Despite the vast emptiness of Sudan, Africa's largest country, the welcome you'll receive will be one of the warmest
The vast, flat deserts of northern Sudan play curious tricks on your faculties. A shadow on the horizon becomes a shepherd's hut; a plastic bag skipping in the breeze resembles a prancing goat. But surely here, in the dried-up riverbed of Wadi Al Malik, that was a herd of camels lying in the sand ahead of us?
We pulled close and the mirage didn't falter - we'd stumbled across a group of Kababish nomads travelling across the desert, a caravan in the true sense of the word, transporting their cargo of a hundred camels to the Egyptian markets. We hung back cautiously but one of the nomads beckoned us forward. In the desert everyone is a stranger but no one is ignored. A solid handshake, a firm clasp of the shoulder, and the familiar ritual of greetings began:
"As salaam aleikum." Peace be upon you.
"Wa aleikum as salaam." And upon you be peace.
"Allah yisallimak." God keep you in peace.
"Allah yibaarik fiik." God bless you.
And on and on like this until eventually one of the nomads invited us to join them for tea, which another man wearing a stained jellabiya and long white turban was brewing up over a charcoal fire. We refused politely, not wanting to abuse their hospitality and knowing that their supplies probably had to get them to Egypt, or certainly to the next town.
"Have you just come from Ed-Debba?" one of the Kababish asked. "How long will it take us to get there?"
We had indeed just left Ed-Debba and in our 4WDs it had taken us just over an hour. But how long would it take by camel, and how could we begin to explain this in a way that the nomads would understand? This fleeting encounter, like so many that I was to have in Sudan, was a reminder that, for all our common humanity, the gulf between us was almost as great as if we had come from the moon.
For me, this was an emotional return to Sudan, a country where I spent the happiest year of my life teaching English in a small desert township in 1987. I spent much of that year ill, living on a monotonous diet of goat meat, beans and lentils. I never touched alcohol and had to get up early each morning to collect a trickle of water from a tap in the yard. And yet despite, or perhaps because of, these hardships, I came to appreciate the value of living in a community where people have almost nothing but will share everything they have with strangers; a place where water is so precious that not even a drop goes to waste. And I came to develop a strong respect for the traditions and values of Islam, so that when the time came to leave Sudan, one of the last things I did was join in the Ramadan fast.
I had always wanted to go back to Sudan, but civil war, refugee crises, terrorism, famine and poverty have not made it the most inviting of countries in recent years. Independent travel in Sudan is still virtually impossible - you need a permit to travel anywhere outside Khartoum and you are required to register with the police on arrival in each new town. So when I heard that tour groups were going back into the country on archaeological tours of the Nile Valley and the ancient region of Nubia, I leapt at the chance.
Landing in Khartoum, I was relieved to find that it was still the dirty, dusty, noisy, chaotic city I remembered. Wailing Arabic music drifted out of juice bars, and hawkers sold sunflower seeds and packets of Bringi cigarettes by gaslight around the edges of United Nations Square. There were perhaps a few more tarmac roads than the last time I was here, but there were still donkeys on the streets and coffee ladies on every corner brewing up sweet, strong coffee flavoured with cardamom and ginger.
We headed north out of Khartoum on a new toll highway financed by Chinese profits from the gleaming petrochemical refinery in the desert and also (it is said) by Osama Bin Laden, who lived in Sudan as a guest of the Islamic government in the mid-1990s. Leaving the road, we drove through a desert of strange, rocky hills and ploughed through wadis (valleys) still muddy after recent rain. As dusk fell, we set up camp in the desert and gathered around the table where our Sudanese cook, El Hadi, produced a delicious meal of peanut butter soup followed by grilled lamb. Distant sparks of lightning illuminated the night sky as we ate. Surrounded by total silence and darkness, I slept that night beneath a canopy of stars and woke to a neon sky.
We were now in the heart of the ancient kingdom of Cush, which ruled northern Sudan for a thousand years and briefly conquered Egypt. It is hard to imagine today, but to the ancient Egyptians this was a land of plenty, the source of ebony, ivory, incense, gold and slaves. Lions, giraffes and elephants roamed in the forest where now there is nothing but sand.
The Meroitic empires which flourished here created a unique blend of Egyptian and African cultures. This was brought home to us the next morning as we took the short walk from the campsite, first to the Temple of Amun, the ram-god who was one of the leading Egyptian deities, and then to the Temple of Apedemak, devoted to the lion-god of creation who was unique to Meroitic culture. The kefir, Amin Jama'a, carefully studied our permits and then led us around the temple, built by King Netakamani and Queen Amanitare in 12BC. On the outer walls, figures of the pharaoh and his queen were engraved into the sandstone together with eagles, lions and rams in human form.
At the nearby temple complex of Musawwarat, we found that we were not the first visitors. A certain Frédéric Gailliaud had come this way in 1822 as the envoy of Prince Ismael Pasha of Egypt, and Dr Koch had been here in 1837 on behalf of His Highness Mohammed Ali. In early acts of cultural vandalism, both men had kindly left graffiti to remind us of their visits.
Here too were hieroglyphs, ankhs (the looped cross which was the ancient Egyptian symbol of life) and delightful little cameos of people hunting, fighting and kissing, all etched into the stone. One wall of the Lion Temple, devoted to Apedemak, featured incense burners and goatskin water-carriers similar to those still used in Sudan today; another scene showed prisoners being led away in chains - glimpses of everyday life in Sudan 2,000 years ago.
We spent our second night beside the pyramids at Meroe, the necropolis of the Meroitic kings. There are actually more pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt, with some 30 pharaohs buried at Meroe, their tombs being slowly swallowed by the constantly shifting sand dunes.
We wandered undisturbed around the pyramids for an hour and were just commenting on the contrast with Cairo, the complete lack of commercialism and the absence of hustlers selling camel rides and postcards, when we became aware that small figures in jellabiyas were emerging from the desert and gathering around our cars. Children as young as five had spread out their rush mats on the sand, offering drums, knives, jewellery, miniature models of the pyramids and carved sandstone figures of Amun. The next morning, as we packed up our tents, the children were there again.
We drove north to Ed Damer where I drank fresh guava juice in the souk while El Hadi shopped for aubergines, potatoes, oranges and watermelons. From here, a creaking old ferry loaded with donkeys and bundles of grass took us across the Nile and into a sandstorm. We were in the Bayuda Desert, mile after mile of nothingness with a raw, elemental beauty - just boulders and dunes, some camels watering at a well, a pair of gazelles and a lone shepherd with his scraggly flock.
We took refuge from the storm inside a mud-and-thatch shelter while three generations of the same family slept nearby in a hut fashioned out of branches and camel hair, the grandfather watching over the women and children while the men roamed the desert with their camels.
Anyone who thinks that all deserts are the same has never travelled in Sudan. The landscape changed repeatedly, from lunar rock to black volcanic cones to dried-up wadis, to surprising patches of green. Eventually, after two days of driving, we arrived back at the Nile and took the ferry to Karima, at the foot of the sacred mountain of Jebel Barkal.
Here, as we traced the ancient processional route from the riverside to the temple of Amun, with its imperious granite rams, it was impossible not to feel slightly smug. Likewise, when we reached the Temple of Mut - a homage to nativity, where pharaoh's wives were thought to have given birth - I allowed myself a self-satisfied smile.
No sightseers posing in front of the pinnacle of phallic rock; and no hawkers selling plastic imitations of the two hieroglyphic-inscribed columns devoted to the goddess of motherhood. These were remarkable sights by anyone's standards - and we had them all to ourselves.
Just outside Karima, at the necropolis of El-Kurru, the tombs of the black Abyssinian kings are tunnelled deep into the rock. These were the pharaohs of the 25th dynasty, who ruled Egypt from their Nubian stronghold. The burial chamber of Tanwetamani, the last of the dynasty, contains vivid frescoes of baboons ferrying his boat, while that of his mother, Kalata, features the queen in the shape of a lion, lying languorously on a rope bed. The ceiling depicts the night sky, its bright yellow stars still shining some 3,000 years after it was painted.
Our two nights in Karima were spent at the extraordinary Nubian Rest House, beneath Jebel Barkal, built in the style of a Nubian village house, with baked-earth walls and conical mud-brick roofs set around a grassy courtyard. The manager greeted us with chilled kakadeh (hibiscus juice) and bouye (the fruit of the baobab tree). The rooms were decorated with ebony furniture, Sudanese water-pots and African prints. I stepped into the shower through a brick archway that looked more like the mihrab (niche) inside a mosque than a bathroom door, but instead of being adorned with Arabic inscriptions it was covered in gaily painted floral designs by students from the local art school.
Climbing Jebel Barkal at dusk to watch the sun set over the pyramids, we met some teenage girls, laughing and flirting in their Friday-best dresses, struggling up the mountainside in high heels before running barefoot down its dune-like sandy slope with their tobes - the all-enveloping lengths of cloth which Sudanese women wear to cover their heads and bodies - slipping off their shoulders.
Back in the hotel, there was a performance of Nubian folk music, with male dancers in jellabiyas and prayer caps clapping their hands and leaping high into the air while the waitresses danced sensuously and let out loud ululations, those high-pitched shrills that are usually reserved for weddings. This was a different, relaxed Sudan - one that I remembered, and a far cry from the images of Islamic fundamentalism which still dominate reports from the country.
After two days of hot showers and Western comforts, it was time to return to the desert. We set up camp at Old Dongola and wandered around Nubian villages on the banks of the Nile - small oases of green with date palms, rice paddies, irrigation ditches and bullock carts in the fields. We got stuck in sand dunes and had to dig the vehicles out before crossing the Nile one last time to reach the Western Desert.
Now there were no more oases, no more features in the landscape - just an endless expanse of shimmering sand. But it was here in this desert, with its silence and harsh beauty, its wide sunsets and clear night skies, its piles of camel bones and nomads lighting fires, that I found the Sudan to which I had been longing to return.