Salvation came in the shape of a cattle truck today. I had just gone over the critical two hour mark with my thumb in the air standing by the roadside in the middle of the Nubian Desert, the point at which frustration at not having been granted immediate deliverance slowly turns into disillusion and doubt, and eventually concern and fear. Most of the vehicles that had gone past were either buses that were full, private cars with female passengers or heavy goods vehicles with multiple trailers thundering past. It was 11:30am and although my water supply was ample, the sun was almost directly above me and my legs were no longer being offered respite from the 40c+ temperature by the shadow of my upright backpack.

Yes, here will do. Please drop me off in the middle of the Nubian Desert.

Just me, my trusty backpack, and some 2,000 year old pyramids lost in the sand…

As the cattle truck approached, I changed tactics and joined my hands in silent and desperate supplication. To my great surprise, the ploy worked and the truck stopped alongside me. As the driver moved towards the back of the truck, ostensibly to fold down the tailgate and allow me into the straw-floored enclosure, he looked at me and scolded me in a mildly reproachful tone: “The desert is a dangerous place, you know. Here, have this bottle of water, and this banana.” I smiled in agreement and jumped into the back with all my luggage. I don’t even know why I was surprised, at this effortless display of generosity: this was Sudan, after all.

The real cattle class

Despite only staying in the country for seven days, I have lost count of the number of random acts of generosity I have been fortunate to experience in this wonderful country: bus fares paid for me by complete strangers unable even to understand my thank you of appreciation; bottles of water, fruit and sweets offered to me by street sellers and market traders; even the omnipresent security police smile when returning my passport and wish me a pleasant stay, after ascertaining that my travel permit is in order, of course. If Ethiopia has the favourite country accolade nailed on, then the Sudanese are making a late, great bid for the friendliest people in Africa.

In an all too rare but wonderfully welcome change to stereotypical global perceptions, it helps to be British in this country. The majority of Sudan’s industrial infrastructure was conceived and implemented by colonial Blighty, including the entire railway network; the tax and salary systems are of the same origin, although they apparently work in Sudan; even the country’s largest market and source of employment for thousands, Omdurman Souq, was built by Great Britain. As news filters down the market aisles that one of Queenie’s subjects is in the ‘hood, I am treated to the fruit and vegetable world’s equivalent of a tickertape open top bus cup-winning parade. As each successive stallholder waves hello or shakes my hand, I can only offer a regal wave in return and comment on the superior quality of British girders and rivets.

For all the kindness of the Sudanese people, though, the country’s travel conditions are unforgivingly brutal. Long gone are the pleasantly sunny days and cool nights of the Ethiopian highlands, it seems I have now taken temporary residence in the world’s largest live-in incinerator. With all the country’s ancient historic sites situated slap bang in the middle of hostile desert wilderness  and only seven days to play with until the weekly ferry across Lake Nasser to Abu Simbel in Egypt, I must move fast, far and ridiculously early every day if I want to see everything this country has to offer.

With mid-morning temperatures already exceeding 40c in May, only a dawn wake-up call will allow two hours of archaeological exploration in mild overheated discomfort rather than feeling like a walking funeral pyre. To add to the fun, single night stays in each locality mean that backpack, daypack and kit bag must accompany me everywhere – across desert flats and up, down and around every single scorching dune. Once my daily two hour dose of self-imposed Marathon Des Sables is over, I am able to spend the rest of the day on public transport reflecting on my decision to take five black t-shirts out of a packing quota of seven, and to second-guess what Rorschach patterns their salt stains will deliver each evening.

Is it an ostrich eating grain, or a broken wine glass?

The reward for my masochistic endeavours and near-certain death by perspiration comes in having an entire country’s 4,000 years of history all to myself. Even as I laboured across the two kilometres of desert from the road where my bus had dropped me off to the incredible site of Meroitic tombs at Bejriwaya, over sand and stone, and under the relentless desert sun; even as I cursed myself, every Nubian and Egyptian god, and even the poor camel skeleton I nearly tripped over; even then my smile and enthusiasm did not waver, for I could see the perfect soft apricot-coloured dunes a short distance away, indented into a misshapen Toblerone bar silhouette by one hundred majestic pyramids sprouting into the sky. Waiting for me to take temporary but exclusive ownership. How could I possibly get annoyed or frustrated in this wonderfully unexpected jewel of a country? Especially when you can be sure that salvation is just around the next bend.

Yo Egypt, how many pyramids you got? Only 118 bahahahahaaaa…

How fertile is the Nile?

Mine, all mine…

Ruin with a view

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