Guest post: Through the sands of Sudan

My friend David is a great archaeologist and I remember his clothes always being filthy. I think those things are related.

Remember that old Monty Python skit where old men argue about who had a tougher life growing up? Conversations like that happen on digs all the time, and apparently even after digs. Reading about contemporary toilets in Sudan reminded David that it used to be worse!

Here he is:

Through the sands of the Sudan

I first met Jack in the somewhat dishevelled Sultan Hotel in Damascus in 2000. His recent blogs on the El Kurru Heritage Project in Sudan stirred up memories of my own trip there twenty odd years ago. We were surveying for archaeological sites along the Nile, but snuck across the Nubian desert for a mid-season break near El Kurru.

Just getting to our base, south of Dongola, was an adventure in itself back in 1995. We clambered sleepily onto the Khartoum-Wadi Halfa ‘Greyhound’ bus at dawn and had barely settled when we stopped for breakfast at Omdurman. I’d travelled a bit in the Middle East before and knew that timetables were prefaced with ‘inshall’ah’ – ‘the will of Allah’. I also knew to expect the unexpected, but nothing prepared me for the toilet block in the bus station. The first report beggared belief in its foulness, but curiosity and necessity finally overcame revulsion and better judgment as the breakfast stop extended towards midday. I simply had to ventured into the toilets: shall we just say, it was akin to surfing through a sewage farm on wobbly planks of wood.

When we finally got back on the road, the admirably tarmacked surface from Khartoum to Omdurman stopped abruptly. Our antiquated, asthmatic steed battled on, shuddering across the corrugated ruts that passed for a ‘road’ for the next 250 miles. The sturdy vehicle was little more than a metal crate on wheels – the windows had no glass, so we were sandblasted through the flapping curtains. The engine spluttered and wheezed, but the chassis was lovingly adorned with gaudy yellow and blue paint. Whatever the vehicle’s deficiencies, passages from the Holy Kor’an emblazoned on the sides assured us of Allah’s protection.

The next 20 hours consisted of near continual jolting and juddering. For once, my lack of stature was an advantage, with a meagre foot and a half between seats. The stench of diesel fumes mingled with wafts from the gently sweating bundles of onions, piled high on back seats of the bus. A floppy-eared goat bleated nervously a few rows behind me, and the relief driver cursed, as he attempted to get some sleep amongst someone’s consignment of firewood in the narrow aisle. Flies tormented us as the heat of the sun intensified quickly and then slowly ebbed at dusk. Sunset prompted another stop, this time for prayers, a bite to eat and a stretch of our legs.

The monotonous desert scenery did little to relieve the discomfort, although it is starkly beautiful and strangely hypnotic – a turbulent sea of swirling, glaring sand dunes and jagged, eroding sandstone escarpments: barren, merciless. Occasional islands of lush vegetation provided respite. One such oasis, an isolated compound of small, whitewashed, mud-brick rooms around a well, would be our base for the next ten weeks. It was isolated and spartan, but once we had laid a couple of mats and hung up a few Christmas cards, it was home.



David Thomas is a research archaeologist, who periodically dug and traveled in ‘dodgy destinations’ across North Africa, the Near East and Central Asia in the 90s and 00s. His book, The ebb and flow of the Ghūrid empire, based on two seasons of fieldwork at theWorld Heritage Site of Jam in central Afghanistan, will be published later this year.
Find him on social media:
Thanks, David! If anyone can top this story of “surfing through a sewage farm,” then you have earned my sympathy.


If the timing of this seems crazily off, it’s because the contents of this post (and more!) first appeared in my monthly email newsletter in July. If you subscribe, you can get more writings like this delivered straight to your inbox and not miss a thing. Sign up here.

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