Sunken international Ferry or washing line
Sunken international Ferry or washing line

The Khartoum Affair by Martin Crabb


The problems of overland travel

February March 1979

The report below is as written as it does not need any enhancement or explanation other than to say it is Encounter Overland swinging into action to solve another problem. Behind the scenes action. Truth is stranger than fiction.

All this transpired in the 32 days between 16th February 1979 and 20th March for Rein with his EMs locked in Tanzania without passports, with Peter, (another Leader Driver on the same trip), and to 28th March 1979 overall, a massive 40 days.

Source of report. Typos corrected and some context information added.

On the 16th of February we (Encounter Overland head office) received a telex from Rein (Leader/Driver on northbound Trans Africa) in Dar saying the Zaire Embassy had refused to issue visas. No one realized at the time just how serious this problem was. Certainly no one foresaw the subsequent threat to Trans Africa.

Initially the Zaire authorities informed Rein that the border was open, but visas would be issued, in a person's country of origin only. Although JFD (Leader/Driver on preceeding northbound Trans Africa) had obtained his group's Zaire visas in Lusaka, Rein established by phone that this procedure could not be repeated. The decision was then taken to fly Rein back to London with the group's passports, so that he could go to Europe and obtain the visas.

Rein arrived in London after a 39 hour flight. He then set off to get the visas in Belgium, Holland and Germany, whilst Annette went to Switzerland with the Swiss passport, and Babs deserted her noisy typewriter and flew to Wash­ington with the 3 American passports. By Thursday March 8th all visas had been obtained apart from the one for the Belgian EM.

It was also on this day that the Zaire Embassy in London informed us that the visas were not worth the paper they were printed on. The land borders were all closed by order of the President himself. The reasons for this were varied but included diamond smuggling, ivory smuggling and the arrest of mercenaries in Gisenyi Rwanda.

To us this simply meant the effort and expense of the preceding weeks were necessary but in the event useless.

Two alternatives came to light, firstly, lobbying in Kinshasa and secondly attempting to get road permits to travel through the Southern Sudan. The Kinshasa idea was not felt feasible as Mobutu had only just issued his decree - so on the evening of March 13th Rein and I set off with Sudan Airways, climbed through the rainclouds and headed for Khartoum.


Khartoum is a hot, dusty city situated at the junction of the Blue and White Niles, It is a city where none of the telephones work and where the afternoons produce regular dust storms.

Rein and I had little idea where to begin, so the British Embassy seemed a logical place. The Vice Consul, a Mr. Cove, knew EO from South America. His memories were not over-favourable, and seemed to be connected with our money transfers over there. Anyway, having reminisced and gone through the usual pessimistic conversation of how long did we think we could go on in this 'game', be told us we were unlikely to obtain permits and referred us to Colonel Arafat in the Aliens section of the Ministry of the Interior.

Colonel Arafat was a shortish man whose desk was completely bare. (The envy of us all here). He did not appear to be planning a coup (like so many colonels) and told us this was not his department (what a surprise).

It was then that we met the Superintendent of Immigration. We were to meet him again many times.

The Superintendent was not that pleased to see us in spite of our recent haircuts and relatively clean appearence. We were told the permits were not obtainable in Khartoum, that there were no application forms, and that we should have applied in London. (Sudan Embassy in London issued us business visas so we might apply in Khartoum!). The two of us sat in the Superintendents office until we realized the Ministry was closed and in all probability the Superintendent had gone home. We then left.

Feeling fairly low we discussed this negative reaction. The Superintendent did mention that even if permits were obtainable, which he emphasized they were not, a bond would be necessary. Taking a chance we telexed EOL on Thursday afternoon asking that such a bond be arranged. Mr. Hardcastle, a British guy working in the Sudan, was persuaded to bring the guarantee with him. We collected it from him on Saturday night at Khartoum airport. The efficiency here was not being matched by us in Khartoum.

We had managed to find an old application form and photocopied it. But the answer was no. The Superintendent told us his hands were tied from above.

Then strange quirks of fate began. A lift with a Sudanese businessman led us to a retired General who managed tourism in the Sudan. He referred us to the tourist board who said there was no problem. Sunday morning, accompanied by a guy from the tourist board we suffered another defeat from the Superintendent. He seemed to be winning the points.

Back to the General, depressed and fairly fed up.

When we returned the General was talking with the ex Ambassador in London. He said he would do something for us and we should return the following morning Monday the 19th of March.

The General is a wise man. He knew we were on a losing wicket battling with the bureaucracy, especially as the Southern Sudan is autonomous and the officials in Khartoum, although representing the government, were from the north.

In front of us he phoned a Mr. Wal, the Southern Sudan representative. We travelled out to the Khartoum extension to see Mr. Wal. In fact, what was happening was that we were to interrupt a meeting of Ministers who were visiting Khartoum from the south. Included in this gathering was the Minister for Tourism for the south and the ex Commissioner for Police in the south. These two people were responsible for the eventual success of our visit. We did not know this as we travelled to the extension. Nor did we know the General had not telephoned Mr. Wal but was sending us to where he knew the Ministers were. Perhaps the General believed our ignorance would give us courage. He was undoubtedly correct.

The Ministers were shocked to be interrupted. We were shocked to be interrupting them. After some to-ing and fro-ing, and leaving and staying the Minister for Tourism said he and the ex Commissioner would help us. Back to the Ministry of the Interior. Gates being opened, soldiers saluting and heel clicking the ex Commissioner, Rein and I returned in style. Things were looking up ...

We were parked in an office with two secretaries while the ex-Commissioner dug out his contacts. I was personally feeling fairly relaxed until one of the two secretaries asked if I would like to marry her and see a little more of her that afternoon. Once again the blood tempo increased, but since she spoke no English and the lecherous male interpreter left a lot to be desired, I though it better to return my mind to the wretched permits.

The next day, Tuesday, we met the ex Commissioner again and saw the Chief of Police. He agreed to order the issue of permits. Back· to the Superintendent who apologized; the permits for JFD and Rein were issued on the spot. The other 2 permits, for Alan (and Ivanand Ian, (Leader/Drivers on two southbound Trans Africa Expeditions) were to be issued when the bank guarantees were finalised. Need I say we felt pretty good.

That night Rein flew down to Dar. The following day I realized with horror funds were low (an unusual situation for me) so I shifted into a Sudanese doss house, the main features of which were a man who slept with his radio and an Egyptian lady who, like Cleopatra, held audiences with her potential courtiers, but the comparison did not unfortunately stretch to looks.

Having got all 4 permits the only other incident involved physically getting Alan Dougall 's permit from Khartoum to Bangui. (the capital of the then Central Africain Empire). The post was hopeless so the only practical means of getting this piece of paper to Bangui was to get it on a 'plane oneself, either via one of the passengers or via the flight crew. There is only one flight per week Khartoum-Bangui, this leaves on Tuesday morning and is an Aeroflot flight.

On Monday morning Aeroflot could not confirm whether or not this flight was going. Later that afternoon a travel agent said he thought the flight would arrive at 7.45 am. Since the whole thing was so vague I assumed there would be no pax joining at Khartoum; I was correct.

I arrived at 5:00 am just in time to see the 'plane landing. I nipped out through the departure gate onto the runway. Three passengers staggered down the stairway and I ran up into the 'plane just as the captain emerged from the cockpit. Seeing me in my Afghani pyjamas with a sinister looking black brief case he put his hands up. Behind me the 3 stewardesses lay down flat on the deck. Far from being one of the less colourful members of the EO blunt end I was now thought to be a politically motivated, dangerous and perversely brave hijacker. I dropped the brief case and fell to the floor as fast as I could, fearing some communist inspired bullet might crunch into my promotions-fed back.

The captain spoke no English, and my Russian was not ever up to my 'Ou est la tappe' (where is the tap) French. However, one of the stewardesses, who was lying near the toilets crawled forward speaking English. Either she was trying for the Lenin cross or else she realized I was as harmless as I looked. We met half down the airliner, both still on all fours. I explained our problem, and Alan's permit was delivered that day to the French Embassy in Bangui.

Postscript . On my return David Gillespie from Exodus came to the office and I gave him as much information as I could. Exodus obtained their permits a week later. With all the unrealistic and inflated sense of glory gone, I have returned to the more mundane advertising rigmarole.



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