Mark Tanner - Adventurer, Writer and Amateur Beatboxer



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Khartoum: The fuul capital of Sudan

23 February 2004


Thursday evening and I had just moved into my new 'studio apartment'. It was about a 30-minute walk from the bustling Shuhada Market, where I had been lodging with some of the other volunteers. The building was brand new, clad with brown bricks and standing about 5-stories high. To the east lay a derelict graveyard and in every other direction, the expanse fell nothing short of a bombsite. The landscape was carpeted with brown dirt, littered with rubbish, smoldering fires, excrement and goat carcasses, broken only by the occasional unfinished concrete building. Although I have never been there, I can imagine this is what Kazakhstan looks like.


Inside my apartment, four white concrete walls and a blue tiled floor were the distinguishing features. I had loaned the sheet from the empty room across the hall, which hung taped above the apartment's window to soften the harsh Sudanese sunlight that had been baking the room since noon. The makeshift curtain was a pleasant relief from the sterile walls, decorated by a montage of coloured squares mottled only by the ruby sphere of the setting sun shining through the thin fabric. My luggage was scattered across the dirty floor – unpacking my belongings could wait. For the time being, I just sat on one of the two armchairs, with my elbows resting upon my knees, staring vacantly at the bare surrounds and relished the opportunity for the last month to sink in. 


Just one week earlier I had been in London, England, on a drizzly February morning amongst the grandeur of Westminster 2's majestic architecture. I had been on a conquest to secure a Sudanese visa before flying to Khartoum that evening, with the invaluable support of David Wolton. 


David, a cordial British gentleman from a family line of hops dealers, was a founding member of the Sudan Volunteer Programme (SVP). He had been to Sudan many times during his stretch working on an Arab publication and became so engrossed in the country, he established SVP to further the Sudanese grasp of the English idioms. My contribution to the cause was somewhat ironic - it was just 5 years previous in Vancouver, when my gravelly kiwi accent had been incomprehensible to the native-English speaking Canadians. Initially my intonation was so misunderstood, my Turkish flatmate, for whom English was a 2nd language, would have to translate many of my sentences. Now I was to be teaching my peculiar pronunciations to the kind people of Khartoum. 


After a morning of waiting around in crowded rooms at the Sudanese Embassy, visiting distinguished Sudanese aristocrats and receiving numerous signatures and stamps, it was just 12-hours of flying standing in my way before the wilds of Africa. I cherished what were to be the last raindrops for many months, strolling along the magnificent avenues of central London as David instructed me on a few of the many Sudanese oddities that I would soon embrace. And after fond farewells to Dewes & co, I was en route for Khartoum, Sudan… 


My first sight of the Capital was the palm-lined, colonial-themed airport terminal, slightly hazy from the desert sands whipped up by the evening winds. The last of the dusk light did little to conceal the extraordinarily orange full moon. As I stood amongst the African welcoming parties on the balmy tarmac, it was hard not to be enthralled. Although I had only seen the airport, something about my new home felt hopelessly romantic. 


Once through the countless authorizations, I received a warm welcome from Mujeeb and his sidekick Sabirr. After a brief piece of tinkering under the hood of Sabirr's early-80s, dust-baked, flamboyantly upholstered Toyota truck we commenced the tour of the cluttered dirt streets of Khartoum en route for Shuhada in Omdurman, one of three cities that make up Khartoum. 


Upon meeting some of the other volunteers, a colourful bunch from all over the globe, I was introduced to alfresco dining Sudanese style – assembling upon decrepit stools around ramshackle benches in a dirt plaza hand-feeding ourselves using copious amounts of fresh bread to scoop out from a communal bowl of fuul beans- the much loved staple North African equivalent of baked beans furnished with all sorts of extras. 


Day 2 and we were again utilizing the invaluable support of Mujeeb to see Khartoum in the sunlight hours and to organize the authorizations required by myself and Katerina, the Scottish-based Czech teacher of English to Chinese people whom I would be teaching with at the University of Khartoum. The process involved wandering through gauntlets of long bare hallways to meet large men in suits sitting in big empty offices. These were the important people who granted us the myriad of permits we required to legally breathe in Sudan. 


After a remarkably entertaining day of Sudanese bureaucracy, we caught our first public transport back to Shuhada. It was a small bus crammed full with locals, decorated with Middle Eastern fashion posters, plastic flowers and a paper pineapple swinging from the windshield. In addition to the Arabic rock tunes blasting from humble wireless, our ears rung with the constant clicking of fingers – the generic indication to pay, to stop and for general attention. Buses such as this, weaving all over the dusty roads dodging potholes, were to become my indispensable lifeline to almost all movements in Khartoum. 

It was quickly occurring to me how entertaining simple day-to-day things were in Sudan. It seemed almost hourly I was discovering another cultural peculiarity such as a lack of toilet paper (usually supplemented by little squirters which I rather enjoyed and expected to be easier on the backside once the trots set in) and an absence of cutlery (another habit that I expected would be hard to shake upon returning to the world I know). Matchstick-lit outhouses and cold showers were a fact of life and could essentially be seen as a treat as the water supply was known to cease without warning. Funnily enough, the tangible differences quickly became irrelevant and the only things I really missed were dodgy drunken karaoke evenings and a phone to call abroad.


Before coming to Sudan, everybody I had spoken to about the country raved about the Sudanese hospitality. Even after knowing this, my expectations were still far exceeded by the extraordinarily warm and hospitable Sudanese. Just in my first week I could have made a list the length of my arm about occasions where I had been shocked by how generous and welcoming the locals had been, paying for everything from feasts to bus trips and making numerous invitations from dinner to domestic travel. The Sudanese were genuinely inquisitive and humorous types and the most relaxed people I had ever met. As one of the other volunteers put it, living in Sudan softens you up for further traveling as you are so used to people being so goddam nice. 

Khartoum and Omdurman, my new home

Feeling a little more settled I jumped at the opportunity for my first road trip. It was to see the one of the finest remnants along the Sudanese Nile from the Meroitic Period (400 BC - 400 AD).


The bus journey was an experience in itself, cramped upon a fold-down seat as we were propelled along a strange patchy strip of asphalt stretching through the vast expanse of the Sudanese savanna. The arid landscape looked uninhabitable, dotted sporadically with trees and wacky stony mountain-mound-things. But as derelict as the environment seemed, small mud brick villages teeming with locals still seemed to subsist. 


We were in the middle of absolutely nowhere when we were dropped off for the pyramids. Set in an imposing position upon hills of golden sand stood the Royal City, an assorted collection of magnificent pyramids set amongst the expanse of the desert. 


It seemed remarkable that these breathtaking relics from one of the great civilizations of the past stood with seemingly no supporting infrastructure. Just a tired sign endured on the roadside. Not even a bus stop or obvious road to the landmarks indicated that we were even in an area of significance.  Anywhere else in the world an attraction such as this would be heaving with tour buses, neon signs and persistent entrepreneurs selling everything from conducted tours to tacky souvenirs. In the Royal City of Meroe, the only sign of life other than ourselves, were two guys selling camel rides (at about 40c a pop) and a handful of locals venders with beads, pots and daggers (apparently there is also a hotel somewhere near by).


I really treasured how lucky we were to be amongst such magnificent historic landmarks without another soul around. All of the footprints about the grandiose assemblies were our own. It seemed too good to be true and really added a sense of discovery to the overwhelming awe. My only disappointment with the pyramids was the quasi-restoration job that had left some of the pyramids 'repaired' with unsympathetic materials inconsistent to the original construction. Even still, the spectacle was one of the most breathtaking I have seen. 


We finished off the daylight hours frolicking amongst the ruins before the sunset transformed the panorama into an even more spectacular sight. That night, camped within a stones throw of the pyramids watching insects dance around our candle, we were furnished with fine camp food including stews, bread and a roasted banana-Mars bar combo - my modest contribution to the spread. Although the desert night was starkly cold, the night sky and star constellation was an experience I will always revere. 


With the sunset surfaced a few more individuals, mostly locals working on the restoration with a 75-year old German Archaeologist who had been coming for the three 'cooler' months every year since 1977. According to our German friend, no more than 500 people seem to visit the pyramids in the 3-months he is there each year – although I find this figure hard to believe, if this was the case, our party of 10 had just increased tourism by 2%.


After leaving the humbling spectacle, we waited on the side of the asphalt strip for about an hour trying to hitch a ride, even further testament to the undeveloped facilities around the site. We finally caught a ride on the back of truck to the town of Shendi, where we caught a bus back to the big smoke. 


It is anyone's guess how long sites such as this will stay so unspoilt by tourism in Sudan. We were visiting a pre-sunset session of sufi dancing, a mystical movement within Islam who seek direct personal contact with god. Also present were an IMAX film crew, filming a $5m production based along Sudan's, Ethiopia's and Egypt's Nile. With high-profile documentaries such as this in the making and amicable peace negotiation progress, Sudan may soon be overrun with hordes of tourists. One could ponder for hours about how much it will change and whether the people will stay so hospitable and honest with such an influx to the Republic, but for the time being, I'll just make the most of it the way it is.


The amazing Meroe Royal City antiquities in Sudan









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