The Trans-Saharan Railway

If entering Sudan was a challenge and a half, exiting it did not prove to be much easier.

The land border with Egypt is currently closed on the Egyptian side, as it’s considered to be an off-limits military zone. The only way to get over to Egypt is to take the once-a-week ferry across Lake Nasser from Wadi Halfa, Sudan to Aswan, Egypt. It’s primarily used by locals, but also carries an occasional overland traveler or two with their vehicles.

For us, it was the only way to continue our journey, so in the late afternoon of Saturday, August 16th, we set out to say good-bye to Khartoum and head to Wadi Halfa to catch the ferry on Wednesday, the 20th. It was a 3-day, 1,000km route through the remote and scorching Nubian desert that laid ahead. We gave ourselves an extra day to sort out the paperwork and have as a backup, since a delay or a late arrival to Wadi Halfa could mean that we’d have to spend a week waiting for the next one to arrive. It was also not unheard of the ferry to depart a day early if got full.

As we were leaving Khartoum, we stopped by to fill up on petrol and made acquantances with a cab driver that was waiting nearby. When we told him where we were headed, he exlaimed excitedly that his brother actually works in Wadi Halfa, as an agent for the ferry company and could help us out with the logistics. While it did sound a bit too much of a coincidence, we took down his contact information and agreed to give him a call when we reach town. Later on, we were very glad that we did.

The first couple of days were going smoothly. Due to a fairly good tarmac road, we were making good progress, stopping by every few hours for some tea or hookah in the remote outposts along the way.

An interesting note about such outposts. As the way laid through the desert, fairly far from the Nile or other sources of water, there were very few settlements along the way. However, every 50 km or so, out of nowhere, almost like an oasis, you would come across a small outpost where you could always find some shade, carpets to lay on, eggs, Coca-Cola, tea and hookah. Drivers that were traveling this route would frequently stop there for some quality R&R.

Ironically, each of these places would also have a TV hooked up to a generator and a satellite dish, transmitting either local Arabic programming or american wrestling. Guys in underwear slam dunking each other seemed to always captivate the attention of the locals. It was probably one of the most memorable moments for us, as well – when one of the evenings, we found ourselves being in the desert at night, somewhere next to the middle of nowhere, drinking tea, and watching World Wrestling Federation championship.

At the end of day 2, sometime at around 10pm, the tarmac road ended.

With a little over 350km left to go, we decided to call it a night, since navigating the sand dunes in the dark with no road was quite challenging. We figured that we’ll try to find the tarmac in the morning and, if that didn’t work, we’ll just follow the general direction shown in the GPS along the sand.

In the morning, the tar road was nowhere to be found. It simply ended abruptly and unceremoniously, leaving you to fend for yourself. There were, however, a multitude of tracks going in every which direction, so you could pick and choose which ones to follow.

Tracks seem to go in every possible direction

Oddly enough, while there was nothing around us but sand for miles and miles, there was a rickety and seemingly abandoned railroad track going in the same direction as us. As we eventually found out, there is a single train going from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa each week and it follows the same path as we were.

For us, this proved to be a very convenient reference point that we were able to use when tracks dissappeared or separated into multiple directions. About half way into the day, the sand got progressively thicker and more difficult to navigate through. Wilma was struggling to push her 3-ton weight through it to the point where we got stuck a few times.

As we got stuck yet another time, we decided on the alternative course of action. We turned off the sand track and went directly on the rails. While the railroad company probably does not approve of this, it made the next 150km significantly easier as the rail tracks weren’t as buried in the sand and were simpler to follow and drive on.

Following the rail track while hoping that today was not the day for the once-a-week train.

By around 7pm, we were about 10km away from Wadi Halfa, when we saw a fairly large settlement on the way. We pulled over to get a few extra liters of petrol – it seems to be our curse in Sudan that we were always on the brink of running out.

As we stopped, we got surrounded by a group of 20+ men all dressed in white tunics, some of them with faces covered in scarves- all trying to figure out what is it that we wanted. One fellow, dressed in a western shirt, stepped up. We asked him if anybody here is selling benzine. He responded in fairly fluent English and offered to show us.

We began to walk through the outpost, while he explained that this is a gold mining village.  Sudan apparently has gold deposits in the north, which attracts people from all over to come and try their luck in finding it. The men in the settlement spend their days sifting through sand and rocks, ocassionally coming across a few grams here and there. The next time any of us will buy a piece of gold jewelry, it will be hard not to remember the hard and scrupulous way that the gold was attained.

We got our petrol, got treated to tea by the locals, and got back on the road. Within 15 minutes, we were in Wadi Halfa.

The road ahead

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