Motocycling the Nubian Desert Sudan

Sandy in Sudan - The Nubian Desert - Part 2
From the motorcycle diaries of Willem de Wet


We stopped to refuel and found, not-so-hot, soft drinks which were a welcome relief to our dusty throats. Thanks to Tracks4A we easily found our way through the small town where all the buildings and streets had the same muddy and dusty look. We experienced no hassles at the police check point on the outskirts of the town and soon enough we were on our way to Atbara- on a great asphalt road.
At the Meroe Pyramids Meroe

We made good progress with the only hold up being the omni present police check points. Atbara was a revelation in that we found the entire market place deserted at noon. Almost everyone was attending prayers at the nearby mosque and not a thing was locked up. There is no culture of stealing here, only welcoming friendliness.

By mid afternoon we reached the Meroe Pyramids, just off the main road between Atbara and Khartoum. From a distance sighting was impressive. Steering my bike down the sandy gravel road towards the pyramids, I mentally pinched myself, having managed to ride so far South without incident. We paid our entry fees at the gate and were soon surrounded by a few souls offering us camel rides to the pyramids and some local curios. There were no other tourists or visitors at either the dune campsite behind the pyramids or the pyramids themselves and we explored the grandeur of theses construction master pieces alone and at leisure.

The pyramids from the Northern Cemetery at Meroe; dates back from the 3rd century B.C. to the 4th century A.D. By the 4th century B.C., the Kushite kings had moved south to the Sudanese savannah and built a capital at Meroe. Here southern cultural traditions slowly prevailed over the cultural heritage of Egypt. The pyramid clusters are split into two sections about 1km apart and the northern section is the most impressive with about 60 pyramids in the group although only about 20 are easily seen or relatively intact. Some of these have been restored by the Sudanese antiquities department back in the late 1970's early 1980's. I felt privileged to be able to encamp in the dunes adjacent these wonderful timeless structures and having them all to myself for one day.


MThe Roman kiosk at Naqa Watering camels  at Naqa

Closer to El Amaren and thanks to my GPS, we found the unmarked turn-off to Musawwarat es Sufra. You really need to love temple sightings and sand to drive down this road! After about 40 kilometers into the “wilderness” one starts doubting whether this could be the temple route. However, then the ruins of Musawwarat’s Great Enclosure appears in front of you. After paying the local “ghaffir” the necessary entrance fees, we could explore the “Great Enclosure” at leisure.

In 1822, when the first European expedition visited the site of Musawwarat es-Sufra, except for a few contours of the outer north wall and some columns remaining visible, the temple was found in ruins. In 1960, the Sudanese government granted Humboldt University-Berlin permission to begin excavations; the Lion Temple was the first to be investigated. Over 800 collapsed blocks from the outer walls, depicting well-preserved contours were uncovered from the sand. When restoration work commenced in the early seventies, hieroglyphic inscriptions revealed Arnekhamani (c.235-c.218 BC) as the King who had commissioned the building of the Lion Temple, which he dedicated to the lion-headed Meroitic god, Apedemak - responsible both for creation and war.

Although still early morning, it was already piping hot and we only made a short stop at the Lion Temple of Musawwarat down the road. We then steered down some more unmarked dirt roads towards the temples of Naqa. A dry river bed crossing of approximately 500m added to my adventure biking thrill having escaped the clutches of the thick sand god. Eventually, and much later we reached the very remote Naqa. It was well worth the effort. The temple of Amun, the “Roman” Kiosk and adjoining Lion Temple were stunning finds out here in the Sudanese wilderness.

In close proximity of these temples were a large group of nomadic camel herders watering their camels, goats and sheep by employing a camel to pull a large sack, made of goatskin, of water from the water well - a unique and timeless image. By this time it was getting late and time to head for Khartoum. I tried the GPS indicated route - shortcut through a thicket of thorn bush to the main road, but the thorn bush was victorious in strangling my best efforts.

On the road towards Khartoum there were frequent police checkpoints and the traffic also dramatically started to increase as we reached the outskirts of Omdurman and Khartoum. Peak hour afternoon traffic in every African city, where the road infra structure is insufficient or non existent, I soon discovered were best avoided on a motorcycle. As the sun was setting, we crossed the Nile on a beautiful old girder bridge. Once again T4A came through and guided us through the chaotic traffic, straight to gates of the Blue Nile Sailing Club (BNSC) GPS 15°36'41”N 32°32'05”E).


General Kitchner's Gunboat Views from the Blue Nile Sailing Club

We pitched our tents on the lawn in front of BNSC at dusk and saw the sun setting over the Nile. Never was a shower as refreshing or a cool drink as cold and sweet. The focal point of the BNSC is Generals' Gordon and then Kitchener’s gunboat the Melik. Being well over a century old, it was swept ashore by an exceptional flood in 1987 - an event that undoubtedly saved her from an ignominious end. Now, from its high perch on the banks of the Nile River it remains a nostalgic reminder Sudan earlier embattled history. For two days we relaxed in the shade of the Melik and took in the sound and sights of Khartoum. We viewed the confluence of the Blue and White Nile from the vantage of an amusement park restaurant, downstream from BNSC.

After a pleasant stay at the BNSC it was time to move on again. Heading south-east out of the city, through the more prosperous suburbs and shopping complexes lining the boulevards, it was not long before we left dusty and noisy Khartoum behind

The journey continued towards Wad Medani where we said goodbye to the Blue Nile river which I would only see in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia again. By early afternoon we reached Gedaref looked forward in completing the last 100kms to the border in good time for late afternoon border crossing into Ethiopia.

However, ones best plans are sometimes not good enough for Africa. Fifteen kilometers from the Ethiopian border at Mtema it started to rain. Unexpected and surreal - a cloudburst in Sudan! Approximately 10 km before the border we came to some road works with the main road south closed down. There was a kilometer long detour through the bush and, what was minutes before, a dry riverbed. .

It is impossible to ride or push a motorcycle with a lowly slung front mud guard through black cotton soil. Full stop! The mud sticks like glue to the bike's tires and the snowball-mud build-up creates a "wedge" between the tire and mud guard. The only way I could make progress I soon discovered:

drive 10 meters forward in mud – front wheel jams solid and bike and rider falls over.
2. get my screwdriver out and dislodge sufficient mud from the wedge, after 30minutes, to free the front wheel.
3. unpack my luggage and pick the heavy and slippery bike up. (Note, that the normally helpful locals are not keen to assist in this type of mud. )
4. repack luggage and repeat process from start

2 Hours later I was dog tired, slippery dirty and only halfway to the main road connection. To complicate matters further, several trucks were stuck, right in the middle of the muddy road. My travel companions, by this time, bashed through the mud in Range Rover 4X4 mode and patiently waited for me to make my appearance. Fortunately I found a small, but firmer passage on higher ground. What a joy! Another hour and I was back on terra firma.

It was dark by the time we reached the border. Racing between the dispersed customs and police buildings to get the necessary stamps in my passport and vehicle exit clearance permit, remained a tricky and drawn out affair.

In pitch darkness (no electricity here) the boom gate eventually lifted and I rolled over the border into Ethiopia and my first cold beer in weeks.