Northern Sudan is probably not at the top of everyone's wish list of places to visit but, looking back on a whirlwind week there, I can highly recommend that it should be. In this blog I describe part two of my tour around the golden country that's brimming with culture.
One of the highlights of the tour was staying at the beautiful lodge at Karima for two nights. It took nearly a year of hard work to build and was the visionary project and labour of love by an Italian woman called Eleanor, and the result is really lovely: twenty-two rooms laid out in a carefully tended garden blooming with pink and white bougainvillea - a luxurious bolt hole in arid desert surroundings. Each room is huge with its own bathroom and at night candles in lanterns dot the little path to the main restaurant where we ate surprisingly well; four courses each evening to include homemade gnocci, and ice cream and breakfasts with fresh eggs, yogurt and local honey. The highlight in Karima is Jebel Barkal and the thing to do is get up early before the sun to climb up it (an easy half hour walk) and watch it rise over the Nile. The town of Karima is laid out below surrounded by date palms with the Temple of Amun sitting at the base of the mountain. Raptors swooped and cawed around us as we sat and watched the light slowly grow.
This isolated red sandstone mountain is still considered holy by the locals and it's history extends back to that of the Nubians and the ancient Egyptians where it was the religious heart for more than 1000 years. The temple is in ruins although there are still several sculptured granite rams and in the mountain wall two large rooms decorated with interesting bas-relief. Karima is a good base to explore other sites in the surrounding area including the village of El Kerru known for the exquisite decorations in the two tombs that were once part of the necropolis of the ancient capital Napata (9th C BC). I was reminded of Joanna Lumley (who went down extremely well with the locals here) and her breathy wonderment of the rich hieroglyphic decorations when she was here filming The Blue Nile series.
We got out onto a little boat and pootled down the Nile for a few hours. We saw the odd fisherman in a boat but otherwise it was calm and peaceful. The beaches on the shoreline were pure, white and empty. We climbed a small mountain and looked down at a cataract - the 3rd cataract where small white water rapids once made it difficult for the Egyptians to penetrate into Nubia (there are five cataracts in Nubia and one in Aswan in Egypt). We also drove through pretty little Nubian villages with brightly decorated doors in pink and blue, some with crocodiles over the door portals to ward away evil. We were ushered in to someone's home and garden to find trees laden with mangoes and hibiscus flowers. People lay in the shade or sat near the ubiquitous clay water pots that are everywhere in Sudan - some two or three containers under a little cloth shade, and others - maybe ten or more threaded around a tree.
You cannot go to Northern Sudan without seeing the Pyramids of Meroe. We came upon them at sunset, more than forty of them, spread out over a hill in various shapes and sizes some more than others perfectly preserved. I really felt like a first time explorer here - there was nobody else and we spent most of the day in its varying degrees of light and shade wandering amongst them, sitting by them, entering into the many tombs, digging away sand and contemplating them from different angles.
The shapes stand out clear and stark against the sky, some with eagles floating around the tops catching thermals. Drifts of yellow rippled sand pile up against them and the wind blew creating swirling patterns in the dunes surrounding them. These pyramids are the Royal Necropolis, and each one has its own funerary chapel with walls fully decorated that depict the Kings life and offering to the God's. What graffiti there is belongs mostly to Europeans etching out smart capitals alongside some of the bas-reliefs. Typically much of the destruction of the pyramids (the tops lopped off) can be attributed to one greedy Guisepe Ferlini who passed through in 1834 and decapitated many of them seeking treasure… he found a hoard of gold and jewels that now lies in Egyptian museums in Germanyand and left a field full of borken pyramids in Sudan.
The one and only place to stay is the nearby tented encampment. The main building has a wonderful terrace that you eat out under the stars. Each tent is simply furnished with beds and a separate building for each with loos and showers - it is wise to do a quick check for spiders before you enter to do your ablutions as I found out nearly falling off the loo with fright as a large (but friendly) hunter spider as big as my hand scampered down the wall in front of me. The food is excellent here and the locals bring their camels laden with small brass bracelets, sandstone pyramids and leather bound knives to sell.
I think this country makes a fascinating standalone visit for a week. Yes it is hard going with the desert travel and basic infrastructure and yes some of the ruins are more visually impressive than others, but the people and the adventure of it all make it more than rewarding. It would also link well with Egypt and you can cross Wadi Halfa and sail up past Aswan and onto Luxor for a sublime adventure through the antiquated unfamiliar gems of Sudan and onto the more familiar treasures in Egypt. And we only touched on the desert - further west promises better and more grandiose landscapes stretching into the Western Desert and great Libyan desert of Egypt with the petroglyphs and rock art of Jebel Uweinat… But that's another adventure and one that I am keen to explore soon.