Sudan Memories

Stunning sunsets every night. These rocky mountains were a climbers paradise.
Taken whilst out, with one of Convoy members, bagging Guinea Fowl for the nights cooking pot!

Brent, from Passport Travel, has recently been scanning selected slides from his extensive travel collection. These slides date from 1981 when, after finishing work in East Africa, Brent and Elaine made their way back to the U.K. by a mixture of transport. This ranged from a four wheel drive convoy to a Nile ferry through the famed Sudd and public transport across the desert. There was also a long journey on an old train, a ferry across a large lake and sail powered feluccas down the Egyptian portion of the Nile River.

Sudan has been in the news for many years, mostly sad and disparaging images of war and famine. This changed a few years back with Southern Sudan becoming ist own country. This result has taken longer than maturation of some of the worlds best Whiskies.

We travelled though Sudan in 1981. Our work situation concluded in Tanzania and Kenya and we decided to head north overland back to Europe. There was too much conflict south towards South Africa and Zambia and of course the civil war in Zimbabwe. The north presented rare gaps within conflicts. North Sudan had granted a form of semi autonomy to the South after a period of conflict with southern rebels. Eritrea and Ethiopia were still fighting each other to the North and although Idi Amin had been overthrown in Uganda groups of his rebel supporters were still present in the north of Uganda near their border with Sudan. So, a narrow corridor, into a calm window for Southern Sudan, opened before us.

We teamed up with a family in Nairobi who were driving through to Europe. They had come from Zimbabwe (residents who had Swiss Nationality, leaving for good) and as the section from Kenya through to Juba in Southern Sudan was tough and somewhat dangerous, were keen to have us share the journey and work with them. They were a family of four, Mrs being 6 months pregnant, with two children aged 8 and 10. The plan was to make our way north through Kenya and form up with other vehicle on the same route to make a convoy for the section through Southern Sudan.

The journey through Kenya was enthralling, stunning green scenery giving way to the arid north, and camping in wild spots off the road. Our side trip to Lake Rudolf resulted in hours of being bogged and much exercise using the manual ratchet winch! We were rewarded with meeting many colourful tribal groups still maintaining their nomadic or pastoral life styles.

Upon reaching Lodwar we assembled two other vehicles that were to become the start of our convoy, a couple from the U.K and another from Australia. We spent a wonderful last night in Lodwar witnessing the most amazing electrical storm from within a tribal mud house. We had negotiated with this cattle and goat herding family to stay in their compound for a couple of nights. At nightfall all the animals would be brought inside the thorn and stick coral fence which encircled the family home. We were given a mud floor area to sleep where we hung our mozzie nets. I will never forget the flashes of lightening permeating through all the gaps in the structure - well one side was open under the thatch anyway.

Another guest for this last night was a Japanese chap and little did we know a situation you never forget was about to unfold.

As dawn broke I was outside with my cuppa chatting to our Japanese chap. It turns out he is an anthropologist who had just concluded two years living with and as a Masai, within a tribe in Kenya. After many gourds of cows milk and blood he was a fluent speaker of Masai and had been adopted into his Masai family. He was now (due to changes in Sudan) heading into Southern Sudan to start living with a tribal group in this new area. By now I was hooked into this conversation, something you don't come across every day of your life! As daylight intensified he started to pack his motorbike. This was a small capacity bike, semi trail bike in style. Now, I have been a motorbike rider since 15 years of age riding both road and dirt bikes and had a 250cc trail bike whilst working in East Africa. As he packed his bike I made mention that he had his belongings piled rather high, using the tank and the back carrier, rather than low slung. The result of this is a higher centre of gravity and as the roads were very rough this would make for a more difficult and tiring ride. Also I commented on the fact that he wore shorts! We soon waved goodbye and although he thanked me for my suggestions carried on regardless.

Our departure was a little more leisurely, but we were soon bouncing north along a much deteriorated track! That afternoon as we rounded a bend I noticed in the suns glare a motorbike parked upright in the middle of the track. As we neared I then saw a hand raise itself from under a thorn scrub to the side of the road. This was not normal and we were soon running to the bush where, in amongst the swarming flies, lay our Japanese friend with a very damaged knee area! Yes the combination of high C of G, bad roads and shorts had caused a substantial injury - bone visible type!! Between the three vehicles we were well equipped with first aid resources so we set about cleaning and binding. We had a planning huddle over a map. Rather than camp somewhere on route we now had to get through to a river crossing point where an airstrip was marked. We thought if we at least get there we may find a possibility of communications with Nairobi to organise an air ambulance (Kenya has a well respected Flying Doctor Service).

We then built a form of stretcher and repacked the vehicles to make a type of platform in the back area of one. Our friend was a tough chap, but despite giving him painkillers it was a sensitive operation to move him into the back of the Landrover. I then got the story from him that after coming off the bike he had crawled under the thorn bush for shelter from the sun. After some time a local tribesman walked by and our friend was able to get him to put the bike upright, turn on the flashing indicator as he knew we were eventually coming along the same track. His motorbike and belongings were strapped on top of another of the four wheel drives.

Our journey resumed. We had to keep up a pace to reach our destination in reasonable time. This was a rough and bumpy road and those driving the impromptu ambulance heard every major bump from the mouth of our delicate cargo! 'Keep going don't worry' he called.

After some time and with the light fading we reached the river crossing to discover the area was being used as a famine relief centre being run by a most dedicated group of Irish Nuns!!! This meant we would definitely find proper communications, but brought us face to face with scenes one had, up until then, only seen on television! What television does not give you is the smell or the immediacy. The nuns soon had a bed set up for our passenger and were able to inject him with more robust pain killers. Radio contact was made with Nairobi and we were told an ambulance plane would be there the next day.

Elaine and I were up at the 'ward' the next day to see if there was anything we could do to further assist as the plane landed. I still remember his tearful goodbyes and thanks. The best words were, 'the life of an anthropologist is very rewarding, but can also be very short". We exchanged contact details as he was loaded into the aircraft.

Many months later postcards from Japan arrived at our UK contact address with further thanks and short details about his operation and recovery time. And that was it ...

Fast forward to Melbourne 2011 and I was was sorting through the detritus of many years travels - a good 'Spring Clean'. In a box I discovered those postcards! Whilst the address on the cards would have been very old the correct spelling of his name was there. I thought, this man was different, he would have made a name for himself. I was soon in Google land and in no time at all published research works in English started to appear. Then a bit of 'pay dirt'! First a Japanese Government report (In English) about their official delegation for the advance planning relating to the formation of the new country of Southern Sudan. Our man, now a Professor, was part of this delegation due to his local language skills and knowledge of tribal culture (he had eventually returned to Sudan). Then I found, in English, details of his professorship at a Japanese university. I fired off an email to the university email contact address. The next day I could almost see the stunned look escape from the reply email, through my computer screen!! We have been in contact since and have updated each other on our lives since that meeting. As I thought he was destined to make a mark in anthropological research and has indeed done so. And yes he is still troubled by his knee injury.

Wild and open roads of Southern Sudan. Just us, wild animals and a few rebels! Southern Sudan village on route
The Sahara desert - middle and north Sudan by public transport - sitting on top of crates of empty Pepsi bottles! Pay your fare, hop up and hang on - for hours!!! Typical 'road' through this type of terrain.
Shelter from the 40 to 50 degree temperatures was just the universal wrap seen covering Elaine!
Mid desert shop!! Tin shack with a gas powered fridge! Brent did not drink any Cola drinks before, or after Sudan! Cold and no taste of chlorine sterilising tablets were the tumble point for Brent! Elaine, who also was not partial to Cola, can be seen guzzling a Pepsi! You would not guess what else this shop sold - Abba Tapes!!!! A very typical Sudanese smile. Approaching Khartoum. One struggles to understand the years of conflict behind such smiles. Is that another can of Korean Tuna, yum yum!! Surprisingly we still eat Tuna after our overdose in Sudan. Lived on this and packaged biscuits for days!

Words and images  Brent McCunn