Leaving Cairo, still buzzing from the great climbing in Rum and Sinai, we’ll turn south and begin our journey along the Nile, which we will follow almost all the way to its source in Lake Victoria. First we journey to Luxor, the ancient Middle Kingdom capital. Luxor boasts many of the ancient temples and burial sites of Egypt including the Valley of the Kings with Tutankhamen’s tomb. We should be happy with a couple of days here and in Aswan (where we’ll find impressive ruins such as the Philai temple and Abu Simbal.) There is also the potential for some fun on the giant boulders by the banks of the Nile where, years ago prior to the dam being built, rapids of the Nile flowed entering Egypt from Sudan. There are a few small crags in the sand dunes, and we can go and explore these on camel back before taking a felucca out onto the river to watch the sun set, cold beer in hand – the last in a while as Sudan is a dry country!
After a 24-hour crossing of Lake Nasser, we have a whole different world waiting for us – the great desert expanses of the Sudan! We’ll need a couple of days in Wadi Halfa, the border town on the shores of Lake Nasser, to complete the paperwork and get BiRT into the country. Wadi Halfa is a little dusty desert town that feels in the middle of nowhere mostly because it is! It is a great place to get used to the slow, smiling relaxed pace of life in Sudan. Locals will buy you a cup of tea or coffee, or your breakfast. You can spend an hour or two smoking an apple or strawberry-flavored shisha and watching the world go by.Last time we were in Wadi Halfa, we met a local school teacher who invited us (our entire group of scruffy climbers) to his daughter’s wedding. We drove off into the desert to find a decent place to wash and put on our cleanest clothes (which weren’t very clean!). We drove back to the wedding and then proceeded to be treated like kings and queens for the rest of the night and the morning after, during which we were fed more excellent food than we could fit in, served with tea and coffee on tap, and then roundly embarrassed when we were taught how to dance and sing Sudanese style!
We’ll have some fun driving on sandy tracks through the heart of the Sahara desert. Dave, the expedition’s climbing leader wrote of the crossing: “There is just a maze of tracks over dust and sand. We knew when we had found the road as we instantly hit corrugations. These are 20cm high bumps across the road regularly spaced by a gap of 50cm. The result is that everything is shaken very rapidly and every weld, nut and bolt is tested to a point very close to its limit. The main road to Khartoum can be described as pure class A crap. Imagine a road to the local quarry, add corrugations and large amounts of soft sand. Now take away any other sign of human existence, including other traffic. Over the following two days we drove 320km in two blocks of 12 hour driving to the town of Dongola. We spent a day there to scrape the dust from our bodies, extract the sand from every orifice, and give a bit of TLC to the truck. The next two days we longed for the corrugations, at least then we would know that the sand was hard. Instead we drove on soft sand. Every now and then the truck would dig itself in. Using hands, shovels and sand ladders we would crawl forward 5m before sinking again and having to spend another 10 minutes digging. This could be repeated as much as 5 times before we would reach harder sand. The last 320km to Khartoum we were overjoyed to meet asphalt with the assurance it would not stop.”
The alternative train journey is one of the greatest train rides in the world, cutting a straight line over 1700km of desert. The track was laid by Thomas Cook over a hundred years ago and appears to have not had any maintenance since. The train is periodically delayed by huge sand dunes on the tracks and people falling off the roof (it's free to travel on the roof, but is rounded and sleeping becomes a problem.) On the way to Khartoum we will stop off and visit the Meroe Pyramids – roughly 40-50 small, steep sided pyramids that are Sudan’s premier tourist sight. It bears no resemblance what-so-ever to the pyramids in Egypt. In Sudan they cost only a few pennies to see, there are no other tourists there and you are free to wander around the site in your own time, and won’t have 3000 touts trying to sell you camel rides!
Once we’ve finished exploring these pyramids we can set up camp right next to them and spend a final night sleeping out in the desert before we pull into Khartoum the day after. This dusty African city hides a lot of charm. The sheer friendliness of the Sudanese people means that you are always busy talking and laughing. Hopefully we will be there on a Friday to visit the Whirling Dervishes. If not, it's on with the best American accents as the American club has the only swimming pool in town to escape from the heat. We’ll have to go and report to the ‘Aliens’ office (Sudan is not used to tourists!) and spend some time enjoying the amazing fruit shakes before we hit the road once more, south to Ethiopia.
This destination is one of my favorite places and the only country in the world with thirteen months of sun as they have a different calendar. Our first stop will be mystical Gonder, known as 'Africa's Camelot'. With a series of castles and churches it was the old capital controlling the flow of gold north. We can spend a day or two exploring the town and the chaotic markets. Gonder is also the staging post from which we can, if people are interested, mount a sub-expedition to Mt Wehni - the lost mountain in the hidden valley.
The history of the mountain is impressive. The Governor of Belese and a Scottish explorer, upon hearing rumor of this mountain visited it over one hundred years ago with the intention of scaling it to find the treasure on top. Their expedition report filed in the Royal Geographic Society says: "From the crest of the ridge the last half of the plateau was finally revealed. The vast natural forces that had thrown up these regular downs had suddenly run wild. In the docile plain there opened a gorge perhaps half a mile wide, leading to a bowl shaped valley. It was the valley of Wehni. It was in fact twice the height that it first appeared and its sides perfectly sheer to the ground. Once again my stomach contracted in fear."
Also known as Mt. Amara, or 'the mountain of three princes', the mountain was used as a retreat (and prison) for the future kings who lived in complete seclusion high on the summit. Buildings can still be seen on the top and the only way up was a precarious ladder fastened to the rock by wooden stave driven into holes carved out of the rock. The mountain was mentioned in the book ‘Kubla Khan’ but until recently, nobody had ever managed to climb it. A party of British soldiers once forced a route 300m up the arete but failed to summit, and a helicopter attempted to land on the top but couldn't.
In 2001 on our global challenge expedition, a M19705 team was the first team to succeed in an ascent. This success spawned articles in the Sunday magazines, a book and a film on The National Geographic channel (some of which is on the our video, contact me for a copy). An ascent of Wehni would be stunning, and we will decide nearer the time whether to fit it into the schedule or not. Following on from our exploits here, we will spend a few days driving east across the Simien mountains to one of Ethiopia’s main attractions – the ancient stone monoliths at Axum, the largest single pieces of stone ever cut. Home of the legendary Queen of Sheba, this humble village was once the capital of a great kingdom and – for orthodox Ethiopians - the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.
On the last expedition we spent time developing a crag in Axum. A dense scattering of 4 pitch buttresses spread along 4km or so of hillside just 30 minutes bush bash from the road, there are literally hundreds of new routes just waiting to be climbed on this awesome granite. We’ll spend a while here adding to our collection. Have a look at Climber magazine from Jan 09 for editor Kate’s opinion of her new routes with us here. Axum also contains some impressive sandstone towers, on which Pat Little John and Steve Sustad have been active in recent years, and we will take a few days to repeat their routes and explore for more. There are boulders too, hidden in between the villages and huts. You can crank hard and pose for the army of local kids that will come and watch with awe at the silly games these tourists play! The granite will eventually take its toll on our finger tips, and the time will come to head further south past Yeha, through Adigrat to what is probably the most beautiful camping spot in Ethiopia, in Tigrai.
Setting up a bush camp on a flat field 60km down a dirt track, nestled in amongst the farms and huts of this remote community, and surrounded by 400m high sandstone walls that have barely been climbed, we’ll spend a few days playing volleyball with the locals and climbing to some of the many ancient churches that have been hand carved out of the sandstone, plenty of which require more than mere scrambling techniques to get to! We spent a glorious week in Tigrai last time, exploring the peaks, putting up nearly 20 routes between us in varying degrees of solidity. The best lines require some searching out here, as some of the rock rather resembles sand.
Climbing, exploring, buying fresh eggs and honey from the local farms, having firewood delivered to us by the young lads in the area who are trying to earn a little pocket money, and then supping a cold beer as the sun sets. Life is good! While we’re in Tigrai, there is the opportunity for those that want to, to travel to Lalibela, justifiably nicknamed the 8th wonder of the world. It is the site of 23 churches carved by hand out of the solid rock and still in use today. Lalibela is unforgettable and worth a few days of anyone’s time. From Tigrai, we’ll head south once more for a few dusty days of driving on roads with striking views, that will take us to the sprawling capital Addis Ababa - is the place to spend a day or two catching up on eating Italian meals or 'Burger Queen', ice cream and drinking cappuccinos.
The market in Addis Ababa is famous for selling everything from camels to AK-47’s and it’ll be a challenge for everyone not to get lost for several days in amongst its labyrinthine alleyways! It is also as good a place as any to fill up on Ethiopian food, which consists of injera (foam sleeping mat) and wat (paste so full of chilli's you wont be able to move for days.) Reaching Addis on 14 May, we have another changeover opportunity – and we’ll enjoy the 30p beers at a last night party - before heading into the remote Chalibi desert of northern Kenya.
Also see tour packages in:
Africa Egypt Sudan Ethiopia Outdoor: Mountain Ranger Mountain/Rock Climbing Desert Expeditions
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