“And wise men came from the East”
Strike slightly south-west from Baghdad and after a long camel ride of something like a thousand kilometres you would come to the little town of Bethlehem. As it seems there was little between them apart from desert, the guidance of a star for the wise men would have been most welcome. Having been in the desert a few times, and the Nubian desert once (not by camel but in a 4-wheel drive), I can tell you that at night, unless you are hunkered down for a doze, navigation can be quite difficult. As a child, “desert” meant a very large beach of pretty flat sand. Then school books showed undulating seas of sand in the Sahara. I little dreamed then I would cross a proper one. In doing it, with all mod cons and a 4WD, I was aware of the hardships the desert travellers of olden times must have faced.
My work used to take me to the Middle East and I often flew over the deserts. Looking down, one seldom saw terrain devoid of man’s activities. Even in the wildest desert spaces there were camel trails and signs of life. And then I had the chance to see a desert at first hand, when I was asked to plot a tourist itinerary across the Nubian desert from southern Egypt to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. In a four day trip, hard white cheese, tomatoes and flat dry bread provided most meals. The “desert” was far from empty and evidence of old civilisations was considerable.
A Polish archaeological team was working on excavation of the remains of a Nubian city. It was dated from the third and fourth centuries AD, they told us, and in what had been a very populous area, there was evidence of at least two hundred Christian churches. The Poles had put up what was for the area a sophisticated single-storey structure, with proper doors and windows, of mud brick and timber, which comprised a couple of dormitories, a sitting room, dining area and kitchen. There we had a European meal – the only one of our “safari” – a very presentable lamb stew, rice, salads, fruit, cheese, Polish Vodka and bottled water to accompany.
Our route was quite direct across the desert, whereas the life-giving Nile meanders quite a bit. So we crossed it several times, on small ferry boats. At each crossing point, fruit and vegetable sellers were in evidence – where they came from I cannot guess. So fresh tomatoes were frequently available.
Whilst hours could be spent driving across sandy wastes, signs of life were regular and diverse. At a Nile crossing a fairly ancient truck disembarked from the ferry, containing about a dozen fairly ancient and intrepid French men and women. They had purchased the truck in Cairo, equipped it and driven down through Egypt and were making for Cape Town, South Africa! We also encountered the annual drive of thousands of young camels from Sudan to Cairo, where they would be slaughtered and their meat sold.
Old meets new. The standard village transport was the small, white Nubian donkey (the little white donkeys you sometimes see in Cyprus are undoubtedly of the same breed) Our transport was a Nissan 4WD, well loaded with a couple of spare wheels and large plastic drums of water (enough for some days). The standard motorised desert vehicle was the Bedford truck, always fully loaded with people and/or cargo.
Passengers carried their own food, often the ubiquitous tomato, cheese, flat bread, rolled up, and fruit such as apricots.
One night we needed to catch up on time, so drove through the star-lit desert, guided by a particularly bright star and compass. On a flat hard- sand section, we spied a small light and drove to it. “Motorway rest-stop”, our guide said. We found a small tent, a little brush wood fire and an Arab boiling cans of water for tea. We had some, for which he would expect no payment. Our leader left him tomatoes, cheese and topped up his water tins. This was greeted with a litany of thanks to us and to Allah the Almighty.
Knowing of the dangers of drinking the local water we had brought with us an American-made water filter called “H2OK”, which looked somewhat like a Thermos flask. It had been developed for NASA space missions and apparently could handle anything, including one’s own urine if necessary, strained through various charcoal and other filters to produce a flow of clean and drinkable water from a little tap at the base. This aroused profound interest and amusement wherever we used it. On one such occasion, when my colleague explained in Arabic that you could actually pee in it and drink the resultant water, all the assembled company wanted to have a go. One bold fellow stepped forward and started to lift his gallabia to the raucous encouragement of the others. We dissuaded them from such actions.
What happened to my “Tourist Trail” across the Nubian desert? Alas, nothing. A few weeks after I submitted our feasibility study, a civil war broke out in the south of Sudan, shutting down all tourism development. However, it seems there is now a tarmac road from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum, straight as a die for much of the way, and about 12 hours is allowed for the journey. A shrinking planet indeed!