YOUR HOLIDAY DISASTER

How an idyllic trip to Khartoum turned into a race against time. By Christine Best
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The Independent Travel
Some years ago we lived in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, but escaped the worst of the heat in April, May and June by flying home. The flight, in a twin-engined aeroplane took two days, and thermals over the desert were thrilling and shocking by turns.

For the return journey we planned to travel in more style. Given the discomfort of flying - and because I was heavily pregnant and we had another child under two - we decided to go back by the overland route. This would mean a train to Naples, followed by a short June cruise in the Mediterranean to Beirut. Here we would stay for a couple of weeks before taking another short cruise from Beirut to Alexandria. Idyllic?

As it turned out everything was fine until we arrived in Alexandria. Here we discovered that British Officialdom had somehow managed to upset Egyptian Officialdom, and that Egyptian Officialdom was determined that anyone holding a British passport should suffer the consequences. We would have to wait to be last off the boat. No amount of pleading about having a small child, being pregnant, and having a train to catch was any use. The diplomatic situation must have been very grave indeed - but so, increasingly, was ours. Panic began to creep in.

The problem was that we did have a train to catch. By the time we got off the ship we knew that we would be lucky to catch the train for Cairo. And missing that would involve missing three other connections. We arrived hot and distraught just in time to see our train moving sluggishly out of the station.

We decided there was nothing for it but to take a taxi from Alexandria to Cairo - about 100 miles across desert. At the time the roads were unsurfaced and the "taxis" were hardly the latest in automobile reliability. But there was no alternative.

We approached a group of drivers who clamoured loudly for our custom ... until they heard our proposal (we would pay twice what they asked for if we caught our train, but nothing if we missed it). No one spoke for a moment until one young man smiled and stepped forward.

Once out of the suburbs our driver showed his determination to earn his money. We flew across the desert with a huge, orange, cloud of sand in our wake.

After an hour however, the car engine started to give out distress signals. The driver pulled over, showing signs of distress himself. "Allah" he said, "the water is boiling." He then lifted the bonnet and out shot a great quantity of steam and water, gushing and spitting all over his hands. After much swearing in Arabic, he wrapped up his hand in a clean cotton handkerchief and we set off once again.

The car now behaved impeccably for the rest of the journey, but time was running out. Our driver was looking troubled until a brainwave struck him. Our train, he assured us, always stopped at a level crossing just outside Cairo. They would take passengers on board at that point. Could we believe this? "Trust me," he said.

True to his word it worked. We and the express arrived simultaneously. If I hadn't had my arms full of sleeping infant I would have embraced Ahmed. Instead we boarded the train to Wadhi Halfa from where we would catch the slow but very comfortable sleeper to Khartoum.

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