Monthly Archives: April 2016

HITCH HIKING IN EGYPT – PART I

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© Unbound Ether Photography, 2015

“Not possible,” the soldier said.

I set my bags down at the gate and faced the Egyptian soldier. “Nothing is impossible.”

“Where is your bus?”

I looked around for the cameras. Nope. This was real. “I don’t do buses.”

 

The two truck drivers that were at the gate were also scratching their heads. Again, I went through the long process of trying to explain how I travel and why. As soon as I said, “Car,” the soldier asked for papers.

“No, I don’t have a car.”

“Motorbike?”

“No I–”

“Bicycle?”

“In this heat? No, I get lifts on trucks –”

“Ah, you truck driver.”

I blinked. Do I look like a fuckin’ truck driver?

“No driving.”

“You kadari?” he pointed to his legs and walked on the spot.

Sigh. “Aiwa, kadari.”

“Impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible. Can you please let me in?”

“No key.”

This had to be a joke. The gate to the great land of Egypt was locked and the guy with the key was off on his tea break or sleeping in.

I had managed to go through the comedy that is the Sudanese border for the last two hours, walked past trucks with their drivers sitting and chatting in groups in the shade of their cabs. I greeted them in Arabic. They seemed confounded that I was walking. I’m guessing this doesn’t happen often. That everyone is either in a car, bus, truck, bike or bicycle.

After an hour’s wait, two cars showed up behind me packed with families and luggage. A short fella on the Egyptian side looking every bit the Egyptian in an Egyptian movie opened the gate.

“50 pound,” he said.

“No, I already got the visa,” I showed him on my passport.

The guy checked my visa and grinned up at me. “50 pound entry.”

What is this, a club? An amusement park?

“I don’t have 50 pounds,” I said.

“Yes, 50 pound,” he continued to grin.

I searched my pocket. I had 60 Sudanese pounds. “Can you change currency somewhere?”

“Yes,” he continued to grin, enjoying the torture. “In Sudan.”

Sigh. “You take dollars?”

“No. Egyptian pound only.”

The driver of the first vehicle had stepped out and I approached him, asking if he could change some money with me.

“What do you need?” he asked with a helpful smile.

“50 pounds.” I didn’t even know the exchange rate. “I’ve got 60 Sudanese to change.”

“Here,” he handed me an Egyptian 50 pound note. “Don’t worry about it.”

What?

This guy just offered to pay for my entry into Egypt? “Shukran! Shukran shadida!” I thanked him and gave the short fella the money. He gave me a ticket, tore the end of it and directed me to a window.

“30 pound.”

Huh? “Shu, 30 pound? I just gave you 50.”

“50 entry. 30 customs.”

I blinked. Egypt was my 20th country in three years and I had never come across such a system. I paid $20 USD for the visa in Addis and now I was also paying at the gate. But everyone was lining up to pay. My time was short as I had to beat the bus crowds otherwise I’d be stuck in a line from here to Cairo.

I approached the window.

“Do you take Sudanese pounds?”

“No. You can change dollars in the cafeteria.” He took my passport as collateral and I headed over.

“One dollar is eight pounds,” said the kid.

I handed him a $5 note. He seemed to struggle with the calculation. “Arbaim,” I said. 40. He handed me two 20s and I high-tailed it to the customs guy who gave me 10 pounds change.

I was then directed to the security check, my bags going through an X-ray machine, the first time since Singapore that my bags went through such scrutiny. I was body-searched and collected my packs.

“Where do I go?” I asked the bag man.

He pointed to an area across the tarmac. I headed over to a closed window. A bus had pulled up from the Sudanese side and people were pouring out, clambering around me and the window. A silver-headed Egyptian man lightly conversed with me.

“I am Mustafar,” he introduced himself. I saw him fill out a card and grabbed one “Don’t worry, you are first. Number one. Welcome in Egypt.”

I grinned. He was from Giza and told me how he had climbed the pyramids, sat on the top and read a book while observing all the tourists below. Another bus had pulled in and more people were clambering around the still-closed window.

I bumped into the gentleman with the striped purple shirt – Abubaker. “We meet again,” I grinned as he smiled back.

A line of about a hundred people had formed and I was number one, at least according to Mustafar. We waited by the window for about an hour. When it finally opened, the customs officer took his time to wipe down his desk, brush off his uniform, receive a glass of tea from a colleague, check that his stamp had the right date, stare at me and then take Mustafar’s passport.

Mustafar told the officer to take mine next to which the officer grinned. He did as requested and looked at my photo then at me. I was wearing my gamcha, a colourful Indian fabric I was using as a head wrap (it’s amazing how fabric can really block out the sun’s heat), sunglasses and a beard.

In my passport photo I have short hair and I’m clean-shaven.

He indicated for me to remove my wrap and sunnies. I did as commanded and smiled. He looked at the photo and then at me and then back at the photo before he grinned and stamped my visa. I breathed.

“Wait five minutes,” he said, taking the next passport, putting mine on top of Mustafar’s.

Five minutes? For what? I sat by the wall. Mustafar had disappeared but found me.

“Don’t worry, they give it back,” he assured me.

Sure enough, ten minutes later I was handed my passport.

“Welcome in Egypt!” Mustafar slapped my hand firmly.

I grinned, grabbed my packs, got his number and arranged to maybe visit him in Giza and headed off for the gate where four uniformed cops sat with Ray Ban knock-offs looking like they had stepped out of an Indiana Jones movie.

I handed over my passport.

“Where is your bus?”

Not a-fuckin’-gain. “I don’t do buses.” I went, for the seventh time that morning, through the long process of trying to explain how I travel and why. As soon as I said, “Car,” they asked for papers.

“No, I don’t have a car.”

“Motorbike?”

“No I–”

“Bicycle?”

“In this heat? No, I get lifts on trucks –”

“Ah, you truck driver.”

I blinked. Do I look like a fuckin’ truck driver?

“No driving.”

“You kadari?” The cop pointed to his legs and walked on the spot.

“Aiwa, kadari.”

“Impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible. Can I please go?”

“La wen?”

“Aswan.”

I was handed back my passport and stepped through the gate. I took five steps before I was called back.

The cop spoke fast Arabic but I picked out, “Majnun,” Crazy and, “Hamsin kilo,” which I took to meaning 50 degrees. He gestured that he would arrange a ride for me and that I sit in the shade. It was better than walking through the desert in this heat.

After an hour an officer showed up and asked the cops why I was sitting there.

“He’s crazy, wanted to walk out in this heat. It’s 50 degrees. I said I’d get him a ride,” the movie star explained.

After an hour and a half a van pulled up and I was put on it. I’m not exactly sure what the cop was telling me but I’d figure it out once I hit the highway.

And boy, did we hit it.

The speedometer on Raus’s van showed 140 K’s an hour. Luckily, the roads were smooth. But the road abruptly ended on the banks of the Nile River. Unlike in Sudan, the Nile here had absolutely no greenery around it. It was simply desert and then water.

Strange, I thought.

A barge came to dock. We drove on and I was greeted by Zakaria.

“My cousin in Aswan has hotel. He can help you,” he said after I explained how I barter. I took his cousin’s number.

“What’s his name?”

“Mohammed.”

Of course it is.

img_1780The barge began to leave the sand bank and we were already a hundred metres out when we reversed back. A bus and truck had arrived.

Ah, I looked at the truck, there’s my hitch. The bus rolled on and its passengers emptied. Mustafar and Abubaker among them. We conversed and I explained my travels and philosophy. He was quite taken by it and then Raus came up to me and said something in Arabic.

My new friend translated for me. “He said he will get you on the bus. No payment.”

I tapped my chest to show my gratitude and shook his hand. “Shukran!”

Then Zakaria demanded I bring the guitar out. He took me up to the captain’s bridge to play for him and Ahmed and Captain Zibodi while they took photos and shot video. I came back down and waited for the men to finish their prayers and played some tunes. Cameras were whipped out and I was videoed from all angles.

I even got a man on crutches to dance. The vibe on the boat was amazing. So much positive energy it was incredible. Everybody seemed to be chattering about me in Arabic. A kid even gave me an ivory carved necklace piece.

Not that I do ivory. I wasn’t sure how to take it but I couldn’t refuse. I’ll have to give it to someone on my travels.

Who just hands over ivory like that?

Finally the driver and conductor were approached by the crowd and I was given a seat on the bus.

I couldn’t believe it. The way the day had started and how everything turned out once I switched my focus to positivity. We reached the port town of Abu Simbel where the temple of Ramses II is located and rolled off the barge. As we pulled out some soldiers came on board and a shouting match happened between them and a couple seated just before the back door. I looked out the window so as not to draw attention to myself.

They grabbed the woman which got the man up and the driver and conductor had to intervene. The soldiers seemed extremely pissed off. A bit of tension was left in the air when they debarked from the bus and we drove into the town and stopped for lunch.

“Twice a year the sun comes in at just the right angle,” Yasser, a local restaurant manager was telling me about the Ramses temple. “We have a big festival here twice a year. People from all over the world come for it.”

It was a UNESCO heritage site on the banks of Lake Nasser, the world’s largest artificial lake. Created when the Egyptians built a dam back in 1954, the world had united in coming together, thousands of archaeologists, architects, engineers and labourers had worked day and night, from 1959 to 1980, to move and relocate 22 monuments between Aswan and Khartoum to save them from the rising waters created by the high dam.

“Twice a year, on October 22 and February 22 the sun comes in and lights the temple at a very precise angle,” Yasser continued to explain.

It used to be on the 21st of each month but after they moved the monuments it had changed.

As we conversed Abubaker joined us. “We’d like you to join us for lunch,” he pointed at a table covered with fried tilapia (fish from the Nile), rice and salad.

“I’d be honoured,” I said gratefully. “What happened back there on the bus?”

“They said the woman took photos of the military post,” he explained.

One way to piss off soldiers in a country that is ruled by the military is to do just that.

After lunch, I chatted a bit more with Yasser before we got back on the road. “You must come and see the temple,” he said.

“I gotta leave something for next time,” I waved.

The ride to Aswan took about three hours. I was seated in the middle of the back bench and could see the entire bus. It was like a school camp trip. Everybody was singing, clapping, laughing. A Sudanese comedy program was on and I enjoyed the slapstick of it.

Towards our approach to Aswan, Abubaker came and sat with me. We talked about how Western values had become materialistic, how capitalism was disconnecting us.

“I used to live in the UK but life there is so stressful,” he said. “I came back to Sudan to be more free.”

Now that’s saying something.

“In the West people are lead to believe that they need to consume more stuff,” I pointed out my observations of the last three years. “That they need a big house, a fancy car and high walls to protect themselves. No one knows who their neighbours are. In Sudan I noticed that the doors are always open.”

We talked for almost an hour about the obvious truth. “Only a handful of people control the world,” I said. “We are 7.4 billion. We need to start a revolution, take back the power so we can live freely.”

We arrived at the bus terminal in Aswan where I called Mohammed, Zakaria’s cousin.

“I’ll come get you in my car,” he said.

I waited with Abubaker and the man with the crutches who I had gotten to dance and air-guitar on his support and his family. He suffered from a kidney issue and had come to Egypt for medical treatment.

“I will take a holiday in Alexandria for a month,” he grinned.

He was such a joyful bubble of life and contagious about it. He had his whole family with him, three kids, the wife, the wife’s sister. We were taking photos while talking about the Sufi as he was from Omdurman, where I had been staying.

“You know, it’s amazing,” I said. “I never thought of Islam as a happy religion. The West always portrays it as such a closed off, evil thing but everybody is so open, so welcoming. Although, I’ve been to Indonesia and Malaysia and they were a bit more closed off.”

“We have a saying here,” the crutched man said, “Bin hibele haya – I love life.” He was grinning. “We are African Muslims. Africans love to laugh, to sing, to be happy. We love life.”

He wasn’t wrong. I’d been in Africa over two years now and I’d never come across a happier people. Peaceful, respectful, open, warm and welcoming. Africa is amazing and I’ll be sad to leave it in 19 days.

I had started the day ready to throw my bags down. And now, reflecting on the last 14 hours, I couldn’t stop grinning.

“Welcome in Egypt,” echoed Mustafar’s voice.

Indeed, welcome in Egypt.

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Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Egypt, Hitch Hiking | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

HITCH HIKING IN SUDAN – PART VI – THE FINALE

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© Unbound Ether Photography, 2015

“Inshallah we help you,” Assad kept repeating in the morning when I arrived early to what was now a bus-filled, people-crowded terminal.

Mohammed was nowhere in sight and my predictions of his unwantingness to help turned out to be right. When Mazin appeared I asked him to translate to Assad that if he can’t assist with a ticket, could I please get a lift to the border.

But the kid struggled to understand the word ‘border’ and in the end I thanked him, grabbed my packs and stormed off into the desert.

I was pissed off. My packs were heavy, I was drenched in sweat and there wasn’t a single car on the road. I asked directions for the border not knowing how far it was and began to hike. I stopped for some water stored and cooled in clay pots and continued on. I must have hiked 4 Ks in sweltering heat before the police pick-up picked me up.

“Mas’ir?” I asked. Egypt?

“Tfa’del,” grinned the officer. Please.

I hopped in the tray thankful for the wind that dried my shirt within five minutes. The ride was almost an hour through the desert.

Jesus, they really know how to put a border out in the middle of nowhere.

The Goustol border crossing between Sudan and Egypt was one of the most complex borders I’ve ever crossed. Every border I’d been through I’d get stamped out of one country, stamped into the next and off I went. A matter of half an hour.

But here?

Oh here is where the fun begins.

“Salam al-yekum,” I cheerfully greeted an officer. “Where do I get stamped?”

He directed me to a window. I placed my gear down and whipped out my passport. Sudan is the first country out of the 19 I’ve been too in the last three years that I’ve had to walk around with my passport on me at all times. It’s quite annoying but I’d grown accustomed to it after 11 days in the desert nation.

At the window I greeted the officers in the caravan office and waved my passport. The officer pointed to the next window.

At the window was a photocopy machine. A voice behind me spoke up. “Where are you going?”

I turned around to the tall Sudanese in a striped purple shirt. “Mas’ir.”

“Go through there,” he pointed at the door in perfect English. “You are not Sudanese. You don’t have to pay an exit fee.”

An exit fee? Mo was right. I mean, I wouldn’t have to pay an exit fee but the locals did.

I was directed into a large hall packed with people and luggage strewn all over the tiled floors, Arabic thrown around at every volume. It was as though chaos was leaning against the wall, watching it’s handy work unfold.

I was taken to a counter where I filled out an exit card. The tall striped purple shirt gentlemen appeared again, like some guardian angel. He translated some of the Arabic the customs folk were throwing at me. I was then directed to another counter where another card was filled out for me and my passport was finally stamped. I then headed to the door when an officer blocked my way.

“Where you go?”

“Mas’ir.” I think it’s pretty obvious if I was heading in that direction.

“Where is your bus ticket?”

Bus ticket? “I don’t do buses.”

As I began the long process of trying to explain how I travel, the officer simply blinked with a blank look on his face. As soon as I said, “Car,” he asked for papers.

“No, I don’t have a car.”

“Motorbike?”

“No I–”

“Bicycle?”

“In this heat? No, I get lifts on trucks –”

“Ah, you truck driver.”

I blinked. Do I look like a fuckin’ truck driver?

“No driving.”

“You kadari?” The officer, with raised eyebrows, pointed to his legs and walked on the spot.

Sure. “Aiwa, kadari.”

“Impossible.”

Sigh. “Nothing is impossible. Can I please get to Egypt?”

“Go over there. Check luggage.”

I looked over where a hundred people where shoving their luggage forcefully onto the counter where one, single, sunglass-wearing customs official walked up and down, grinning like Pablo Escobar, feeling bags and placing little blue stickers on them.

I turned to the officer that was seated on the beach. According to his shoulders, he seemed to have some sort of rank. “One guy?” I said. “Wahad?”

He shrugged.

I shook my head in disbelief. This had to be some sort of movie. I moved in, trying to be polite when a guy cut in front of me.

Sonofa –

Seeing how all pleasantries went out the window I followed suit and shoved his bags aside. “There’s a line, habibi,” I said without smiling and pushed in. Everyone who had luggage on the counter had their bags open. I’ll be an elephant’s testicle if I’m about to unpack my gear. I opened my small pack. The officer came by and felt up my guitar case.

“Oud?”

“Guitar.”

He touched my large pack. “Clothes,” I indicated my T-shirt.

He almost touched my small pack (watch it) before placing the tiny blue stickers on each bag. Breathing a sigh of relief I then headed for the door.

“Go there,” an officer pointed to a small office. “Search.”

“I was just searched.”

He touched his pants pockets. “Search.”

Ah, body search. I headed over and was searched with the lightest of touches on my pockets. I could smuggle an elephant across this border if this was the level of security. I got a tiny blue sticker on my passport and finally – I think – made it to the door.

“Thank you visit Sudan,” said the officer at the door I had tried to go through three times.

I grinned.

I stepped into the baking sun and saw a couple of buses parked and as I looked around a bit lost, the same officer from the first window came to me.

“Where is your bus ticket?”

Blink.

Did we not just go through this? I repeated my mime. He called over another officer.

“Bus ticket?”

Was this some sort of Just For Gags special?

I repeated the mime and even though he didn’t seem too convinced he made a few calls to get an officer to unlock the gate for me.

“Shukran,” I said. “Sudan kiff tam’am.” Sudan is great.

I was sad to leave this desert land. Yes, it was unbearably hot and I had almost broken down this morning but my good friend, The Universe, as usual, had crossed my path with the right people.

Even if they struggled to understand my concept.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Sudan | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

HITCH HIKING IN SUDAN – PART V

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© Unbound Ether Photography, 2015

“La wen?” asked the just-arrived officer in plainclothes.

“Wadi Halfa,” I said and for the 15th time that day explained my travel ways.

“You eat?”

“No.”

He turned to the woman that was running the roadside shack restaurant where I was hiding from the oven conditions of the sun and ordered me a plate of ful (fava beans) followed by some tea. This was the shift I needed in the energy that had gone from positive to the edges of negativity. The day had started great, as most do with me. Ahmed had showed up around nine and took me to the highway, dropping me off at the police checkpoint.

It was here that I’d break my record for the longest wait in the three years I’d been on the road (and a sea and ocean crossing). Standing in the 45-degree heat of desert sun for the next five hours, having tea and breakfast with the police who struggled to find me a ride to Wadi Halfa.

Not a single vehicle had stopped for me. Not even to ask me where I was going. Not even the buses.

When I saw two trucks on the horizon I was joyful, knowing they had to be heading to Wadi Halfa. But eight buses suddenly appeared – full-sized coaches – and parked for a police check right in my hitching area – right as the trucks went by.

Merde.

The buses pulled out after an hour, my fourth, and I knew that I needed a shift if I was going to get out of this desert. That’s when the new officer arrived, fed me and decided it was time for me to reach my destination. I felt renewed and as I was sipping the tea I saw the trucks.

And no buses to block my way.

I shot the hot tea, almost burning my throat, handed the glass back to the lady, thanked her and hurried to the road just as the officer stopped a truck. He waved me over, indicating to bring my stuff.

Finally!

I hopped on, thanked the officer and off I went to Wadi Halfa with an Egyptian trucker who didn’t speak a word of English and was enjoying what sounded like some imam quoting phrases from the Quran over the radio.

After almost four hours of driving we stopped for dinner in the middle of nowhere, eating some overcooked chicken and bread and then sipping tea. The driver brought out a waterpipe (houka) and smoked some tobacco through it before we continued on into the night.

We arrived late at the police checkpoint of Wadi Halfa where I hopped off. A cop sleeping on a bed outside stirred awake and tried to intimidate me to go to town for a hotel.

“No sleep here,” he said angrily.

I smiled and said, “Ah-huh. Lemme go talk to your chief.” Asshole.

The chief was more than delighted to provide me with a place to sleep. He called over an officer who had a twitch and he took me to where the water jugs were. He pointed to the matted area. It looked like a praying spot and the Quran books proved my detection to be correct. I took my sandals off before stepping in and was about to unpack my bedding when another officer showed up.

“Muslim?” he asked.

“No.”

“Then cannot sleep here.” He pointed to where a tuk-tuk and motorbike were parked. “Sleep there.”

I moved and rolled out a mat that was on the wall and shut my eyes. At about three in the morning I was stirred awake by what sounded like a large, stadium sized speaker in distortion.

In my ear.

I quickly realised what it was.

Back in Oz, as I was driving through the Kakadu National Park in the Northern territory in the second month of my nomadic travels, I pitched a tent by Jim’s billabong (a billabong is a watering hole. May or may not contain crocodiles). As the sun had set, I was swamped by mosquitos. The noise was deafening and I thought that they would collectively carry my tent off with me huddled inside.

I covered my face with my gamcha and could do nothing but wait it out.

At 04:30 about six buses pulled over and the passengers spilled out. All the men headed over to where I was supposed to initially sleep.

And began to pray.

But then some women came and hung around me.

“They want to pray,” said a passing police officer.

And I was on their mat.

I got and packed up my gear and the police provided me a free ride on a tuk-tuk – to the bus station.

For fuck’s sake.

The tuk-tuk driver was overly eager to get me to the station and when we almost flipped I almost slapped the guy.

“Shwaeh-shawaeh, ah?” I said angrily.

I didn’t just survive five hours of desert sun and a night of mosquitoes to be taken out by an overeager tuk-tuk driver. He calmed down and plumped me at the station where I managed to call Mo from Hassan, an Ethiopian with a juice bar. Mo explained to the guy who didn’t seem like he was too keen to even direct me in the right direction until his friend showed up.

“Come,” I was escorted to the bus ticketing office where I again called Mo and he translated for the bus guy my concept.

“So he says because it’s Friday the borders are closed,” he explained as I took back the phone. “But he’ll try to help you with a ticket tomorrow at seven.”

The guy, Mohammed, didn’t seem too keen to help.

“He’s afraid that you’ll have trouble at the border because you have to pay to leave the country.”

What? “Pay to leave the country?” That’s a first. “Tell him not to worry. I’ll be fine.”

Mo translated. Mohammed didn’t seem convinced and I asked if I could hang out in the shade for the day.

“Aiwa.”

Towards the afternoon prayers I found myself surrounded by Egyptian bus drivers. I chatted some Arabic with them and then a kid asked me to play music. As soon as I strummed Folsom Prison Blues five cameras were whipped out and I was videoed from all angles.

One stall had a speaker I could plug Ol’ Red into and so I fired her up and echoed around the empty terminal, the mosque intimidatingly just across the way. But I managed to time it right and unplugged the guitar just before the afternoon prayers. I packed her away and by the evening met Mazin, a young 20-year-old kid who spoke English.

“Where are you sleeping?” he asked. “Have you eaten?”

“Groosh mafi,” I grinned. “And I don’t know where I’ll sleep. Maybe here,” I pointed to the bed he was using as a bench.

In three years of travel I’ve never once worried where my head will lay. I know that if Ol’ Red didn’t help provide something then the energy I was very observant of projecting would help guide me to a safe bed.

He blinked. “Wait,” he said and disappeared.

He returned about an hour later and told me to follow him. Straight into a restaurant. He fed me grilled chicken with rice and a bottle of Sprite and then told me to grab my bags.

“I’ll organise a bed for you.”

I couldn’t believe it. I’d been waiting the whole day for some sort of sign from the Universe that things were heading in the right direction and it presented itself in the form of this generous kid on his way to Khartoum.

What a legend.

He got me a bed in a hallway of an over-packed hotel. I showered and hit the sack. I didn’t have an alarm but knew that the five o’clock call to prayer would wake me.

The hotel was packed with men and to my surprise, not a single one snored.

What a fuckin’ day.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Sudan | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

JEBEL BARKEL & HITCH HIKING IN SUDAN – PART IV

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“Allah Wakbar,” the muezzin woke me up at sunrise.

The night had passed without incident, aside the mysterious ceremony, and I had enjoyed a restful sleep. I hopped outta the hammock, packed away everything and grabbed my camera to race across the desert to the Pyramids of Jebel Barkel.

Jebel Barkal served as a royal cemetery during the Meroitic Kingdom. Which might explain the cemetery at its base. That’s when my brain clicked. The ceremony I had witnessed from the shadows of my hammock during the night was a funeral.

The earliest burials here date back to the 3rd century BCE and the pyramids pre-date the infamous Egyptian ones.img_1754

Jebel means ‘mountain’ but at 98 meters, the sand and rock point looked more like a mound. It used to serve as a landmark for traders back in the day. At its baseת the historical city of Napata is located and in 2003, the mountain, together with the city were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The pyramids shone golden as the sun came up behind me. I raced across the desert sands to beat the sun as it would heat up to 30 degrees in no time and then I also had to race back to get my packs and hike it to the highway.

The road was only 200 meters away but in 30+ degrees it may as well be 200 kilometers away.

img_1774There are about 15 pyramids in the area which date back to 1450 BCE when the Egyptian Pharaoh, Thutmose III, extended his empire south and considered Jebel Barkel its southern limit. He had campaigned near the city of Napata which would become the capital of the independent Kingdom of Kush about 300 years later.

The ruins around Jebel Barkal include at least 13 temples and three palaces, discovered for the first time by European explorers in the 1820s. But it wasn’t until 1916 that scientific archaeological excavations revealed more. The larger temples, such as that of Amun, are considered sacred to the locals.img_1752

I snapped some photos and raced back to collect my gear. The sun, already heating this desert oven to its baking capacity, rose up fast behind the Nile. Hittin’ the road I managed a ride but the driver misunderstood and dropped me at the bus station in town.

Not again.

I explained to the bus folk what I was trying to do. “Groosh mafi,” I said.

“No problem,” grinned the driver.

After an hour I was told to place my bags on the roof of the bus and presented with a seat.

I was not enjoying this. I wanted to hitch hike, to find that person that would stop with good intentions in their heart. I mean, yes, these folks had the most amazing kind-heartedness about them but they were missing my point.

Or I was missing the way to express it properly.

The bus took us through the desert for three hours until we hit Dongola where I called up Ahmed from some guys in a street-side restaurant. He explained to them where I could meet him and they escorted me a half-hour through the backstreets of Dongola.

They didn’t ask for money. They didn’t say they were too busy. They simply hung up the phone, told me to follow them and off we went. I thanked the guys and Ahmed directed me to get into his Hilux. He put me in a hotel by the airport and disappeared for the day.

“I have to go to Karma for work,” he explained. “It’s 60 kilometers away.”

“No worries, mate,” I said. I was tired, hot and couldn’t be bothered to do anything.

“I’ll come back in the evening and we catch up.”

I stayed in the room with the fan on full and spent the day showering and catching up on some photo editing. I was offered an omelette and dinner but Ahmed never returned. I guess he was out late and was just as knackered as I had been.

I figured in the morning he’d arrive and maybe he could take me to the highway.

Wadi Halfa was next on the map.

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HITCH HIKING IN SUDAN – PART III

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© Unbound Ether Photography, 2015

“La wen?” I asked the truck driver.

“Kasame,” he grinned.

When I saw him smile at me from the road I knew he’d stop.

After Omar had put me on a taxi and escorted me to the highway and left I met Hamdu who beckoned me to join him for some shai (tea).

He provided me a bag of peanuts and showed me how to mix it with the tea. He indicated his bicep to show that this was the stuff that created strength. In Addis Ababa I’d had coffee with butter. Now I was about to try tea with peanuts. To my surprise, it went great together and I felt rejuvenised.

“Shukran,” I shook hands with my new rafik (friend) and headed back to the road when not twenty minutes had passed and I stopped Awad and his dump truck. The main problem at this four-way junction was that the whole area was surrounded by cement factories and that’s where all the trucks were going.

Awad took me across the bridge over the Nile and indicated that the police at the check point would help me. I thanked him and headed over to the little outpost.

“Salam al-yekum,” I greeted the officers. “Kiff tam’am?”

“Tam’am,” they answered with a smile.

I explained in Arabic my ways and that I was looking for a ride to Meroe, to see the pyramids. They offered me a 50 pound note which I refused and managed to explain that I don’t do money.

“Don’t like it,” I said.

I whipped out Ol’ Red and played some tunes to their amusement. They offered me tea and some shade to rest. After a few hours a plainclothes police officer appeared.

“Mohammed,” he introduced himself.

We shook hands. He spoke some broken English but enough to understand.

“La wen?” he asked me.

“Ana ma’ashi Meroe,” I answered.

“Me too,” he said. “We go together.”

After about an hour a double-trailer loaded with cement bags pulled up.

“Bring your packs,” Mohammed said. “We take this truck.”

It was good to get out of the sun. The truck had tinted windows and plush seats.

“Why don’t you like money?” the officer asked me.

“If people are willing to kill for money, then it cannot be a good thing,” I said.img_1720

He nodded in agreement. We trucked along and after about three hours stopped outside his police station. It was smack bang in the middle of absolutely nothing.

“Come, we have coffee,” Mohammed took me over to Driss’s coffee shop. “Then, later, the police car is going to Meroe (pronounced, Mar-a-weh). You will go with it.”

Sweet! “Shukran,” I tapped my chest to indicate my heart-felt gratitude.

img_1716I was introduced to the joyful old man, Driss (don’t let the picture fool you), who has been in his hollow shack for 40 years. I noted the knife sheathed strapped to his bicep, hidden under his jellabiya.

“Many Europeans riding their bicycles and motorbikes stop here for coffee and tea,” Mohammed explained.

I brought out Ol’ Red and played a few songs as the guys around me whipped out their phones and videoed me. This was a first. I mean, I’ve been videoed before (no, not porn) but never to the extent of three cameras in my face.

Coffee was served and I was introduced to another Mohammed driving a truck.img_1723-bw

“Dongola,” he said in question to where he was going.

“Ah, I’d like to reach Barkel, to see the pyramids,” I said. “Do you pass there?”

“No,” he said. “I take the other road.”

Damn it. There were two roads, one on each bank of the Nile. The western road goes through Karima where Barkel sits. The eastern one doesn’t.

“But you play nice music and I like your concept. I’ll take you.”

I couldn’t believe it! Ol’ Red had just scored us a ride. I shook hands with everybody, grabbed my gear and piled into Mohammed’s rickety old truck.

Since Kenya I’d been avoiding the trucks, taking as many cars as I could stop, taking trucks when I got desperate. But here in Sudan, everything was flat so any vehicle would do. Hell, I’d take a donkey and cart if it saved me not walking in this heat.

As we drove, Mohammed indicated two fingers on his shoulder. “Him colonel,” he was talking about the other Mohammed, the plainclothes officer.

“Cool,” I pretended to be impressed. I see everyone as a person – or at least, try to. Figures of authority don’t really impress me whether they’re generals or corporals.

We drove towards the sun and stopped in the middle of nowhere where other trucks had gathered. It was a roadside restaurant and dinner was ful in sesame oil and goats meat. We sat in two circles and ate from the same plate. It was my favourite way of eating, sharing from the same utensil rather than having an own plate.

After the guys prayed, I jammed some tunes while coffee was being served. Then Mohammed, having finished his beverage simply called out, “We go,” and headed off to the truck.

I quickly packed up Ol’ Red, shukraned everybody and chased after him. We drove into the night through the town of Karima, passing the cement truck that had taken me before. We stopped by a broken down truck – “My brother,”  Mohammed said – before we continued on a bit and he dropped me by the pyramids.

I thanked him and plodded across the sand. I could see the outlines of the pyramids Jebel Barkel, the mountain that used to serve as the landmark for traders going between central Africa, Arabia and Egypt. I hiked to the lights of the town up ahead. But I passed an empty thatched shaded area where the posts that held the roof were palm tree trunks. It screamed out, ‘Hang a hammock here!’

So I did.

I climbed in and was about to doze off when I heard a car. I froze, the wind blew me side-to-side. The car drove past and stopped out of my sight. Suddenly floodlights illuminated the area. I was still in the shadows and as long as I didn’t move, I shouldn’t draw any attention to myself. From where I was I could see and count six men walking along what looked like a fence-line but there wasn’t a fence. A car rolled up behind them and stopped by a post. Then the men began to dig. The sign to Elbarkel said, Elbarkel Festival. Perhaps this was in preparation for it. As it was way too hot in the day to do anything but drink tea, I guess these guys work at night. I watched for a bit until I dozed off. I’m not sure how long I was out for but when I woke up I suddenly saw that the six men had multiplied into about a hundred, all chanting to Allah. And the lone car had turned into about fifteen.

Was this some sort of secret ceremony? Was a virgin being sacrificed? I was not in the mode for a rescue operation. I remained still, just the wind blowing me about and watched as the men all chanted in harmonious unison, “Allah wakbar,” repeatedly.

After about a half hour the men began to disperse into the various mini-buses, cars and tuk-tuks that were parked. Not a single vehicle found me out and as the last men disappeared I breathed a sigh of relief.

And hoped someone would turn off the stadium lights.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Sudan | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

HITCH HIKING IN SUDAN – PART II

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© Unbound Ether Photography, 2015

“No problem,” said the station manager. “You will ride, free of charge.”

I blinked at him and then at Mo. “I told him about your lifestyle,” my Sudanese brother grinned. “He loves the concept. We have to be here tomorrow at seven in the morning.”

I warmly shook hands with Imam, the station manager. I’ve risen in love with Sudan, its people, its openness to welcoming foreigners (those who aren’t American or British), its food and its generosity. Being my 19th country in almost three years, I’ve never come across a people who are not only happy to help, but are really happy to help.

“It’s part of the Muslim culture,” Mo explained when I complained how people just won’t let me hitch hike and put me on a bus and tell me, No problem. No charge.

“Which is not what I want,” I told him. “I don’t want people to pay for me to get somewhere. I want to experience the trucks and cars, see which drivers will stop for me and create new friendships, new people to enter my ever growing circle of family love that I’ve felt along my travels.”

Mo shrugged. “It’s how we do.”

Besides, it was the wrong time of year for hitching. I mean, there’s hot, then there’s fucking hot.

And then there’s offensively hot.

Sudan? Sudan is fucking offensively hot.

The earth here is scorched by the sun, the heat bouncing back off the sand and road, paint jobs on cars are half-melted, the air is hot and the wind is hot. Yet, no one is grumpy.

“People here pull their beds out of their homes and sleep on the street in front of their house,” Mo mentioned.

And indeed, in the evenings, a cool desert breeze does blow, making the outside tolerable and even comfortable for sleep. Especially when the Milky Way is the last vision you see before you head off to slumberland. In fact, I had noticed when Tarik took me around town and we stopped by his friend’s place, that all doors are always open.

“Nobody locks their home here,” I noted.

“Nope,” Mo grinned. “It’s open house everywhere.”

And so, with my brain half-melted by the sun, I figured a train-ride might be the best way to go. But I’ve never hitched a ride on a train before. Then again, I’ve done a few things I’ve never done before in the last three years.

On Monday morning, after a week full of epic jam sessions with Mohammed (Mo), Mohammed (Mungi) and Mohammed [Rasheed (99.9% of Sudanese men are named Mohammed)], hanging out with artists and eating some amazing food it was time to head north.

I only had 15 days on my transit visa and I had spent six in Khartoum. I had just over a thousand kilometers to cover to reach Wadi Halfa, the town bordering Egypt.

Mungi had called his friends in the towns I’d be stopping in to arrange for me to be hosted. Mo had a guy in Atbara.

“His name is Omar,” he gave me his number. “He’ll take care of you.”

The outline was to take the train to Shendi, from Shendi hitch about an hour south to see the pyramids of Begarawiyah, pre-dating the famous Egyptian ones. And much smaller in size. From there, head north, another 150 K’s to Atbara and spend the night at Omar’s before heading west to the pyramids of Jebel Barkel (Jebel means ‘mountain’) on the outskirts of Kerima. Once those were checked, head up to Dongala for the night where Ahmed awaited me and then on to the final 400 K’s to Wadi Halfa.

The train was a little disappointing. I was hoping for a rickety ol’ classic train of the likes you could sit on the windowsill and dangle your legs over the desert sand, watching camels and donkeys trudging through the heat.

Sudan has Eurostar-styled bullet trains with air-conditioned carriages, plush seating, cooler drinking corners and toilets. It didn’t have curtains which I discovered might be quite a useful thing when sitting on the eastern side of the carriage with an early morning sun.

I whipped out my gamcha, an Indian fabric the Gypsy Queen had presented me with and covered myself and half the window with it while I utilised the time to catch up on some writing. I was placed in the locomotive where eight seats were reserved for staff and crew.

Three hours of chugging through the desert, past small settlements of clay houses and agriculture fields we reached Shendi. I approached a local and asked how I could reach Begarawiyah.

Turns out he’s a taxi driver but when I told him, “Groosh mafi,” no money, he pointed in the direction I needed. I cheerfully thanked him with, “Shukran,” and walked down the road.

Within minutes I was drenched in sweat.

Fuck, it’s hot. I’ll melt if I continue. I’ll be the first hitch hiker to die of stupidity and dehydration and sunstroke and heatstroke and sunburn. Although, I did notice that in Sudan you don’t really burn. You roast slowly but you don’t burn.

I reached an intersection and a billboard created some shade where I set up shop. A tuk-tuk driver pulled over. I explained my ways in Arabic.

“Come,” he said.

Alright. See the pyramids and head off to Atbara. Great day had by all.

The tuk-tuker took me down the main road but suddenly turned off onto a dirt track that  lead to a forested area. My sixth sense kicked into high gear and I prepared myself for anything. We past a building that had broken windows but when I saw the cars parked on the other side I realised it was a barracks of sorts.

We parked and I followed the driver, lead to a shady spot by some clay water jugs which I drank from.

“Wait here,” he said.

In this heat, I wasn’t moving unless absolutely necessary. The tuk-tuk driver returned a few minutes later with a uniformed man.

“This my son,” he said, “his name is Mohammed. He tell me you are groosh mafi.”

“Aiwa,” I grinned. “Ana aziff muzika,” I said. I play music. “Don’t like money so I try not to use it.”

He looked me over and then spoke to his kid, handing him a 50 Sudanese pound note.

Oh no.

“My son will take you to the bus station and purchase for you a ticket to Atbara. Welcome to Sudan.” And with that the uniformed man walked off.

Sigh.

Guess no pyramids today then. I waited for Mohammed to bring the tuk-tuk round and we rode off through town to the bus station. A ticket was purchased, I thanked the driver and I sat, slumped in my seat.

I’m never gonna get to hitch hike in this country.

I mean, the generosity and the people’s willingness to help is at a level I’ve never before experienced. I’ve been offered money for bus tickets plenty of time but I’ve been able to explain that I don’t need it. I hitch rides.

Here? It’s near impossible to get out of their want to just put me on a bus.

We sped through the desert without a hitch (see what I did there?) and when I hit Atbara 150 kilometres later I contacted Mo’s friend, Omar via some people I met at the station. My Arabic was better than his English so he explained to them to explain to me to get on a tuk-tuk.

Over the phone he explained to the driver how to reach his neck of the woods, a barber salon where I whipped out Ol’ Red and played to the delight of the customers. I was offered some tea with my sugar and within the hour we headed off to Omar’s family home where I showered and took a rest for an hour before we headed out to catch the sun set with his friend, Omar, who,

“Speaks English profession.”

Which I took to mean that he spoke English.img_1678

While we waited for Omar to arrive, an ice cream vendor stopped beside us. I had been given ice cream in Omdurman. Just iced water with flavour which is what I thought this was. But when he pulled up a waffled cone I knew this could mean trouble.

One thing you don’t eat in desert heat is ice cream from a street vendor who relies on ice blocks for refrigeration. Having come from the restaurant industry in my previous life I was taught that the two most dangerous foods are rice and ice cream.

And now I had no choice but to have this one.

Talk about taking one for the team.

Omar arrived and we cruised around town in his car listening to the likes of Chris Brown.

“You like him?” he asked.

I fuckin’ hate Chris Brown. I hate Justin Beiber. I despise that crowd of so-called ‘musicians’.

“Not really a fan,” I said.

img_1696He played him anyway. We reached the shores of the Nile to watch the sun set before Omar dropped us off at a local hole-in-the-wall restaurant where I had Quware (pronounced: ‘Ku-war-eh), a meat soup made of goats intestines and bone marrow.

The soup was nice but the insides of animals are not my thing. I stuck to the char-grilled goats meat and salads, all chowed down with fluffy round bread (not pita bread. Pita is a Lebanese thing). We then went and had some tea at Mama Hamdi’s, a well known spot for the brewed beverage opposite a large mosque.img_1709

Omar returned and took us out to have some dessert – fried banana mixed with honey and cheese called, muhbaza. It was delicious although I was quite stuffed. He dropped us home and I had a peaceful night.

Tomorrow I was going to hitch hike, be what may.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Sudan | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

THE ELEPHANT’S TRUNK

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“We go?” Tarik asked.

“Aiwa,” I grinned and followed him out the gate.

Mohammed and Mohammed had gone off to work and Mohammed (yes, all three share the same name) had a full day with his family so Mohammed had organised for his neighbour, Tarik, who spoke as much English as I did Arabic, to show me around town.

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As I was staying across the road from the Blue Nile, we crossed the busy tarmac and walked through the farming fields to the banks of the longest river in the world (and the longest north-flowing one). We then popped into some small shops that sold wood chips for charcoal and small clay vases. From here we hopped back across the road and watched a local weave nylon roped over a metal frame that would eventually become a bed before we sat in the shade of a tea stall and drank some tea.

Tarik disappeared for about an hour leaving me to sit and chat with some locals. When he came back, we headed off to the old part of town. Khartoum, which mean’s ‘Elephant’s Trunk’ due to how the Nile winds around the city, is basically three large towns combined: Khartoum Town, Khartoum Bahir and Omdurman, where Governor-General Gordon lost his head to Mahdi’s rebels (he wanted the Brit alive but his soldiers got into a frenzy).

img_1560It’s here that the White Nile (sourced from Uganda’s Lake Nalubela) and the Blue Nile (sourced from Ehtiopia’s Lake Tana) meet and become The Nile, flowing north all the way through the Sudanese and Egyptian saharas (Arab word for ‘desert’) until it meets the Mediterranean Sea. It’s the only north-flowing river in Africa.

The city skyline is dotted with minarets and mosques are as abundant as the bridges that criss-cross the river.

 

We had lunch in a small street-side restaurant – fried fish with shati – a spicy sauce. We then had tea before we retired back to Mungi’s pad with Tarik’s brother, Nader, where I jammed some tunes while they rolled some Bob Marleys.img_1442

A few hours later, as the sun dropped, Tarik and I headed out on a tuk-tuk to the markets. He lead me around between the spice stalls and the baskets full of wares. Pet stores selling birds of exotic colours. Pigeons the size of eagles. Chicken chicks dyed with unnatural colours.

Nothing sadder than seeing birds in cages. What’s the point of having wings if you can’t fly?

We walked back towards the river. Tarik had purchased us a bottle of water each, and as we walked down the stairs under one of the many bridges of the city, he pointed out the pile of rubbish.

“Very bad,” he said.

I agreed and was happy to see that he was aware of the situation.

Until he added his empty plastic bottle to the pile.

Sigh.

We walked back home along the Nile where I shukraned him for the day and caught up with Mohammed, Mohammed and Mohammed. After dinner, we began an impromptu jam session that lasted into the late hours of the early morning.

I’m really getting hooked on the vibe here.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Sudan | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

HITCH HIKING IN SUDAN – PART I

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© Unbound Ether Photography, 2015

“KHORRRR.”

The fuck is that? I jolted awake in the middle of the night to the see six trucks parked at the checkpoint, but all engines remained silent. What sounded like a bear in heat was the snoring of one lone driver that was echoing around the vehicles.

Jesus.

I was tempted to chuck a rock over to scare him awake so he’d flip on his side, but that might be construed as a sign of aggression as demonstrated by the previous day’s rock-throwing saga. Eventually, his snoring subsided and I resumed sleep. I awoke early with the sound of the muezzin, went through the morning routines, thanked the police folk and headed off down the road.

The sun, a fast-rising yellow ball, accompanied the layer of dust that hung in the air. I wrapped my gamcha around my head for cooling, placed my hat on it to shade me and filled up water from the water barrel at the petrol station without worrying where it was sourced from.

After all, I was about to begin the long hitching to Khartoum, about 600 K’s north, through the Sudanese. The nearest city, Al Gedarif (150 Ks away) would turn me west and then north along the highway. As I hiked, I greeted the shepherds with their cows and camels and maintained the rhythm of my lumbered walk.

About an sweaty and very hot hour passed when Sami and Musa pulled up in a Landcruiser. They were heading to Gedarif and were happy to provide me with a lift. I squeezed into the back among optic fibers and a generator.

“We are technicians,” Musa explained. “Telecommunications.”

As we rode, I managed to explain about my penniless ways which they scratched their heads around but seemed to accept.

We drove on an empty road that reminded me of the pot-holed Nairobi-Mombasa highway. Gone were the smooth tarmacs of Ethiopia. We were back to zigging and zagging. The landscape didn’t change. It was dusty, dry, full of red acacia trees with nothing on them but their sharp thorns.

Then I noticed a few egrets.

Must be some water around.

Two minutes later we passed a reservoir crowded by cows and their herdsmen. Cold water was purchased at a small roadside shed\shop by Musa for everyone as I passed the three-hour journey by catching up on some Zs. When we reached the city that was covered by a dust cloud, Sami turned to me and indicated food. Although I really wanted to stick to the highway, I did need to eat and here it’d be quite the offence to refuse someone’s kind-heartedness.

“Aiwa, shukran,” I said. Yes, thank you.

We drove into the city limits. I noted the directions we were taking before we stopped about five kilometers in and I was presented with a bag of falafels, three hard-boiled eggs, three round breads and another bottle of cold water. I thanked Sami and Musa as I collected my packs. Sami gave me the directions to the highway and I headed off, greeting everyone with, “Salam al-yekum.”

I passed a couple of taxis lingering around when one fella called out, “You! Come here!”

I went over with a grin to shake hands with the guy. As soon as I greeted him in Arabic he laughed and hi-fived me.

“Drink shai?”

“Aiwa, shukran,” I said.

May as well get some sugar in me for the hike ahead. I wasn’t sure if I was going to last walking on the highway. I was in dusty and hot desert lands.

Extremely hot desert lands. Some research might have been in favour, especially regarding the weather.

The sugar was served with mint and a touch of tea for flavour. I was pointed to the man who was, “Half Sudanese, half British,” the fella said. “You, him, brothers,” he indicated to his skin.

“We are all brothers,” I said, indicating to the entire circle that had gathered around.

The man nodded with a grin and I thanked the crowd and continued to hike down the road when a tuk-tuk pulled up.

“No money,” I said, signing it with my hands as the old man didn’t speak any English. Looking at me, he asked, “Majnun?” Crazy?

“Lah,” I laughed.

“Where you go?”

“Khartoum.”

He pointed at his legs.

“Yeah, if I have too,” I said, trying to sign that I was hitch hiking. He shook his head and offered me a ride. “Shukran,” I hoped in.

It’d save me hiking the five Ks back to the highway. But the man, who kept indicating with his finger to his temple that I was, “Majnun!” decided to take me to the bus station.

“No, no, no!” I tried to explain how I don’t use buses.

“It’s OK,” he said, parking the tuk-tuk. “My friends. Come.”

I reluctantly followed him. I was done now. I’d be forced to take a bus just so as not to offend the old man who had a lot of heart. He introduced me to a ticket conductor who spoke English.

“My friend,” the old man said.

I shook hands with him and thanked him with a hearty shukran before following the conductor to the ticketing office.

“It’s 90 pounds to Khartoum,” said the guy behind the desk.

“Yeah, I don’t have money,” I said. “But if you’d like, I can play music on the bus in exchange for a ticket.”

Wouldn’t be the first time.

I was taken under the wing of someone who appeared to be official. He took me around and sat me in a shaded area. “Play.”

I played. A small crowd gathered and a few folk began to dance.

“Come,” the official said. He sat me in another shaded area. “Tea?”

“Aiwa, shukran,” I replied.

“Play.”

So I played some more. Sugar with some tea was presented and after, I was taken to the police station at the entry of the bus terminal.

“Sit.”

I sat.

“Play.”

I played. Then an officer sat next to me and showed me a picture on his phone. It was of myself with Nabil from the border.

“You know Nabil?” I grinned.

The officer grinned back, showing the picture around to the others. Now I was in. An honourary guest of the police as I was taken around, told to sit and play throughout the entire terminal. The conductor that had taken me around had disappeared but I found him and asked, “So can I get on a bus or should I walk to the highway? It’s getting late.”

“Just wait. Few minutes,” he grinned. “You make us very happy here. We will help. Just wait.”

So I played a bit more and waited until a man who looked like a car salesman from the 80s showed up and I was told to follow him.

“Come,” he said. “Leave your bags.” The conductor that had adopted me reassured me that they were now,

“My responsibility.”

I followed the car salesman onto a bus.

Finally, we’re getting somewhere.

“Stay,” he commanded me to stand by the driver as he turned to the passengers and gave a speech.

From his tone and the few words I understood in Arabic I suddenly realised he was asking for people to chip in for a bus ticket.

Shit. This is not what I wanted.

I don’t want people to pay for my ride. I want it to come from the heart. To come from a place that is pure goodness. As far as I’ve experienced, anyone willing to take on a hitch hiker, to stop and help a complete stranger by the side of the road, has a lot of goodness in them. That’s the people I want to meet. That’s the people who I have been meeting. But this was like busking. I’ve never busked.

How the hell was I gonna get outta this one?

The man had finished his speech and began to collect some coins and notes. He turned to me and pointed to the stairs. I hopped off the bus.

“Come,” and I followed him.

Onto the next bus.

Shit. He’s doing the rounds.

Then it hit me.

We’re doing the rounds!

For the next hour I was presented like an exotic animal on each bus in the terminal. The advantage of it was that every bus had air conditioning so for a few minutes I got to experience life from the Popsicle side. Eight buses later I was directed to get on a purple bus with a ticket in my hand.

I wasn’t aware how the seating arrangement worked. Numbers in Arabic are in Arabic and look nothing like the numeral system used int he majority of the world. So I sat in an empty row trying to comprehend what had just happened. I said ‘no’ to the bus station but was taken here anyway. I played music and now I’m on a bus to Khartoum because people cared. The level of generosity and goodwill made me feel like I was in some Christmas movie.

I was snapped out of my thoughts by two ladies in burkas hovering around me, indicating their tickets had seating numbers on it. The conductor took my ticket and showed me to the back where I was sat next to Shahib.

“I play tenor-sax,” he said, recognising my guitar case (everybody had made signs that it was a violin), producing a laminated card stating that he was a member of the Sudanese Music Association.

If it wasn’t enough that The Universe had provided me with so much kindness and generosity and the right people at the right time in the right fuckin’ hot places, now I was sat next to a fellow musician on the six-hour ride to Khartoum.

I was giddy. I was high and I hadn’t even taken anything. The energy of Sudan, its welcoming committee, even that crazy rock-throwing lady, everything – is nothing of the likes that I’ve experienced. As the bus pulled out to the gate I was asked to debark.

Shit, perhaps I was daydreaming.

I was pointed to my luggage sitting by the bus.

“Shu?” I said to the guy.

“Customs. Check luggage,” he said.

The cops I had played for showed up and began to tell the guy to leave me be. That there was no need to check my bags. He was forcefully convinced and I was placed back on the bus.

I shook my head.

I told charaded  it to Shahib who laughed. We pulled out of the station and for the next six hours I endured the zig and the zagging, clerics on the TV screen preaching and a lot of Sudanese music which involves sax, violins, uds and electric guitar. When we broke by the side of the road, Shahib invited me for some tea.

Or sugar with some tea and mint.

He let me call Mo so I could keep him posted as he was picking me up from the bus station. About 50 Ks before Khartoum the driver swerved either to miss something or he had fallen asleep. Whatever the cause, the swerving was violent enough to get everybody screaming, like bad turbulence. One passenger sat opposite me stormed down the bus and chastised the driver.

Sigh.

This is why I’d rather hitch hike. It’s so much safer than bus drivers under the gun to keep to their timetables. Forgetting that the lives of 50 people are right behind them.

On the outskirts of Khartoum we stopped at a police checkpoint.

I ducked down into my seat cause I knew I’d be picked for scrutiny. I didn’t want to be the cause to hold up the already running late bus. But the soldier saw me, snapped his fingers at me and signed me to follow him.

I hate having fingers snapped at me. I used to work as a waiter and whenever customers snapped their fingers, I’d rip into them. It’s an old method of getting one’s attention and quite popular in Africa.

But I refuse to answer to anyone whistling or snapping at me as has been the case throughout my travels.

I grabbed my passport and headed down into the pre-heated oven of the desert. I pointed out my visas, most importantly my Egyptian one to prove that I was just travelling through and was returned to my seat. An hour and a half later we finally arrived into the sand-filled streets of Khartoum, the Nile River snaking through it. Mo was a welcoming sight at the bus station.

“Welcome to Sudan, brother,” he grinned. “How was your journey?”

I smiled broadly, “Well…”

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Hitch Hiking, Sudan | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

FISHING FOR FLIES

A few months back, in preparation for my ascent of Africa’s second highest peak, Mt Kenya, I joined African Ascents for a fly-fishing expedition. Here’s a snippet as published on that wonderful platform, Africa Geographic magazine:

http://africageographic.com/blog/magical-lake-michaelson/

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HITCH HIKING IN ETHIOPIA – PART VII – THE FINALE

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© Unbound Ether Photography, 2015

“Come on, let me help you,” Abdu offered from the bajaj.

“I don’t have money,” I explained.

“Not a problem.”

I hopped in, thankful not to have to walk the hills of Gondar to reach the road to Metema, the border town to Sudan some 200 Ks away. It’d be hot soon and I wanted to take advantage of the morning coolness to hike out of the city.

I had been misdirected for two kilometers so I was a bit pissed off as I began hiking back towards AG Hotel when Abdu had pulled over and decided to help me without pay.

He too was misled and drove us about ten kilometers in the wrong direction. Eventually, the right directions were obtained and he dropped me on the road that would take me to Azezo, about 12 Ks out of Gondar. From there, I’d connect to the road that would be a straight run to the border.

With a start like this to the day, I was in high spirits and hiked down the road. I flagged down a Landcruiser.

No way.

I recognised the upholstery in the single-cabin.

No fuckin’ way.

“Abdusalam!” I cheered, recognising the passenger from my direct ride to Gondar the previous day. He was alone and just around but glad to see me as I was him.

Sometimes, it’s not about whether you get a ride or not. If you get to bump into the people that have helped you (and boy, did Abdusalam’s ride ever help me), it’s enough to put that spring in your step.

Even if you are carrying 30 kilos in 30 degrees.

I continued to hike down when Telega stopped for me.

“I can take you 3 kilometres,” he offered.

Better than walking. Besides, an uphill appeared on the horizon and I wasn’t up for it. He dropped me off and I managed to get a lift in a 1976 Landcrusier.

“This baby’s a classic!” I exclaimed.

Alex, the driver, was pleased at my excitement. He was only going halfway to Azezo but decided to take me all the way.

“Amasegnalehu!” I shook his hand, hopped out and began to follow the road that would eventually take me to the border.

The opening to the hike was an uphill climb. My eyes followed the mini-buses that passed me and saw where the road wrapped around. I also saw the shortcut and, seeing that there were no potential rides, I took it. Huffing and puffing the shortcut took me back to the Mushroom Farm Eco Lodge in Livingstonia, Malawi. I took the shortcuts instead of the entire curve of the road with all my gear and almost fell off the mountain.

And this one was only about 20 meters in distance. But the incline and the heat… sheesh! I mean, it wasn’t yet too hot and I was grateful to finally get into a rhythm.

The only vehicles to come up behind me were buses. Not a single car.

I might be screwed here.

Which I immediately followed up with,

Hey! No getting’ screwed! Think positive. Something’ll come up. It might take some time, but it’ll happen. You know it, I know it. We both know it therefore it is known and there’s no way around it.

I started the downhill hike and came across a small house with a car parked outside. A group of people were about to enter the building when they saw me. The main guy, who spoke English, stopped me.

“Where are you going?”

“Metema.”

“By foot?” he seemed shock.

“Well, until I get a lift, yeah. I’ve got legs, may as well use them.”

“What is your religion?” he asked. “Are you Christian?”

Here we go. “No.”

“Muslim?”

“Nope. No religion.”

This seemed to piss him off a bit as he stepped into my personal space. “You don’t believe in Jesus Christ as your lord and saviour? Jesus Christ who died for our sins?”

“I didn’t commit any sins,” I began but my words were falling on deaf ears. The guy was in preacher mode.

“Jesus Christ who will protect you through the power of prayer? Pray with me.”

“No and I’d appreciate you not forcing your beliefs upon me. Jesus Christ wouldn’t want that.”

He blinked. “Then let me pray for you.”

“If it’ll make your day, go for it.” I was about to walk off when he began to pray out loud.

Oh, he meant pray for me now.

Jesus.

“May the blood of Jesus cover you,” he began.

May the blood of Jesus cover me? What the fuck was that? Why would I want to be covered in anyone’s blood? And if he prayed this for everyone in his flock, how much blood would be left for JC? Where does he get his blood donations from?

The guy’s voice rose to an almighty screech which had his little congregation in a worked up frenzy and he ended by yelling into my face, “By the power of Jesus Christ!”

His hand went up and came down – stopping just short of my forehead. I would not have been happy had he made contact. He then spun around and walked off. No goodbyes, no see you soon, red baboon. Just walked off as though he had performed the world’s greatest miracle.

Jesus Christ.

Yes, his intentions were kind enough but he was just some evangelical priest that saw an opportunity to freak his flock into a deeper belief of the same bullshit we’ve been spoon-fed for the last 5,000 years.

How is it that we can easily recognise that Harry Porter is fantasy yet people will believe the stories of the Bible and fight to the death anyone who doesn’t?

Sigh.

I continued down the hill when my blood pressure suddenly dropped.

Woah.

I froze, letting the wave pass.

The fuck is that?

Maybe JC was taking a blood collection and I was paying for it.

All of a sudden I felt weak even though I’d enjoyed a hearty breakfast. I spied a shady spot, dropped my packs and crouched down to regulate my breathing.

Was it the heat? Was it the walking with 30 kilos, just two kilos shy of half my body weight?

I sipped on some water and figured I’d take a break.

Did the guy bless me or curse me? Fuckin’ aye.

The wave passed, I peed and felt better. I decided to wait and see if I could get a ride. The first truck that passed flew by. Two mini-buses also attempted to take to the sky.

The next truck didn’t stop either so I slowly picked up my gear, stood momentarily to make sure I wasn’t about to pass out and headed off. I hiked what seemed at least 6 Ks before a Landcruiser full of civil engineers took me 50 Ks to Chigala. As I began to hike through the town a voice called out to me.

I turned, greeting the smiling face of a young man who invited me for coffee.

I could do with some sugar after that blood pressure drop so I pulled up a stool. In the shack his friends were gathered around. I whipped out Ol’ Red and strummed a few tunes. A shadow was cast at the entrance to the shop and when I raised my head about 50 elementary students where blocking the sun.

“Woah,” I grinned, surprised by the unexpected crowd.

I posed for photos and shook hands with everybody, thanking them for the coffee and the company. The guy who had invited me turned out to be a 17-year-old kid. Ethiopia’s the first country I’ve come by where the youth have been so open and welcoming, not seeing me as a walking ATM, appreciating my lifestyle choice and really having their heads screwed on the right way.

I hiked passed tiny villages, alongside large cows, grinning and smiling at everyone. I was in such a good mood even though the sun was baking and I was drenched in sweat.

I felt great, mate.

A car came up behind me and I turned to flag down an ambulance.

“Quick, quick,” the driver said. “Just get in.”

Is he on a call? Nice of him to stop but come on, get some priorities here.

I squeezed myself in and he took me 4 K’s down the road to where a family were waiting by the road. It didn’t seem like the call was urgent so I was glad I hadn’t contributed to anyone’s demise.

I hope.

I asked the driver if he had some water as I was running low and he gave me a full 2-litre bottle.

Hope that wasn’t intended for the patient.

I continued to hike at least another 6 K’s before a Hilux pulled up. They were heading 50 K’s. I hopped in and although English wasn’t a mutual language, I managed to crack them up with my attempt at Amharic. I was offered water and Kofti, a mix bag of nuts and seeds.

I was dropped in Sequna, their final stop. I smiled and greeted the locals as I began to hike up the hill when a mini-bus pulled over.

“No money,” I said after telling the driver I was headed to Metema, about 80 Ks away.

“No problem,” he said, gesturing me to get on board. The conductor broke into a broad grin.

“No problem,” he also said.

I hopped into the crowded ride, said ‘Salama’ to the blank stares and off we went. For the next 50 Ks we didn’t encounter a single other vehicle except for the trucks coming in from Sudan, easily recognisable from the black plates with Arabic letters and numbers.

It got me wondering why there were no trucks heading towards Sudan from Ethiopia. Seemed to be a one-way trade.

And putting a damper on my hitching.

As we drove along, the driver, the only one who spoke English, asked about my method of travel. I explained my no money philosophy which he accepted with a smile and bought me a bottle of water.

About ten Ks shy of this ride’s final stop we pulled up to a checkpoint.

“Please come with me,” smiled a local wearing a florescent road-safety vest.

“Who are you?” I asked without budging.

“I’m customs and immigration official. Please, follow me.”

“Show me some ID,” I said without moving.

He stared at me and then broke into a smile as he pulled out his wallet. “You can read Amharic?”

If this guy was really customs, his ID would have English on it. “Yeah, I can read Amharic.”

I can’t.

He produced a laminated card that had his name and, in English, Customs Official Officer.

I grinned. “Alright, let’s go party.”

They checked my passport and bag. “The driver told me you have been footing it.”

“Yeah, no cars around here.”

“It is not good in this weather conditions,” he pointed up. “Very hot.”

“No, it’s fuckin’ hot.” He laughed as he let me get back on the bus and we continued to a tiny town where the driver said,

“I’ll pay for you to reach Metema.”

I couldn’t believe it.

I whipped out Ol’ Red and immediately a small crowd gathered around me as I ripped into Johnny Cash’s, Folsom Prison Blues. The crowd were jumping and happy and we took off in good spirits.

“30 kilometers,” the driver said, indicating the distance to the border town. I was given some bread which I shared with the rest of the mini-bus and was finally dropped at the bus station in Metema.

“Amasegnalehu,” I thanked the driver.

I couldn’t believe that I had made it. And I couldn’t believe how The Universe had placed these amazingly kind-hearted people in my path today. Every day but today especially as the extreme heat could have easily taken me out. And with the lack of cars on the road, it seemed that I might have reached the border town sometime next week.

But time and again I’ve proven to myself that as long as I think positively, that’s what I’ll project and that’s exactly what I’ll attract. It’s something I changed in myself the day I decided to go nomadic. And my second travel buddy, Baz, had been preaching that very ideal from day one.

I was still 3 K’s shy of the actual border crossing, shaking off the hustlers I hit the town, greeting everyone, overtaking donkeys lugging water tanks. I wasn’t sure if the border was a 24-hour one so I was still at risk of not being able to cross today.

A young Rasta pulled over in a bajaj.

“Come on, no money. It’s OK.”

What was going on? Maybe that evangelical’s prayer was working its magic. Maybe The Universe itself was having a great day and just felt like really giving me a boost. Whatever the reason, I was riding a cloud.

Sure the guy ended up claiming that Michael Jackson, Beyonce and Justin Beiber are all Illuminates (although, what really shocked me was that he put Beiber and MJ in the same sentence). But the way this day was going, I couldn’t help but wonder how Sudan was going to welcome me.

At the crossing my bags were searched by Ethiopian customs officials.

“You are very lucky,” said one. “The border closes in 55 minutes.”

I raised an eyebrow. When they asked me to play them a song I said, “If I had more time but the Sudanese border will close soon too.” They nodded in agreement and I was stamped out and let into Sudan, the third Muslim country I’d be visiting but the first one in Africa and my first Arab country.

I was instantly adopted by a dodgy hustler who I politely told to leave me alone, crossed the bridge over the dry river bed and hit customs.

“410 pounds registration,” said the large, bald-headed official.

“What?” I whated. “But when I got my visa they said there wouldn’t be any hidden costs.”

“410 pounds,” the guard said sternly.

Shit. “Can’t I just register in Khartoum,” like it used to be, “I can get some cash there.”

“No!” he pounded his fist. “You must register here.”

Fuck. “Can I use your phone to call my friend in Khartoum?”

I had met Mo in Nairobi via the Gypsy Queen. Recently he had returned to Sudan after completing his studies in Kenya. Mo’s a gentle soul and kind-hearted and when I called him up for help he said,

“Give me a few minutes.”

After a few minutes he called back. “I sent some money over the phone so they should be able to complete the process and I’ll see you here in Khartoum.”

What a life-saver. After the stamping and the registration sticker stuck to a page in my passport, I made my way out where a hustler was waiting for me.

“Bus to Khartoum, 145, bed for the night, 20. Customs here.”

“I just came from customs.”

“Yes, but they must check your luggage.”

I pulled into the compound where a lone soldier lay on a bed in the courtyard. He sighed and reluctantly rose which is perhaps why he just felt my packs for a second and said,

“Welcome Sudan,” and walked off to collapse in his bed.

Gotta love his work ethics.

I hiked out of Galabat, the border town and greeted two men coming my way with, “Salam al yekum.”

“Al yekum ya salam,” they greeted back.

I kept hiking and on the opposite side of the road a woman was coming down the hill towards the town.

“Salam,” I greeted her.

She picked up a rock and threw it at my legs.

What the fuck? I kept walking and could hear a rock land near me every few steps. I turned back to give her my infamous death stare but it was so bright I couldn’t be arsed to take off my sunnies.

Maybe that’s why she continued to chuck rocks at me.

Fuckin’ aye.

I reached a checkpoint where I saw a soldier and a police officer chillin’.

“You guys mind if I pitch a tent?” I asked after the formal greetings and hand shaking.

The soldier indicated that the shack across the way would suffice my needs. The police officer wasn’t as assisting.

“Take hotel,” he pointed back towards town.

“No money,” I said. You’re bloody registration scam sucked me dry.

The soldier indicated to the shack, the cop to the town. I was torn between the two until I just walked off to the soldier’s way. The cop yelled out,

“You Christian?”

I stopped and turned around. “Nope.”

“Muslim?”

“Nope.” I waited for the magic question,

“Your nationality?”

“Australian.”

The cop and soldier broke into a smile and nodded their, ‘OK’. It pissed me off that my nationality was the key to smiles here. Americans aren’t favoured and neither are the British, but Aussies are loved everywhere.

Seeing as it was hot, the wind was hot, and my balls were hot, I figured my hammock would better suit my needs. As I strung it up in the flimsy shack, Nabil, a plainclothes policeman stood watching me. I tested the hammock to see if the shack could take my weight.

It couldn’t.

Before it was about to collapse I undid the hammock and followed Nabil’s indication to the four metal posts outside. They were close together and one was bent at the bottom so I tied to the other two that took my weight.

“It’s OK?” I pointed to my guitar case. “I can play music?”

“No problem,” Nabil grinned.

I took out Ol’ Red and headed over to where the soldier and cop were. I saw that the soldier was praying so I waited until he finished. The cop, Sabre, offered me a seat. Nabil sat beside me and even before I began to play he was doing a photo shoot, Sabre acting as photographer.

“Bob Marley?” Sabre requested.

I broke into No Woman, No Cry.

Phones were whipped out and I was videoed. Nabil and Mustafar, another cop, broke into dance while I jammed out some country styled covers for the next two hours with Abdul singing a Sudanese song to Wonderwall chords.

“You can sing, man!” I jived as he grinned.

I was offered a can of coke and then food arrived. I was invited to eat from the same bowl as the cops.

“Is ful (fava bean),” said Sabre.

It’s boiled for long hours in a specifically designed pot called, Qidra. It’s then served drowned in sesame oil and cheese.

It’s amazing.

I chowed down and then played a few soft tunes. Hiking in the sun for about 10 Ks and playing guitar for the third time that day, I was about to collapse. Mustafar told me to follow him. He pulled a bed out from the guard station and set up a mattress and sheets and a pillow.

“We all sleep outside. Too hot.”

I packed up my hammock and Ol’ Red and brought everything over to be stashed in the station before I fell on the bed and the just-right-temperature of the wind blew me up to cloud nine.

Fuck me, what a day. I grinned at The Universe, falling asleep counting stars.

Categories: Adventure Travel, Africa, Ethiopia, Hitch Hiking | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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