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.