The African Alfa Romeo Crosses Into The Sudan And The Surreal
Photography by Jethro Bronner
Sudan was the country I worried about the most. I didn’t know what to expect traveling into an active war zone—I had been warned by seasoned travelers to avoid it, or to hire a mercenary for protection. I was also worried about taking a 50-year-old Alfa Romeo into the heat of the Nubian Desert. I didn’t know what to expect from the roads, or whether my tires would last long enough in the heat to give me a chance to find out.
I arrived in Metemma, the border town between Ethiopia and Sudan, in the mid-morning. It was already punishingly hot. I sorted the Ethiopian paperwork in an office in a shipping container under a tree, and proceeded across a bridge over a dry river into The Sudan. I was greeted by the tallest man in the world, with a machine gun over his shoulder. He eagerly shook my hand, and with a smile, welcomed me to his country. Maybe it wouldn’t be so scary after all, though still, I did not ask to take his photo posing with his gun in front of the car.
After a long wait at customs (I had arrived just in time for mid-day prayers) I was back on the road heading towards the town of Al Qadarif, where I hoped to find some petrol. The last fuel station I’d found with actual fuel was 250 miles back in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia.
The road to Al Qadarif was potholed and cracked by heat and rain, and I laughed a little at the juxtaposition of vehicles in my small convoy; at this point I was following behind a fellow overlander whom I’d met in Ethiopia, his Jeep now leading the way for this leg. I watched the rear axle of the Jeep bounce over the bumps and ruts as I tried to miss them myself.
The further I drove, the worse the weather became. A heavy storm was forming in the late afternoon, and every petrol station I found had lost electricity because of lightning. The darkness and the rain made it extremely difficult to spot the holes in the road surface, and before long I had run through the last of my fuel supply. With the reserve light lit, I pulled into a petrol station only to be told that they too had no electricity.
My only option was to spend a night at the station and hope that in the morning the power would be restored. The winds and rains were too heavy for me to put my tent up, so I shuffled my luggage around in the Alfa and spent that night in the passenger seat. Even with the rain the temperature was in the 40s (celsius…), and if I so much as cracked a window, mosquitoes would immediately pour into the car. It was one of the longest nights of my life.
In the morning the storm had cleared, the fuel station had power, and I was able to continue on my way to Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. The morning’s drive was easy enough until I neared the city, where I encountered heavy traffic packing the already difficult to navigate city streets.
I found my way to the Acropole Hotel, a famous hotel run by a Greek family which has become the go-to place for accommodations for journalists, archeologists, NGO workers, or adventurers in Sudan, even those willing to try crossing it in a 1964 Sprint GT.
I had heard so many stories about George and his family from various travelers and writers; it seems that anybody who’s passed though Sudan has a story about the Acropole. I know I thoroughly enjoyed a few days off at the hotel as I restocked for the next push north, to Egypt.
I walked around Khartoum on foot for a little bit, exploring, avoiding the difficult traffic, and all the while in that incredible heat I was wondering how the locals managed it day in and day out. I have doubts on my abilities to habituate to this level of constant “warmth.”
I left Khartoum on a Friday, when the traffic was light, and headed up the Port Sudan Road into the desert. In the late afternoon I spotted what looked like ruins on a hill in the distance, and turned off road to get closer. The Alfa seemed to handle the soft sand and rocky tracks fairly well, though I made sure to keep my speed up to avoid sinking in, and after a few miles I arrived in a valley with ancient pyramids on either side. I must admit, it felt very “Indiana Jones,” especially because there was not one tourist in sight. After an afternoon of climbing pyramids, I set up camp behind some hills, enjoying the peace and quiet of the desert for the night.
The day that I turned off the Port Sudan Road and headed across the desert away from the Nile, I drove for 120 miles without seeing a single car save for the hood of my own. There was nothing but a perfect, new road framed by the immaculate desert landscape that was unbroken from my empty road to the long horizon.
The further I got from the Nile, the hotter it became, and out in the middle of the desert there was no sign of life. I crossed the Nile again however at Karima, before heading into the desert once more.
At each bridge, I was stopped by a military checkpoint. The Acropole had translated my travel itinerary into Arabic, and had helpfully made a small stack of copies for me. At each checkpoint I would hand one of them to the officials—it made the process very easy in comparison with the experiences beforehand.
After a long day in the heat, I found a quiet site alongside the Nile near Dongola and settled down for what was to be my last night camping out in the desert. The arriving day would be my last in Sudan.
After a morning’s drive, I arrived in the town of Wadi Halfa, famous among overlanders and travelers; for decades it was the last stop on the road heading north, and from here you would take an old steamer ship into Aswan, Egypt.
There is a new land border in the desert now though, and even though it is one of the most complicated border crossings in the world, at least it meant I could drive my car into Egypt and not be relegated to putting it on an old barge, and then just hoping that it would arrive in Aswan and not to its new owner… I spent seven hours at the border processing the customs paperwork for my car, and was let out just before the last ferry of the day departed.
Sudan felt dreamlike, other worldly, and I felt a little sad to leave. The locals had been so friendly and helpful. The heat and the vast open space was like nothing I had ever experienced, and there was something so surreal about driving along a completely smooth road through an extremely inhospitable desert. As I thought back on where I’d been I watched the sun set from the deck of the military ferry, and later that night I arrived in Egypt in the middle of the night.