20th April 2012
19.04.2012 - 20.04.2012
We were making exceptional time. The previous evening we’d pulled up in the dark outside of a small village 180km’s from Khartoum. The night had been awful. Hot winds had hounded us. The tent walls had performed a night-long round of applause as the dust and heat found every opportunity to clog our airways.
However, for the first time on our entire journey we were amazed when we woke and spotted a man walking across the field. He didn’t stop or deviate to investigate these strange white folk from afar, he didn’t come to see if we had food or money or clothes for him, he just carried on about his business.
Khartoum was a mini Dubai; a haven for all things modern in the middle of a desert country. But for all it looked to offer, it was Friday in a Muslim worlds and it was very quiet. Running short on ideas we but knowing we wanted luxury, we stopped by the Blue Nile Sailing Club thinking we might find someone who could lend a hand or at least give us some ideas.
The Blue Nile Sailing Club was a place that offered camping in the Heart of Khartoum. It was also home to one of Kitchener’s gun boats now ‘moored,’ or rather beached, and used as offices. We sat in an empty open seating area and started to read our guidebook. There was no-one around. And then a tall bespectacled man in his late fifties and wearing a long pristine white jelbab appeared and joined us. He ordered coffee and tea for us and began to talk. He was a Sudanese air accident investigator who was also secretary of the Sailing Club. He added that they had a race that morning and they were short on crew members, we’d be in the race.
As we sat drinking, a motley drew of would be sailors appeared. Russians, Brits, Dutch and of course Sudanese appeared and formed nine or ten crews of two. Another round of coffees ensued before we met our skippers, Mohammed would take Laura and Bart would be saddled with me. There was a gusting breeze as we opened the jib and raised the main sail. I was getting a crash course in sailing as the minute gongs were being turned leading up to the start of the race.
As the klaxon sounded Bart and I were still taxiing to the start; forgive the lack of sailing parlance. Somers had made a better start but for my race at least that would be the closest I ever got to the remaining boats. The course took us two bridges up the Blue Nile, back to the start, back up to the first bridge and then back to the start which doubled as the finish. No sooner had we started than the wind dropped. It was to be a slow motion race for Nile supremacy. As Bart and I sauntered upstream, we waved at the other crews already returning, discussing working life in Sudan as well as money changing and where to eat. Somers was mid pack and seemed to be deep in conversation with her skipper.
Surreal doesn’t begin to describe the affair. By the time I had finished the other boats had moored, packed their sails away and nearly finished lunch. A small ovation received the ‘better-luck-next-timers’ and I found Somers getting stuck into Ful (beans) and Injera, with bread, a lamb dish and a ginormous water melon. There had been a huge brunch spread laid out for the sailors and spectators all traditional Sudanese fare.
With an unexpected box ticked on our ‘life experiences’ list we’d spoken to a Dutch guy named Dawa who agreed to show us where his money changer hung out. A ten minute drive across town led us to a corner chop supermarket on an estate in Khartoum. We knew the owner was doing business as we watched men walk out holding fistfuls of notes. As I walked in I giggled at the row of NGO vehicles parked surreptitiously outside and smiled even more broadly when I saw their owners pretending to look at tinned anchovies whilst waiting to ‘do a deal.’ I waited, in line, and eventually got 5.75 to the dollar. That was more than double our money. Nice work if you can get it.
With money on our minds and bursting out of our pockets (it came in bricks of cash) we found ourselves a place to stay that included pristine cleanliness, air-conditioning, swimming pools, fresh fruit delivered hourly and a concierge service in its list of basic requirements. We’d finally succumbed and found five star luxury in the heart of Khartoum.
We weren’t completely splurging as Dawa had told us that they had a special weekend rate. We stepped from the car park into a marble and granite lined lobby, air conditioning chilled the sweat that covered us and we suddenly realised that wearing ripped and dirty shirts, with flip-flopped feet so dirty that we looked like street urchins, made us stand out a little. We marched to the desk like we owned the place, through our bags on the brass luggage trolley and then on asking for a room had to remind our receptionist that they had a weekend rate was significantly lower than the $300 a night he was suggesting. Furthermore our newly acquired Sudanese pounds were not welcome. Foreigners must spend foreign currency we were told and so we handed over a few dollars more as our dust riddled bags and our dustier selves were escorted through the marble and granite foyer, across the plush carpets and upstairs to our feather and cotton lined, pleasantly chilled nest. How easy we found it to slip from the dusty tent to the five star room.
Friday afternoons however were special in Khartoum, or rather, in Omdurman. Sheik Hamid Al Nil was a 19th century Sufi leader whose tomb lies in Omdurman. Every Friday afternoon the Dervishes dance and worship in front of the tomb; a spectacle of immense marvel. We arrived an hour early and within ten minutes we were sat drinking coffee and hibiscus tea, the latter in Somers’ hand, with a new found friend named Abdul. He insisted that it was his duty to pay for our drinks and escorted us on an impromptu tour of the tomb before talking us through the dancing.
The dancing dervishes were a sight to behold. They were stunning to watch, a delight in fact. As we watched for over two hours we were repeatedly greeted and questioned as to our time in Africa, in Sudan and in Khartoum. We were offered places to stay, dinner and had a couple of coffees all as a direct result of a hospitality and national pride that the nations of the world would do well to acknowledge. We drank coffee with a man named Mohammed whose degree and masters was in English and was planning a trip to South Africa to study the Zulu language. After a sensational evening we chose to retire to our new found accommodation.
It was dark by the time we left the Hamid Al Nil tomb but the streets had come alive. Whilst many seem to shirk the persecuting hours at the height of the suns power it seemed they were now making up for lost time. Bazaars, stalls, shops and cafes were all doing boisterous business. But something more was going on. There were an unprecedented number of Sudan flags flying, youngsters were running in groups along the streets, flags billowing in a startling show of patriotism for a normal Friday evening. Redvers was being slapped in joy as we crawled our way through crowds that congested a road system whose floutable rules were bent beyond recognition. Laura was still having a time of it. Hot and cold, weak and heady, the night air was still thick and warm and the crowds were tingeing a sweaty fight home with claustrophobia. Since businesses seemed busier than ever we’d decided that now was an ideal time to find a pharmacy with a malaria test kit for Laura. Lucky on our third attempt we found a pharmacist who spoke excellent English and suggested that rather than wasting our money on an ineffective kit, Laura could visit the lab over the road for a blood test and malaria screen, all for ten Sudanese pounds (US$2.) A needle whose freshly broken packet lay before her, broke her skin and Laura smeared her fresh blood onto a slide; twenty minutes later, the lab technician told Laura that she was negative for malaria. I explained to her that she was a hypochondriac, and with her ‘Negative Test Result’ in her hand she was feeling better.
Laura was also told that the excitement on the streets was in celebration that the Sudanese had just reclaimed the border and oil town of Heglig from their newly formed South Sudanese neighbours. The passion and patriotism was scary and it would seem that these new states will have to resolve their oil differences quickly if they are to avert a protracted conflict. Our car was slapped and inspected as we sluggishly fought our way through streets overwhelmed with people. A twenty minute drive took nearly two hours as we inched our way home, feigning cheers and excitement in what our Sudanese ‘friends’ had achieved. Eventually after a long, hot and humid drive home we arrived at the hotel. We’d never been unsafe, but it had been bloody hard driving.
As we lay down on our triple bed beneath a feather duvet, our heads cradled in feather pillows whilst the air conditioning silently cooled the deep pile carpet and the wide screen television sat in quiet expectation we revelled in the sanctuary of a world a thousand miles from the one we’d just spent two hours crawling through on our hands and knees.