GONDWANALAND EXPEDITION IN DAMASCUS
The Gondwanaland Expedition team called on the Prime Minister of Syria on Thursday to hand over the Goodwill Message sent by the Prime Minister of India. The PM took great interest in the exploratory studies being conducted by the expedition scientists and wanted Syria and India to collaborate more closely on issues of science and technology.
Since the last dispatch the expedition, driving through the Azerbaijan Province of northern Iran, stopped in Tabriz and the frontier town of Maku before entering Turkey. The snow-covered massif of the picturesque Mt Ararat I and II loomed large before them. At Dozagerabit, the Scorpios climbed to the Isak Pasa Palaace, romantically located on a mountain top, commanding a panoramic view the Alborz Mountains and of the valley below.
The rest of the journey through Turkey was through the disturbed Southeastern Anatolia region where the Kurd separatist movement has once again raised its head. Four days before the expedition entered the region, there had been violent protests leading to shooting of some activists by the government forces. There were frequent army check posts but the guards were most cordial to the expedition members when they came to know they were from “Al-Hind”.
Bowling over high mountain passes, still deep in snow, and across stunning winter landscape, the expedition drove for two days on the edges of the 3800 sq km Lake Van, a spectacular alkali lake, its vast expanse fringed by snow-draped volcanoes. The high alkali content of the lake offered an opportunity to the expedition members to wash their dwindling supply of clean clothes without having to use laundry soap.
Enroute Diyarbakir from Van, Dr Gopinathan Maheshwaran, the expedition ornithologist, spotted a pair of White Storks nesting on an electricity pole in a wheat field. They were probably on their way back to Africa after wintering in India. Dr Trilochan Singh, the geologist, thinks they are on a “honeymoon”. Dr Paramjit Singh, the botanists, came across two patches of rare Iris flowers.
On the way to the Syrian border from the riot-affected town of Diyarbakir, the hotbed of
Kurdish separatism, in the fields of Severik village, the expedition members joined a marriage party in their wild merriment. Mustachioed Kurdish men in their baggy breaches and charming women in flowing skirts and colourful head scarves held hands and danced to the music blared out by car stereos. As done on auspicious occasions in Bengal, the women let out shrill shrieks and piercing yelps. Men, women and children fired pistols and self-loading shotguns in the air, shouting the war cry for ‘Kurdestan”. After creating as much din and furor as they could, the party sped away in a convoy of rickety cars. Before the expedition members could recover from the outlandish experience another fleet of vehicles came honking in with another gleeful band of merry-makers who repeated the commotion. The Kurds danced with the Indians and had themselves photographed till their cameras ran out of disk space
Crossing into Syria, the expedition halted for two nights at Aleppo, the
oldest city in the world, inhabited continuously for the last 5000
years, and now the Capital of Islamic Culture. On Prophet Mohammed’s
birthday it called on the famed Aleppo Citadel and on the picturesque
ruins of San Rimo. Surviving the traditional hospitality of Aleppians,
the expedition reached Damascus where they had a packed schedule with
meetings at the University of Damascus, General Organisation for Remote
Sensing and with the Prime Minister of Syria to whom they handed over
the Goodwill Message sent by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Syrian
Prime Minister, an engineer, impressed with his knowledge of geology and
earthquakes and lauded the humanist aim of the scientific expedition.
The Syrian print and electronic media has given excellent coverage to
the expedition and the reception given by the highly competent and
experienced Indian Ambassador, Mr Gautam Mukhopadhyay, in honor of the
expedition was well-attended by the diplomatic community and the Syrian
Leaving Luxor, the Gondwanaland Expedition drove to Aswan. Here we were informed by the General at the Boundary Intelligence Office that we could not proceed further overland from Abu Simbel into Sudan as that border was not open. The only alternative was to get permission from the Operations Department of the Ministry of Defence in Cairo. Next two days being Friday and Saturday, weekend in Egypt, we could only move the ministry on Sunday. Else, we could take the weekly ferry from Aswan, on the northern edge of Lake Nasser, to the Sudanese town of Wadi Halfa, on the southern side of the sprawling 500-km long lake. This was the regular route followed by the local people. However, the ferry could not take the three expedition Scorpios and we would have to hire a special barge to transport them across. Either option meant a delay of at least four days, throwing the expedition’s schedule haywire.
The Indian Embassy was requested to intervene. They wrote to the Foreign Office requesting them to get clearance from the Defence Ministry. The expedition team called on the Governor of Aswan, the affable General Samir Youssief, who immediately swung into action and got the slow bureaucratic machinery moving. With faith in the Governor, the expedition moved across the Western Desert to Abu Simbel, 300 km from Aswan, and that much closer to the land border with Sudan. On way to Abu Simbel we made a detour to see the Aswan High Dam, an engineering marvel of the 1960s that has increased Egypt’s arable land by 30% and doubled its electricity generation. From the top of the tall, sky-piercing Soviet-Egyptian Friendship Monument we looked at a part of the huge expanse of Lake Nasser, the biggest artificial lake in the world, created by the construction of the Aswan Dam.
An excellent tarmac road penetrates through the treacherous Western Desert , an endless stretch of flat, sandy wasteland with not a blade of grass growing. For a long distance we could see a mirage, a vast lake, its waters shimmering. It was so real that we could even see the reflection of sand mounts in its illusive waters. Around midnight I received a call from the Governor’s Office asking me to fax copies of passports of all the team members. That sent me into a spin. I drove into the small town to find the market bustling at this hour. The fact is that the sun is so strong during the day that people emerge out of their houses only after it sets. Anyhow, the passport copies were faxed.
Next morning, we visited the Great Temple of Abu Simbel, dedicated to God Ra-Hurakhti, guarded by four 22-m tall self-celebrating statues of Ramses II. Here, in Egypt’s southern-most tip, the grandeur of the pharaonic monuments reaches its peak. On our return from the temple, we received a message that the Governor’s office had received the clearance from Defence Ministry and we could proceed. As fast as we could, we checked out of the hotel, stocked up food and water for the journey through the Nubian Desert, and were about to leave town when we got a message from the City Council that we could not go!! The Argine checkpost, from where we were to enter Sudan, was not a regular crossing and there were no immigration and customs authorities there to stamp our passports and carnet de passage. A team of officials would leave from Aswan early next morning for the border to clear us. Until then we would have to stay in Abu Simbel. Our spirits dampened, we checked back into our hotel rooms, scenically located on the cliff shore of Lake Nasser.
Again that midnight I got a call saying that the Boundary Intelligence Office wants to see our passports in the next 15 minutes. We did as they said. Next morning, escorted by Major Hussaim, the head of border intelligence, we moved towards the Argine checkpost. “Are you sure,” he inquired in broken English, “someone will be at the Sudanese border to receive you? How will you go? There is no road. Only desert. Very very difficult. Impossible, may be. This is first time any foreigner has been allowed to cross the border from here and that too in their own vehicles. You have made history.” Our gracious and adventurous Ambassador Mr Deepak Vohra, based in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, had taken the extreme trouble of driving through the Nubian Desert to the border to receive the expedition. He had been camping at Wadi Halfa, on the east bank of Lake Nasser. Argine was on the west bank. And there was no way of crossing. After waiting for us for a day, he left for Khartoum, almost 1000-km away.
The Argine post is 150 km from Abu Simbel. At Tokshey, 50 km from Abu Simbel, we met up with the delegation of officials that had left from Aswan early in the morning. Following the South Valley Canal, now under construction, we were soon in the open desert. 35 km from the border, my vehicle lost power and stalled. Sudhir, our vehicle engineer from Mahindra & Mahindra, was under the vehicle for two hours in scorching heat, trying to fix the problem. The diesel I had bought in Luxor was bad and its sediments were choking the fuel supply system. After replacing the fuel pump, when we got to the checkpost, a bleak scene presented itself. Beyond the collapsing border fence was a sea of sand and no track, let alone a road. However, we were happy and relieved to be in Sudan and confident of tackling the grim prospects that lay ahead.
The Sudanese took over 3 hours to go over our documents. One Customs official was dedicated to listen to each and every one of our music CDs. After suffering Pandit Jasraj and Bhimsen Joshi for a long while, he heard the rest of the CDs in fast-forward and let us go. A few trucks were parked on both sides of the border, carrying cement from Egypt and transferring them to the trucks waiting on the Sudanese side. We made friends with the rough-looking loaders, their black faces powdered white with cement.
Escorted by a Customs Land Cruiser, we were led to Argine Village, 9 km away, to register once again with the authorities. Hardly had we gone 500 metres, when two of our vehicles sank in the loose sand. The Land Cruiser towed us out and, in doing so, crashed into the rear of one of the vehicles, damaging the rear door and lights. Slowly, we learnt the trick of driving in the Nubian – stay out and away from the deep tracks made by the heavy trucks. Stay on the smooth desert surface – which is harder, rather less softer. At Argine village, by the Nile, we topped up our tanks, buying gallons of diesel in plastic containers and transferring it through pipes. We also hired a Sudanese guide to lead us through the desert at night and made arrangements with a truck to follow us closely and assist us should we get bogged in the sand. As it turned out, the “guide” was a Customs official wanting to hitch-hike to his village in the outskirts of Dongbula, our destination, about 450-km away, where we would get out of the desert and meet the tarred road to Khartoum. He spoke no English and we no Sudanese and the communication problem soon led us into trouble. It was decided that we will not take the regular route along the Nile River to Dongbula because that was more sandy and difficult. The advantage was that we would drive through a sparsely populated area. The alternative was to use a route that was 50-km inside the desert but less sandy. The disadvantage was that there was not a village or a soul on the way and we could not get food or help if we got into some trouble. As we were stocked up with some food, I preferred the interior route. W left at dusk with our hearts in our mouths. About two kilometers later, Sudhir, over-enthusiastic and over-confident, driving a 2-wheel Scorpio, broke the formation, trying to find his own route, and got badly stuck in the sand. We waited for the trucks to arrive to bail him out. A convoy of five trucks went past us without paying any heed to our frantic waving of both hands. A long while later the truck we had made arrangements with came by and stopped a long distance away and a man came to assist us. Seeing the state the vehicle was in he nodded his head and waved to the truck seeking more assistance. A boy came with a shovel and all of us went on our hands and knees getting the sand out from under the vehicle. Clearing the sand, we would heave and ho the vehicle but it kept getting bogged down again, the turning wheels just digging themselves in. It was a laborious process. Slowly, inch by little inch, we got the vehicle out in over an hour. The truck could not stay behind us as they follow a different route. It was already getting dark. We drove another 200 metres with me in the lead and the guide beside me. As we climbed over a sand mount we were met with a sandy track not visible before the top. Before I could register what the guide was shouting in Sudanese (he was asking me to stay on the right – but it was too late), I drove straight into the track and sank into the sand. The vehicle following me also got bogged down. Some of the expeditionists, now unnerved, had their livers in their mouths. One suggested that we hire trucks to tow our expedition vehicles through the desert. Another braveheart was of the opinion that towing might damage the vehicles and we should somehow load the vehicles on to trucks to ensure any chance of getting through the desert at all. I had more faith in the ruggedness of our Scorpios and reasoned with them that the vehicles were stuck because of our own fault and not due to their inability to negotiate the difficult terrain. Luckily, the truck driver, “Farishta”, Angel, is the name we gave him later, saw us and again came to our rescue. Again shovels were brought out and sand removed – and the experienced Farishta, taking over the steering, applying his own tried and tested techniques, using minimum clutch and acceleration, had the vehicles out in no time. I hired him for the journey as the expedition leader.
With Farishta on board, we breezed through the desert like the wind. He seemed to know every grain of sand in the desert that had countless wheel tracks criss-crossing in every direction. On that dark, moonless night how he found the way through the treacherous flat desert that had no signpost or landmarks or any vegetation to guide us, remains a mystery to all of us. We concluded that this illiterate man, bare-foot and dressed in a dirty white robe, must have a GPS in his head. Gopinath, the expedition zoologist, had a GPS and he himself was so baffled that sometimes we were heading east, sometimes west and sometimes south, that he did not know what to make of it. However, we made good speed and most of us were soon sufficiently relaxed to sit back and enjoy the drive through the invisible desert. For the next two hours we flew over rocks and gravel, swerving left and right, and into long stretches of low sand blowing clouds of dust, rattling every nut and bolt inside us and our and vehicles. At about 1 a.m. two of the vehicles again got bogged down together and “Farishta” smilingly took them out. A few metres later, the third vehicle had a flat tyre that was replaced after a lot of hard work because the jack kept sinking into the sand every time we tried to raise it. A while later, I heard some screeching sound from my left wheel. The noise kept increasing. We opened the wheel to find small stones stuck between the plates. As we were fixing the problem, Farishta sprawled himself on the desert floor and was fast asleep. Most of us also had heavy eyelids and took the opportunity to get some sleep. The air had cooled and I slumbered soundly for two hours in the front seat of the Scorpio. At four in the morning, the sky now filled up with stars, we hit the road again, catching the sun rise over the Nubian Desert. In a hurry to scorch the land, it shot up in minutes. We met a convoy of three trucks coming from the opposite direction and going to Argine (where else?) with loads of camels meant for Egypt. In full light, the treeless, shadeless desert looked more forbidding, hostile and frightening than it seemed in the dark.
Around 8 in the morning, after driving 330 km across the desert, we came across the first habitation – a small village, named Salim, by the Nile. There were some ancient Egyptian ruins here and a handful of goats and donkeys were grazing in the fields. Otherwise, like other Sudanese villages we would pass later in the day, Salim seemed like a ghost village, its population keeping itself indoors during the day. Leaving the village we again entered the bleak, smileless desert, counting kilometers and hours to get out of it. The fuel pump of my vehicle was giving trouble again. The sediments from the bad fuel had choked it again and every time the vehicle stopped we would pump it and move on till it stopped again – which kept happening after every 10 km or so – prolonging our date with the Nubian. Meanwhile, our water supply was running low. At the next village, accessed through a most treacherous route, Farishta stopped for lunch while we drank bottles of some local carbonated drink. There was no bottled water as people prefer to drink free Nile water on the rocks.
By the time we hit the tarred road in the outskirts of Dongbula, it was five in the evening. The sight of the road drew loud cheers from the relieved adventurers. We had driven about 450 km in about 23 hours.
From Dongbula we again entered the Nubian Desert, heading 550 km to Khartoum. But the road, terrible and non-existent for over 200-km, was a cakewalk compared to wht we had done the day before. The expedition has now reached Khartoum, the confluence of the Blue Nile and White Nile, where we call on the President of Sudan, attend a public reception at the University and a diplomatic reception at India House.
Emperor Haille Selaisse
was 94th in the uninterrupted dynasty of Ethiopian monarchs that traced
its descent from Queen Sheeba. The military, representing the “will of
the people”, cut short his long rule, killed him in his palace and
hastily buried him next to his toilet. This was a kind gesture as the
belated Emperor was known to suffer from a stomach disorder. Having
dispatched the emperor, the military dictator moved into the palace.
This was not in accordance with the spirit of the revolution. But the
military had the guns and the people had no choice but to suffer him for
a decade or two until the “democratic forces” united to stir up a
prolonged but successful armed civil war against the dictator. We saw
signs of this struggle all along the route from Bahar Dar towards the
Highlands – remnants of ambushed armoured carriers and tanks of Russian
make. After taking over the power, the leaders of the democratic forces,
representing “the will of the people”, took over the emperor’s real
estate. In Addis Abbaba, the Gondwanaland Expedition went to Haille
Selaisse’s palace to pay its respect to the Hon’ble President of
Ethiopia. We presented the affable president with our Prime Minister’s
Goodwill Message, shed a tear or two for the emperor, and stepped on our
accelerators before a new “people’s revolution” was staged.