It was late afternoon and we had been riding our bikes over unsealed roads into a powerful headwind for most of the day. The wind was far stronger than the weather report had indicated. Along with the wind, we also had to battle the dust. We knew we weren’t going to reach our destination, a town where we had planned to stay the night at a caravan park.
We desperately needed to stop. But we were surrounded by undulating crop land as far as the eye could see. It was autumn and everything was barren and dry. There was nowhere we could pitch our tent and our water was low.
I was in a bad mood. The grievances piled up.
When we had arrived in Australia that January, our plan was to leave in March/April, fly to Beijing, and then take the train to North Korea. Now thanks to Covid-19, international travel was impossible and who knew when – and if – the world would ever return to what it once was. I had this uncomfortable feeling that a viral Frankenstein was on the rampage. Former irritations – e.g., crowded airports, endless cues and long flights – were now reasons for nostalgia.
So here we were, plan B, making the best of our situation by …riding our bikes into a vortex of dust and wind with no water, no prospect of stopping for the night, surrounded on all sides by a great nothingness.
Then it appeared in the distance, like a mirage…..
There are three contingents of soldiers: Egyptian, Sudanese and British.
The Egyptian and Sudanese armies have been trained by British military instructors and are being led by British officers.
We are in the heyday of The Empire.
The Empire is living on borrowed time. Come the 20th century and it will crumble before the tumult and upheaval of two world wars, a Great Depression, and two major revolutions.
But right now, in 1897, The Empire is in its full glory. No power on earth can defeat it.
Or so it seems.
The three armies are following the river Nile through an immense desert during the hottest month of the year.
Their destination is the city of Khartoum, in northern Sudan. It’s the base of a nineteenth century version of Islamic State led by a ‘Mahdi’ or ‘Divine One’, a self-proclaimed reincarnation of Mohammed. He has at his disposal tens of thousands of fanatical jihadis who are prepared to die ‘under the shadow of swords’ (‘It is easier to reach heaven under the shadow of swords than by prayers alone’).
The British intention to wage war against the Mahdi is enthusiastically supported by the Egyptians and the Sudanese – for very different reasons. The Egyptian government fears the potential of the radical Islamists to infect its country and stir up rebellion. They also see the chance to unite Sudan with Egypt, a scheme supported by Britain.
The Sudanese, Africans, are from the south of Sudan. The Islamists in the north are Arabs. The Arabs consider the Africans to belong to a lower race and for centuries have raided their villages, selling the men in the slave markets of Riyadh and Istanbul, and taking the women for their harems. The Sudanese aren’t concerned about radical Islam; theirs is an ancient hate of the Arabs and any campaign against them is a campaign they are eager to join. They are famous for their bravery under fire.
The British soldiers have been shipped over from London. The British have long harboured feelings of revenge against the Mahdi and his militant acolytes. Eleven years previously, a General Gordon was killed by the Mahdi’s forces. Gordon was sent with a contingent of troops to Khartoum to defend its people against the Islamists. When it became clear that the situation was untenable, the British government ordered its troops to withdraw. Gordon refused to join them. He had been appointed to defend the people of Khartoum and his sense of honour forbad him abandoning them. He organised the defence of the city and when it fell he was murdered with the rest of the defenders. The incident caused an uproar in the British newspapers and the House of Commons.
There they are: a truly odd mixture of men and motives, armed with the latest rifles, canon and maxim machine guns, united by a shared desire to defeat the Mahdi – when suddenly they are ambushed by an Invisible Enemy long before they reach the battlefield………