The Sudanese

My first real day in Sudan is much more pleasant with people who are very willing to try and converse, help, and generally just gather around.  They aren’t hassling me for money, just an opportunity to stand next to me, smile and greet the American.   I have similar and experiences in every town I stop in.

I pick up some bread in the morning, which is wood fired, has a heavy earthy taste, and sits pretty well in the stomach.  I was really enjoying the drive until the heat set in.  An hour or so before I arrive to the capital, the air temperature is 112 degrees, my motorcycle is a steamy 240 degrees and no telling how hot it is inside my suit.  It was completely nauseating.

I arrive to the hotel mid afternoon, again very unabashedly greeted by everyone I come in contact with.  They are all very helpful and have a hard time leaving me along.  They REALLY want to meet the American.

All in all, I couldn’t have received a better welcome to the country.  If it wasn’t for the extreme heat, and not really sure what else I’d do in the middle of the Sahara, I’d consider staying an extra day or so.

Sudan gets two thumbs up – it was probably the friendliest country I’ve been to in all my travels.

Sudan border

A brilliant drive through the desert this morning was my first opportunity to see the sunrise over the sandy Sahara Desert.

I arrived at the border around 8:00 and was greeted with a cup of tea from the 4 guards stationed at the gate.  The crossing went fairly smooth, but still took about 4 hours to get my final departure stamp.  One thing I find generally the same on all crossings, is that nobody really cares if you’re moving through the process.  Each individual has a job: sign and stamp the correct document.  They may have no idea where the document came from nor who gave it to you, but they happily sign and stamp once you have it.  It’s a process of elimination getting through the border, poke my head into an office, show them my first receipt and if I’m in the correct office, I get another piece of paper with a signature and stamp.  It’s a long-disjointed process and the Egypt crossing is quite lengthy.  Some countries want you out of the country as quickly as possible, the limited few that don’t want you there in the first place, make it extremely challenging to leave as well.

I read somewhere online (so it must be true) there was fuel at the border, which I needed as I used an entire tank from Aswan to get there.  As it turns out, “no benzene” at the border.  I keep this in the back of my mind asking each guard I visit, but am primarily focused on getting out of Egypt at this point.

No benzene on the Egypt crossing, but I finally have my passport stamped, carnet signed and stamped and slowly motor to the Sudan side.

In Sudan, I am enthusiastically greeted by everyone I see.  I receive many “hello how are you” comments, but that’s all the further the conversation ever goes.  I start the process with extremely helpful guards, but am continually re-routed to someone’s office to greet yet another officer.  Pleasantries are exchanged, then we sit and stare at one another as the language barrier always stops after the eager “hello”.  Once the officer gets tired of saying hello and staring at me, I am taken back to the waiting area while my paperwork is supposedly getting processed.

With every opportunity, I am still asking every guard about fuel, but the response is always the same; no benzene.  After about 4 hours of meet and greets, it doesn’t appear that the process is moving forward; still no passport stamp, still no carnet stamp, I’m just sitting in reception greeting yet another office who is brought into see me.  Frustration starts setting in, which never helps my process, and certainly isn’t getting me any better results.  At hour 5, I’m finally taken to the “generals” office, who quickly moves through my documents in about an hour.  He also informs me they have 1 gallon of benzene they will give me; “no charge, tell other Americans to come; now go”.  This is all great, but I need 2 gallons to make it to the next town where there is a fuel station.

It’s starting to get late as I mount my bike, shake hands one more time, pose a fake smile for a few more photos with the guards and set off.  Literally 20 feet later, I am stopped by yet another guard who checks my paperwork and won’t let me pass.  After waiting another hour, I am “released” across the checkpoint, but with no paperwork or passport.  One more trip to the sleeping barrack’s for “interview” with the man holding my paperwork as hostage.  We go sit in someone room, where a young man is getting me one more piece of paper he says I need to travel through the country.  After 20 min in his room, a large imposing man comes in and is furious, he grabs the paper from the young office, rips it up and literally throws it out the window.  After yelling at the young office, he tells me to “get out – go”.  So…..I follow the other man back to the border where he gives me all of my documents.  I ask one last time about benzene and now understand there is someone in a small village about an hour through the desert who may have some fuel.

It’s getting dark, but I REALLY want to get away from the border, so I set off.  At this point, I’ve been at the Sudan border for over 6 hours, haven’t eaten anything all day, have 1 gallon of fuel and set off into the desert.  Bad decision making.

I’m fixated on my fuel gauge, the kilometer countdown to where the village is, and most importantly the road, because I’m breaking the cardinal rule of travel – don’t drive at night.  All the bad shit is running through my head, mostly what will happen when I run out of fuel on this road in the middle of nowhere.  Human tracking is first and foremost in my mind – nobody will know if I disappear out here.

Kilometer 195 of my 200 km worth of fuel, I find the village and am greeted by the most enthusiastic bunch of young men I have ever encountered.  I do my best to smile, shake hands, and exchange hello’s, but really anxious to get to Dongola to find the one hotel in town, which is still 200km away. It’s now about 9:00 by the time I get out of the village and am back on the road.  Again, bad decision making.

I roll into Dongola around 11:00 and do my best to navigate the severely impoverished town to THE hotel.  The hotel is buried deep inside the city though a confusing maze of streets.  In my rearview mirror I see I’ve picked up a train of tuk-tuk’s (3 wheeled motorcycle taxi’s), a few motorcycles, and a couple of cars that are following me – certainly everyone wondering who I am and what I’m doing driving around their town at night.  I’m completely unsettled at this point, but push on to the hotel.  I arrive at the “hotel”, which is closed and nobody apparently around – I pound on the iron gate but nobody comes out.  I have quite a crowd of people around me at this point, nobody really saying much, but all very eager to help, or to see what my next move is.  Good question.   I guess I’ll need to push onto the next town and see if there are any hotels there.  “Need benzene” I tell the crowd, then follow the train of cars to a closed fuel station where they help find the attendant to fuel me up.  It’s now 12:00, I’m in Sudan (ever seen the movie Zero Dark Thirty?), a little sketched out, decide to set off for the next town.  The later it gets, the worse my decision making gets.

After a long 2 hour drive I arrive in Merowe to deserted streets with nobody but policeman around, which other than the fact I have nowhere to sleep, is fairly comforting.  I go from small hotel to hotel pounding on the gates of each, but find the same results at each of the three hotels in town – nobody is coming out at this hour to help me.  Now it seems like my only decision is to drive through the morning (it’s now 2:00 am) to the capital city of Khartoum, which is 5 hours away.  At the intersection to leave for Khartoum, I stopped again by a policeman, so try asking one more time about a hotel.  “No” is the response again, but this time they point to a dirt parking lot.  The parking lot is the “police station”, but there is no station there, just a dirty lot with a couple of policemen sleeping on cots under the stars, one old broken down Toyota, and a few dogs scavenging the trash.  I decide this is as safe as it gets, so I throw down my sleeping bag in the dirt and quickly fall asleep.  After what seemed like 5 minutes of sleep, I wake up to dogs barking, car horns honking and a few men talking.   I am quickly and generously greeted with a cup of tea from one of the non-uniformed officers.

What a first night in Sudan.


Aswan & the Nubian

What are the odds the first person I meet in Aswan is actually a fixer?  I skeptically meet up with him this morning and within minutes, we’re in his car getting me lost in the non tourist part of town.  He requests no money, just copies of my paperwork and heads to a small window in the side of an old building, which is referred to as “traffic court”.  5 minutes later he returns and says no problem, where to next.

I’m over the tourist scene, so decide to tag along with him for the next 3 hours while my paperwork is being processed.   We drive around town running his miscellaneous errands; car parts and repairs, pick up some bread, etc.  He takes me to his local breakfast place and we sit down to bread, beans, chopped fresh veggies with lots of salt and lemon-juice, and falafel.  Next we’re sitting down at a shisha shop for a water-pipe smoke and so he can catch up with his friend’s.  We finish off the smoke with some sweet tea and head back over to court to pick up my documents.  Easy.

I spent about 4 hours with Mohammed non stop grilling him with questions on just about anything that came to mind regarding Egyptian life; politics, religion, schooling, work, etc.  I learned a tremendous amount in the short 4 hours.  What a good man.

He tells me to meet his brother later in the day for a sail up the river Nile in his old Dahabiya.  We set off around 3:30 sailing up and around Elephantine island, where their family currently lives and has lived for as long as they can remember (generations).  What a perfect and unexpected end to the day.

Tomorrow I leave early and cross into Sudan.

Grocery shopping with Mohammed and sailing with his brother


For anyone in need of a boat caption or a fixer in Aswan:
Mohamed Abouda 012 25111968

Luxor to Aswan

I spent a little time in the King’s Temple this morning, then went out to the Valley of the Kings.  The temple is extremely impressive, with the size and volume of masonry absolutely astounding.   The Egyptians really had it dialed when it came to chiseling and stacking stones.  Even by modern day standards, the work is second to none.

I headed out to the west (desert) route after the temples and was stopped about an hour out of town.  Unfortunately, I was turned back and told to take the eastern route.  Something about no police on the western side.  Not sure if them meant there were no police that could look after me, or no police to make sure I was going where I said I was.  Regardless, I saw no point in arguing so I turned back and took the rural road down up the Nile to Luxor.   It took me like 6 hours to get about 100 miles.  The rural (agricultural) route was not stop little villages with large speed bumps about every .5 km.   It was painfully slow and painful on the body, not to mention wicked hot at that temp.  My riding gear is thick, heavy, non-breathable and designed to move air over the body through a series of vents, as a result cools the sweat on your body.  At speed, it works great and I’m usually pretty good to go in 100+ temps.  Not the case at 15 mph – it’s just brutally hot!

With about 20 km left for Aswan, I was again pulled over and made to follow a police escort the remaining kilometers to Aswan.  If it wasn’t slow enough already, getting stuck in the middle of a slow-moving escort was twice as bad. I’m not sure if the police were escorting me for my safety or to be helpful, but again it wasn’t worth arguing with them.

I found a parking spot in Aswan and soon started chatting it up with a man on the riverbank; Mohamed Abouda.  As it turns out…Mohamed understands the traffic court and also works as a fixer at the border.  We make a plan to meet in the morning and go to traffic court together.

Here are a few of shots from the Kings Temple

…and one I forgot to post from the pyramids in Giza


Sahara desert, Day 1

Day 1 and I ran out of fuel.

Tbilisi, Georgia has probably the worst city road layout I have driven in – until Cairo.  The streets of Cairo are extremely confusing and even more confusing when trying to backtrack for a “re-start”.  Every wrong turn sucks you deeper and deeper into the city – the old Pharos  don’t want you to leave.  It took me quite a long time to get out of town, and when I did I was headed north instead of south.  I made a big loop up and around the city onto the east side desert road until I was finally headed in the right direction.

Out of gas.   As I now know, there aren’t many gas stations on the desert road, or at least within the range of my bike.  With only about 5 km of fuel left in the tank, I see a gas station mirage on the horizon.  Upon arrival, I find it deserted and destroyed, clearly bombed and burned.  I poke around a bit pondering my situation until a blue Toyota arrives with 6 men all carrying AK’s.  There was a lot of yelling “no, no” at me until I explain my situation, “no benzene” I tell the leader.  It doesn’t matter what religious affiliation you prefer, what language you speak, or where you’re from – everyone knows,  “no benzene” is a bummer.

With the little fuel I have left in my tank, I follow them off the road to a small hut where an old ambulance is parked and another 6 or 7 long bearded men are having their morning prayer.  I take out my spare fuel canister and a 6’, ¼” hose in hopes of siphoning a bit from one of their tanks.  The captain, or the one who chooses to communicate with me, takes the can and says repeatedly, “2 nights, 2 nights”.  No idea what he’s talking about.  Do I have to wait 2 nights to get fuel?  I mill around a bit, then low and behold, a man brings out a bottle with a rag sticking out the top, the thing looks like a Molotov cocktail (also known as a petrol bomb).  He pulls out the rag and proceeds to pour the liter of fuel into my bike.

It’s already boiling hot, but they insist I stay for a glass of hot tea and a fig.  They adamantly refuse any money for the fuel and point me down the road where they assure me I’ll fine some more petrol.  I make it to the station, top off my tank and ask to have my spare fueled.  No, no, the attendant tells me and takes my spare can to a policeman standing around the corner.  I now understand that it must be against the law to possess a small canister of fuel – maybe this gets you 2 nights in jail.  So be it – I head out again with only the fuel in my tank and and empty spare.

I’m making pretty good time now, averaging about 80 mph down the long straight desert highway.  As I get into central and south-central Egypt, the checkpoints become more and more frequent and concerned for where I’m going and what I’m doing.  “Do you have a map, let me see your map”, that sort of thing.  I pull into Qena, where I’ll take a smaller 2 track along the Nile to Luxor.  Qena doesn’t appear to be as friendly as the last town, pretty old and depressed.  If fact, now each town I get to, seems to be less friendly.  Many more police and many more locals carrying guns – this is a fist time I see the general population with semi auto rifles on their backs.  It definitely sets me on edge – no photos here today.

I’m getting stopped more and more frequently now, about every 5 – 10 km.  Each stop takes a little longer, and each stop requires more phone calls to clear me.  With only about 15km left for Luxor, I am again pulled over at a traffic stop and this time gestured to get off my bike and park it.   This stop is a bit more serious with armed gunman peering out of the second floor of the buildings on both sides of the road.  Lots of men around me at this point and one younger man pointing his semi auto rifle at my feet.  I don’t speak Arabic, but I certainly understood the exchange between the superior and the young guard.   I think it went something like this.  The captain says, “what are you doing pointing your rifle at the American”, the young man raises his rifle, (now pointed at my chest) and says, “I want to shoot the American”.  The captain tells the kid to get into the truck and put his gun down.  In utter and visual disappointment, the young man somberly climbs into the back of the truck and puts his gun away.

I’m stuck here for about 45 minutes while the captain makes phone call after phone call.  After every couple of calls, he asks me the same questions; Traveling alone? Where you going?  The guy called about 20 different people before someone must have told him to let me go.  Finally, after he hands his phone to another officer, he put his arm around me, he said, “photo for Snapchat”.  Then sent me on my way.

After the most recent killing of the 50+ Egyptian police officers, the President placed Egypt in a state of emergency.  This has obviously led to a heightened level of security around the country and certainly much more so, the further south I get.  I’m sure Sudan will be better.

I’ll stay in Luxor tonight and continue south to Aswan tomorrow.  Before I cross into Sudan on Monday, I need to go to the Aswan “traffic” court to get cleared to leave the county.  Hopefully a formality, but I’m still a bit concerned I didn’t get all of my paperwork from the dock workers in Cairo.

The desert is calling and I must go

It’s been a bit of a rough start to the trip so far.

A quick internet update on the morning of departure revealed 59 officers and militants were involved in a shootout, a few kilometers west of Cairo leaving all the officers and very few of the insurgents dead.  Honestly it shook me up a bit.

I was really looking forward to the western route up the Nile, but I think I better try the easter route to Sudan.  I’ve been asking around and it sounds like I should be able to find a convoy, maybe with a group of truckers headed to Aswan.  There is a fine line between the unstable Red Sea State of Sinai peninsula and the Nile River valley.  Hope I find myself on the right side of it.

I didn’t realize at the time of booking, but I had to take an Air France flight from Charles de Gaulle airport to Cairo.  Plane was nice and new, but the French were pretentious as ever.  The last time I spent time around such a supercilious bunch, I was in the North Gobi desert and ran into a pack of ’em – not a big fan.

Hotel is nice.   Surprised to see ISIS has their own suite on the same floor, luckily I’m blending in pretty well with my white boy Irish complexion.  I guess when you run the largest terror organization in the world, you get a few perks at some choice hotels.  Hopefully they aren’t looking for a place to stay with the recent fall of Raqqa.

I spent the last couple of days at Cairo Airport Customs mingling with the SFR’s (Sneaky F*!#ing Russians) Agents, trying to get my bike out of jail.  No such luck yet.  Its a crazy scene down there, quiet the experience, and let me tell you, this is a rough crowd of men.    I’ve been pulled out of the crowd of SFR’s by the police and  frisked several times, not to mention had my backpack taken yesterday until I left the grounds – kinda crazy.   I look like Howdy Doody compared to these guys, I guess racial profiling goes both ways.

I know it sounds odd, but after a couple hours with the French and a couple days in North Africa and I’m already looking forward to Sudan.