There was only was one option in it. We’d have to try and hitchhike the 3-and-a-half hours back into Khartoum from the Nubian Meroe Pyramids. The good news is that, for those heading in that direction, they would almost certainly be going to the capital – there was nowhere else to go, really.
That being said, from my (admittedly limited) experience, hitchhiking tended to take a while. In this case, however, it took all of 10 minutes: the first truck emerged from the horizon, and slowly trundled to a stop in response to our waving thumbs. The door swung open, and Ahmed Abdalla grinned down at us.
“Khartoum?” I asked, and he grinned again. We hopped in, squeezing in the broad double passenger seat next to a small family who dared not look us in the eye. They quickly disembarked at the next town.
Ahmed didn’t speak a word of English, but happily chatted away to us in Arabic. The truck was very slow, idyllic; Mervyn and I had more than enough space in the seats with a large bed in the back. I didn’t care how long it took - I was having another one of those gloriously happy trips, where I could sit back, relax, and take in the passing scenery while musing at how I got to this specific place with this specific person at this specific moment in time.
We stopped in another small town someway down the road, where Ahmed insisted on buying us breakfast. It was another sharing experience of bread rolls and dips, sauces and spiced meat, a seismic display of flavour and perfectly filling. We ate with a number of new friends, and were soon back on our way.
The blissfully casual, happy meanderings of our journey, however, soon slammed to a halt. About 60kms outside of Khartoum, we hit a tolling gate - something that should have been a mere formality, where Ahmed is simply waved on his way to the capital.
This was until a policeman saw us in the passenger seats. He immediately ordered us out onto the hot dusty road, and mimed for our passports, which we handed over promptly. He paged through each one, brow furrowed, while I nervously pawed the ground with my feet.
The policeman looked at us: “Not good,” he says, shaking his head again and again. “Not good, not good.” He takes a piece of paper out of his pocket, which says ‘travel permit permission,’ with the passport photo of white woman. “No?” he asked, quizzing us.
We had never heard of such a thing. At no point was it mentioned when applying for visas, nor at the border post, nor in Khartoum where we had had to re-stamp our visa. The policeman started babbling at us in Arabic, shaking our passports, shaking his head, and all we could do was stand there helpless and confused. Ahmed could not help, shrugging his shoulders. Finally, we decided to call Ahmed, our host in Khartoum, who could translate for us.
“That document doesn’t exist anymore but he could still take you and your passports and keep you in jail or something for several days, man. Listen, he’s obviously looking for a bribe. Just give him what you can and get out of there quickly.”
I grimaced at Mervyn. I had gone this far without bribing and I didn’t particularly want to start now. The policeman looked at us sternly, gripping our passports, ticking. There was no other choice – I didn’t have the time (or the willpower) to sit in confinement for several days. We handed him about 20 dollars each, and he slipped it straight into his back pocket. There was no subtlety about it, no shame; he didn’t even bat an eyelid. He gave us back our passports and waved us away.
I was slightly disheartened, and the rest of the drive to Khartoum passed in a blur. We slipped money inside a thank you note for Ahmed, knowing he wouldn’t accept money outright, and found our way back to our host.
The next morning I said my goodbyes to Mervyn and (host) Ahmed, hopping on a bus to Wadi Halfa. The ride was long but the roads were good, on initially flat and arid landscapes inconsistently populated by great walled settlements. Again, through desperate protestations, I was bought breakfast (I don’t think I paid for a single meal in the entirety of my time in Sudan), this time by a man called Abdul.
After we passed Dongola, the ‘green oasis’ shadowing the Nile, the landscape became increasingly hillier, and the road cut through rises and falls. I was somewhat distracted from observing much of what we passed; instead, through many police checkpoints, I observed the ease and consistency with which every passenger simply chucked their rubbish out the bus windows. Looking down, one could not see the dusty floor, but only layers of flattened plastic bottles. It was, in all honestly, a slightly sickening sight that somewhat tempered my immensely favourable view of Sudanese hospitality.
We arrived in Wadi Halfa at about 5pm. It is a small dusty riverside town, seemingly formed at the southernmost point of Lake Nassar as a port for those travelling to or from Egypt. It was from here that I would take a ferry into the last country of my Cape-Cairo public transport adventure – it was one of the trips I had been most looking forward to: travelling some sunset to sunrise, crossing a border on a boat that connected with one of the most famous rivers in the world: the Nile.
I had one more night in Sudan before the ferry was due to leave. After checking into a cheap, dishevelled hostel, I walked North to the edge of the lake and watched the sun shimmer on the water as it set. I had a dinner of bread rolls and dips and sauces and spiced meat, before somehow finding myself with a group of students who invited me to smoke shisha with them. I gladly accepted – it seemed the perfect end to my time in this fascinating country.
No one drinks alcohol or smokes cigarettes, so shisha is a very popular alternative. We sat and smoked different flavours all night, pulling deeply and passing round the circle, and talked as any group of students would. It was all so normal. They were studying geology at Wadi Halfa University, and we talked about girls and football and politics and the future. All throughout, they poked fun at each other, and laughter was never missing from the circle. By the end of the night I had been invited to all their weddings.
Eventually I wandered back to my grotty hostel in a happy daze – the shisha still swirled through my mind but the conversation had my head up in the clouds.
I went through all the immigration procedure the next morning, where I chanced upon Oli and Hugo, a pair of Australian brothers who would become my travelling partners for the next leg of the journey. All expectations and pre-conceived ideas about this country had been torn up, replaced instead by insatiable warmth, and a desire to be understood and accepted. I was not held at arms length but had instead been overwhelmed, overcome, embraced. That being said – my time here had, once again, come to a premature end, such was the realities of my journey. I looked back, promised to return, then faced forward once more: Egypt beckoned.