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Pole to Pole

Day 66: Atbara to Khartoum

Michael Palin - Pole to PoleOur driver, Ibrahim, is laconic, and has one white eye which stares fixedly ahead. There is no visible road, but he concentrates on the rocky, sandy surface as if negotiating Piccadilly Circus at rush hour. Occasionally he reaches into a small plastic bag and extricates a wad of tobacco which he rubs, breaks and sniffs into each nostril. We pull up every now and then and Nigel, Patti, Fraser, Clem and Angela toil off into the distance to set up for a passing shot. The moment we stop an eager, bright-eyed young boy, who appears to live on the roof, leaps down, pulls open the bonnet and fills up the radiator with water before scampering back up among the cases.

Ibrahim cannot understand the need for all these stops, he just wants to get to Khartoum. It is Mohammed's birthday and there will be festivities tonight. My porter friend is much more chatty. He says he is a schoolmaster and asks me such imponderables as, 'Do you know Richard Burton?' I shake my head. There is a short pause. 'Do you know Roger Moore?'

We stop at a Nileside village. The river, swollen by the rains in Ethiopia, has risen eleven metres and will continue to rise until October. But the great, wide, generous Nile flows by on its way to make electricity for the Egyptians, leaving these Sudanese villages to try and extract what they can with, in this case, one steam pump and wooden sticks and boards to scrape out irrigation channels.

Its one of the puzzles of history that such hardship and poverty can exist in a land which over 2000 years ago was renowned for an iron industry and a rich agriculture. The area we are passing through still has some of the remains of the ancient kingdom of Meroe, including a group of broken and leaning pyramids, some topless, which stand in the desert like a row of bad teeth.
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  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 66
  • Country/sea: Sudan
  • Place: Atbara
  • Book page no: 147

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