The International Steam Pages

Travels in Sudan 1973

Jeffrey Hall writes of a journey through the south of the country:

I believe it was 1973 when I entered Sudan by land via C.A.R., age 20, and without a visa for Sudan. The 6-month surface journey started in Dakar and ended in Cairo. I was repeatedly warned in Bangui against the journey by road, by both the American and Sudanese Embassies, because it was rainy season and the road was dangerous, with high grasses hiding dangerous animals. The Embassy of Sudan twice refused to grant me a visa, but I continued onward, somewhat oblivious, anticipating great adventure to continue as the previous several months had reinforced my confidence. The C.A.R. border gentleman recognized of course that I had no visa for Sudan, and with a disinterested glance from him, and yet another exit stamp, I walked across the no-man's land of about a half kilometre to the Sudanese border, an event I'll not soon forget. Bizarrely and with no prior notification, a solar eclipse began precisely during my border crossing. Locals bent down gradually to the ground out of genuine fear as the light faded darker and darker, huddling together unaware of why the light was turning to darkness, frightened to imagine what was happening. After a short period and when the light appeared, everyone went their way with nervous chattering. The Sudanese gentleman at the border did have some concern that I conspicuously lacked a visa to Sudan, but after a brief chat with his colleague, I was taken by car to Wau. The Wau Commandant of Police, a wiry and thin gentleman of great poise and charisma, insisted that I be accompanied by his young and stunningly beautiful daughter for a brief tour of the Cathedral at Wau, which was thoroughly enjoyed I can assure, but not until he kindly presented me with the following hand-written note----"To whom it may concern, Please let this white man pass. He holds a valid American passport which does not restrict travel to Sudan. I authorize his surface journey direct to Khartoum, without detours. Signed, Wau Commandant of Police" (or words to that effect).

And then there was The Train. I was immediately "adopted," after traveling to Babanusa by car, by a wonderful guy named Mohamed, my own age, a serious weight-lifter who had resourcefully assembled his own weight-lifting barbells from smaller discarded train wheels from the train station warehouse at Babanusa, and who earnestly needed to know what sorts of weight regime I used in America. Mohamed and I, and Mohamed's friends of course, very constructively occupied our time for 2 days, waiting for the train to arrive from Nyala. We played ping-pong for hours in the small hut near the train tracks, kept a small monkey company, and amused ourselves with the numerous pigeon Arabic/English tales of woe and adventure from each others' cultures amidst great laughter matched only with greater misunderstandings and jest, waiting for The Train to arrive in the 40-degree heat and chilly nights. But alas, Allah had kindly bestowed upon us the huge advantage of Mohamed's uncle being the local Muezzin, and so we rested at night, assured that whichever night the train decided to arrive, Mohamed's uncle would find time to wake us without interrupting his solemn duty. It did not quite work according plan, of course. The uncle elected not to awaken us, for reasons wonderfully obscure and unknown, sending a young boy messenger instead who apparently carried whatever blame. We were awoken far too late from our outdoor sleeping mats upon the sand, (500-plus metres from the train tracks), the train having passed Babanusa, escaping into the night with not a one of us. We never heard a train whistle if there was one, or the 200-plus passengers boarding the train who had the sense to sleep within 3-metres of the track. Mohamed scrambled for a truck to carry us to the infamously slow train, but the effort was fruitless as we'd missed the train by several hours. That effort exhausted, Mohamed smiled widely and spontaneously the kind of smile that drudgery may not deny, and after reminding me that it was God's Will that we should have missed The Train, we waited another 2 days for the next train, The Train which Allah intended that we would not miss.

I do not remember ever buying any train ticket, and Mohamed and I and one of his friends rode the carriage roofs with many others at night, clinging occasionally to the ancient air-conditioning pipes which ran the entire length of the train carriage roofs. I asked what happens when people accidentally fall-off the concaved roof, only to be reminded that it's up to the unfortunate to then catch-up to the train by running, if uninjured, not such a difficult feat as the train was very slow and often stopped for prayers, food, and water. Of course, when the sun appeared, we were awakened by the steadily growing heat of 7 or 8 am, and we then went below amidst the symphony of various small animals and local travelers, with the wonderfully distinctive sounds and floating aromas of both, all occupying all seats as well the broken luggage racks above the seats, not a vacant space in sight.

I vaguely remember saying good-bye to Mohamed, he fading away at some point on that journey before we reached Khartoum, another priceless encounter on a journey that remains a special and separate peace, warming the soul with masterful and unparalleled moments of pure joy, kindness and brotherhood.

He adds:

I should add a unique footnote to my story which may interest some of your readers. I went on-line last week and discovered that the day I crossed the border from C.A.R. to Sudan was 30th June, 1973, when the solar eclipse event of that day over S.E. Central African Republic was recorded as 7 minutes and 4 seconds, which may not much impress the disinterested among us. However, I also learned on-line that this event of 30th June 1973 was the longest solar eclipse in 875 years, since 1st July 1098, when apparently the duration of that solar eclipse was a mere 7 minutes. The next longest solar eclipse is forecast for 25th June 2150, and that event is forecast to be 7 minutes and 5 seconds. So, from 1098 to 2150, or 1,052 years, I witnessed, and without knowing at the time, the second longest solar eclipse in over a thousand years, which seems in retrospect an immense gift of sorts under the circumstances of that day. 

While Jeffrey did not have a camera with him, these pictures (taken from our Safari Steam CD) give an idea of train travel at the time. The first two are from Gunther Haslbeck (1972), the third from Olaf Guttler (1980)

Rob Dickinson