WF traveller Andrew Simmonds has just returned from our Beneath the Sands of Sudan group tour. Below he recounts his memories of the trip, from arrival in bustling Khartoum to encountering golden deserts, ancient pyramids and whirling dervishes.
When I said I was going to Sudan on holiday, my work colleagues, who are used to my unusual destinations, looked at me in horror. When I uttered the words “camping some nights as well”, they believed I had totally lost the plot this time.
However Sudan is a hidden wonder. Beautiful warm sunshine, incredible desert scenery, numerous ancient monuments and incredibly friendly people, combined with camping and luxury hotels make this a destination not to miss.
Most people only know Khartoum from its colonial history and the murder of General Gordon in 1885. Today Khartoum is a modern bustling city sitting on the confluence of the Blue and While Niles. The National Museum has some incredible Christian frescos rescued from Faras Cathedral, which is now submerged under Lake Nasser and date back to between the 8th and 14th centuries. The other main points of interest in Khartoum being the Khalifa’s House and The Madhi’s Tomb, which give an insight into Sudan’s history at the time of General Gordon and Kitchener.
Soon we are heading north west out of Khartoum straight into flat desert scenery past numerous police checkpoints. Some checkpoints are little more than a policeman, his car and a traffic cone to stop traffic, while others are more substantial with buildings over the roadway and many police and traffic cones. Paperwork changes hands at every stop and we are soon on our way again.
The medieval city of Old Dongola has a beautiful setting looking down on the Nile. Very little exists other than the Throne Hall which was converted to a mosque in the 14th Century and the ruins of a church with granite columns. Nearby is the Muslim cemetery.
The next stop is Karima and the beautiful Nubia Boutique Rest Hotel, an oasis in the desert, although one can only wonder at the amount of water used in an attempt to keep the grass green.
Located next to Jebel Barkal, Nubia’s holy mountain, you couldn’t ask for a better location. The view from the top of Jebel Barkal gives a tremendous view of the Nile, the small strip of date palms growing either side and of the ancient ruins surrounding the mountain. The Temple of Amum built in the 15th Century BC by the Egyptians lies at the foot of the mountain. The temple grew in later years to become a major Kushite building and trading post. On the western side of the mountain are about 20 reasonably intact pyramids built by the Napatan Kings, which date back to around the 3rd Century BC.
Nuri, a few miles upstream from Karima, contains another site of crumbling pyramids, this time dating from the 7th Century BC built by the Napatan Kings.
Our night of camping is near the Atrun Crater after an incredible journey across the desert. Although you think you are in the middle of nowhere, numerous groups of people continually wander past. In the morning a young mother with four children stops by with one child wearing a slightly incongruous Thomas the Tank Engine t-shirt. Unfortunately the sight of my face makes one of the toddlers cry. The crater the next morning is the scene of people with donkeys and water containers collecting water and various discussions and photographs take place.
Approaching Atbara you are suddenly thrown back into civilisation. Atbara is an industrial town and the main centre of Sudan’s railway system, which is now undergoing some revitalisation by the Chinese.
The fixed tent camp site at Meroe gives a wonderful view down to the north site of the Meroe pyramids. A visit to catch the evening sun setting is a must with the sun making the pyramids glow a golden orange colour. There are over 100 pyramids in the area with about 30 in the better preserved northern cemetery, although sadly Italian explorer Giuseppe Ferlini did immense damage to them in 1834 by decapitating most of them in his hunt for treasure.
The historic sites at Naqa are incredible with intricately carved reliefs. Nearby is a waterhole where water is being drawn out to enable the goats, donkeys and camels to drink. A pulley system operated by a donkey draws water from deep underground.
The end of the trip involves a dash back to Khartoum. The road links Khartoum with the Red Sea port of Port Sudan. Large lorries dominate the traffic.
We arrive back in Khartoum in time to see the Whirling Dervishes, the purpose of which is for the participants to get into a state of ecstatic abandon to enable communication with God.