Onwards and upwards
THE LONG WAY UP
Back in Khartoum it was time for some rest and time to prepare for the next section. The initial section had been the warm-up. Coming up was the long 1,500km kayak to the Egyptian border through some remote areas.
The Sudanese Rowing and Canoe club was amazing. This club has welcomed me, in their words, into their family. On top of the help organising I had a lot of fun hanging out with them before getting back on the water.
Mr Abdul Rahim, the head of the Club, very kindly invited me and others from the Club to his home for the speciality Agashe - a form of barbeque. Strips of chicken coated in ground peanuts and spices are skewered and then put into some sand in a circle with burning coals in the middle to cook the chicken. Served with lots of bread and salads. Delicious!!!
Another day they suggested a kayak race. Being ever so slightly competitive, the only female and looking at the young opposition I suggested some additions to the race to my advantage. So we swam across the Nile, ran along the river bank, jumped in our kayaks and paddled back to the club. My cunning plan worked and I came in a respectable 3rd.
I also got to go to the wedding of one of Hamza’s cousins. Weddings here are full of tradition and rituals that start weeks if not months before the actual wedding. The final event generally goes for just two hours but regularly has more than a thousand attendees.
I walked into the event with about 400 people there, bright lights, live band playing traditional Sudanese music and an amazing atmosphere. Standing out somewhat I felt a bit awkward. There was no opportunity to hide – Mojaheid dragged me onto the dancefloor. Between him, Hamza and Mr Abdul Rahim my attempts to leave the dancefloor were thwarted. I gave in and danced incredibly badly with everyone there. I danced with the women, the bride, the groom and many more. I had a sword thrust into my hand at one point (part of some traditional dancing by Hamza and his brother). Gave that back quick smart – guaranteed not to end well. Pretty sure the bride and groom will look at their wedding video and ask, “Who on earth was that blonde woman?”. It was a fantastic, fun night and such an privilege to be there and experience a Sudanese wedding.
Come 6th February the fun was over and it was time to say goodbye and get back on the water.
The Club arranged a safety boat for the next section as well as a paddler, Coach Aimun to join me. They gave me a letter to take for the authorities and informed all the key ones of our plan to ensure we had support and no hold ups. This is all heaps of work and this trip wouldn’t have been possible without them. Thank you so much Mr Abdul Rahim, Hamza and Mojaheid.
THE LONG PADDLE
While I was a bit daunted at the length of this next section,1,500km, I was excited to start, to see what it would be like to kayak this distance and how I'd handle it. Prior to Sudan it had been mostly adventure. This was now the physical challenge and mental challenge that goes with it. For the 'warm-up' from Kosti to Khartoum there was a lot of headwind and I had been promised there would be less from now. That would have been fab but sadly no, it wasn’t the case. These winds, often up to 30kph, were set to plague me for the majority of the trip. On the plus side it meant I didn’t overheat. Actually, cold was set to be more of a problem with the temperature dropping dramatically at night in the desert, to the point I was sleeping with tracksuit pants on, multiple tops, a hoodie and hat!
We gradually built the days up into a good routine
Get up, pack up camp, make fire, have coffee and bit of food, prep breakfast for later
Paddle 2.5-3 hours
30min break and breakfast
Paddle 2.5-3 hours
30min break and snack
Paddle 2.5-3 hours
Stop, set up camp, get the fire going, eat, sleep
There were some shorter days in there but otherwise it was around 7-9 hours paddling a day.
The river quickly got pretty remote and we gradually made our way to the desert. We stopped at Shendi where Fahed, Hamza and Mojaheid drove 3 hours from Khartoum to meet us there and take us out to the Meroe Pyramids. There are some 350 pyramids in Sudan, built as tombs for the kings, queens and wealthy citizens.
It was truly spectacular. In the middle of the desert are these pyramids, slowly being eroded by the wind and sand. They also took a bit of a beating in the 1830s when Italian Guiseppe Ferline made his way through Sudan blowing the tops off them in search of reported gold. Back on the river we made our way to Atbara and had a day off to get supplies and sort a few things out. Then it was up to Abu Hamad and the start of the great bend in the river. Now we were well and truly in the desert - there were areas where the sand came all the way to the river and looked spectacular.
We had been told that crossing the reservoir ahead of Merowe dam was dangerous and better to go around. Some local people said no, you’ll be right mate, or at least that was the gist of it. Decided to follow their advice and we took a local fisherman, Ashir below, to show us the way. I thought we wouldn’t need him – it’s a lake right? No, because of the flooding from the dam, there are lots of channels and islands. You could spend weeks going round in circles there.
We made it across and the local authorities kindly towed the escort boat around the dam. The Rowing and Canoe club had made sure they knew we were coming, otherwise we’d have probably been arrested as soon as we set foot on land near the dam!
It was our second and last rest day and then back on the water for the stretch to Wadi Halfa. Before the trip, as a good risk manager, I’d gone through and identified all the risks. This included all the potential illnesses and injuries. It was a long list, mitigated by an extensive first aid kit, medical supplies and vaccinations.
There was one thing I hadn’t bargained on and that was the impact of the dry air and wind. My skin dried to the point that my hands and feet started cracking. Doesn’t sound like much but when you’re using your hands all day, these little cuts were pretty uncomfortable. One time I knelt down and the stretched skin on the bottom of my feet little started to crack and open. Nice. The skin was getting very thin and beginning to look like it belonged to an 80 year old!
Talking of which, my body felt like it belonged to said 80 year old too. There were a few niggles - back getting strained, wrist, shoulders getting sore and stiff, but thankfully and surprisingly nothing worse so far. Just meant the first half an hour or so of paddling wasn't fun but once warmed up things were usually ok.
On reaching Dongola in the Northern State we were welcomed by local officials and a TV crew.
Another resupply point and a feed. Food in Sudan is eaten with your hands. I’m getting better at it, but was always being offered a spoon. No - I need the practice! You’d think after two months in Sudan I’d have nailed it. Apparently not.
After Dongola the next main stop was Abri. Again, we had a wonderful welcome and got to meet local officials. I was invited to be the first foreign tourist to visit their new heritage museum ahead of its official opening. I felt incredibly honoured - there was a cameraman there too and a microphone was thrust into my hand, so it was a chance to express my thanks for this special invitation and the hospitality shown there. All these welcomes were thanks to Mr Abdul Rahim.
There is plenty to see in the north and SO much history, quite literally thousands of years. It's the Nubian area, the home of one of Africa’s oldest civilsations dating back to around 3,000BC.
The long days on the river, as I said, mostly into the wind were mixed. There were days when it would take 8 hours to do 50km. Slow going. About 10 days into I was more accustomed. Saying that, there were plenty of times I found it hard, physically and mentally. Someone said to me when I was struggling - enjoy every moment because when it’s over you’ll wish you were back there. That was the nudge I needed to reframe it in my mind and enjoy every, or nearly every moment and keep smiling!
All the way people were waving, smiling, cheering, giving the thumbs up. Even had a teenage boy repeatedly cracking his bull whip in appreciation. We didn't see that many women until we got further north. Aimun told me they said they loved seeing a woman kayaking, doing this, being sporty. Some would run along the bank next to us. Men were equally supportive and liked seeing what we were doing. We were always invited to stop for food, for coffee. I'd love to have had more time to take up these kind offers.
CAMPING AND SCENERY
There were some amazing camp spots - on sandy islands, sand banks and the like. Waking up and looking out of your tent to sand dunes and the Nile is pretty special.
Making a fire at night, cooking the food on it, enjoying a cup of tea before bed. I loved it! Loved it slightly less when my tent zip broke just as we reached scorpion territory…
The scenery, particularly in the north is amazing. The colour of the sand is something else - then there are the mountains, sand dunes. I love it. The desert has always held an appeal and fascination for me. Being here, paddling through the world’s largest hot desert, the Sahara was somewhat surreal and a unforgettable experience.
There are what are referred to as the cataracts along the Nile. They are shallow rocky areas, effectively rapids. Most are very easy to navigate but we came across some unexpected rapids after Abri. They weren’t big, but very rocky, with strong currents, no obvious lines to run and without helmets, decent lifejackets and more suitable kayaks I made the call that Aimun and I would portage around. Without the safety gear and being so remote it wasn’t worth the risk.
Some locals kindly helped us with our kayaks while we left Captain Salih and Assam to run the rapids. Some local fishermen gave Captain Salih the line to take along with the recommendation to cut the engine when you hit the rapids and ride it. I watched with bated breath as the boat hit the rapids, was pushed sideways, the forward and then sideways again until the emerged unscathed.
After 32 days since leaving Khartoum with 30 days on the river, 31 camp spots and 1,500km paddled we made it to the end of this section for Sudan. I felt so happy, totally elated to have hit this massive milestone. Setting off I really didn’t know if I’d handle these big kilometres of kayaking.
It was way better than I expected – yes there were some lows, but the majority of it was one incredible experience. Coach Aimun and the guys were fantastic. We had a lot of laughs and a great adventure.
It is such a privilege to get to do something like this, how can I not embrace and enjoy it? It brings together all the things I love – adventure, challenge and travel – the things that make me come alive.
This was the end of Sudan for this trip. I recommend it as a place to add to the buckeklist, with plenty to see and it's so rich in culture and history and is filled with the kindest, most hospitable and welcoming people you can imagine. If you do plan a trip to Sudan, and looking for a starting point to stay in Khartoum, go to Acropole Hotel. Not only is it a top spot to stay (with awesome wifi!) and is Khartoum’s oldest hotel, George the owner there will sort out your visa (which has to be arrange in advance), tours and so much more. He has been a huge help here and fountain of knowledge.
My thanks go out to everyone in Sudan who made my time here so brilliant and such a success.
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” – Jack Kerouac
Find your mountain and go climb it!
Right, now onto Egypt...