Sudan Trip review by Ihab Zaki
What a country! Nothing had prepared me for this adventure and what I would be seeing in Sudan. An abundance of archaeological sites that are so pristine as very few tourists have visited them. In two weeks we saw just two travelers from Switzerland in one of our hotels! The sites were incredible and every day brought us new and wonderful experiences.
As the plane approached the airport in Khartoum I took in the dramatic sunset over the convergence of the blue and white Nile. After landing and formalities I was taken to the elegant (though a bit in need of face lift) Grand Villa Hotel. A place that hosted in its golden days famous people such as Winston Churchill, King Farouk and many other notables. There I met with my fourteen fellow travelers and our Italian guide Stefano. It was a reunion of sorts as this first Sudan departure was offered primarily to loyal repeat customers, most of whom I have met on many occasions in different parts of the Near East through the past years. We had a great dinner at the hotel where we enjoyed the cold non-alcoholic beer. The hotel has many amenities including Internet service, cable TV with CNN, hot water, air conditioning but its best asset is that it overlooks the Nile. It was the perfect haven for our first two nights in country.
Our first full day began with a four-hour extensive visit to the National Museum that gave us a perfect introduction to the
Sudan historical timeline. Though the building itself is quite shabby it does not detract from the many beautiful pieces on display. Most importantly it has protected several small temples that have been placed in large glass buildings with tin roofs to keep them safe from weather conditions. Stefano opened our eyes to the marvels we were about to see in Sudan. We stopped for a leisurely lunch at a Nile-view restaurant before heading back to the hotel and took advantage of a free afternoon to get over the jet lag and rest from the long trip from the US.
Next morning, the true adventure started…in a convoy of five modern air-conditioned Toyota 4x4 vehicles. We were divided comfortably, three per car, and met our capable drivers who by the end of the trip were very dear to us. We hit the paved road heading to the ancient region of Meroe. Before arriving at our tented camp, Stefano surprised us by making a stop where we walked up to the peak of a sandy dune for a stunning view of the Necropolis of Meroe with its multitude of pyramids. It was one of those rare moments when you arrive at a site and stand stupefied in awe and start clicking frantically on your camera taking pictures from every imaginable angle until you realize that you just need to stop and take in the moment. It was sunset, the time of gloaming when the light is ideally shining softly on the majestic and desolate necropolis. From here a few of us decided to prolong our experience by riding camels to the camp while the rest proceeded with the vehicles.
We had a lovely camp with large comfortable tents that had two beds each, table, cupboard, desk, chair and a ceiling fan. Lights were turned on from sunset until 11PM. Each tent had its own spacious, clean, private bathroom behind it, and a terrace in front with a view overlooking the tops of the pyramids that was stunning! The camp’s dining area or rest house was excellent and every evening we enjoyed drinks and snacks on the veranda. For three days we were served gourmet meals prepared by a chef trained by the Italian managers. We dined on fabulous Fetuccini Alfredo, eggplant dishes and roast beef platters worthy of 5 star establishments.
Our time spent in the region of Meroe was exciting and illuminating. On our second day we drove on unpaved roads to several small but wonderful temples and were introduced to the Nubian deities that were added to the Egyptian pantheon of gods. We visited a marvelous city called Musawarat, a vast place with reliefs of elephants and unusual ramps that we learned were for the training of elephants before engaging in wars (it is where Hannibal’s herd was trained). The complex had temples, colonnaded streets, palaces and other buildings scattered over miles and miles.
We broke for lunch, enjoyed picnic style, in the shade of some large trees. Our drivers set up folding chairs and tables with cloths covered with a light, delicious and fresh fare. We dined this way most days on a menu of pasta dishes, hard boiled eggs, beans, feta cheese, salads, minced meats and fresh fruits always followed by hot tea and coffee. Everyone agreed our picnics were always a great event that we looked forward to each day. As we sat and enjoyed our feast this first day, we discussed as a group the issue of Darfur and Stefano added insights from the perspective of someone close to the situation by virtue of living in the country.
The following day was spent at that Necropolis that we viewed when we first arrived. We hiked up and walked from one pyramid to the next and saw some wonderful reliefs in the mortuary temples attached to them. Pity many of the tops of those pyramids (40 in number) were chopped off by the Italian explorer Giuseppe Ferlini in a quest for treasure in the 1820’s. One of the highlights of our time spent in Meroe is when we took a private motorboat to sail the Nile through the 4th cataract. We stopped in a small Nubian village and visited their simple school where we met the children and their teachers.
We departed Meroe and headed to the northern town of Karima where we stayed at a beautiful Nubian-style hotel set in a garden of gorgeous flowers. The eleven tastefully decorated rooms each had private bathrooms with hot and cold running water. The main building housed the restaurant and a great patio from where we enjoyed spectacular sunrises and sunsets every day! Again we had sumptuous food, especially the fresh omelets and crepes for breakfast.
In Karima, we visited several necropolises with more pyramids and vividly colored tombs from the 25th dynasty of the Black Pharaohs. We explored the temples of Amon Ra, Hathor and Mut and met the current Italian team excavating the site. They conveyed to us how Sudan is still unexplored territory and there are many sites yet to be uncovered. However funding for this archaeological work is non-existent. This group visits once a year for two weeks and must re-bury their findings until they return the following season to protect them from looters. The highlight of our day was when some of us climbed the holy mountain of Jebel Barkal at sunset, the same mountain that faced our hotel. From the top we had stunning vistas of the Nile, the nearby town of Karima and the remains of the temples below.
Leaving Karima, a place where we came to feel at home, we headed to our tented camp at Tombos located in the desert. The site was set up with small tents and shared shower and toilet tents. As always, we enjoyed a great meal surrounded by a lovely breeze and a million twinkling stars lighting up the night sky. The following day we had a long journey to visit two Egyptian temples and several sites with Neolithic petroglylphs, many depicting animals long extinct in the region such as giraffes, elephants and rhinos. On our last day in the area we embarked on an adventurous journey through a desolate stretch of the desert. We crossed the Nile by ferry and two hours later we came upon the majestic temple of Soleb built by Amenhotep the 3rd dedicated to Amon-Re of Karnak and Nebmaatre, which were both a deified version of the king himself and a local variant of Khonsu. Nebmaatre was represented as a moon-god with the horns of Amon. This temple is the best-preserved Egyptian built temple in Sudan.
After the visit we had another delightful lunch this time at the home of the temple guard. He showed us his old black and white photos from the 1950’s when he assisted the archaeologist Micheal Schiff Giorgini who was exploring the site at the time. We were retracing our steps back to camp when an unexpected surprise crossed our path. It was a camel caravan that was heading to the market of Abu Simble in Egypt, still ten days away from their destination. Our five cars came to a sudden halt and once again all fifteen of us were out in a flash snapping our cameras and taking picture after picture of this rare opportunity. Those caravans take place a few times a year starting in middle Sudan in the province of Kordofan and it takes forty days to get to their final destination in Egypt where they are sold at a famous market.
Back along the Nile again, we visited the small remains of the temple of Sesibe with its three solo columns before we re-crossed the Nile and went to view the petroglyphs along the 3rd cataract, a very picturesque spot. From here it was back to Tombos and the solitude of the desert for another starry night!
In the morning we deserted our camp for the comforts of Karima’s Nubian house. The following day I was picked up to head back to Khartoum in a private car to catch a flight to Cairo where I would visit my parents for a few hours before returning to Michigan. The group stayed behind for another two days visiting a Coptic desert monastery and a place with ancient boats. They had another spectacular cruise along the lake of the 4th Cataract before finally returning to Khartoum for a last day attending a Friday performance of whirling Sufi dervishes in the town of Om Dourman before they departed back to the US.
ll in all this was a very satisfying trip. The food throughout the trip was plentiful, fresh and tasty. We traveled in 4x4 vehicles on paved road and across the barren desert landscape but our travel days were never too long. Temperatures were hot during the day and cool at night, perfect for sleeping. Bring a kerchief for the occasional sand storm (somewhat of a fun diversion) and also insect repellent. Plenty of bottled water is available at all times. It’s not a shopper’s paradise (which was OK by me) but you do come home with many priceless memories. The sites we saw along the way and the experiences we had were absolutely amazing. Besides the sighting of the camel caravan there were many other highlights including markets, pyramid complexes, tombs, temples and boat rides on the Nile. Some of our most memorable moments included a couple of opportunities we had to cross the Nile on ferries which were very enjoyable experiences as they put us in close proximity to the locals who always came to talk to us. Another was the time in Meroe when we made an impromptu stop at a local well where all neighboring villages came to get their rations in plastic bottles and in sheepskin bags. It was a cacophony of sounds, a riot of colors as people, donkeys and camels all gathered around in the pursuit of their daily lives. To me it resembled a scene straight from the bible!
Please join us to experience this exotic destination. We are committed to keeping group size small (maximum number 14) in order to maintain a high level of personalization. The visa procedure takes several months so we recommend that you sign up soon if you wish to join the group.