Somewhere Sudan: ‘no-man’s land’
Up here in the in-between world of northwestern Kenya and south-eastern part of Sudan, there is no real border: no gate that indicates you are crossing from one frontier to the next, no demarcation line with a line cut in the bush that drifts off in the distance or up a hill, no border guards waiting to search your passport for appropriate documents and visas and thankfully no shakedown. Furthermore, it would be hard to tell where one country ended and another country began—it was all the same scrubland desert. This was the real East African hinterland. There was no “Welcome to Sudan “sign or “You are leaving Kenya” post or even the ubiquitous “Last chance for duty free liquor” sign. Travel writer Paul Theroux reflects on his many travels through Africa regarding borders—
“…a person who has not crossed an African border on foot has not really entered the country, for the airport in the capital is no more than a confidence trick.” For the most part, this resonates with me as I think quite often those travelers who are jettisoned into a country get short-changed from the total “African experience” of passing physically through an actual border. Having said that, most of our administrative work had been done in the last Kenyan outpost town of Lokichoggio and then after that we were on your own and would be obliged to check into the first police station in Sudan—Napotpot. This area between northwestern Kenya and southeastern Sudan really was an unadministered area—terra incognita. We didn’t actually walk across the border as we drove by in our MAN overland vehicles. Since leaving Lake Turkana we had been in a ‘no-man’s land’ between the Kenyan frontier town of Lokichoggio and the southeastern frontier towns of Sudan.
Journal (Tuesday May 11th, 1982)
“…the Place-somewhere Sudan the heat unrelenting in the 80s…thunderclouds cluster on the far distant horizon…the cow’s skull looms leeringly up out of the desert floor beside the recent gutted river of mud…a flat tire bogs us down and the wait is on, the heat is on and the race is on—the race to Juba. It was never meant to be a race but now it is, it is a race against time, against the elements and so far we are winning.”
Prior to our departure back in Nairobi, some traveller at the hostel had told me that each person would need at least half a dozen jerry cans for carrying drinking water through the Sudan. I was able to find said jerry cans albeit cheap plastic ones at a hardware store in downtown Nairobi. The only problem with them was once they filled up, they leaked—the seal was not very good. I had to improvise and put plastic wrap around the tops. I was also told to put chlorine tablets in to purify the water but after the first taste of the chlorinated water—I knew I couldn't handle it. There’s nothing like trying to quench your thirst with water that tastes like you are drinking out of a swimming pool. During the first few days in Sudan and after a week and a half of drinking this ‘safe’ water, I remember getting sick of the foul-tasting chlorine water and wanting to toss my full plastic jerry cans out of the truck. One of the drivers told me that rather than toss the plastic containers, I should give them to needy Africans along our route. It just so happened that we did run into a group of Sudanese stragglers at Kapoeta who were collecting water at a bore well where we had just stopped. These ‘stragglers’ may have, in fact, been the remnants of the Toposa people who are cattle herders and there was a group of young girls in brightly coloured, sackcloth dresses that had come to collect water. Most of the young girls were struggling with cheap plastic barrels that they had hacked the tops off. I’m sure they would spill quite a bit of water on their return route to their tukul or bomba. As per usual, the young African girls are required to fetch the water and walk the mandatory 10-15kms with their barrel gracefully balanced on their head.
Letter to parents (May 19, 1982)
“Apparently, one of the towns we drove through Kapoeta has a serious food shortage—actually there are people starving to death and no wonder there is absolutely no rain this year or for the past 2 years. The tribe there [Topasa’s?] had cattle and were nomads travelling from one watering hole or grazing area to the next. But, all their cattle died off in the drought.”
|Village girls collecting water, Kapoeta.|
After handing out a couple of the jugs a full-scale brawl almost ensued amongst the young girls as to who would get which jerry can. The prize being that at least with my cans you could screw the lid on and not lose any water. They treated this as newfound wealth as villagers on either side of the drought-ridden border were always in search of water containers and I had just given them a lifeline.
Letter to parents (May19th, 1982)
“Most of the locals are interested in trying their bit of English on you or just coming up and touching you as they don’t see so many strange characters and the white women attract most of the attention, especially a flaming red haired wench with a hard to understand Aussie accent.”
On our second day into the Sudan we realized there were thunderstorms on the horizon, but we didn't think it would affect us as we were at least a sixty miles away from the distant hills that were continually shrouded in thunderheads. We were now in the Eastern Equatoria province and these mountains that were to the south of us were the Imatong Mountains, which formed Sudan’s southern, border with neighbouring Uganda. At some point we realized that entering Sudan was something we were neither prepared for but it was the experience of a lifetime and the trials and tribulations of it brought us closer together as a group and for me as a traveller. Little did I know that this was a trip that very few would make as most overlanders usually take the standard Morocco or Algeria route down through the Sahara to Nigeria and then follow the Congo River over to Kenya? My eventual route that followed down the Nile from Nairobi was unusual as most travellers go up the Nile and not down like I had intended to do.
Between the Turkana and Topasa pastoralist border tribes, flash floods, poverty, famine, scrubland and searing desert winds, these were all new experiences for us. More importantly, these would form part of our collective “African experience”. There was neither accommodation nor facilities of any kind in this barren part of the continent and we were lucky just to find a flat space where we could pitch a tent or spread a foamie with a mosquito net holstered onto the side of the truck. Food was grim if not scarce and thank god Jos and Henk had some leftover dried goods and canned food from their original overland trip from Holland other wise we might have been begging at the side of the road.
As we hurtled on to Juba across the furnace blasted desert, tunes from U2's October LP reverberated through my brain. These were the days when the Walkman was just a new accessory and actually none of my companions had one. Hence, there was a more convivial and social atmosphere to the place with a lot of friendly banter going on between members of the British Commonwealth rather than seeking isolation and tuning out with the headphones.
On an earlier part of this world trip, I had managed to pick up a Toshiba mini recorder in Japan. I had decided to do some ‘field recordings’ much the same way that British musician Brian Eno had done for his “Ambient“ series in the early 80‘s. Initially I was intrigued by the Islamic call to prayer and had started recording a small collection of recordings from different mosque callers or muezzins on this trip. So far I had collected the calls from the Swahili coast, in particular, the Lamu muezzins on the eastern coast of Kenya. Plus, I recorded a Swahili pre-wedding procession in Lamu and their victorious soccer team, which had paraded and serenaded through the narrow streets accompanied by an overzealous mizmar or horn player.
Quite often the one Sudanese member of our troupe, Judallah and I would talk about Sudanese politics and found that we had a mutual love of poetry. We often recited our offerings to each other over the din that was outside our little open part of our M.A.N. truck. It was Judallah’s ambition to get to Sudan and then eventually to Italy as we wanted to study poetry and English at an Italian university. Unfortunately, I lost contact with Judallah after he moved to study in Italy and would have liked to know what happened to him. He was educated and quite refined like other Sudanese that I met but I wondered if he was rounded up as part of an Islamic crackdown in Khartoum years later when Islamic fundamentalism took route.
|Somewhere southern Sudan.|
As we drifted along on the bouncing road it was easy to drift off in our own travel dreamscape, which in my case meant some kind of music banging around in my head. As a result, quite often there was never a need to use the Walkman as I had my own soundtrack playing in my head. It was track number four from U2’s “October album called-”Rejoice” whose ending had booming drums in it with Edge's looping infinite guitar as the music seemed to be heading for a crescendo. There was a brilliant if not memorable line which went—“I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.” This line spoke volumes for this trip as my world was changing everyday and my internal perceptions of the world as well. At the end of it I had to scream out with joy as this was the most rapturous time of my life and I could scream out here in the Sudanese wilderness because there was nothing but wind in my face and dust in my eyes—I was howling into the wind.
Moreover, this was some of the best traveling I ever did in Africa and perhaps because we were quite literally travelling on the edge. Maybe it was because it was my first real taste of Africa and I was savouring every bite.
|Somewhere southern Sudan.|
Somewhere in southern Sudan, we were tooling along at a great clip and were bombing through a village, when we all got the unmistakable whiff of fresh baked bread. We all got excited, as we hadn’t had fresh bread since leaving Kitale, which was over a week ago. We eventually persuaded our drivers to stop while we jumped out and went in search for fresh bread. The prospect of finding a bakery in the southern Sudan was quite amazing to say the least, the idea of eating fresh bread was tantalizing. The weather outside was tortuously hot and when we went into the bakery it was like a damn steam oven. The heat outside was unbearable and yet, there were Sudanese men somehow making bread inside. Once our eyes adjusted to the gloom inside the bakery, it revealed a kind of mud tanour with faggots of wood scattered around to fuel the oven. It looked very much like a pizza oven. We couldn’t resist and eagerly bought a few steaming, hot loaves and started devouring them like we had never eaten bread before. Back in the truck, in all the excitement and gob smacking, someone remarked out loud about the bread—
“Wow this is whole wheat! ”
I tasted a bit and remarked on the crunchiness—
“No it’s cracked wheat! ”
Terri tore the bread apart and started laughing.
“What the hell is so funny?” one of the Kiwis asked.
“It’s not cracked wheat, ya wankers but baked weevils.” She barked at us.
This cut us off guard and we all stopped eating to examine the hot bread rolls.
“Jeezuz, she’s roight!” yelled Aussie Mark,
On closer examination, we found that Terri was indeed right and that the weevils must have got caught in the flour in the milling process and got fried inside the bread. It tasted good whatever it was and the weevils added to the crunchiness of the bread. Besides, a little extra protein never hurt anyone especially in our recently emaciated condition.
“The land of the shiftahs”
In travelling through this autonomous region, it was difficult to see any outward signs of the on-going civil war in southern Sudan between the northern Sudanese government forces and the breakaway Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army or (SPLA) led by John Garang. However, we had our own little brand of excitement in the form of a confrontation with the notorious "shiftas" bandits. The ‘shiftas’ are a rag tag bunch of desperadoes who may be some kind of rogue gang of Somali army types or just bold-faced brigands. At any rate, the ‘shiftas’ tried to rob us in the “no-man’s-land” between Lokichokio in northwestern Kenyan and the Sudanese border outpost of Kapoeta. Normally the “shiftas” ranged along the Tana River area of eastern Kenya. These guys came out of the nothingness that is the scrub wasteland of the Sudan/Kenyan border clad in their native raiment of just a loincloth. Some scantily clad African guys jumping out of the bush to surprise you is one thing, brandishing shiny AK-47s is quite another. There was absolutely nothing around us for hundreds of miles and one wondered what the hell they were doing here and how they survived. We had just come around a blind curve when we noticed that the first truck with Wolfgang, Canuck Mark and Henk was stopped just ahead of us. The two Kiwis, Aussie Mark, Ben, Terri and I were in the second vehicle with Jos.
One of the Aussies yelled—“What the hell are we stopped for? ”
Then we saw some guys off to the side of the road with nothing but shiny AK-47s.
“Jeezuz mate, they’ve got guns!” screamed Terri.
“Christ now what?”
The gunmen hadn’t really seen us yet so we were able to hunker down and whisper amongst ourselves as our truck tried to sneak by the ‘shiftas’.
“Better hide your money.”
“Are we being robbed?” muffled someone else.
“Should I take a picture?” asked Craig.
“Bugger that, they might shoot you”, offered Phil.
The rest of us, including myself, were too frightened to take any pictures more out of shock of being carjacked lest we arouse their interest in our cameras. At this juncture, a picture would have been worth a thousand words.
Letter to family (May19th, 1982)
|Mark, Wolfgang and driver Henk.|
“We also ran into some ‘shiftas’ or more plainly ‘bandits’ from Somalia, about 15 of them armed with M16 or AK-47’s who were looking for food or water. The lead truck got stopped first and there were these ‘bandits’ up talking to the driver, we pulled up behind and kept going because to stop might have been bad. We roared by and the ‘bandits’ raised their rifles at us, it was a bit hairy as we weren’t sure what would happen. They have a lot of problems with ‘shiftas’ at this border of Kenya, Sudan & Uganda so there are police stops at every little town which gets to be a pain in the ass but is necessary and we can get off for a hot cup of chai or beans & chapatti.”
Nevertheless, the ’shiftas’ were a noble sight if not frightening sight and as it turned out they only wanted food as we were miles from anywhere that would take cash. Money in the middle of nowhere is of absolutely no value to owner or thief. Unless these chaps could have eaten our bills it was absolutely of no use to them. We were fortunate to have our own Sudanese ambassador on board in the form of Jadallah who could talk to them and he was also able to allay our fears. The 'shiftas' were the only military types that I saw in the Sudan and they belonged to no organized army but were just a rag tag bunch of deserters looking for a meal.
Land of flash floods (between Kapoeta and Torit)
|Ben waiting for the flash flood to subside.|
Further along, we passed through what on the surface appeared as a string of harmless meandering streams. It seemed strange as we were in quite an arid area and could not see where the water originated from, as it was dense brush land on either side of our dirt track. The climate was a tad muggy so perhaps there was rain in the air as we could make out puffy thunderhead on the immediate horizon. No sooner had we continued our journey along the abandoned dirt track when all of a sudden Henk’s M.A.N. truck came to an abrupt stop. Our first thoughts were that there were more ‘shiftas’ on the road and we were held up again. A raging river confronted us, in fact, it was a 'flash flood' and the drivers wanted to wait till the river subsided—which might be tomorrow morning. The sky was clear and it wasn’t raining on us but it obviously had been raining further south in the Didinga Hills. Being old African overland hands, Henk and Jos knew it was better to wait until the next morning rather than risk getting both trucks stuck in the raging torrent and ensuing mud. Besides, there was only one winch between these two behemoth vehicles and we needed to plan carefully what our next moves would be. We were, after all, in the middle of nowhere and there would be very little chance of someone pulling us out, as there is no AAA over here or any callbox to phone for one. Besides, we were on “African time” and there was no rush to get to Juba, except to sell the vehicles.
Journal (Wednesday May12th, 1982)
“We are waiting for the river to go down today as it is roaring by and flooding about 100 meters either side. We dug ourselves in for a couple of hours or days until it dies down. But looking at the thunderheads in the distant horizon we could be here for years and look like the bleached bones on the ground beside me here. Mud mud glorious mud.”
We ended up setting up camp for the night beside the river. Someone set up a camp cot and laid out all the foodstuffs for dinner plus enamel cups and plates. Most of fresh food/fruit had either been given away in the Turkana villages we passed, to the ‘shiftas’ or had been chucked because it had gone off. Luckily, Jos and Henk still had quite a bit of their canned goods provisions from previous overland trip so we feasted on that. We still had a few veggies left, some rice and curry so we had a communal curry dinner with bully beef thrown in. We still had some packets of instant soup so we cooked that up too. That night we had a communal meal which wasn't half bad but everything was from a can and bully beef was becoming rather passé. There were no Macdonald’s or KFC nearby so you had to make do what the chefs cooked up or go hungry. There were no chairs so most of time we ate standing up or crouched down on the dirt track. Terri often used her white beat-up tent to camp out at night as she was freaked out about scorpions and snakes. I could care less as long as I had my mosquito net tucked under my foamie I was all right. We also had to be careful with our water as we hadn’t seen any potable water along the route. The water that we thought we could get at Lake Turkana proved to be brackish and unpalatable. Luckily, we had stocked up with jerry cans and Jos/Henk had brought five gallon metal water cans to haul our water from Nairobi. We were just lucky that the weather was clear and no rain to dampen our outdoor fete. In the morning our usual fare was quick oats, some sugar, tea and dreaded instant coffee which would have to tide us over till we got to a place with food or barring that—Juba.
|Being winched through the flash flood.|
The following morning, the sky had a few clouds but nothing to indicate a downpour. The river had gone down somewhat but it was still high enough to cause trouble lest we get stuck. There was no way around it—we would have to drive through it if we were ever going to get to Juba. After some discussion, it was decided that Jos would go through first since he had the winch that might have to pull us out. The far laterite shore beckoned us, but it was about 100-200 meters away. Ben stood at the edge of the receding river and watched the first truck go across the river. This seemed like a good time to take some action shots of the extreme driving scene so I waded out and in the four foot-high raging river to take photos of the sequence. I didn't care if I or the camera got wet for that matter as I had an underwater Nikonos camera and the water wouldn‘t affect the camera only me. The camera was a bit of a dog on this trip as everything had to be manually controlled from exposure to focal length which took away from the candid aspect. Nevertheless, it was perfect for this, because who cares if the camera gets wet. After the first truck went through it turned around and winched the other truck through the muck and moil. Terri, Craig, Mark and Simon stood up while the truck laboured through the swill. It was all exciting as Ben was in the cab smiling like a mad Ahab as the truck created a wave that soaked me up to my waist. Since I was already wet, I helped Jos unwind the winch and then hook it up to Henk’s truck. I was a bit of an old hand concerning working with winches since three months previous I had to do the same thing by myself in the winter wilds of Canada. Henk and Jos had to wait for me as I had to clean off all the muck that covered me and it was one of the lighter moments of the trip. After a brief chit chat and laugh, we were off and running again.
|Driving through the flash flood.|
Letter to my parents (May 19, 1982)—“...the desert and boggy sections, sometimes we were tilted at a 45 degree angle and it felt like being on a ship more than anything. The area that we drove through was desert mixed with swamp and it would get up into the 90s and 100s F during the day and would be raining cats and dogs all around us. We would stop off at any little town along the way for chai (tea) as that was all they could offer. There are people starving all along the route and whenever we finished eating (either oatmeal, bread or jam, or corned beef, noodles and rice for dinner) we would give the poor beggars the plates, pots & pans to scrape any morsel s off-and believe me they didn’t leave anything. But it was interesting to watch how they shared the food with each other as they would take turns having a mouthful. ”
The initial encounter with the “shiftas” was a bit worrisome just the same as I could envision the 'shiftas' trotting after us to gain further compensation.
Letter to parents (May 19th, 1982)
“We also gave lifts to policemen who were going on to other posts so that made us feel safer in case we ran into some other ‘bandits’…and this was just one ‘bandit’ with an AK-47 and his mates, he showed us the rifle and tried to wave us down, but like before, we drove right past. What we didn’t know was that we had to cross a deep river ahead (a couple actually) and the ‘bandits’ knew this and ran after us. We had to go slow over the river (as they had swept a couple of lorries over) and by the time we got over, I looked back and I could see these ‘shiftas’ running at full speed to catch us. So we got the hell out of there fast as these characters would run miles just to get a loaf of bread, and besides the truck drivers didn’t feel like meeting them over dinner.”
Apart from the “shiftas” and the policeman we saw very little humanity on this route. Villages were few and far between. Even though the weather was cloudy for the most part; very little rain actually fell on us. This was not the kind of place you would want to break down. At one of our frequent stops at a swollen river, I looked back and saw a troop of baboons following us down the muddy track. For some strange reason it sent an eerie chill down my spine like something from “The Exorcist“. I think it was a primal response to something that is human nature—wanting to be a ‘hunter’ and not the ‘hunted‘.
Eventually we got out of this “no-man’s-land” and most of us breathed a sigh of relief to be out in the open savannah. The tune “Fire” by U2 came to mind, “Falling, falling the sun is burning black, it’s beating on my back with a fire.”
Between Torit and Juba we had six-seven patrol roadblocks where we had to report to the Sudanese police with annoying questions like—
“How long do you plan on staying here?”
“Where are you going?”
“Do you have a Sudanese visa?”
“What a crock of shit.” I thought to myself.
Quite often we would use these police stops to grab a plate of beans, eat freshly made chapattis and drink copious amounts of sweetened chai or tea if it was available. I think the bumpy ride on the corduroy roads in our MAN trucks was starting to take its toll on us, on me for sure as I recorded in my travel diary—
Journal (Friday May 15th, 1982)
“…what a ratty joint, noisy, clanking, banging, bumping, being thrown around, being checked, hassled, haggled, no showers, ugali for breakfast with pineapples, chai, Marie biscuits and nuts.”
We finally arrived at the anything but palatial Africa Hotel in Juba the following afternoon and collapsed in heaps on nasty bedsprings that we would call home for the next couple of weeks.
 This is the area where the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by the self-proclaimed modern-day prophet—Joseph Kony who has been terrorizing the local villagers and forcing many children to fight for their cause and raping young village girls.