Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The other pyramids

Secret out on northern Sudan's plenty

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As the doorway of the pyramid creaks open, I am instantly enveloped by the powerful ancient world that used to thrive in northern Sudan.

Deserts keep their secrets well-hidden, and the pyramids at Meroe are no exception. The inside walls of the tomb are meticulously inscribed with Meroitic script, a derivative of Egyptian hieroglyphics telling tales of kings and queens from long ago.

The pyramids have long been stripped of any riches by opportunistic tomb robbers, yet it is impossible to shake the feeling that there is still more to be discovered if one has the time.

Sudan is an ideal destination for adventurous travellers looking for an off-the-beaten-track destination. Although the area south of Khartoum is currently plagued by fighting as new borders are written into existence, the northern part of the country is unaffected by violence.

Northern Sudan boasts twice as many pyramids as its counterpart Egypt and a population that is well-versed in traditional Arab hospitality, yet it receives an astonishingly low number of tourists annually. Constant political strife has done its best to keep an infiltration of potential visitors at bay.

But the appeal of these ancient historical sites combined with a fascinating political situation and a welcoming population has proven to be infinitely rewarding for intrepid travellers.

Aside from the odd camel driver lounging in the shade, nobody else is around at the pyramids and I am free to explore the world-class, UNESCO-listed heritage site on my own. The Meroe site was built as a royal cemetery for leaders of the Kushite Kingdom between about 300 BC to 300 AD.

While experts believe that they can pronounce the Meroitic script correctly because of cross-references with Egyptian names, they still have not been able to translate and understand the language. This ancient culture has been able to successfully guard its mysteries for thousands of years.

I set up my tent on the outskirts of the pyramids and flop in the soft sand to marvel at the spectacular colours only a desert sunset can provide. The setting among the dunes is sublime. As dusk slowly turns to night, the full moon and soft celestial light illuminate the silhouette of the pyramids in unbelievable artistic perfection.

It hasn't been easy getting to Sudan, but there's no doubt left in my mind that it has been completely worth it.

Travel to Sudan definitely presents its challenges. Simply obtaining the visa to enter the country required five separate trips to different embassies and offices in Cairo (although this problem can be alleviated by obtaining the visa in Canada).

The only overland way into the country from the north is via a rather rickety boat that takes up to 24 hours and leaves once a week. Space is limited, and to my dismay I find myself sleeping underneath a suspended lifeboat right next to the water. There's no margin for error: if I toss and turn in the middle of the night, I am going for a swim in the Nile.

However, the journey is unforgettable. As we leave the southern Egyptian town of Aswan and pass through Lake Nasser, it's possible to glimpse the famous imposing temple of Abu Simbel off in the distance.

Hanging out close to the helm ensures I am given a chance to drive the boat (under close supervision, of course).

The tight quarters of the ship promote a strong sense of camaraderie among passengers. In no time at all, I have an abundance of children eagerly climbing onto my lap. Their giggling mothers soon join me in a circle, and although we don't speak the same language it's clear that they're fascinated by my long blond hair and blue eyes.

An elderly man dressed in traditional white garb comes over and shakes my hand. "Most foreigners think that Sudan is dangerous," he tells me in English. "Thank you for coming here." I can only shake my head at this perception of the country and look around at the warmth that I have experienced so far.

As we finally pull into the port of Wadi Halfa, our destination in Sudan, a huge cheer erupts in celebration of our arrival. It has been a long trip but an amazing journey.

From Wadi Halfa I hop on a bus heading south to Dongola. The drive is through beautiful but desolate desert where gusty winds roll over a sea of sand stretching endlessly into the horizon. Due to several technical setbacks ranging from flat tires to running out of gas, we didn't arrive until just after midnight.

Everything is closed, and I quickly find myself on the wrong side of the legendary Sudanese bureaucracy. Country laws demand foreigners must register with the local police before checking into a hotel or lokanda for the night, but the police registration office has closed hours ago. My stubborn streak demands I try knocking on the door of several hotels anyway, but ultimately it's in vain.

A security officer in the street explains that the lokanda owners cannot let tourists sleep in their hotel without the proper registration papers for fear of reprisal from the police in the morning. He points to a large square patch of cement underneath a giant overhang. "You can sleep here and you'll be safe."

Fortunately, there have been several other foreigners with me on the bus and we now find ourselves in the same exhausting situation. I'm less than enthralled with the idea of sleeping in the streets on my very first night in Sudan, but there does not seem to be any alternative. My instincts are telling me that I will be safe, so I pull out my sleeping bag and settle down for the night. The stars in the desert sky are beautiful.

The security officer keeps his promise to watch over us. After I register with police in the morning, I realize there are several men kneeling and praying in the spot where we have slept. The security officer has allowed us to sleep in the open-air prayer area that serves as a mosque for the faithful. He knew we would be safe there, and the kind gesture warms my heart.

I quickly begin to appreciate the quirks of Sudan. Bottled water is scarce and expensive, so I adapt to the local way of refilling my water bottle from clay pots strategically placed on the side of the road. (More apprehensive travellers may wish to pack water-treatment tablets in their backpacks.)

The diligence of locals in always replying 'afwan,' or "you're welcome" in response to 'shukran,' or "thank you" is endearing and the epitome of the politeness of their culture. Even the stringent government regulation requiring tourists to register in each new town fails to wear me down because of the unexpected hospitality and friendliness of the police.

The laid-back town of Karima, set close to the Nile and bursting with colourful markets and picturesque landscapes, is another highlight of Sudan. Towering over the village is the spiritual peak of Jebel Barkal, a small pinnacle local lore asserts to be in the form of a rearing cobra. This symbol has strong associations with Egyptian deities and thousands of years of legends claim this special site to be the birthplace of the god Amun and home to the goddess Nekhbet.

An abundance of crumbling temples and pyramids marking this importance is reminiscent of foregone days, but as sunset approaches it becomes clear these ancient sites play an important part in the modern day as well. Hundreds of local Sudanese descend on Jebel Barkal to climb to the top and enjoy the spectacular views over these ancient works of art.

I join the crowds and clamber up the modest mountain for a stunning panorama over the Nile and the temples. I'm quickly adopted by three young girls in beautifully coloured scarves as I sit gazing at the views from the top. We exchange big smiles. It is a refreshing experience to marvel at an ancient wonder in the companionship of locals.

As I sit and reflect on my precious time in the country, I realize Sudan is a rarity because ancient history is still interacting with living history. Sudan has a unique ability to be old and young at the same time.

History is still very much being written here as this ancient country splits into two new nations. After southern Sudan elected to secede in a referendum, the country divided on July 9. The tribal south cites a long history of oppression and enslavement by the Muslim north. Resentment has been building for years because southerners feel Khartoum is exploiting their resources without any sort of compensation or reinvestment in their lands.

Sitting down at a coffee shop, a foreigner will inevitably attract an audience of well-educated youngsters who are eager to talk Sudanese politics as they practise their English. The north is in an uproar about the southern secession and the entire population is extremely knowledgeable about the fascinating politics of the situation. Nothing compares to hearing these vibrant accounts first-hand.

Welcoming locals insistent on showcasing the level of hospitality that has traditionally characterized Arab culture buy me numerous cups of tea. I feel as though I'm a true explorer back in the day of Sir Richard Burton or David Livingstone, in a country that is just begging to be discovered.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2012 D1

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