GUNTHER

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Driving through Sudan is noticeably very different from Ethiopia. You could describe it as: flat, dry, dusty, almost no potholes and almost no cattle on the road. The way to Khartoum is long but smooth. It’s a 600 km journey. Just two days before in Ethiopia it would have taken us two full days to cover this kind of distance, now only one short day.

We have lunch in some tents just next to the road. The meat is tasty and the owner ushers us to the beds at the back, when Willem and I lay our heads down on the table, exhausted after lunch. I’m awoken after a short nap by dozens of flies that curiously try to taste the last pieces of goat meat on my lips.

The last traces of sleep vanish quickly when I notice a giant butcher knife that swings through the air. The owner of the restaurant, also the operator of the knife, gives me a big grin and continues splitting an unfortunate (death) sheep in two.

Communicating with the owner and the rather big audience this spectacle has attracted is rather difficult but he gestures to take some pictures of this blissful event. I obey and I’m thankful for my strong stomach because it isn’t what you call a peaceful sight.

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Butcher/cook/restaurant owner with a big smile and a big knife

The temperatures rise and we follow the Blue Nile. The river and we are heading north towards Khartoum where we will join the White Nile. Khartoum has more than six million inhabitants. This city is the place were we cross into the Arabic part of Africa. The last traces of Sub-Saharan Africa are swept away: bars change into teahouses, women are moved from a primary to a secondary role in the street scene, little shops offer more products, cars are newer and preferably white, … .

We decide to stop first at the German Guesthouse before we look for a place to sleep. Norbert, the owner, is the guarantee for our motorbikes. We want to meet him and sort out the payment of our temporary import document. But Norbert is not around. The receptionist tells us that Norbert left early in the morning to Port Sudan. He’s leaving on a holiday to Saudi Arabia. We contact Norbert and he tells us that we have to sort out our business with Abu Weida, the agent connected to the automobile federation.

Then a grey haired man in his mid fifties with an impressive moustache enters. ‘Norbert has asked to take care of you,’ He tells us. He’s clearly a man of not many words. The way he walks and talks is short and efficient. Just the way you would expect in a German House off course. His name is Gunther and it doesn’t come as a surprise to us when he reveals himself as German. He invites us to sit down. We start to talk. What starts off as an uneasy formal talk turns into an interesting and very long conversation.

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Gunther in the front, taking care of his guests

Especially when he asks with a cheeky glance in his eyes if we would like some “special” soft drink. It turns out that the special ingredient is some illegally imported, Eritrean gin. Importing this kind of beverages is quite risky in a country that’s known for its strict application of sharia laws.

But Gunther has the means to organise these things. He’s the owner of a helicopter company. His pilots transport people and parts to remote drilling platforms in Sudan. Any delays on a drilling site cost oil companies big amounts of money. The amounts are that big that it’s definitely worth to charter a helicopter to deliver a crucial part or person in time. But after many years in the business Gunther himself thinks helicopters are a bit boring.

After hearing his whole life story we begin agree on the fact that “owning a helicopter business” might be indeed the most boring thing in his life. After a few drinks we decide to stay at the German Guesthouse, although it’s a lot above our budget. We’re simply to drunk to drive, especially in a country were alcohol intoxication is rewarded with a long prison sentence. I must admit that it’s quite a cunning move of our new German friend. But he cooks for us and he also turns out to be an amazing chef.

Once born in the surroundings of the black forest, he came to Africa many years ago as a forestry engineer. There are just few places where he didn’t live in Africa. His feeling for logistics and business started when he decided to transport goods from Mombasa (Kenya) to Kigali (Rwanda). He bought four old Mercedes overland Magirus trucks and reopened the trading route between Rwandan and the Kenyan coast, which was closed due to the rebellion of Yoweri Museveni in Uganda in the mid eighties.

We listen with open mouths to his stories and I think he appreciates our company. Although we move to another place the next day, we’re still invited for dinner with Gunther. In the end we spend almost all our nights in Khartoum having dinner with Gunther. Every time he surprises us with his cooking skills and new stories, always served with some refreshing “special” soft drink.

Who of you owned one of the most modern Swedish military hovercrafts ever built? Who owns a 50-metre long speedboat that previses anti-Somali-pirate–fighting-mercenaries along the Sudanese coast? Who in gods name owns two containers of dinosaur bones, which he excavated himself from the Sudanese desert? Who ever founded an enormous national park on the border between the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo? Gunther did all that. Some people just live the lives of several people.

Every time he lights a new cigarette and starts a new story his eyes start to shine and he gets a wicked smile. His story isn’t finished yet.

During the day time we try to decide our future travel plans. We abandon the initial idea of crossing into Egypt by motorcycle. Apparently Egypt is one of the worst countries to enter by vehicle. It’s very expensive and the bureaucratic hassle makes “the process” of Kafka even look like a handbook about efficient administration. In the end we change our route and decide to travel through Saudi Arabia. It’s the only alternative…

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couples and friends having tea in the Blue Nile
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Riding a bike in the Blue Nile

While we wait for our Saudi visa, we hang around in Khartoum:

– We visit the crazy Sufi’s Friday night prayer/dance battle in front of the Seikh hamad hamil mosque on the banks of the Nile. Hundreds of men get into a singing and dancing trance to get closer to god. In comparison with the Turkish twirling dervishen I must say that their Sudanese turning and falling counter parts were a bit disappointing on the technical dancing level. But they completely made up in enthusiasm and weirdness. Some of them definitely don’t only use dancing and singing to get into trance. (One Rasta-Sufi is even sniffing some funny looking ashes…). After the whole thing some of the dancer are have to be literally carried away. We do some small talking with them. Martine (half of the Dutch couple with the Volvo truck. They also made their way to Khartoum) gets marriage proposal and her partner Andrew almost agrees. Here’s a small video to give an impression of the whole thing:

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– We sleep in our tent in the garden of the Khartoum youth hostel, a hostel with a lot of potential but an extraordinary lack of hygiene management and motivation. But can you complain about these details if you pay only 1 dollar per night?

– We spent a lot of time in the juice place just down the road from the hostel. They are a bunch of Syrians who fled the civil war. In exchange for a Nutella waffle the owner and his son can make a test drive on my bike. What can I say, I’m easy to sway with food! (as a kid I used to have a grave Nutella addiction, it was the only thing I wanted for breakfast, lunch and if possible also dinner.)

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Syrian restaurant owner, ready to ride my motorcycle
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Willem trying out the restaurant motorcycle, it’s a fair swap!

– We observe shy, young couples who, very well-behaved, drink tea on the riverbanks of the White Nile.

– We see the sunset on the confluent of the two Niles from the top of Khartoum highest building (Corinthe hotel).

– We visit the national, presidential car museum. But it takes us more time to wake the guards up than to visit it (They have a impressive collection of five cars)

– We spent a whole afternoon at an airport terminal to finalize our visa registration process (three days after entering the country you are oblige to register again). Never have I spent so much time and effort for such a short visa (only two weeks). “Chaos” that’s the only way to describe the situation in front of the three counters. Things only start to move for us when I force my way inside one of the cubicles and refuse to leave before my passport is stamped. Afterwards we only have to wait for 2,5 hours more.

– We celebrate Ethiopian Christmas in an orthodox church. We’ve seen and unfortunately heard (always in the middle of the night) all the preparations for their Christmas but we crossed the border to Sudan just before the big party. So we’re happy to find out that there’s a church in the street of our hostel. A lot of Ethiopian citizens work in Sudan. Before we are allowed in the Sudanese police needs to give us a security check. Apparently the attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt also have repercussions on the sense of safety of the Ethiopian Christians in Sudan. The security check isn’t very thoroughly: they don’t realize I have (by accident) a huge knife in my pocket. It’s quite a holy atmosphere. The little church is completely packed. Fortunately enough, contrary to Ethiopia, they’re not allowed to make a lot of noise in a strict Muslim country. We only sleep a few houses away but we don’t hear anything.

That’s how we spend or days in Khartoum. Before we know it a week has passed and we realize it’s time to go. That’s not only because we’ve seen everything there’s to see in this city but also because or two-week visa is about to expire.


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