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The Train from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa, Sudan
DECEMBER 07, 2007

The Long Road North...

Our trip through Sudan was only ever a transit. To cross Africa's largest country in only two weeks does no justice to it's people or it's natural and historical wonders. Early in the morning we walked out onto the quiet streets of Khartoum. It was so early the cabbies were still sleeping. This was unfortunate because it meant we had lost all our bargaining power - getting ripped off and having to pay double the normal fair.

It was oddly quiet at the train station, normally in an African train station it's buzzing with people selling food, cheap souvenirs, knick knacks, clothes - as well as passengers pushing and shoving to get on board. It didn't help of course that there was no train waiting for us...

With the train scheduled to leave at 8:30, we were some what surprised to see it pull in at 8am. Even more so by the calm restraint everyone showed in walking out onto the platform. Our tickets were in Arabic and had been bought for us by a overly friendly local - to say we were concerned we had purchased dud's was an understatement, the relief therefore when the conductors showed us down the train past third class with their rough wooden benches, past the diner carriage, past the second class and first class saloons. All the way up to the front of the train and into a luxury cabin.

Now with the expectation of 50 hours onboard ahead of us - we dumped our bags and returned to the platform to watch the general goings on. It was here that we met the Cycling Dutchman, he had travelled with his bicycle from South Africa to Sudan and was entering Egypt for the final stretch back to the Netherlands.

At 8:30 the whistle blew and we all re-boarded, ten minutes later while we were spending some quality time admiring the luxury of our cabin our train pulled out. Unbelievably on time - who would have thought.


Leaving Khartoum we had a slow old trundle through the outer suburbs. Like an eager puppy I spent the time with my head hanging out the window (with Donna yelling "watch for poles"). I saw the young lads (amongst whom was my cousin Yvonne) lining up, and was barracking for them as they raced along beside the train then scaled up the ladders and onto the roof. This was all good and well, until we hit the outskirts of Khartoum and the desert opened up before us. Unexpectedly the train screeched to a halt and from nowhere the train was surrounded by police. The boys tried to get away, in fact a couple managed to get through the police cordon running off into the dunes. Those that didn't make it were herded into a group by police wielding rather large sticks.

Once the kids were safely under arrest the train was hurriedly waved on and then the police turned on the boys with their sticks...

With the excitement over we settled in for the long haul north. As the day dragged on we passed numerous small Nile side settlements, set in an arid landscape there was perhaps a 200 metre stretch of of fertile land running alongside the Nile river. The local Fellahin were all out tending their crops, riding around on donkeys and going about their business as they had been for millennium.

We on the other hand were tended to by the dutiful men of the catering crew. Every hour or so we were served super sweet shai or gahwe, served from buckets into communal cups. As the heat of the day set in the hot drinks were replaced with icy cold bottles of soft drink. Donna sat in the shade of the cabin while I teed up the big lens and started snapping away - from the safety of the sleeper cabin I was able to get up close and personal with the local farmers.

I may have mentioned before about the friendliness of the sudanese people. From being given free bread at our hotel, to the unexpected helpfulness of the man on the street - it surpasses anything we have experienced anywhere else in the world. At one station we stopped for a extended period to hook up some additional carriages and refuel the engine. I was chatting on the platform (a piece of sand) with the Cycling Dutchman and a local guy who I assumed at the time was a carriage mate of the Dutchman. After he wandered off we moved down the platform (sand) to attempt to buy some dinner - only finding some nasty foul. Deciding our health was more important than our stomachs - we opted instead to buy some bread from a nearby store. While standing there making the purchase the local gentleman returned and without any ado - proceeded to buy everything the Dutchman had ordered, plus added some jam for good measure. He then walked off into the night...

After re-boarding and pushing on into the night the sun dipped behind the Nile and the cold desert air seemed to get into your bones. With dust covering everything, we shook out the sheets on the beds, shut the external shutters on the windows, and closed up the cabin as best we could in an attempt to keep the dust at bay. I being the gallant lad that I am, gave up my bed on the engine side letting Donna have a dust free night while I attempted to sleep amid the swirling haze.


Waking up in the morning I was far from successful in my attempt at remaining dust free. Thankfully the train wasn't as archaic as we had been led to believe, with a fully functioning toilet and wash basin at each end of the sleeper - now while I could wash my face easily enough - have you ever tried to squat on a train - Not easy my friends, not easy indeed (maybe too much information here...).

After freshening up, we settled in for day two, opening the shutters the landscape had changed dramatically from the previous day. After leaving the river at Atbara we had cut directly north into the Sahara desert, looking out in the cold light of dawn we were faced with only the endless sands.

Food on board the train was somewhat limited. There was a dining car - although it was situated somewhere towards the rear and based on the quality of the food we had seen at the stations along the way - we had decided to self cater. We had been provided with some fresh bread (given to us freely by the hotel management), along with fresh tomato, onion and cucumbers we had bought at the local markets. In addition to our somewhat healthier food we had also packed several gallons of bottled water and far too many lollies and sweets. Before anyone emails in complaining about facts - yes, since travelling through Africa, I Matthew Thomas have partaken in several frenzies of the sugary kind including half a Mars bar on the odd occasion. Aside from what we brought with us, we were provided with enough sugary tea, coffee, and icy cold bottles of Mirinda by the friendly catering staff to bring on an early onset of diabetes.

As the train pushed ever Northwards throughout the morning we would occasionally pass through remote desert outposts, Station 12, Station 11, Station 10; Small mud brick buildings with conical roofs sprouting from the desert floor in the middle of nowhere. Station 8 was built on the site of an old well - now dried up the few inhabitants race out to meet the weekly train - some respite from their self imposed isolation.

By Station 7 we had found out from the locals that instead of the scheduled 50 hours, in part thanks to Chinese/Iranian Engineering - we would be arriving in Halfa that afternoon. Now for most people this would in fact be a good thing, 36 hours instead of 50 would seem to be ideal - however we had budgeted on spending the remainder of our time in Sudan onboard a train - not spending money on restaurants on hotels - this totally through out our budgeting and after our experience in Khartoum last week - sent a few cold chills down the spine...

It was quite clear that after leaving the relative comforts of life beside the Nile, the railway line had deteriorated in quality. At times we were rocking and bouncing around so much it was if the train was in 4x4 mode. The only way to get through certain areas was to slow to a dead crawl, and while this was great for watching the scenery, after an hour or so, desert is desert. Pulling into some of the more remote stations en-route north we were greeted by the littering of past generations. Far from trash, the railway line was surrounded by masses of old railway stock, broken down carriages, spare wheels, and far to many railway hand carts.

Pulling into the stations themselves was a highly amusing affair. Aside from the oddly shaped buildings, the camels in the distance, the mirages of lakes, shimmering away in the distance, the train's passengers would all dismount and proceed to pray, stretch their legs and use the local facilities (a patch of sand). When the train's whistle blew most people didn't react, it wasn't until we were chugging forward that everyone would scamper into action running along beside the train, leaping up onto the steps and climbing aboard. Those too slow to react would be forced to climb onto the rear most carriages and slowly make their way forward on the roof or through the general populace.

Sure enough as the sun crossed over the train an excited murmur rippled through the train as we neared ever closer to our end goal. Shortly after 3pm we entered the outskirts of Wadi Halfa. At the entrance to the town it was akin to the Great Californian Land Rush. Picture a remote desert with a few small mud brick huts, a lone tumbleweed rolls across an empty road. Then the whistle of a train causes every man woman and child to stampede for the railway station. This is THE weekly train - and everyone wants his cut of the booty, so aside from your tuk tuk taxis you've got lorries, cars, pickups, donkey carts, bicycles, and for the unfortunate ones - bare feet...

With all of this commotion, getting of the carriage was actually quite easy, we said our goodbyes to fellow passengers and picked up a tuk tuk at the gate (with no hassle - Sudan is great). For the princely sum of 1 dollar he took us back into town to the cheapest digs we could find. Being hard core Muslim, we were forced to rent a four bedroom room for the night so that Donna and I could sleep together - otherwise it was segregation all the way. Thankfully we tracked down the cycling Dutchman and were able to split the costs three ways.

Halfa comes alive on transit days - people flooded into town all afternoon, not only from the train but in all variety of vehicle until well after dark.


The next morning we began the completion of our adventures in Sudanese Bureaucracy. Our first port of call was the passport office where we were greeted by a friendly tour guide who - in excellent English - gave us the run down of what was ahead.

Once inside the passport office the real fun began, at the first counter our passports were handed over for a lady to write down our details in a big ledger - now they look at your information page - but have no idea what they are looking at - so you spend half your time answering complicated questions like what is your name and what country are you from - any old answer will do at this stage.

At the next counter you pay - yes you actually have to pay them to stamp your passport - but lets not jump ahead of ourselves

After getting your receipt you shuffle along to the next counter where they guy behind the desk looks at your passport, your receipt and confirms everything is in order - with a grunt he directs you to the back of the room - this is where the crush begins.

Pushing through the hundred or so people waiting around - there is a small table in the corner, a lady patiently has piles and piles of passports in front of her that she is processing - thankfully being a foreigner gets you to the front of that queue - but not before you are given more forms to fill out.

You submit your completed triplicate exit form to the lady who writes more information in a big book - and while the security guard is not looking you can get your passports back a little quicker than he can process them - just don't get caught.

It's stamp time - hopefully. Hand your passport through the next window to a lady more interested in talking to the VIP's let in through the back door than processing passports. Don't bother hanging around at this window - look to your left - see the mob of people all yelling "Mohammed" - that is the final window on your passport crusade (at least at this stage).

As each passport comes out of the window - more money is handed forward to the guys lucky enough to be at the front of the mob, they then pass the passport backwards hopefully getting it to the right Mohammed. In a mob of Arabs, two Aussie's and a Dutchman stand out, and with little fuss we were stamped out of Sudan.

Leaving the passport office with a skip in our step we had accumulated a right old stack of paperwork - passport, triplicate exit documents, receipt of visa payment, receipt of port tax, ferry ticket, luggage voucher and finally a meal voucher.

With little in Halfa to hold your interest - we jumped into the back of the first land cruiser we could find and headed out to the ports. Again we were helped by a friendly Sudanese gentlemen who for the sake of this article I am going to call Morgan Freeman (I'm telling you - he was the spitting image of the Hollywood actor).

At the ports office - first in is most definitely best dressed - unless of course you are a pushy Arab woman. At the door they write a number on the back of your exit papers - this number is very important- its the number in which you finally get processed (its far from over friends).

Once entering the actual building you are curtly instructed to place your luggage into neatly ordered rows according to your arrival number - then rush back to the door to hand over your stack of documentation so another man can re-write the same information into yet another ledger.

Assuming this is done you can then go and wait for your chance to be processed for exit.

We arrived early, 1pm in fact, for a 5 o'clock departure which in my book is actually very early. As reward for getting there early we were given a number between 30 and 40 - this is good. After only an hour and a half wait, at 2:30pm they started the processing for outgoing passengers.

It began with a little man and his microphone, all in all it took 15 minutes of screaming to clear the obstinate Arab men (and some rather obnoxious tourists) from the entrance to the processing room. When the little man finally managed to get some space he called forth the first batch of ten who disappeared into the processing corridor.

For half an hour we waited patiently as the first 30 people were processed - now I'm no great mathematician but i'm guessing with all the pushing, queue jumping, and Arab Lady side stepping that went on - more like 50-60 people were processed before it was our turn.

Once we managed to squeeze ourselves into the processing corridor it was time to pull out the stack of paperwork for round two. At the first desk we had to complete our second exit document , this was stamped, information was gleaned from our passports and we were ushered onto the police desk. Here the first exit document was stamped in duplicate and one copy was returned to us. (I swear the other copy was just thrown in the bin!!!) It was here that I very unfortunately molested a large Egyptian lady - I was minding my own business at the FRONT of the line waiting patiently for the policemen to process my documents. With more than a metre clearance. said lady backed into me and - if truth be told, with the angles the way they were she may have felt some of the family jewels through my now threadbare pants.

In utter shock and disbelief she swung around and gave me a decent chest push - she then went on to thoroughly abuse me in Arabic. Clearly by not noticing her, and standing still as she reversed into me, I had crossed the line. Thankfully the tourist police were not involved and I escaped with only an ear bashing from Missus Mohammed.

From the police desk we went back outside to the main waiting area, grabbed our bags from the luggage queue, and proceeded to the customs check - not wanting to cause a work overload for them they politely declined our offer to take off our packs - and waved us through slapping a stamp on our backpacks formalising the thorough search they had conducted.

At the exit door to the ports office was the penultimate step - customs check number two - Seeing our pretty blue customs stamps they signed the stamp saying they too had performed there dutiful function and we were free to wander down to the boat.

At the boat we were greeted by the lunch ticket boy - his job was important - our meal voucher at this point consisted of a little square pink ticket - we had to swap this pink ticket for another pink ticket with the exactly the same information, only it was half the size - good use of paper guys.

At the entrance to the ship the duplicate exit document was handed over and our passports were submitted into a communal box for further processing on the ship - it's times like this that it's best not to ask - just hope like buggery they are returned...

On board the ship we wound our way up a flight of steps to the first class deck where we shown to our cabin, now for the cash we doled out on tickets I wasn't expecting the QE2 - however to find that our bed had been slept in and looked as if Goldilocks had only recently fled the scene.. we were a little disgruntled.

Stowing our gear we moved up to the observation deck where we rejoined the Cycling Dutchman - he was travelling 2nd class and had stashed his gear behind the captains cabin.


The ferry was scheduled to leave at five o'clock. We spent the next couple of hours chatting with the slow progression of passengers who made their way onboard. Most people, after securing some deck space or a chair, wandered up to the top deck to watch life passing by. Morgan Freeman rejoined us for a chin wag, imparting some incitful knowledge on the whole Arabic marriage experience, how Arab men and women interact, followed by a very frank discussion on the various pros and cons of Egyptian and Sudanese woman. Aside from agreeing that Ethiopian woman were stunning we can now pass on the fact that Sudanese woman are better in the evenings, Egyptian in the morning - this is second hand information so please take it as you will.... Caveat emptor as my father would say.

Once the ship was underway we moved below decks, with the wind whipping up off of the water it was bloody chilly outside. We decided to take advantage of our meal vouchers before the food ran out - and surprisingly we were served up a very delicious and filling meal - chicken, rice, pasta, fruit, salad - the works.

Every half hour or so we wrapped ourselves up in Ethiopian shama blankets and struggled up onto the top deck, finally at 10:00pm we were rewarded with bright lights in the distance. Settling into a quiet wind free corner we braved the cold just long enough to pass by Abu Simbel - the light and sound show was just finishing up and we were treated to a brief glimpse of the Sun Temple of Ramses 2 and Temple of Hathor.

Finally climbing into my bunk bed for the evening I was surprised to hear a knock at the cabin door. Carefully climbing down to avoid a catastrophic injury from one of the many hazards on board I was greeted with a warm bottle of 7up, uncapped and shoved through he door to the sounds of - "how many do you want, one or two". All I could stammer was "none, errr, um, one" . Travelling first class has it's perks - it seems a free bottle of luke warm 7up was it though.


Sleeping pretty well, I was awoken rather abruptly by the Cycling Dutchman who informed us that they were handing passports out - he led us through the maze of corridors into the back of the ship where a man was sitting on his bed with a box of passports for distribution. Now you would assume there would be some detailed documented process for this - but we were now in the hands of the Egyptians and anything could happen - and would!

I grabbed mine - it was blue with the Australian coat of arms on it as well as some strategically placed staples so I was cool. Donna was given a Polish girls passport, clearly the photo has some similarity but being red we were sure it wasn't ours. After a little tooing and froing she managed to dig into the box and pull out her well used ID, regretfully giving up a life of crime and handing back the Polish passport.

The Ferry ride is only 18 hours long, as such day two had a relaxed and festive air about it. As we neared the docks at Aswan in the early afternoon we were joined onboard by the Egyptian Authorities who started handing back the Egyptian passports and providing entrance stamps to all others.

There are logical ways of doing things, and there are illogical ways of doing things, then there are Egyptian ways of doing things. Essentially everyone was forced into a queue, then made to walk through the dining room where you got your passport stamped, then proceeded out the back door, down into the lower decks, then if you could manage it - force your way back up to the top decks for some peace and quiet.

When this process had been completed the boat was allowed to continue onwards and after thirty minutes we pulled up at the Aswan dock. Instead of actually parking at a pier we pulled up next to the sister ship and from our view on the bridge we could clearly see the spectacle below as two or three lucky passengers were allowed off the ship.

After half an hour of no one passing through the ships hatch - we were asked to head below decks. It was a nightmare of Egyptian proportions. The police had phoned the details of several passengers through and were trying to track them down for questioning. As it was they were letting no one off until they had all been spoken too. Not only that - none of the Egyptian passports had actually been handed out yet - so box by box men were walking out of the dining carriage and yelling out a name to the mass of men assembled on the steps down to the second class.

After two hours of senseless waiting in the dining car, we were instructed to leave the boat. Pushing down to the lower deck we managed to squeeze through the hatch onto the second boat, then out onto the pier and some proper Egyptian soil. We walked up the quay to the back of a long line of men waiting to be processed through customs.

Thankfully they ushered us into the fast track line - skirting around all the other passengers we were passed through the gate, and then with Donna pushing further ahead through the women's only line we were waved through the metal detectors and out into Egypt - free at last from the bureaucracy of the borders...

All in all, the long road north was actually pretty easy - instead of a 50 hour train ride in much talked about discomfort, we had a 36 hour train ride in the dusty but spacious confines of our sleeper, at Halfa we were provided with a few hours of respite from our travels - and some non alcoholic beer - before we had a very easy and enjoyable ferry ride along lake Nasser to Aswan. We didn't rough it - hell most other travellers would probably look at this leg of our journey and scoff - but we got to see the country, meet the locals - enjoy their hospitality - and have some very open discussions as well. Sudan was brilliant, a country we will definitely return to...inshalla.

From here though it's time for some Temple Fever...

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