PART 1: The Mahgreb
Elon Musk’s neural technology company is already well underway in developing an implant designed to interface directly with the human brain. The initial goal of the implant is to use it to treat brain injury and trauma. Perhaps we are not so far away from an implant that could stimulate memory? For now, however, I must rely on my own fallible memory, so you will forgive me for all that I have forgotten of my life almost fifty years ago when I set out, with my then husband Bruce, on an overland travel from the UK to Australia. That which I do remember seems crystal clear but, like broken crystal, is fragmented, which presents a challenge as to how place the pieces together in a meaningful and interesting manner.
In the early ‘70’s we had been living in London for almost three years, my second stint living on the Continent, and are contemplating whether to remain permanently or return to Australia. We finally opt for Australia and determine, well in advance of the “slow food, slow travel” movement, to give ourselves time, nine months in fact, to adventure through parts of the world that are new to us. The plan is to spend six months in Africa (then three in India and S.E Asia.) Bruce was the recipient of a scholarship as a PhD student at University College London and I have been working at Imperial College setting up a student counselling service earning about twenty-five pounds weekly, plus Bruce’s scholarship, so we have only modest savings and will be on a limited budget.
Aware of the need for cultural sensitivity and of the heat to which we will be exposed, I require an appropriate outfit for travelling across predominantly Islamic North Africa. I decide a kaftan will tick the box and that cheese-cloth, a light, free breathing cotton will be perfect. I purchase two pieces of fabric, one an intense orange, the other emerald green. Not much of a seamstress, I somehow manage to make two identical garments (ankle length with 3/4 length sleeves). I have no photographic record of these travels but, as I now write, turn to Mr Google to look up kaftan and find an image, actually designed for men, that is almost exactly the same as the ones I made (sleeves a tad longer than mine)
Of preparations, I remember little other than two canvas-covered army water bottles, head covering, Swiss knife, water purifying tablets, backpacks and an array of innoculations against many dreaded African diseases, and for Bruce, now an ardent amateur photographer, a camera. It was probably during the preparatory research that I first learnt the true meaning of ‘being careful’ about food and drink. For example, drinking water as well as water used for food preparation, even teeth-cleaning, must be boiled or have the addition of water purifying tablets, not a pleasant taste. Ice can not be ingested and only bottled drinks with sealed tops are safe. Food sitting out in the often fly-ridden air must not pass ones lips, not even cooked food unless straight off the burner/grill/fireoven. Fruit, if peelable, is fine but lo and behold, even here I learn of exceptions – watermelon, for example, will give cause for caution. If the melon should sit on moist ground, in a field or in puddles after rain, water-borne lurgies of the most dangerous kind can penetrate and even this thicker than thick exterior affords no protection. This is 1970’s Africa.
Entitled to Student Flights, the plan is to fly cheaply from London to Spain, take a ferry across the Mediterranean to Morocco from where we will slowly travel eastward across the rest of the Mahgreb (Algeria and Tunisia). Libya, under the rule of Gaddafi, is out of bounds, thus requiring a circuitous route skirting back across the Mediterranean to Sicily, across to Greece, after which we will enter Egypt. We will then head south through the Sudan, the last country still designated N. Africa, into Ethiopia, Kenya and finally Tanzania. In each country across the Mahgrab, we will make a southbound loop but only in Morocco will we go far enough south to enter the Sahara. In all, a six month journey….a kaleidescope of fragmented images and memories.
We spend a beautiful week in Spain ‘unwinding’ with our London-based friends Lisa, a German-born sculptress and her Engish husband Robert, in their holiday home in Ibiza, one of the Balearic islands south-east of Valencia. It is my second time there, the first being in the mid ‘60’s during my first stint living in Europe. Their house is a low-set modern home on small acreage in the countryside sited on sloping land overlooking almond and olive orchards; the almond trees are a haze of white blossom, the sea visible in the distance. It is a Mediterranaen idyll after which the ‘real adventure’ begins.
A Little Background for Information Junkies: North Africa
North Africa has three main geographic features: (i)The Atlas Mountains in the west which extend across much of northern Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, the tallest peaks of the High Atlas range in south-central Morocco being snow-capped; (ii) the Sahara desert in the south which covers the southern part of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, and most of Libya; (iii) the Nile River and Delta in the east. Though most of the region is extremely dry, there are sheltered valleys in the Atlas Mountains, the Mediterranean coast and the Nile Valley and Delta, which are the main sources of fertile farming land. A wide variety of valuable crops including cereals, rice and cotton, and woods such as cedar and cork, are grown. Typical Mediterranean crops, such as olives, figs, dates, and citrus fruits, also thrive in these areas. The Nile Valley is particularly fertile and most of the population in Egypt live close to the river. It is an amazing sight to behold, this verdant narrow strip of land bordered on both sides by desert sands.
The People, Language and Religion
Arabs came to North Africa in the seventh century. The region is now largely Arab-Berber but the Berbers have inhabited this part of the world since the dawn of history. Thought to have been an indigenous ethnic group, a recent DNA study indicates that they have a close genetic relationship with Mediterranean Europeans but also possess some characteristics of Sub-Saharan Africans. Berbers represent 80% of the population in Morocco and Algeria, more than 60% in Tunisia and Libya and 2% in Egypt. However, in the case of Morocco, the high mountains inhibited intermingling of the two peoples, and although the Berbers were eventually converted to Islam, their ethnic and linguistic purity has been preserved until today. Arabic and Amazigh (Berber) are the two main languages spoken in Morocco, and standard Arabic is the country’s official language and primary form of communication. Amazigh is mostly spoken in vernacular settings and has seven major varieties. French, the former colonial language across the Maghreb, is still spoken, mostly only by the upper classes. But is a complicated affair. At the time of our travels, it was the language used in schools but that has waxed and waned in the intervening years as Arabization took further root.
After the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb 661-750 AD most Berber tribes followed Islam. The Maghreb formerly had a significant Jewish population, almost all of whom emigrated to France or Israel when the North African nations gained independence. Prior to the establishment of modern Israel, there were about 600,000–700,000 Jews in Northern Africa, including both Sephardi Jews (expelled from France, Spain and Portugal during the Spanish inquisition) as well as indigenous Mizrahi Jews who had been there since biblical times. Today, less than fifteen thousand remain in the region, almost all in Morocco and Tunisia, and are mostly part of a French-speaking urban elite.
The Mahgreb: Morocco,Algeria,Tunisia
Given that I have no photos or diary as record, I cannot recall all the places we travelled to, but from Spain we arrived in Tangiers, then travelled largely in local buses going to Fes, Meknes, Marrakech, the Atlas mountains and before heading slowly toward the northern fringes of the Sahara.
Of Fes my only memory is of a large area dedicated exclusively to leather processing and dying. Fez is famous for its leather products most of which come from the leather bazaar, or souq. Fes is home to three ancient leather tanneries, the largest and oldest being the Chouara tannery, which is almost a thousand years old. Stone vessels filled with a vast range of dyes and various liquids spread out like a tray of watercolours, a wondrous sight. The hides of cows, sheep, goats, and camels are first soaked in a mixture of cow urine, quicklime, water, and salt. This caustic mixture helps to break down the tough leather and loosens excess fat, flesh, and hair that remain on them. The hides are soaked for two or three days after which tanners scrape away excess hair fibres and fat to prepare them for dyeing. They are then soaked in another set of vats containing a mixture of water and pigeon droppings which contain ammonia, acting as a softening agent. Dozens of tanners, tramp around in the vats in their bare feet, often thigh deep, as they knead the hides for up to three hours in the hot sun to achieve the desired softness and malleability so the hides can absorb the dye. The pungent stench of pigeon poo and cow urine fills our nostrils. The hides are then placed in pits containing natural vegetable dyes, such as poppy flower (red), indigo (blue), henna (orange), cedar wood (brown), mint (green), and saffron (yellow). Staggering to think of the quantity of these organic materials required for such a task. Other materials used for dyeing include pomegranate powder, which is rubbed on the hides to turn them yellow, and olive oil, which will make them shiny. Once died, the leather is taken out to dry in the sun. The tanneries process the hides and the finished leather is then sold to other craftsmen who turn it into high quality products such as the famous Moroccan slippers, babouches, wallets, handbags, coats, furniture, and other leather accessories which we see in the souks. Many of these products make their way into the European markets.
The Night Market in Marrakesh, (Jemaa El Fnaa)
In all my years of travelling there are some places that resonate as truly magical. The Marrakesh night market is such a one. Set on an enormous square, it is surrounded by traditional granite stone buildings typical of much of the old city. The square is without electricity; everything is washed in soft orange lantern-glow. It’s bursting with life. Vendors wear the traditional garb – the djellaba, a long, loose, usually hooded outer garment with full sleeves, worn by both men and women. It is the item of traditional clothing most associated with Morocco, but having Berber roots, can be found in other North African lands where Berbers settled, for example Algeria and Tunisia. On their heads they sport a little fez-like hat, the tarbouche, or a crocheted cotton skullcap. Local shoppers and travellers add to the number. All manner of goods are arranged on the ground including beaten tin and silverware, ceramics, metalwork lamps often embellished with glass inlays, leather-goods including the traditional Moroccan ‘slipper’ and huge mounds of spices of every colour… and much more, faded in memory. The air stirs with excitement and energy, voices ring out attracting my attention here then there. Drumming and the sound of musicians add to the cacophany. Astrologers sit quietly by their lanterns, waiting to provide passers-by with insights, monkey handlers sit with a monkey on their shoulder to grab attention. Snake charmers practise their ancient art- hooded cobras, vipers and grass snakes brought up from the Moroccon Sahara, uncoil from woven lidded baskets, rearing up as their handlers play a flute-like instrument. Being deaf, it is, in fact, the hand movements of the charmer to which they are responding. Like most, I am not partial to snakes, certainly not at close distance or to such an unfamiliar breed, so I keep a cautious distance from these threatening-looking fellows!
The scene is vibrant with colour as is the nearby souk, the very large market with narrow passageways and stalls displaying a huge array of goods. The souk is beautifully shaded from the heat by narrow timber overhead slats which throw dramatic striped shadows to the ground and cast black stripes across white djellabas of the thronging locals, the shadow stripes rippling with the movement of their bodies.
As we wander through the streets of the old town, our eyes feast upon magnificent buildings both public, and the private riads, traditional courtyard homes. The most recognizable ‘Moroccan’ architecture was developed in the Islamic period, 7th century and after, part of the wider Hispano-Moorish culture (Morocco, Al-Andalus-Muslim Spain, Portugal, parts of Algeria and even Tunisia and Sicily). Its distinctive elements are its heavy use of stucco (relatively cheap and easily sculpted) and wood for carved and sculpted decoration across walls and ceilings with motifs including floral, vegetal, geometric and calligraphic compositions. Tilework, particularly mosaic tilework, is a standard decorative element along lower walls and for the paving of floors.
The Atlas Mountains
We travel on crowed local buses throughout Morocco along with chickens and goats and head from Marrakech to the Atlas Mountains area. Often there are no bus timetables and no specific stops along the route. The bus stops in the middle of ‘nowhere’ and someone alights or descends, wandering off into the distance. This mostly rural region is marked by numerous kasbahs (fortresses) and ksour (fortified villages) shaped by local geography and social structures, typically made of rammed earth and decorated with local geometric motifs. The houses can have three to four levels, with very few windows, thus protecting the inhabitants from the high summer temperatures; also terraced roofs, used for resting during the summer nights. The rich earth colour of the buildings which clamber up hillsides, permeates the village-scape. In this exclusively Berber region, we see an interesting mix of people, dark, blond or red-haired, due to the historic racial mix described above. Some Berbers live sedentary lives, others are nomadic, tending goats, sheep, and donkeys, usually remaining in each place for few days or weeks while food for their animals is plentiful. This was more relevant at the time we were travelling but they are gradually changing their way of life from roaming herders to a more sedentary lifestyle. The men wear thick hooded robes, often striped and woollen, each clan having its own variations. Berber women of this region are famous for their embroidered wool and cotton izars, loose-fitting, body-covering tunic worn by Muslim women who do not cover their faces, and hendiras, small wool blankets worn as an overcoat. They wear a variety of head coverings including fringed scarves knotted at the back. Berber women often carry their family’s wealth in their jewellery including headdress with dangling coins and it was in this region that we purchased three wonderful pieces. Handmade silver jewellery is worn by most women and many wear large elaborately decorated fibula pins, an ancient article of jewellery that holds capes and other garments in place, studded with stones with long chains hanging from each pin. Large beaded necklaces strung with silver and big chunks of amber are greatly prized, worn at important events such as weddings. Elaborate henna designs are applied to feet, hands, wrists, ankles, fingers, and toes for cultural ceremonies and weddings. Headdresses, jewellery, belts, and shoes show great variety from one region to another.
As we walk through a small town, a young man starts chatting with us. He introduces the young woman accompanying him as his sister Jamila. She is wearing a black burka, not seen so much in the cities (and banned in Morocco since 2017), which covers her from head to toe, leaving visible only her eyes. He invites us so warmly to their home, so accepting the invitation, we follow them through the small streets and enter the house through a doorway leading directly off the street-front into an inner courtyard and thus into the house. As soon we enter, Jamila to bends down, grasps the hem of her burqa, and pulls it off over her head. It is an amazing moment. A most beautiful woman with huge dark smiling eyes and thick dark hair piled up om her head is revealed. She is wearing a knee length dress.
Typical of the hospitality we experience throughout Muslim North Africa, she immediately offers us tea, and crouches down to light a small burner positioned on the floor, and proceeds to boil the water. In so doing, her dress rides half-way up her thighs, thus revealing a substantial amount of bare leg (perhaps this is the reason Bruce thinks she was wearing a mini skirt!). She is completely at ease in our presence. Her sister, who has a small baby, is similarly comfortable breast-feeding openly in front of us. The disjunction between what is acceptable outside the house and within, is quite an eye-opener. During our visit, Jamila offers to paint henna designs on my feet and hands, elaborate and beautiful but also such an intimate woman to woman encounter which we both enjoyed.
Heading Toward the Sahara
After leaving Jamila and her brother, we head south-east toward Ouarzazate in the middle of a bare plateau south of the High Atlas, at an elevation of 1,160 metres and considered the ‘gateway’ to the Sahara. But we track further east back to the Atlas heading to the Dades Gorges area. Sadly, I have no clear memory of this. At Ouarzazate we meet a Dutch couple travelling in-can you believe this detail which Bruce remembers- a World War II Volkswagen Kubelwagen, a vehicle designed under Rommel for Germany’s N. Africa campaign! It was a type of ‘dune buggy’ perfect for these desert conditions. They invite us to join them. In retrospect, this is rather creepy, a bit too close for comfort for a Jewish person to be riding in! The landscape becomes increasingly dry as we pass through valleys where we begin to see long ribbons of deep-green oases as they stretch out towards the Sahara. Oases are the historical lifeblood of the Moroccan south – indeed, oases here are traditionally measured by the number of date palms, rather than in terms of area or population – and even today, still play a vital role for their communities. Families continue to toil over individual plots that have been handed down through the generations, growing apricots, pomegranates, figs and almonds among the palms, and tomatoes, carrots, barley, and mint in the shaded earth below.
We continue toward the dry and barren expanse of the Sahara making our way to Erfoud, (about 500km south-east of Marrakech) and via Tinghir and on to Rissani from which we enter the Erg Chebbi, vast rolling sand dunes, or ergs. Our preconception of these dunes is that they epitomize the Sahara; in fact, dunes cover only about 25% of the entire Sahara, the rest being comprised of stone plateaus, gravel plains, dry valleys, wadis, and salt flats. Vast underground aquifers underlie much of the region and the desert is cut in places by these irregular wadis, streams that flow only after the infrequent heavy rainfalls, often resulting in flash floods. Wadis often form oases. Because of this sub-surface water, wadis and oases tend to be associated with centres of human population. Irrigation methods have barely changed in centuries. The fields are watered by a combination of communal wells and underground channels that can run for long distances. And now, with our Dutch friends, we are on foot, walking up a dune in a world hilled with sand. We proceed a short distance and before us the dune rolls down toward an area of intense green, which we now recognize is a profusion of date palms, in what appears to be a tiny settlement. This sudden verdancy amid a sea of orange is unforgettable, our first close-up experience of an oasis; soft footfalls on sandy ground, palm fronds arching overhead like fernery, cooler by degrees than on the open dunes, lush, serene. I have no memory of houses or dwellings – just a tranquil sparseness and deep quiet, a couple of men in their long djellabas, the traditional cloth or shesh wrapped around the head, a versatile item, as a length of it remains unbound and may fall down the upper back or be wrapped around the face to protect the eyes from blowing sand. They lead us to their deep wells amidst this wonder.
In an area of bare plateau in the High Atlas region, we are told about an exciting traditional event, a tbourida, an ancient Moroccan equestrian sport in which a group of horse-riders charge along at the same speed forming a firm line and at the end, fire into the sky using old muskets. It’s an expensive and dangerous sport, the Arabian or Berber horses costing up to $30,000. It is linked to festivals, events and holidays. Riding horses in Morocco has roots dating back to the 15th century, the riders dressed in traditional white robes and head turban, their horses are skilfully decorated and studded. This was a thrilling, high energy event to watch, accompanied by hoots and cries from the onlookers, the horses kicking up a large amount of dust from the dry ground.
And now, in real time, something else happens! Janet, my oldest friend from university days, has found some letters I wrote to her, one from Morocco. Sadly, it contains no travel descriptions; for this I had referred her to letters written to my parents- if only I still had them! However, the letter mentions Ouarzazate, the gorges of Todra and Dades in the Atlas Mountains and Tinghir close to the Sahara. Though I am confronted by a failure of memory, at least I gain something, because now I look at maps and can roughly re-configure our itinerary and thus have added to the above text. It further prompts me to look to Mr Google which perhaps might trigger more memories. But no…. the nature of memory is indeed illusive-back to Elon Musk! My passion, indeed, compulsion to document photographically apparently developed somewhat later. Bruce was the exclusive photographer on this trip. I have assiduously documented all my post-Bruce travels in photographs, journals and sometimes artworks, and having done so, was able to commit a great deal to memory. But in the case of this distant journey, time lapsed is a factor.
Janet’s letter prompts me to contact Bruce, my assumption being that his memory is better than mine. As it transpires, there are detailed events I remember which he does not, and vice versa. But a few days later he phones to say he has found a box, forty-five years after we parted ways, that appears to be mine. He tells me it includes two diaries which I hope are travel journals. He says that somewhere he also has black and white proof sheets and other photographs which he will send. I eagerly await their arrival in the hope that this will prompt further recollections.
A few days later, the treasured box arrives. No proof-sheets but fifteen wonderful black and white photographs, unlabelled, but I can mostly identify the country of origin. Of the diaries, none include the Mahgreb; instead, a wealth of information about the Sudan and a little of India and Ceylon, as it was still called then, great for future use. A few days later, he tells me he has found the proof sheets and a few boxes of colour transparencies which I now await. It is exciting and perhaps Elon Musk’s non-existent memory-enabler, becomes a little less necessary.
Bruce reminds me that while the rest of our travels in N. Africa were by bus, old, local, rickety, in Algeria we hitch-hiked. One such hitchhiking experience is firmly embedded. We have been picked up by a driver of an open utility or truck. We are the only people in the back driving through semi-desert in absolutely searing heat. We are seated leaning against the back of the cab, our backpacks beside us. The air rushing over us is oven- hot and dry. We have already consumed one of our two bottles of water from our small canvas-covered water bottle. Not knowing how long it will take to reach our destination, we carefully meter out the remaining water, one restrained gulp at a time. I am seriousy overheated and indulging in obsessive thoughts of swimming pools and the immersion of body in water. It is like a dream arising from the parched air. Eventually we arrive, the dusty earth a rich orange. Might there be anywhere where we can swim?, we ask the driver who crosses a barren dusty area of ground before grinding to a halt infront of an amazing hotel, the likes of which I have never seen before. Clearly designed for well-heeled tourists. An elegant, earth-coloured, single-storey building, it blends into the desert environment, drawing upon traditional Moroccan architecture and detailing, and, behold, offers a magnificent swimming pool! We enter the foyer and ask whether it is accessible to non-guests and for a small price we are in! Never has plunging into cool water felt more restorative, an instant relief as the body temperature drops to normal.
We are in a small village and note that in these Algerian villages it is the men, not the women, who cover their faces. We meet a woman who explains she is divorced and invites us into her home. She has a small baby, and again contrary to the modesty we might have assumed of women in a Muslim society, she bares her breast and, completely comfortable in our presence, proceeds to breast-feed.
Elsewhere in Algeria, we come across a wedding feast. An area has been set aside for the guests who sit crossed legged on the ground which is covered with tribal rugs enhancing the colour and beauty of the eleborate traditional clothing they wear. In a display of typical Muslim hospitality, we are invited to join them. A continous stream of food is brought out in large bowls and trays and set down amidst the gathering where everyone dips into the food placed before them, using flat bread held in the right-hand in the absence of plates or cutlery. This is the traditional manner of eating, even today practised in many parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The left hand is considered unclean because, at least in principle, it is used for ‘personal hygiene’! Although I cannot recall the food exactly, typically a Berber wedding in a rual area might include cous-cous, roasted chicken, lamb with prunes cooked and served in a beautiful ceramic tagine. And then the ubiquitous sweet mint tea.
Tunisia has faded into conglomerate memory (HELP ELON MUSK!), except that war has broken out between Egypt and Israel and we are unsure how or whether this will impact on our plans.
Part 2, the Mashriq (Egypt and Sudan) will follow in due course and you can look forward to considerable detail regarding the Sudan, a quite extraordinary travel adventure. Thanks to Bruce’s ‘find’ I have access to extensive journal letters we wrote throughout.
PART 2: The Mashriq (Egypt & Sudan)
Compulsorily by-passing Libya, we ferry across the Mediterranean to Brindisi in Southern Italy and then to Athens during which time the 1973 Arab–Israeli War, also known as the Yom Kippur war, breaks out. We are ‘stuck’, in Athens unable to fly into Egypt. What might have been a patient wait turns out to be quite short but time enough to stock up on medical supplies, available here without prescription and to purchase a roll of foam rubber , comfort for ferry decks or sleeping outdoors, which proves to be prescient! A coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria, but also including the countries we have just travelled through, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, had unleashed a surprise attack on Israeli forces in the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula on the holiest of the Hebrew calendar and last day of Ramadan. The war commenced on October 6 and lasted just three weeks, although initially the Egyptian army thought they had won the war and were jubilant, not realizing the Israeli army was only an hour away. Estimates put the number of Israeli soldiers killed at 2,600 and 8,800 wounded, significantly larger in proportion compared with the Israeli population at the time, while Egypt was reported to have lost 7,700 men and Syria some 3,500. Horrible however one looks at it. It is this war which leads to the beginning of ‘shuttle diplomacy’ with Kissinger, under Nixon, acting as intermediary between Israel and Egypt.
None of this was predicted but with a long-standing fascination in ancient Egyptian art and culture, I am thrilled at the thought of being able to visit the extraordinary sights and the renowned Archaeological Museum in Cairo containing the world’s largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities including enormous statues, sarcophagi, boats, papyrus and coins.
The day dawns when the war is declared over and we are on the first plane out of Athens en route to Cairo, the same day Kissinger flies in to begin what emerges as seventy-four negotiations to come! Thus, begins an unforgettable chapter in our journey. We make our way to the home of Bruce’s friend Miles Cooper, First Secretary at the Australian Embassy, who has kindly invited us to stay with him. He lives in a luxurious sixteen-room apartment on the third floor of a beautiful building on the Corniche (the seafront) which is lined with colonial buildings overlooking the Nile. This draws me, now in present time, to Dr Google again and I discover what the Nile looks like from Google Earth. It is extraordinary! The tiny blue line depicting the river is all but invisible-what one sees amid a vast orange and ochre coloured desert, is a long ribbon of intense green flanking the Nile, the fertile Nile Valley within which most of the population in Egypt live. And indeed, this becomes obvious as soon as we start to move around the country.
Coming with the job, Miles has the requisite live-in man servant who always seems to be silently lurking in doorways like a spy from a Le Carre novel! It is decidedly bizarre, and we laugh about it privately but are ‘careful’ around him. From Miles’s place, we make our way to the nearby city centre where we discover that all the buildings have metre high sandbagged walls protecting them. Indeed, the war is only a moment behind us! Before leaving Australia in late 1970, I was advised to get a new passport since my previous one contained an Israeli visa from the four months I had spent living in Israel the previous year, exceptionally good advice as it transpires. There are few people other than the military out and about in this usually densely crowded city, and I am a little nervous being here. It’s psychologically tricky for me at this time, being Jewish, even though not religious, and I certainly don’t want it known. So, when we find ourselves surrounded by so many military personnel, I feel the need to get away fast and, in my haste, walk headlong into tree! But the most disappointing news is that the Archaeology Museum (and all public institutions) are closed and remain so throughout our time here. However, we are more than compensated by what remains accessible. The pyramids of Giza just 16kms from central Cairo, loom huge and magnificent beyond expectation as one approaches. And there is not a single tourist there aside from us, literally none!
The three pyramids of Giza are part of a larger complex, including a palace, temples and other features and were royal tombs built for three different pharaohs of the Old Kingdom. The Great Pyramid, the largest of them, was built over a twenty-year period concluding around 2560 BC. It stands at 146.5 metres and was the tallest man-made structure in the world for more than 3,800 years until Lincoln Cathedral was finished in 1311 AD. It consists of an estimated 2.3 million blocks which most believe to have been transported from nearby quarries. The largest granite stones in the pyramid, found in the King’s chamber, weigh twenty five-twenty eight tonnes and were transported on the Nile from more than 800 km away. Theories about its construction vary but modern discoveries suggest that it was built by at least 14,000 skilled workers rather than slave labour as the Greeks had believed, and that they were well-fed and housed in a nearby temporary village. The structure within the pyramids was something quite unfamiliar to me. Within the Great Pyramid are three main chambers, each at different levels connected by ascending and descending passages with some interconnecting vertical shafts. My memory is of walking up an enormously long narrow flight of steps, (in fact, about a metre in width and height) somewhat akin to a stationary escalator, before entering one of the chambers. The scale of it is quite overwhelming. Next day Bruce gets the opportunity to go horse-riding around the pyramids with Miles. On his return he regales me with the story that he had clung on for dear life with absolutely no control over the animal, not being a horse-rider. When Miles suggests doing it again next day, he refuses, no mate, I’m too bloody stiff , can hardly move!
We leave Miles in Cairo to travel by train to Luxor to visit the Valley of the Kings. The trainline runs due south between the Nile and the Red Sea, somewhat further east. It is crowded, people sitting not only on the seats but also on the floor as well in the luggage racks. Looking out the windows we see farms and mud houses, some whitewashed and covered with coloured paintings and flower patterns. Water buffalo wallow in the verdant grass and mud.
The Valley of the Kings
The New Kingdom pharaohs, most famously Tutankhamun, Seti I, and Ramses II, wanted to be closer to the source of their dynastic roots in the south so built their crypts in the hills of this barren tract west of Luxor some 630 kms south of Cairo. Sixty-two tombs were built from the 16th-11th century BC. and discovered before 1922 when Howard Carter found that of the Boy King, Tutankhamun. His is considered one of the least impressive of the tombs, containing only a short corridor and four simple chambers, as the young King ruled for only nine years. His premature death brought the carving and painting of his crypt to an abrupt finish. However, buried for thousands of years, it largely evaded the grave robbers that gradually cleared other tombs of their invaluable contents. When discovered by Carter, the tiny sepulchre appeared relatively untouched since antiquity, though some jewellery and other items were deemed missing. Nonetheless, it contained an immeasurable fortune of royal treasures. More than 3,000 artifacts were recovered, including one of Egypt’s most instantly recognizable images: King Tut’s golden funerary mask. All items are in the Egyptian (Archaeological) Museum. One of the most important historical discoveries of the modern and ancient worlds, it is where the 20th-century world’s interest in Egyptology was born anew. In 1939 another tomb was discovered and in 2005 one further tomb. (As I write, today in October 2020, archaeologists have just found many perfectly intact sarcophagi in Saqqara!) Fascinatingly, my paternal grandfather and grandmother, Fritz and Rosa Bombach, visited Egypt from Vienna, their home city, for the 1922 opening ceremony of Tutankhamun’s tomb where Carter was honoured! I include some original black and white photos taken by my grandfather on this occasion.
The valley sits on the west side of the Nile opposite Luxor (Thebes). When we arrive at the Valley of the Kings (which in 2019 counted five thousand visitors per day and HUGE queues), we are again the only people there, save for three local Arabs with their camels! We are guided into two tombs, one being Tutankhamun’s. Walking through dark, narrow corridors the ‘guide’ illuminates it by holding a large mirror near the entrance and reflecting the light inwards. I remember being overwhelmed at the intensity of colour and magnificence of the perfectly intact imagery covering the walls of chamber.
We cross the Nile to Luxor to visit the ancient Egyptian temple precinct of Karnak, alone again as always in this unprecedented situation. It covers more than 200 acres of which we see just a little, but that is amazing! Construction at Karnak started 4,000 years ago and continued up until the time the Romans took control of Egypt, about 2,000 years ago. Second only in size to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, the great temple at the heart of Karnak is so big that St Peter’s and Notre Dame Cathedrals would fit within its walls. My abiding memory is of the Great Hypostyle Hall, made up of 134 massive columns covered with hieroglyphs and magnificent bas relief imagery, some of them 21 metres tall, lined up in sixteen rows over an area of 5,000 square metres. The majesty of it! But to think that this was once a glory of colour. My research informs me that the sources were as follows: red from oxidized iron and red ochre; blue from copper and iron oxides with silica and calcium; yellow from ochre and oxides with arsenic added later; green from malachite, white from chalk mixed with gypsum, black from carbon and ground charcoal.
Abu Simbel and the Aswan Dam
We continue on the same trainline further south to Aswan at the northern end of the Aswan dam. The first Aswan dam, 805km south of Cairo in Nubia, was completed in 1902 and provided valuable irrigation during droughts but could not hold back the annual flood of the mighty Nile River. In the 1950s, Nasser envisioned building a new dam large enough to end flooding and bring electric power to every corner of Egypt. With Soviet loans and proceeds from the Suez Canal tolls, work began on the Aswan High Dam in 1959 and was completed in 1970, a few short years before our visit. The giant reservoir created by the dam, 483km long and 16km wide, was named Lake Nasser in his honour. The formation of Lake Nasser required the resettlement of 90,000 Egyptian peasants and Sudanese Nubian nomads (being almost on the border of Egypt and Sudan), as well as the costly relocation of the ancient Egyptian temple complex of Abu Simbel, built in the 13th century B.C. and other monuments on both sides of the border. UNESCO launched an international campaign to save the monuments of Nubia, appealing for the help of its member states. Some thirty countries formed national committees made up of researchers, archaeologists, historians, engineers, and architects, to carry out the rescue mission: to move entire sites to higher ground. It was the most complex archaeological rescue mission of all time.
We are en route by boat to see the wonders of Abu Simbel, located at its southern end on the Sudanese border at the second cataract of the Nile. We follow the entire length of the lake Nasser, now free of crocodiles which remain behind the dam wall in the Nile. The river not only has cataracts, but also little islands dotted within it some with white goats climbing the black granite rocks. Other islands are clad with flowering trees. Reeds and rushes grow on the banks, palms and mudbrick houses of the Nubian villagers on one side. Women wash clothes by the shore, children play. High sandhills rise from the banks on the other side and extend as far as the eye can see. This is archetypal desert. The two temples which comprise the site were created during the reign of Rameses 11 when Egypt asserted its power over conquered Nubian lands The Great Temple stands 30 metres high and 35 metres long with four seated colossi flanking the entrance, two to each side, depicting Ramesses II on his throne, each one 20 metres tall. It is immensely imposing. Beneath these giant figures are smaller statues (still larger than life-sized) depicting Ramesses’ conquered enemies, the Nubians, Libyans, and Hittites. Further statues represent his family members
Aswan (Egypt) to Wadi Halfa (Sudan)
There are three paddle steamers two of which are tied side by side. We have a cabin but most passengers, all locals, are on deck. This part of the trip is entirely memorable- forget the need of Elon Musk and memory enhancing technology! The passengers are all men, tall, very dark-skinned, strikingly handsome with moustaches. All wear the full white djellaba and head turban. Slung on their hips in elaborate silver scabbards are fearsome looking knives which must have been exceptionally large as I remembered them as swords, but Bruce assures me they were knives! Thus, we encounter our first Sudanese, and this sets what emerges as typical of our experience of Sudanese people. The men are camel traders who have ridden their camels to sell in Egypt and are now returning with large quantities of goods, mostly aluminium pots and pans and brightly coloured cheap plastic homewares. Huge knives aside, these warrior-looking men are peaceable, open, and friendly. They speak not a word of English but are curious about us, the only white people aboard. They are interested in Bruce’s camera and we have a delightful exchange handing it to them so that they might peer through the viewfinder. The trip takes a bit less than 24 hours, and we arrive in Wadi Halfa, in northern Sudan on the shores of what is now no longer referred to as Lake Nasser, but as Lake Nubia, one of the world’s largest manmade lakes.
A Brief History for Information Junkies
Sudan’s history goes back to the Pharaonic period, 2500–1500 BC with longstanding linguistic, cultural, religious, and economic ties, followed by mediaeval Nubian Christian kingdoms 350-1500. Arab tribes arrived from Upper Egypt and across the Red Sea during the Middle Ages and in 1820 the Egyptian army gained control of Sudan. All told, Sudan endured centuries of exploitation and slave-raiding. From 1899-1956 Sudan was an Anglo-Egyptian condominium and the 20th century saw Britain’s and Egypt’s imperialist meddling countered by the growth of Sudanese nationalism. The modern Republic of Sudan was formed in 1956 under a single administrative region as part of the British strategy in the Middle East. The South was primarily viewed as inferior because it was home to black Africans whereas the Northern Muslims and Egyptian nationalists were protected and entrusted by Britain which allowed the spread of Christianity through the Southern region of the Sudan, while maintaining Islam in the northern region. The southern region demanded representation and more regional autonomy leading to the first Sudanese Civil War, 1955-72. In1971, various guerrilla groups banded together to form the South Sudan Liberation Movement, a unified command structure to fulfill the objectives of secession and the formation of an independent state in South Sudan. The war ended just a year or so before we were travelling after 500,000 -1,000,000 people lost their lives, but tensions still existed between north and south and we did not travel into the deep south. This war was a precursor to the second Civil War of 1983-2005 and in 2011 the ultimate secession of South Sudan from Sudan took place with the death and displacement of millions.
Sudan is the largest country in Africa and the ninth largest in the world. The White Nile flows though the country which is desert in the north where most of the population is concentrated and spotted with oases. The vast high sandy plains in central Sudan are bordered on three sides by mountains and to the south are grasslands and dense forests of the tropical Nile basin, with profuse rainfall and a wet season lasting six to nine months. The capital, Khartoum, lies roughly midway between north and south (pre separation of Sudan and South Sudan) at the meeting point of the White and Blue Niles.
Ethnicity and Religion
Ethnically Arabs make up about 40% of the population, black Africans over 50%. Arabic is the official language, spoken by more than half of the population, Nubian and Beja being the other most spoken languages although there are more than one hundred indigenous languages. At the time of our travels, educated people spoke English and it was still being taught in schools. Nowadays it is being phased out as a foreign language taught in the schools, although it is still spoken by some people.
None of these facts convey the extraordinary nature of the time we spend travelling in this country. The experiences crowd in, so different and intense is it. Amongst the bits and pieces Bruce has found, are carbon copies of letters written by both of us to family and friends and it is from these that I am able to reconstruct and bring back to life much that was blurred or worse. Amongst these I find a little hand drawn map which indicates our planned route – Khartoum-Er Rahad-El Obeid from which we circle through, Dilling, Kadugli, Talodi, Kolegi and Abu Gebaha before heading further south via Kaka to Malakal (the latter two now South Sudan). Once again, Elon Musk cannot help me. Unaided I had no clear memory of individual places but striking memories of tiny mud and grass hut villages, arid landscapes, acacia thorn trees, camels, tribal dancing, handsome people with whom we were privileged to have extraordinary interactions and experience a warmth and hospitality which, to this day, remains unequalled.
My first comment is about music in Sudan, striking us immediately on a train from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum. Like most of the music we subsequently hear, it is coming from a transistor radio, but in this instance it is a homemade tape. I hear the voices of multiple girls and, unlike the typical Arabic music with which we are now familiar from travelling across the Mahgreb, this is a high pitched atonal sound experience, quite fantastic and unlike anything I have heard before, off-beat rhythms and tuneful. It is what I think of as very ‘African’ and primitive (and in northern Ethiopia we hear something similar though less primitive).
Our travels start in Khartoum where we stay with Maggie and Tim, who is involved in irrigation schemes, and their young children, friends of a close London friend. They live in a large comfortable house with covered patio and garden in a new suburb of Khartoum. Through them, we meet a young couple who teach French at the university and a German guy with his Sudanese wife. Delightful people with whom we have such a good time and all are sad to part a few weeks later when we move on to Ethiopia. Tim advises us to travel by lorry the 450kms to El Obeid in preference to train. We enjoy some particularly good meals in Khartoum where food is quite varied and tasty. Beef is plentiful and exceptional. We cut into a 5cm thick fillet of beef as if it were butter. Delicious spices are used in stews and a typical meal consists of four or five dishes. Coffee is a short black with the addition of spices including cardamon and sometimes a touch of ginger- different but exotic and excellent. Meals are so cheap- we pay about $1 per person in a good restaurant.
Maggie has dropped us at the lorry park on the outskirts of Khartoum, a dusty open square. On one side cattle, goats and sheep search vainly for bits of grass. People are milling in the hall in the square, men selling cheap plastic items and trinkets from small trays; others hunch over small charcoal burners with a few small glasses and two or three large tea or coffee pots. From these and some tiny coffee pots they sell hot beverages to the waiting crowds for two or four cents. There are a few lorries waiting. People clamber on and off them, luggage hoisted on and off while teenage boys and young men check the engines and water as sheep wander through the waiting crowd and a dozen camels stand long-lipped and patient. The men are wearing white djellabas and matching turbans, younger boys a knee length djellaba, the women a tope, 2×1 metre long fabric wrapped around their body on top of a sometimes quite short dress and several carry babies on the hip. As soon as Maggie’s car pulls up, we are surrounded by a small crowd. A man emerges asking wain? where?
There are only 13 kms of sealed road after which the desert begins. Such lorries are the main form of transport for locals and carry both goods and passengers who ride on top of the load at half-price, while we and any who can afford it pay full price to sit in the cab which we do whenever possible though on occasion Bruce has had to sit on top. It is an incredible journey. The cabs are widened to accommodate five people – driver, his assistant/mechanic and three passengers. This means that one passenger unofficially sits on the right of the driver next to the window! As there is no traffic, this doesn’t create any problems. We set off on a twenty-five-hour trip hours after the expected departure which is the norm here, and within minutes we are lurching along non-existent ‘tracks’ in dusty, largely treeless semi-desert which stretches unendingly out before us. Occasionally a thorny acacia scratches against the side of the truck and now dark sets in and we see a distant light suggesting that something is indeed out there! We pass three or four lorries travelling in the opposite direction, vast overladen ships of the night, their human cargo sitting on top of sacks of wheat and packing cases, silhouettes against the star-laden sky, women with children between their outstretched legs, babies at the breast. We notice how contented the babies are – rarely do we hear one cry.
We share the front seat with a very fat fellow who remains immobile throughout, while we shuffle and try to rearrange our bodies for a bit more comfort. After three hours we stop for tea in the middle of nowhere, one donkey and a few mud and grass huts. A few boys with lanterns call out their wares, bread, meat, tea, and we head for a ‘restaurant’, where we sit at a low table seated on a wooden frame bed strung with handmade rope. We eat stewed meat dipping into it with coarse village bread followed by the staple spicy black tea. Three hours later we stop for another break and order a Pepsi. A man appears from another truck and before we know it has paid for our drinks! This generosity and hospitality is repeated frequently throughout the ensuing travels. On occasion in a café a person from another table pays for our coffee, then leaves and often we are unaware of it until we go to pay. Likewise, we are invited into many homes. The nature of the hospitality differs from that across N. Africa which is far more insistent, where to refuse gives offence. Here all people want is the pleasure of our company for a few minutes or more and sometimes not even that. Pee breaks are something of a problem for me. I must restrict such activity to evening, to find somewhere a little distance away and simply pee standing up, my full length djellaba affording the only privacy in treeless desert! I simply never see the other women doing the same! In all the undeveloped villages and towns where mud floors are the norm, there are, of course, no such things as public toilets; men simply piss in the streets and crap on the hillsides squatting for both activities discretely covered by their djellabas. As to the women, such activity is restricted to their homes as they are not out and about in public much at all.
At 2.30 a.m. after eight hours, we come to our first major stopping point where several trucks gather, and the drivers and their assistants gather around a small charcoal burner with a large pot of tea under a crude mud and stick shelter. We and our fellow passengers from atop the load, attempt to snatch some sleep. Here we unroll our inch-thick foam rubber mat purchased in Athens. It’s worth its weight in gold as it somewhat reduces the hardness of the ground and our down sleeping bag takes the chill off the cold night air and we manage three hours sleep before being wakened. The locals have only to roll up their small blanket while we are busy rolling foam and stuffing sleeping bag into its cover, and then struggling to discern which lorry is ‘ours’, increasingly tense with one another as we are the last to board.
As we proceed slowly southward the landscape is a little greener. By 8 a.m. it is already hot and by 10 a.m. stinking hot. We pass cattle herds, long horned beasts with a Brahmin-type hump. Young children are herding sheep who graze on thorn bushes. We pass many small villages of perhaps thirty to fifty houses, sometimes these ‘villages’ only a few hundred metres apart. Our driver somehow manages to drive right into the deepest sand tracks when they could be avoided, and we are bogged in deep sand on three occasions. ‘Brains’, our nickname for his trusty assistant, jumps to help together with three teenage boys, digging sand away from the buried tyres with bare hands. On other occasions ‘Brains’ fixes a wobbly wheel, a loose windshield and other engine repairs caused by corrugated tracks.
We stop for breakfast, lunch and tea on the edge of such little settlements and have a meal of stewed meat and foul, a typical Sudanese staple made from mashed fava beans, cheap and nutritious. This cost fifty cents for two! Most basically it is served with olive oil but the addition of onion, tomato, olive oil, cumin, parsley, lemons, salt, black pepper, cayenne makes a more delicious version. Our fellow passengers introduce us to the nature of the Sudanese people- helpful, considerate, thoughtful. They show us where to wash our dusty hands, where to find a cold drink, toilet, offer directions and anticipate what we might need. These characteristics continue throughout our travels here. We pass a second night on the road grabbing six hours sleep and then surprisingly arrive in El Obeid only a couple of hours after we set off. At the end of this trip to El Obeid, a passenger from on top of then load gives a couple of pennies to a young person to guide us to the Resthouse which has a couple of rooms with multiple beds, a long veranda, fan, cold shower and a church at one end!
The only accommodation outside Khartoum or larger towns are these government Resthouses, established during the British colonial era to provide accommodation for inspection tours by civil servants. After independence, the government placed Sudanese in administrative positions and provided compensation and pensions for British officers of the Sudan Political Service who left the country. It is in such Resthouses, located on the edge of villages but sit seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that we stay as we head out into the rural areas. Varying in what is on offer, some provide nothing more than a bed without linen for about twenty cents, while elsewhere we have linen, a fan and food for seventy-five cents. The Resthouses are basic concrete block buildings with concrete floors, a room with simple bed(s), no extra furniture and ‘cold’ shower. A caretaker is sometimes assigned and often doubles as a cook. Poverty dictates against the Western notion of cleanliness and decoration. By way of architectural contrast, village houses are small round mudbrick dwellings with conical stick and grass roofs. A goat hangs about and wants to eat the paper Bruce is writing on. After a shower we set out to explore and find that recycling is the most striking thing- at the market we see pots, pans, ladles, spoons, coffee pots and cups all fashioned from recycled tins. We encounter an Australian engineer and a young couple of volunteer teachers, the only other whities in town. Much to our delight, we find a café serving delicious fresh fruit drinks, guava, watermelon etc and subsequently find quite a few like this.
El Obeid -Dilling
Next day we arrive at the ‘bus station’ at 7.30 a.m. for the eight-hour trip south to Dilling. We finally get going at 11.30 as they must wait until the ‘bus’ is full i.e., packed like sardines. While waiting, we meet Mohammed, a lovely man who speaks excellent English and has a poetic sensibility and teaches in the girl’s secondary school in Dilling. Our conversation on this chilly early December morning reveals that he is thirty-one, has four children aged one to eleven having had an arranged marriage at eighteen to a thirteen-year-old girl. Warmth and hospitality are already becoming obvious with all we meet and is summed up in our conversation with Mohammed. He tells us that the important considerations of his parents for his future wife were her looks, family wealth, their generosity and tradition of hospitality in the house. This would determine how she would welcome her husband’s friends and whether she would take in his elderly parents when the time came. As our connection is so enjoyable, he invites us to contact him in Dilling. Our ‘bus’ is a lorry converted to a bus by placing seats in the covered back. We buy seats in the cab up front accompanied by a young woman with a four-week-old, perfectly content baby, a great thrill for me and we learn that babies here are breast fed on demand for two to three years (and that ten children per family is common.)
The sandy soil of semi desert has been replaced by a clay-ish soil and African scrub, grazing camels, kites and vultures and bright coloured birds. There is a road under construction soon to be finished. We have a lunch break enjoying a meal of ‘meatballs’ made of fava beans accompanied by hard-boiled eggs. When we arrive in Dilling, we are accompanied via the police station to the Resthouse where the only other guest is a Sudanese engineer who refers to us, somewhat condescendingly, as ‘My Dears’, driving Bruce a bit bonkers. We take a stroll in the evening, and meet a young fellow, Aziz, rather serious and not too exciting but clearly from a more prosperous family. I am footsore from a persistent thorn in my foot which we haven’t been able to dislodge, however, on our way back to the Resthouse we hear a distant drumming. Despite my sore foot, I am persuaded to follow the sound past mud and stick houses with their typical conical roofs. In the moonlight we come upon an incredible scene. Forming a rough circle of people, the insistent beat of a wood and skin drum and another frenzied beating of sticks on a four-gallon drum, twelve older women are crooning and chanting while teenage and young women hop into the circle on one foot, then, on the offbeat, stomp heavily on the ground with the other. Older women join in, one or two at a time for ten to thirty seconds, then drop out again all with a heightened sense of rhythm and energy. Men jump in with the same jumping movements, then quickly disengage. A drunk man seems to be ‘in charge’ of the event, beating a stick on the ground in front of but extremely close to people to ‘contain’ the circle. They retreat a little before once again advancing. Interestingly, though the dance itself is tribal in nature, the men wear trousers and shirts and the woman ‘missionary-style- loose dresses. Our presence is noted quickly, and two plastic chairs materialize and are placed opposite the drummers for us. We are seated like King and Queen and this feeling of being treated like royalty plays out throughout our time in Sudan.
The Sudanese are a handsome people comprised of around six-hundred tribes speaking about four-hundred languages/dialects, many tribes with their own distinct facial features. Strikingly high cheek bones, strong jaw lines and almond shaped eyes are amongst the most beautiful features. Skin colour, hair type, body decoration and hairstyles vary a great deal also. Hairstyles amongst many tribes involve elaborate braiding, in the case of the Nubians, often into match-stick thin braids starting from the crown of the head and dropping to neck length, some shoulder length or greater, in which case a thick braid often hangs down to either side or is looped up round the ears. In some tribes women sport a large, single gold ring through one nostril while twelve small gold rings decorate the outer rim of the ears of many men. Scarification, a common form of body decoration is widely used by many tribes to mark milestones in both men and women’s lives, such as puberty and marriage. We see many with diagonal scarification across the cheeks, the cut often quite deep and the scar thus raised quite high. This raised effect is created by rubbing ash into the freshly cut wound over which new skin then grows. In other cases, finer scar lines cross the forehead horizontally or, in the case of the Dinka tribe, an extremely tall and very dark-skinned people, now South Sudanese, a single bobbly line across the forehead. Arms, chest, thighs and abdomen bearing differing scarification designs are common also. Male and various forms of female circumcision is still prevalent in both Muslim and southern pagan Sudan at the time of our travelling, considered an initiation right into manhood and womanhood.
Aziz comes to find us the following morning and takes us to his home for breakfast. His family are more educated and clearly middle-class by local standards though the house remains sparse. His very overweight mother, with deep tribal scarification, prepares the meal in her cooking pots over an open burner. Like all women in this society, regardless of ‘class’, she is confined to home and domestic duties even though she has three live-in ‘assistants’, young Nubian boys dressed in filthy rags with dried snot on their faces. Some are homeless street kids; others come from far away villages and are employed as houseboys at an extremely low rate and given board and lodging. It is the prerogative of men only to lead a social life, gather with their friends and go about.
After an elaborate ‘breakfast’ of several dishes, chicken, stewed meat, beans, egg etc eaten seated on the floor using bread to dip as per usual, Aziz takes us on a ‘tour’ of Dilling. We visit many of his relatives in six different houses, where he can ‘show off’ his status-enhancing ‘English’ friends. His family appear to be quite a force in the town and are quite wealthy. His older brothers are teachers and university students. We are followed by thirty to forty little kids all of whom feel free to follow us into the gardens and homes we visit. After this, we are taken by the men to the market to meet the merchants during which time we are constantly stopped and offered drinks of lemon juice, tea and coffee and after seven such drinks find we must refuse! We are next taken to meet ‘a good, religious man’ who lives on the poorer outskirts of the town and is a delight. He lives with his beautiful wife and daughters in a compound of two quite simple mud and stick huts connected by a covered roof. The little huts are completely devoid of anything but two decorative items on one wall. When we comment on one of the items, the man immediately takes both off the wall and insists that we have them. One is a cheap plastic item, the other a beautiful traditional fine leather pouch used to hold women’s jewellery. It is impossible to refuse but we now learn not to make such compliments. We return to his home for another five-dish meal.
Dilling has a population of about 10,000 but this consists largely of a series of small close-by villages. One cannot be but struck by both the poverty and the exceptional warmth and generosity of the people. Additionally, unspoiled by tourism, people are entirely honest and there is little bargaining at the markets, unlike other Muslim countries we have travelled in. A friend from Khartoum tells a story when travelling to El Obeid three weeks earlier. He had left his wallet under his pillow with seven pounds in it and asked us if we could see if we might recover it, even without the money, when travelling through. Sure enough, it had been found and put aside, money intact! Our feeling here is that we could safely leave our backpacks anywhere and be confidant that they would be completely safe.
We return to Aziz’s family home for lunch to find his mother hunched over the cooking pots once again. Like most, the house feels grimy and untidy by our standards and the toilet, a concrete platform with a hole in it, dirty and stinky. Then back to the Resthouse, pheww! The cold-water showers in the Resthouses are never cold, ranging from warm to hot due to the temperatures here and the beds at night sometimes feel like heat-traps, the rooms like ovens. But I enjoy these Resthouses where we are usually the only people and often the caretaker pops in twice a day for a few minutes only and so we have the place to ourselves in a quiet rural context, my cup of tea! In the afternoon we look up Mohammed, asking around with our minimal description and, even though he has only been in Dilling for eighteen months, this barest information quickly leads us to him. Apparently, he has already sought us in the Resthouse but found us asleep.
Next day by arrangement we make our way to Aziz’s uncle’s who has invited us to join him in a convoy of agriculture experts, agricultural bank people and government representatives working on a major wheat program financed by the World bank. It is the job of this group to assess future yields which will require a 10% tax. Word is that by estimating beforehand rather than waiting to see the crop, some will be skimmed off and the farmers will thereby pay less tax! We have breakfast sitting on rush mats under a thatched hut with much food on offer and everyone digging in with their bread and hands wrist deep although very thorough handwashing preceded this. When the various bowls are almost empty, someone scrapes all the leftovers into one bowl, and they are at it again until not a scrap is left but mats and hands are smeared with food. More hand washing. By now it is extremely hot indeed, reaching about forty-two degrees and our salt tablets are much needed and further on we stop at another farm to drink water that is distinctly brownish. By 2 pm we return to Dilling, this time being offered front seats in the Landrover with the wealthy merchants taking the back seats. After a rest we stroll through the market where many people who we barely recognize greet us by name!
Next day we join Mohammed by arrangement for breakfast with the staff at his school, a six- dish, five finger affair again and then are incredibly impressed with the level of English his students have attained after only three years. Their knowledge of grammar surpasses ours though they are very shy to speak. An interesting little contretemps unfolds before our eyes as a group of three girls confronts Mohammed quite strongly about the fact that he dropped their class after a short time in favour of a different one. Nothing shy or deferential about these young Muslim girls who were sad and angry and wanted to know why he had dropped their class as they wanted him as their teacher. As it transpired, it was a complicated affair where second level high schools had been closed because the students went on strike in sympathy with Khartoum university students who were protesting government interference with university autonomy and universities closed and some seventy lawyers who had joined them were jailed.
We arrive at the bus and lorry station and at 9.30 a.m. An incredibly overloaded lorry arrives. People spill out from everywhere. I immediately give up, never believing we will be accommodated after being met with many firm refusals. However, and after a ten-hour wait, we finally leave at 11 pm, a fellow would-be traveller, intervenes on our behalf explaining that the Resthouse is now closed and we have nowhere to go. The driver relents and we, together with three others, walk to the edge of town where the driver collects us, thus avoiding being picked up by the town police for carrying too many passengers. It is now 11 pm. I am graciously given a seat in the front again but squashed uncomfortably to the right of the driver. Bruce is on top of the load, jammed tight in a miniscule space, a painful journey with his bum and spine bouncing on a metal bar for hours, bumping through the Nubian hills, crossed legs squeezed between two fellow passengers with little room to move. Additionally, his backpack somehow becomes dislodged and the driver’s assistant is responsible for luggage and thus leans across Bruce for an hour, hanging on to the backpack, like a human seatbelt!
We arrive exhausted at 3a.m. and stumble through the dark deserted town to the Police Station, waking three policemen one of whom escorts us to the Resthouse. When we awaken after a long sleep, we find we are the only people staying here in this two-room brick building with corrugated roof on the fringe of the town, with a screened veranda set in a very Australian-looking landscape of yellow-brown sundried grass, hard dusty soil and stunted trees. At one end of the veranda is a large unglazed ceramic pot dripping constantly into a bucket providing constantly cool water. We see similar pots lining the dusty streets of Sudanese towns serving as drinking fountains. By day, Nubians walk past in the middle-distance carrying sticks and cut grass on their heads. Most of the smaller towns and all the villages are without electricity and rely on generators. Camels and donkeys are tethered to poles in the dusty, sometimes tree-lined streets along which large ceramic containers of cool drinking water are lined up. The small shops are single brick constructions with corrugated iron roofs, iron doors and shaded verandas piled with goods. Local men sit in the shade of trees or in cafes drinking tea or black coffee. Women are rarely seen. Dogs, goats, sheep, and the occasional cat wander the streets.
The role of the police here is interesting. Ushered into the office of the Police Chief Abdul Gofar, who speaks excellent English and had recently returned from three years in Germany studying murder investigation, we learn that his role is varied. It includes mediating conflict between nomadic tribes which could result in killings or tribal warfare, or assisting with division of land between tribes, where the show of agreement is to swear upon their spears. His reports include local economy, cotton etc, since the state of the economy is linked to the crime rate. He also reports on political activities of those who want to undermine the 1969 revolution returning to party rule as opposed to the current army-supported socialist government. It is also apparent that our moves are noticed. Apparently, it was reported when Bruce photographed a naked sleeping tribal child! They are afraid of bad publicity and that the Islamic government is not being active enough with the Pagan-Christian south and their ‘primitive’ tribal ways. Abdul, who we see a few times, is helpful to us offerring information of the state of the roads and buses and sends a policeman to negotiate with the bus driver on our behalf. We undertake one side trip to market day in Damik, a nearby small village a little north of Kadulgli. Abdul Gofar advises us that the bus will leave at 7 a.m. but then finds it won’ be until 10 a.m. Having bought tickets, we wander around, but there is some confusion because four tickets have been sold for the three available front seats. We finally depart at 11.30 a.m. but Bruce must walk to edge of town again to be collected and placed illegally in the seat to the right side of the driver next to the window. The adventure continues as we drive 1.5 hours through semi-cultivated land. On arrival we dismount and are immediately surrounded by an incredulous crowd of smiling, curious people all wanting to be photographed. We find this to be a tiny village of some three-hundred people, and at the market, located on a dusty open square fringed with grass huts, there are only twenty vendors each selling the smallest quantities of produce in one-piastre (2 cents) lots – tiny tomatoes in handful size piles, another little pile with onions, lemons piled in groups of four and so on. Such impoverishment.
We’d have been bored after fifteen minutes but for meeting a young Sudanese teacher who takes it upon himself to act as our host, inviting us to his primary school where we have drinks with the headmaster. Most of the students are boarders, sleeping in tightly packed wood frame rope beds within small mud and thatch huts. The boys have no possessions and probably only one set of clothes, the poverty of the village and the children so evident-ragged clothes, swollen stomachs and such an impoverished offering of supplies at the market. However, we have spotted on item we are keen to buy-smooth, honey-coloured dry gourds enclosed in leather thonging, beautiful objects we have seen elsewhere. They function as milk and water containers. When the milk has been sold, with the help of the English-speaking teacher, he asks how much? The women looked astonished that anyone would want to buy such a trifling item, (the equivalent would be someone wanting to buy an empty milk bottle in Australia). The woman wants sixty piastre ($1.20) for the two. Our schoolteacher says this is far too much, but we insist this is OK whereupon the woman immediately ups the price to sixty-five piastre which we happily pay. On the bus back, seeing our gourds, other women offer to sell the same items to us, but Bruce spots a handsome leather thonged dagger and scabbard and again asks how much? Once again, the crowd struggles to understand our interest in their old items, but the man asks $2 for it and everyone is happy.
We breakfast on our last morning with Abdul’s brother, despite somewhat touchy stomachs and me not feeling too well. He is Chief Engineer at the Ministry of Works, a sophisticated, educated man who has two wives, one Egyptian, the other Ugandan who provide us with a delicious drink, gamadeen, made from dried apricots, Egyptian honey and eggs. This is a bit of a break because I find the inescapable filth of homes, shops and cafes is starting to get to me. But this house stands out as somehow different- a concrete building where some effort (and money) has gone into a bit of ‘decorating’ and the place is impeccably clean. There is a concrete platform outside the house covered with hessian cloth which also drops down the sides for a meter thus providing a shady outside area. It is surrounded by a delightful little garden of dark pink bougainvillea and a creeper with bright yellow flowers, an exotic fruit tree and another large tree with glorious orange trumpet-shaped blooms which we have seen quite often. The flora, where it exists, is beautiful as is the birdlife, the only wildlife we have seen thus far- a pea green parrot-like bird and another with dark turquoise wings and still others with a ‘cone’ crowning their head. We are told that gazelle is common in this area also and some monkeys though we have seen neither. Adding to the long list of services provided, Abdul Gofar has us driven to the bus station, continuing the Sudanese experience of being treated as honoured guests. In part we attribute this to our rarity value, to the amazing tradition of hospitality in their culture and to the fact that time is freely given, not yet being equated with monetary value. We now set out on a four-hour ride to Talodi.
The landscape has altered. The grasses are high from the last rains though are now bleached from the hot sun, the earth no longer dark brown but ferrous red. We are surrounded by hills and mountains with large rocks and huge boulders at the base of the slopes. Villages cluster on the lower slopes, now stone and clay walls replace the mud walls of earlier, still with the thatched roofs. As we pass through, a herd of goats scatter and boys tend long-horned cattle, one boy riding on the back of one beast. At each village, men cluster in groups on the ground beneath shady trees, some being village meetings, and men we pass carry long iron-tipped spears but somehow, incongruously wear government issued khaki shorts. We constantly cross dry riverbeds which rage in the wet season and as there are no roads or bridges, both Kadugli and Talodi are completely cut off for four to five months during the wet. Brightly coloured birds swoop in front of our truck and a troop of monkeys disappear into the trees. As we approach Talodi, women strut past us bearing enormous baskets or water containers perched on their heads and children scatter, afraid of our camera. Round bellied pregnant women are wearing brightly coloured government issue shorts but one, as if in defiance of the ‘civilizing efforts’ wears a grass lap-lap and G-string. All the mean wear knives strapped to their upper arms or carry spears. They have never or rarely encountered white people here.
Before leaving Kadugli, Abu Gofar had advised us to avoid then police in Talodi as it wasn’t itemized on our travel permit, so we are somewhat taken aback when the truck drops us off at the Resthouse and we find it is swarming with policemen on their biennial tour of inspection! I am a little anxious, but Bruce thinks we are safer than in their midst and is proven correct. The two-room Resthouse is full and beds are even spread around the outside. One of the two rooms is occupied by a quietly spoken Inspector of English who immediately, deaf to our protests, gives up his room for us and no one asks to see our permit. In the evening, the Area Chief does ask if we have one to which Bruce unhesitatingly replies, of course, would you like to see it? That won’t be necessary, comes the reply! The chutzpah of the man!
The inspector of English, Kamal, asks his driver to make lunch for us and then invites us to talk about Australia and our travels at an evening session of supervised homework at the school. His driver delivers us in an old beaten van. The school is simple, lit with lamps rather than electricity. We are introduced to the English teacher Mohammed (yet another one), and his class of forty boys. I leave the two-hour talk to Bruce, not being comfortable with public speaking (at this time in my life) and though the boys are shy and thus reluctant to ask questions, the first goes so well that the rest of the boys want to join in so a second two- hour session is added to the ‘agenda’ which takes place outside. This proves amazing- a rostrum with two stands, bright lamps and two chairs is set up on the edge of the school veranda. One step below, on ground level, 120 chairs are arranged and boys from three levels of English fill them. This time we both speak, and we answer their now forthcoming questions. Again, we are treated like special guests, so typical of our entire experience in this country where bus drivers often deliver us right at our Resthouse after dropping the locals off at the souk and likewise frequently collect us from there when we are to depart. Or the many occasions when our newly found ‘host’ takes us to the bus station, often quite out of his way. It is so touching.
A word about language. Once we leave Khartoum, we find for the first time, except for educated people who speak English, that we rely on attempting Arabic. And here we rely on our small vocabulary regarding time, transport, distance, food etc provided by our friends in Khartoum. This differs from Egypt where English was widespread or the Mahgreb where French was still a workable means of communication. The Sudanese are expressive in their facial expressions and gestures and so, even in the complete absence of shared language, we manage. At the same time, we are constantly amazed at just how well those who do speak English (merchants, bus owners, shop assistants), express themselves, often with only a few years of schooling and little opportunity to practise.
We are invited to a party in Talodi given by the town for the Police Commander; many Salaam Alaikum’s in the protracted back and forth of this exchange which can continue for a minute or more. The party is a funny affair of men only, lined up on chairs formally placed along walls, much serious conversation after which the real party starts with Whiskey at $8 a bottle, hugely expensive and rare as hens’ teeth. We have been invited to join the Commander’s circle! Bruce is a little worried that they are trying to get us drunk and surreptitiously pours half his whiskey out. Not being a spirit drinker, I get away with not drinking it at all. However, it is an extraordinary scene, everyone a bit drunk and dancing, men with men. But the Commander tries to monopolise me. However, being a Muslim society, it is appropriately distanced dancing and all this in the presence of high-ranking police officials in a province for which we have no permit! Some appetisers are served but the meal is offered at 1 a.m. by which time we are exhausted and well past it.
Next day another invitation to breakfast with Mohammed and other teachers as a welcome to Kamal, this time an eight-dish affair. We get word that the Public Health Inspector wants to meet with us. Why? To warn us about malaria or bilharzia or to check our health cards? But no, he wants to discuss public health in Australia and the UK. Bruce takes over. But really, in the end, it becomes apparent that he just wants to talk with us. He tells us that over 90% of children in a village just outside of Talodi suffer from bilharzia, a parasitic worm spread through contaminated food or water though non-fatal. He tells us that the dirt we see everywhere is due to lack of basic public health measures and education. And on a lighter touch informs us that the previous night he saw a bunch of squabbling baboons who had come down from the nearby hills where they live in rock caves.
Since leaving Dilling I am only about 80% well and am quite ready to return to Khartoum. This is still a little time off. Our next bus journey is north-east of Talodi, still within the region of the Nubian hills. Here we encounter and even more amazing example of generosity and hospitality. An extremely cultured young man sits on the front seat next to us, so we assume he is the driver’s assistant. He shares guavas and mangoes with us on the three-hour journey as we communicate in broken Arabic and plenty of sign language. On arrival in Kologi we are dropped off again right at the Resthouse where he thrusts six more mangoes into our hands. We shower and wash our dusty clothes as per usual and see them dry within minutes. It is mid December and the anniversary of our fourth month of travel, so we drink tea to mark the occasion! Fifteen minutes later the young man returns on foot with a torch that we had asked him to buy for us and we have all the trouble in the world getting him to accept payment for it. He has noticed that we had purchased the beautiful gourd and wants to buy us another one, but we indicate that this is not necessary. But the following morning he reappears with a magnificent ostrich egg sucked dry of its contents, rare and prized in this area. We are so moved by this and of course take photos which please him greatly, promising to send them to him. We return to the souk with him and there, through an elderly assistant in his uncle’s shop, learn that the young man is the owner of the bus! Again, we are taken to meet his family who live in a one-room brick and thatch hut where we meet various family members, neighbours, and the usual tribe of kids but only the elderly assistant spoke English. As we are returning to the Resthouse, our friend gives us a small cheetah skin which he has just purchased in the souk. Unbelievable. We promise to send him a toy koala once we are home.
In the evenings we often sit outside for a bit on the Resthouse veranda with our kerosine lamp or in the courtyard and then confront a vast array of insects-grass hoppers, wasps, praying mantis, ants and now a large tarantula which creeps Bruce out. He rushes to pursue the poor creature and deals a crushing blow to a couple of busy wasps who keep bouncing off the wall uncomfortably close to our heads! More importantly, we continue to be confronted by the poverty which surrounds us and have many discussions about limited government budgets, priorities and end up with a headache or a feeling of despair. I think about a story Maggie told us in Khartoum about the old mother of her male house-help who took ill with dysentery and the son was unable to afford medicine, so Maggie took care of it. After a week of no improvement, Maggie, an ex-nurse, attempted to get the old lady into hospital but despite promises, she was not admitted. Whilst there, Maggie witnessed desperate scenes – babies dying in the waiting room, people left waiting bleeding on the filthy floor and so on. Thus, prioritizing preventive medicine probably rates higher than treatment.
The following morning, water is delivered to the Resthouse. What an amazing scene. It is carried in four-gallon tins suspended on ropes attached to either end of a metre-long pole. The bearers are seventeen- to twenty-four-year-old Dinka boys with their famously dyed red hair which is ‘burned’ straight and stands on end like flame. They all bear the parallel scarification lines on their forehead’s and have the twelve little gold rings around the rim of their ears, silver bracelets on their wrists and elaborate earrings in their earlobes. In this largely Arab village, the Dinka form an underclass performing menial tasks such as harvesting at the appropriate time, and now other manual labour tasks like this back-breaking drawing and distributing of loads up to 80 lb per load. It is in the Resthouse that we encounter a World Health team who have been injecting against tuberculosis and smallpox. In a three-day period, they had injected five-thousand children and arrived here dirty and exhausted. One of the doctors had spend thirteen years in Europe and America specializing in tropical medicine. The team were suffering; one man had dysentery, another was in hospital with malaria which is generally treated as not much more than a common cold. Even cerebral malaria had people hospitalized for only a few days.
Most of our journeys have taken four to six hours but despite modest distances, take up a whole day as there is only one bus /lorry each day. This trip is no different. We have an introduction here to the only doctor in the little hospital serving 100,00 people., thus ‘specializing’ in everything and hoping to go to the UK for real specialization training. The health system is incredibly well organized given limited resources, with a hierarchy of trained personnel and decentralization, e.g., one doctor is assisted by fifteen medical assistants who are nurses of seven years experience and three years medical training; and then by nurses with four years training. After a tour of the hospital, we are taken to lunch again in one person’s home and this after a feast the previous night at anther home.
It had been our plan to go from here to Kaka to catch a steamer up the Nile and then on to Khartoum, a pleasant two-day journey. So, we set off through tough country to Kaka, an overgrown track and after the first village, can’t even get tea or any food and don’t trust the water. The last two hours are in darkness and Bruce must try to avoid branches at the open window but nonetheless has his eye scraped. It is an alarming bright red and quite sore for a couple of days hence. This is just the beginning of our luck running out. We arrive at what we expect to be a thriving Nile-side, market town, the centre of a rich agricultural area where ferries call four times per week. Instead, it we find a nothing place where we are greeted by a drunken policeman and no Resthouse. We are escorted by torchlight to a dark house, the occupant woken, two beds moved into a room and then we are given dinner clearly prepared for himself! Oh dear! In the morning we have a chance to talk to our host, a Christian (the first we have met) who had been a refugee in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia for some years and a guerrilla fighter in the recent civil war. Angry, unmarried, the war has left him directionless, shipwrecked and embittered though he has a position as assistant administrative officer of the rural council. In our tour of Kaka, we subsequently meet some twenty ex-guerrillas employed by the government, two of whom share the house with him, the others employed in Games and Fisheries. We meet a group of men repairing fishing nets and it becomes obvious that these ex-guerrillas have not taken to civilian life, still live in the bush as if in army camps and need the camaraderie of their fellows. We have our first sense now of being in the real south where people are either pagan or Christian and distrust ‘the Arabs.’ They express feelings that the agreement to end the war is not working as it should be and feel the war will start again. As history has proved, they were correct. Nonetheless they were kind and hospitable, even slaughtering a sheep for our evening meal and preparing food for us ‘for the road’. And here is the crux- contrary to information we had received, it transpires that there is no steamer for five days. An option of taking a motorboat to a nearby up-river town from which we could get a lorry to Khartoum a day and a half trip, is not possible because there is thought to be insufficient fuel. Then, having decided to use the fuel for us, the motor won’t start. We are stuck! Thus, we must retrace our steps to Abu Gebeiha. Luckily, the bus is still here.
Abu Gebeiha (again!)
On arrival, again someone escorts us to the Resthouse, en route showing us a restaurant to eat at. As it transpires, the Resthouse is full and our new friend immediately offers to put us up even tough we tell him we know people here and could probably stay with them. However, he makes us so welcome that we accept the very generous, offer! He gives us rice pudding for dinner, shows us to the shower and after brief conversation, we are given two comfortable beds to sleep deep and long but not before ascertaining that we prefer tea in the morning. Next morning, on hearing us wake, he brings us tea, introduces us to his wife, escorts us to purchase tickets for the lorry and then, as we have plenty of time up our proverbial sleeve, invites us to visit his ‘garden’ on the outskirts of the village. This is an unforgettable experience for me, as we enter the ‘garden’ through a heavy door opening directly from the earthen track. It is like entering a tropical paradise, twenty acres of mango, guava, banana, pawpaw and lemon trees, fragrant, noticeably cooler, lush and beautiful. He picks a large quantity of fruit for us before taking us to a nearby village where we visit the local primary school and are taken into several classes where we say a few words, then translated into Arabic. The little children clap, we clap as is the custom. It is utterly charming. One class of eight-year old’s, sing a modern Arabic poem for us, again we applaud. It emerges that the poem is about a young female Palestinian guerrilla and we are told the boys dream of going to Tel Aviv. It seems propaganda and military splendour, not peace, is the message being conveyed to these young children, a little les charming. The school buildings are again mud walled with earth floor and thatch roofs and are paid for by money raised from the community according to each family’s ability to contribute. Three children share a two-person desk, and some classes have no desks. Again, we are given breakfast at the school with the staff. The same community is raising funds for an all-weather road between two towns, half of which will be matched by the government. School children contribute twenty-five piastre while a lorry owner contributes one British pound each time they travel between the two towns. The headmaster drives us back to town and, despite our insistence, remains with us for an hour and a half until our lorry departs!
Abu Gebeiha-Er Rahad-Khartoum
A five-hour trip north-west to Er Rahad, a little south of El Obeid, once again being looked after by a solicitous driver who brings us tea at every stop and arranges our ongoing trip to Khartoum. We are already dreaming of the food and beautiful fruit drinks available to us in Khartoum and spend some of this journey fantasizing of Italian, Chinese and other wonderous cuisines we have been so long deprived of, felt most acutely in places where we couldn’t even obtain a cup of tea! We enjoy a delicious drink of banana, guava and orange while waiting for the lorry back to Khartoum. Two more six-hour sleeps by the side of the road on our foam ‘mattress’, a comfortable ride with no other front seat passengers and a fast driver who is like a king of the road, heading across the desert, making instant decisions even in the dark of night, as to which of several tracks he will follow, as if it were a signed freeway. He insists on paying for everything. These people are amazing. But Bruce poignantly notes that whilst king of the road ‘out there’, on arrival back in Khartoum he is suddenly diminished by the city, just another driver trapped in the traffic. It is seventeen days since we left Khartoum and when we arrive at 7.30 in the morning, still very cold so we huddle against the wind under our down sleeping bags before returning to Maggie and family, kids, dogs all excited. Thus ends this amazing adventure in Sudan with us wondering how long it will be before an influx of travellers, tourists, developed roads and so on, change this unique experience into something quite different.
That we were able to travel at this time, in retrospect, was a blessing. As a more than seasoned traveller, Sudan stands out as an utterly unique experience. It is difficult and heartbreaking to comprehend the discrepancy between the extraordinary warmth, openness and generosity we experienced and the horror that has unfolded since. These intervening years have brought great tragedy – Eritrea split from Sudan in 1993; the tensions that existed between the Arab north and Christian/pagan south at the time we were travelling escalated and after many years of civil war, South Sudan gained autonomy from Sudan in 2011. However, inter-tribal conflicts within South Sudan between the Dinka and Nuer tribal factions have resulted in ongoing problems; in 2003 a genocidal conflict arose in Darfur, Western Sudan, again similar Arab vs Christian/pagan factions, but a peace treaty has finally been signed; as I write, yet another tragedy unfolds in neighbouring Ethiopia with over 50,000 refugees from Tigray fleeing across the border into Sudan which struggles to cope.
PART 3: ETHIOPIA
Addis Ababa, the capital city, is in the centre of country of which the Ethiopian Plateau covers much. The mountains form the largest continuous area of its elevation in Africa, with little of its surface falling below 1,500 metres, much being inaccessible. Just to exemplify this: the distance as the crow flies between Addis Ababa and Asmara is 700 km but the driving distance is 1700km! Altitude ranges from this to 125 meters below sea-level in the Danakil desert, located in the north-east, which represents one of the lowest points on the planet. It is also one of the driest (100-200 mm rainfall p.a) and hottest. Due to extremes in altitude, the temperature varies throughout the country but despite a rainy season from June to August, the land is vulnerable to drought during other times of the year, mostly in pastoral regions. This problem first began in 1972 and has persisted on a seasonal basis, resulting in devastating famines in recent history – 1929 and 1958 in Tigray claiming 100,000 lives, 1966 and 1978 in Amhara; between 1983-85 over a million people died.
Population and Ethnicity
At the time of our travels, the population was about 30 million and amazingly now stands at 96 million, of whom 34.4% are ethnic Oromo and 27% Amhara. At least three-quarters of the people were, and still are, poor farmers who live from harvest to harvest, and the median age is only seventeen. It is, however, comprised of eighty-six ethnic groups, making it the most culturally and linguistically diverse nation of Eastern Africa, with the Oromo, Amhara and Tigrayan making up more than 75% of the population, while some of the smallest tribes have less than 10,000 members.
There are some eighty-six languages in Ethiopia which fall into four major language groups, Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic, and Nilo-Saharan. Amharic, though spoken by only about 29% of the population is the official language and is one of the Semitic languages, coming behind Arabic as the most spoken Semitic language. Tigrigna and Amharic are modern languages using the script of the ancient Ge’ez language. I can’t resist showing you a bit of this Ge’ez script, it’s so beautiful የኢትዮጵያ ኦርቶዶክስ ተዋሕዶ ቤተክርስትያን Oromo is spoken by about 34% speak.
Ethiopia was one of the first Christian countries in the world, having officially adopted Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century. It is the only region of Africa where Christianity survived the expansion of Islam. Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is unique. It developed largely in isolation from Rome and Constantinople and claims not only to possess the Ark of the Covenant, but that its kings descended directly from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. And when it comes to churches, practitioners never saw a need for high-vaulted cathedrals or dizzying bell towers. Instead, the greatest Ethiopian Orthodox churches were carved out of the living rock of the nation itself (nowhere better illustrates this than Lalibela).
The Church in Ethiopia owns one third of the land, large private land holders another third, peasants the remaining third. However, the only new buildings we see outside larger towns are the ugly and clearly vastly expensive cathedrals. 43% of the people follow the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (which uses the Ge’ez script), another 20% comprised of other Christian religions, about 33% are Muslim, the remainder a mix. This remainder includes Ethiopian Jews, The Beta Israel or Falasha although it is mostly composed of Falasha Mura, Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity in the past, and as such, have not been recognized as Jews by the State of Israel, but have returned to Judaism.
Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa. With most of its political history being monarchical, it has existed for over 2,000 years, dating back to the first century B.C. There have been a series of power shifts representing modern Italian colonial ambitions throughout much of the 19th century, including the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1887–1889, in which Italy occupied the Ethiopian territory in present-day Eritrea. Emperor Menelik II took control and led the country through an 1895 Italian invasion. The Ethiopian army defeated the Italians, allowing the country to be recognized as an independent state in 1896. By 1930, leader Ras Tafari Makonnen, soon named Emperor Haile Selassie I, came to power. By 1935 during World War II, however, the Italians attempted a second invasion and succeeded in capturing Addis Ababa in 1936, dethroning Selassie in the process. Soon after, Italian East Africa was formed, combining three separate nations – Ethiopia, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. The Ethiopian Resistance, greatly assisted by the British army, defeated the Italian rule, which restored Selassie to power by 1941. Selassie continued to rule the country until 1974, when he was overthrown during a military coup and overtaken by General Terefi Benti. (Amazingly, a university friend of mine, while travelling though this part of the world shorty before us, had an audience with Haile Selassie! We always laughed about it, because, although Anglo-Saxon, Chris actually looked quite Ethiopian.)
Eritrea was of strategic importance, due to its Red Sea coastline and mineral resources, and was annexed as Ethiopia’s 14th province in 1952. In1959 an edict established the compulsory teaching of Amharic, the main language of Ethiopia, in all Eritrean schools. The lack of regard for the Eritrean population led to the formation of an independence movement in 1961, which erupted into a thirty-year war against successive Ethiopian governments that ended in 1991 after Mengistu was ousted by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Eritrea established formal independence from Ethiopia in 1993. By 1998, however, tensions erupted along the border and turned into a war by 1999. By 2000, both countries signed a peace agreement, but tensions have continued ever since.
And now to my recollections. The precise order of our itinerary eludes me, so please excuse any geographic oddities in my sequencing! Clear as daylight is the memory of arriving at the Ethiopian border in the middle of nowhere. A small, primitive eating place, a stick and earth affair, serves much needed food. In a huge cauldron someone stirs delicious-looking Bolognese sauce, not as unexpected as it might sound given Ethiopia’s relationship with Italy- it was subjugated to Italian rule in 1936 under Mussolini (after also suffering an invasion in the late 19th century) but remained one of only two countries in Africa to never have been colonize
We are brought a plate containing a large pancake (ingera) accompanied by a bowl full of the delicious red sauce (wat). Hungrily we tear off a piece of ingera and,using the left hand, scoop up some wat. Ah, food at last …but… the ingera is a large, grey rubber-textured spongy pancake, sour of flavour, not at all pleasant to our taste. But worse is to come. With the wat secured on the ingera, into the mouth it goes and immediately my whole mouth is on fire! Not Bolognese sauce at all but pure chilli sauce, no meat or any other addition. I later learn that there are many varieties of wat, Ethiopian curry, made with chicken or beef and/or vegetables. Although Injera and wat is a traditional Ethiopian dish, in this instance, given the location, it was presumably served in its most basic form.
An unforgettable introduction to Ethiopia! And I remember nothing else about the food except for some good Italian food in Addis Ababa.
Located in the centre of the country, a funny incident occurs. We are walking through the street. Several men mill around us, and Bruce feels someone nudging him. He then notices another reaching into my bag. Thief, thief, he cries out. A male voice intervenes, what’s happened sir? Did he take anything? No, no, says Bruce. The intervenor, quick as a flash, responds, then that’s not a problem, is it? No, no, says Bruce, perfectly good point! and thus, what could have been a difficult situation has been cleverly diffused by the tact of both men!
We go into the nearby hills with a friend of a contact of Bruce’s. The guy had had two Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs – called Lion Dogs by some – and in the previous week, one had been killed by a leopard right in this area. The leopard had eaten the dog’s heart and left if for a later meal but, instead, the guy had found it. Well, all creatures must eat but what a story!
Gondar, north-eastern Ethiopia
From Addis we travel north to Gondar which is situated in the Amhara region of the Northern Highlands, adjacent to the Tigray region, some 800 kms north of Addis Ababa. It was the capital of Ethiopia from 1632 to 1855, and once the centre of the Ethiopian empire. I can’t recall much of Gondar itself but from there we travel to Aksum and on to Asmara, from which we make a side trip to and from the port city of Massawa, in the region of Eritrea, on the Red Sea (now independent Eritrea). Somewhere near Gondar we visit a nearby village, a Falasha community, travelling to it in a horse-drawn cart. We use unusual forms of transport from time to time to my great delight, though I find it disturbing when the driver periodically beats the poor horse to urge it on faster.
The Falasha, or ‘black Jews’, are a long-isolated group of Jews who have lived in Ethiopia since antiquity. Although they became known to the West during the 19th and 20th centuries, knowledge of their existence was not widespread and likewise they were not aware of other Jewish groups outside their own community. It is remarkable that this community still exists, their religion and learning intact despite such small numbers. They have survived largely due to the impenetrable mountainous terrain and at the time of our visit, number only a few thousand.
The visit to their community is fascinating. Physiognomically indistinguishable from other Ethiopians, they live in an impoverished rural setting in the typical small, round dwellings constructed of sapling and rammed earth that is so prevalent. However, their attire is different. Elsewhere we have seen woman wearing white muslin dresses with embroidered bodices or colourful patterned clothing. Here, they are garbed in grubby, natural coloured, ankle length cotton garments gathered loosely at the waist with a generous sash of the same fabric. Like other small villages, poverty is clearly in evidence. They speak Amharic, learn a little English in the small village school, but all learn Hebrew. The Star of David symbol appears here and there painted on the outside of the dwellings and women wear a small silver one around their neck (replacing the Coptic cross worn by the orthodox Christians. They are beautiful objects and I have bought two or three from a local peasant. One morning when we are changing money, the man comments on the Coptic cross I am wearing around my neck. Perhaps foolishly, I let him know I am not religious, rather an Athiest. His face drops in horror! However, he then invites Bruce to give a talk about atheism at the bankers club!). Some have the symbol embroidered on their tattered dresses.
The Falasha are renowned for silversmithing and pottery both of which, like all manual labour, was looked down upon in the past but is now encouraged and supported in a revival. Since the time of our travels a school has been established in Addis Ababa to teach these skills in order that select people may return to their village and teach these crafts, upgrading poor techniques which had made the items less and less saleable and the craft at risk of dying out. We observe broken shards of pottery being ground down to add to the clay body from which they are making small, primitive figurines representing biblical figures and rabbis for a limited ‘tourist’ market. The people here, unlike elsewhere, are friendly and when the children pester us too much, a man holds them in check. Yes, we are finding people in Ethiopia less than friendly, something I/we have not experienced in travels to date. I am unsure to what this is attributable. Is it discrimination against white people? Is it due to the huge wealth discrepancy between us and them, (though the same would apply to most of north Africa and especially the Sudan where warmth and hospitality was overwhelmingly present). Perhaps it is exacerbated by the famine which is affecting much of Ethiopia? In any case, it is quite sobering and marks this experience as qualitatively different from our time in the Sudan and elsewhere.
An aside: other crafts we have seen here and there, in particular I am struck by the extraordinary leather- work, decorated with cowrie shells probably obtained from the Red Sea area. A woman carries her baby, the leather ‘pouch’ slung over her back; gourds decorated with cowrie shells used to carry milk.
Bruce inadvertently leaves a roll of film on the ground in the Falasha village, and we return the following day in the hope of retrieving it. Sure enough, a woman has held it in custody for us! As we make our way back in the horse and cart, the driver stops at the top of a hill where a man hands him a bunch of green leaves, on each twig several oval green pods. Our driver hands one to me and copying him, I break it open with my teeth. Inside, one pea, like those we are familiar with though less sweet. We notice people everywhere in Ethiopia snacking on these and on small handfuls of wheat grain browned over an open fire, the Ethiopian equivalent of north Africans and Sudanese munching on salt. Two years after our travels, the Falasha are recognized as Jews by the Israeli government and are dramatically airlifted to Israel in two operations in 1984 (Operation Moses) and 1991 (Operation Solomon). There are now some 150,000 Beta Israel living in Israel leaving an exceedingly small Jewish community in Ethiopia.
The thing about Ethiopia is that the highlands cover much of the country as well as central Eritrea so everywhere we visit, except for the Danakil depression, is well over 2,300 metres and it takes its toll, tiring at best. It’s doing me in, I suffer in varying degrees from the altitude, often feel exhausted. Travel is rough and access to public toilets, as in the Sudan, not really available, but here the men don’t have the advantage of the all-forgiving djellaba so simply piss openly up against street walls or crap squatting behind a wall or similar.
Somewhere in the highlands we overnight in the only accommodation we can find, and it’s quite an experience. The village is set in hilly terrain cloaked with gum trees, the air redolent with the fragrance of eucalypt and eucalypt-tainted smoke from the cooking fires curls blue into the air. Through a doorway of sorts, we enter a structure roofed in corrugated iron. The long corridor has earth-floors, the rooms on either side likewise. Our room is tiny and basic, not much more than a bed. Earth floors in a campsite or a thatched African hut would feel ‘appropriate’ but the juxtaposition of a walled room with ‘proper’ bed and earth floor feels somehow weird. The odd man lumbers up the corridor behind a woman and at some point, we realize we are in a brothel!
Asmara (north-western Ethiopia, today independent Eritrea)
Altitude 7,400ft. and exhausting. We find ourselves now thinking a great deal about arriving home. The constant changes, constant travel is tiring and we miss the familiar, our friends, routines and even the feeling of being settled. It’s one of those occasional low points one gets on prolonged travels. Home is still months away and we flog our sometimes unwilling spirits knowing we may never return here and wanting to make the very best of this unique experience. Even if we were to return, both it and we will have changed by then, so carpe diem!
It is Xmas time and we have made our way east to Asmara where we are staying in an Italian-style Pensione. Bruce is unwell and takes to bed sleeping for fifteen hours with a temperature of 103F interrupted only when I give him water, tablets and pawpaw for dinner. A temporary ‘grass -widow’ for the evening, I am invited to eat with the Italian family who run the Pensione – fat mama of about forty, her husband, their Neapolitan friend who has lived in Saudi Arabia for twenty-three years and another Ethiopian-Italian friend who lives permanently in the Pensione. The kids sit separately. The adults are thrilled that I can speak (pigeon) Italian with them, and we talk about Catholicism, Italy, Bruce’s illness (which they reckon is exhaustion), Australia and aborigines which subject is raised by the Signora. She rushes out, returning with a clothes brush modelled in the form of a boomerang (so funny), a present from a relative in Australia. Italians (& Greeks) the world over have relatives in Australia so this is not an uncommon travel experience (although these days it would extend to more nationalities). It is fantastic to eat beautifully prepared Italian food especially as we find the Ethiopian food simply too hot. The food in this Eritrean part of Ethiopia is lovely and we have discovered a good Italian restaurant here in Asmara.
The next day, Christmas day, we laze around continuing to recover since nothing is happening. While I rest, Bruce is impatient to get out into the street to get a real Italian cappuccino made with Ethiopian coffee beans and an authentic gelato! But we learn that there had been an Orthodox church service the previous night when Bruce was ill and I was being chatted up by a fellow guest here, a Sudanese on holiday who bought me a bottle of Chianti and kissed my hand as we shook hands good night! Amusing indeed but the religious service would have been great to observe. We lunch a casa with the family and discuss, amongst other things, Ethiopian food. The Signora explains to me how to make the delicious spicy (but not too much so) sauce she serves with the chicken and has the maid/cook running in an out of the kitchen showing me the various ingredients-chicken, tomatoes, onions, herbs and chilli powder served with the traditional ingera.
They invite us to join them for a drive to a nearby village but immediately remember that we require police permission which we don’t have. The police tightly control all tourist movement in an out of Asmara, a security check due to activities of the Eritrean Liberation Front. However, since they don’t stop every car, our hosts decide to wing it and we get through with no problem. The drive takes us through arid hilly country with many cacti and some gum trees which are prevalent throughout Ethiopia and always a reminder of home. We are on a good asphalt road like all we encounter throughout the Eritrean region, thanks to the Italians. At times the hills give way to views of sudden steep drops overlooking vast blue distant mountains, a reminder that we are in are, in fact, on a 10,000-foot plateau.
We don’t realise until we arrive at the village, that the purpose of the journey is to deliver the older 12-year-old boy and his friend back to their Franciscan boarding school after the Christmas holidays. We pull up in front of the school having seen a group of Franciscan monks garbed in sandals and brown robes playing soccer, some black-skinned Ethiopians, others olive-skinned Italians. A long-bearded Italian monk ushers us all in with considerable gusto and jollity, clearly a friend of the family. They all chat or rather yell at one another, hands thrashing the air wildly in typical Italian fashion, even more curious for its cultural translocation. The entrance hall is decorated with many pot plants and an inner foyer with display cases of shells, fantastic rocks and crystals, others with preserved insects, snakes, stuffed birds and so on. Meanwhile a short fat elderly nun garbed in white appears and Vincenzo, the family friend, rushes towards her with open arms whereupon she shrieks with laughter, crying padre, padre aiuto, (father, father, stop). Everyone joins in the jollity. This is just one of many ‘scandalous’ things the playful Vincenzo does. He makes jokes about sleeping in the nun’s quarters with her, all surprisingly brazen and bawdy like a scene from Boccaccio’s Decameron, laughter ringing, impossible to believe that this is 20th-century Ethiopia and not mediaeval Italy. Really a hoot.
After the boys have unpacked, we all- monk, nun, family and we two- pile into the VW Combi and drive to the centre of a small town to an Italian coffee place for Italian-style biscuits and Coke except for the monk who drinks beer! After, we drop boys, nun and monk off at the school and head back to Asmara, the Signora and Vincenzo joking about how he had flirted with the nun, reiterating the padre, padre aiuta bit, singing Italian songs on the top of their voices all the way, as they had all the way there. Very funny scene.
It’s especially interesting to note that the Signora is already second- generation Italo -Ethiopian yet speaks almost no Amharic, only Italian and reasonable English, sends her children to a Roman Catholic Italian school where instruction is exclusively in Italian, and all their friends are Italian. They go to Italian movies, sing Italian songs and she sees and thinks of herself as Italian, despite having visited Italy for the first time only three years ago. Such is the Italian ex-patriot community and existence. Many, especially in Eritrea, speak Italian, and while Amharic is the national language, there are many provinces in which it is only spoken by those who benefited from schooling.
A small aside: Coptic crosses, beautiful objects and I have bought two or three from a local peasant. One morning when we are changing money, the man serving us comments on the one I am wearing around my neck. Perhaps foolishly, I let him know I am not religious, rather an atheist. His face drops in horror! However, he then invites Bruce to give a talk about atheism at the bankers club!
Located 650 kms north of Addis Ababa at 2,500 metres in the Lasta mountains of Amhara region of northern Ethiopia, Lalibela is known for its thirteen distinctive mediaeval rock-hewn churches, subterranean monoliths. It is a living site which draws many pilgrims to celebrate the great feasts of the Ethiopian Christian calendar. It was inaccessible by road at the time of our travels and pilgrims had to trek over high rugged mountains or use mules, sometimes a journey of a month or more. A few years after our visit a road was built in to Lalibela but even today remains unsealed and is described as steep, treacherous and unreliable.
Scholars generally agree that the complex was constructed in four or five phases between the seventh and thirteenth centuries. But Ethiopian tradition ascribes the whole complex’s construction to the reign of King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (r. ca. 1181–1221), his ‘New Jerusalem’ after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the holy Land. One of the churches, Bet Giorgis, is a stupendous, perfectly symmetrical crucifix-shaped tower fifteen metres high, named after St George, Ethiopia’s patron saint. Many churches are joined by tunnels and trenches, and some have carved bas-reliefs and coloured frescoes inside. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.
We are so excited to be here having timed our visit for Epiphany, January 19. We have flown in on a rather small plane and perhaps due to the lack of adjustment time, the altitude really gets to me here. I have never experienced altitude sickness but immediately develop a headache, feel nauseous and walking is the most enormous effort. I am short of breath and feel like Methuselah, literally dragging one foot after another at a snail’s pace. It takes a couple of days to adjust.
During these religious festivals, the magnitude of the site’s importance as a pilgrimage spot for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians is overwhelming. The immediate hillsides are covered with people and a long procession snakes down the gentle slopes toward the churches. Priests in elaborate robes and a variety of amazing headgear are accompanied by young boys in brightly patterned gowns draped over with shawls. Many carry richly coloured and fringed parasols and huge silver Coptic crosses. A magnificent sight. And while we are here we befriend Abu, a young German man and his girlfriend Reike, who plan to be in Tanzania at the same time as us and agree too meet up and share a hire car to see the game parks.
The day we are to leave Asmara it is cold and wet and we postpone our journey from over 2000 mts down to the Red Sea because we are advised we will miss the spectacular views of the descent due to cloud cover. We anticipate a few days lazing round the beautiful Red Sea beaches, so keen to be in the sea after months of desert, heat and dry. We proceed even though the weather does not improve. Although partially obscured, we still enjoy some spectacular scenery, steep brown mountainsides, much covered in prickly pear cactus. As we descend, the temperature becomes extremely hot when the sun appears periodically from behind ominously black clouds and it is now very humid, our first experience of this on our now five months of travels.
Massawa (now Mitsiwa, north-western Ethiopia, today independent Eritrea)
In Massawa, which includes in its population Sudanese and Yemini people, Arabic and three provincial languages are spoken but no Amharic. Before Eritrean independence in 1993 Massawa was the main port of northern Ethiopia, situated on the Red Sea and linked by rail to Asmara. By agreement, Ethiopia had access to this port facility until the border war of 1998-2000. These days the lack of access to this facility has severely impacted on the local Ethiopian economy.
At the time of our travels, I note that the prevalence of beggars is quite extreme, especially in Massawa and am told that, even those who are not actually poor, have taken to begging from tourists. We see maimed, crippled and even leprous people, incredibly sad and confronting and it puts the wind up us in anticipation of India later in this journey! Of course, it raises the question: to whom does one gives money? When small children point to their stomachs and ask for money, I find it difficult to refuse. Bruce and I argue about it but sometimes I put possibly appropriate cynicism aside, and choose to give regardless. We are also conscious that part of Ethiopia is currently in drought with thousands dying, yet no one talks about it and we wonder what, if anything, the government is doing. One person comments that life is cheap here. The Church may have a lot to answer for and certainly has a strong hold- people sprout Jesus at us quite often, shocked when we indicate that we are atheists.
Interestingly, we encounter many more beggars in Ethiopia than in the Sudan which is probably in part a reflection on Sudanese culture where few go hungry because everyone looks after one another in some way. Every house has a guestroom in which strangers are welcomed, fed and given a bed, as true for Sudanese guests as it was for us, we were told.
When we arrive in Massawa, the forbidding clouds have broken open and we are in torrential rain. The dirt streets turn to mud, but the puddles give off gorgeous reflections. The temperature, the feel and fragrance of the air takes me back to student days alighting the bus in Cairns after a 3-day journey from Melbourne with university friends, my first taste of the tropics. Unfortunately, the rain has made access to the beach inaccessible, and we miss out entirely on this longed-for treat. Now the lure of the sea resonates strongly. Our travels in Ethiopia are almost over and I can’t wait to get to Tanzania and Kenya with not only the fabulous wildlife and lovely beaches. Heading back toward Addis Addis Bruce recalls that we travel via Mek’ele where we find ourselves in the midst of the famine mentioned earlier, dining with Missionaries who were there with an Aid Charity helping out. If only I remembered more…..
PART 4: KENYA & TANZANIA
And so, leaving the Horn of Africa and heading into Kenya and Tanzania- again fragments, given the absence of diary notes and the passage of almost fifty years. What one does remember is telling. We fly from Addis Ababa to Nairobi and on the plane meet a friendly Belgian man who invites us to spend our first night at his palatial, rented home, a modern house with a large sloping garden and Jacaranda trees showing off in mauve splendour. The house is full of African wood carvings. He shares the house with his American wife, small baby, dogs, cats and kittens! We briefly visit Mombasa in Kenya, the old part rich with Arabic/Portuguese architecture and small winding streets with beautiful arts and crafts.
(But weeks after getting this onto my site, I find a letter written to my parents and am able to add a few details) First impressions – nature puts on a great display. Nairobi, a beautiful, small, modern city with a marvellous climate is painted mauve with the Jacarandas that line the streets. They are in splendid full bloom, vegetation is lush, and flowers and colour abound. From this point of view we immediately feel at home. However, this is counterpointed by our people-experience; they are generally unfriendly, (as in Ethiopia, mid 1970’s Malaysia and 1989 Belize, Central America). In more than fifty years of extensive travels across continents, these are the exceptions. To what extent colonial history/repression is the cause or a contributing factor, or in some cases religious ideology (Malaysia in the ‘70’s), is a matter of speculation.
But our focus here is to visit some game reserves where we will spend ten days, a sort of mini holiday with our own car after intense months on the road and some travel fatigue – am heard to say, in somewhat of a baby voice: I want some chocolate cake, my mummy’s chocolate cake. My recently found letter to parents tells me that we had met a couple in Ethiopia, Abu, a German guy and his Viennese girlfriend Reike and plan to share a rental car with them. So after three days of intensive planning and arranging we plan to visit the Abedare mountains, the Maisai Mara and Serengeti game reserves and the Ngorogoro crater sleeping on the ground in tents. At Lake Naivasha, about 100km north-west of Nairobi, a beautiful sight of huge numbers of flamingos before we head on to the Masai Mara National Park which extends from Kenya across the border to northern Tanzania’s Serengeti Park to form the mighty Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet. When you include all the contiguous protected areas, of which Ngorongoro Crater is one of the most noteworthy, the total size of the entire Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is a staggering 30,000 square kilometres. The climate, plants and animals of this region have barely changed over the past million years, making it also one of the oldest and least disturbed ecosystems on earth. Home to all of Africa’s Big Five, the Serengeti is a wildlife lover’s dream, with the chance to see elephants, lions, leopard, buffalo and rhinos, along with giraffes, zebra, cheetah, spotted hyenas and others and haven for bird watchers, with over 500 species of bird. The landscape varies, often is really beautiful and the animals humbling and magnificent on their own territory. We see huge herds of wildebeest, zebra, waterbuck, Thompsons gazelle, impala, baboons (and fewer colobus and papas monkeys.) We encounter a few large groups of elephants in or near trees at night when we are not supposed to be driving. Lions, mostly lionesses, stroll across the dirt tracks in front of us from time to time and we encounter one pride of twelve with young. We drive close by a hillock with clumped rocks on top where a group of lionesses rests lazily, unperturbed at our passing close by. Serval cats, jackals, hyenas, rabbits, animals a’plenty! It is really exciting, especially at dusk and dawn when most animals are out and about though we have not seen a hunt, reserved for TV shows! It is such a privilege to have our own car, to be able to go anywhere at any time after all these months of buses, trains and hitchhiking, to feel so free. And the four of us are having such fun together, getting on so well.
We sleep in so-called designated camping area but there is nothing which defines them and no facilities at all. We are told that wild animals don’t bother people at night and so feel reasonably safe , perhaps a little nervous when hearing lions growling through the night. At some point we come within feet of another pride of lionesses, this time numbering twenty. Bruce spots our first cheetah, five in all and at one stage we have three in front of the car and two behind on the road. They have just eaten and are thus quite indifferent to us as Bruce risks life and limb, leaning from the car to get that perfect photo while I keep watch behind! One night buffalo graze within thirty meters of our tent and on another occasion a hyena tries the knives and forks we have carelessly left outside. Apparently he does not find them palatable.
We are driving along a dirt track, scrubby acacia trees on either side. To our right, a large pool within which thirty or forty hippos loll about lazily, their backs and heads clearly visible above the water. After gazing at them for some time we continue. And then a somewhat unnerving incident: three rhinos appear on the track some distance in front of us. One takes the lead, its aggressive body language alerting; then a young one emerges from the scrub and we understand it is a mother and baby, mother on high alert and heading toward us at an increased rate. We are now on high alert too! Bruce whips the car into reverse, and we back off as fast as we can. It’s a heart beating minute or more although Bruce claims he was not worried, having read that rhinos are not so fast out of water. Fast enough for me!
We are in Maasai territory. The Maasai, lean, tall and extraordinarily handsome people display highly distinctive customs and dress. Rich red is the dominant colour of the cloth which drapes their bodies, shoulders often exposed. Elaborate beaded ‘necklaces’ are worn, the most elaborate for ceremonies and to mark important events. Jewellery is also worn to indicate age and social status and though worn by both women and men; women are primarily in charge of making it.
A Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting northern, central and southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, the Maasai, whose society is polygamous, originated in south Sudan migrating to and assimilating in Kenya and Tanzania in the late 17th and early 18th century, thereby displacing some other tribes. They raised cattle and were known as fierce hunters and warriors. In the late 18th century, sixty percent died from drought and starvation when a cattle disease wiped out almost all their animals. Kenya recognizes over fifty tribes of native people and the Masai were the dominating tribe at beginning of 20th century. However, they have not fared well in modern Africa.
Until the European settlers arrived, fierce Maasai tribes occupied the most fertile lands. They struggled to preserve their territory, but were no match for armed British troops, and their lawyers never had a fair chance in British courtrooms. In 1904, the Maasai signed a first agreement, losing the best of their land to the European settlers. Seven years later, in 1911, a controversial agreement was signed by a small group of Maasai, where their best northern land was given up to white settlers. With these two treaties, the Maasai lost about two-thirds of their lands and were relocated to less fertile parts of Kenya and Tanzania. Other tribes of Kenya have adapted more readily to the “progress” of modern times. In contrast, the Maasai have persisted in their traditional ways, so as Kenya has taken more land for agriculture, they have suffered.
The 20th century saw vast areas of their land converted to national parks and wildlife. They are one of the very few tribes who have retained most of their traditions, lifestyle and lore, having resisted government pressure to lead more sedentary lives. In common with the wildlife with which they co-exist, the Maasai need a lot of land, as they are semi-nomadic, cattle and goat herders. Their diet consists of raw meat, blood and milk. Both blood and milk are consumed during rituals and celebrations, such as weddings, but also serve as regular sources of calories and nutrients. In this sense, scholars view the Maasai treatment of blood as both ordinary and sacred. Cattle blood is high in protein and, among the Maasai, it’s considered beneficial for people with weakened immune systems, particularly those who have just given birth, been circumcised, or fallen ill. They have developed a sustainable method of harvesting blood from cows and may drink the fresh, warm blood straight after it’s drawn, use it as an ingredient in cooked dishes, or mix it with milk.
Every fifteen years, a new group of twelve-to-fifteen-year old’s is selected and trained to become part of the warrior caste, undergoing initiation rites including circumcision. Their ability to withstand pain marks a transition to manhood. Junior warriors live up to ten years together away from their home villages in an emanyatta or warrior’s camp. During this time, they learn how to take care of their animals, protect their family, and carry the obligations of a Maasai warrior. A ceremony marks the transition of junior warriors to senior warriors and includes a dance called the adamu. While the adamu, with its extraordinary high jumping appears rudimentary in its movement, it carries deeper meaning. It’s a sort of mating dance, a way for a young Maasai man who has just become a warrior to demonstrate his strength and attract a bride.
It is believed that modern humans originate from the rift valley region of East Africa, and as well as fossilized hominid remains, archaeologists have uncovered Africa’s oldest human settlement in Tanzania. The Republic of Tanzania was established in 1964 when Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged. Tanganyika had both a German and English colonial history from the late 1880’s. Zanzibar thrived as a trading hub, successively controlled by the Portuguese, then the Sultanate of Oman becoming the centre of the Omani slave trade. By 1891 the colony of German East Africa had been created and in 1890, following its campaign to end the slave trade in the region, Britain made Zanzibar a protectorate. Julius Nyerere was prime minister of Tanganyika, and then, when a republic was proclaimed in 1962, he became president.
In 1967 Nyerere introduced ujamaa, a form of African socialism based on cooperative agriculture and “villagization” of the countryside. Establishing new groups of rural populations, it made the distribution of fertilizer and seed easier, and it would be possible to provide a good level of education to the population as well. Villagization was a way to overcome the problems of “tribalization”—a plague which beset other newly independent African countries that drove people to separate into tribes based on ancient identities. It halved infant mortality through access to medical facilities, dramatically raised education levels and united Tanzanians across ethnic lines. Through the 1970s, Nyerere’s leadership became increasingly oppressive as he began to force people to leave the cities and move to the collective villages. Additionally, transportation networks declined drastically through neglect, industry and banking were crippled and the country was left dependent on international aid. Ultimately ujamaa had not served the people well and was ended in 1985 when Nyerere stepped down from the presidency.
We arrive in the capital Dar es Salaam from which we had intended to spend some time at the reputedly beautiful beaches. But our plans changed. At the time of meeting Abu and Reike in Lalibela in Ethiopia, we met another man couple who had just finished two years working as volunteers in Dar es Salaam. We had given them some help and in response they had suggested we try to get their old Dar es Salaam house before the next lot of volunteers arrived. They wrote to the secretary of the organization who proved most generous and thus we have the luxury of a house to ourselves for a week and spend a wonderful day at the beach with the secretary. It is, for the first time in our travels, hot and extremely humid but the house is comfortable and we now have a chance to read, relax and catch up on much mail.. It is located right on the beach in a beautiful and, needless to say, entirely ‘white’ suburb, lush , flowering trees . but it is too hot for the beach and the tides are too low for swimming. Each day, however we dip in and paddle around,. Our time is made even nicer due to the interesting other people we meet, all German friends of Abu and Reike. Abo is working for FAO as an economist but they will soon return to Rome, their permanent residence. Much eating, a bit of partying and we are also taken on a fantastic boat trip to a deserted paradisiacal island, eight adults and four children in all, where we swim in the clear, warm, aquamarine sea, with snorkel and goggles surrounded by magnificent corals and tropical fish, a replenishing glory!
A year after our time in Dar es Salaam, the capital is moved to Dodoma in the centre of the country, but Dar es Salaam remains the biggest city, the major port and the economic and educational centre. Immediately the atmosphere differs from Kenya. People are outgoing and friendly, perhaps full of the optimism still present under Nyerere’s watch. On the streets we see many wood carvers and learn about the Makonde tribe, an ethnic group in southeast Tanzania, northern Mozambique and Kenya. Their woodcraft includes domestic items, but their beautiful art carvings are based on their traditional myths. One of the most famous types of Makonde sculpture is the “Ujamaa”, Tree of Life sculptures and we fall in love with one and buy it. The intricate pieces depict interlocking human figures, a symbol of unity and continuity. Makonde carved pieces are traditionally said to be made from ebony, with the heart of the tree containing a deep brown to black colour. However, although people called it ebony, it is not from the true ebony that is grown in the area. Instead, many of the carvings are produced from the African blackwood tree. The tree is locally known as mpingo and is commonly found all over East Africa, around Dar es Salaam and the Mozambique granadilla. Mpingo allows the artist to carve with incredible levels of detail and allows the wood to then be finished by being polished, which produces a wonderful shine. It is a dense hard timber and the piece we buy stands at 46cm and is heavy. We arrange to have it shipped back to Australia as we still have three months of travel ahead of us and are traveling with only backpacks. My piece, however, remains a much-loved iconic sculpture which I enjoy daily in my home almost fifty years later.
We go to the Ngorongoro Crater with a group in four- wheel drive vehicles. The park sits within the vast crater and the landscape is serene. Although much detail once again eludes me, I recall a lion sitting calmly after eating his share of a dead hippo. A large lion when satisfied with food, somehow does not have the presence of a wild animal but rather the feel of an overly large contented domestic cat. And now, in the writing, I am reminded, of another experience of a member of the Big Cat family. So must digress…
… Belize, Central America,1989, Caye Ambergris. A mangrove swamp is the eye of this white beach island, the largest in Belize. Jon and I are there for a week and I hear of an American woman who has a black jaguar which she has raised as an orphaned baby which she takes swimming daily at one of the beaches, jaguars being the only member of the cat family predisposed to swimming. Apparently until not long before our visit, she literally took the animal across the sandy ‘street’ and onto the beach but now, due to the presence of a ‘resort’ nearby, was required to drive further afield to an isolated place where she could let the animal swim.
I am compelled to see this animal and ask around. A few minutes walk away on the small sandy tracks which serve as streets, I find her house, a timber construction raised well above the ground. No gate, I walk in the driveway and call out. No answer so I proceed further. Jon is not with me, just as well as he would never dream of walking uninvited onto private property, but my determination and confidence serves me well. Immediately I see a large structure, (‘cage’ would be an inappropriate word) with a generous sized tree growing within and platforms built at various heights throughout. I walk up close and there he is, a splendid fully grown creature lolling on its back on one of the platforms, head lolling overlooking directly at me with a calm gentle expression. Mr Google informs me that an average adult female weighs 57 kg, the male 113 and likewise the body length 112cm and 185 cm respectively so I am looking at an extraordinarily large cat! I am mesmerized at this magnificent creature. It is a privilege to be alone with it, so close and making contact. I remain there, ‘talking’ to it for quite some time. And suddenly the animal shifts position slightly and in that instant the expression in the eyes changes from pussy cat to wild and unpredictable and I am in awe. Jon now reminds me that I took him back to see it and he did enter the premises, again the woman not being present. So, what do you remember? I ask him. It was big, big, with huge fat paws, and he says he felt uneasy when those eyes turned ice cold…its that sudden transition from gentle pet to dangerous untamed thing that’s so gripping and astonishing not witness, and to feel…
…so back to the ‘now’ of Tanzania, (actually, forward in travel time from 1989 to 1973.) We are camping out overnight on the Crater’s edge under a thorn tree when a herd of elephants trundle by in single file, their slow heavy footfall not more than ten metres from the tent. We had recently seen an elephant pushing a tree over, its foliage having been just out of reach, enormous ears gently flapping, those eyelashes, a feathery awning falling long over the eyes, the branches and leaves now an easy feast spread before him on the ground. Recalling this, Bruce hopes that elephants don’t like thorn trees. Indeed!
The Serengeti, our other main destination offers up more splendid animal experiences and observations, and in the absence of original images, I ‘cheat’ a little, ‘borrowing’ images that best reflect the experience…. fifty years, missing documentation, large slabs of memory gone, an erasure of sorts but not of the rich, overall experience which could never be repeated, so much having changed in the intervening years. The sun now sets on this African journey.