Crossing the Desert

Camping in the desert

After a couple of relaxed days in Khartoum (and one ridiculous Nile River cruise) we headed out of the city and into the desert. Our destination was Wadi Halfa on Lake Nasser, where we’d be catching a ferry to Egypt. Between us lay over 900 km of Sahara and Nubian desert, 300 km of which has no roads at all. We were in for four days of sweat, dust, dehydration and heat exhaustion, of beautiful nights under the stars and scorching afternoons under the sun.

The Meroe Pyramids

Our first day of driving took us from Khartoum to the Meroe Pyramids, about 225 km north of the city. The Meroe Pyramids are a collection of small pyramids that date back as far as 500 BC. We arrived at the site in the evening, but we’d already decided to visit the pyramids in the morning in order to beat the heat. We pulled off the road to set up camp — and we got a small taste of what our future days would hold. The truck sank gently into the softer sand, and we were stuck. Of course, the truck is equipped to handle this sort of thing. We carry 8 sand mats (long, stiff metal tracks, really) and a couple of shovels with us, and a few minutes of digging and placing the mats usually gets the truck rolling again. Unfortunately, it often rolls forward about 50 feet before bogging down, and we have to go to work to free it again. The mats are heavy enough that it takes two people to carry one, and of course digging in the sand is not something that you do for fun when the thermometer is topping 45¬∞C. We managed to sand mat our way out of the soft sand, and set up our campsite.

Camping in the desert is something special. It’s almost like being on a different planet. The sand changes colour as the sun drops, glowing red just before darkness sets in. The sky feels big — it’s somehow more vast and high than any other sky I’ve looked up at. When things settle down and the temperature begins to slowly drop, you can get silence out there that is deep and complete. We loved our desert camp sites in Namibia, and we’d been looking forward to more of the same in the Sudan. They didn’t disappoint.

Of course, with the Sudan being so much closer to the equator than Namibia, the biggest difference is temperature. I’ve heard it said many times before that the desert is hot during the day and cold at night — but cold is a very relative term here. I’m sure the temperature never dropped below 25¬∞C, even in the coolest part of the night. By 9:00 in the morning the temperature was usually back up over 35¬∞C, and as we progressed further north and dropped in altitude, even the breeze became too warm to be refreshing. Early morning was the only time of day to even consider doing any type of strenuous activity, as many people learned the hard way. With that in mind, we set out early that first morning to explore the pyramids.

The Meroe Pyramids in the morning

In the early morning light, the Meroe Pyramids were stunning — not so much for their scale, but simply because of their setting. The desert stretched away on all sides, and as the sun rose and turned the sand and stone from red to gold to yellow, the blue sky became an animated blue canvas streaked with clouds against which the pyramids displayed their form. I have to admit that I felt like I was in Egypt, since pyramids are so tied with that country in my mind. It seemed to mark a transition of sorts in our journey through Africa, and an introduction to a new facet of one of this continents many cultures. After a couple hours at the pyramids, the sun was high in the sky and the sweat was running freely. It was time to drive on.

Carrying sand-mats through the desert

Another long day and another night in the desert brought us to our third day — the day the tarmac ended. After only a short distance on the third morning, the paved road ended, and the true desert began. The only thing guiding the way was a set of railroad tracks and a single line of power poles (usually with no power lines intact) marching away resolutely towards the distant horizon. Our driver Grant let some air out of the truck’s tires to make us more sand-ready, and we drove on. The going was a lot slower, as we wound back and forth looking for the firmest sand. On this day we did really well, only having to sand-mat a few times as we pulled into camp. This was especially fortunate, because this was the day that we truly started to feel the effects of the prolonged heat as a group. Several people started to suffer from dehydration or heat exhaustion, and even though we were drinking water by the gallon, it seemed like you could never have enough in you. To make things harder, the heat took away many people’s appetites, which only compounded any issues they were having. Happily, Meg and I were doing well and feeling healthy, but I would lie if I said that the constant sweating and dusty, hot wind didn’t occasionally have a dampening effect on our attitudes.

Our fourth morning dawned clear and hot as usual, and we pressed onwards, hoping to reach Wadi Halfa by evening. We knew that there was nothing much to look forward to in Wadi Halfa other than waiting around for a few days for the ferry to leave, but we knew that there would be fridges there, and inside them, cold beverages. Armed with that knowledge, we set out intrepidly again. We were in for our hardest day yet. The temperature hit 48¬∞C in the shade on the truck, and we had to get out and sand-mat in the heat nearly a dozen times as the sand softened before us. At lunch I decided to snap some portraits of everyone to commemorate our suffering, and I have to say that we come out looking better than we felt, don’t you think?

Still smilin'

Even though it's hot

Our hard work paid off, and we did make it to Wadi Halfa that night. We savoured ice-cold waters and Cokes, and even bought some ice for the coolers on the truck. We knew that we had a long wait and a long ferry ride ahead of us still, but that didn’t matter. We made it through the desert, many of us a little worse for wear, but intact. It’s a leg of our journey that I’ll always remember for its extremes of beauty and misery, of exhaustion and amazement. The desert is not a place I’d ever want to live — but it is one of the most incredible and foreign landscapes that I’ve ever been through, and I hope it won’t be the last time either.


  1. Bruce & Kate

  2. Mark you are an incredible writer, we felt your pain and pleasure – we felt the HEAT and the weight of the sand tracks. When we were in Las Vegas a week ago we also felt the heat in the desert at 45 degrees c., but we had cooler of cold beer and an air conditioned car, and five star hotel room. But we still understand, as we felt the pain for five minutes walking from the car to the hotel. Hang in there…

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