In 1884 the Sudan was in turmoil. That’s not unusual you may say: it’s been in turmoil right up to today – and you’d be right. But the issue at that time was that a 50,000-strong army led by the up-and-coming charismatic Muslim Messianic leader Muhammad Ahmed (the ‘Mahdi,’ the chosen one) began to surround the capital, Khartoum. The outlook for Sudan’s Egyptian administrators and British overlords didn’t look promising to say the least, so they decided to pull out of the region in a hurry (officially, Sudan was still a part of the Ottoman Empire, but the area was too remote for them to bother; they put it under the jurisdiction of their ‘Khedive’ of Cairo who was, in turn, controlled by the British who vied for their stake in the Suez Canal. Yes, this part of Africa, too, has a long, convoluted history). But General Charles Gordon, in charge of British headquarters in Khartoum, was a strange, self-righteous military adventurer-cum Christian mystic who disobeyed orders to rapidly evacuate. For this, he paid with his life in early 1885. The hastily organized ‘Gordon Relief Expedition,’ led by General Wolseley, arrived too late: the city had already been conquered, thousands of its inhabitants slaughtered. Gordon’s savage murder by the Sudanese fighters was reported in the British media at the time as his ‘martyrdom for the imperial cause.’ Wolseley’s orders had been to navigate his troops by boat up the Nile from Egypt to Khartoum, to come to the rescue as fast as possible. Taking a contingent of 2,500 troops, he decided to win time by bypassing the extensive east-bending ‘elbow’ in the Nile and taking the direct route overland through the Bayuda desert. The plan was for the other three thousand men to continue to sail up the Nile and join the others at Khartoum. Of interest to us Canadians is that amongst these sailors were a few hundred Métis Voyageurs, hired as civilian employees especially for their skills in ascending rapid-moving rivers: they’d proven their mettle in the Red River Rebellion of 1869 and the Brits took note.
In the footsteps of this ‘Gordon Relief Expedition,’ in January of 2019 a small group of us crossed the Bayuda desert on foot, except in reverse: we traveled north. We started near the town of Shendi and ended in Karima, 280 kilometres and ten days later.
I deliberately choose expeditions with a cultural dimension to focus on, besides the natural beauty and physical challenge. The low-tech, minimalistic approach to the Bayuda trek helped us ‘do as the Bedouins do.’ Consider the logistics of a trip like this though, and try to imagine how an army of 2,500 people may have moved through this formidable landscape. Unlike my trek across the Sinai where this would have been an impossibility due to the impenetrable, mountainous terrain, we had two Toyota pickup trucks following us along at a distance. This felt a bit like cheating to be honest, but proved necessary because of the lack of drinking water and oases along this route. Carrying forty nineteen-litre barrels of water for a total of 22 people over ten days, on top of tents, luggage, kitchen gear and food is no sinecure of course, so our accompanying twenty camels were blissfully saved from this extra brutal burden. The presence of cars here had another welcome function: an afternoon of sitting comfortably in the car was best for a speedy recovery from stomach problems, overheating or blisters, juicy and ripe-as-plums. How about the Bedouin guys? Tough as nails, that’s for sure. Bellah, our chief cameleer and wayfinder stoically steered the herd of us onwards from the back of his big bull camel, knowing not a word of English but busy talking Arabic on his cellphone. Yet another helper, Nizzar, walked the 280 kilometres in flipflops without complaining. One of the younger camel drivers, riding in back of the herd, appeared strangely deranged, the way he relentlessly drove the animals onward, whip in hand. He did a maniacal ‘thumbs up’ in every photograph and sang the same three-note tune out loud all the way, staring at us, trying to get a rise out of us Europeans. I’m convinced he thought WE were the crazy ones in our refusal to let the camels do our walking. Why didn’t we ride them, then? You can read a bit about that in my Sudan #1 post about camels.
Living at this pace for two weeks in exquisite desert surroundings and in the company of kind local people who took good care of us, I felt sky-high despite physical exhaustion, primitive conditions, dust, dirt, a sandstorm, hot days and cold nights. I still find it hard to explain how rewarding it feels: many people think you’re nuts for even doing this kind of thing. To me, there’s much more to it than physical exercise, bringing the right gear, paying your moneys and parachuting into an exotic adventure. There’s the geology, the flora and fauna, the anthropology of observing and learning from people who know how to survive in this environment. You also get to know yourself rather well – and the others too -when your whole body hurts, especially when dehydration or Delhi-belly hits. You suffer but you can’t hold up the group: you must carry on. It completely throws you back onto yourself; you must do your own talking-to and winning-over when you’re near the point of mental and physical depletion. My moment came when I simply couldn’t drink any more water: sprawled on the ground, I gagged, but all I could deliver into the desert sand was some alarmingly green bile. They put me on a camel for the rest of the day to recover, and I did. I love this life, this basic, honest, existential way of being, in cooperation with others in the same boat. It’s a thorough investigation of your humanity. Paul Bowles’ novel ‘The Sheltering Sky’ has its recognizable moments: the attraction and elation, the soul-searching, the loneliness, the degree of alienation: the sense of ‘otherness,’ both your own and that of the locals, the ‘culture gap.’
I’ll readily admit to what may be a controversial notion these days and that’s this: Despite everything the distinguished culture critic Edward Said wrote to awake us to ‘Orientalism,’ colonial attitudes and western misperceptions of Islam, to this Dutch girl there’s something alluringly ‘19th Century Romantic’ about walking in the Nubian Sahara accompanied by Bedouin ‘men in robes’ and their camels. In circumstances like these, I jump right in by wearing a long robe myself: it’s cool, comfortable and colourful while being modest at the same time, and that’s important here. On our way, we see our Muslim friends dash off from time to time to say their prayers in private, on their knees in the sand. Do they do this to acknowledge the good life we’re living here in the wild, to bless the goat whose throat was just slit to feed us dinner? Or to beg Allah to rescue us from this silly idea of crossing the hot desert on foot, when there’s Toyotas readily available?
A walking pace allows for quiet introspection but also for close observation of small details in a landscape like the Bayuda, which is at times featureless and flat. The details of a desert’s surface are rich, with all kinds of tracks clearly visible in the sand, from snake-slithers to hoof prints to bird feet, lizards and foxes. There’s plenty of life, but you almost never see it. And wherever a spot of moisture lingers, a thorny plant will grow long shoots along the barren surface, hoping to take advantage of it. The skies! But of course! The Sahara is famous for its millions of stars: you never saw a Milky Way like this and the full moon is nowhere as bright. ‘Someone switch off the light please, I’m trying to sleep!’ goes a voice from somewhere out there in the sandy night.
We meet semi-nomadic sheep and camel herders and their families camping out in straw huts under sparse acacia trees. A skinny leather-faced old man on a tiny donkey approaches us from out of nowhere, asking for water. Desert code: you always share your water with one in need. We now know what these people’s lives look like, but we can’t know how it feels for them. Would they rather live a settled existence in relative comfort in a town or a city (tap water)? Do they have any choice; how independent are these nomads, really? Humbling thoughts, while we eat yet another energy bar to keep us walking upright and toward a lovely lunch of baba ghanoush, bread, eggs, tabbouleh, cookies and tea. Dulled by the oppressive 40-degree daytime heat (even the locals said it was much too hot for January; 25 degrees is more normal), the camels, too, walk their steady gait with their eyes on the horizon in perfect silent meditation. But they’ll always spot a good grassy tidbit and quickly grab it as they go. Alert and alive to survive.
At last, the minaret of the mosque of Karima appears on the horizon: another five kilometres or so to go. Hurray, we did it! A triumph! With our tongue on our knees, all of us cross the symbolic ‘finish line’ in one piece – a rope held up by two of our grinning guys. We now have some sense of what it may have felt like for thousands of canvas-and-leather clad soldiers to cross the desert of Sudan, only to be turned right back to do it again in fast retreat from angry Muslim armies. We recognized some faint man-made, fort-like structures on hillocks as well as small heaps of rocks with markers, probably graves. Today, almost a century and a half later, Sudan’s sordid colonial history of constant foreign meddling is still visible in the parched desert.