Bosman's Bush Telegraph - 26 October (Part 1)
Greetings from Khartoum! Or should I say "salaam alaykam" - who knows? This arabic business is like hieroglyphics and is completely incomprehensible to the average flat footed South African tourist. We arrived here late last night after a mammoth and extremely taxing journey from Gonder, Ethiopia. The journey was supposed to take three days and ended up taking almost six and was plagued with all manner of problems. The good news is that we made it and that we are both safe although we are feeling in desperate need of some sanity restoration. To this end we have treated ourselves to a mental health day and have checked into the Khartoum Hilton. Believe me, at the prices they charge here, we will only be able to afford one mental health day (and that will be at a push). Luckily, the hotel has the whole Nile River on tap, a giant bathtub (something we have not seen since Zanzibar), air-conditioning (a necessity as it is about 40 degrees in the shade and there is a raging sand storm) and CNN available at the click of a remote control. Its total bliss! There is just so much to tell this time around that I have split the telegraph into two parts - it was just too ungainly in one document! Part one deals with the our nightmarish journey to the Sudan (complete with all the details of the diabolical roads, beaurocratic incompetancies, irritations and general mishaps that we encountered on our way to Khartoum - I am sure you can't wait!) and part two deals with the remainder of our tour around the Ethiopian historical circuit. Please don't feel that you have to read it all in one sitting (or at all!) - its meant to be split into little episodes to be read over the next week or so.
We left Gonder last Friday expecting to travel to Matema (the last village on the Ethiopian/Sudan border) and to overnight there before crossing into the Sudan the next morning. The road to the border is notoriously bad in the rainy season as it dissolves into a sludgy mess, trapping trucks and unsuspecting tourists for days. We had deliberately delayed our push for the border for as long as possible to make 100% sure that the rainy season was over. We had been told over and over again that the rainy season was indeed over and that the road was in a fairly decent condition - of course, we had not bargained on global warming, el nino and a host of other meteorological factors (including murphy's law and sod's luck) which have caused unseasonably late rains this year! (just our luck as usual). This aside, everyone we spoke to in Gonder assured us that the road was dry and in good condition (some even hinted at a new road) and that the journey would take us about six hours. Ha! Famous last words. I can only conclude that the Ethiopians in Gonder have little or no knowledge of the road or that they were simply telling us what we wanted to hear. Our little six hour journey to Matema took almost three days of blood, sweat, tears, mud, cursing and gnashing of teeth.
The first 90 kilometres or so proceeded without incident although we were a bit nervous about the amount of water on the road and the heavy rain clouds collecting over the mountains. About two hours out of Gonder we came over a hill to see the most ungodly mess! The road was literally a mud bath and had claimed two or three trucks that were sunk belly deep in the mud. A whole host of other trucks had stopped on the far side of the obstacle and were unable to pass. The bulldozer that was supposed to pull the trucks out of the mud was standing idle on the side of the road and the driver had apparently gone awol. What now? Nev bravely got out and walked (I use this term loosely it was more like wade, swim, stumble) through the obstacle trying to find a way through. The truck drivers helped us move rocks and build a route for the Landi and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing we decided to give it a go. The mud was deep, sludgy and very, very thick and the whole thing was aggravated by the fact that the trucks had gouged deep ruts into the road surface (deep enough to swallow a Land Rover without any difficulty). We slipped and slid our way through the mud and over precariously narrow pieces of road but we made it through without getting stuck. Little did we know that this was only the start and that this little scenario would replay itself over and over again (kind of like Ground hog day... same thing over and over again with no escape....). We managed to travel about two more kilometres before we hit an even bigger obstacle. The road, which in dry conditions is a dangerously narrow mountain pass, was covered in deep sludge and once again there was a truck sunk plumb in the middle. To make matters worse there were about ten trucks trying to cross and the whole thing had degenerated into an African traffic jam of the worst kind. We realized that there was no way we were going to go any further and decided to set up camp for the night. The truck divers and their passengers (sometimes up to twenty people on each truck aside from all the cargo) have a very pragmatic attitude to this sort of thing and did not seem in the least perturbed about the hold up. Very soon the whole thing developed a decidedly party atmosphere as they started to crack open their cargoes of beer and cold drinks. We were less enamoured with the delay and climbed into our tent in an effort to get some sleep. Of course camping on the side of the road in Ethiopia is a very public affair and everyone sees it as license to stand around staring at you. Farangi watching is a highly entertaining sport and, as the onlookers don't feel they are interacting with you but are merely spectators, they don't hesitate to burst out laughing or to talk about you in loud voices. The Ethiopians are the most diabolical buggers - we found we loved them and hated them all at the same time. On the one hand they drove us to distraction with their staring but on the other hand we were bowled over by their generosity. Just after we had set up camp, two shepherds came by and brought us a calabash of fresh milk and eight maize cobs which in their lives was a huge sacrifice. They would not accept payment but we eventually managed to ply them with a ten birr note.
The next morning we woke up at dawn expecting all the truck drivers to be up and about and trying to extricate the stricken truck. Not a chance! Everyone was obviously sleeping off their hangovers and the trucks only started to show signs of life well after 9 am. Very frustrating for farangis who have places to go. The Ethiopian work ethic leaves much to be desired. They work strictly union hours (despite the fact that their trucks are stuck in the mud) and they don't hesitate to stop working if it gets too hot or they are feeling too dehydrated! As we would have to wait for the truck to be pulled out before we could get through we (read Nev) decided to try and construct an alternative route around the truck. I was game for a little muddy business and grabbed a spade and started digging. After almost an hour of road building however, my spirits started flagging and we (read Penny) decided that we had probably done enough to give the road a go. Well, it took about one second before we were stuck - one back wheel sunk into the sludge and our Landi leaning against the rut at a precarious angle. What we managed to do in one second then took us about four hours of digging, pulling, winching, high-lift jacking and road building to undo! We were absolutely stunned by the way the locals, shepherds, truck drivers (who by this time had stumbled out of their truck cabs), passengers and kids came to our assistance. Everyone pitched in to help us dig the car out of the rut and get it onto safer ground. At one stage we must have had close to 30 Ethiopians all putting their backs into pulling our car our of the mud. It was fantastic and we were only too grateful for their help. In return, Nev helped them to move the truck and lent them our spades and ropes. (I, by this stage, had decamped to the shade of a nearby tree and spent the rest of the afternoon taking photos of the whole lot). For his efforts, Nev developed near to cult status with the locals and has virtually become an honorary Ethiopian. To crown the afternoon, Nev put on a huge show of having a bath in the nearby river - much to the hilarity of the locals, some of whom have never seen a man with such a white tummy! They all commented about how strong and handsome he was and what a good worker. It was hilarious.
After waving goodbye to the trucks and thanking all and sundry for their help we headed off again - after almost seven hours on the road we had done only 500 metres!!!!! We had travelled another three or so kilometres before we rounded another bend and discovered more of the same mud and muck. My heart sank. Just how long was it going to take us to get to Matema?? We got stuck in the next bit of mud without much trouble and were just trying to figure out how to extricate ourselves when a beaten up two wheel drive toyota bakkie/pickup pulled up behind us. The occupants of the bakkie were the most incongruous bunch. The main dude was an enormously fat Sudanese gentleman covered in gold jewellery (whom I christened Puff Daddy because he looked like one of those black American rap stars). Puff Daddy was accompanied by a diminutive Ethiopian called Skinner and with them were two chicks (presumably their wives/girlfriends/significant others). Puff Daddy had bought the bakkie in Addis and was driving it to Khartoum and, as you can imagine, was having rather a lot of trouble with the muddy roads (not having four wheel drive and all) and was just looking for some unsuspecting farangis with a Land Rover filled with recovery equipment to travel in convoy with. It soon became clear that Puff Daddy was not big on physical labour and that poor old Skinner was the prime rock mover, pusher and digger in the bunch. The chicks were useless and were reluctant to get their hands dirty. Skinner and Nev managed to extricate the Landi from the obstacle and we set about trying to manhandle the pickup through the mud (no easy task with Puff Daddy, weighing in at about 200 kg's, sitting in the drivers seat). It took almost two hours of winching and pulling to get the pickup through the obstacle.
No sooner had we packed up the recovery equipment and turned the bend when we discovered yet another bog hole. This time the Landi went through without any hassles but, once again, Puff Daddy and the lads got well and truly stuck. It was almost dark by this stage and Nev was absolutely exhausted after all the efforts with the trucks. It soon became clear that Skinner would not be able to dig the pickup out of the mud so, once again, we got out or ropes and winched them out (Nev was thrilled to be able to use all his recovery equipment and came up with all sorts on ingenious winching methods using a snatch block). Both Nev and I could see where this was leading - we still had over 100 km's to go before we got to Matema and we were going to have to pull Puff Daddy and his crappy pickup every inch of the way. We decided it was best if we parted ways. Reluctantly, Puff Daddy and his crew set off on their own and Nev and I set up camp. After being on the road for almost 12 hours we had travelled 5 kilometres (Av speed 400mph/Max speed 20kmph) - scintillating stuff! We were depressed beyond belief! Day three dawned (by this stage we should have been in Khartoum and we were not even 100km's out of Gonder!) and we set off again. Poor Nev was so stiff he could barely move and his hands and legs were covered with cuts and scratches. To our horror, not two kilometres down the road we met up with Puff Daddy and his motley crew. You guessed it - they were stuck and needed us to pull them out. Puff Daddy's approach to off road driving was to ride his clutch, accelerate and to force his bakkie over rocks, boulders, mud and anything else in his way. It was not long before he had bent his rear bumper beyond recognition and Nev and I could smell that sickening burning smell of his clutch. After a morning of forcing his squealing bakkie over everything and anything the inevitable happened - the clutch on the pickup went. Of course, Puff Daddy was not going to let us off the hook and we ended up having to tow him into the next village. At this point Nev put his foot down firmly! There was no way that we could tow the pickup to the border. We offered to give one of the guys a lift to the next town but the only one who could fit into our car was Skinner. Puff Daddy was dead keen to come with us and tried his damnedest to squeeze into the back seat of our car - it turned out to be a physical impossibility! Puff Daddy was not going to allow Skinner to come along and Skinner had just about had a guts full of the whole situation and had decided he didn't even want to go to Sudan anymore and would catch the first truck back to Addis Ababa. The whole situation ended in an impasse and we eventually agreed to take a message to the next town. We waved goodbye to the sad foursome and the beaten up pickup and were only too happy to be on our way unhindered!
Once we left the pickup behind we made amazingly good time and arrived in the town of Shade at dusk. All customs and immigration formalities need to be completed in Shade although it is another 40 kilometres to the border. The immigration officials were summoned from their houses and arrived just before dark to stamp our passports. As it was too late to proceed we decided to camp in the compound of the immigration office (a neat trick as no locals are allowed in the compound so it was relatively peaceful and habbishat-free). The next morning we completed the last 40 kilometres to the border in record time and arrived on the Sudanese side just after 11 am. Sudanese beaurocracy happens at snails pace. The customs official was big, very black, beaming, was decked out in a uniform two sizes too small and wore no shoes (it was just too hot!) The customs formalities took ages to complete. First the official had to have his breakfast, then we had to have tea (the sweet cinnamony type), then we had to go through all the chassis and engine numbers on the car, then he had to look at our laptop and our cell phone (I think he was just curious to see how it all worked), then we had to pay one dollar, and so it went on and on... Every single official had to look at our passports and everything had to be written out in triplicate and stamped. Finally, after they could not think of anything else to detain us with they let us go. Immigration took just as long with all our details having to be written down in various registers and translated into arabic script. Penelope would seem to be impossible to transcribe into arabic and I am down as anything from Benny to Bene. They seem to be able to handle Neville James! Finally, after going from mud hut to mud hut we were given three days to report to Gedaref to obtain our travel permit and were sent on our way.
The road out of Galibat (the Sudanese border town) is diabolical! It is deeply rutted and rocky. Thankfully though, it was dry. We had not gone half an hour when the car started making the most ominous clunking noise. The car is a subject I have not touched on - quite frankly its a dirty word! We seem to have had endless problems mostly due to the horrendous conditions of the roads. Since we left Addis we have had the bearings in the alternator go, the track rod (which we replaced after Chobe) bent (twice)(luckily Nev is an old hand at straightening it), a fuel leak, the suspension bushes go (which were redone in Kampala). Add to that a torn mud flap, two totally annihilated steps, a blown inverter and a fridge that is no longer working and our car is pretty much in bad shape! The clunking noise was coming from the front suspension bushes which had disintegrated. So, once again we had to stop and do some bush repairs. Nev used some superior ingenuity to create some bushes from some rubber off cuts that we had been carrying with us (thanks Carel!!) but it took us the rest of the day to repair. Day four and we were still only two hundred kilometres from Gonder and miles from Khartoum. Yet another bush camp! We had to be crazy - here we were in the middle of nowhere in a country where there is a civil war and we were merrily setting up camp in the bush! I must admit though that we felt totally safe and the Sudanese people were nothing but charming. No wholesale staring like their Ethiopian counterparts.
Day five saw us setting off in the direction of Gedaref. Luckily, after about two hours, the road cleared up dramatically and we hit Gedaref at lunch time. We reported to the immigration office expecting to have our passports stamped, our travel permits issued and to be back on the road. Of course, nothing is ever that easy! To get a travel permit you need to list all the towns you plan to visit in Sudan and you must obtain permission to travel to each of them. The official laboriously took down our details in arabic script before demanding a whopping four passport photos (of course we only had three each). We then had to pay 600 dinar each in revenue stamps and 350 dinar each for photocopying. Once all these steps had been completed we had to take the forms (which were now in triplicate) to the security office and to intelligence office (??? I guess like the Sudanese CIA) for stamping before the permit could be issued. The immigration official stressed that we needed to have these steps completed before 15h30 in the afternoon when the immigration office closes. Also, for additional fun, the next day was a public holiday so if we could not return to him by 15h30 we would have to wait another two days for our permits. We hurried off to the security office only to find that the official was not there (he was apparently still at prayers). We cooled our heels in the stuffy office watching the secretary shuffle our papers from drawer to drawer in his desk. Eventually Nev was summoned to meet the official and he disappeared through the back door of the office. I was told to wait. Another 10 minutes passed and I was called to see the official. Expecting to be issued into an office, I was surprised to see Nev and the official (who was toffed out in one of those standard African dictator suits) sitting under a tree. The official thought he was James Bond and was determined to expose us for the spies we had to be. After a bout of devastating cross-examination he had managed to extract our ages, professions and the fact that we had a tertiary education (all our answers carefully being recorded on the back of our forms in long hand arabic) and he seemed content that we were in fact not secret agents but merely the tourists we appeared to be and he let us go. By this stage it was just after three and we still had to drive across town to the intelligence office near the market. We had less luck at the intelligence (?? more like unintelligence) office. The official who did the stamping was away, out of state, and they told us they could not help us. We would have to come back the next day. We were incredulous! There had to have been five guys in the office all mooching around but not one of them could help us. The problem was that the stamp had been locked in the official's draw and he had left with the key so no work could happen until he returned (whenever the hell that might be!). At this point I lost it! After five long days of travelling and endless hassles this was just the last straw. Unfortunately, my rantings did not engender much sympathy with the officials who merely told Nev to keep his wife quiet (welcome to the Arab world Penny - now keep your big mouth shut!). My visible distress did seem to move things along a little though and the intelligence officials gave us a letter to give back to the immigration guy. The immigration guy seemed happy with the letter and issued the permits (after we had paid another extortionate 20 dollars each I might add). Finally we were free to go and set off for Khartoum. The road from Gedaref to Khartoum is the most glorious asphalt and probably the best we have seen since South Africa. We sped towards Khartoum feeling that finally our luck had changed.
So that's the saga of the trip between Gonder and Gedaref (every gory detail of it!). Next stop Jordan and Saudi embassies in search of visas. Of course, the arab work ethic seems to be worse than the Ethiopian. Today is a public holiday and everything is closed on Friday so we don't stand much chance of getting anything done this week.
The saga continues.....will keep you posted on the next step.
Hope you are all well
lots of love
Penny and Neville
Ps: For those of you who are following in our tracks, the GPS coordinates for the immigration office are N14 01 55.7 E35 23 02.0 (degrees, minutes, seconds) - trust me, you will need it.