The Meroe Pyramids mark the southern extreme of Egyptian influence as you follow the course of the Nile river south towards its source. After the glories of the New Kingdom had faded, the great Egyptian empire fell into an era of in-fighting which culminated in the Balkanisation of the realm into smaller (usually warring) entities – one of which was the great Meroitic dynasty that ruled this area of the Nubian Desert from 592 BC to 350 AD. Although the pyramid tombs they left behind are nowhere near the gargantuan majesty of the Great Pyramids of Saqqara, Dahshur and Giza (Cheops’ Pyramid is 146.5 metres tall, the Meroe Pyramids barely make double figures), they are still definitely worth a day trip, situated four hours north of Khartoum.
However, this being Sudan, getting there is only half the problem. To travel anywhere or take photos of anything (you can forget about video) you need written permission from the Ministry of Tourism, Antiquities and Wildlife. The reason for this (and the reason I wasn’t allowed to make the trip from Gallabat to Khartoum under my own steam) is that the leader of Sudan is a wanted war criminal. That is all I have to say on the matter, although in general I will use this opportunity to reiterate my belief that if you’re going to have a revolution, revolt, war, insurrection, coup d’etat whatever, your best bet for a freer, wealthy, more egalitarian state would be to rid your country of not just the President, but the whole godforsaken institution of the Presidency entire. Three words for you my friend: Parliament, Parliament, Parliament. All else will follow.
There has been a time in pretty much every republic of Planet Earth (including the US, fact fans!) has had a known criminal in charge of the government, military and country. This is not the best of all possible worlds, believe me.
After dropping his daughters at school, Mr. Mohammed took me to the Ministry of Tourism, Antiquities and Wildlife and we got my application processed, culminating in me having ten copies (for any police checkpoint that wanted them) of my permission to travel to and take pictures of the Meroe Pyramids. Overkill? Well, I guess it depends where you’re coming from. For a North Korean, I’m sure it would feel like a breath of fresh air. For me, I felt like I was in North Korea.
Mr. Mohammed was good enough to drive me over to the Atbara bus station, and from there I jumped the next bus headed north. It took a good four hours to get to the Pyramids, and I arrived at around 2.45pm, the only person getting off the bus at this point along the lonely highway. It was then a 700m hike across the stony desert to the Pyramids themselves.
“Had the place to myself. Felt very Indiana Hughes.”
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It’s a testament to Sudan’s burgeoning tourist industry that I was the only person there. Maybe if they didn’t make it nigh on impossible to get a visa…
I left the site at around 5.30, the sun hanging low in the sky. I stood at the side of the road for an age with my thumb out waiting for somebody to stop, which thankfully they did before the sun actually set. Only they didn’t take me to Khartoum, or even to Shendi, the nearest outpost of civilisation. No, they dropped me at a deserted desert rest stop. The people there (predictably) wanted me to stay the night, but that wasn’t going to happen: I had to be on the bus to Wadi Halfa in the morning – I needed to get back to Khartoum.
So I started walking along the highway, firm in the belief that somebody – anybody – would stop and pick me up. They didn’t. It grew dark. I walked for over an hour. Eventually I came to another rest stop and started asking around. One guy wanted 100 Sudanese pounds to get back to Khartoum. Although this equated to about $20, I thought it fairly reasonable, I was tired and I wanted to get back as soon as possible. But then he pulled the old ‘Oh no, I meant 100 dollars’ shite that I’ve had to put up with so many times it has definitely ceased being funny anymore, not that it ever was in the first place.
Eventually I found a trucker willing to take me to the next town, Shendi. He wanted 100 Sudanese pounds too, but considering Shendi is not even halfway back to Khartoum, I flat refused to pay anymore than £50. That didn’t stop him attempting to dive his hand into my shirt pocket every ten minutes in a crappy attempt to grab another fifty. I arrived at Shendi around 9pm and waited at the police checkpoint for the next bus to Khartoum. Incredible: my last night in Sub-Saharan Africa and I finally find a use for all these damn police checkpoints – the buses have to stop!
It was 11.10pm before I got back to Khartoum. Mr. Mohammed, being a good soul, came to pick me up from the drop-off point, bringing his son Hamed with him. That night I grabbed a couple of hours sleep on the roof of Mr. Mohammed’s apartment block. There was a cool winter’s breeze, a portent of what was to come as I climb the latitudes north-north-west.