Friday, 17 July 2009

Leaving Sudan

This morning we woke up to the sound of rain, something that we had not at all been expecting here in Sudan.  Maybe that was just a nice way to wrap things up here as so much of Sudan has been totally unexpected, in a very good way.
In the past few days we have made the journey from Atbara and then spent a few days in Khartoum.
Along the Nile, and inland in the desert from Atbara are some of Sudan's best ruins of various sorts.  We jumped off the bus in the middle of nowhere to see the pyramids at Meroe, the most famous of all of the ruins here (  You could tell straight away that it was the most visited site as we were soon met by a camel tout and there were tat sellers near the gate (the first gate we'd seen at an of the ancient sites).  As a total shock to the system as we were wandering around the tombs we found ourselves in the presence of one whole other tourist.  The first in a very long time.  Still travelling south we hired a boksi (a ute of sorts) and headed out into the desert to see the ruins of Naqa and Musawwarat es Sufra.  For these we really did have the place to ourselves as we wandered the very Egyptian looking ruins, only unlike Karnak and Luxor these were a more human size.
Rather than doubling back the 30kms to Shendi, we asked our driver to let our very dusty selves at a petrol station on the road to Khartoum where we hoped that we would be able to rehydrate and flag the next bus heading south.  We lucked in.  Not only did we manage to flag the next bus, but it was the private bus carrying workers from a local petrol company home to Khartoum after their month on the site, and they were happy to take us to Khartoum gratis (provided that we ducked as we went past security checkpoints).  So it was like a wee party bus, everyone was in great spirits and the coke and cold water were flowing freely, not to mention the box meals. 
We were dropped in what we thought was Khartoum 2 and flagged a tuktuk to take us to Sharia 47 to find the YHA.  We had a feeling that our tuktuk driver was lost but after stopping several times people on the side of the road assured us that we were in fact on Street 47 so we jumped out and tried to find the YHA on foot.  The locals we asked had no idea what we were talking about and the only logical thing we could think was that the YHA had closed.  Thankfully before it all got too desperate Paul met an ex-pat David who kindly took us in for a night (which has now turned into a week).
The mystery of Sharia 47 was solved the next day as we got hoplessly lost searching for the Ethiopian Embassy (which should have been about 500m south of this street).  A tuktuk eventually took us north rather than south as we expected to find the embassy, and although it had moved we were still able to follow the map back to the marked Sharia 47... north of the Embassy.  Turns out that, in great African style, there is a Street 47 and an Avenue 47 in about a 4km area, hence the confusion.  Oh, and we found the YHA too!
Having spent enough time lost and wandering we have spent the past few days enjoying more leisurely pursuits, and most enjoyably spending time with some of the locals. 
The Sudanese are unbelievably friendly and generous.  For a country that gets such bad press overseas (some deservedly of course) we have been overwhelmed by just how kind the people here are.
The best two examples of local hospitality here in Khartoum have been Willy and Raz.  Willy met us as we were having breakfast of ful and falafel while sitting on coke crates near to the house the other morning.  After a very brief chat and out of the middle of nowhere he came back to our crate with two bottle of coke and an invitation to spend the day with him.  We ended up meeting the next day, and in great contrast to our original introduction we had cafe au lait and croissant at one of the nice new five star hotels in town. 
Another generous local has been Raz, a member of the Blue Nile Sailing Club.  Late in the afternoon he took us, Trev and Jan out on the water.  We headed a long way up stream and floated back along to some reggae tracks and the sound of the birds - unbelievably cool.  We also had dinner at his house last night and Paul was very impressed with his music room and spent some time teaching Raz how to play the trumpet. 
It's always a little cliched to say that it is the people who make the trip worthwhile but in Sudan that really could not be more true.  We had been expecting a hard couple of weeks here with the heat, roads and the culture but in the end it has been a very enjoyable time.
Today, as our last day in Khartoum, we hope to see the famous Whirling Dervishes, and I hope to have another very special Sudanese coffee from the ubiquitous roadside tea lady. 
We will then be heading to Ethiopia.  All reports so far have told us that the roads are made of the finest impassable mud, the people are demanding and that it will be the rainy season... but the coffee is said to be some of the best in the world and no matter what it's bound to be an adventure.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Top Gear Challange: Sudan

We have been in Sudan now for almost a week, and for the most part it has been an enjoyable place to travel.
Our journey started with the boat from Asawn to Wadi Halfa.  We were lucky to be able to buy an upgrade to "first class" as we were waiting in the queue to get on.   It had no real frills, but at least our box like cabin had AC, so we could sleep rather than push our way to a flat area on deck class.  It seemed that every man woman and child was issued with a fridge, a couple of juicers, several rugs, some grain sacks, a pair of smelly feet and an elderly woman before being able to enter the boat so it was rather crowded.  You could tell the experienced ones as they had travelled with their own chairs, and used their issued supplies to create marked off areas for themselves
Although we are travelling on foot / by public transport we met Trev & Jan (Landrover), and Jase & Mark (motorbikes) in Aswan and our paths have crossed a few times since. As they had to wait for their vehicles to clear customs we got a head start out of Wadi Halfa, heading to Wawa and the Temple of Soleb.  We were winning the Top Gear Challence until about 6.50am the next morning when the bikes passed the town.  The Landrover passed at 7.30.  We should have left town about 7am but we discovered the first ever early African bus, and it zoomed past as we were heading up to the road leaving us to wait a few hours until the next boxi.  Still we met the Landrover just after they said goodbye to the bikes in Dongala that evening, so we were still in the game.
It would seem we are well behind now though.  Over the past few days we have been zooming through the desert roads (all nice an flat now thanks to the Chinese), staying in small towns and enjoying the ruins and most of all the local hospitality.
No matter where we go people are keen to say hello, shake our hands and buy us tea.  Everyone seems very interested in our travels and why on earth we are in Sudan in the hot season!
In Karima we were lucky to meet local businessman Shelly who invited us back to his home for Friday lunch with his family.  His wife was a great cook and his five children were all lovely. His eldest daughter spoke very good english so we were able share lots about their family and what we were doing.   In a bizarre turn of events, on the TV in the background was an episode of Taste NZ all about asparagus, so we even got to show them a little of NZ!  I think that the best bit of all of the was having fresh mangos by the Nile after lunch as the kids went for a swim - just bliss.
Karima has some great temples and pyramids on the outskirts of town so we braved the heat two days in a row to check them out.  It is quite a spectacle to see them rise out of the sand and for there to be nobody else about.
We are now in Atbara.  The is the main junction town on the Sudan railway and has the feel of a place that lots of people move through.  The market sprawls from one end of town to the other and there are so many people selling all manner of water carriers, goats, and slippers made from what looks like hyena skins.  The other noticeable thing here is other foreigners, not tourists but people from nearby countries here for a better life - now I like Sudan, but it's no place of mike and honey so just how bad does life in Eritrea or Chad need to be for this to be a better option?
From here we are aiming for more ancient sites along the Nile before a few days in Khartoum. 
For now we have treated ourselves to some AC to blow the budget and also the dust from ourselves so it is off to the hotel for a couple of hours during the heat of the day...

Sunday, 5 July 2009

A little time in Aswan

Before leaving Britain, and during our journey, one of our consistent concerns was our ability to obtain a visa for Sudan.  There is very little official information available; anything published is probably out of date, and the experiences of other travellers seemed to vary.  In the end we decided that it seemed possible to obtain a visa at the Sudanese consulate in Aswan, rather than  take an unnecessary detour to revisit Cairo.
We still thought it was prudent to give ourselves a week in Aswan to sort things out before the weekly ferry to Wadi Halfa, Sudan, which leaves on Mondays.
As it turned out, it only took half an hour or so at the friendly and efficient consulate to get very impressive, hologram visas in our passports, so we've had most of a week to kill in Aswan.
Having a rooftop pool with Nile views has provided a good default option in the 45 or so degree heat, but we also found a few activities that we missed the last time we were here.
The Nubian museum was a thoroughly excellent introduction to the region we will be travelling through (covering the Nile all the way to Khartoum).  The nearby famous Unfinished Obelisk however is enormously underwhelming, and overpriced - had the ancient Egyptan actualy detached it from the quarry floor, it would have been the largest cut stone eve handled, but they didn't, so it's not (we had also already seen the actual Biggest Stone in the World, also in a quarry, in Baalbek, Lebanon which was actually fully separated from the quarry, and was also free to see).
We have spent a bit of time with Trevor & Jan, a South African / English couple driving their landrover from England to SA (, who we met at our hotel - the Hotel Hathor, apparently managed by Abdul Fawlty.  With them, as a service to help empty the fridge in the landrover, we have had a picnic dinner in a nearby park, much to the curiosity of the Muslim locals may have been even more curious if they knew we were eating pork and drinking beer.  We also took an afternoon felucca cruise on the Nile with Captain Abduah, who had a good selection of anecdotes about previous passengers, including the immodest Canadian, the miser Aussie and non-swimming Japanese.
Less enjoyable activities have included waiting for days to see if there as room for us on the ferry (there is), posting a few items to NZ (3 visits to Customs, 4 visits to the post office, and about 3 hours of Amy's time), and Ali the next door bank security guard, and his quest for baksheesh.
All in all, it has been quite a pleasant stay, but we are getting itchy feet and are looking forward to heading to Sudan tomorrow.  

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Luxor II

As this was our second trip to Luxor in as many years we felt that this visit was a chance to see some of those things that we just simply did not have the time to visit last time.  I'm pleased that we were not running about feeling like we HAD to do anything either as it has been pretty hot here - over 44 most days, if not hotter.

With Angel (who we met at Wadi Rum) we negotiated with a taxi driver to take us up to the Temple of Hapchesut (Deir El Bahri).  He was keen to take us further but the other site we wanted to see were so close it did not justify having him wait about for us to drive us another 500m along the road.  I really feel for the operators in Luxor, and all of Egypt at the moment, not only is it low season, but numbers really are down as people just aren't travelling at the moment.

The Temple looks quite modern as you approach, and we were worried that it was all going to be reconstructed and repaired, if not brand new, when we got there.  The archaeological work had been undertaken by a Polish group and having lived in the UK we knew just how good the Poles could be with their labour.  As we got closer however it was plain to see that while the front of the temple had been reconstructed a little, the inside was full of the ancient, and colourful carvings and paintings. 

After a good explore, finding all the possible shady spots in the Temple, we set about to do a cross country mission over to the Valley of the Nobles. This took us longer than we expected, not because the route was long, but more because a bored security guard and his friend invited us into his shady mud hut for some cool and some tea.  There was no way I was saying no to that!  Over the tea we learnt that, in the past 18 months since our last visit, that their local village had been relocated a couple of kilometres away.  The theory is that beneath their village there are bound to be more temples and tombs to be excavated and preserved, but all the same these local men did not seem happy about the move (although not a bad word was said about the government or the regime).  The plan is to turn Luxor into a great open air museum and it seems that a lot of relocation is required for this.

Valley of the Nobles was so different from our experience in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Artisans that we visited last year.  Smaller than the VOTK, and larger than the VOTA they were great examples of later tombs, with ornate designs and images of the Egyptian highlife.

Luxor seems to have changed a lot.  I can't figure out if it because we are travelling just the two of us, it is the heat of summer, we are staying somewhere different or because there are just so few travellers, but it seems very empty and quiet...

PS - Sorry for no photos... after 45 mins waiting for them to load I gave up, sorry...

Changes in Luxor

For the crew who did our last trip through Egypt with us, here are some photos taken near the hotel we stayed in Luxor. Not only have they taken down the Christmas decorations, but most of the nearby shops have been knocked down to allow for digging the Avenue of the Sphinxes. Given that Egyptian time can mean a two hour delay on a one hour bus ride, for so much to have been altered in such a short time is quite amazing!

Diving in Dahab, Red Sea, Egypt

Finally I have located a PC with a CD drive and have been able to look at our diving photos. These ones really don't do the Red Sea any justice whatsoever, but nonetheless, here is a taste of the world below the surface of thewater.