Saturday, 26 January 2013

The desert proper - Abu Hamed to Wadi Halfa, Sudan

As we drove through the desert, the heat was unrelenting and sand was whipping up into the open truck and sticking onto our sweaty skin.

In the absence of a road, we mostly followed the railway line and passed several stations on our journey. We stopped at ‘Station 6’ where there was a scattering of shelters. This was our last opportunity to get water before Wadi Halfa. After some hand signal negotiating, we were able to fill up our jerry cans from a container marked ‘18,000 litres’. The water was brown but we were sincerely grateful for it. Here, water is everything.

We drove on and on until the end of the day when we stopped to camp at ‘Station 5’, a cool-looking desolate railway station with a series of huts and not-so-cool full-to-the-brim but desiccated outdoor toilets.

Litter was scattered everywhere. Funnily enough, the most common discarded items were toothbrushes, empty toothpaste tubes, random goats’ legs and sardine cans.

As our tour leader, Princess, said “at least they care about oral hygiene”! Whilst wandering around, we saw something scurry through one of the huts and finally managed to catch a glimpse of a small, pointy-eared fox which promptly ran off into the sandy distance.

At night, the temperature dipped slightly and those of us who weren’t cooking lay around on the sand playing dice games.

It had cooled down just enough to enjoy the dinner of macaroni and cheese with white kidney beans and peas for us vegos and Danish dogs for the meat-eaters. After dinner, Princess and I had a 1.5 litre bottle shower to cool off even further and the boys hung around talking about zombies late into the night.

At around 7am we woke up, had leftovers for breakfast and then left by 8am. For a while we drove without interruption but at one point the truck started bouncing up and down on the soft sand and then got bogged. We had to dig the tyres out with spades and then tried to push but the truck wouldn’t budge. Reluctantly we had to get out the sandmats which was hard work in the hot sun! I dug for a little and then downed half a litre of water in what felt like one gulp.

You always feel dehydrated in this heat. Luckily the sandmats worked and we all cheered. Not long after, however, we got bogged again. We had to sandmat three more times and ended up like a well-oiled Formula One team, running the sandmats from the back of the truck to the front in pairs. Whilst some of us were sandmatting, others were digging out the hump in the soft sand tracks as it was hitting the bottom of the truck. Again we managed to free the truck and drove on.

We drove past gold mining ‘camps’ which consisted of barely more than shredded blue tarps on pole frames.

What a hard life it would be living out here literally in the middle of the desert. At one mining camp, we had to ask for directions. After driving for a while, we reached another camp – though we quickly realised it was the same one we’d just come from! We’d done a full circle! We tried again and thought we’d found the right way but not long after ended up at that same camp again! The men lounging around on their thin mattresses on wire frames looked at us very strangely indeed. Out of sheer luck we managed to finally find our way and stopped not long after for lunch. I opted for tinned peaches instead of pasta salad. It’s too hot in the middle of the day to eat much else. Unfortunately though, we ended up having to sandmat out of our lunch spot too!

That afternoon, we rejoined the trainline and drove past Stations 3, 2, and 1 before finally emerging from the sandy desert and hitting tarred road. We made it! Back to civilisation. Sort of. After several days in the desert, a few of us were hoping to ‘upgrade’ in Wadi Halfa and went off in search of a hotel. Given the ferry was about to come to town, most rooms were booked and the others weren’t particularly appealing. In the end, we picked bushcamping in the desert over lying in a hot airless room with wireframe beds and thin mattresses. At least we could buy some cool drinks here though we had to hide whilst drinking them as it was still daylight during Ramadan. Not long after, we left the village centre and went to the fishmarket which you could smell from a mile away. Here we filled up our jerry cans with yet more murky water and got some ice (also brown) for our Eskys. The local ladies filling up their water containers were laughing at us, and particularly at Dom perhaps because filling up water is a woman’s job? At the end, some of us girls washed our legs and wet our hair under the taps and it felt so good but dried pretty quickly. All filled up, we drove back off the tarred road and out into the desert to find a suitable place for a bushcamp. Dinner was beetroot burgers and smash though I wasn’t very hungry. It’s really too hot to eat for the majority of the time. Most people dug themselves little trenches in the sand to sleep in but I slept on the truck with Princess. There wasn’t much of a breeze and I kept sticking to my Thermarest but still managed to sleep for the most part.

After breakfast, we headed back in to Wadi Halfa. We all took turns of truck guarding during the day but didn’t really mind as there was nothing much else to do in any case! There was a tiny hotel lobby that would kindly let us charge our laptops, where I wrote up some of my blogs. There was an internet cafĂ© that was painfully slow. Nonetheless, I managed to print out some uni notes here for the last three subjects of my Master of Business in International Marketing. I was currently missing the first two weeks of uni as I decided travelling through Sudan was far more important. There was also a small fruit and veg market. Understandably there weren’t many lunch options – given it’s a tiny village and Ramadan – but we found one place with curtains we could hide behind, and all ate there in turns. My only option was omelette and bread but it was tasty.

The other truck doing the same journey as us from UK to Cairo that started 2 weeks later finally caught up to us today. This was always the plan as our two trucks would fill up the better part of a barge from Wadi Halfa to Aswan meaning it could leave the port pretty much immediately. Cue new people to talk to after nearly 9 months with the same bunch of crazies! Refreshing!

At 5pm, we left and again went via the fish market to fill up with some murky water and get ice. Josh started complaining about his foot which he thinks has a thorn embedded in it from when we had to dig out the truck after the terrible storm when we first arrived in Sudan. I took over his cooking duties that night and made lentil soup – a quick and easy meal. After dinner I took myself off into the desert and had another 1.5 litre bottle shower.

The next day, we went back to Wadi Halfa after breakfast. Josh’s foot began hurting more and more and he decided it was time to go to hospital. Princess and I piled into the back of a rickshaw with him and drove up to the hospital at the end of town.

It was way bigger than the one in Abu Hamed not surprisingly but was still pretty basic. A local man told us we needed to see a doctor first and soon enough we were ushered in to a doctor’s office. She wrote out three scripts for Josh, who then had to go to the pharmacy to get some pills. We were then ushered into a really basic hospital room. Another doctor came in and started laying out single-use syringes and rusty but sterilised tweezers on a tray. Josh winced when he saw them and hesitantly lay down on the bed.

Being a nurse, Princess had the foresight to pin Josh’s leg down and I ended up having to pin down the top half of his body.

The doctor started off by injecting a local anaesthetic on the right side of his infected wound and a stream of blood trickled out onto the floor. Josh was yelping and in serious pain. The doctor then jabbed another needle into the other side of the wound which produced yet another stream of blood. He positioned the little plastic bin under Josh’s foot to try and catch the dripping blood and the saline solution he kept spraying on the wound. Nevertheless, it ended up creating a watery, bloody mess all over the floor. Josh said the local anaesthetic didn’t work at all so those injections were just pain for no reason. Poor thing! The doctor also gave him an anti-nausea shot in his butt and an antibiotic injection.

The doctor then took his rusty tweezers and started excising mangled skin and whatever else was in the wound. Josh was writhing in agony and screaming out “Stop it!” and the like. He told me later he was trying so hard not to swear! The doctor kept on going back for more and more and alternating between flushing out the wound with saline solution and excising it. Josh couldn’t stand it any more so Princess finally said “No more!” That didn’t deter our doctor who kept at it for a while longer before finally finishing and laying down his rusty tools.

At that stage, Josh was shaking and in a bad way. I thought he might be able to at least lie down for a while but we were hurriedly ushered out. We sat him down by the entrance where he thought he might vomit but after a few minutes he was ok. Just. Although still in shock. We got a rickshaw back to our truck and set him up in a collapsible chair in the small bit of shade our truck was creating. We gave him two Valiums and later went to the pharmacy to buy him more painkillers.

At 5pm again we left for our bushcamp and helped Josh settle in for the night. Feeling sticky, after dinner, I headed out into the desert to have a luxurious bottle shower, using 1.5 litres of water to do 2 x shampoo washes, 1.5 litres to do a conditioner wash, 1.5 litres to wash myself, and then just dumped 5 litres of water over my head. God it felt so good to be clean. Going back to the truck, I discovered cricket-like insects everywhere that were freaking some people out. I didn’t really mind them as at least they weren’t biting us! Nonetheless, I put up the mozzie net in the aisle of the truck to keep them from crawling all over me in the night. I slept well possibly as I knew we were leaving for Aswan tomorrow and would soon get a real bed and shower.

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