Traveling overland from Ethiopia to Egypt through Sudan was one of the most challenging parts of the entire journey through Africa.
It wasn’t because the drive to Khartoum, the capital, from neighboring Ethiopia required an entire day of travel – and then some – on 2 long matatu (white mini vans) rides, one really long bus ride, and a taxi.
Nor was it the constant passport checks en route to Khartoum. As the only tourist on my vans, I was subjected to questions and a passport checks at every police roadblock, of which there were at least half a dozen in Sudan, and another couple in Ethiopia.
I lost track. And since it was impossible for me to blend in, I was always responsible for slowing our roll. Sorry, locals.
And it wasn’t getting dollars in Ethiopia to be able to use in Sudan, where you can’t use American bank or credit cards due to the embargo. Although, this was a major headache due to Ethiopia being, well, Ethiopia. (All about that here).
The biggest challenge was getting a damn visa to even be able to enter the country.
By all accounts, it wasn’t going to be easy or cheap, but I was determined not to break up the overland journey and simply fly over Sudan and skip it all together. It’s a place famous in Victorian lore, devoid of tourists, historic and unique. But flying into Sudan wasn’t really an option, either, due to the red tape, inflated costs, and, primarily, because it’d be the easy, quick, unadventurous way to do it. Not my style.
It took nine visits to six embassies in four different countries, but I finally persevered!
You read that right: I spent a bit of time getting to and fro four Sudanese embassies and a pair of Egyptian ones. And I became quite adept at photocopying documents.
I started the process in crazy-clean Kigali. The experience was an eye-opener and harbinger of things to come. I was the only foreigner in the log book for weeks. She had no idea what I needed to get a visa because I was rocking a Mexican passport. And the coffee table books in the lobby were bitterly, and humorously, anti-ICC/anti-US/anti-Europe.
She came back and simply told me they couldn’t get me a visa for their country, end of story, good bye. Alllllrighty, then.
Next, I tried in Kampala, Uganda (home of my favorite Ugandan, Munchie).
Six to ten weeks because they had to ship my passport to Khartoum, they said. Nope. I didn’t have that kind of time, nor would I ever risk shipping my passport in Africa.
Nairobi was rumored to be the best embassy at which to get the elusive transit visa. And I almost succeeded here on my second visit. Alas, my passport lacked a Kenyan visa (it was on my US one), and I was told to just do it in Ethiopia.
I left vexed. And wondering if all the hassle was worth it, because it was getting to be an exercise in frustration and a textbook example of African bureaucracy.
But I figured I had nothing to lose and would give it one last shot.
48 hours after arriving in Addis, I had my Egyptian visa, which I needed to apply for the Sudanese visa. After getting my passport and crossing the city to get to the Embassy of Sudan, I arrived just in time for them to tell me it was too late to submit my application. However, they reviewed my paperwork and confirmed that I could totally get one the next day. A welcome moral victory!
Two days later I had everything I needed to get the hell out of Addis Adaba, and begin my Ethiopian journey in earnest before moving through Sudan and into Egypt.
But wait, there’s more (red tape)!
After arriving in Sudan, you have 72 hours to register with police, and, of course, pay a registration fee (about 50 USD). While there, you need to get a photo permit if you want to take pictures (that one is free). Of course, you need to get an exit permit, too (20 USD).
So, yeah. A lot of paperwork for a 6 day visit. Inexplicable, but so it goes. And it was worth the hassle, to be honest!
After freezing my ass off in the Ethiopian highlands 2 days earlier, Sudan was just the opposite. Walking around in the scorching heat reminded me of my Vegas days. But the aguas frescas on the street, which you drink in shared metal cups, saved the day. They were so similar to horchata, tamarindo, and jamaica, but less sugary. I am nearly certain one can trace the refreshing drinks’ beginnings back to northern Africa.
My humble hotel was full of Syrian immigrants and next to a Syrian restaurant where the staff was incredibly helpful and the food solid. It was nice to follow up the great street food in Ethiopia with delicious, cheap shawarmas in Sudan.
I also made it to the nicest hotel in town a few times. Great Sudanese coffee, fast (for Africa) Wi-Fi, and the best view in town! The Blue and White Nile converged just below The Corinthia. It was great, even if it’s owned by the Lybian government.
One of the my most memorable and unique experiences took place east of the city, on Friday around sunset, at the Hamed-al-Nil mosque, a longish walk from central Khartoum. The Sufi dancers of the Qadirayah order- aka whirling dervishes – venerates Allah through meditative dance. They danced as if they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, to be honest. But I digress.
It starts with a small, rhythmic, and comedic warm-up with three musicians that I really enjoyed, despite not understanding a single word. Then the main event starts and a lot of colorfully clad worshippers march in. After some prayer and a slow musical build-up the fun begins. And a lot of locals and some tourists gather around in a circle to watch these guys go crazy in a very unique religious ritual.
Men, old and young, but mostly the former, with flags, whistles, hats, walking sticks, tambourines, etc., sway left and right, spin in place, or walk/march around the edges of the circle of onlookers. Unbridled joy and happiness. The spectacle surely made me smile.
Twas a dark and dusty walk back to the city. I spent my last day there enjoying cheap dates and fresh fruit juices, grabbing a couple of books, and buying a replacement keffiyeh. After years of good service, my trusty red-and-white travel companion from Jordan – one of the most useful, versatile items in my bag – was in a deplorable state of snags, holes, and frayed edges. I opted for a black one this time.
On that note, it always makes me smile when people see me rocking my shamagh and acknowledge me. Traditionally I got a friendly “As-Salaam-Alaikum,” but I’ve heard a few “Shaloms” as of late.
The trip to Wadi Halfa, where I’d catch the weekly ferry to Egypt, was a long one. On the most spectacularly decorated bus on A Great Journey! Bedazzled in blue, fringed satin, we left Khartoum at 4 am! That set a personal record for earliest bus departure ever.
My stay in Wadi only lasted 2 days and a night, but I will always remember it fondly for its fantastic ful restaurant. I am so glad my curiosity and hunger made me backtrack to find out what everyone at the packed place was dining on. Also, the hilariously inefficient process that was getting an exit stamp with my new friends from Sudan and Austria.
Waiting for the ferry boarding process to begin, we all shared some shays & falafels.
You’ll never mistake it for a luxury liner, but the ferry was comfortable, the meals filling, and the chai good. By the way, never forget to specify how much sugar you want in your chai (or fruit juice)! Unless you want, literally, half a cup in every cup.
After docking in Aswan we had a bit of an “Oh, shit” moment. Our passports – which they took from us upon boarding – went MIA. Thankfully, a cop helped Christian, Alice, and I quickly track ’em down so we could begin our Egyptian adventure.
I was overjoyed to be back in Egypt, one of my favorite countries in the world!
Yet it was crazy to think that A Great Journey through Africa would soon end. But not before a visit to the Valley of the Kings, a Dairy Queen, the pyramids…and a hospital.