What a difference a mile makes

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Flag of Ethiopia  ,
Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A very long road can be a very fickle mistress.

Her caprice is found bound to local despot, seasons, unseasonal matters, or just the time of day or month.

And wary should be the navigator who places faith in auto-pilot.

A firmer, yet more flexible hand needs to drive and flutter this tiller over and through mountains, rivers, rains and bureaucracies ranging from sublime to infernal.

Witness Sudan, the biggest country on the continent, and bureaucratically the least efficient I have yet had the pleasure of having to untangle – at least in my few miles of travel.

The Libyan debacle, forcing my hand to travel south rather than west along her, and Africa's northern coast, reconfigures the compass to point to Khartoum … and the Sudanese embassy in Cairo.

The zen of the journey is home by land, and crossing the continents end to end, and while dear Uncle MoMo Gaddafti might have thrown an iceberg in my stream, he can’t close off the ocean.

Sudan’s administrative entry point is a tatty, ragtag shop behind some of the Nile’s more glamorous edifices. Half of Africa hangs out its back door, the visa section, open to the public street.

"I need a visa." Two pics, letter from your embassy to say you are a nice boy, and the form. Dasher to the SA embassy, cutely festooned, in an upmarket part of the city, with World Cup paraphernalia. Quick service with a smile. Dash back. Sorry, too late, come back tomorrow. Tomorrow brings a smile. “But you didn’t remember to duplicate the letter of introduction and the application form.” You didn’t ask.

Back of the queue, which is not a queue, but the old heave-ho, fluttering hands over shoulders and heads pleading with the solitary visa officer.

OK, now go pay at the next window, and after that bring the forms back. Heave-ho. Now come back at 3pm, and maybe it’ll be ready, and maybe you have to come back tomorrow. Oh, and thanks for the US$100.

Two days, four visits, not bad considering all the ills in the world.

Eventually get to Aswan, and board the once-a-week ferry – the only transport available from southern Egypt into Sudan. “Come at 8am, so you can find a decent place on the deck, and we sail at 3pm.” …. Rubber time intrudes. Gate only opens at 11am. Go through 11 steps, (yes, 11) to get on board – check ticket, get food coupon, get ticket torn, change ticket for boarding pass, pay immigration stamp, get immigration tick, and on and on, each to the tune of another official’s personality and peccadillo.

The tin tub fills, and fills, loads with food, boxes, carpets, dining room suites, lorry loads of tomato crates, unidentifiable 20l white buckets, thousands of them, mattresses, slab upon slab of soft drinks, overland 4x4s, motorbikes, hundreds of souls, now a mixture of African and Arab. This is the doorway into the interior, into the beginning of Africa proper.

The deck fills, of course 3pm passes. 10pm brings the horn of departure, and there is no space on the deck to stretch one’s legs. Bags, knees, blankets, mankind, womankind, childkind play out a mass spooning opera, hundreds tucked tight where one can. This is not a time for the niceties or perplexities of any body-space predelictions. Lie down, get warmth from at lest four sides and sleep, or sit up, huddle with yourself, and chew on the grim desert chilli-bite of night.

Awaken to a refugee ship scenario. Do people run from Egypt to get to Sudan? Blankets are now raised awnings against the sun.

Wadi Halfa beckons, and its 'Welcome to Sudan’ – if only it were that simple.

Four days of bureaucratic hell await, before one is even legally bound to the soil, with permission to piss, catch a bus or take a photograph.

A walking journey across Khartoum with 23 stops finally gets the job done. Register locally, for the meagre sum of US$50, just for the palace’s pleasure of your esteemed company. Dally longer than three days, and be fined US$17 per day. Get sent to incorrect addresses, be told administrations close at 4pm and find they close at 1pm … and finally be told that the travel registration application – that is anywhere out of Khartoum, and you must list every possible stopover or laybye – must be in quadruple copy, along with 4 copies of your passport and 4 copies of the page with the visa and registration stamp. Four!!!!. Now dash out of the admin office, scream down the road, search out a photocopy shop, dash back, be asked why the photocopies don’t include a copy of your passport picture attached. Offer 4 passport pics in place of the missing ‘copies’, be told it is too late, and get another foreigner to stand and pout, and pout and stamp little footy and demand … and finally 4 days on, all systems are go to exist legally.

The travel permit itself is something of a conjob. You can only visit one-quarter of the country, the north-east quadrant. The rest is out of bounds, Janjaweed and Darfur to the west, the foibles for which Sudan’s uber honcho has been indicted on war crimes charges, and the southern half, holding all the oil reserves, which has been fighting for independence for decades and now faces a referendum on the matter. There is a peace pact at present, but don’t bet the hinges on the front gate at that truce holding. Watch that space … and duck.

Khartoum itself has a personal connection, having spent my first birthday there, and so is part of a glorious circle of life. I go to seek ‘my house’ between the perambulations of regulation.

Next to the big graveyard alongside the camel trail into the desert is the best I can get from older memories.

I find the graveyard, walk around it hoping to strike some subconscious memory chord. “Aaaaah, that’s it. I remember.” The only visual I have on the matter is an old Kodak black-and-white standing in a sandy patch (the garden) in shorts, pointing a hosepipe upwards and letting the spray come down to cool me in the 40 degree sun, and flatten my spiky, punky birthday hairstyle.

No such luck. Perhaps a lot of bad kharma has fogged the purity of my memory, or bad gin, as no doubt a wag might have.

It is a strange feeling, of accomplishing a 50 year circuit, on the final continent to cross. I begin to join my own dots, bend down to lift some dirty city/desert sand and let it dribble out, into the breeze, down the road, from whence I came, and down which I must further venture.

The city itself, wide and flat, is in beautifully dysfunctional disrepair. Main streets through the middle of town are long since broken through, broken up, and are dust drags. Shop signs everywhere are hag-tag. Decades have passed since they were given any kind of lick.

Pavement stalls, synonymous with roadside sellers of all nature and beast, paint technicolour fruit textures down the lengths of the lanes.

Women sit on most street corners dispensing the most magical of potions – Sudanese tea and coffee. Heavenly. Sha-dinana … black sugared tea with mint sprigs, poured from little kettles and big jam tins slow boiled on tin boxes of coals loaded and carefully stoked all day long. Each seller has a ring of small squat chairs around her, where her new, and steady customers sit and pass the time. Spicy coffee. Unbeatable. Raw coffee from Ethiopia, home of the bean, brewed up, and lent flavour with half a flat teaspoon of mixed, dried cardomum, cinnamon, clove … food of the gods indeed. Three each morning, in the slow warming sun is perfect to get the legs going to the rhythm of more administrative slavery.

The Blue and White Nile join. Go to the bridge to see the mighty union. Get blocked by a bunch of riot police. Omdurman, name of infamous old battle with the British, and ‘old town’, has been cordoned off in run-up to national election registration. Speeches promise marches. Police promise baton and bullet. All for a ballot?

Manage to get permission to stand mid-bridge, and no further. Muddy brown mixes with muddy brown. So unlike the joining of the Amazon with the Rio Negro (Black). As their names imply, the muddy brown of the Amazon swirls and whirls at the confluence with its black-looking brother. Only paradox there is that dipping a cup into the Rio Negro returns with a crystal clear fluid. The colour is from thick tannin lining the mighty tributary’s floor.

Stroll a few kilometres along the Nile in the opposite direction, the Nile proper now, and find frayed colonial history.

In the late 19th century, the Mahdi (he who shall save the land from infidels) fought the Brits, ousted them, and chopped of dear old Gordon’s head, proclaiming Omburman as capital.

Revenge must be ours, sayeth the British Empire, and so set forth General Kitchener (later scourge of the Boer in South Africa, and perhaps originator of concentration camps) down the Nile, with army marching alongside.

Kitchy takes the day, reinstalls Khartoum as capital (picture the Blue, White and Nile as a Y, with different towns in each sector in days of old, now all joined together), finds the body of the Mahdi, who had since died and had been buried, and gets an underling known as ‘Monkey’ to toss the old feller’s remains into the river. Talk about adding fuel to fire.

The gunboat ‘Kilmer’ in which Kitchener sailed in the relief, is now a junk ship cemented into the middle of a rag-tag camp site. Fifty years ago it floated, conquered, in front of a naval club where expats and officers gazed fondly on the broad water, watching the sun recede into red desert sets, sipping gins.

Head east, towards the border with Eritrea. Kassala, unique in that it is full of Eritrean refugees escaped from their country’s conflict with Ethiopia.

Five roadblocks to get there. The final one requests a copy of the travel permit. None left. Force the bus to take foreigners to town, get the copy, drop the punters and deliver the copies back to the control point.

Low key desert town, the route to which carries low-key Africa-proper introductions. A sprinkling of acacia trees, small herds of cattle huddled under the thin thorny branches seeking shade. A memory of a huge sausage tree (Kigelia Africana, if memory serves) in Khartoum. The pastiche of the south is taking shape.

Tensions run through Kassala, in a town probably filled with people sans documentation. “Don’t take photographs of the market and people,” say more than one. Discretion is the rule. Eventually venture to the town’s edge to capture an image of huge, lava melts extruding 300m high out of the aridity. Beautiful, and iconic, in the sunset.

Sit on a bridge to take in the calm, and beauty.

Up the pavement hurtles a large, new white Toyota Landcruiser. “Give me your camera, immediately!”

“I am security police. What are you taking pictures of? What organisation do you work for? The UN?”

Nothing, no-one and no.

“Get in, you’re coming with me.”

Interrogation for two hours. It seems a military base lay sheltered in the shadows of the mighty stones.

No signs, I have photo permits, travel permits. Call in the security chief. Show him pictures of stones. The war crime story has come to haunt the unwary foreigner.

Big smile, hand across chest: “Welcome to Sudan”.

This welcome is the same as the smile that Thais carry when they get really pissed off. This is not a time to joke or play. And those who are not intimate with the gestures need tread warily. The difference between a fucking pissed off smile and a fucking smile is not all that far apart.

The welcome really means, I am being polite, but this is not your part of town, pal.

Hit the road, Jack, sights on Ethiopia.

Bumpy rattly dusty bus eventually drops one on a dusty strip road. Shanties line the road, one building deep, with only light bush behind. Bush border town made for low-key banditry. Check through, more like stumble from building to building, without name nor sign, only pointed to by chuckling strangers.

Finally get to one, to be told that this is the Ethiopian immigration office. Where’s the gate, the wall, the fence. Locals stroll back and forth with impunity, immunity. Open season, open country. Customs lads sit in chairs that straddle the muddy gutter at the side of the dusty road. It’s 3.30pm in the afternoon. The perfect time for this kind of crossing. It has been hot all day. Nobody really has the energy to act like goons.

“Welcome to Ethiopia. Would you like a beer?”

Sudan is sharia (strict Islam law). No alcohol.

The Ethiopian greeting probably raises a smile on every dry-tongue that passes through.

What a difference a mile makes.

This is serious Ethiopian Orthodox Christian country. It is the year 2002, and Christmas is celebrated on January 7, in accordance with the Julian calendar adopted locally. Adding to the nation’s planet Mars idiocyncracies, it is 00.00hrs at sunrise. So…midday is actually 6am. What time’s that bus?

Earthy African beats pulsate out of shanty after shanty. Scantily clad women toddle about, with scant regard to their heavily clad, masked sisters only 100m up the unmarked road.

Check into a bordello. Beers, and lock the door. Each tiny room has a faint glow-red light. Generator off at 10pm, listen to the knocks on the doors down the courtyard passage. Get up at 5am, stumble through the dark, down muddy paths to find the bus to Gondar, the Camelot of Africa.

Medieval style castles stand between forests, built by emperors of the 17th century. A calm peace. Hills, valleys, stark blue skies filtering through cottonwool cloud puffs.

Italy came and went, then came and went. And left coffee shops and spaghetti. Everywhere are little cafes and verandahs serving espressos straight off the tree. Almost, not quite, but almost too strong. And every menu carries spaghetti.

That, between the most peculiar of local cuisine: injera, sour-dough pancakes, about 40cm wide, loaded with dollops of different kinds of lentils and beans. Eat with hands, tear off a piece, roll a favoured flavour, and lean the head back.

And somebody left cheap ouzo, though this is a strain that has run down from Turkey, so who knows who dropped that off.

Into the toppish of the Great Rift Valley, Lake Tana ….. aaaaaaah, Africa, malaria, bomas (reed fences) around tables and chairs under a thatch roof around a tree, 5m from the lake with a huge, huge, 15m diameter fig filling a very close horizon.

I can smell home. 
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the-rambler on

no pix, as dashed off at 100mph on v dodgy connections. also good to see one can comment without slavishly signing on any more

Tracie on

a rollicking good read o bearded one, and almost home again!

katherine-anne on

crikey - what next? not always smooth sailing, my friend. u take care - i'm counting on a few more stories........ k

Steve Cray on

Hey Lance, that is a great descriptive read. What an adventure. I'm glad the photo incident resolved - I've seen a few of those go the wrong way. So . . . nearly home, eh? Not without a few more adventures, I'm sure.

My news? I'm finally out of SCMP, laid off on Tuesday, although I got 9 years' severance and stuff, so it's not all bad. In fact, it's not bad at all - I needed out (on cash terms).

It's Jan 1 today and last night's rum chasers and too little sleep have left me disorientated. There again, I have felt way worse! Greetings from Lamma Island and Happy New Year!

mother faith on

What a rocky road!
Home is waiting
good vibes for 2010
from all family

Clare on

Some adventure! A great read, though.
Wishing you a very happy new year Lance, love Clare

Paul on

Great read, Lance. Glad to see you're getting close to the home stretch.

the-rambler on

and belatedly, let me wish ALLLLLL a very happy happy T10 (2010). may the sun shine on yor asses, the blubirds sh*te merrily on yor bonces, and may an african team scare the living dippsies out of one of the big boys.

Jean on

The last lines are really tasty Lance ! The saliva's around my tongue... Ethiopia ! Sweet...
Happy festival in Mali man ! And may god keep your soul. I'll put a candle for you in Jerusalem.

Karina on

oof! I do admire your perseverance Baba and happy to hear you're now in a safer, shantier place.
How I do miss wandering...
So how will you celebrate christmas on the 7th, I'll be dancing all nite with the Russians.
Best wishes

Your big sis on

Hi Lance,
Patience is truly a virtue, you've done damn well! It's chocolate cake and ice-cream when you get home boet! You deserve the Global Travelling Award if there is such a thing!!! You will have to frame your passport when you get back sommer 4 times@ Enjoy the moment, I have completed my Mth and graduate on 12 February. Hope this year brings double blessings and safe journey home, lots of love

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