After exploring the previously unknown delights of Khartoum, and successfully completing my personal photographic pilgrimage, it was almost time for us to start thinking about leaving the Sudanese capital and heading north into the vast emptiness of the desert in the direction of Lake Nasser and the Egyptian border. However, there was one last place to visit before committing ourselves to the next part of our journey: we wanted to try and see the Meroe pyramids.
Our first job was to get across the city to the Bahir bus station in Khartoum North, this involved standing on the main road by the airport and trying to flag down a bus; a task which sounds straight forward enough, until you consider the classic ‘arm-in-front-of-bus’ manoeuvre favoured in the UK, just doesn’t cut it in Sudan. Instead, each location in the city is identified by a specific hand and arm gesture, allowing bus drivers to know at a distance where you want to go, and if it’s worth their while slowing down to pick you up. Needless to say, we didn’t have the knowledge of these intricate gesticulations required to get on the right bus, so we did the next best thing, threw some of our best freestyle shapes in front of approaching buses and hoped for the best. Remarkably at only the fourth time of trying, a bus actually stopped and picked us up – it wasn’t going where we wanted to go, but after a conversation with a very helpful lady who seemed extremely amused at our arm flailing efforts, we were taught the required limb contortions, and dropped off at a suitable location to continue our journey.
The main bus station in Khartoum North was as wonderfully chaotic as any good bus station should be, and it didn’t take us long before we had worked out a plan for the next part of our journey; without any direct buses to the pyramids (they are in the middle of nowhere!), we had to adopt a different approach. We knew several buses drove past them heading to their respective destinations further north, so without too much hassle we were able to find a bus heading to Atmara and spoke to the friendly driver who agreed to let us off near the pyramids on his way past. With tickets in hand we dived into the chaos of the bus station, bought some supplies, and then returned to the bus and waited until it was full before we could set off.
It didn’t take long for the bus to fill up, and we were soon pulling out of the bus station and onto a busy main road heading north out of Khartoum. The journey into the desert was only meant to take a couple of hours, so we were a little surprised to pull over to the side of the road within 30 seconds of leaving! We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the start of the comedy of errors which, despite my well documented love for a bus journey, would see this one turn into a bit of an epic…
We were used to some crazy bus shenanigans by now, and we were happy to embrace the unexpected, but this time around we couldn’t really figure out what was going on. Initially we thought we must need some fuel, but after half an hour of waiting we ruled that one out, and concluded instead that the bus must be broken, despite it leaving the bus station without any issues. We tried to ask our fellow passengers what was going on, but they seemed as clueless as we were, and so we just sat there, content to watch the animated Arabic articulations going on outside between the driver and some of his associates. After an hour of watching the driver slowly lose his resolve, we were loaded onto a nearby, much sketchier looking bus and this time more successfully, began to head north.
Finally, things were going smoothly, or at least as smoothly as old buses can go on weathered tarmac, that was until we reached a police check point about two hours outside of Khartoum. The bus stopped as usual, and the passengers got out as usual, but instead of the classic passport inspection followed by a quick piss and a smoke routine we had seen time and again, the passengers instead all went into a nearby tent, ordered food, and began watching a large flat screen TV showing Ethiopian music videos – they were clearly here for the long haul.
There was nothing to do but to get involved, so I followed my fellow passengers into the cool embrace of the tent whilst Nick stayed on the bus and slept. All of my attempts to figure out what was going on failed – mainly due to the language barrier, but also because no one actually seemed to know, so I accepted this new turn of events, ordered some fuul and tried my best to try and understand what was going on in the head of the people who had created these outlandish music videos.
After waiting in the mercifully shady tent for close to two hours, we finally got back on the bus only for it to mysteriously turn around and head back towards Khartoum! There was some heated discussion about what was going on, but we couldn’t understand any of it, and eventually everyone seemed to be resigned to the fact that we would be returning to the capital; and sure enough we arrived back in Khartoum North bus station six hours after having arrived there in the first place, without having seen a glimpse of a pyramid!
We didn’t really know what to do next, half of our fellow passengers had stayed on the bus in some sort of silent protest, whilst the other half had slightly less silently, left the bus to begin harassing the man who we assumed was in charge of the bus company. This stand-off went on for a good two hours, in the meantime, not wanting to miss out on the action, or the price of our bus ticket, we bought some food, and settled in to discover the outcome of this surreal situation! Quite a crowd had gathered around the bus at this stage, and we chatted with a few of the onlookers explaining as best as we could what had happened.
Suddenly there was a surge of activity, and a fellow passenger in a Juventus shirt and suit jacket looked at us with a satisfied grin and simply said: “business”. We assumed (wrongly) that this meant we would be getting our money back, and were now fully prepared to stay in Khartoum for another night and to try again tomorrow, however, incredibly the ‘business’ in question turned out to be yet another bus! Third time lucky, we piled on as the sun began to set, and left the bus station to the sound of the call to evening prayer. We were finally on our way back out into the desert, but due to the time, it meant that we would be arriving in the aforementioned middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night.
About 30 minutes North of Shendi, the bus pulled over at a very indistinct patch of sand, and we realised that we really were in the middle of nowhere, at least it very much felt like that in the dark. The only feature of note was a sad looking petrol station, which one of our fellow passengers pointed at and indicated we should sleep there for the night, and with that the bus drove off into the starry night, leaving us to our own devices in the middle of the Sudanese desert.
From the road, the petrol station and its accompanying squat outbuildings looked deserted and foreboding, it wasn’t until we reached the door of the main building that we saw a flicker of a TV screen and a man completely engrossed in yet more Ethiopian music videos. We introduced ourselves, and although a little surprised to see us at this late hour, he took us towards a promising looking block of new buildings before rounding a corner and showing us a bare patch of unused ground at the back of the petrol station which looked like, and probably was, a long-abandoned car park. It certainly wasn’t glamorous, but it was almost midnight by this stage, so we thanked the man, and quickly pitched our tents longing for the night time desert chill to kick in. It had taken us much longer than planned, but as I zipped up my tent, I revelled in the fact that we were now within striking distance of a once great, but now largely unknown ancient civilisation.