Monday, 13 August 2007

The trip to Sudan

After the joys of Lalibela, it was back to a few days of dedicated travel. First we flew (yes, flew) from Lalibela to Gondor. I was overjoyed to find we could do this. Because of the rain, and a roading issue down the line, no buses had got into Lalibela for two or three days. We were offered a 4WD to Gondor for 2500 bir, a seriously large sum in this country. When we told the boys who'd offered us this that we'd got flights for less than half that sum, they nodded sagely and said that flying was very cheap!

Ethiopian Air fly a large network of internal flights, as well as quite a lot of flights to African and some European destinations and have a pretty good reputation. I can only recommend them. The flight left early, and arrived pretty much on time in spite of having to circle Gondor airport for 15 minutes or so due to lightning. The landing was a bit skiddy, but nothing compared to the taxi ride into town from the airport. It was funny being back somewhere familiar, and being welcomed back to the Circle Hotel like old friends.
We wandered down to the bus station after lunch, and ascertained that buses to Metemma, the Ethiopia/Sudan border town, left at the surprising hour of 5.30am. Sigh.

Up early the next morning, and down to the bus. Off on our last ride in Ethiopia at 6.30. We had around 300km to cover, and after about three hours ground to a stop. A rock had gone through the bus radiator. Everyone piled out and sat in the pleasant sunshine while the bus boy turned into a mechanic, donned overalls and did stuff under the engine. When we saw the radiator wrested out of the engine cavity and put on a bus, we knew we could be in for a long wait. Our driver though had flagged down a bus going the other way, and soon enough was back with a replacement vehicle. This was feeling quite organised for Ethiopia, even the business of reissuing tickets was completed without too much drama. On the first bus we had got premier seats, in the front next to the driver - but it was too much to hope that this would continue on the new bus. Max got an OK seat, and I perched on the padded area often used for luggage, next to the driver. Fortunately, this drive, which had sounded like it had once been tough, was now tar sealed all the way.

In case you're wondering what a broken down Ethiopian bus looks like, here's a picture. The radiator is on the road.
We had read that there was no accommodation in Metemma and that the buses terminated in Shihedi, about 90 minutes from the border, but since the bus destination was Metemma, we decided to go there and see what we could find. The town was larger than we'd thought it would be, busy and bustling and lots of hotels. No worries there. Across from the bus depot the Millennium Beadroom sounded appealing, and soon we were securely lodged for the grand sum of 20 bir. The room was small and simple, but had a mosquito net (we have dropped a lot in altitude), and the loos and showers weren't too bad at all, considering.

Time for some food, and we strolled up the main street, eating and relaxing at the Love and Peace Restaurant, which also offered rooms, just like ours. We kept on walking, and stopped for tea a bit further down the road. They were making injera and I was inducted into the art, much to the amusement of the entire cafe, and half the street. It's probably a good thing that I hadn't seen the large plastic buckets of fermenting batter before now, nor how the wooden pan on which the pancakes are cooked was cleaned with dirt between batches! Walking a bit further to the end of the main street we came across immigration (who insisted on seeing our passports, even though we weren't going anywhere), and customs who also insisted upon a chat. We could see loads of buses and trucks over on the Sudan side - all looking straightforward for the morning.
Considering we were leaving the land of a dozen beer brands, for a land with none, we popped into the Havana Bar. It was full of brightly dressed ladies, and visitors from over the border, and also offered rooms. Hmm. The manager was one of our fellow bus passengers and he greeted us like old friends. He described his business as import-export and we didn't ask too many questions.

On the way back to our "beadroom" we were collared by Emmanuel, who we'd spoken to briefly over lunch, and invited into his house for coffee. He got his sisters to whip up a brew, which involved washing and cooking the beans, pounding them, and then brewing them in an old aluminium pot on a brazier, complete with rubber and incense. They plied us with water and Pepsi, and then injera and popcorn appeared. It started to rain and we retreated to a small bedroom (again, just like ours), and sat around with them for a while. A group of young people sharing their meal and their evening with us, just for the sake of showing us their culture, and practising their English. They would take no money - a nice memory with which to leave Ethiopia.

And so to Sudan. In the morning we retraced our steps to immigration, a relatively pain free process, and then walked across the border. We had heard about the love of bureaucracy that the Sudanese have, and it started here. There were four offices to visit - customs, immigration, registration and security, where we submitted a photo and our thumbprints, which got chucked into a drawer with a load of other similar forms. The bus was easily organised, and then it was time to eat. The food had been OK in Ethiopia, but not great, but I sense Sudan could be an improvement. Breakfast was coffee, warm bread, felafel, hard boiled egg and a garlic and mint sauce. It was great. We found a money changer to change enough US dollars to get us through to Gedaref, the town where we planned to spend the night, and then settled in under a tree near the bus office to wait for the bus departure - around 12.30.

Gedaref was around 150km away, and even in spite of the frequent stops so that all the foreigners on board (about six of us, the other foreigners seemed to be Ethiopians) could be noted in various ledgers, it only took four hours. Our names were now formally entered, in a variety of phoentic Arabic translations, on many pieces of paper between Khartoum and the border. Some of the offices were nothing more than thatched huts containing numerous mosquito-netted beds, where we sat next to the official reading out our names, nationalities, and passport numbers for him to copy into his ledger. Wonder whatever happens to all this information.

I said we'd planned to spend the night in Gedaref, but our fellow passengers all looked horrified when we went to get off there. "This car goes to Khartoum," we were assured by one, while another indicated that we should stay on board. We go with the flow, and ended up at the bus depot, registering yet again with another branch of the extensive immigration service (once he got back from prayers at the nearby mosque) while a Khartoum-bound bus was rustled up. We were told the trip would be four or five hours, we'll be there by 8 or 9. It was now 5.30, and I saw from a road sign that Khartoum was 411km away. Still, the bus seemed reliable and the road was supposed to be good. There are no mountains anyway, and it's bitumen all the way. Maybe they're right. And maybe they're not!

We arrived in Khartoum after midnight, after numerous more immigration / security / registration checks, including one where we were taken aside while a man in uniform shouted at us, "What is my name?". Resisting the urge to mutter, "Mohammed", we responded by shouting our names back at him. I don't think the middle of the night on the outskirts of Khartoum is the place to take the mickey out of a guy in uniform with a gun! The bus depot was ablaze with lights, full of men in long robes sleeping on the plastic benches, and full of taxis. So far so good. We were snaffled by a driver who spoke enough English to make things easy, and put into his van. The shock of Sudanese prices was about to hit home - he quoted 20 pounds to take us to town - $10US - about three times what any self-respecting Addis driver would charge, and this was just the beginning. We had selected the Central Hotel - and while we knew it was relatively pricey, thought that it would be nice. It was not. A dump, for which we paid $US45. Our funds were running low already, and we'd been in the country for just over 12 hours.

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