The Most Dubious Journey So Far
“Go down to the souq and take the road on the right, you’ll see the bus station” a man directed me as I was searching for transport to Kauda, 115km east of Kadugli. Two days ago, I had never heard of this village, but as clouds began to amass overhead—the rainy season rolling in—I was walking down a nondescript dirt road trying to find a way to get there.
During the civil war Kauda was the base for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the southern rebel force opposing the national army, and I had been told that the population there was much more “Southern” than that of Kadugli, the influence of the SPLA still strong. My acquaintance in de-mining had been there a few days ago, where they had discovered cluster bombs and other unexploded ordinance on the main road, a route they used often.
Having walked past the “bus station” I was pointed back in the direction I had just come from until I realised that the crowd of people around an old open-backed Land Rover constituted the departure point for this remote village.
We were fourteen, crammed in the back of this Land Rover, ten adults and four children. Two others sharing the passenger seat were traveling first class, having paid a supplement of ten Sudanese pounds to be up front.
When an armed soldier climbed in next to me, I feared that I would have to produce my travel documents, thus marking the end of my journey. When registering with the authorities in Kadugli I had said that I would be staying only in town and hiking in the surrounding hills. By going to Kauda, I had gambled on that in not passing any major roads, and heading into SPLM territory, check-points would not be a problem. My fear, however, was unfounded as he muttered salaam alikoum, squeezing in beside me, just another passenger. Wa alikoum salaam.
Now, my only fear was whether he had put on the safety-catch of his Kalashnikov that was rattling between his legs as we bounced over the rutted dirt track, the barrel pointing upwards inclined at an angle somewhere in line with my head.
Driving out into the savannah we passed villages of tokuls, the Nuba mountains encircling this vast, arid plain. Crossing dry river beds, the implications of travel during the four-month long rainy season suddenly become apparent. Good luck with the upcoming census.
And then the rains thundered in. Tarpaulin was wrapped around the side of our open-backed Land Rover but did little to keep out the storm, driven in by a fierce cross-wind, whipping the blue sheeting. The tin roof was depositing heavy splashes of water on the man next to me; the child on my lap began to cry, my efforts to shelter him from the worst of the rain evidently not enough. None of us were dressed for this, and for the first time since being in Sudan, I felt bitterly cold to the bone as the biting wind blew over us.
The river-beds we were now crossing were no longer dry and the driver bounded over submerged rocks, veiled by the silty waters, wheels spinning in the mud as we mounted the opposite bank. At one crossing the gear-box jams, and we remain motionless for a while. Later, the engine stalls and fails to restart. I see the driver in the sanctuary of his dry cab, his head pressed against the steering wheel, inspiring little confidence. We sit motionless for half an hour like that, the wind still thrashing us with rain, losing hope. And then the engine splutters back into life.
Crossing deepening and quickening rivers, my legs and buttocks are numb. We pass more tokuls, and as their density increases, I feel respite is near. A UNICEF compound confirms this, and we have reached Kauda. The journey should have taken around three and a half hours, but we now arrive six and a half hours after having set off.
I head straight for a straw hut with smoke emanating from it, the scent of fuul in the air. I haven’t eaten all day; the search for accommodation can wait.