Camels and Pyramids
500km into Sudan we were reunited with the Blue Nile at Wad Medani having left it ten days previously at it’s source in Barhir Dar on the edge of Lake Tana. We saw the faint green line marking the path of the river as we drew closer and before long were on the bridge looking down at the mass of water which would beat us to Cairo. We followed the river, more or less, for the next 200km until we reached Khartoum. Cycling the final stages of this road was like playing a game of Russian roulette as we risked life and limb dodging the high-speed coaches and juggernauts who appeared to be completely oblivious to our presence on the road. Journeys from anywhere in Sudan seem to be planned to reach Khartoum by dusk.
On the day before we reached Khartoum, as the sun was setting on our hope of finding a decent place to camp we were thoroughly fed up with dropping off the edge of the tarmac as another coach screeched passed, deafening us with it's "horn" - an obnoxious 100 decibels of fairground noises. Just as we were resigning ourselves to the fate of an inconvenient camp spot the houses began to disappear and there were less people around. The road drew close to the river once more and we spotted a secluded area where we could drop down out of sight to the river below. The perfect end to a hectic day!!!
We had heard that there was a camel market in Khartoum that was not to be missed. On arriving in the city we made a few enquiries and discovered it was somewhere to the west. In our eagerness to reach the market at it’s peak before all the camels had been sold and ridden away we rushed off, poorly equipped for our mission, with just the phrase “souq al-naga” to help us find our way. It seemed like an appropriate phrase - souq being a market and al-naga a camel. Leaving our luggage and bikes behind we went to the end of the road to catch the bus. One went passed, and then another - full. A third and fourth - full, full. The sun blazed down. The camels were being sold. Another arrived “souq Libya, souq Libya” - we squeezed in. Through the traffic lights, over the Nile, into Ombdurman the bus crawled. We passed through a market, more traffic lights and plenty of housing. Impatiently we watched the city go by. It was bigger than we'd expected. Then amidst table tops of bric-a-brac and stalls full of fruit the bus terminated at souq Libya. We jumped out. A few inquiries informed us we were still far from the camels but some deft negotiations secured for us onward passage in a tuctuc (explanation). We chugged along dodging pedestrians and other tuctucs out of the city hustle and on, to an area where the sand claimed the ground back from the cement. The houses became sparse and then in the sand ahead to our right we saw row upon row of cars and we knew we had arrived. The tuctuc driver confirmed it; “souq al-naga” he informed us as we hopped out his vehicle and he turned around and pulled away. The market was huge and beyond the cars the first thing we came to was the eating area. Carcasses hung and red-faced women tried to draw customers in. The men cubed the meat with big blades for the women to cook in large dishes over open fires. Coffee boiled in the traditional coffee pots over smaller fires accompanied by the aroma of gum arabic wafting up from saucers. We wandered on by resisting the exotic smells. We wanted to see all the camels. We traipsed along the wide sandy path beside the "restaurants" either side for another 2 or 3 minutes then asked for directions; "al-naga? al-naga?" We'd thought it would be easy to see the camels and head straight towards them but the market was vast. Various men in their long white robes pointed us in various directions which we followed arbitrarily. Another 5 minutes and we reached the sheep/goat area but no camels. "al-naga? al-naga?" - some blank faces and some arms gesturing different directions, some excited men trying to negotiate the price we wanted to pay for their sheep. We picked a direction and wandered some more. Turning behind a sheep stall we saw a large high-walled enclosure. This must be it. The camels must be in there. We walked around until we found the entrance and peered around the wall. Nothing. We carried on in. Perhaps we were too late. Maybe they had all been sold. In one of the corners was a row of shelters with men inside hiding from the sun, drinking chai and in front was a token of what we were after - a single camel.
The men beckoned us over to join them. We did. We tried to find out about the camel situation and as we tried one of the chai-drinkers, a camel trainer, dusted off his English and together we put the pieces of the puzzle in place.
"Where are the camels? al-naga, al-naga?"
"WHERE are the camels?"
"Camels this morning?"
"No, no camels."
"No camels. Never camels."
"Yes, yes, never camels."
We were bemused and sceptical. We moved the conversation on and managed to learn many camel facts.
The chai was good. The men were excited to have our company for a while and eager to share their thoughts and ideas and to extend to us a warm Sudanese welcome. An older man with no English smiled and left after a while, shaking our hands warmly as he went, and when it came time for us to leave it transpired that he had paid for our drinks. During our time in Sudan there would be very few drinks that we would pay for ourselves; as guests in their country the people were eager for us to feel welcome.
We said our goodbyes and wandered back through the market until we reached the eating area again. By now it was late afternoon and we stopped for some food. We motioned at one of the carcasses and were ushered into the tented room. We wound passed other diners and around a central fabric "wall" ending up inside it in what you would describe as a room in a room. The inner area was enclosed by fabric walls with a small door sized gap for the entrance. It was calm and peaceful. Woven-string beds were positioned around small tables and although we had been unable to see into the room from outside you were able to see straight through the fabric to watch the people on the other side. We lay on the beds and waited for our food. 10-15 minutes later a young girl in a long red skirt came over carrying a large, round, metal tray. There was meat in a bowl in the middle and rolls of fresh bread all around the edge. She put two large metal mugs of cold water on the table and lay down the tray. The meat was still sizzling.
"What is the meat?" we asked "Is it sheep, or goat....?"
"The meat?" she said.
"Al-naga." she said.
"Yes, yes, camel, al-naga. All the meat al-naga."
We looked at each other. We had found the camels. The image of graceful camel chains walking around arenas whilst eager potential buyers bartered for bargains evaporated. This market was for camel meat!!!
The next day we left our bikes in Khartoum and caught a bus for the celebrated pyramids at Meroe 300km North East of the capital. Our plan was to get there for sunset, sleep over next to the pyramids in the desert and then catch a lift back to Khartoum the following morning. It was not to be!! 250km and a good few hours into our journey there was a lot of commotion at a police check point. It turned out that we were the cause of the commotion. We had failed to get a travel permit for this area of the country. The firm but fair chief of police was not to be swayed and we were bundled off the bus with all our bags into the scorching sun in the middle of the desert. The policeman was very apologetic and assured us he would stop the next bus to get us a ride back to Khartoum. In the meantime we just had to wait. He found us a nice shady spot and hauled over his bed for us to sit on so we could wait in comfort.
By and by, after the policeman had bought us several cups of tea and many sweets to ease our wait, a bus came past and we were returned to the place we had started from 6hrs earlier!!
The next day we tried again. We found the tourism office - not as easy as you might think since the tiny backstreet building was signed in arabic - and got ourselves travel permits - a very simple procedure which took about 5 minutes - then headed again for the bus station.
It seemed we were walking into a fortune teller’s bazaar not a bus as we climbed the steps and pushed through the string curtains into the heavily decorated bus. Every spare inch of the windscreen was hung with gaudy disney characters leaving a gap the size of a small tv screen for the driver to pick out his way. We now understood why the coaches whistling past had been so oblivious to us on the road. A dark red pelmet with gold tassles ran the whole way round the ceiling and not a ray of sunlight could sneak in past the thick velvet curtains. We sat on board watching the Disney characters dance in unison to the gently idling engine which fuelled refreshing bursts of cold stale air. One by one the seats filled and the ambient temperature rose until sweat started to bead on our foreheads. And then we were off. Mickey Mouse and co lurched to the side and we pulled away and out of the bus station.
A few hours later on our way through the police check point we opened the window and waved at the cheif of police. He came over to see us and was very pleased that we’d made it back again with the travel permit.
The pyramids were definitely worth the effort of getting there. The bus stopped on the road at the nearest point and we hopped off. We stood amidst our bags and as the bus pulled away we felt strangely deserted. We had been alone in the desert before but it felt very different to have been left there by a bus.
The pyramids were built in 300AD and though much smaller than their Egyptian counterparts proud Sudanese tell us they are where the Egyptians had learnt the art. Seems as they are 2000 years younger we doubt it! They had survived in pristine condition until about the 1950’s when an Italian treasure hunter came along and chopped off all the peaks. He struck gold with the first hit unearthing a wealth of ancient treasures and though he never found anything else he became unstoppable smashing off all the tops in a treasure hunting frenzy. Shame!!
Bored of Bikes!!