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With a screech of iron on iron, the desert express drew into Wadi Halfa’s sandy station on the shores of Lake Nasser just before dawn. Shaking us awake, our guide, Abdulmonem, bustled us into a waiting Land Rover. Diesel sloshed over my feet from the plastic container that served as a fuel tank and gears protested as if each meshing would be their last, but we made it to the Cangan hotel. You might not admire its shocking pink walls but there are times when a bed and a cold shower are beyond price – the end of a 35-hour Sudanese train ride being one of them.
Whatever the hardships, the overland journey between Cairo and Khartoum has long been a prized classic for adventurous backpackers, often the start or culmination of a longer continental crossing. In 1992, comedian-turned-traveller Michael Palin brought it to a wider audience as part of his TV series Pole to Pole. He was seen riding on the train roof, chatting to passengers and drinking tea as the sun rose over the Nubian Desert, before getting stuck in Khartoum as bureaucracy and violence in the south of the country thwarted his onward journey.
Today, it remains an adventure but is becoming increasingly within reach for travellers without months to spare. The weekly train service between Khartoum and Wadi Halfa restarted last year after a three-year hiatus, and a fast, air-conditioned, Chinese-made train is due to enter service in December, cutting the 35-hour trip to 12. Moreover, Wild Frontiers, an award-winning tour operator with offices in the UK and US, has started offering tailor-made packages, neatly fitting the journey into a fortnight’s leave.
We began in Khartoum, home to attractions including the famous whirling dervishes, the ornate St Matthew’s Cathedral and the National Museum, close to the confluence of the Blue Nile and White Nile. However, my travelling companion Richard Dunwoody (a former champion jockey, now a photographer) was keen to go to the races.
Established by the British in 1908, the Khartoum Racing Club stages Friday afternoon meetings on a dirt track overlooked by a mosque. We watched the crowd cheering as the field burst out of a wall of dust on to the watered stretch to the finish. “Frankie, Frankie,” they shouted to the winner, who perched gamely on his saddle for a Frankie Dettori-style flying dismount. The cheers redoubled as the rider caught his toe in the stirrup and ended up sprawling in the dirt.
On Saturday afternoon, we joined Abdulmonem at Khartoum’s Bahri railway station. Opened in 1998, the yellow terminus is improbably sleek; most Sudanese rolling stock has a long way to go to catch up with it. The marble seating area is cooled by ceiling fans and an automatic ticket machine opens a gleaming steel barrier to a simple stone platform that is essentially unchanged since the late 19th century, when Lord Kitchener constructed Sudan’s first railway.
His mission was to transport supplies from Egypt for his campaign against the Mahdist forces which had taken Khartoum in 1885. As speed was essential, he extended the line southwards from Wadi Halfa, then a thriving Nile port, through brutal desert heat to Atbara, still the rail hub for northern Sudan, at more than a mile per day. Without the artillery it carried, the Sirdar, as Kitchener was known locally, might have failed to defeat the Mahdist army at the battle of Omdurman in 1898, securing Sudan for the British empire for the next 57 years.
In due course, one of the sleek new Chinese trains glided into the platform. So far, these only go as far as Atbara, about 200 miles to the north, so we watched and waited as its passengers disembarked and it left as stealthily as it had come. An hour later, a venerable mix of freight and passenger carriages clattered in. The diesel locomotive that pulled it was a disappointment: Kitchener’s steam engine, displayed outside the National Railway Museum in Atbara, would have completed the picture nicely.
After a long night-time pause at Shendi, daybreak found us travelling through the greenbelt, Sudan’s agricultural life line irrigated by the Nile. Between small towns dominated by minarets, wheat fields, rice paddies, orchards and banana plantations stretched down to the river much as they have for 2,000 years. As the railway veered into the desert, we stopped at stations identified only by numbers and then, repeatedly, in the middle of nowhere, while drifting sand was cleared from the tracks.
Groups of men leapt out on the shady side, welcoming the chance to smoke and lounge on the sand. Meanwhile, the shovel detail sorted the problem, their return the signal to jump swiftly back on board. With a good book and tasty snacks foraged by Abdulmonem from trackside peddlers, a second cool night followed the lazy dusty day. Our 4.28am arrival on Monday was bang on time.
In August 1964, Wadi Halfa’s citizens wept while their town drowned. When President Nasser ordered the construction of the Aswan High Dam to improve Egyptian control of the Nile, he had no regrets for the attractive waterfront, the decorative mosque or the Nubian villages that disappeared for ever, turning the inhabitants into refugees. Half a century later, Wadi Halfa limps along on the back of the weekly ferry to Aswan, the only way for civilians to cross the border with Egypt in these parts.
Over the next 36 hours, we enjoyed Sudan’s celebrated hospitality. In the modest souk we bought glue to mend Richard’s sunglasses and djellabas as gifts, before chewing the fat over chilled hibiscus juice in a market café.
On Tuesday we said goodbye to Abdulmonem and boarded the Sagalnaam. The Nile River Valley Transport Corporation’s venerable steamer carries up to 600 passengers between Wadi Halfa and the Aswan High Dam. Most are small-time traders who build barricades of sacks of herbs and spices, henna and dates on decks and stairwells. Their most precious cargo, saffron imported from Iran for export to Egypt, takes up less space but forcing a passage for our luggage to one of 20 two-bunk cabins was a victory for determination over politeness.
For the first time in Sudan, we met other western tourists, sharing a shift for the evening buffet and sitting on a deck crowded with bedding rolls to watch the shoreline recede until the chill evening wind drove us inside. After dark, the Sagalnaam passed Abu Simbel but the magnificent temple, relocated on a bluff overlooking Lake Nasser when the High Dam was built, was long gone when the insistent call to prayer woke us at 5am.
In sight of land four hours later, we assembled in the dining room to watch an Egyptian official checking the documentation for everyone on the ferry. As I, along with all other passengers, had obeyed the order to throw my passport into a cardboard box by the gangplank before we left Sudan, I wondered if I’d see it again. I needn’t have worried but it was noon by the time we disembarked and met Hesham, our Egyptian guide, on the Aswan waterfront.
Anyone looking forward to a magical chilled beer after dry days in Sudan should head for the terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel. Built in 1899 for British engineers working on the Aswan Low Dam that opened in 1902, it stands on a dramatic bend overlooking Elephantine Island. Winston Churchill was a regular during the second world war and Agatha Christie was another fan, spending happy winter months here writing Death on the Nile.
Sudan may be edging its way back on to the tourist map but southern Egypt is suffering a backlash from unrest in other parts of the country. Rows of empty boats along the Nile tell a tale of escalating desperation but there is no better time to visit: in Aswan, we had Kitchener’s exotic botanical gardens and the bird sanctuary to ourselves. There were no fellow travellers in the Nubian village where we shared a hearty lunch with a local family and no queues for Isis’s island temple at Philae.
When it was time to head down river, we boarded the five-star Sonesta St George, a cruiser with 47 cabins and 10 suites built in 2007, for the two-day voyage to Luxor. At Kom Ombo, Hesham explained the unique “double” temple design, with its mirror-image sanctuaries and courts for the crocodile and the falcon gods, Sobek and Horus. Edfu, the best preserved of all Egypt’s temples, belongs to Horus alone.
We spent the day in Luxor visiting the Valley of the Kings and the great temple at Karnak, stopping for a homegrown lunch – the best meal we had in Egypt – on a farm on the banks of the Nile. In 1994, the Egyptian government suspended cruises between Luxor and Cairo to counteract silting that was lowering the water levels. The ban was lifted in 2011 but services remain on hold because of the perceived risk of terrorism.
So, to complete Kitchener’s epic route without flying, we spent a comfortable if clanky night on the 10.30pm sleeper express from Luxor to Cairo, disembarking in Giza at 8.30am. Not so long ago, the Pyramids and the Sphinx were isolated in the Giza countryside. Now the community is integrated into greater Cairo, a city with 20m people and 5m cars. Saying goodbyes to Hesham, we headed through the gridlock for the airport.
Minty Clinch was a guest of Wild Frontiers (wildfrontierstravel.com), which offers a 12-day tailor-made Khartoum to Cairo overland journey by train and boat from £1,970, including guided sightseeing and private transfers. It also runs group trips.