudan from about 300 BC to 350 AD there existed a high culture like in Egypt. The local rulers put the Egyptian pharaohs under a lot of pressure. They also ruled Upper Egypt at times and are known as the “Black Pharaohs”.
The temple complexes are witnesses of this Meroitic Cushite kingdom, the temple buildings show their own handwriting and are therefore not simply copied from those of Egypt.
We are enthusiastic about the good condition of the temples and their secluded location. So we can imagine the cult of that time.
As the only visitor “the buildings belong to us alone”. And it proves again that we stay overnight, because the temple of Amun (above) is beautifully illuminated by the sun in the evening, the Apedemak lion temple (below) however in the early morning. Some of the figures at the Apedemak temple carry lion heads, hence the name “Lion Temple”. We enjoy the silence in the night, also being alone in this desert landscape is good for us.
6th Nile cataract
About 90 km northeast of Khartoum, the Nile flows through the 6th Nile cataract – calculated from the Mediterranean Sea. A place where it flows over some rocks. The first and second cataract have been flooded in the Nasser Reservoir in Egypt, the fourth cataract in the Karima Reservoir. The third, fifth (Atbara) and sixth cataract still exist. So we visit the sixth and last cataract. In our imagination we imagine a quiet natural spectacle. But this cataract is an excursion destination of the locals with the appropriate infrastructure.
We are allowed to stand here overnight for free. Of course we are expected to consume a fish from the Nile. Which we do, but would not do today. Only later do we realize that the freezer from which the fish was taken had no electricity at all. In addition, the fish was chopped up and fried in oil with a breading … we take the meal to our vehicle and eat there, so that the Sudanese don’t see what we don’t eat, in order not to overstrain our stomachs. Gratefully we find out that we survived the meal without any side effects.
During the night it was quiet and also this morning life begins in its original form. We have the Nile and the surrounding fields almost alone for us and can observe how here still with simple means (onion) fields are irrigated with water from the Nile. Chickpeas are still pressed into the little dams between the fields. A rural atmosphere now lies over the landscape on the Nile.
From here our journey goes back to Khartoum, where we plan to spend some more days and then on to Ethiopia.
After the 6th Nile cataract we drive back to Khartoum, because the shortest way to Ethiopia is via the capital.
Khartoum and Omdurman are more and more shore out into the desert. This is where the internally displaced people are settling. The conflicts in Southern Sudan and Darfour have left their mark. Many Sudanese have fled to the region of Khartoum because of the atrocities, in the hope of a better life.
The settlements of the internal refugees no longer bear names but are marked with a block and a number. We visit block XY.
The houses, always surrounded by a high wall, are made of dried bricks of sand and earth. The accommodations are very simple and have neither electricity nor water etc. The water is transported by donkey carts. The fact that there are diseases is only due to the lack of infrastructure, which makes life difficult. Many of the patients of the Polyclinic presented above come from these and similar settlements, 15 to 25 km and further from the city centre. A time consuming route with missing and insufficient means of transport, for which 3 hours are needed one way.
No sooner arrived in block XY, no sooner unpacked the camera, we are already surrounded by a large group of children. Lovable little rascals, dirty, but happy and lively. Nevertheless, it is difficult to catch them with the camera, because they are either too close or they all stand behind us to get a look at the camera monitor. We love these children and the people. They are so cheerful and friendly despite their misery. They don’t beg and they hold back.
Who would have thought that there is a small Christian church in the middle of block XY. In which other Muslim country is such a thing possible (except Egypt and the Emirates). Despite the repressive attitude of the former government, small Christian cells have survived.
Sick in Khartoum
On Saturday we get ready for departure towards Ethiopia. But instead of going through the city we take a taxi to the polyclinic we know. A doctor examines me. The lab report shows that I have a gastroenteritis. At least no malaria. Nasty vomiting with diarrhoea suddenly took me into his tongs in the morning. I need an injection to stop the vomiting. However, this is not available until a day later, which wastes precious time. The loss of so much water makes me very weak. But at least we can avoid the hospital, because at the last moment the medication starts to work and I can take enough liquid again. I need a whole 2 1/2 weeks until I am fit to drive again.
During this time our young taxi driver Moueyd provides us with the most necessary things. He buys drinking water for us, brings bananas and changes money. Yes, indeed, we have got to know many Sudanese as honest, open and helpful. If we miscounted in the flood of banknotes, the overpaid notes always came back automatically. A nation that, in our view, deserves peace! And this brings us to our next topic: The Sudanese Revolution from 2018 to 2019.
The Sudanese pyramids and temple complexes are witnesses to a bygone era – but the Sudanese Revolution bears witness to the present day.
Even under Omar Bashir’s tyranny, prices in the country rose threefold. Cash became scarce and the corruption in the country increased. The women were endlessly disadvantaged and had hardly any basic rights. They could be arrested freely and then often had to pay money to get free again.
Against this background, demonstrations began on 19 December 2018 in Atbara and Khartoum and other Sudanese cities, which, due to the increased cost of living, first called for economic reforms, but soon after the resignation of the president, Omar al Bashir. Up to 70% of the demonstrators were women who also fought for their basic rights. Leading the struggle was (and still is) the Sudanese Professionals Association.
The government violently suppressed the protests. On February 22, 2019, al-Bashir declared a state of emergency, dissolved the governments and replaced them with military and intelligence officials.
On the weekend of April 6-7, 2019, mass protests resumed and on April 11, 2019, al-Bashir was removed from office by military officials.
Despite the coup, the protests continued with demands for the military to make way for a civilian transitional government. The negotiations broke down when on June 3, 2019, the Rapid Support Forces killed 118 people and injured and raped many more in the Khartoum massacre.
In response to the Khartoum massacre and the subsequent arrests, the opposition groups called for a general strike from 9-11 June. They called on the population to civil disobedience and non-violent protest.
On 5 July 2019, an agreement was reached between the opposition and the Military Council and both sides signed an agreement to this effect on 17 July 2019. It provides for a “Sovereign Council” made up of representatives of the military and the protest movement, with the army initially taking the chair, followed by the opposition.
We ask Moueyd, our taxi driver, to take us to the places of the revolution. He leads us to the departure from the “Blue Nile Bridge” to “Nile Street” (15.612011, 32.544104). Here many of the people who lost their lives during the revolution are painted on a wall. 228 people are said to have died, 118 of them in the Khartoum massacre of June 3, 2019 alone. Many of the corpses were simply thrown into the Nile and thus “disposed of” undignified.
Over 3 million Sudanese demonstrated peacefully in these streets on June 3, 2019, when they were fired upon by Super Rapid Forces from an empty building still under construction. Soldiers of the regular army had mingled with the people to protect them.
Today the “fight” is not over yet. The old regime, or what is left of it, is steering with a cold wind against the democratic achievements. Diesel was deliberately withdrawn and hoarded, the drivers of the new city buses are paid NOT to drive, and much more. Meanwhile an assassination attempt against the current Prime Minister has also been attempted, fortunately without consequences, etc.
We wish the people with the friendly smile and endless hospitality that further progress can be made and that the democratic development can be maintained and consolidated.
On 4 February 2020, with about 3 weeks “delay” we finally set off for Ethiopia. First we drive to “our” gas station to fill up – and we get the desired 200 liters of diesel without hesitation. Sadek, the responsible person, had given us his phone number before and so we could make sure by whatsapp that there was diesel there, too.
From Khartoum to the Ethiopian border it is about 600 km. We estimate 3 days for the journey. On the one hand because I don’t feel 100% yet, on the other hand because we have heard that the last 80 km are in terrible condition.
The first night we are at the Nile, near a police control. Yes, and there we made the mistake of going off on a dirt road to the Nile before the police check. As soon as we arrived at our idyllic place, two policemen already pass by and check us. They want another selfie with us and the MAN and then leave. But one of them comes back. His boss wants to see us and we have to drive to the next village. We could spend the night there. We repulse him and tell him that we would not be going anywhere today, because the sun is about to set and we do not want to drive at night. Finally we give him a copy of our passports and our visas. This satisfies him and the rest of the night remains calm. It has to be said that the policeman didn’t like what his boss demanded from us.
There is actually not much to tell about the onward journey to the Ethiopian border, except that it is getting drier, that we only slowly gain altitude, that cotton is grown and that we spend the night undisturbed in front of El Qadarif at the edge of a field.
The distance from El Qadarif up to the border is indeed on a length of about 70 to 80 km almost unreasonable. But the entire border traffic to Ethiopia runs over this road. More pothole than road and so wonderfully distributed that one must often drive through it. That means braking, shifting down and shifting up again and that X times. A few km before the border we find a small quarry to spend the night.
Early in the morning of February 7th, 2020 we drive the last kilometers to the border at Metemma. The exit from Sudan is easy, thanks to coordinates from iOverlander. The border guards are very friendly and uncomplicated.
Farewell Sudan, pretty much exactly two months we spent in Sudan. For us one of the highlights on our trip to Cape Town.
On the Ethiopian side, officials are friendly and reserved. The entry is quickly managed, only the registration of the vehicle and the following somewhat fussy control need time. So it becomes after midday, until we can drive over the border.