The Pyramids of Meroe
Jun 24, 2005
After a few minor missteps, I find my way to a small bus station behind the North Train station where buses leave for Atbara. I'm not actually going to Atbara, but instead to the Meroe pyramids. As I've been told, you can see them from the road, and that you should just ask the bus to stop when you get there.
I don't know if buses run all of the time or if I arrived just in time, but the bus leaves the station 10 minutes after I buy my ticket. (For anyone heading this way - the bus left at 2pm and cost 1200 dinar). The air-conditioned bus was a real luxury compared to what I had become used to, and even included free sodas. I spent the entire trip with my eyes glued to the window trying to be sure that I didn't miss my destination.
I see something off the side of the road, but it's not very impressive, and I'm not sure it's the pyramids. I ask the other passengers, and there is some confusion between the pyramids of Meroe and the town of Merowe. I finally managed to clarify the situation by asking instead about the village of Bedjuowiya that is adjacent to the pyramids. Indeed, it's the right place, and I shout for the bus to stop. By the time that the confusion has been settled, the bus has driven two miles past the pyramids.
Do I walk? Do I hitch? Do I walk? What the hell.... how often do you get a chance to hike through the desert in search of pyramids? I decided to walk.
My time in Khartoum allowed me to acclimate to the heat, and even with a pack the walk wasn't too bad. As I approach, a camel driver confronts me. He's hoping for some business, and seems annoyed that I won't hire his camel to take me the last 1/2-mile.
I arrive at the gate for the pyramids just before sunset. Surrounding the gate is a cluster of annoying little kids begging for money, and trying to sell pyramid souvenirs. These pyramids are the biggest tourist destination in the entire country - and the entire crowd of tourists consists of two NGO workers from Doctors Without Borders who had driven up for the day and me. They head back to Khartoum shortly after I arrive.
Wandering alone through the sand around the pyramids was wonderful. I believe a big part of the experience, the meaning you have for a place, is how you arrive there. Flying into to a place largely deprives it of meaning. My all-time favorite way of arriving at a destination is to arrive by boat - no dock - and having to wade through the water to get there. That feels so special. My second favorite way of arriving somewhere is to walk there. And indeed even walking those couple of miles to the pyramids seemed to add meaning to being there.
I heard a rumor that you can sleep for free in the sand beside the pyramids, and indeed it's true. I asked the gatekeeper, who said "no problem", but just told me that I should sleep off to the side rather than actually sleeping in between the pyramids.
I thought that I might have to do some camping in Northern Sudan, so I came prepared - at least a somewhat prepared. It's hot as hell in Sudan. I didn't need a tent, or a sleeping bag. In one of the markets in Khartoum, I just picked up a solid plastic sack to sleep on. It wasn't nearly as stylish as the goatskin I purchased in Kenya, but was equally practical.
A plastic sack to sleep on, a sarong to sleep under, and 6 liters of water: That was my camp.
Was it dangerous to be out there alone? Indeed a bit. There might be some scorpions about, but how often do you have an opportunity to sleep in the sand, by yourself, next to some ancient pyramids? Fear is no fun.... I think that you have to live your life!
I found a nice little spot behind a rock sheltering me from the wind, and settled in for the night. But around midnight the wind changed direction and gusts of wind started burying me in sand - sand was spilling into my mouth, nose, and ears - yum, yum. I searched out a new spot, and found one that was conveniently between two rocks - hopefully that would keep me safe. One would think that sand is soft - or at least I would. But, the fine, densely packed sand, was incredibly hard and uncomfortable. I barely got any sleep all-night. But that's okay. The nearly full moon was bright, and it beautifully lit up the desert and the pyramids. I'm up for good at 5:45 in the morning. At this point, the sun starts rising. At first the day doesn't get brighter, it just changes color as the light shifts from moonlight to sunlight.
Sunrise is usually the best time to take photos. But usually the only time that I'm up at sunrise, I've been drinking all night and I'm hardly coherent enough to take good photos. This was a very rare exception where I'm at an amazing destination, up at sunrise, and sober. I rush around for an hour taking endless photos of the pyramids.
As the day gets hot, I head back to the road to catch a ride up to Atbara. For 45 minutes, every car and truck passes me by without stopping. Then the gatekeeper for the pyramids whom I met the day before walks up on his way to work. He explains that the hand-signal for hitchhiking in Sudan is not a thumbs-up. In Sudan, if you want a ride, you make a motion like patting a child on the head. I try this new approach and the very first truck stops for me. Hmmm.... without the gatekeeper's help I might have actually been stuck there on the side of the road all day with every vehicle returning my "thumbs-up" and driving along their merry way.
I pay 500 dinars for a ride in the back of a big truck up to Atbara. After we arrive, I set out in search of a hotel. Right away, I'm met by a fun, but very odd Sudanese man. He's a 67-year old vegetarian, and tells me that he is an ex-candidate for the president of Sudan. Over tea, he explains that I'm in the wrong town - Atbara is 10 miles further down the road. Then he gets me on the right bus to take me to Atbara and insists upon paying the bus fare.
In Atbara, I have a strange experience at the first hotel that I come upon - they tell me it's full, though it doesn't seem at all full. Maybe for whatever reason they just don't accept foreigners.
Looking for another hotel, I run into an Australian backpacker wearing a Djellaba (traditional Sudanese dress for a man). In major tourist destinations foreigners wearing the local garb just seem tacky. But in places as un-touristed as Sudan or Myanmar dressing in the local clothing seems appropriate. And in a place as un-touristed these there is an instant bond between fellow travelers. It's not quite the up to par as the famous quote: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?", but it's close. My encounter with the Aussie consisted of big smiles, big handshakes, and a sharing of stories before he led me to another hotel.
Leave a comment! I'm much more inspired to write when I know people are reading.
Wow. Sudanese Pyramids. That is so awesome Adam. The second shot down looks right out of a movie. Nice eye. Could I get a hi rez version for a desktop?
David Goeckler - Jun 25, 2007
Hey Adam very nice pictures. I would really love to travel like you do.
Lora - Jul 18, 2007
WOW! Misha is right! Your photographs are beautiful!
dave23 - Aug 01, 2007
How amazing.. I can't believe you got to sleep next to the famous pyramids of Meroe.. Amazing.. I've traveled in Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania) but nothing like what you have done in Sudan.. Well done..
Krys - Sept 06, 2007
Yo Adam, your story is truly inspiring! Now, I want to go and see the site! I have been to over 100 countries, including 28 in Africa but steered away from Sudan...
Rochelle - Sept 22, 2007
This is fabulous. If you only knew how inspiring your blog is. At this time when people here in the US are so paranoid about 'everyone else out there,' your travels really underscore my experiences--that the world is one big house and we should wander through the rooms and visit our 'family.' I know that the guy who insisted on paying for your bus fare to the correct town, is probably representative of most of the people. I spent a month in India, and I found most people to be welcoming and helpful.