It wasn’t a long sleep but being woken up with cake and fresh coffee was a happy compromise. Despite the early hour, we enthusiastically listened as Aziz told us about his job as a journalist, and how it had enabled him to travel throughout Sudan and further afield. As if to confirm his journalistic credentials, our new friend produced a beautiful album full of powerful black and white photographs documenting the history and culture of Sudan; mesmerised by the photos we asked for some Sudanese recommendations, and he certainly didn’t disappoint; we hurriedly wrote down all of the suggested must-see attractions for Khartoum and beyond, eager to make the most of our time. We swapped contact details and promised to meet him again if only so that we could repay his incredible kindness, or at least attempt to.
We wished Aziz a warm goodbye and walked the short distance to the hostel we had planned to stay at the previous night; the friendly man on reception booked us in, and because we hadn’t had our visas validated yet, provided us with two letters of introduction signed and sealed in beautiful Arabic script. These letters would be the key to completing the immigration process we had been told about at the border. We had to collect and complete a set of official immigration paperwork within the next 24 hours to ensure we couldn’t be classed as having entered the country illegally, something we both agreed was probably best avoided.
With time against us, we wasted no time in dumping our bags in our room before heading towards the alien registration department situated inside the airport building. The morning sun had risen remarkably quickly, and despite our conservative long trousers and shirts doing a good job of protecting us from the worst of it, our lack of sun cream would turn out to be a massive oversight (as would the fact that I had lost my sunglasses somewhere in Gondar, which had forced me to adopt a seriously suspicious squint).
Having only changed a few Birr at the Ethiopian border, we needed to find a way of getting hold of some more Sudanese money to pay the inevitable admin costs our registration would incur. We tried a few nearby banks only to discover the exchange rate was pathetic compared to what we had been offered at the border. Fortunately, before we had a chance to get disappointed, a kindly bank clerk told us that we could get double the official rate at the black market, and surprisingly, (for something which technically was illegal), there was an office at the airport! This seemed like strange advice to be given by a bank employee, but sure enough as we arrived at the shiny airport, the first building we saw was an unofficial money changing office where we were able to change all of our hard-won US dollars for a healthy wad of Sudanese pounds at an astonishingly good rate which our Ethiopian friend ‘Steve’ would no doubt have approved of!
Pockets full of cash, we headed deeper into the airport complex towards the alien registration department which was counter-intuitively located in the departure hall. Thanks to a helpful chap who had followed us from the money changing office, we were able to swan through the various security checkpoints with a combination of smiles and elaborate handshakes until we came to the correct office, where we were introduced to a stern looking soldier with a chest full of medals and impressing looking epaulettes. He checked our passports thoroughly and with a wave of his hand we began a fantastic game of paperwork pinball, with our documents being bounced from office to office and official to official so they could get signed, stamped, counter-signed, copied and finally stamped again before being handed back to us with a flourish of bureaucratic flair (the likes of which I hadn’t witnessed since I applied for my Tuvaluan Drivers Licence – but that’s another story). Our visas had now been officially validated and we had the right to remain in Sudan for the next two weeks, but if we wanted to document any of it, we still had one more piece of paperwork to collect on what we had dubbed: The Great Sudanese Administrative Scavenger Hunt.
The tourist photography licence from the ministry of wildlife and tourism isn’t an essential document for travelling in Sudan, but if you are caught taking a photograph without one, you will have some explaining to do, so we thought it might be best to try and acquire one. The tourist ministry was situated on the other side of the airport in the fashionable Ridyah district. After the previous night’s taxi and tuk-tuk debacle, we decided it might be best to just walk there, completely forgetting just how big airports tend to be, and how hot the desert is. It took us over an hour to walk around the sizeable runway, and once there we traipsed around Ridyah for at least another 45 minutes failing miserably to find anything that looked remotely like a tourism ministry. Eventually we gave up, deciding some refreshing mango juice and delicious shawarma was a much better option – who needed to take pictures anyway?
Perhaps it was the cooling effect of the mango juice, but within seconds of sitting in the shade, and a quick rotation of our basic map we realised our glaring navigational error and of course discovered we were essentially next door to where we needed to be, subsequently finding the office within minutes.
Entering the old government building was refreshingly cool, and we spent a few minutes perusing the faded pictures of the river Nile and reading an information board about crocodiles before being directed towards a counter staffed by an excited looking civil servant. The smartly dressed man ushered us into an open plan office where we were told to sit in comfortable white leather chairs whilst they looked over our paperwork. The small team of government workers seemed genuinely happy to see us, and with an otherwise empty office, and apparently nothing better to do, they all gathered around us and began to wax lyrical about Sudan and how safe and friendly is was for tourists – we didn’t need any convincing, but these guys clearly took great pride in their jobs and wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the opportunity to visit the best parts of their country, I pulled out my notebook and added their suggestions to the list we had begun with Aziz that morning, already it was looking as if a return trip was going to be necessary to fit everything in!
The smartly dressed civil servant returned with our permits and handed them over with a smile and a handshake. It lacked the administrative flair of the airport, but the whole process was quicker and much more straightforward, meaning that within minutes of arriving we had our official photography permits, we had completed The Great Sudanese Administrative Scavenger Hunt!
With all of our paperwork now accounted for, we thanked the enthusiastic staff and headed back out into the heat as legally registered aliens with permission to take photographs. We had two full weeks left on our precious transit visas and were gagging to get out there and explore. I pulled the scruffy notebook from my pocket and consulted the list, where should we go first? Running my finger down the hastily written locations and activities there was one item on the list which immediately jumped out at me – this was something that absolutely couldn’t be missed. We flagged down a passing tuk-tuk and headed off to see one of the most geographically significant places this part of Africa has to offer.