An Expedition Deep into Sudan’s Desert to see the Legendary Petroglyphs
By Andrea Kaucká and René Bauer
When one says “Sudan”, most people think about something negative, or they simply don´t know what to think about, because they don´t know much about this country.
When we visited the “land of the black pharaohs” for the first time 10 years ago, there were basically no tourists. Nowadays, luckily some prejudices disappear and more foreigners (“khwadja”) started visiting this country.
Most of them, though, stay close to Khartoum and on the main tourist routes, visiting the impressive Meroe pyramids or remnants of ancient temples. In the country of the black pharaohs, there is so much more to discover though, so many more archaeological sites that tell stories which no one would have guessed.
Sudan’s Tourist Boom of 2012
The biggest “tourist boom” started roughly in 2012 when many different archaeological societies started working in different locations and uncovered treasures of long-forgotten civilizations.
Every year, when we returned to Sudan for more expeditions, we discovered new and interesting places – most of them even unknown to Sudanese people. We always zigzag across this country to know more.
Ask Uncle Google
We loaded our three offroad cars and set out on our long trip. In the national museum in Khartoum, we had seen a big poster with a very interesting looking rock with an even more interesting name — far away from any tourist routes. And believe me, the route to Bir Nurayet was a very long and strenuous one.
We had questioned all our Sudanese friends and their friends to help us in finding this Bir Nurayet – but no one had ever heard about it. And that was exactly the challenge we needed. Before our flight to Sudan, we spent hours on Google Earth, searching for that mysterious rock in the middle of the Nubian desert.
We roughly knew where it is situated, somewhat close to the Egyptian border, deep in the desert. And while exploring those satellite images, we found so many intriguing places — and only one of them looked the same like that rock on the poster.
We make a waypoint and start looking into how to get there, for this time we chose to approach it from the Red Sea coast, so we could at least find a lonely beach and relax a bit before the strenuous journey.
Bring out the Bikinis!
Good for the girls of our team, because they can finally swim in bikinis – and on top of it we all can snorkel and marvel at the fascinating world underwater.
We needed to cross the Red Sea mountain range so we looked for routes through these “wadis” – dry riverbeds. At home, on the computer, it only took us a few hours to find a route, but that was only the easy part and certainly looked different than in reality.
Messages from the end of the world
From Khartoum, we went to Port Sudan and pushed on towards the North, towards the Egyptian border. In Mohammed Qol they knew us already, last year we were arrested at the police checkpoint there, the officers clearly had no idea of what a tourist is and why we would want to explore Sudan.
Instead, they believed we were CIA spies. Looking back at it now it was actually quite funny. About 50 km behind Mohammed Qol we found a quiet spot by the beach and made camp.
There was no more phone signal, now we relied only on ourselves and our preparations. We left the tarmac and made our own track towards the towering mountain range ahead of us until we hit a wadi we had to follow.
Mostly deep sand, this wadi winds its way into the mountains, and we can all imagine what a mighty river this must have once been.
On our sides, we saw rocks of all different shapes and colors and once in a while, we saw a tiny village decorating the wayside. Green acacias are dotted along the wadi and soften the look of harsh rocks and sand. Then we came to a fork, I checked the GPS and radioed Rene, who was driving the lead vehicle.
In Sudan, one can´t rent a car without a driver, but over the years we gained the trust of one rental car company and so Rene could drive himself. And even if they respect me as a woman, it doesn´t go as far as trusting me with the steering wheel.
Sometimes we can take the wrong turn, end up in a dead-end road and have to backtrack, sometimes we get stuck in the deep and hot sand – then the whole team has to dig and push.
Sudan´s Golden Veins
We felt like explorers a few decades ago. Sometimes we met people, they were mostly Beja and most of them didn’t even speak Arabic, only their own dialects. And the way they looked at us made us think that we must really look like aliens to them, probably they are still going to tell their grandchildren about those three cars filled with “khwadja” (white people) going into the harsh desert.
The Beja tribes live primarily in Eastern Sudan, they look serious and fierce, wear swords and a comb in their hair, we were was not surprised that the British integrated them into their army.
Often, the wadi seems to turn away from our direction, but we realized it just meanders along through the mountains. Once in a while we saw people or even a car, but there are no real, well-used tracks around here. Often, we took a break to take photos or because our Sudanese drivers have to pray.
And it is then when we stand in awe, listening to the quiet around us, we can only hear the wind blowing through the wadi and feel it on our skin.
There is nothing really around us, an acacia here and there, a little village and sometimes we saw goats or camels. We just loved the desert, one feels free here, sometimes even romantic or very clean.
For those who respect it, the desert is rewarding, for those who ignore its rules, it can be fatal. On one of our cars, we have a few hundred liters of diesel and water. The good news is that the name “Bir” means well/source, so we are sure we can refill our water once we reach Bir Nurayet.
Seven Hours of Travel
It had been seven hours since we started driving and we only managed to travel 150 km. On Google, it didn´t look that far, but fact is that we often stop for photos or fly the drone because behind every turn the scenery changes a little and is always worth a photo.
Finally, we reached Wadi Oko, the biggest wadi in this area. Over here, we saw more traffic. From where and to where we have no idea. And we were suddenly confronted with civilization – a gold diggers town. Our Sudanese drivers were not too happy about it, but the locals welcomed us with a smile and even pulled out their smartphones to take selfies together with us.
Nubia, Land of Gold
It is very hot, so we stopped for lunch and of course a “jebenah” – fantastic Sudanese coffee. Then we continued towards Bir Nurayet. There were many more of those gold digger towns in the Nubian desert and the Red Sea Hills, that´s actually why this area is called “Nubia,” Land of Gold.
The first documents about gold mining are from 3-4000 B.C. in the Egyptian dynasties, the ancient pharaohs used to trade and decorate with gold.
Gold here is mostly mined on the surface because of the lack of knowledge about deeper mining and different processes. Even nowadays on more than 250 locations gold is mined by locals with quite primitive equipment. In the ancient days, this was work for slaves, a lot of them died because of lack of water, food or simply because of heat strokes.
Lost in the desert
After another two hours of offroading suddenly a green valley opened up before us. And the setting sun dips everything into a golden light, even that very majestic rock rising out of this valley ahead of us, Jebel Magardi. From far, the rock looked like the head of a moray eel coming out of the ground, but in an archaeological context, Jebel Magardi rather represents a phallus symbol, an ancient sign of fertility.
In its shadow, we find what the locals call Bir Nurayet. By the time we set up camp, it was late and we were tired. And still, we sat around the crackling campfire and celebrated. Not only had we found Bir Nurayet, but also, it was Rene´s birthday. What better celebration could one wish for than sitting deep in the desert, no civilization around us, no tourists, just the sound of the desert? What better present could one wish for?
Nowadays, the Sahara is a sea of hot sand, nearly without life. But still, 6-13.000 years ago it used to be green, full of water and wildlife. Giraffes, antelopes, elephants, ostriches and later on also cattle roamed this area as well as its ancient inhabitants, the hunter-gatherers. One wouldn´t expect to be in the middle of nowhere and discover thousands of years old petroglyphs or paintings here.
On top of it one of the biggest rock art galleries in the world. Completely unknown to most people. It was only discovered in 1999 by the Polish archaeologist Pluskot and his Dutch writer and photographer Baaijens during their camel caravan expedition.
At sunrise, we used the golden hour to walk around Jebel Magardi, looking for those petroglyphs. The rock looks even more majestic when one stands at its foot and we were wondering, what it would tell us if only it could speak. In times of the old caravans and bushmen, Jebel Magardi was used as an orientation point in the desert, easy to see from far away and with a well next to it.
But even after walking all around the rock we couldn’t find any petroglyphs. Just nothing. Bare rock walls. Where were the petroglyphs? Opposite the rock, there is a dry riverbed and behind are a few rocks and cliffs, one of them looks like a camel head. And something tells us we should go over and have a look.
Surrounded by Elephants
We entered a little valley in between the rocks and on every rock face there are pictures of hundreds of cattle, all with very long horns, side by side with herds of camels and even some locals. We went along these rocks, completely fascinated. Some depicted ancient hunts, some cattle herding.
It was all lively and tangible proof of how the locals once lived here. In between these petroglyphs, we also found a scene of an antelope hunt, then, a few meters further, elephants walking along the rock face and even further we could decipher a leopard. One can clearly see what animals lived in this area when humans settled here for the first time.
Some petroglyphs are very simple, others are very intricately engraved – a good sign of the progress of human art. What appeared to be the first engravings, those are really just scratched into the rock, others, more detailed, use an orange or black color, clearly a sign that either clay or coal had been used.
The art of Bir Nurayet is attributed to the neolithic period and mostly depicts a fertility cult, especially with cattle herding. And it seems, that at a later date camels appeared, those petroglyphs sometimes cover older pictures of cattle. We explored, discussed and imagined the stories for each picture we saw.
From single pictures, we could clearly see the different periods and progress. The depicted hunters with spears and axes seemed to be older than the ones with bow and arrows. We are absolutely fascinated and happy. We had found a place deep in the desert of which only a handful of people know and visit.
In the national museum in Khartoum, one can see 63 little statues and clay pots that were found here at Bir Nurayet, representing a fertility cult from a long time ago.
After our accomplished mission to find Bir Nurayet we have another 800 km through the desert to get back towards Khartoum. And finally, after two days we were back in civilization.