Tales From The Road: Lost in Sudan

6:13 AM Jmo 0 Comments

     Travel and stories of exploration have always intrigued and inspired me.  From a very young age I remember being gripped to the TV while National Geographic explorers traversed, camped, and crawled their way through other-worldly conditions to bring us stories and photos of ways of life around the globe. 
      I'm continuously driven and amazed by these and other accounts.  So much so that I decided to reach out to those modern day explorers who inspire me, and so many others, to share their stories.
     Now these aren't "famous" explorers by any means, but that's the true beauty of these tales.  You don't need to be Jacques Cousteau to reach and experience the far ends of the Earth. You just need a little drive, spirit, and adventure in you. You never know where the road, your road, will take you.
So, without further ado, for our first segment of Tales From The Road, we have an account of a British national, Liam, on a film assignment in Sudan which takes an unexpected turn. I met Liam while teaching in South Korea and he was gracious enough to share his story.

Lost in the Desert, the written account.
January 7, 2011 at 2:59am

Lost in the Desert
Liam Roper

I remember thinking that morning, ‘Oh great, a day off’, as I stumbled out of bed in the air conditioned room and headed for the shower. Robin and Andy were chatting excitingly in the downstairs area of the apartment, whose voices I could hear as I passed the stairs to the bathroom.

A while later I strolled down the stairs in my shorts and flip flops, happy not to have shoes and socks on in this African heat of the Sudan. During the days it could reach 50 degree Centigrade and in evening it hardly made a difference at 38 degrees.

"Oi Oi! here he is" said Andy as I came down the stairs a while later, "We were thinking of sending a search party for you mate" he said flippantly.
I paused and noticed my watch which had stopped and still read 3’o clock am. ‘Crap, did anyone try to wake me,… damn!, can’t hear anything with the air-con on.’ I said. ‘I was going to wake you a few minutes ago, but you were already in the shower’ answered Robin.

I started to gather my things off the table, and pack my own camera. I was really looking forward to some breakfast and a gradual moment with cigarette and coffee to help awaken fully.

Ok lads, our ride is here in 10 minutes" said Robin as he zipped up his back pack. Some of the camera equipment stood waiting by the front door. I immediately slipped into production mode thinking of what a cooked breakfast sandwich and cardamom coffee would feel like at the teaching centre, hoping we would have the time to rest before we made the main journey into the desert.

A bit later I was sitting in the back of the air-conditioned people carrier heading into Khartoum city centre, here I had time to gather my senses and awaken fully. Through the tinted windows I was a passive observer to all the hustle and bustle of traffic trying to move in the same direction. Even with evidence of Western styled roads and building structures made when the British colonised these parts long ago, there was very little infra-structure in this part of the world, a lot of the traffic seemed to have no sense of direction, over taking was the norm and it just seemed a free for all at road junctions and round-a-bouts. So many vehicles seemed unsafe for driving, I thought of how traffic cops back home would have their hands full.

We had been in the Sudan for just over a week, teaching film and television techniques to group of amazing students based in a suburb of Khartoum, just over the bridge of the Nile. A place called Omdurman where Sudan’s main TV station worked from, and also where in 1898 Lord Kitchener had a historic battle to gain the very bridge we were now currently crossing.

Each one of the students were so enthusiastic and eager to learn. They all turned up so well dressed and on time every day. They probably travelled most mornings for three hours, mostly on foot or if they were lucky to be jammed into an overloaded bus, just to get to the class on time. I had never seen people with this much empathy, compassion and respect, far removed from the many students I had taught a little film production to back in the UK, when the TV and film work was scarce.

It was all very far removed from the life living in London where one can feel so very insignificant. Here we were treated like stars with importance and respect. Although I felt that may have had a little to do with fact that I had used my BBC logo production bag, baseball cap and water proof jacket that I obtained from some production work back in 2002 at the Commonwealth games in Manchester. It was part of our first impression tactic to obtain the respect required, and it worked very well.

Today was the day we had planned to reconnaissance a location that would be suitable for the students to work a practical ‘piece to camera’. The students had a day off to prepare while we went on the journey to discover more about Sudan and plan the assessment. It was great idea from Robin, who was leading the team. After many days in the air conditioned class rooms we were eager to explore.

Later that morning we packed the people carrier outside the teaching centre with only a few provisions of water, flasks of coffee, food and sun tan lotion. The temperature felt that it could already be over 30 degrees centigrade. I thought about the shorts and thin shirt as the only option of clothing, unaware of what we were all about to experience.

We were not all together clear about exactly where we were actually heading. One of our guides and good friend Mudessa, explained that it was a sort of historic sacred ruins of some kind, but till this day I never got to really know the name of it or even get to see it. Nagda our translator, who was a beautiful woman of Nubian descent was also off for the day, so conversation was very limited. I feel we all missed her greatly this day.

The Journey Begins.

As we left Khartoum the traffic became less congested as we stuck to a single road heading north. Fewer buildings appeared along the side of the road as more wide open space appeared. The 3 of us that were English were constantly transfixed to the change as we noticed the size of the massive desert open up and reveal herself as a harsh dry reality.

The other three in the vehicle was, the driver, who spoke no English at all yet was always very cool and relaxed all the time; Mudessa who was always by our side everywhere we went and ‘Smiley Man’, one of the very friendly Sudanese teaching assistants from the centre we worked at. We could never pronounce his name, so nick named him ‘Smiley Man’ as he always replied in very broken English with a very lovely smile.

I had forgotten to have any food at the teaching centre, more concerned that all the equipment was present for the journey, and also obsessed with taking shots of the prep’ on my own small mini-DV video camera, thinking of where it could slot in with the little documentary I would put together when I got home. I held this little camera by the window of the moving car to capture the moving landscape, with only a few un-usual mounds of stacked rocks passing in the foreground to the huge expanse of flat desert.

The mood was excitable as we all tried to communicate somewhat in broken English. Our Arabic was really quite terrible with very little time to learn the language before we came out on the job. I was listening to the traditional Sudanese music that the driver always loved to play, with beating drums strange Eastern flutes and magical chanting, it really built the atmosphere, as my imagination travelled to times long ago of men covered in white robes crossing these parts on camels with loads of good to trade. I wondered about the stories of these parts and the many tribes that lived off in the distance.

As we journeyed further along the desert road huge trucks thundered passed us going the other way with a collection of smaller vehicles hoarded behind them, unable to over take. We zipped passed what seemed like little villages that were more like a collection of markets standing alone in the desert. Fruit was always visible from the stalls and little huts collected together that may have housed only a few people, probably just there for brewing very strong coffee and making traditional food. Many people sat or strolled around these places, as if stranded here and not actually conducting any business. Sometimes we passed a mosque situated further back from the road, each one had its own mystical feeling. In Khartoum when a call to prayer would take place, I always took the time to take in the beautiful experience wishing I had my camera as the setting sun silhouetted its towers.

After an hour of driving we stopped for a short break, pulling up at one of the little market towns. It was hard not to look like tourists with the important look of the people carrier unable to see through its windows, and it didn’t help when the three white people stepped out with cameras and Bermuda shorts. The children ran over to us as if seeing Europeans for the first time, all asking us where we were from and a few trying to sell us bags of limes.

As Robin stepped out of the vehicle he immediately started to film with his digital hand camera, capturing all of his eye line in one sweeping pan, focusing on the collection of market stalls directly in front of him. I noticed one man in a crowd of robed and traditional dressed folk sitting with his back to us. He put his hand up in a non consenting way as if to block his face from the camera and said something in Arabic with anger in his tone before darting off. 'I don’t think you are allowed to film here Rob,…’ I said as I reframed from doing the same.

Robin continued still unaware of the evading man or that it might seem a little intrusive, only to provoke a reaction from another man running out of one of the nearby shacks with what seemed like a huge whip. He was very angry yet dressed unlike the others, with shirt and slacks and seemed quite important. He was shouting in Arabic, as if to say ‘How dare you film us…’, as he ran over to us with the whip razed to strike. I immediately lowered my camera and turned my back like a naughty school boy, as if to head back into the car.

I saw Robin and Andy do the same as we all cowered like children. The kids scattered and we were left with this angry man showering us with insults, but he did not use his whip and left us after making his feelings known. We all nervously chuckled although only the driver was still in his car listening to his music. Mudessa and Smiley Man had disappeared to pick up something from the village and it was just the tourists who were left with perplexed expressions.

We left after trying to tell the situation to Smiley Man when he and Mudessa returned with cooked sandwiches. However we could not explain properly in Arabic and there was no evidence of the whip man to be seen, it was as if we had imagined it all. So we just accepted the situation as just another crazy experience in Africa. I remember Andy saying those words just as we pulled away from the roadside village.

Further down the road when the journey had now taken almost two hours and the excitement had died down a little, I noticed Mudessa and the driver arguing over the directions. We then left the tarmac road to now follow a desert track heading deep into the desert. It was at this time that I realised that the vehicle should really be a 4x4 and not a people carrier, but I did not say anything as I trusted our guides who knew the area better than us.

Then we reached what seemed like a huge white pipeline that stretched right across the desert. It was so surreal sitting alone in the desert with either end out of sight. There was a gap in the pipe for the desert road which made me think that the pipe has just been put in place or was yet to be dug underground and not operational.

The arguments still continued as Mudessa seemed to be directing the driver now off the desert path into soft sand, no place for the tarmac tyres of our vehicle. It was at this point that the people carrier refused to go any further and we slid to a stop, its tyres still spinning and spitting out sand behind us. I looked at Robin and Andy as we all seemed to come up with the same expression of ‘Oh no!’

The excitement in Andy and Robin was back again as we all clambered out of the stuck vehicle. I was stunned, as I have experienced a deserted area without water before. When I used to live in South Africa before moving back to the UK.

I went on a history trip to Isandlwana the location of a great battle with the British forces and the Zulus. A film called Zulu dawn was made from the story back in 1879 and we were the lucky school kids at the time to climb to the top of the mountain and then follow the trail to Buffalo River fifteen kilometres away. A three hour trek that had me experience a full on desperation for water. I will never forget this, what it was like to finally be able to drink fresh water from the river.

My thoughts went straight back to this Zululand experience as I looked around at the massive lake of sand and rock. There were no buildings or road anymore, in fact nothing moved or changed the shape of the horizon other than maybe a dried out tree. All that we could see that was man made was this huge pipe line about 100 feet away.

The Sudanese guides were all in argument in what seemed like finding the right one to blame, while Andy and Robin seemed to be jumping around like as if Christmas had arrived shouting ‘We are lost in the desert,…’whey hey!, We are lost in the Sudan!’ I realised they did not really understand the seriousness of the situation with the heat now well over 45 degrees. I went back to the car to get some more sun block only to find that all the car doors were locked. I asked the driver to open up but he then looked a little worried. He tried his door and now looked fed up. He then tried all of the doors as I wondered why he just didn’t use his keys to open up, it was hot and I needed the sun block. Then I realised that he never had his keys as he pointed to them still dangling in the ignition. It was at this point that my stomach churned and I felt a little dizzy.

The reaction from everyone else, was similar to my own, as we could all not believe what was happening. The car now with it back tires half under soft sand and everyone locked out to face the blazing heat of the Sudan sun. I remember speaking into Robin’s hand held video camera hoping that I get to edit it into the documentary one day, saying… ‘ok, this is what we call a Marlborough moment, when you just light them up and hope that we can get some help here,…I mean we are locked out of the car,…we are stuck in the desert and locked out of the car’…. Andy jumped in on the camera to say ‘The only thing that could get worse, is if a pride of lions turn up’,…a cackle of laughter sounded in the back ground separate from the interview,…as I finished off this little piece to camera by saying,… ‘This is as bad as it gets, I mean what do you do here, we have no protection…’ Robin then focused his camera to the tyre half covered in the sand. I remembered thinking how that little scene would work very well in montage footage of our Sudan experience, but then the reality of the situation hit home and I forgot all about the art of a documentary.

The situation suddenly changed as we noticed a vehicle coming from the horizon making dust along its path. We were all waving and shouting at it and the vehicle seemed to make a direction straight towards us. ‘Oh my god we are saved’ shouted Andy.

As it got closer I could see that it was a truck of some kind with a few people on its back. When it arrived I saw it was a Bedford truck made from Vauxhall Motors in London. How ironic I thought, when stuck in the desert help arrives in the form of a vehicle that originates 10 minutes bike ride from where I lived back in London. I could not have written this in a script.

The truck pulled up as if rescuing those stranded in desperate times was part of their daily routine, out jumped three men with shovels and pieces of timber. Our guides communicated with them as they headed to the car. I asked to help with the job but they just smiled and beckoned us to step back. They went straight to work on the stuck tires while one of them looked at the locked front door.

In no time the front window was forced down in the door, just enough to get a hand in to grab the keys, and the engine was started. The men were all very fit and use to hard work and in a few minutes had dug a grove for both tyres to drive over the timber to get better grip. I could not believe what I was witnessing, was this some kind of divine intervention? In as quick as it took us to get stuck we were now free from the soft desert sand and back on the desert track. Although not facing the direction we had come from, we were facing the desert again.

We thanked the rescuers who would not take the money offered for their help, they just seemed really grateful to be of assistance, when it was really us who should be grateful. I was astounded at this example of ‘Good Samaritan’ ethics, as they happily left us heading through the gap in the pipe line as we all got ready to continue the journey.

I questioned Robin straight away,… ‘Hey man, are you sure we should not head back, I don’t think they know where they are going.’

Robin took the challenge of trying to question the choice of direction, but Mudessa just seemed to console his concern with hand motions to relax, and with only a few words of ‘We Ok, we go’.

Robin, Andy and my self sat back with out much to say here, knowing full well that we were in the hands of our guides and that we just had to trust their judgment, although that deeper feeling in me was of great concern.

The road was just about good enough to move through the desert, with very dried bush passing us by and small rock hills getting closer. I looked out of the window to see what seemed like a small tin shack all alone with only the dried trees as company.

All of a sudden two little native children darted from the shack, heading towards us. They were too far away to catch us as the driver seemed to pay no attention to them, but my heart sank as I knew it was the first time they had seen a vehicle like ours. Maybe they were looking for food or just being curious. In Sudan there are a lot of unfortunate people constantly begging and looking for help, not that these two children were in the same boat, but I knew that this was just a way of life in this part of the world. Our car sped away as they slowly disappeared, and I could not stop thinking of what life was like for them living out here.

After a few hairy moments avoiding softer sand in the road, and then picking up a local man to show us the route, who just happened to be wondering on his own, we suddenly hit our ‘brick wall’ so to speak. As the vehicle ran into very large soft sand area on the track and stopped for the second time. This was now not funny anymore, as rather than excitable Europeans having the experience of being stuck in the African desert, this time we knew it was for real.

All around us there was just very dried vegetation dotted with the huge landscape of very dry sand. A small rocky mountain stood by as if watching our frantic behaviour with amusement, as we tried to find phone connections and decide on a plan of action.

The man we had just picked up off the road was covered in traditional robes and hidden quite well in a turban. He seemed to watch us just like the mountain did, hunching down by the side of the road pouring out hot coffee from the flask we brought. He seemed quite calm and still, and as I approached him he handed me a glass of the sweet black syrup as if it will do me good. I sat with him watching looking at the sight of the vehicle sunken deeper than before into the soft sand, and I even chuckled to my self a little, thinking… ‘Well, what else would you expect?’

The heat was unbearable, it must have been mid-day and around 55 degrees centigrade. I drank the coffee and sat with the peaceful man, until the sun’s rays felt like it was eating my flesh. I scamper into the shade of a nearby bush and watched the scene from a distance. It looked like the man was so use to sitting on the side of a road drinking coffee, while the others tried their best to dig the car wheels out from the sand. For a moment just watching him seemed to calm me down a little, then a noise made me jump as I saw Mudessa throwing rocks into the bush I was under. He explained that he was just checking for snakes, as they tend to hide in the bushes. I decided then that the best place to finish my coffee was in the car.

Robin, Andy and the guides all seemed to have different plans to get us out. I had no idea at this point, as I seemed to have surrendered to the situation. One idea was to see if a phone signal could be reached from the nearest mountain, while the other was to have someone walk to get help.

After the first idea failed to work, as there was no way a phone signal would be picked up this far out, Mudessa heroically elected himself to get help. However Mudessa had a serious limp, after damaging his leg playing football long ago. It seemed that he would be the last one to be able to make it, although he reassured us that he would be fine, as he use to live near this area and knew it well it seemed.

It was decided that the man we picked up would go with him, as the two followed the desert back along the track, with Mudessa dragging his right leg. They were soon out of sight as we all huddled in the shade of the car.

The air conditioning was like gold to us right now, as the last of the coffee and water was coming to an end. I had forgotten that I had not even eaten any food all day and searched for the lunch. The driver turned off the car engine to save the petrol which now turned the car into an oven, so lunch was to be had under the shade of a bush, yet this time knowing to throw rocks at the bush first.

The cooked sandwich of chicken and cheese would have been so much more enjoyed under different circumstances, and I failed to eat even half of it. I was quite put off by the strange alien like insects that seemed to find the sandwich as their own dinner. Slowly the ground around me came alive as small rocks with legs darted sideways, huge ants picked up the smell of food and large buzzing dragon flies attempted to dive bomb at me. I threw the food away only to see the insects all head in that direction.

Once back in the car I started to think of back home, of English winters and rain on my face. Robin and Andy seemed to have the same picture as we sat motionless with Smiley man and the driver speaking occasionally in Arabic to each other in the front.

The sun was changing direction and so was the shade of the car, as the rays of sun now started to peak through the window. Our hope was becoming less as I looked out where Mudessa had walked, hoping to see some sign of life, but all that I could see was the immense dry sand.

At one time Andy jumped up out of the car, with a sudden change of heart. ‘Come on lads were British, we must be able to sort this out’. He gathered Smiley man and the driver together and attempted to inspire them into coming up with another plan. Robin and I just looked at each other as if he had lost his mind.

At one stage we started to film each other as if it may be our last words to our families. Although it became too comical and childish to be take seriously so we gave up on that idea.

It must have been many hour later that we were all sitting outside the car as the sun was now closer to the horizon. The car’s shadow actually provided good shade and everyone lay there motionless. I started to think what sort of animals would be on the hunt for food at night, when all of a sudden I noticed a yellow dot in the horizon.

It must have been someone walking, and sure enough as they got closer I could see the outline of a person. I also noticed a cloud of dust a little way from where she was, as if a vehicle was approaching. Smiley told me it was just dust storm so we focused on the single person approaching.

As the person got closer we could hear bells ringing and could now see the heard of goats belonging to this person. It was a woman dressed in yellow robes and cloths. She was very dark with skin like a leather shoe and when she spoke only a few of her teeth were left. She spoke in Arabic to Smiley man explaining that a well was only a half a mile away from where she came from. She was taking her goats from one side of the horizon to the other, something she may have done everyday all her life. What she must have thought of the fancy car and funny looking Europeans looking quite helpless in her own back garden, a place that we felt was like hell on earth.

Just as we were gathering the empty bottles of water the dust storm in the distance turned out to be a vehicle and was heading our way. We were once again excited children as the same Bedford truck arrived with Mudessa on board with many more workers.

We all drank the water from huge cans and hugging our rescuers who set about digging us out of another mess. Once again the workers were all just grateful to be able to help, wanting no money but only that their pictures could be taken and hence maybe remembered.

This time we headed back to civilization forgetting all about the ancient ruins or the project, just eager to get back to our own beds. We followed the truck back to the main road, stopped off for a coffee at one of the villages along the highway and watched the sun set from plastic chairs, thinking how lucky we were.

I still think about the woman and her goats, how with nothing she could survive out in this desolate place, and how so inadequate we were with all our western knowledge. The gratitude of the being rescued from the desert will live with me forever.
This story has been unedited to preserve the integrity of the author.  -The Ticket, The Ride, 2015

Liam outside of Khartoum, Sudan

Q & A with Liam Roper:

1) How long were you in Sudan in total? 
     We were there for four weeks, based in Khartoum. 

2) Are you still in contact with anyone from the expedition? If so, how has this experience changed your relationship?
     I am not really in touch that much with the folk from the expedition any more, but I am still in touch with Nagda, the Sudanese interpreter. She was of Nubian decent and a very interesting person. I am also in touch with one of the Sudanese organizers/handlers there at the time, both through Facebook.

3) The children in the desert. the man drinking coffee on the side of the road, the woman walking with her goats: I believe seeing the ways people live around the world is one of the most incredible things about travel; you mentioned you felt the same. How does seeing these ways of life change your world perspective?
      Seeing all of this changed my perspective incredibly, it was humbling to say the least as well as drawing on huge questions of where I was from in the world and what I represented. The way people react to each other in London compared to the poverty stricken in Sudan was sickening to say the least. Sudanese people are so much more friendly and appreciative of the simple things in life, very family oriented and very giving. Each person we met wanted us over to their house for dinner and they usually used up all their food supplies to feed us, which we only learnt after the visit. It was heart wrenching to say the least knowing they just gave everything they had tot heir guests. While in London, not one of the 8 million people living there would even consider the thought.   
     The children running wanted me to stop the car and give everything I had to them, the woman with the goats and the man with the coffee made me realize how dependent I am living on this planet, weak and almost a child to really living and surviving in nature as harsh as the Sudan desert.

4) As you stated, this story could've ended far differently. How has this experience changed your travel mind?
     I would just say more appreciation for what I have and the opportunity to experience and the ability to explore this planet and its many cultures. The few more freedoms I can experience and the wider range of choices that exists in my own culture, although I also really questioned if this actually was good or bad for my own growth.
     I feel being more prepared comes naturally with each new experience but this had me re-think was I was a part of in my own culture and how much I needed to break away from its apathy and 'artificial womb' so to speak. It was not long after this trip that I left London and the film industry with many more interests and questions about myself and the world around me. I actually ended up taking a more spiritual path, living near Glastonbury learning a personal spiritual alchemy program in community, with Reiki healing as the main discipline. But that is a whole different story...
5) Would you return to Sudan? Why or why not?
     I always said that I would return one day, as the people are really special to me out there. I felt that I need to take the time to explore more of the huge country that it is and spend longer time with some of the older wise men who lived out in the bush in almost complete silence. I never did this, as my own journey just went in different directions, but I might return to Sudan if I ever visit the African continent again.

     Liam Roper was born in Camden, London in 1971 but his family soon relocated to Durban, South Africa where he grew up and spent the greater part of his teens. He moved back to England, Liverpool, where his parents ran a pub called the Junction for 17 years.
     Always interested in travel and exploration, Liam traveled The United States, cross-country, from Boston to Seattle, traveled and worked through Zimbabwe, and spent many English winters in The Canary Islands.
     He returned to the UK to complete a degree in Television Production at Manchester Metropolitan University. His work led him to such film sets as Notes On A Scandal, Stardust, and Hot Fuzz. This career path led him to teaching TV and film making in Sudan.
     He's now living and working in South Korea.
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