Updated: Jun 11, 2021
While we were staring at starry skies and driving along endless desert roads we also happened to pass by touristic sights. Sudan doesn’t have many of them and they’re far more unknown: pyramids. First up were the Al-Kurru pyramids, quite randomly scattered beneath the street with no guard or entrance, so we were all on our own to explore. Pretty similar to that was the setting of the Nuri pyramids: located next to a small village with no fences, inviting us to wander around. We did run into a guard who was basically only interested in where we came from - “Welcome to Sudan!”).
At both sites the pyramids were rather deteriorated which is a result of bad maintenance up until the middle of the 20th century when the Sudanese started to become aware of the cultural heritage. Before that, people literally would come to the historic sites to take away the stones in order to build their own homes with them.
Due to that growing awareness, the largest historic site, the Meroë pyramids 200 km north of Khartoum, became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2011. Therefore, it was also the only one we paid an entrance fee for, which were happy to do since it helps to conserve and maintain the site. We had read about the Meroë pyramids on iOverlander beforehand - a user-based app which lists sights, camp grounds, gas stations etc. on a map including a short description and a comment function. We love the app since it’s so helpful, we make use of it and contribute to it. You’d think that people on the app are like-minded: adventurers with the goal to really dive into the country’s culture they’re visiting, valuing its culture. So, we were surprised about the greediness of the comments on the Meroë pyramids, claiming it was too expensive and the lady at the entrance would put the money in her own pocket. It’s so sad to see that in a country like Sudan, people expect everything to be cheap (which it mostly is) and once it’s not, they suspect a criminal intention. It’s called cultural heritage preservation, idiots.
However - excuse my short rant - when we drove on the parking lot, we saw kids, vendors and camel riders literally running towards us. Apparently, we were the first tourists to come visit the site after the beginning of the pandemic. They were being very polite, nothing compared to the pushy vendors of Egypt, and we felt so sorry: after all, we couldn’t possibly give our money to all of them. Their dire situation led us to the decision to go on a camel ride exploring the extensive area. Usually, we wouldn’t support the practice of using animals for our pleasure - but somehow the urge to financially support those people who are already among the poorest of the poor got the better of us. And for what it’s worth: the area is so huge that we probably couldn’t have walked it all by ourselves in the middle of the day.
The Meroë pyramids were definitely the most interesting site due to the well-maintained buildings but also the provided background information.
Our time in the desert was coming to an end as we were making our way towards Khartoum in order to get two things done:
1. Treat Boggy to his first routine check-up.
2. Getting our visas at the Ethiopian embassy.
Spoiler alert: one of the two might not have gone exactly as we had planned.
We were not looking forward to city life as we had already experienced trouble with organizing a place to stay: we couldn’t find any listings on booking.com for Khartoum and the offers on AirBnB were rare and didn’t look promising. We found out that this is owed to the fact that Sudan is cut off from the international financial market due to its unstable economic situation (Sudan is ranked 168 out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index and has just recently as of October 2020 been taken off the United States terror list after 27 years). This also reason for the fact that you won’t be able to get hand on any cash in Sudan if you don’t have an account with a Sudanese bank institute. Guess what: we didn’t have one.
In hindsight, we realized that our stay in Khartoum was probably part of a game show, one of those where you start out with a certain amount of money which you then have to use to make your way through various challenges, trying not to lose your shit and at some point, basically trying to survive. However, we were left in the dark about partaking in the game show and, up until today, we actually still don’t know what place we made.
"… we were directed to the “VPN guy” - yes, that’s apparently the official job description of the man sitting in a back office, taking care of iPhone users, …"
Make your hotspot work in order to have internet in order to get anything done at all. The accommodation we started out with was a total failure (see also challenge #2): besides many other things, the Wifi wasn’t working. We did bring a burner phone (yes, there are very few things we actually had planned ahead), but the hotspot wasn’t working. Off to the mall we went to get it fixed. Of course, the first thing to happen in the mall was a power out, no biggie, seems to happen all the time. When we found the cellphone store, we were directed to the “VPN guy” - yes, that’s apparently the official job description of the man sitting in a back office, taking care of iPhone users, who are terribly underrepresented (see also: United States terror list). We left our phone with him, 30 minutes and 4 USD later we had a working hot spot. Pretty sweet.
Our first AirBnB apartment was unbearable: running water was apparently not part of the amenities even if it said so on the listing. There was, however, water dripping from the ceiling in the living room in case you needed to take a shower. We hit our first Khartoum low (don’t worry, there are many more to come) when, in total darkness due to power out and therefore A/C out, Bjoern was swimming in his own sweat on the sofa while Katharina was spread out naked like a sea star on the bed, trying to waste as little energy as possible. Luckily, our fixer at the border, Mazar, had put us in contact with his brother, Midhad, who happens to live in Khartoum, running his own travel company. We had met him for dinner and he had already offered to book us into a decent hotel with a discount. We gladly took him up on his offer and that’s how we ended up in a 5-star luxury hotel built by the infamous Lybian dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi himself, back in the days when he had some blood money to spend.
Making your way through Khartoum traffic without losing it. While Katharina was busy giving university lectures on 5-star-Wifi, Bjoern took it upon him to get Boggy to his check-up appointment. To make a long story short: when GoogleMaps (which, of course, isn’t working properly in Sudan) tells you it’s 10 minutes, it’ll actually be 1,5 hours. Especially when you get into rush hour and also happen to take the street that turns into a night market. Take all of that, plus 40 degrees, minus AC and you have hell.
Apparently, we did manage to collect some points in the gameshow as well and got a couple of rewards:
Thankfully, we ended up having made the best decision to give Boggy into the hands of mechanic Abd Alsalam - he apparently knows half of Khartoum and besides looking after Boggy, he offered various kinds of money exchange services, invited us to Friday lunch at his family home and introduced us to an entire network of people in Khartoum.
Our happy place was getting coffee at one of the various coffee shops overlooking the Nile. Sitting there in a moment of peace, enjoying freshly brewed ginger infused coffee… a little piece of heaven right there.
The nicest people were constantly reaching out to us while we were in Khartoum. Whether they would send us a message on Instagram (“I saw your car, I love it!” or “We live across the street from you - want to have some tea?”) or even stopping us on the street to have a chat and invite us to their family’s date plantation - these human interactions were priceless.
After all these highs and lows we were excited to finally getting our visas for Ethiopia done at the embassy and leave the city - little did we know that shit was about to hit the fan.