North Sudan Rock Climbing
Dominating the view from the busy town of Kassala are the mighty granite domes of the Takka range. As enormous vultures soar high above the blank looking faces and baboons guard the seemingly endless supply of gigantic boulders one can’t help but wonder what rock climbing prizes lie in this largely un-explored African wilderness.
Mike Hutton and a small team travelled to the far north of Sudan to scope out the climbing potential in this un-spoilt land of incredible people and fascinating boulders.
We had landed at the confluence of the white and blue Nile and were suddenly immersed in the kind of airport turmoil you would only encounter in these kinds of places. It’s fair to say the security staff were just as surprised by their first ever sighting of men with Bouldering pads as we were to their rather rudimentary approach to bag checks. To avoid any confusion we decided it would be simpler to make out they were our sleeping mats rather than explain we were about to jump onto them from great heights. This of course made things worse as they wanted to know where on earth we would be sleeping on these multi-coloured foam padded monstrosities.
At the crack of dawn we scurried from our abode in some kind of make shift taxi towards the bustle of Khartoum bus station. Just minutes into the journey the taxi spluttered to a standstill and steam bellowed out of the bonnet. Not at all alarmed the driver reached for some water from one of the many roadside pots and covered the engine bay. We assumed this was common practice in a place where the daytime temperatures rose to almost 45oC. It was barely 5 am and already the world was alive. Men and women crouched over sweet smelling fires of eucalyptus as they prepared the local ginger infused coffee whilst others prayed to Allah. The smog filled streets were ablaze with tuk-tuks and there was still no sign of the Hamas bus that was due to take us on a 9hr journey to the town of Kassala in the far northeast. Thankfully this was only the name of the coach company. The bus fired up and soon we were enjoying the on-board entertainment that consisted of endless violent Japanese war films that seemed highly unsuitable for the younger contingency. After what seemed liked hours we stopped for a break in the middle of a desert sandstorm whilst locals crouched down in the sand to answer the call of nature. Barely an hour had passed and the bus screeched to a halt. The military boarded the vehicle and immediately instructed us to get our bags from the hold and unpack everything in the middle of the desert. It became very clear this was simply box ticking as in the time spent they wouldn’t have discovered anything of real significance. After hours breathing in the toxic fumes of insect repellent that the driver insisted on spraying into the air con, the golden granite domes of the Takka range came into view and signalled the end of a tortuous journey.
The Hepton Hotel we were told was the most luxurious in town. It also turned out to be the only hotel, which was hardly surprising, given the fact there were no tourists. It also didn’t take too long to figure out we were the only westerners in town and perhaps the only ones the locals had seen in months. From the sanctuary of our roof top balcony we could detach ourselves from the mayhem in the streets below and gazed at the mighty Takka Mountains as they glowed in the late afternoon sun. As the light faded just the moon illuminated the gigantic domes and we dreamed of what adventures we were about to encounter in the days that lay ahead.
The cockroach-infested kitchen resembled a scene from the aliens as I brushed past some big creatures feeding off the smaller critters in the cobwebs under the cooker. As we fuelled our blood on ginger infused coffee and savoured the cool morning breeze the place became alive with prayer. The rest of the town was still asleep under a veil of smoke as we scurried through the dusty streets on a quest for new rock. Goodness know what the locals were thinking as we dragged our pads through their back gardens on the way to the massive boulder field. Previously the only people to have set foot in the area were Hodgkin back in 1940, Tony Howard in the eighties and several Hot Rock crew in 2002, 2008 ad 2010.
Vultures, Kids and Baboons
We didn’t know which were scarier.
The Vultures appeared to be guarding the crags, the baboons the boulders and the kids the gateway to both. It was as if we had entered a forbidden kingdom and the hurdles had to been thrown in our path as some kind of test by the gods.
As we scanned the walls of exfoliating granite Dave warned us the circling vultures were more vicious than Tolkein’s Orcs and he recounted a tail from a previous trip where having just reached a belay ledge he was confronted by the beak and talons of a very protective mother vulture and was forced to reverse the chimney he had just climbed. He reached for his tree branch of a sword in an attempt to defend himself whilst his partner hastily drilled a couple of bolts in preparation for their hasty retreat.
On this note we opted to explore the vast collection of boulders that were scattered at the base of the domes and leave the faces for another trip. Mostly the granite was bullet proof and after brushing off the exfoliate many hidden crenulations were revealed making seemingly blank walls now climbable. Every corner we turned revealed a new playground and it soon became apparent the scope for development would only be limited by skin and time.
As the morning progressed it appeared a gang of babbons led by some mean looking alpha male were pursuing us. Suddenly gunshots were heard and bullets bounced off the boulders in an alarming fashion. We breathed a sigh of relief, as we realised the Baboons were the targets and not our heads. It wasn’t long before a crowd of curious children had gathered at the base of the boulders. The girls kept their distance but the boys were inquisitive enough not to be scared. At this point it occurred to us we might not be welcome. After all we had just walked through a boulder field that may have been their sacred garden.
Soon they were attempting to climb the boulders too and wanted to be like us. Within seconds they had grabbed our pads and were helping themselves to chalk. Some were like angels are other were not! Incredibly their bendy fingers locked the slopers and their carborundum like bare feet gripped the rock like an eagles talons. It was important to respect the culture and remember that we were on their turf. Things were soon escalating out of control as we realised they had no fear and were climbing on their limit above horrible landings. An accident at this stage would have had disastrous consequences and would most likely have ended up with us being held responsible by the parents and us being banished from the town.
Keen to avoid a local catastrophe we formulated a cunning distraction plan, which involved our comrades Polaroid camera. As prints were handed to the delighted kids a brawl nearly developed when they eventually realised there simply weren’t enough to go round.
By midday the heat became unbearable and as the temperatures rose the kids became more agitated and taunted us as we tried to sleep. I woke from my daydream to discover Martin’s binoculars had gone astray and it didn’t take long to discover whom the culprits were. The consensus was to deal with the matter head on and a trip to the village elders seemed the best option. Words were exchanged in Arabic and the goods returned. It turned out that we had not paid them for carrying our Bouldering pads and the binoculars had been seized in return. Tensions were mild but we had learnt a valuable lesson and most importantly no kid’s bones had got broken in the process.
The Lone Boulder
I jumped out of my skin as a cat chased a cockroach from under the cooker. My non-acclimatized innards resembled Mount Vesuvius as I forced down the gruel. Wearily we stumbled out into the street and made for the main track out of town. Today was a special day as we planned to scope boulders on the far skyline ridge and anticipated fine views out to the mountains of Eritrea. Women from the Rashaida tribe ground coffee beans by the side of the road and an amazing aroma prevailed in the cool morning air. As we climbed higher and higher behind the ancient Khatmiyah mosque hyrax tracks signified we weren’t the only ones in these parts. The granite blocs in this region had less exfoliation due to the constant erosion from a seasonal river and were a sign of good things. As we reached the mountain plateau a beautifully perched lone boulder stood spot lit whilst everything else remained in darkness. These were the kinds of situations I as a photographer often dreamed about and here it was happening right in front of our very eyes. The aesthetically sculptured arête, crennulous crack and crimpy face were all to be found on one piece of rock that was situated in the most amazing place in the world. At that particular time nothing else mattered and all that was important was savouring this special moment.
After what seemed like an eternity we raced back to the valley and sought refreshment in an elegant café that was built literally into the middle of the boulder field. Dave had been exposed to the toxin from some evil plant that thrived amongst the boulders, but fortunately a Yemeni pharmacist and his Ethiopian colleague were at hand and we got the medical advice we needed. It seemed the Ethiopian guy could have done with some medical advice too for his rotten teeth, which appeared to have been caused by some extreme chewing of the local Chat plant.
As we drunk coffee Dave recounted yet another tale he had been told by an elderly man he had met at the local mosque one day who it appeared wanted to learn how to climb. The man had said there were rumours of a lone tree that grows on one of the highest peaks and that it would turn to gold when burned. No wonder the man had been keen to climb. Interestingly Tony Howard had been told in 1983 that eating a leaf from this tree would give eternal life. Dave reckoned are best options would have been too eat the leaf then burn the tree meaning we could all afford to live forever.
We never did find the tree but hopefully it may reveal itself one day to others more worthy than us.