The Long Road South: Overland from Sudan to Ethiopia

Khartoum, capital city of Sudan, was enchanting and entrancing and hot, hot, hot. But it was time to move and we decided to head South. How lucky we felt climbing aboard the bus for the twelve hour journey! We were on our way to a region only just opening up to foreigners after thirty years of civil war. The journey itself was a treat: we travelled through a remarkable desert landscape. The dust swirled and danced around us, slashing visibility to 10 or 20 meters. Villages would emerge through the haze: at first apparitions of mud compounds would appear but as we moved further south these gave way to fabulous ‘tuckles’ – round or square thatched huts of mud brick. Not for the last time I wondered how people could survive in this barren, desolate place. We approached the town of Dilleng at dusk, where desert gave way to green grass and stunning Baobab trees with their enormous trunks and sprawling limbs. The town was in darkness and the unlit roads swarmed with cars, trucks, busses, bicycles, donkeys and pedestrians.

How can I describe Dilleng? It is a simple town snuggled between two peaks on the verge of the Nuba mountains. There is no electricity and very little running water. Generators are turned on each evening. They cough and splutter into the evening but after midnight, you’d better have your candles at the ready! The centre of the town is an enormous sprawling market shrouded in beautiful trees and paved with mud. Here you will find an assortment of craftsmen: butchers, tailors and blacksmiths. You can buy everything from ‘Parasonic’ radios and recycled rubber shoes to kitchen utensils and housing materials (hand-woven, bright yellow straw thatching and piles of slender branches used to support the thatched roofs). Outside the centre of town are the residential areas, neatly organized blocks of walled tuckle (hut) compounds, each one housing an extended family of up to twenty.

The people in Dilleng are poor but unlike us (we seem to attract dust and dirt in massive quantities), they are always impeccably dressed. They are without doubt the friendliest, happiest, most genuine and generous people I’ve ever come across. Hamid Magoddumm Ahmed, a blacksmith, and one of the very few in Sudan to speak English, became a very dear friend in a very short time. He showed us to our inn on our first night and brought us to breakfast on our second day. He introduced us to his family and friends and invited us to eat with him in his home. He said it was “an historical day for him” but it is I who will never forget it. He took us to the peaks of Dilleng to watch the sun set, arranged for us to have Henna applied to our hands (it was an amazing experience) and brought me to a Sudanese wedding where I danced with the local people and felt as happy as I have ever felt. Never in my life have I encountered such kindness and generosity of spirit.

We were sorry to leave Dilleng but were eager to visit Kadugli, a slightly larger town further South. We bounced along the dirt track on either side of the abandoned asphalt road, passing a family of baboons en route. No sooner had we arrived, than I wanted to return to Dilleng. There was but one inn in town. The toilets were the worst we’d seen. We had a choice between dorms, an open-air courtyard (it would be unheard of for a Sudanese woman to stay in these communal areas) or a curtainless-room with three and a half walls. The food was appalling – quite different from the North. We ate a dish called Fatha one night that rather resembled dog-food. You do learn to overcome these sorts of inconveniences on a trip such as ours though. It was the people of Kadugli that were most off-putting. If the people of Dilleng were the kindest I met, then the people of Kadugli were the cruelest. Perhaps this was a consequence of years of fighting (Kadgulgi saw far more violence than Dilleng) but we were horrified as street children engaged in ferocious fights using sticks and stones that went unchecked and apparently unheeded by their elders. One boy howled like a baby when his nose was smashed with a stick before being chased by a schoolboy mob into an alley.

Before we could return to Dilleng, I became terribly ill. I was terrified to think that I might have contracted Malaria and was horrified when the doctor decided to test for it. But the tests indicated that I had contracted both E. Coli and dysentary: we should never have been drinking the local water. I was bedridden for days and running a temperature of 39 degrees, desperately trying to remain hydrated in 42 degree heat. I was terribly weak and unable to regain strength as the food was virtually inedible and the fifteen antibiotics I was taking daily to fight my illness were absolutely nauseating. All I would say to Malachy was “I’m dying” and that’s exactly how I felt.

We were in a bad way. Our visas were about to expire and I knew that unless I could escape this dreadful place, I would fail to improve: I was weak and getting weaker. But we were stranded in the middle of a desert, hundreds of miles from Khartoum and even further from the border with Ethiopia. Out of sheer desperation, we decided to approach a private organization and request that they fly us to the capital. “Absolutely impossible!” they said. But then a miracle happened, and they agreed. The flight took less than two hours and I had the pleasure of joining the captain and his crew in the cockpit for the landing. I cannot tell you how it felt to eat for the first time in days, to sleep for the first time in days and to be back in civilization once more. But my pleasure would be short-lived. Just twenty-four hours after we touched-down, we were aboard a bus racing to the border.

– Written by Niamh O Riordan and published in The Imokilly People

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