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Pole to Pole

Day 66: Atbara to Khartoum

Michael Palin - Pole to PoleWe reach the town of Shendi, 132 kilometres from Atbara, after six hours of hot and desperately uncomfortable travelling. With great relief we step down at the Taieba Tourist Hotel. This proves to be closed, the gardens overgrown and unwatered, the spacious public rooms empty and smelling of decay. We are allowed to use the toilets, from which a couple of mangy cats emerge and skulk away. This must once have been a fine riverside hotel. Now it gives pleasure to no one.

We find a café which serves cold Pepsi and a hot vegetable dip of okra, tomatoes, shallots and cucumber. Very tasty, though not all of us risk eating it.

At a quarter to seven, as lightning flashes on the eastern horizon, we are stopped beside a canal bridge at our third army checkpoint of the day. An hour later we are crossing the Nile at Khartoum. Someone is pointing out the confluence of the Blue and White Niles but I'm staring downstream, transfixed by what appears to be a thick cloud obscuring the rest of the sky and drifting rapidly over the river like a curtain being drawn across the city. Then suddenly we are surrounded by a rushing wind, breathtakingly cool, and a hissing, crackling shower of sand, which douses lights and whips into eyes and mouths. Those of us not already wearing them reach for the face-masks we were issued with at the start of the journey. We are in the middle of one of the violent local sandstorms called a haboub, sparked off by a storm out in the desert (the one we had seen earlier). It is an absurdly theatrical entry into the capital - on Mohammed's birthday, with the wind whistling and the sand swirling round the lights and tents specially erected for the celebrations.

How the camera and the rest of the equipment will survive is another matter, and it's with considerable relief that we roll up outside the Khartoum Hilton thirteen hours after leaving Atbara. The first white faces we've seen since leaving Aswan look apprehensively at us as we approach the reception desk, shabby, unshaven and caked with desert sand.

Never has a hot shower been quite as exquisitely welcome, let alone a double bed and a mini-bar - empty, but still a mini-bar.

The haboub is still howling round the buildings as I fall asleep.
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  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 66
  • Country/sea: Sudan
  • Place: Shendi
  • Book page no: 147

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