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I booked my overland trek through Sudan and Ethiopia with a UK-based company, “Dragoman.” They’ve been in business since 1981, still owned by the original founders, specializing in overland travel all around the globe. They have a fleet of 30 purpose-built overlanding trucks built in Suffolk, UK, and shipped around the world. They are billed as active tours that get off the beaten track and interact with locals in the more remote sites. We would be traveling in a giant orange truck with a Mercedes engine and integrated cab, 24 coach-style seats with two tables, and a large refrigerator, with 350 liter drinking water tank, fully equipped kitchen, camp chairs, and tents in the storage bins below.
Dragoman names their trucks, typically after notorious women. I would be spending 30 days traveling in “Amelia,” named for Amelia Earhart, with our leader Louise and driver James, both from UK. (But I will let you in on a little secret…Louise was an even better driver than James!)
The trip would be comprised of two loops…8 days through Sudan from Khartoum to Khartoum. Then we would cross the border into Ethiopia for another “lollipop” loop from Gondar to Addis Ababa. When I first booked this tour, I was told there were 22 passengers on board….almost a full truck! I thought it would be the same group for the entire 30 days, but I was pleased to learn we would get a whole new group in Ethiopia. This was good news, because while we were near full on the first loop, there would only be 11 travelers on the 22 day loop, giving lots of room to spread out, and a guaranteed window seat.
On board were passengers from Australia, Ireland, England, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, and much to my surprise, five US citizens. One of the main reasons I often book tour companies based outside the US is primarily because you don’t find these kind of tour operators based in the US, and if you do, they are ridiculously expensive. But I also enjoy traveling with people from other parts of the world. So I was surprised to learn there were four other US citizens on board, all who had come to Sudan specifically for this loop of the trip only (they had all four been to Ethiopia on previous trips.) Who knew word was out on Sudan already?
The Sudan loop would be very different than the Ethiopia loop, simply because once one leaves Khartoum, there really aren’t any “hotels” or even restaurants for that matter. So we would be wild camping in the Sahara desert for six nights, shopping for groceries in the local markets, and preparing our own meals.
There would be two opportunities to “upgrade” to a guesthouse along the way. These guesthouses were no more than several cots in a concrete-block room with a pillow and thin mattress on a wooden frame strung with twine for springs. There was no bedding, so one still had to sleep in a sleeping bag. But for only 150 Sudanese Pounds (three bucks) it was worth not having to pitch a tent in the wind and inflate a sleeping pad that night, then cram it all back in the duffel bag before sunrise. There was a squat toilet across the courtyard. If you have never used a squat toilet, well, it’s just as it sounds. Two opposing foot platforms (if you are lucky) straddling a hole in the ground. One of these two guesthouses had a “suicide shower” (electrical heating unit attached to the shower head) affording the only opportunity for a rinse-off during the week. Otherwise, baby wipes were our best defense. Thank goodness the weather was so surprisingly cool!
Camping in the bush under the magnificent stars was stunning, and in the early hours, I could see the Southern Cross low on the horizon. Then later in the week, the waxing moon reached full on our last camp night. All six nights, the skies were clear, air was dry and warm during the day, and cold at night, like most deserts. It was much cooler in Sudan than I expected, but I managed to stay warm inside the sleeping bag, and my new down “puffy” purchased for the trip is now well broken in.
I learned a valuable lesson after my first night of pitching a tent in the Sahara….one needs to “read” the dunes to study the shape and curvature before staking out a spot. Wind tunnels through troughs in the dunes, so steer clear of any “notches” on the nearby horizon, but rather use the sand banks as a wind break. While it was a comfortable sleep, I was concerned at times that I would wake up inside a skeleton of tent poles around me.
A little known fact (at least to me,) Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt. Yet unlike the Pyramids of Giza, there were no neon “Pizza Hut” signs flashing in the background, no taxi scams, and no lines waiting to enter. Every day, we would stop at least twice to visit ancient temples, fortresses, or historic sites, and with a few rare exceptions of the odd couple here or there, we would have the sites all to ourselves. I’ve never experienced tourism like that before. That alone made me grateful for the opportunity to visit Sudan.
Here are chronological scenes from the first half of the week, Khartoum to Meroë:
Next Up: Sudan’s most famous tourist attraction, the Meroë Pyramids, and the second half of the loop, Meroë back to Khartoum.