On Sunday 18th Feb, despite Sampson’s concern about dodgy brakes, Big Reg set off across the bleak desert to Karima. Thanks to the straight new tar, I only had to lie down for the second half of the journey.
Before we left, we’d finally tapped into a strong enough internet connection to check the news (I read on the BBC website that Lady Gaga had cancelled tour dates because of the pain of her Fibromyalgia). It was time to call Ruby and tell her about Monte’s death. I’d warned hostel we had to share some bad news and asked to have someone there to support her, but nevertheless she had such a bad panic attack, she fell down the stairs. I spent most of the day worrying about her.
Just outside the town, we saw a cluster of baby pyramids and immediately pulled over. Wow – even Zola was visibly excited! As we walked up to them at sunset, a carful of local tourists arrived to take selfies. I was exhausted but so thrilled to have managed to cross the soft sand. Our first encounter with Nubian pyramids was nothing short of magical.
There are more than 35 pyramids across five sites in Sudan, more than double the number extant in Egypt. These Nubian pyramids were built around 2000 years later than those at Giza, during the second and third Kushite kingdoms, to serve as private tombs for royalty and the wealthy elite.
After a better sleep, as we drove up to take pictures in the morning light, I asked Sampson if he was quite sure it was going to be safe to take the truck into the sand next to the pyramids. He brushed my concerns aside, but as usual went a bit too far; when he reversed back, disaster struck.
The first pic was taken just before Big Reg got stuck.
I lifted one stone then thought better of it. It was unbelievably hot. I had no choice but to retreat to the shade and pray. The silver lining to this moment of panic was that, after digging us out, Sampson was reminded how physical exertion shifts his depression.
There are three pyramid sites around Karima: the royal cemetery of el-Kurru, the larger site of Nuri (with more than 20 pyramids remaining of original 80) and the smallest containing just 9 here next to the World Heritage site of Jebel Barkal. In the flat desert of Sudan, Jebel Barkal counts as a mountain but, at only 98m tall, it’s more like a mound. From the back, it looks a bit like Table Mountain got shrunk in Wonderland!
For thousands of years, Jebel Barkal was a key landmark on trade routes between Africa, Arabia and Egypt, marking the easiest place for camel caravans to cross the Nile. Known in ancient times as ‘Pure Mountain’, in 1450BCE it marked the southernmost boundary of the Egyptian empire. Its pinnacle was perceived as a colossal rearing uraeus wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt, protecting ‘Amun-Re, Lord of Karnak’, who sat enthroned inside (see fascinating pictorial evidence here). As the dwelling place of supreme god Amun and his goddess Mut, it was considered sacred. Kushite kings were buried here from around 300BCE and even today it is revered as the tomb of a Muslim sheikh is nearby.
Site manager Ahmed puffed up very disconcerted. He pointed to a tiny sign in Arabic that apparently said it was illegal to park here. We apologised profusely, explaining we’d followed the other car tracks. I can’t believe we’d got away with taking this shot:
I could also hardly believe it was a World Heritage site – there was so little fanfare. I suppose most tourists come from Khartoum, the other direction. Coming in the back way as we did, approaching the pyramids before Jebel Barkal, there was zero warning. With no signage and no marked off areas, presumably we saw it just as it would have appeared to camel trains thousands of years ago.
Egypt’s tourist infrastructure may not have done justice to the scale and magnitude of importance of the ancient treasures on display, but Sudan’s seemed almost non-existent. As a black African culture, Nubia has been sidelined in academic studies and marginalised in the history of the region, despite the significance of the Kingdom of Kush. This almost criminal neglect is set to be rectified by a joint project of Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) funded by Qatar: five international teams from America, Italy, Spain and Germany have been working since 2013 on various archeological explorations across the vast Jebel Barkal site.
We drove around to the visitors’ entrance at the front of Jebel Barkal, but during the heat of the day, we did school. I was very proud of what Zola and I managed to get through today: exponents in Maths, analysis in English, the conditional tense in French and the Luddites. In the first 4 weeks of term his confidence had rocketed and he also read 6 books. (He was so reluctant to get to the end of the Cherub series Ruby had brought out for him at Xmas, he started “trying to slow down”!) My head was so muzzy, I struggled to stand and cook. Post-dig, Sampson was lying down editing extra dive footage. I hadn’t written for days.
When it got cooler, about 4pm, we went to walk across the site of the ancient city of Napata at the foot of the mountain. Situated just below the Fourth Cataract of the Nile, it was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush from around 750BCE and during the glorious 25th Dynasty when its sovereigns ruled all the way to the Mediterranean.
I was still coughing and feeling grim; my energy ran out very quickly. I had to sit down to rest while the boys climbed half way up to look out over the temple ruins towards the dense green bordering the Nile. The Temple of Amun, originally built in 13th century BCE by Thutmose III and Ramses II, was lavishly expanded by the first Kushite Pharoah Piye; he added a hall with 50 columns to rival Amun’s temple at Thebes. Each king was confirmed here at his coronation by divine oracle.
(If you look carefully you can see me perched in the bottom left hand corner of the ruins.)
While trying to find out what the hieroglyphs on the slab of granite above might mean, I was interested to learn that Kemet, the sign for ancient Egypt, literally translated means Black Land, which reflects how vital to the power of the Egyptian empire was the fertile black soil in the Nile valley after inundation. (Sons of Kemet are also worth investigating!)
We paid 100SDG each (about R70 at the time, less than R30 now) to go into the temples at the foot of the mountain with a Russian couple, the only other tourists around. Their brilliant Sudanese guide was so smiley and enthusiastic. He explained everything in fluent Russian for them, then they kindly translated into English for us!
The second temple is dedicated to the goddess Mut, wife of Amun, and was built by Kush sovereign Taharqa (the only Pharoah mentioned by name in the Old Testament) in the 680s BCE, at a time when he ruled Upper and Lower Egypt. Only 2 of the gigantic sistrum-headed Hathor columns survive of the outer Temple of Mut, but five underground chambers carved into the rock are in good condition. Restoration was underway and we squeezed around scaffolding inside.
The chambers are painted with scenes featuring Mut, Amun, Hathor, Horus, Anubis and Taharqa – many wearing the double crown representing the twin kingdoms of Egypt and Nubia united. The figures are painted in ochre and white kaolin on a background painted in Egyptian blue. Used from around 3000BCE, it was the world’s first synthetic pigment and, through its Roman translation, gave rise to the word ‘cerulean’.
In the dark of the chamber my camera couldn’t do justice to the colours, but mother goddess Mut’s vulture wings above the door reminded me of the decorative touches on Sudanese houses we’d driven past. Unlike the blues, reds, oranges and yellows of Egyptian temples and tractors, in Nubia preferred colours seemed to be muted turquoise and berry shades of crimson, pink and purple. The painted gates and patterns on houses might be more subtle than those of the Ndebele, but appealingly whimsical, designed to stand out against the sand-toned walls of compounds. Bedsteads too. I was falling in love with Sudan.
It was too late to leave so we stayed the night – Zola loved the loneliness of this place. As I pasted a pile of Egyptian temple tickets into the scrap book, we discussed school options for his senior studies: Fish Hoek vs Wynberg vs Durban vs Dakar. After bissap tea time I walked 100m to find enough signal to check Ruby was OK and post our best Instagram pic ever:
After a day’s rest we drove across the Nile and headed north to Nuri. We found a place to park overnight that seemed perfect but a gang of kids playing football came along and surrounded the truck, climbing up, breaking two indicator lights. Some cheery police who arrived in a van were delighted to discover Zola was adopted, but advised us to move on: “people not good here”.
Little fieldwork has been done in Sudan since the early 20th century, but in recent years, Professor Pearce Paul Creasman has been undertaking key archeological work at Nuri – often underwater using scuba diving equipment! See this fascinating article in the National Geographic, or listen to this podcast, which shows that, far from being merely a footnote to Ancient Egyptian history, the Kingdom of Kush played a vital role in revitalising the gods and belief systems of the Egyptian empire when they were falling into decline.
Big Reg spent another hot day trundling across the desert. There was a surprising amount of vegetation: strange succulent bushes that seed themselves with puffy fruit that explodes with white sap; groundcover for goats to snack on. During the heat of the day, Zola was thrilled to be released from lessons to play his keyboard with headphones on. I was zapped.
We were back on the ‘Desert Champagne’: between 3-5pm, when it’s so hot, your mouth is as parched as Aboud’s dates and it feels like your brain is melting, I defy anyone on earth to enjoy the most expensive Cristal as much as we savour chilled water that’s been in glass jars in the fridge since breakfast.
I changed my routine and did my best to cook in the mornings, then leave a pot of supper in the Wonderbag. The last thing you wanted to do in the deathly motionless hour of 5-6pm, when it was still 38˚C , was to stand sweating over a stove.
Sudan had similar cheap prices of fresh produce to Egypt, just a lot less choice. There were grapefruit and bananas, oranges galore and tomatoes forever. But not many greens beyond almost inedibly stringy beans. And no more white cheese. We were having to get creative. In the middle of the desert, on this stretch between the White Nile and the Blue Nile, Zola invented Vegan Grated Carrot Bolognaise and I surpassed myself with Pumpkin, Carrot and Lentil Soup with Boiled Eggs. Sudan also saw the return of my signature dish Aubergine Surprise – the surprise is that they’re so well cooked, you can hardly tell there’s aubergine in the mix at all, despite being the main ingredient. It was invented back in DRC when the kids were so sick of aubergine, they refused to eat it ever again.
It was very meditative cruising across the baking desert, resting your eyes on the occasional bonsai thorn trees, appreciating the subtle beauty of the shape of wind patterns across sand dunes. We sustained ourselves with toffees and oranges and kindness. After school I started sewing Zola’s torn sleeping bag back together. We were waved down by people hoping for bidons; Sampson gave three containers to two women and their kids. They were shy for the photo but beaming with joy to see the pic of themselves afterwards.
When we stopped at 5pm in emptiness just before Atbara, the boys had an outdoor shower. Inside, I took mine without turning the hot water on for the first time! Longhaired Eurocat Lucky was struggling to cope with these temperatures and got splashed to calm her panting.
Two donkeys came from nowhere to drink the greywater so Sampson gave them 3 more bowlfuls of fresh. I found it so sad that they didn’t recognise carrot when I offered them one. I phoned Ruby after supper and it was great to hear her enthusing about Ghanaian history notes and whether to do both school plays.
Thursday 22nd Feb 2018 was the first day since October 2017 that I didn’t wake feeling ill. It felt astounding. To be luxuriating in 27˚C warm at 8am certainly helped. As did a fortnight of solid sleeping instead of being woken by Monte several times a night and every dawn. I was pulling back. Although still grieving heavily, Sampson had to admit he was recovering a lot of strength too, sleeping longer and less worried about me. Meanwhile Zola had waited till we were in the middle of the hottest desert in the world to start going for a run every morning…
We were loving the camaraderie with passing truck drivers, who would give us a hoot to check if we were happy campers then salute us with a rootle tootle 4 note tune! But when we turned onto main highway past Atbara, suddenly the road was much more crowded. This was the main artery from Port Sudan to the capital, full of lorries and the odd pothole. Like bullnoses in Nigeria, classic Bedfords were omnipresent in Sudan, usually painted blue and sporting an ostrich feather flourish on the front. There was also a terrifying number of buses with Ben Hur-style hub spikes hurtling past.
The highway was narrower and a lot more stressful to drive even before the three roadblocks. At the second, a puffed-out chest in a purple uniform simply barked the figure “65” to see if we’d go for it. On the driver’s side, I didn’t cave, but stuck to my “Sorry I don’t understand and we’re on our way to the Embassy” story. The next one was less than 200m later, and no one was wearing a uniform, so Sampson chose to ignore an equivocal hand wave, chance it and carry on through. Big Reg ended up being chased down by a plain clothes cop on a motorbike incandescent with rage. We were fulsomely apologetic and he ended up delighted at having a quick truck tour.
On Friday, we arrived at Sudan’s most famous tourist site, the pyramids at al-Bajwariya (Begrawiya) better known as the ancient capital of Meroë. When we stepped out of the truck at 10am it was 36˚C, and I walked past the boys selling trinkets and marvelled how they could sit out the front all day, as exposed as their wares in the full sun.
Kush King Aspelta moved the capital south to Meroë, possibly around 591 BCE, after the sack of Napata by Egyptian Pharaoh Psamtik II. Situated between the Fifth and Sixth Cataracts on the trade routes, Meroë was on the fringe of the summer rainfall belt, in an area rich in iron ore and hardwood for metalworking – it has even been described as “the Birmingham of Africa”! More than 40 royal burials took place here from around 300BCE to 350CE.
The tiny museum room had comprehensive displays with details of excavations since 1817 by European grave robbers, an exposition of the heroic archival work of Friedrich W. Hinkel, description of hieroglyphic and Meroitic decorations of the chapels on the eastern side of the pyramids and attempts by the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums to protect the sandstone monuments from erosion and environmental degradation – alongside prominent warnings about penalties for climbing the pyramids or inflicting graffiti on them.
From the Wikipedia page on Nubian pyramids:
“In the 1830s Giuseppe Ferlini came to Meroe seeking treasure and raided and demolished a number of pyramids which had been found “in good conditions” by Frédéric Cailliaud just a few years earlier. At Wad ban Naqa, he leveled the pyramid of the kandake Amanishakheto starting from the top, and finally found her treasure composed of dozens of gold and silver jewellery pieces. Overall, he is considered responsible for the destruction of over 40 pyramids.
Having found the treasure he was looking for, in 1836 Ferlini returned home. A year later he wrote a report of his expedition containing a catalogue of his findings, which was translated in French and republished in 1838. He tried to sell the treasure, but at this time nobody believed that such high quality jewellery could be made in Black Africa. His finds were finally sold in Germany: part of these were purchased by king Ludwig I of Bavaria and are now in the State Museum of Egyptian Art of Munich, while the remaining… was bought by the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, where it still is.”
Sampson supported me to walk up a baking orange sand dune and around the corner of the first pyramid to find a gaggle of giggling American girls clambering about on it for photos. When Sampson pointed out it was against the rules to climb on the monuments and they could be fined, they acted like a group of high schoolers, depsite being in their early 20s. One of them was Black, one of Indian descent, but the loudest was a cackling Caucasian in a headscarf scoffing about being “told off”. I wondered if they’d got stoned to cope with the 2 hour journey from Khartoum in the back of a bakkie; that could be their only excuse.
They dominated our experience with their invasive bodyspray smells lurking in the small tombs ahead of us plus loud explosions of laughter, so inappropriate in a sacred burial setting, not to mention rolling down sand dunes as if it was a play area. The Carole in me was longing to ‘have a word’ along the lines of “Do you have to perpetrate stereotypes of insensitive Americans? And you’re not helping the cause of young women travellers struggling to be treated with respect here”. Fortunately for them, they went back another way, via camel.
The gauge was showing 40˚C inside in the shade when we came back. It was insanely hot (possibly the most extreme day of our entire Africa Clockwise trek). But it was great to be back online in time to get Ruby’s ecstatic Whatsapp: “OMG I got top marks in the grade for history test: 90%!!” I read out her entire essay on pan-Africanism to the boys over lunch. She also came second with 92% in English after doing an oral about homeschooling. I was so proud she’d thrown herself into studying and proved to herself that she could cope with Grade 11.
That evening we accidentally parked too near a power station, and our Friday Night Treats and movie were interrupted by both police and military checks. On Saturday morning, (30˚C at 7.45am) they came again, a tall guy in fatigues checking to see that Sampson was in fact working to fix the batteries (the inverter was playing up and the fridge kept cutting out in the early hours).
Another plain clothes guy came by as we were finishing clearing up after breakfast and hung about while we washed up and locked down. The second time his fingers lingered too long as he unnecessarily brushed past me, I called Sampson from the cab to join us for the requested selfie. There was no way I could challenge a security policeman directly, but also no way was I going to stand next to him and allow his hand to wander across my arse again. It was very depressing that neither my husband or my son had a clue this was happening to me until I told them afterwards.
If the unparalleled scale of fires in California, the Amazon and on Kilimanjaro this year can’t convince you of the escalating threat resulting from climate change, perhaps the unprecedented floods in September 2020 in Sudan can. As Khartoum battled with the highest flood levels recorded in over a century, the BBC reported that more than 100 people had been killed, 100 000 homes destroyed, a third of all farmland was under water and the government had declared a 3 month state of emergency.
When we visited in 2018, these pyramids were 500m from the Nile. It seems incredible that, due to deforestation and increased rainfall, desert sites like Meroe and Nuri are now at risk of rising water damage.
Please look at these staggering pictures from the Washington Post.
With Sudan already battling COVID19 and one of the highest inflation rates in the world, the United Nations estimates that 9.6 million people are currently facing acute food insecurity, the highest number on record.
If you’re too young to understand what the title of this blog is referring to, check this out: