A SQUALL ON THE HORIZON

Sixteen hundred kilometres from where the White Nile joins the Blue at Khartoum, lies Juba, the highest navigable town on the White Nile, Nil el Abyad. In Southern Sudan, the culture was Black African but there were signs of the Arabic north; black market businessmen dressed in flowing white gellabiahs.

My brother and I had come in from the south, crossed the border from Kenya in a jeep with an elephant hunter who drove for three days with his gun across his lap. In 1983, hunting was still legal in Sudan, the jungle teeming with big game. We were looking for a bus going west, away from the Nile, heading for the Jebel Marra, a region of mountains and craters rising three thousand metres above the sea. The timetable was Inshallah, the will of god, so we tried hitchhiking instead, waiting on the outskirts of town, on a dusty road. A truck took us through Amandi and eventually on to Yambio, through hilly country of lush vegetation. Birds peppered the sky while the sun dragged the clouds down to the horizon, colouring them orange, leaving a dark ceiling full of dazzling stars, fireflies flickering like beacons in the grass.

We waited three days in Yambio for transport, finally giving up, setting out instead to walk along the road. Locals came out of their grass thatched huts and offered us nuts and mangoes. A small boy gestured us to his village and we followed him to where an old man spoke English, not unheard of in the Azande tribe. He asked us where we were from, insisting that we weren’t Australian tribe, unsatisfied until we admitted we were of European clan. Back on the road, a younger man spoke English, and asked us where we were going.

            “To Wau,” we told him.

            He looked mildly surprised. It was three hundred kilometres.

            “Where are you from?” he asked.

            “Australia,” we told him.

            His eyebrows rose incredulously.

            “And you’ve walked from there?”

We were used to questions like “Where are you from?” but most people were asking us as if to say “You must be from a long way away.” Here we felt we could have said “Over two mountains” and been believed. But it didn’t come from ignorance. It was trust, a willingness to accept what anyone told them, though some, like the old man, were already too wise for that.

We slept under the stars at night, riding by day on the back of trucks, expecting them to be loaded with cargo but instead finding they were full of people, crammed in like cattle. On one lorry we sat high on honey barrels, one of which sprang a leak. Cupfuls of honey were passed around and we pulled mangoes from the overhanging trees. It was another five days later before we made it to Wau, a dusty town in the desert. The Dinka, proud broad shouldered people who puffed tobacco from bronze pipes, had beaded scars on their foreheads, were distinguished from the Nuer, who had finer scars, and the Nubans, whose cheeks were slashed with scars.

We sat in a lakonda playing chess and drinking tea, eating rice and lentils. A man in western style trousers and a dark blue shirt approached the table, leaned over us. He was polite, asked us how we were and if we minded if he sat down. We agreed.

“Where do you come from?” he asked.

Australia.”

“How long have you been in Africa?”

“Three or four months.”

“And,” he shifted a little uneasily in his chair as if considering if it was impolite to go on. “Why are you in Sudan?”

“Why?”

“Why,” he nodded.

We looked at each other.

“Just travelling”.

“But why Sudan?”

“It’s an interesting country.”

“Oh yes, it is interesting,” he almost smiled. “But what do you want from it?”

“Nothing.”

He looked at us intently. “Nothing?”

There was a long pause while he considered the idea that we wanted nothing. Then his voice grew serious. “Then why do you come?”

“We just want to travel. We like to travel.”

He moved in his chair, leaned forward on his elbows, forcing me to look him in the eye. “You shouldn’t be here, ” he said quietly, firmly. “It is not safe for you to be here.”

“We’re catching the train to Nyala tomorrow.”

“And you are here for just a journey?”

“Just a journey;” I said. “We reported to the police.”

He stood up. He was enormous, maybe six foot six. “I know,” he said. “That is where I got your names.”

Early the next day, we walked the three kilometres to the train station. We knew we were leaving Black Africa behind, heading directly into the Arab world that stretched north from Wau, two thousand kilometres to the Mediterranean.

Cloud and thunder grew. Dust swept across the station, a small block of buildings on a desolate plain, tracks leading off into the distance, no sign of a train. A swarm of people had already gathered. Eventually we bought two tickets in a carriage, knowing it would be a scramble for the choice of seats. Even so, when the train finally pulled in, late in the day, ten hours overdue, we weren’t ready for the impact of the rush. We watched women climb up into the carriage, babies in one arm, children in the other, a darong string bag full of food over the shoulder. Men lugged suitcases and sacks. Younger men climbed on top of the carriages, reaching down to pull others up.

We hoped our tickets counted for something, shoved our way into a carriage and found all seats taken, small compartments built for eight had twice that many people, sacks and bags piled on the seats and storage racks. I looked at my watch. It was 7:30pm. The train was due to out at 4am. We meandered down the train tracks and contemplated another week in Wau until the next train arrived. There were calls from above us.

“Hey, up here. Come on up, plenty of room. ”

It didn’t look comfortable or safe but neither did Wau for another week. We looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders, passed up our packs, climbed up onto the top of the train and tied our packs together, using them as back rests, sitting watching stars flicker on the black sky.

A jolt, crash, bang and we were awake. The train began to roll, slowly at first, winding up to enough speed that the carriage began bucking back and forth. We had to hang on tight to our packs, tied like saddles to the roof. I looked for my watch, it was just after 4am, the stars replaced by a drizzle of rain. The train kept bouncing until mid morning when the sun blazed down. There were thousands of people on top of the train. We were with about eight Tanzanians who were making a party of it, calling out to villagers, bantering across the carriages. Throughout the day women and children walked along the railway line balancing water jugs on their heads, carrying wood. The train stopped at villages along the way. Locals hurried over and we climbed down to buy bread and muddy water. At night the train stopped and we slept on our tent, not bothering to put it up, unless it looked like rain. We did this for two days, the train rocking its way toward north west to Darfur.

On the second night we stopped in Babanousa.

“You know what Babanousa means?” one of the Tanzanians asked.

“No, what?”

“Your father stinks.”

We never did find out why, but it didn’t matter. Babanousa was a hip town. Men wore turbans and flowing white gellabiahs, rode in buck boards or mounted on stallions. The train was stopping for two days so we headed for the police station where we knew we would be welcome to camp. It was customary in Sudan to sleep at the police station. We rolled out our tent on the sand and hadn’t been down long when something brushed across us. We both jumped up.

“What was it?”

“Scorpion?”

“Too fast.”

“There’s another one.”

“And another one.”

They were camel spiders, so called pseudo scorpions; ten legs, hairy, large. They were quick, could scurry up your back and down your leg before your heartbeat quickened. Two policemen howled with laughter at us, then invited us onto the porch. We took up their offer, which was just as well. Camel spiders get their name for leaving large open wounds that could be seen on camels. They inject an numbing poison into the camel before eating its flesh. It was worth the humiliation to get onto the porch. We spent the rest of the night under the fluorescent light, a million insects hovering.

At sunrise we wandered into town and drank orange juice, the speciality of Babanousa. We ate beef, salad and eggs, watching goats roaming the streets. We slept half a night, again on the porch of the police station, until the three am train departure. The muddy water was affecting my stomach as we clambered up on top of the carriage, lifting each others packs in turn and finding space, with the help of a friendly soldier.

It was hot before we even left Babanousa, but when the sun came up it was scorching. I hid from it under my Swahili kikoy, spread across my head and shoulders to create shade. Trucks sped alongside the train line, as if to use it as a guide where no roads existed. Villagers came out of huts, waving as we rolled through the lands of the Saggarra tribe, cattle herders, people who got their water from the immense baobab trees. We went into Darfur Province, arriving after dark, in the capital Nyala, a big spread out town full of more vehicles than I’d seen since Juba, television sets on a street corner outdoor café, thirty white robed men sitting watching, smoking shishas. It was a new world, an oasis after what we’d seen in the previous few weeks, a big souk al busta with an array of orange juices, kibda, escallota and barbecued meat.

The Arabs had a word for us white men – khawaja – always said with great fanfare, waving, grinning. There were other khawajas in town, British and Irish volunteers working in schools and hospitals. An Englishman, Joe, helped us find a guest house. There were no hotels, no sign of tourism. That surprised us, the Jebel Marra was only a day away.

“What brings you to Darfur?” Joe asked.

“We want to go into the Jebels.”

“What for?”

“They sound great. Didn’t you like them?”

“I haven’t seen them,” he said. “ I can’t wait to get out of here.”

“Don’t you like Nyala?”

“Not just Nyala,” he said. “I can’t wait to go some other place in the entire world.” He paused, sipped a coke, looked around the square. “What made you come to Sudan?”

“For a holiday.”

Holiday! Shit. Couldn’t you have gone to Greece or somewhere with a beach? I mean, why Sudan? Why?”

I shrugged. If he didn’t know, anything I told him wasn’t going to make a difference.

We met an English couple in the guesthouse who’d been into the hills. They warned us not to expect too much. Much of the forest had been harvested. Wildlife numbers had declined. It was years since lions had been seen, though they’d been warned there were still some.

We were happy to stay in Nyala a few days after four weeks travelling to get there. It had a market full of colour and intrigue. We bought fresh peanut butter, dates, tomatoes, okra, cinnamon and hibiscus tea, eating up big for our hike on mangoes, bananas and oranges, melons, pumpkins, zucchinis.

We caught a lorry going west to Gollol and started hiking late one afternoon, sleeping that night on a rock ledge overhanging a big waterfall that dropped to a small creek where we’d seen crocodiles, finches, swallows, monkeys and baboons. We were at the foot of the Jebel Marra, the extinct crater of Mt Gimbala and the Deriba Lakes two days walk away.

Up at six, we got water from the river, heated chai on a fire, and began walking up the side of a steep grassy mountain, looking for the Jebel Gimbala saddle. Reaching the top of a ridge late morning, we realised we’d come too far to the right, the town of Karonga not visible. We kept on, pushing uphill in a baking heat, making it to the crater wall by sunset, only a litre of water left. We expected to go round the crater wall in a couple of hours the next day, and pick out Tara Tonga, head there to get fresh water. We were 3000 metres above sea level, thirstier than we wanted to be, though with enough food to keep up our energy levels.

We set out early the next day, starting with no more than a swig of water, heading along the ridge. A small lake came into view. We knew it was the so called male lake, deep green water, nestled within its own smaller crater. It was too far below us to get to the water’s edge and anyway it was full of sulphur, undrinkable. To the south east we could see the bigger salty female lake. Both were within the 30 square kilometre crater. There was a gap in the eastern wall and another in the north, according to the information we had, which had already proved to be insufficient. We could see horses or white cows, or perhaps white donkeys, moving far below and heading steadily toward what we thought had to be the spring of fresh water that we knew existed and we increasingly desperately needed. The walls were steep, a long way to the floor. Half way down, on the inside of the crater wall, we could make out a pen of goats and a man in a gellabiah. We began the descent the quickest way ‑ straight down ‑ but he saw us then, and frantically waved us away. We realised what he meant. It was way too steep, and too far, to get down, so we followed the cliff easterly, looking for an easier place to escape the barren ridge, the sun beating down on us, no shade in sight. We swung south, guided by the steepness of the walls, continuing until our water was empty and we began tasting small berries, chewing leaves, hoping to get some moisture. We were way beyond going back to the goat farmer, descending into dry creek beds, up onto the ridge again. Going uphill, a wriggling snake crossed our path. When we looked over the rise, we saw green terraces and knew there had to be water.

It was an hour later before we crossed a ravine and went down to a stream, collapsing on our knees and burying our faces in the cool water. I couldn’t drink for a while, too hot, too thirsty to move. We were still quite high, but could see people below us. They waved us onto a path that descended to their small community, an oasis of waterfalls and crops – rice, lentils, onions, tomatoes. The people seemed to recognise our exhaustion. The Fur tribe, black Africans, fed us and we slowly regained our energy.

The valley was surrounded by immense cliffs, a hundred metres high, a meandering river floating through. We camped near Yusef and Mosa, local farmers who grew mint, potatoes and lemons. Yusef, drew lines in the soil to show us how we had come too far to the south, the opening into the crater further north. Yet Yusef indicated there was no water in the spring at the lakes and so we had, in the long run, been better off coming the way we did. It was Inshallah, the will of god.

Having seen the entire southern side of the crater and the horizon beyond, it was easy enough to see the destruction of the Jebel Marra, smoke from the burning of forests still rising on the near horizons. But lying under a waterfall, looking out at the rich gardens, I was as relaxed as I could be, happy to be alive. We did that for a few days, regaining our strength, helping Yusef in the fields, communicating with expressions, gestures and a few Arabic words we’d picked up. One morning we packed up our tent, had a breakfast of sardines, rice and fried wheat, hiked the two hours up and around the river and went down into the superb crater. At Deriba Lakes, we sat watching the female lake; metal blue water, white crusts of salt on the shoreline.

We found the spring, a muddy trickle. If we had come across the sludge when we were desperately thirsty, it would have been hard to resist drinking it, as unappetising as it seemed. I felt we’d had a real brush with survival, what Africa was all about. But I didn’t feel like taking any more risks.

We climbed up out of the crater and walked along the ridge, passing the descent to our paradise of the past few days. I looked down on the lush green terraces and could hear the water tumbling. I felt I would never find my way into this little niche on the planet again. It was remote, but maybe I even sensed the doomsday, or perhaps that is me, only now, with the benefit of hindsight.

Tara Tonga was a modest village with little going for it other than the friendliness of the locals. We were ushered to a hut but no one would take money from us to sleep in it, though they did accept something for the rice, potatoes and sweet tea they prepared.

The following day we were walking on the road when the wind came up and lifted dust over the landscape, caking us in a layer of sunburnt soil. By afternoon we had made it to the town of Dribat and sat outside Ishaac’s Chai Shop, on leather string beds facing a deserted market place, a few old women matting straw, boys running by, a market jester, loony voice, suit coat and cane strolling around in the sun.

In the morning the sun was like an alarm clock of burning heat. We drank a gibbena of thick black coffee as the atmosphere built, a crowd gathering. Women strode by with baskets on their heads; mangoes, dried tomatoes, mumtaish, ful, sudanni, lemons, mandarins, grapefruit, oranges. Braying donkeys, mules and cranky camels were loaded with handicrafts, leather, grass weaving products and sacks of potatoes. The market had appeared almost out of nowhere, like the dust storm the day before.

At sunset, we found a lorry going back to Nyala we clambered aboard waving goodbye to Ishaac and friends, went out to the highway, stopping for prayers and later at night, to sleep. We were up a few hours later for another half day on the crowded lorry.

Arriving back in Nyala was like a homecoming, particularly after the thirst incident, and we indulged ourselves in food and joined in the public holiday excitement of the opening of a new bridge over the local wadi. Horsemen in traditional costume galloped the streets with swords drawn. Lorries full of drum beating, chanting men, women and children, waited with crowds on the street to get a glimpse of President Jaffar Nimeiri, who arrived, dressed in military uniform and standing in an open backed Land Rover. The crowds went wild, dancing in the streets. We didn’t want to leave but the big iron bucking horse was leaving the next day, bound for the White Nile and Kosti.

We got as far as Babanousa and slept again at the police station. The next day we noticed the presence of more soldiers as we waited for the train. They cleared everyone off the roof, warning that it was dangerous. There was no chance of getting in the carriage and our pleads were met with a “wait for the next one.” We knew the next train was going to be more of the same, thousands of people had scrambled down off the roof. We went back through town and out to the lorry park, eventually negotiating with a driver heading for Kosti, a four day journey. We climbed up on top of the lorry, sitting on top of a load of teak poles.

The incessant heat of the day subsided late afternoon and we stopped for chai, then carried on into a big heavy dust storm forming under the wide African sunset. Rain tipped down on us, washing off the dust, soaking us to the skin. As the sky grew dark the truck stopped and all the passengers spread out sheets, ready to camp out under the stars on the outskirts of a small town. We sipped chai again, amongst the Arabs, all dressed in sharp white gellabiahs glowing in the moonlight.

The next day we were twice bogged to the axle in deep wet sand. Everyone got down and began digging us out. We made good time the rest of the day, driving through to El Obeid, capital of Kordofan province, where we sat and relaxed while our driver did repairs. We were driving through the woodland that I had seen from on top of the train on our way from Wau. On the lorry we were amongst the trees, no horizon, immersed in an African landscape. Flocks of birds crowded the trees, several species not seeming to notice us, others flying low with the lorry for long periods, through patches of green leafed shrubs and trees and puddles of rain. The baobab trees were scattered in the more open areas, huge trees that made life possible where otherwise it wouldn’t have been. Akmed, a young Sudanese on his way to Kosti, explained the process of water extraction as we watched one being tapped, a man going up into it on a rope, chopping a hole with an axe into the fork of the tree, a bucket on a rope lowered to gather some of the thousands of litres of water the trees hold. It was far better than the days on the train, though the teak was beginning to rub blisters on my buttocks as we bounced and clung to the top of the lorry.

El Obeid was about halfway between Nyala and Kosti, a big trading town. The town was hot, dry, of little interest. I began to wonder what I was doing there, still two days to Kosti. In Central Sudan the word for white man, khawaja, was used differently to the south and in Darfur, seemed like ridicule, animosity creeping in. In El Obeid, a group of young boys threatened us if we talked to young women, and from then on we avoided their smiles and gazes, averting our eyes. There were still those men who insisted, as travellers, that we shouldn’t have to spend money, one man arguing with a repairman on the street who was charging a small fee for having mended my brother’s rubber thongs. When the worker said he needed the money, the passer-by insisted on paying himself. Contrasts were clear, complex differences between different peoples living in one country, a country that in 1983, was on the brink of civil war.

Outside El Obeid, we were soon in the sandy desert again, on a well worn track running alongside the railway line. Rain had made the sand beyond the track soft and boggy. We pulled up behind a truck that was bogged to the axels. In front of that truck were three more, the one up front, a Scania, bogged deeply, all four wheels submerged. Tyre marks showed where the second two trucks had gone around the truck in front of us, and then pulled back onto the track, not brave to risk going off the track to pass the stranded vehicle. It left two trucks hemmed in by two bogged ones.

Our driver summed up the situation, then quickly decided to chance his hand. He went round the last truck and kept on going, passing the other two and looking like he was going to go the whole way, everyone watching intently. We’d sunk a little into the soft sand but were moving well enough. Suddenly though our driver, clearly eager to go one better than anyone else, had second thoughts and pulled in at the last minute. We’d gone to number two in the queue but were still stuck behind the bogged Scania. Our driver was then at the top of the pecking order. He started barking orders about how to dig out the Scania, at least to move it out of the way so as we could pass. Akmed got down in his white gellabiah and dug with other men for half an hour, shifting the mud from around the wheels. Finally, the Scania driver started the engine and put it into gear. The wheels spun, the engine coughed, the truck lurched about five metres and sunk into the mud again.

Several more trucks had pulled up in the queue. They could see the dire situation. One of the trucks at the back of the pack pulled clear, climbed the rise up to railway tracks and got the wheels over the tracks, as if it was built for it. It gained speed and sped by the queue of trucks, arms raised in victory, the people on the back yelping as it drove down the tracks, a skilled piece of driving, and got back down onto the sand fifty metres further along. It started a flow as all the trucks did the same thing, our lorry though unable to move, near to the top of the jam.

Eventually we got around the Scania and drove on, coming out of the trees into an open landscape in front of us to the east, south the Nuba mountains. I saw a squall on the horizon. It was a warning of what was to come, but there was nothing we could do about it, just continue on our journey. It brought a change in the weather, the sky building to thunder black that tipped on us, washing the dust from our faces and arms, a light mud running down over the teak.

We stopped on sunset, the locals facing Mecca on their prayer mats. We slept out under an immense Kordofan sky, so full of bright stars, I felt them staring at me, forming a bubble over me, like I could see the shape of the earth and the sky hanging over it, as if I were protected. I didn’t know it then of course, it was still just a journey for me, but in retrospect, I know I was protected, merely by not being Sudanese, if nothing else.

Kosti, White Nile Province, was a big town with the river, the White Nile, Nil el Abyad, no less. We ate fish, ice cream and cheese with Akmed. He showed us around town, bought a newspaper and read us the news about the bridge at Wau. It had been blown up, fighting had broken out, escalated. God and Allah were at war, black Africans fighting Arabs, north versus south, Sudan’s second civil war had begun, two days after we’d left Wau. I thought of the man who’d approached us as we played chess. “But why Sudan?” he’d asked us incredulously, unimpressed with our easy answer; just a journey.

In the years that followed, the horror of events, could I really think of it as just a journey? It had to be more than that, witnessing a place that seemed to me so magical, so mystical, with so much to offer, about to fall into chaos of the worst kind. Millions of Sudanese died through violence, starvation and thirst, the war lasting from 1983 to 2005, the Darfur conflict continuing. No doubt many of the happy, smiling children we’d seen didn’t make it. Men that had welcomed us, proud men, would have been destroyed. People we had met, befriended, just glimpsed on the street. And then people like Yusef and Mosa, who’d fed us, practically saved our lives, the police who’d laughed at our camel spider fears, Akmed on the teak poles. But I could not bear to think of them. It was the man from Wau that stuck in my mind. Clearly he knew what was about to happen whereas we were oblivious, innocents. It was just a journey, as life is, but it was a journey to a place on the brink of a catastrophe.

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~ by Drifting, Rambling on March 31, 2008.

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