19th April 2012
19.04.2012 - 20.04.2012
A morning coffee reinvigorated our senses as we posted our cards home and complained to yet another cafe owner about his frank racism and the need for a more philanthropic attitude to cafe ownership in Ethiopia. We had his Habesha menu and we had his English menu and no two prices were the same. He swore the Amharic prices were old, we told him he was a racist thief and he had zero chance of us paying what he asked. He’d need to call the police first. Our bill should have been 24 Birr; he wanted 84. He conceded to a degree eventually, and we paid 39 reiterating that he was a scumbag.
The word on the street was that the money changers of Sudan were offering unbeatable rates of 6 Sudanese Pounds to the US Dollar. The bank rate was 2.7. We’d been offered 4.5 by a guy in Gonder, but the bugger kept disappearing and, in the end, we left with our fistful of US dollars untouched.
The British had been to Sudan twice before the arrival of this latest convoy of, well, one battered Defender and a couple of ill equipped vets. Back in the early 1880’s we puppeteered Egypt who, in turn ran Sudan. When things went awry and the Mahdist Regime took Khartoum we sent Charles Gordon to restore some order. He ended up stuck in Khartoum holding out whilst a relief expedition came to rescue him. The relief expedition turned up late; Gordon was dead.
The second entrance was ten years later. Amidst the ‘Scramble for Africa’ Britain wanted the Nile from top to bottom, from beginning to end, source to sea. Since both the Belgians and the French had started to snoop around, it was time to make a real entrance. General Kitchener was sent to do the dirty work and he did it well. The British army first ‘recruited’ the locals to build a desert railway and eventually, with a resupply chain in place they came upon the Mahdist army outside Omdurman in 1898. The British guns prevailed as the angel of death caressed 10,000 Sudanese bodies on the battle field. Sudanese control was restored to the Egyptians. We were in charge again. Gordon’s son blew up the Mahdis tomb, and apparently Kitchener requested the Mahdi’s skull for an inkstand. Ah to be British.
The third entry to Sudan was made by General Sir Redvers Buller (deceased – now a Land Rover Defender) and involved none of the great swagger of the previous invasions. At the border we were rushed to customs before they stopped for a long lunch. In the process we were first led to a Swiss couple, encamped at the border, waiting patiently for their orders to advance; typical of the Swiss to be waiting for an invite. They’d been travelling for three years, and when they’d entered Ethiopia they hadn’t listed one of their cameras on the customs form. The money grabbing Ethiopians were now detaining them whilst they waited for clearance for the item, or until duties were paid. They’d been at the border for three days.
We’d been anal gits at the border, we’d listed everything. We entered the office, met the man who would rifle through our electrics bags looking for anything he could confiscate. He was extremely keen and I took to slapping his wrist every time he manhandled my delicate equipment. A short conversation with regards to Joseph followed. “What is he?” “A hippo.” “What is he made of?” “Wood.” “Is he hollow?” “No.” “Does he have anything inside him.” “Yes.” “What?” “Wood.” “I don’t understand.” “Well don’t worry. Customs liked him. Would you like to see the engine number?” Of all the problems we foresaw with Joe, turning border officials into blithering idiots was not one. But with customs finished we’d only dealt with one of the two idiots we’d need to in order to escape.
For some reason immigration was coming after customs. Had I been exporting anything I’d have had to pay for its export before I’d been granted permission to enter the other country. A country ensuring it’s paid for before we even know that we can leave? That’ll be Ethiopia.
Across the dusty road and a few doors up was immigration. Staffed by men who prioritise lunch and phone calls ahead of the humans sat before them. My Neanderthal was all but banging the screen in confusion but soon acquiesced when his phone rang and he forgot about processing my exit. Laura was having more success, but her guy was so efficient he was done in minutes. However, he didn’t have an all important stamp. The first thing you’re taught at border school is that you need a stamp. The second is that an obstructive nature is essential. The stamp was in my guy’s desk and after half an hour of phone calls my large browed dim wit discovered he had lost the key to his own desk. A full ten minutes was spent watching him try to pull the drawer open only to find that it was definitely locked. Thirty seconds later he’d check it was still definitely locked before shrugging at us like we’d just have to live in his office until our visas ran out and they could charge us some more.
What was making us so impatient was the fact that Laura was feeling rough. A beaded brow from a fever was sapping her strength and the heat and border theatrics were not helping. Finally Laura’s guy noticed our pacing up and down, the tapping of our imaginary watches and my voice saying “Do you need a hand?” Not to mention Miss Somers hushed expletives. Her guy turned up with a dagger and jimmied the drawer open. Hurrah, two rubber stamps, but, oh no. We’d taken too long. The computer had timed out and reset the exit visas. We sat for another half hour whilst our challenged officer worked through his disabilities.
Down the road was Sudan. There we found an immigration office staffed by a mountain of a man who reminded us of the guy from the movie The Green Mile, we felt like we’d come across him somewhere before. He was a hero, but his government too wanted their share of our foreign currency. It had already cost us US$100 each for our miserable two week transit visas but now we needed to pay US$70 each to register as foreigners. Every other country calls the latter process ‘passport control’ but we had signs on our derrieres reading ‘insert hand and withdraw.’
The customs office was a bit more of a saga. Fifteen minutes in the first office, ten in the second. Then back to the first office before going off to the security office and then back to the first office and then back to the security office before we were able to leave. In a country rammed full of Muslims I was going to enjoy saying ‘Good God!’
We high fived our entrance to country number twelve and also celebrated that we’d just smuggled one bottle of gin, two bottles of wine and a pack of ciders into a country that was dry in at least two ways.
We hit another couple of road blocks on our way to Gedaref where our passports were taken and the details recorded. We’d lost count of police road blocks in Africa, mostly thanks to Malawi and Tanzania, but these were uncannily polite. “Do you mind... Can I... I just need to go over to my office and record your details; I’ll be back shortly...” The police were polite. As one officer took our passports the other would step in to ask where we were from, where were we going and what football team we supported.
Sudan was flat; flat, flat, flat. But for a mound here and there, it was flat; except for the road. Sudan had tarmac’d its main roads which was great news. Except for the fact that on the road we were driving it was as if the tarmac had come in one giant sized economy carpet roll which had just been laid out across every bump, stone and crease in the earth’s surface. Sudan was also oven baked, the blue sky was sky blue over our heads but its brother that guarded the horizon was grey with dirt. The dirt shroud was everywhere; the atmosphere was full of dust, and grey. Grey like the dead and unforgiving earth all around us, grey like the desiccated trees and shrubs; grey. The road side was littered with blown out tyres and the corpses of cattle and donkeys. In one afternoon’s drive we lost count of the animal bodies somewhere after one hundred.
We made the town of Gedaref, our planned first night’s location, with plenty of daylight remaining and so we put our foot down and burnt and bounced another hundred kilometres before pulling off the tarmac and driving into the grey to sleep in the bush.