|Touching down in Khartoum, I began the fulfillment of a journey I've been anticipating for fifteen years. I camped at a sailing club perched over the Nile next to Sir Kitchener's gunboat from 1890. That afternoon I found the Sufis, also known as the whirling dervishes, in front of a mosque in old Khartoum. It was surrounded by a massive derelict graveyard. For an hour until sunset, the crowd and tempo grew with mesmerizing chanting, dancing, jumping, and whirling. The crowd included almost no other foreigners and almost everyone participated. A wonderful experience.
I met a Kiwi guy and traveled north to the Meroe pyramids, a mysterious collection of well preserved pyramids in a fantastic desert location. This being Sudan, no one else was around even though it is Sudan's most famous archaeological site. We slept under the a magnificent sky of stars on a hill overlooking the pyramids with the Nile far in the background.
Back in Khartoum, I connected with the expat community by running with the h3. Almost all foreigners in Khartoum are working for one NGO or another, most of them in Darfur. After a clandestine party behind high walls, I got a ride back to my campground from the country director of Save the Children. He told me about their current decision to pull their staff out of Darfur because several of their workers had been killed. The next day I saw their pullout on CNN as headline news.
I had a weird experience in an Internet Cafe. A clean cut, young looking Sudanese guy next to me was surfing websites about how to build bombs. A while later he was onto websites about disease transmission in office areas. When I left, he was on a website about trigger mechanisms. What's up with that?
Hoping to dive, I flew to Port Sudan where I found that there were literally zero dive shops. I went down to the yacht harbor and was phenomenally lucky because I found an Italian boat that was leaving the next day for 4 days of diving and was willing to take me. Sudan has some of the best diving in the world and is all the better because it is almost untouched; we dived alone.
The highlights were the 1940 wreck of the Italian supply ship, Umbria, and the reef of Sha'ab Rumi. The Umbria is a huge ship with cargo holds stuffed from floor to ceiling with neatly stacked rows of bombs, 3 Fiat cars, and tons of wine bottles scattered about. It's unclear to me if the Italians thought they were going to war, or a party. Sha'ab Rumi was the site of long term underwater living experiments by Jacques Cousteau, who also made a movie about the reef. We explored the wreckage of his underwater 'city', which included shark cages and a submarine garage that we surfaced in. The highlight of my dive trip was when a pack of 31 hammerhead sharks passed meters from us.
Just before New Year's Eve, I started heading north following the Nile, taking a bus to the regional capital of Dongala. By this time I had sorted out the location of a couple expat New Years Eve parties in Khartoum. Although almost irresistible, I sacrificed this opportunity to get loaded while under Sharia Law. Instead I passed midnight (OK, 8pm) toasting the new year with an Austrian motorcyclist and an alcohol free beer while sitting on a sideways crate of coca cola bottles people watching at the town's busiest intersection.
I spent a lot of time on that intersection. Like the locals, I suffered from SAABS, Severe and Acute Boredom Syndrome. Along the Nile, sometimes days pass until the next bus or truck comes that can take you to the next town. I was stuck in Dongala for three days. I met a couple who were stuck in another town for 5 days. I planned my days around when to drink my next cup of tea, or whether or not to liven things up by throwing in a bottle of Pepsi. I read a zillion books.
Sudan is a journey, not a destination. Each hotel I stayed in was worse than the last. Unspeakably dirty. Most towns had no running water or electricity. Each meal was sketchier than the last. I stopped bathing. However, unexpected delights abounded. Like two hours waiting for a ferry under a tree next to the Nile. I shared the shade with a colorful group of chattering locals and a hundred chattering birds in the huge canopy. Like dinner outdoors in the dark but lively souk of a remote village by the Nile. A few kerosene lamps and an illuminated minaret blasting the call to prayer while framed by a million brilliant stars. Like climbing 20 feet to the roof of an unbelievably overloaded truck and passing a freezing eight hours in the cold wind and merciless sun but with amazing views of the Nile, desert and villages we passed through. Like forgotten Egyptian temples with no tourists, guards or anyone else around. Where ancient shattered pottery covers the ground and you can't avoid crushing it beneath your feet. The Sudanese people are amazingly friendly, and invite you to tea or a meal ten times a day.
A week of hard travel got me to the 20 hour ferry ride across Lake Nasser, which put me back in Aswan. After three weeks in Sudan, I was glad indeed to return to those luxuries of life – internet, beer, pizza and sheesha. The perfect recipe for a quick cure from SAABS.