Out of 22 passengers on the Sudan Loop, we would say goodbye to all but two in Khartoum. George, an older, quite proper, stodgy gentlemen from the UK with a wry smile and sense of humor to match, and yours truly would be the only two passengers to continue the two day journey from Khartoum, across the Ethiopian border to Gondar, where we would pick up 11 new passengers. Until then, George and I would have all 24 seats in Amelia between us. We joked about fighting over who would get the window seat.
I must be candid in saying the Sudan loop had been a bit physically taxing, starting with the fact that I saw the sunrise four out of the seven days…likely more than I have seen in the past year. The long driving days on average of over 400 kms (about 250 miles) the late nights sitting by the fire, the fitful sleeps that can come from sleeping in a tent flapping in the wind, breaking camp and packing up every day, and climbing in and out of the steep truck steps 20 times per day had me feeling a bit weary. I was looking forward to a couple of quiet driving days, followed by a rest day in a clean, comfortable hotel in Gondar before heading off on the next adventure.
Leaving Khartoum with only the two of us as passengers immediately felt like a more casual atmosphere. Louise asked, “Want to come up front and ride in the cab with me?” I thought she would never ask. 😉 There is no better view from “Amelia” than the passenger seat of the cab. To make it even more entertaining, it’s extremely rare to see a woman driving in Sudan, much less a giant truck. When we would pass people along the way, you could see them do a double take at not one woman, but two in the cab! But the best looks came from the young girls, I could imagine smiling at the promise of possibility that one day maybe they would be driving too.
The border crossing into Ethiopia at Metema was easy for us individuals. We four were done in minutes. However getting “Amelia,” the truck signed in turned out to be a pain. Immigration’s computer was down, and every time they went to enter the vehicle registration documentation, it crashed. What should have only taken an hour took four.
While waiting on Amelia’s paperwork to be processed, we all went for lunch on the Sudanese side of “the rope” (border crossing) in what amounted to little more than a shack with a dirt floor. It was beyond marginal, and I had that feeling of dread upon entering that I was headed for doom. “Listen to your gut, Suzanne!” But I was hungry, and James ordered up four plates of their beans and falafel with a great deal of confidence, then tucked right in. I would have probably been okay, except that I also accepted the boiled egg that was offered, whereas the others did not eat the egg. It may be some time before I can eat a boiled egg again.
We didn’t get out of customs and on our way until 4:30pm. As the sun started to go down, the road became very sinuous and narrow, and it was evident we were climbing into the mountains, growing darker by the minute. At dusk, we passed through a small village east of the border about an hour into Ethiopia where we came upon a tree log lying across the road…..a makeshift road block. “Too dangerous” we were told, the extent of communication in their broken English and our inability to understand Amharic. Who knew what that meant, “too dangerous?” Was it too dangerous because it was getting dark and like Mexico, there were potential banditos in the hills? Or was it too dangerous because the road was treacherous after dark with its steep curves and drop offs. Didn’t matter, we weren’t going anywhere.
I was just about to tease James by saying “Push on through, James! Amelia can take that tree!” when I saw him….the non-uniformed militia man with the Kalashnikov hanging over his shoulder. GULP! Louise got out to try and talk her way past the road block. Louise has a saying that I watched her put into action many times, “Keep ‘em sweet” as she smiles and kids her way out of challenging situations. But they were having none of it. As she became more forceful, so did he, and watching nervously through the windows, I saw him grab her arm and shove her. That’s when I got nervous. Really nervous!
They wanted us to drive up a narrow dirt path and park for the night, putting us deep into the village. We had no choice. They wouldn’t let us remain on the side of the road, and there was no turning back, as it was now dark. Finally, we got parked into position, and they allowed James to turn the truck around so we were at least pointing outbound. I had to get out to go to the toilet, at which time Louise and I agreed all trips out of the truck should likely be undertaken together.
I have a weird habit when I get nervous. I start to sing. Often times I am not even cognizant it’s happening until someone points it out. Like turrets syndrome, only lyrical. Sitting in the stairwell of the truck, now surrounded by the local militia, I start to sing to myself…. “Don’ worry ‘bout a ting, cause every little ting gonna be alright.” Then James chimes in. “Woke up dis mornin; wit the risin; sun…three little birds…upon my doorstep.” There we were, the only white people in the village, doing our best Bob Marley while the militia stared back at us like we were nuts. But then the smiles began to break out. Next came the case of beer. That’s when I knew…every little ting gonna be alright.
I would have loved a beer, but at this point was trying not to drink anything, because the village toilet was a shack of dilapidated tin walls filled with garbage, and nothing but a small hole dug in the ground, surrounded by rocks. No real place to stand and keep your balance, let alone see what you are doing where, nor was there any place to hold on. Best keep my wits about me.
As my fellow RVers know, one benefit of traveling with a full kitchen is you never go hungry. Louise got out the cereal boxes, and everyone but me had a bowl of cereal, eaten nervously as the town militia watched through the windows. Best I could manage was a banana, because I was starting to feel the “rumblings” from my lunch.
We would be spending the night in the truck, while our nice clean, comfortable hotel rooms in Gondar went empty for the night. We worked out the sleeping arrangements….Louise and James would sleep cross-ways on the floor in the front, with George and me in the back in a “T” formation on our sleeping pads on the floor. I had no cell signal, so I asked Louise if she would please send GPS coordinates to their home office so at least my family would know where to look for the body. (Always thinking of you, Mom! LOL!)
We all went down to sleep, but it wasn’t long before I woke up sometime in the middle of the night feeling like my intestines had been inflated to 70psi. I managed to step over George by walking on the seats, and raced to find the tin shack in the dark. I would visit there five more times before daybreak. . At the risk of sharing “TMI,” have you ever tried “aiming” when you have severe intestinal distress? Definitely one of the more challenging fetes I have attempted in my lifetime, and one of the worst nights I can recall in all my travels.
Never was I so relieved to hear the banging on the side of the truck at daybreak, telling us the road was now open and we were free to continue on! Was the “danger” they were preventing us from encountering banditos in the nearby mountains? The perilous curves of the road with no guardrail? Or the overturned truck in the middle of the road on a blind curve? We will never know.
We arrived into Gondar at the Lammergeyer Hotel around noon, with just six hours to get rested up, cleaned up, and ready for the pre-trip briefing where we would meet our new travel companions and begin the adventure all over again.
Next Up: Simien Mountains National Park