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Volume 48, Number 5September/October 1997

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Riding the Forty Days' Road

Written by Angela Stephens
Photographed by Lorraine Chittock

One exhausted camel lags behind 199 others. Its belly expands and contracts like a balloon as it pants and gasps, struggling to keep up. Al-Nazif, one of the Sudanese herders, his hair unkempt from weeks in the desert, rides behind the faltering animal and patiently coaxes it along. He stays with it as it falls farther and farther behind, until our group can no longer see him on the flat expanse of the desert.

The rest of us—eight other herders, photographer Lorraine Chittock and I—dismount for our usual midday break, though no meal is prepared and no drink taken, because we are in the holy month of Ramadan. Though Islam exempts travelers from the Ramadan fast, the herders choose to fast nonetheless.

Only at al-maghrib, or sundown, will they eat and drink. Then it will be a simple meal of millet porridge with a sauce made from powdered okra and tomatoes, washed down with sweet tea served in plain glass cups. The youngest of the group—the men range in age from 20 to 50—does the cooking, reflecting the Sudanese custom that the junior family member serves the elders. Yet this youngest also has the honor of leading the men in prayer, because, of them all, he is the best at reciting the Qur'an.

The men carry little: just a change of clothes, an extra pair of shoes, shaving equipment, a long whip made of rhinoceros hide and the camel herder's trademark knife—a wooden-handled, double-edged blade held in a leather sheath strapped to the upper arm. Their lean bodies move with the grace of dancers. Some wear traditional thick-soled Sudanese loafers made of leather or snakeskin and called markub, from the word for "boat"; others are shod only in cheap rubber thong sandals.

At night they sleep under threadbare blankets, shivering in the desert cold. They admired the sleeping bags Lorraine and I carried. "Do men use these, or only women?" one asked me.

Though sleeping bags may be novel to them, these men have honed their skill at handling animals and their intimate knowledge of the natural world. For example, they know that the fat of a slaughtered goat makes a healing lip balm as they ride under the scorching sun. And though most of them cannot read a book, they do read camel footprints in the sand, and can determine how long ago a herd passed, whether a print was made by a male or a female, and whether the animal carried a rider. They know how to tend sick camels, administering medicine when necessary, and they know how to use a giant needle and leather string to patch camel footpads that have grown sore from trekking over stony ground.

As we approach the Egyptian border,we are 20 days' ride from our starting point west of Omdurman, across the Nile from Sudan's capital, Khartoum. We're bound for the place all camel herds go from Western Sudan, the camel market in Daraw, north of Aswan, Egypt, a journey of 1250 kilometers (775 miles). From there, the camels will be loaded onto trucks and shipped to Cairo, home of the largest camel market in the Middle East.

The trail arcs gently northwest through Sudan and then curves northeast into Egypt, along the palm-lined Nile. Starting in savanna covered with dry grass and acacia trees on which the camels feed, the trail reaches pure sand desert in the northernmost third of the country. The traveler does not see vegetation again until the trail joins the Nile.

Sudan has nearly three million camels, the second-largest national herd in the world, after Somalia's. Nearly one and a half million square kilometers (580,000 sq mi) of territory is suitable for their grazing—an area more than twice the size of Texas and three times as large as Spain. Approximately a third the size of the United States, Sudan is the largest country in Africa, sparsely populated with 27 million people.

The journey from Omdurman to Daraw takes approximately 30 days, yet herders still refer to this route as Darb al-Arba'in, the Forty Days' Road. The historic Forty Days' Road connected the el-Fasher area of Sudan with Assiut in Egypt, via the Selima and Kharga Oases. This was the path followed by the great ancient camel caravans of old, a trade route dating back at least 700 years.

Unlike the historic route, the route of contemporary camel caravans hugs the Nile, sticking close to the main source of water as much as possible. In areas where they cannot travel along the Nile, herders rely on wells, so the khabir, the trail boss, must have perfect knowledge of well sites. Although herders today may begin their journey in el-Fasher, el-Obeid, el-Nahud or—most likely—in Omdurman, as we did, all still refer to any of these several routes to Egypt as Darb al-Arba'in.

The ancient caravans were like armies crossing the desert, their numbers far greater than anything seen today and their route more difficult, for, according to Sudanese historian Yusuf Fadl Hasan, they avoided the trail along the Nile for fear of robbery and official extortion. Ibn Khaldun, the 14th-century historian, recorded caravans of 12,000 camels on the Forty Days' Road. Then, too, caravans moved in both directions, as Sudan exported ivory, ebony, gold, ostrich feathers, cowry shells and slaves to Egypt, and received in return textiles, metals and firearms. Since trains and trucks now carry the vast majority of trade, it is the pack animal of the past that has become is the commodity today. Camel traffic goes in only one direction now: from the breeding grounds in Sudan to the farms and butcher shops of Egypt.

The modern Sudan-Egypt camel trade began around the turn of the century, and has remaineds virtually unchanged since then. Business is still done on a handshake and a promise, and animals are released on a man's word, with payment made in cash some days later. Sales are recorded by hand in big, hardbound ledgers.

Records from Sudan's Ministry of Animal Resources show that the first official export of camels to Egypt took place in 1904, when 10 animals were sent north. Today, Sudan officially exports some 50,000 camels to Egypt annually, but the border between the two countries is long and difficult to monitor, and thus the real numbers are generally agreed to be higher. In recent years, camels have comprised as much as half of Sudan's exports to Egypt, resulting in a post at the Sudanese embassy in Cairo for an envoy specialized in camel commerce.

For their work, herders earn the equivalent of $300 per journey; as the leader, the khabir earns double that. The round trip keeps the men away from their villages for three months or more at a time. Many spend their wages in Cairo to purchase housewares, fabrics and clothing that they can sell in Sudan after they return home by ship via Suez and Port Sudan.

Today's herds usually comprise 100 camels led by five men. Sometimes a trader gathers enough camels to make up a herd of 200, like ours. But at $500 a head, the cost can be prohibitive. We're traveling amid $100,000 worth of livestock.

My own camel is a strong, white bull with a gentle hump and a surly disposition. When I approach to mount him, he breathes like a dragon—a low roar, subtly threatening. Four days into our ride, he terrifies me by snatching the straps of a canvas backpack I carry slung over my shoulder, and yanking on it with his powerful teeth; I dub him Abul al-Hol, "father of terror," which is also the name of the Sphinx. He later bites me outright, then bites Lorraine. Neither bite is serious, but the name sticks. Among the herders, "Abu al-Hol" becomes a running joke.

Despite our daily battle of wits, I learn how to put his headrope on by placing the slipknot around his neck, winding it over the bridge of his nose and finally tucking it under the chin in a loose hitch. Abul al-Hol's teeth flash around my fingers all the while, his jaws snapping at the air in mock threat, reminding me which of us is really in charge. I ask one of the herders to stand next to me every time I try it, because I know Abu al-Hol won't dare bite me if one of them is near.

As Lorraine and I plop onto the sand, grateful for a break after four hours in the saddle, two of the herders fish knives out of their hand-stitched nylon saddlebags and head back to Al-Nazif and the faltering camel. From their urgent movements, I understand what is about to happen.

The haggard camel couches docilely, too exhausted to resist, and Al-Nazif mutters "Bismillah"—"In the name of God"—and plunges his dagger into the base of the animal's neck. Blood flows and foams into a bright-red, soapy pool on the sand. The other herders rush up to help with the mercy killing. They would not abandon the creature alive, for it would slowly starve if they did.

After removing the hump—no more than a clump of hair on a tiny ridge of fat—they deftly fill two burlap sacks with meat that later provides our only dietary relief from the daily millet porridge. By the time we walk away, vultures have already descended. The animal's skeleton, picked clean, will lie as a reminder that not all who attempt the Darb al-Arba'in succeed.

Other sun-bleached camel skeletons litter the desert route, more and more the further north we go. When we arrive in Cairo, the Khartoum trader who owned the unfortunate camel will be informed of his loss, and he will accept it as one of the risks of sending livestock on such an arduous journey.

"Hut! Hut!" the herders bark after remounting, urging the herd northward like drill sergeants rousing sleepy infantry. "Hut...Ha! Ho...Ha! Hey...Ha!" Whips slap sand in threatening arcs. We move on. One is lost, but 199 camels must still be delivered to market.

Angela Stephens, formerly a senior writer with Egypt Today in Cairo, now lives in California, where she is writing a book about her experiences in Sudan and Egypt.

Lorraine Chittock, formerly a staff photographer forEgypt Today, is a free-lance writer and photographer living in Cairo.

In search of a risalah, or camel caravan, to travel with, Angela and I frequented markets like the one in el-Obeid for weeks. Shoppers and traders journey to such markets from homes that may be hours or days away, and the market tea-women prepare their stands to be ready at daybreak to provide refreshment and sustenance to the travelers. Men also come from nearby offices, vegetable markets, kitchen-ware bazaars, spice suqs, tanneries and livestock yards to gather for tea and conversation. Often the tea-hut is a semi-permanent structure, made of reeds, rattan matting or burlap bags covering a frame of branches. Customers linger here with relief, enjoying the respite from the sand, grit and wind-blown dust outside. "Tea, please," they ask in a multitude of dialects. There is time for many cups, poured individually and with care. Previous spread: Boys in el-Obeid, a city known for its red sands, watch as herders take unsold camels back out into scrubland to graze after a day at the market. They will return on the next market day. Depending on the location—el-Fasher, el-Nahud, el-Hages or other smaller markets—that could be as soon as the next morning, or not until the following week. Insets: Four herders: Al-Nazif, Hamzah, Isma'il and Muhammad.

After the men had prepared the saddles, stocked up on food, collected water from a nearby bir—one of the many wells we would pass—gathered wood for fuel and counted the camels, we were on our way. My first camel didn't immediately know I'd never really ridden a camel before, much less herded a hundred in front of me. But I felt I could fake it with the best of them, so I felt exhilarated and confident the first morning as I imitated the herders exactly, and for the next few hours I fooled the camel with my clicking tongue and cracking whip

Gradually my camel realized I did not know what I was doing. We moved from last position in the caravan to an aggravating 100 meters behind everyone else. Only after using the whip more than I would have liked to did he finally acquiesce in catching up with the herd, having firmly established who was really in control. It clearly was not I.

Grazing becomes scarcer now with every step, and flat plains give way to sharp mountains flanked by glaciers of sand. The midday sun tears at me. I shout to a vulture circling overhead, "Yes, I'm still alive!"

Among the worst-watered of Africa's historic caravan trade routes, the Darb al-Arba'in, the Forty Days' Road, got its name from the time it took to travel from Darfur province in western Sudan to Assiut in southern Egypt—although a good rider on a fast camel could make the journey in as few as 18 days.

Until modern times, trade on this route did not flow only in a northerly direction. On reaching Cairo, some three-quarters of the camels were sold for meat and as pack and draft animals, but the remainder returned south carrying goods that were desirable in Sudan and the surrounding region: European-made paper, balsam oil, textiles, metals, beads, whalebone, scents, dyes and small amounts of military supplies.

In 1897, however, the British built a railroad from Wadi Haifa to Abu Hamad as part of their military action against the Mahdi in Sudan, and Sudan today has 5500 kilometers (3400 miles) of track. After the completion of the Aswan Dam in 1972, a ferry service was opened across Lake Nasser between Sudan and Egypt. The increased use of air travel, too, greatly diminished the need to transport goods on treacherous overland routes. But Cairo's population was rapidly expanding, and camels have always been a healthy source of protein. Renewed life came to the Forty Days' Road and the caravans thrived once more—only now the camels carried no loads but their own meat.

For the three months or more that it takes to complete the round trip, the camaraderie of the trail replaces the close family ties that herders cherish during the rest of the year. And so they adopt roles, like characters in a drama, with the desert their vast stage—Noor the mentor, El-Haj the mimic, Muhammad the clown, Ibrahim the vain one, El-Noor the man-child. And we are supporting players: Angela the socialite and I the musician with my Irish whistle.

When we first began researching the camel trade in 1991, the caravans usually rested at a tabbanah—a feeding station—near Abu Simbel. This small cluster of huts, run by ex-herders and refugees, provided sustenance before the final six-day trek to the crossing of the Nile and the Daraw camel market. On our first visit to the tabbanah, we found drawings of the camel trade on the wall and an inscription from the Qur'an: "It is He who has made the earth subservient to you. Walk about its regions and eat of His provisions. To Him all shall return at the Resurrection." Nowadays, the tabbanah is deserted; its small population of entrepreneurs gone and the companionship and hospitality they provided left in the dust of modern motorized transport.

The centuries-old trade route is still changing. Under the dual influence of modern politics and transportation, the Forty Days' Road now stops at the border between Egypt and Sudan. Trucks arrive from the Egyptian village of Daraw, a four-hour drive away, to pick up the drive's camels and its khabir; the remaining herders must arrange their own transportation to Wadi Halfa, a Sudanese border town where there are buses, trucks and a train that runs every two weeks to take them back to their homes and families. So it was here that we bade farewell to our traveling companions. As for the camels, from Daraw, along the Nile, they ride to Cairo on trains and trucks.

This article appeared on pages 16-27 of the September/October 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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