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Beer and Biryani :: The Travelling Adventures of Matt & Donna  
The Train from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa, Sudan
November 27, 2007

Sudan - A Model of Bureaucracy

After 10 months travelling we are somewhat used to running African border posts, handling government employees, and dealing with the rougher end of public transport. Not much can prepare you though for Sudan. Thanks to the strict enforcement of Sharia Law, and a government keen on remaining firmly in control of it's populace - we were treated to a whole new level of Bureaucracy...

Like all things in Africa - it's hard to know ahead of time how long any trip will actually take. We had originally read that to get to the border it would take us up to two whole days of leap frogging from town to town. With a little help from some friendly locals we finally bought tickets for a bus that would supposedly drop us off at Ethiopian Border post within two hours of leaving Gondar.

In order to get prime seats on the bus, we arranged with one of the load boys at the bus stop to sneak us in through the back gate before the masses were allowed in. As a result we took our mornings departure pretty casually. We arrived late at the bus stop to find the gates wide open and people milling everywhere. Thankfully our contact at the bus station had reserved the two best seats on the bus for us, and after tipping him a suitable amount, and buying some fresh bread for the onward trip - we settled in.

After sitting around for a good hour or so waiting for the bus to fill up, we finally pulled our of the station at 7am, from Gondar to the border was a tad longer than the promised two hours, but thankfully shorter than the two days we had originally budgeted for. We pulled into Metemma, a dusty outpost in the far west of Ethiopia a little after midday, the hot sun kicking in to full effect. Loading up our packs we set off on foot for Sudan and the unknown. For the first time on our journey we were entering a country with no guidebook, relying on a single photocopied page with a map of the capital (aka the guide page), and a handful of notes downloaded from the internet.

A 30 minute walk in the heat of the day took it's toll. Our heavy packs and day bags were covered in dust, our bodies coated in sweat. With only a warm bottle of water to quench our thirst we tried desperately to cool our body temperatures down in the little tin shed that had been commandeered by the Ethiopian Authorities and was currently being used as it's immigration office. With the formalities completed we bypassed the local toilets (which had been converted into a chicken coup) and started across the bridge.


The changes were obvious on entering Sudanese territory. The road went from dusty gravel into luxurious black top. Immigration even had a fancy new building with a flushing toilet (all the mod cons). With a little money however comes a whole lot of pain. It started well enough, we handed over our passports to big welcoming smiles - all the necessary stamps were made and things were generally going well. Then it all went pear shaped.

Our passports were returned to us with registration forms and we were asked to hand over 60 US dollars worth of local currency each (We had already purchased our Visa's in Addis for US$60 each). Believeing we could register in Khartoum - this sudden request for more money came as a bit of a shock and so we protested several times wanting to register in the capital, all to no effect. The main problem with all this was we had very little reserve cash left. We were unable to secure Sudanese currency in Ethiopia, we had a couple of hundred dollars worth of Birr and some backup US left - just enough to get us to Khartoum where we could re-supply.

All our protestations were in vain however and finally we were introduced to an illegal money changer on the street who would change the last of our Ethiopian Birr into Sudanese pounds - however after 5 minutes of intense negotiations he was offering a rate so poor as to not cover our registration - let alone get us 500km's or so west to Khartoum.

Scrounging around in our packs we pulled out our reserve supply of US currency. US Dollars were highly sought after and in minutes we had agreed on a fair rate for all. The deal was done - at least giving us enough cash to register with the government, and hopefully enough get to Khartoum where we were reliably told there were ATM's.

I counted out the Sudanese pounds, then handed over my $US. Upon seeing that 100 dollars of the 200 total was in small bills - the money changer handed them back and refused to change the money - not even at a lesser rate.

Walking back into the immigration office I calmly explained the situation to Donna - and again we tried to reason with immigration officials that we simply didn't have enough money to pay for the registration, we explained that we were unable to change money outside, and that there was no way to get Sudanese money outside of Sudan. In the heat of the day - tempers were flaring and we were getting absolutely nowhere. The hours ticked by in a stand off.

Finally push came to shove, Donna took the money and tried herself. Standing in front of the immigration office, surrounded by heavily armed security guards, police officers, military soldiers and an illegal money changer, Donna tried in vain to negotiate away the money we had. With absolutely no movement from the money changer, Donna was finally reduced to tears.

Now Arabic men are generally quite Gentlemanly, in fact the sight of Donna standing there with tears running down her cheeks brought instant action to all those watching. Remarks were made in Arabic, there was an awkward shuffling of feet and before we knew what was happening the Dollars had been swapped for Pounds.

With money in hand, the actual registration process took another 10 minutes as our passports etc were processed in another little office. Finally they were handed back in a folder of about 20 different forms which again went to the immigration officer who reprocessed everything, finally the passports were sent out the back for the infamous 'blue' sticker of registration.

After a good few hours we emerged from the immigration office - officially allowed into Sudan - but far from finished with officialdom. We then had to proceed further up the street to the Customs office where they ignored our packs but spent several minutes examining our passports yet again. With this finished we had one final step - registration with the Police.

Again, a 5 minute walk up the road took us to a non descript villa with plain whitewashed walls and no signage. We walked into an empty room, which with a little help from some locals we deduced was the Aliens Registration Office. Handing over passports, photographs, fingerprints etc and completed the last with the days formalities.

Due to the lengthy delays we had faced with immigration we were a little worried about being able to push onto the next town that night. African transport didn't let us down though as we were relieved to find a minibus almost full preparing to leave for Gaderaf. Paying the agreed foreigner fare, our bags were loaded on top and we piled into the bus. After sitting around for half an hour waiting out of the sun, everyone else piled in and we set off.

Leaving Gallabat was no simple affair. First the mini bus had to drive back to the Alien Registration Office where once again we had to show our passports. Then we went to customs where a cursory examination of the vehicle was performed, and finally back to immigration where once again we had to show our passports. A trend was starting to appear here - moving around in the Sudan was not going to be easy.

15 minutes out of Gallabat we encountered the first of many road blocks we would meet that day. We quickly learnt the procedure - everyone piles out of the bus for a stretch while Donna and I go into a little office/rug on the sand so some officer can scribble our details onto a scrap of paper, before we all pile back into the bus and push on west towards Gaderaf.

As the sun finally set and the first stars appeared in the night sky we pulled into a dark and gloomy township. Gaderaf may have been big and bustling in its centre, however we were dropped at a small petrol station somewhere on it's outskirts. Thankfully - like we found our entire time in Sudan - the people are amazingly friendly and helpful. A kind gentlemen with passable english worked out what we wanted to do and arranged for a tuk tuk to run us into town to a cheap hotel - after a number of failed tries we finally found a room in an over priced hovel. Our twin room was one of the worst so far, infested by spiders, one of the beds was out of order thanks to a complete set of broken slats.

The tuk tuk driver then ran us around the corner to the bus booking office where he helped us get two tickets to Khartoum the following morning, before finally taking us to one of the cheapest restaurants in town where we stocked up on water and, for the first time in months - meat sharwarmas - brilliant.


The next morning, feeling better after a good nights sleep we walked back to the bus ticket office, only to find out that buses actually left from a larger station on the far side of town. A quick scramble for the nearest taxi resulted, using up more of our precious few pounds. Our Taxi driver first drove us to the wrong station, then in pigeon english worked out where we were heading and at break neck speeds in his little buzz box flew along those roads to the point we were seriously worried about our lives, to places it wasn't designed to go, at speeds it's designers had only dreamed about. Thankfully we made it to the bus stop both in one piece - and in time for the bus.

From Gaderaf to Khartoum we were in luxury, I would almost go as far as to say it's the nicest bus we have been on the whole time in Africa. It was our cheapest option, yet we were served a hearty breakfast onboard, as well as tea and soft drinks. There was plenty of room between seats, and there were tv's playing bad Lebanese movies and half of a Jackie Chan movie. It was almost disappointing to get off into the heat of khartoum.

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