Mark Tanner - Adventurer, Writer and Amateur Beatboxer



The first ever people to paddle from the source of the Blue Nile to the Mediterranean Sea

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Numshe (that's Sudanese for let's go)

2 August 2004


In 6-months I had sweat a swimming pool, inhaled 3 sacks of sugar and taught more than 150 locals how to pronounce the word 'months' correctly, but sadly the time had come to leave. The sadness was somewhat offset by the trip of a lifetime I was leaving for - paddling from the source of the Blue Nile in the Ethiopian highlands to the Mediterranean Sea - more on my Nile adventure.


I had seen some pretty places in the Sudan, ancient ruins and scenic landscapes, but for me the real beauty of the country lay in its people. They are attractive folk, varied in shape, shade and culture, made up of more than 400 different tribes who live between the far-reaching borders. What amazed me was anyone who wasn't a teenager or older when Neil Armstrong marched on the moon, has never lived in a peaceful Sudan. Regardless, they still manage to take benevolence to the extreme. I had never experienced such hospitality; even after half a year I was still shocked on a daily basis by their kindness.


While it's the people I will remember most about the Sudan, there have been many quirks that made the experience fabulous in this land where all men are mustached and it is still hip to play with ringtones. It was the normal everyday things such as the warm Sudanese welcomes- shoulder slaps and handshakes, the gluttonous hand-feeding communal feasts, riding on the back of pickups on balmy evenings and crowded bus journeys ringing with weird music on thin dusty lanes through mud-brick neighbourhoods.


Although the day-to-day things were fascinating, I also have many fond memories of trips away staying with friend's families in their villages - where Sudanese hospitality is at its best.


My first real Sudanese friend was Ilham. She was our star student, and her outstanding English meant we had many of good conversations. Ilham, Katerina and myself spent a lot of time together, with her teaching us more Sudanese words, culture and food than we were teaching her English.


Alas, the term finished and Ilham had to go back to her home in Nuri in the Northern State. Katerina, Katie and myself jumped at the opportunity to meet her family and joined her on the bus trip home. Nuri was paradise- a string of small villages tucked amongst a jungle of date palms and mango trees that lined the banks of the Nile. Donkeys and cows frolicked between the rich foliage and children swam and played in the irrigation canals. It was green, a nice change from dusty Khartoum.


The area is rich in history, with Nuri and Karima, across the river, housing a collection of ancient pyramids on their outskirts. Unfortunately Ilham, who had never visited the Karima's ruins and pyramids before, wasn't allowed to join us when we visited the town. She had to stay home and cook and clean for her guests. I thought this was outrageous as we had made the trip to spend time with her, but apparently a local custom that females aren't meant to play tourist, especially when there's domestic duties to be done. This added to the nuisance of being relegated to the men's quarters and seeing less of her from there.


Ilham missed a spectacular spot, especially from the top of the mountain, where you are spoilt with a breathtaking view of the pyramids and temple ruins, the towns of Karima, Nuri and Merowe and the River Nile. Up there, we got a real appreciation for the expanse of the desert surrounding the strip of green along the river.


The town of Karima had a good atmosphere. It felt like traveller's town, except, like everywhere else, there were no travelers, with the only other foreigners being the assortment of Chinese building a dam nearby. While we as English people were treated with the utmost courtesy, the Chinese didn't seem to be liked by the local Karima folk who commented how stupid they were, even in front of them.


We had a good experience with our Oriental cousins. Just as we were trying to negotiate fees for visiting pyramids, a couple of Chinese pulled up in a Toyota pick up and wanted us to take photos of them. After some jovial chitchat, we joined the dam builders for a ride in their truck. The two were a comedy act, one skinny, one fat, but both absolutely crazy, especially when driving through the dunes amongst the ancient ruins. Unfortunately our attempt at being invited for sweet and sour pork fell flat and they dropped us off in town.


Ilham's family were as warm and good-natured as her, and complimented by the village's beautiful setting and sensational food, Nuri officially became my favourite place in the Sudan.


Nuri in Sudan's Northern State

A few weeks later I was back in public transport with another student, Riard, heading south to Jamalup in the White Nile State. It was a dear village on the banks of the White Nile where everyone is evidently related (some a little too closely). Every night before sunset, when the light is at its most radiant, the grassy banks of the river would teem with activity- football, cards, comparing fish catches and intensive discussions about the village's family tree.

Jamalup on the White Nile in Sudan

The next trip away saw 2-days on one of the world's dustiest train trips through the desert, followed by another day on a cattle ferry to Egypt. Between the train journey and myriad of queues for exit authorizations, I seemed to meet half the boat. It was like a university campus walking around shaking hands, greeting and waving.


The boat was a haven for interesting characters, mostly Sudanese. Many bound for Cairo to apply at the numerous embassies for visas to countries such as Canada or Australia. It felt good to be a part of their adventures of starting a new life and good to have them a part of mine.


My reason for going to Egypt was to pick up two rafts for the paddle. The boats had been left there by a the group that traveled down the White Nile who I had met in Khartoum a few months earlier. Kindly they had lent them to us, I just had to pick them up.


The boats were being 'looked after' by Nubi, possibly the dodgiest Egyptian in Luxor. What should have been a painless operation, turned into a 2-week ordeal involving more than 50 phone calls, meeting 7 crooked felucca captains called Nubi, a shady cafe on the West Bank, numerous games of dominoes and a lot of dirty mafia-types with mustaches who kissed and traded big wods of cash.


After a tiring, yet incredibly entertaining spell I finally got the boats, but that was just the start of the adventures. Now I had to figure out how I would get 200kg of bulky rafts, 10-foot oars and big welded metal things 1500km south to Khartoum.

After getting the rafts to Aswan and storing them in my hotel, I took a short spell in Cairo to meet Katie and Mike (two other volunteers from Khartoum) staying at a grubby, rat-infested hotel with creepy lifts and a nearby mango-juice-shop known for its creamy mix. While there, I met a bunch of important people about permits for the Egyptian leg of the paddle and did some of the city-type things that aren't possible in a place like Khartoum.


Back to Aswan, I managed my best bargaining, sweating and pleading and got the boats back to Sudan's capital, albeit a few days later than scheduled due to the train breaking down in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night.

Returning to the Sudan after a place like Egypt further reinforced my impression of the hospitality. It was refreshing seeing the smiling Sudanese faces again.


The remainder of my time in Sudan was undoubtedly my busiest. With the exception of a enjoyable trip to Sennar and its dam with my good friend Kamal, I spent it trekking in the heat from one Government department to the next finalizing permits and visas for the expedition (which Kamal also helped out immensely, hopping around on crutches in the extreme temperatures).As painful and frustrating as it was, between the paper circus and cups of tea, I found it rather amusing.

So after unbelievable help from Wadi Halfa's son, Midhat Mahir of Globtours, a man who surpasses legendary status for knowing the system, his helpfulness and genuine kindness, sporting a load of river stuff, I left for Ethiopia. I hope to return in a few months in a kayak with all limbs intact.


I've met a few westerners over here who had planned to come for a few months, but are still chugging on a few years later. Its understandable, there's something alluring about the hospitality and relaxed lifestyle of the place that makes it hard to justify a departure. If I wasn't going on a paddle, who knows how much longer I would've stayed?

Train to Wadi Halfa, final days in Khartoum








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