Once we passed Al-Seliem Basin, the paved road ended and we reverted to using dirt roads. I was astonished once we entered regions passed Abu Fatma. The familiar desert topography that I had in mind faded, to be replaced by desolate and never-ending string of mountains and valleys. I was astonished at the sights before my eyes; I truly thought the only significant mountains in Sudan were to the West, in the Jabal Marra region. Only then did I begin to get an appreciation of the hardships faced by family members traveling to and from Khartoum to Al-balad (region of origin). The drive was backbreaking and this was felt from the comfort from our fully air-conditioned 4wheel drive land cruiser. So I could only imagine how much tougher it was in the Nissan buses that occupy this route. The roughly 280km from Dongola to Abri was covered in over 4 hours.
We arrived in Abri late in the evening and we pleasantly greeted at the DAR Consulting Guest house overlooking the Nile River and directly across from Arnata. From the numerous tales I had heard of the region, I imagined entering a completely pitch-black region, yet another contradiction was the enchanting dots of light that lit our path. Electricity which was once a luxury in this region seems to have been made accessible, in Abri at least. The guest house we stayed at, which I was told was designed and constructed by an Arnata native son was quite impressive. Definitely not the type of lodging you would expect in Abri of all places. It is definitely on par with some of the finest hotels in Khartoum.
Exhausted from the trip, we called it an early night in eager anticipation to finally see Arnata. The next morning I awoke and looked out my window to finally realize the island of Arnata is directly in front of our view. The weather was chilly, much chillier than I anticipated. A warm cup of tea and we were off to find a way to cross over and finally see that island that has captivated me. After arranging for a boat to help us cross over, we hesitantly wobbled down the steep embankment that contoured the banks of the Nile River.
Half way across the river, among a few men standing at the top of the embankment in Arnata, was my great-uncle. His boisterous laugh could be heard from a distance, as he waved his arms to greet us. As we arrived, I took a good, long look at the embankment we were about to climb; the equivalent of a 1 storey building, nearly vertical and composed of soft, silty unstable soil. The imposing climb made sympathize with those who use it on their daily route to and from the island. A few minutes later we were on solid ground among the wheat and fava bean harvests. The soft greenish-yellow stalks of wheat waved to and fro with the gentle gusts of wind. With each step our feet sank into the dark, fertile soil. Abruptly the arable plots of land were interrupted by sand dunes. Although not suitable for farming, these golden sand dunes sustained flourishing date trees. A short climb over the dunes and houses came to full view.
Neatly aligned houses overlooking central squares filled the landscape. Constructed of mud aggregate as a cooling mechanism as weather in these regions tend to be among the hottest on earth. The mud as opposed to conventional building materials tends to bring higher degree of relief from the scorching sun. Especially since electricity is scarce and fans or cooling systems are virtually nonexistent on this island. From a distance one would could not even tell the difference in building materials, as special care is taken to erect the houses and polish them with fresh coats of paint.
Upon arrival at my greatuncle’s house we were greeted by a host of extended relatives. Some of which I had previously met, others it was a first time encounter. Our time was very limited despite their persistent efforts to persuade us to stay and have something to eat and drink, we wanted to cover as many houses as possible. So with a second cousin as our guide we quickly mapped out the houses of extended family we wanted to visit and got on our way. With each house we entered, looks of bewilderment and surprise were painted on their faces. I was the last person they expected to see. At each stop it was a struggle to persuade them that our time was limited. All wanted to honor our presence by having us over for a meal. Regrettably, time did not permit. Still processing our arrival, family members left what they were doing and joined in an ever growing procession across the island to visit other relatives. The sounds our laughter and chatter grew in size and even those who we were not planning to visit peeked outside their doors to find out what was going on.
It was a very short and bittersweet trip. At that point in time I seriously contemplated telling my aunt to carry on further up north with her work as planned and I would find other means of getting back down to Khartoum. Alas reality brought me down to earth and reminded me of my obligations to work and family back in Khartoum. We were whirled off in the same frenzy that brought us onto the island but this time with throngs of relatives bidding us farewell.
Still reeling and trying to internalize the events from my last trip to El Gadarif and the Ethiopian border, I got the chance to go to the tiny island of Arnata, where my mother’s family is from. It was an opportunity I had been chasing for sometime but lacked the motivation as no one was keen on accompanying me. Luckily for me my aunt had a preplanned trip to the region to report on the progress of the Al Seleim-7alfa-Gustul, Egypt road that is currently in development. I jumped at the chance and packed my bags within hours of the news eagerly anticipating the journey. To give you an idea of the regions traversed during this trip, take a look at the map below:
The first leg of the journey from Khartoum to Dongola (roughly 500km) was a breeze thanks to a relatively new paved highway that connects the 2 cities. The five hour journey led us into Dongola right around lunch time. We made a pit stop to eat, rest and accompany my aunt on some work related meetings. Up until this point the topography of the region validated my mental image of the deserts of northern Sudan. Large breaks of sandy dunes with a solemn mountain/ rock formation in the distance. For the most part it resembled regions of River Nile State, similar to what I saw along the way to my trip to Abu Hamad. (and the island of Mougrat). The paved road passed Dongola extends a few more kilometers to cover Al-Seleeim region. Beyond that point we entered new territory.
I was taken aback by the city of Dongola. To be honest I really didn’t expect it to resemble a city at all but instead had the image of a large village in mind. I was pleasantly surprised to enter a meticulously organized city with particular care from local authorities to keep the maintain the greenery that adorned its streets. My stay in Dongola was brief, so there isn’t much I can say about the people as I did not have much time for interaction.