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Pole to Pole

Day 64: Wadi Halfa to Atbara

Michael Palin - Pole to Pole'When the train leave you will see a sight,' he chuckles, and indeed as the whistle wails across the desert at five o'clock sharp and this huge, unwieldy combination begins to move, the low embankment is filled with a mass of running figures, hurtling towards the train, leaping onto the coaches and eventually clambering up onto the roof.

Apart from the Roof Class travellers who, if they are prepared to risk extremes of heat and cold and blowing sand, are not officially discouraged, there are three classes on the train. Although we are in First it's quite basic - we are four to a compartment, few of the lights or fans work, and the basin in the lavatory has disappeared. The train superintendent, another big, friendly man, reckons there could be 4000 passengers altogether, though he doesn't know for sure.

A milepost in the sand indicates 899 kilometres (557 miles) to Khartoum.

The long, straight, single-track line was built on the orders of General Kitchener in 1897 to help in the relief of Khartoum, which the Mahdi had seized from General Gordon twelve years previously. Despite the punishing heat and lack of water, the British and Egyptian forces laid track at the rate of more than one kilometre a day, covering the 370 kilometres (230 miles) to Abu Hamed in ten months.

Once the pride of the Empire, the Nile Valley Express is now much reduced. Nearly all the coaches are in need of repair, and the wooden struts of their frames can often be seen through the rotten panelling. Delays are almost obligatory, sometimes extending to days.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 64
  • Country/sea: Sudan
  • Place: Wadi Halfa
  • Book page no: 141

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