March 15th: Bikeless in Atbara

15th March 2001 |

The train clattered on, and on, and on, through the night, the dawn, the day, and the empty desert.

Very little changed in our carriage. Ocasionally one of the passengers might draw his scarf up further over his face as protection against dust I didn’t even notice.

Or another might briefly exchange seats with someone he knew in the corider. Otherwise things went on just as they had been, while the sun circled overhead and began to descend on the other side of the train again, to throw out the shadows of the people hitching rides on the roof above us.

26 hours after we had started, signs of life appeared in the desert; nomad tents, animals, a scattering of mud brick buildings with small black children running alongside the train, and then we inched into Atbara station and groaned to a halt.

I had become so accustomed to the experience that it was almost a wrench to detach myself from the train and my companions.
I had a ticket to Khartoum and toyed with the idea of going on. It could only be a few hours more, I thought, until I recalled with a start that Mohammed, the location manager, was intending to meet me in Atbara.

Anyway, I was anxious to find out what would happen with the bike, and to see if I could find again the hotel where I had stayed in 1973.

I retained a clear image from that time of the ragged, walled garden where I had taken tea and marijuana with a band of thieves, and of the rare red-brick buildings alongside the road from the station. So I emerged, stiff and grubby, with my tank bag and my carry-all, on to the platform among the motley crowd.

I found an office and spoke to an official who was not very reassuring.
“Maybe in a few days from now we will be getting those cars here,” he said, “but first we must find a locomotive.”
How things had changed.
In the seventies such a disorderly lapse in the good conduct of the railways would have been a cause for alarm and profuse apologies. Now it was apparently all too common.

I remembered wryly that not long before leaving England, a train I was to take had been cancelled because, they said, a crew could not be found to run it. I had never heard of such a thing happening in peace-time, and in its way it came as an even great shock than this, but not remotely so inconvenient.

“A few days?” In a few days the film crew would be gone, and all the effort and money to get us here together would be wasted.
But there was nothing to be done, and I wandered on down the platform with the last remanants of the crowd to an open area where I could see cars and taxis coming and going.

The intense blue of the sky had changed to a pale eggshell, and the sun’s light glanced off the dried mud walls making them glow like gold.

I watched the bustle of departing people, hoisting their robes as they clambered into vehicles, and waited in the warm air where the dusk gradually enveloped me.
The car park emptied. Nobody came.
I remembered the cell phone in my breast pocket. I had all but forgotten I had it because it had been useless since Cairo, and would probably be useless here.

But I turned it on and to my surprise the satellite bars appeared on the screen. I dialled Mohammed’s number and he came on the phone. Given where I was it seemed like a small miracle.
He said he was in his car, heading out from Khartoum, and I should go to the hotel where he would find me.
“Which hotel?” he asked.
“The Nile,” I said.
Kamal in Wadi Halfa had told me to go to the Nile Hotel, another Nile Hotel. A hotel chain maybe? A string of hotels made of tin and sand?

From the taxi I looked around at the town. It was totally unfamiliar.
Not only were there no recognisable buildings, but the whole shape and structure of it was completely different. And of course it seemed to be much larger, as were all the other towns I’d revisited.

The hotel was very pleasant. No tin, and very little sand. but plenty of open balcony, garden space, and flowers. I got out my things, had a shower and a cold beer, and was prepared to spend the night when Mohammed arrived.
I could see straight away that he was a force to be reckoned with.
Short, dark, and inclined to plumpness, he had the busy, slightly officious air of one who was accustomed to be obeyed.
His English was fluent, though accented, and I learned quite soon that he had been an army officer, trained by the British army at Sandhurst.

He told me I would have to drive back with him to Khartoum, a four-hour drive I was not ready for, but he explained that he would have to get me an official permit to be in Atbara.
“No problem,” he said, “but we have to be there.”
The crew was already in bed, after a horrific flight from Hamburg, and Manfred wanted to be with me in the morning.
“I should have stayed on the train,” I said.
Mohammed shook his head. “Oh no. You see, you would not get there until midday tomorrow.” I couldn’t believe it, but as it happened I found out later he was right.