Walking along the train tracks in most capital cities in the hope of finding a station, is usually frowned upon, and is almost always a sure-fire way to get yourself in a whole lot of trouble; unless of course, the city in question is Khartoum. In Sudan’s capital, the shiny railways tracks, worn smooth over almost a century of metal on metal erosion, become a rather handy way of navigating the busy streets of the city, and rather than meet our end at the hands of a speeding intercity train, you are more likely to met friendly old men also using the rails as a byway, who will most likely greet you warmly and take the time to stop and ask us you where you’re from, and where you’re headed.
This was certainly the case for us as we followed this parallel metal footpath towards the towering skyscrapers of Khartoum’s skyline; these however weren’t what we were looking for, we were searching for something much older, we were searching for a view into the past.
The sepia photograph of my Great Grandfather standing with his bicycle at Khartoum Station had become the inspiration for this whole adventure, and was the reason why, despite the odds, I had made it to Khartoum in the first place. I wanted to find out more about this photograph, I wanted to see if I could find out where it was taken, and if I was really fortunate, I wanted to try and recreate it, so that two people connected by four generations and separated by 80 years of time, could both stand in the exact same place.
Looking at a map of Khartoum the night before, we were torn as to where to go. Thanks to the watery barrier of the Nile, there are two train stations in Khartoum, one on each side of the river. There was nothing in the original photograph which hinted at which one it was taken at, so we opted for the closest one telling ourselves it made sense because it was the oldest one, but in reality, knowing that this made for a slightly shorter walk in the sun! We had crossed the seemingly unused railway line several times on our various adventures into the city from where we were staying, so we figured that if we just headed to where the rails crossed the road and then followed the tracks towards the city centre, we were sure to stumble upon the station eventually.
Employing this logic the following morning, we found the level-crossing, and turned off the road and continued to walk along the rails occasionally passing the rusting hulks of some old rolling stock baking in a series of forgotten sidings. After seeing the city’s tower blocks and streets from a completely different angle (but yet to see any evidence of a working train), we eventually came across an old, squat, one-story wooden building with broken slatted shutters on the windows, and yellow paint flaking in the sun. Maybe it was the layout, or the familiar pointed edges to the roof, but there was definitely something about this building which said ‘railway station’, and so we crossed the long-broken fence and headed towards the seemingly derelict building.
Surprisingly, despite its crumbling appearance, as we neared the building, we began hear voices, and as we peered through one of the broken windows, a dented grey filing cabinet, and two animated railway officials sat chatting with each other each behind sturdy wooden desks told us we had definitely located some sort of office, the hand painted mural on the office wall confirmed we were in the right place, we had located The Sudanese Railway Corporation. Not phased by our window-peering intrusion, the two railway officials gestured for us to come around the building and enter the cool shadow of the office. We began chatting in the large and sparse room barely filled by the desks and rusty filing cabinet; the language barrier made communication difficult, but we managed to ascertain that this this station now only provided a cargo service from Khartoum to Darfur in the South, and a single line into the arid and remote West of the country, and if we wanted a passenger train, we should head to the alternative station on the other side of the river.
Grabbing my phone from my pocket, I scrolled through to find the photo which had brought me here, and used it to try and explain our plan. I passed the phone over to the two men, and a silence descended on the room – one of the men fetched his glasses from his desk for a closer look, and they both began studying the photograph with the intensity of a Hatton Garden diamond valuer.
With huge smiles both men looked up from the phone and began chatting to us in excited Arabic. Apparently, my diamond of a photographed had passed the test, and from this point on it was like we were part of the gang! Tea was called for, along with snacks of dates and nuts. With every sugary-mint sip of tea, another official entered the room, and the phone was passed around to excited gasps and laughs. Each new person entering the room poured over the photo of Rueben taking in every detail and seemed to love the fact that firstly, this was a little glimpse back into the history of their city and workplace, and secondly that I had decided to come and try to find out where the photograph was taken.
More people were called for, and the office became a hot-bed of activity as the photo was passed around, and everyone gave their opinion, in particular one man who introduced himself as Mukashfi. Mukashfi seemed to be the boss around here, and certainly knew his trains – through a series of broken translations it transpired that Mukashfi thought he knew the exact spot in which the photo had been taken, without even having to ask to see it, our new friend grabbed me by the hand, whisked me out of the office, and led me across the busy road to where dozens of old railway carriages two or three abreast lay decaying in the sun.
Briefly stepping into the carriages to explore their dusty interior we continued to follow the tracks past more forgotten railway relics, and the vast metal shell of a new station being built by a Chinese labour force (who despite the heat and arid conditions were living in a makeshift camp made from old shipping containers which I can only imagine turned into ovens in this climate). Passing Sudan’s railway future, we once again stepped into its past and crossed the rails to head towards a vast engine shed with all the welding sparks and smell of oil clichés you can imagine.
Inside the cavernous shed, we approached a small workshop in the back corner with half a dozen engineers tinkering with important looking bits of metal, and with greasy handshakes all round, the photo on my phone was once again passed around so everyone could get a good look. If Mukashfi was a student of Sudanese railways and their intricacies, then these guys were the world experts! The workers were clearly professionals who really knew what they were talking about, and by counting the number of rails in the picture, and estimating the distance between them they were able to deduce exactly where the photo must have been taken from – cue frenzied activity!
At this realisation tools were instantly downed, and the whole crowd ushered us out into the sun and led us the short distance to the photo site where sure enough (they made me count the rails) the number of lines in the photograph exactly matched up with what I was looking at – incredible! If it wasn’t for some of the carriages being slightly closer than they had been in the 1930s it would have been a perfect match. Everyone looked very pleased with themselves, and there was lots of friendly chatter and self-congratulation going on, when I produced my camera and asked them if they would help me to recreate the picture with me in the place of my Great-Grandfather.
If the scenario was frenzied before, then at this request it became absolute pandemonium! The crowd clearly hadn’t thought about this possible development, and the excitement about what I was trying to achieve was palpable! Shouts went out to find a bicycle, and within seconds one of the older guys from the workshop had produced a sturdy two-wheeled beast, not unlike the one which Ruben was leaning on in the photograph. Props accounted for, I wheeled the heavy old school bicycle to the correct spot, and carefully studied the photo of Rueben with a man who had taken on the role of photography director. I then tried to adopt the same nonchalant pose cursing myself that I hadn’t dressed better for the occasion – I settled on what I thought was a good re-enactment, and the amassed crowd seemed happy with it as cameras and phones appeared from every pocket and started snapping away at me and the bike, like I was a very niche railway/cycling celebrity!
Not to be left out, after snapping the re-creation, everyone else wanted their turn in the photograph, and we spent the next half an hour laughing, and joking our way through every conceivable combination of people and bicycle, until everyone had their own copy of this curious event, it was an absolutely fantastic afternoon.
With pictures taken for posterity, and everyone happy with their involvement, we thanked the crowd for their help, shook hands with everyone, twice, and then wandered back towards the station as people began to drift slowly back to work. Our main man Mukashfi who had been with us throughout, looked almost tearful as we left, but we exchanged emails and promised to send on the photographs.
When I set out on this trip I had always wanted to try and recreate that photograph, but if I’m honest I never truly thought I would actually be able to do it, and if it wasn’t for the help, enthusiasm, hospitality and laughter of the people I met that afternoon, I probably wouldn’t have been able to. I’m so thankful to them all for indulging in my silly plan, and buying into it so completely!
Thank you شكرا جزيلا