The Ecphorizer

Sudan Diary
Martha Johnson

Issue #10 (June 1982)

Travel notes on the five-day trip overland from Khartoum to Aswan

Editor's Note: Last year [1981] the two authors spent January to June traveling around the world. The following article was mailed to the Intelligencer from Egypt, but was not printed at the time because of

When we open the windows we get choked by dust; when we close them we fry.

space limitations. - George, 1981

[quoteright]During our recent travels, we have tended to keep two kinds of records. George has maintained the more prosaic log of events and finances, while Martha has written an impressionistic diary of our experiences. Here are some excerpts from both, covering the journey northward from Khartoum. Note: Prices are in Sudanese pounds, which cost $1.05 in "unofficial transactions.


LOG: Preparations for travel tomorrow. Transaction in souk: Changed $60 cash for 57 Sudanese pounds at jewelry stall. Bought 12 oranges, 6 tomatoes, half kilo dates, bag of shelled peanuts, Total 4.70. Two plastic jerrycans for water, 3.00. Train tickets to Wadi Halfa 18.20 each, plus 32.60 for 2-bed private compartment.

DIARY: George went to the train station ticket window at 7:30 AM. He was told Wednesday was sold out and we would have to get the Sunday train. (There are two trains a week.) Relieved of the need to rush about madly we wont to the market (souk) and bought water containers. As I walked back to the Oasis Hotel (expensive, but aptly named -- have Pepsi and glasses of ice!), George went to the train station and bought our tickets. This time they said Sunday was full, Wednesday was not, no we had to leave the next day after all. How totally Sudanese. At 5:00 PM when the worst of the heat was past, we walked back to the souk and bought food for the trip. We also picked up mail at the Post Office.  I got a letter


LOG: Train scheduled to leave at 6:30 AM; actually left at 8:15. Consists of 17 wooden carriages; first class has padded seats. Compartment has folding wash basin which ultimately runs out of water. Route along Nile past archaelogical site of Meroë, with stops at Shendi, Atbara and Berber. No evidence of former slave markets. Expenses: Taxi to station, 1.00. Tip to man who found taxi at 6:00 AM, .25. Mutton-rice lunches on train, 2.20. Bread and tea at stations, .70.

DIARY: The train was a nice one. Outside, the scene was desert with low, dry-looking brush. At the stations food vendors wandered by, as well as goats, who munched any debris tossed out the window. We met a delightful retired Canadian named Doug in the next compartment and were befriended by a big, out-going Sudani. Saad is married to a German woman and they live in Germany. He was traveling on business and helped us greatly. We learned to order tea without sugar - chai bedoon sukrah. Sometimes we wished we could order chai bedoon chai, it was so strong.


LOG: Train route leaves the Nile, cutting across the Nubian Desert. Landscape looks like the moon. When we open the windows we get choked by dust; when we close them we fry. Choking seems preferable. At 5:00 PM the Nile reappears and we steam into Wadi Halfa. Scramble for beds at the "Nile Hotel." Martha is spared the horrors of the women's quarters. One hour lineup for cold-water shower. Clean again! Expenses: Train breakfasts (nearly inedible), 2.00. Tea and misc., 1.00. Donkey cart from station to "hotel", .65. Two beds, 2.20. Delicious local fried fish, 1.00.

DIARY: During the night, the scene changed to flat, flat land with no vegetation, only an occasional rock. All our stops were at stations with no names, just numbers. When we arrived at Wadi Halfa, we couldn't get on the boat because Customs was closed. Saad took charge and booked us all into one room at the Nile Hotel, the only "hotel" in town. For dinner we had some very tasty and delicately fried fish wrapped in Arabic newspaper (purchased by Saad). I ate lightly as I didn't want to use the outhouse-type toilets any more than necessary.


LOG: Spent morning clearing Sudanese Customs. The S.S. Ashorah Ramadan, a 400 ton flatbottomed river boat, left at 2:00 PM. Our first class cabin is at deck level; second class is above, under the cabin roof, and third class is in the hold. An additional third class barge is lashed to the starboard side. Luckily, our cabin is on the port side. Nice views of the Nile and a chance to do some laundry. Boat tied up at nightfall just above Abu Simbel. Expenses: 2 tickets to Sadd El-Ali with 2 berth cabin, 10.40 each. Landrover from "hotel" to jetty, 2.00. More fried fish, boat food, tea, etc., 3.70 total.

DIARY: Arising early, we packed up and rushed over to the boat ticket window/Passport Control. Saad was a great help again, as the few signs were in Arabic. Passport Control had a separate window for non-Sudanese. This category included many Egyptians so it had what I call an Indian-style queue, where everyone jams around the window and pushes madly. This bothered Doug and me more than it did George, but eventually we learned to defend our position with our elbows and got our passports stamped for exit. The boat was nice except for the toilet (common "facilities"). Showers had only cold water, but it was so-o-o good to be clean again. I had not "showered" at the "hotel" the night before.


LOG: A pleasant day chugging down lake Nasser, tying up at nightfall a few miles above the High Dam. Captain gives rocks a good bash when tying up; hope they don't let him near the dam itself. Egyptian immigration formalities on boat -- usual madhouse. Expenses: Boat food to supplement last of provisions, 4.20.

DIARY: The boat started up at 12:15 AM. Why did it stop last night? We came up with different theories. Saad said it stopped to get bread. George thought the captain wanted a good dinner and/or a romp with his girl friend. Anyway, we roused up in time to view the temple at Abu Simbel which was dimly visible by the light of the full moon.Then it was back to bed for a good night's sleep. In the morning Doug returned to his cabin after breakfast and found his Sudanese cabin-mate had invited six friends into the small room. They were playing cards on his bed, eating food and throwing orange peels and other debris on the floor. Mild-mannered, courteous Doug went into a towering rage and threw them all out. Things got quite exciting with much yelling as the Sudanese argued and explained in Arabic.


LOG: Morning spent on Egyptian health inspections, including fumigating the boat with everybody on board. Lunch at jetty: fish-rice and real Seven-Up! First train not until 4:00 PM, so shared a taxi into Aswan. Back to civilization, somewhat. Expenses: Lunches, 300 Egyptian piasters, taxi seats, 200. Heavy bargaining here, requiring much "piaster resistance".

DIARY: We arrived at the dam this morning. It took forever to get everyone cleared through the one health officer, but we finally got off the boat. Saad got us all fed and then we taxied to town. Saad took the train to Cairo and Doug, George and I went to a hotel in Aswan. Beautiful view, dirty room, clean bed. Altogether this trip has been one of the most delightful parts of our travels. The scene itself was interesting all along and it had the added ingredient of truly congenial traveling companions.

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It's a long way to Overeating,
It's a long way, we know;
To the restaurants of Southern France,
It's a long, long way to go.

Good-bye chicken curly;
Farewell, sheep's head stew:
Oh, we're on our way to Overeating

With the Fifty-Franc Menu! 

They conspired to edit this magazine while awaiting their next opportunity to ship out to Huggabuggistan. Sudan Diary Postscript In the pre-dawn hours of May 25, 1983, the S.S. Ashorah Ramadan exploded and sank in deep water not far from Abu Simbel. Of the 599 passengers and 28 crew, 325 managed to save themselves; 302 perished by drowning or crocodile attacks. The passenger list included 547 Sudanese, 48 Egyptians, 1 Tanzanian, 1 Chadian, 1 Frenchman and 1 New Zealander. It makes you think. The Ashorah Ramadan carried no life boats; if it had, they would have been impossible to launch through the barge full of third-class passengers that was lashed to its side. There was no emergency drill, and I do not recall any mention of life jackets. The fire-fighting equipment, if any, was invisible. The crew ran the boat and Allah took care of the passengers. In terms of our world, such a situation is intolerable. But in the Sudan it made a sort of sense. By packing the maximum number of people into the cheapest possible boat, they made transportation affordable. Our first class cabin berths cost about eleven dollars each; the barge passengers (who also had the best chance to escape) paid about two dollars. If they had built the boat to our standards, half of the passengers would have been unable to travel; they would have either stayed in their villages or found an even more dangerous way to go. How much did these lives cost? One can estimate that during its ten year life the Ashorah Ramadan carried some half a million passengers. Of these, 302 died. If the proprietors had done it “right,” the third class ticket price might have been $40 instead of $2; each life saved would thus have cost about $60,000. The Sudan doesn’t have that kind of money to spend. Would I travel that way again? One chance in 1655 of getting killed may seem like short odds, but you probably do no worse driving across the U.S. There is some value in going along with the majority—and if Allah decides to sink my boat, who am I to argue? George Towner October 1984   You can read about George's latest book here!  

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