Riding Roof Class
At some point in the night I wake feeling as if I have a rock lodged in my throat. Swallowing is piercingly painful, and only partly relieved by a swig from my water bottle. I’m relieved to find that I’m not the only one suffering. The cause is fine sand blowing off the desert and inhaled in sleep. There is dust over everything in the compartment, and only our precious bottled water to wash with.
At 6.30 a.m. Nigel, who must have been born on wall-bars, is already up on the roof filming the sunrise. Fraser is also up there and I know I shall have to join them. The train never moves at more than a steady forty-five m.p.h. but the scramble onto the top requires an act of faith in the shifting, creaking fittings between the coaches. There are about twenty people riding on our coach, and the atmosphere is friendly. Ali Hassan is young, maybe eighteen or nineteen, travelling to Khartoum to study civil engineering. He seems surprised that people in England cannot ride on the top of trains. I explain about bridges.
We talk about the state of the country. He is optimistic. There is no famine any more and the civil war in the south is less severe than it was. I ask him if it is a religious struggle between the Muslims of the north (comprising about seventy per cent of the country) and the Christians and non-Muslims of the south. He says it is political. Garang, the leader of the rebels, wants to be prime minister, and if he would only content himself with a position in the existing government the war could be over. The Sudanese need no friends, he adds, they will solve their own problems.
Our roof-top deliberations are interrupted by the arrival of a robed bundle of a man carrying a huge kettle swathed in cloth and a stack of glasses. Ali Hassan insists on buying me a cup of tea, and a cloth bung is removed from the spout and my glass filled with a sweet but refreshingly sharp substance. I’m lingering over the pleasure of this unusual feat of catering, when I notice a bony hand impatiently extended. The tea-man wants the glass back so he can continue along the top of the train. He sways off into the distance and Fraser shakes his head. We’ll get botulism, he declares, that’s for sure. Still, that was the least of my worries when I climbed onto the top of a moving express.
At eight o’clock we pass Station Number 6 (none of the stations across the desert have names). I remember a Sudanese butler in Cyprus insisting I visit his family here, but there seems no sign of life, family or otherwise, for miles around. I make my way through the shredded and rusting remains of a connecting corridor to the dining-car. There are six tables set beside dirty, shattered plastic windows and a number of empty wall-fittings where fans used to be. The breakfast of bread, chunks of beef, a boiled egg and lentils is not bad.
We reach Abu Hamed as the day is beginning to boil up. This is where the Nile, having completed a wide loop, turns south again.
The engine that has miraculously survived the night is taken off here, and while it is being refuelled I walk down to the river bank. A number of long, low boats with outboard motors are filling up with passengers to cross to the far shore. I notice that the women travel separately from the men, as they are required to do on the train.
By midday my thermometer reads 100 degrees in the compartment. Outside, the rock-strewn desert floor is bleached white. Inside, I’m eating a tin of ‘Stewed Chicken with Bone’, canned in China, bought in Wadi Halfa. The rest of the crew are opting for health, safety and Sainsbury’s tuna. No one has much energy left, and when I squeeze a plastic tube of mustard so hard that the end flies off and covers Nigel in a pattern of yellow blobs, there is a sort of weary resignation that this is the kind of thing that happens on the Nile Valley Express.
About half-past one someone falls off the roof and the train backs up for half a mile to collect him. He was flat out at the time and the whole episode gives a new meaning to falling asleep.
Between Artoli and Atbara we run close to the Nile, which is thick and muddy here compared with Egypt. The villages are squashed along the bank, and there seems to be no systematic irrigation. The houses are square, of mud brick; simple shelters from the sun. There are goats, but no vehicles. It looks a hard life out there despite such a bounteous river.
In the dining-car, desperate for anything to relieve the relentless heat, some people are drinking Nile water, complete with mud. I stick to tea bought for me by three Khartoumers, two of whom are returning from a honeymoon in Cairo. One is an agricultural engineer, another a lawyer. They are anxious to tell me of the damage they think the present government is inflicting on their country. The fundamentalist hardliners are aggressive, they have killed many opponents and, says the lawyer with a frustrated shake of the head, ‘They really do dislike educated people’.
As we step off the train in the cool of the evening at another Nileside stop, I watch a roof passenger unwind his turban and lower it down to a water-seller who ties it around the handle of a bucket, which is then hoisted up again. Locals sit beside their wares with hurricane lamps burning, and little girls walk up and down with kettles kept warm on a base of burning charcoal. The river has a rich, sweet smell here and the bleached and silent rock of the desert rises, bare and uncompromising, against the last of the sun. As I’m thinking how utterly and wonderfully strange it all is I notice that the coach in which we have been travelling across the Nubian Desert bears the maker’s name: ‘Gloucester Railway Carriage Company, 1959’.
We reach the busy town of Atbara, 193 miles from Khartoum, seventeen hours after leaving Wadi Halfa. From here we are to continue south by bus. I can remember only shadows, soft smells of cooking and a lot of carrying as we disembark. At a government rest-house we celebrate the successful conclusion of a potentially very difficult stretch of the journey with a jug or two of karkaday, a pleasant Ribena-like beverage made from the hibiscus flower. Well, it’s all there is.