(Editor’s note: Over the next two months, Meghan Thom will be posting about her recent trip across North Africa. A student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Ms. Thom resides in London. Previous posts: Part I, Part II)
Unperturbed by our change of plans to travel to Egypt by boat from Khartoum, we decided to travel in a loop around the north of Sudan to see some of the sights, returning in time to catch my flight to Cairo. The early morning was another kind of wild goose chase around Khartoum, looking for the right bus to take us north. This was largely my fault for reading the guidebook wrong. The bus was bizarre: all the windows had frilly, pink, lace-trimmed curtains and the ceiling lights had been replaced with coloured bulbs! During the entire three-hour trip, we were “entertained” by a very loud preaching video in Arabic showing evidence of natural disasters that were a mix of news reports from around the world and clips from Hollywood films!
The bus doesn’t stop in Meroë, the site of between 50 and 300 pyramids (depending on who you ask), so keen tourists have to keep a look out and shout at the driver to stop. My delayed reaction meant we had quite a walk to get there, as the bus drove on, leaving us in the middle of the desert.
When we reached the pyramids, surrounded by a fence to make sure tourists pay to get in, we discovered the guard and ticket woman were sleeping, so we snuck past them. There were about 20 pyramids here, and more slightly further on and several more on the other side of the road. They were all quite small and in bad condition: an Italian treasure hunter reportedly blew the tops off all of them after finding treasure in the first. His continued search was futile, however, and the result is pretty sad. Many of the hieroglyphics were very similar to those in Egypt and pictures of people, cows, and snakes could still be made out. The grounds keeper came over and asked if we had tickets. We confessed we didn’t and promised to get them on the way out (which we did). He proceeded to chat to us—well, mostly to my boyfriend and mostly in Arabic. He liked my boyfriend’s galabeya and was very happy to hear that we are British. He told us about the pyramids and the other tourists that come; apparently, it gets quite busy in winter when it’s cooler. At that time, there wasn’t another soul to be seen.
Our trek back the roadside was aided by a camel, which was quite fun. The camel’s name was Abdul and his owner had 12 siblings!
At the roadside, we stuck out our thumbs trying to get a lift into the next town, Atbara. I was surprised that a number of passenger-less cars passed us without stopping. In the end, a bus with one space free at the back, beside two women with a very cute baby, and one space at the front next to the driver took us all the way.
Our next obstacle was finding a place to stay. We had hoped to stay in a lakonda, the cheapest kind of accommodation, which simply provides a bed in a courtyard or a door-less dormitory. With no private rooms, however, they were not prepared to have a woman stay there, but insisted on walking around the town with us to find an alternative. The hotels were either overpriced or full and in the end, we had to pay for a room with four beds in an unpleasant hostel-type place.
In the evening, the Yemeni manager of the lakonda met us and took us to have tea in a garden while we chatted in a mix of Arabic and English. We told him we needed to change some money so, with the banks closed, he took us to every gold shop in town, weaving through the crowed markets in the dark evening. In the end, we managed to change some euros at a pharmacy for a rate that was much better than the official one.
We slept badly in the hot, dirty room and were not too sad to be leaving Atbara the next day.