Khartoum had always held a romantic fascination for me. From the journals of nineteenth century explorers, soldiers and adventurers, I’d envisaged its vivid history unfolding on the wide thoroughfares lined with Neem trees and the grand buildings of the British. The bustling river traffic at the confluence of Blue and White Nile and rich aromas of frankincense, wood smoke and cooking spice drawing me into vibrant overflowing markets ‑ journey’s end for the great camel caravans of North Africa.
However, years of Islamic fundamentalism, despotism, civil war and now international sanctions have ensured that the city once hailed as ‘the Venice of Africa’ remains largely off limits to Western travellers. For days I’d waited at the pleasure of the Sudanese consular officials in Nairobi before being granted a visa and, with it, the opportunity to discover how Sudan had weathered its many storms and what remained of its once heralded romance, imaginary or otherwise.
Other than the national carrier, few airlines venture into Sudan and flights to the capital are infrequent at best. A foreign curiosity in the empty arrivals hall I was met by a not unfriendly group of security personnel who happily recorded every item of my equipment. Then in an already crammed passport they credited me with the first of six travel stamps and permits I would receive during my stay. In a ‘dry’ Hilton Hotel I was greeted by the Tasmanian manager who informed me that my arrival had swelled the occupancy beyond the 15% mark. Time and time again it would be this helpful man and his staff who would extricate me from governmental security and bureaucracy. At the end of a long empty hall I found my room, a bar fridge and a non-alcoholic beer to celebrate my arrival.