I knew we were going to have problems at the airport with our geophysics kit. No trip that I have done to Khartoum has passed without some stressful moment at Khartoum airport dealing with customs at 4am. It’s always just at the moment when travel weariness is setting in and the sudden adrenaline rush to deal with the situation is like a drug that bounces you back to life. I am prepared for it. In a way it’s just become wrapped up with arriving in Sudan. What I was not prepared for were the problems in Rome airport.
I should start by thanking the Egypt Air staff profusely for rallying around to help me. The problems I was facing were all self-inflicted. Transporting a piece of valuable geophysical equipment means you want to do you utmost to protect it in transit. So you buy a massive box to pop it into and are helpfully told the box’s weight so you can spend ages packing and weighing every last detail to stay within the airline guidelines of weight allowance. Good. Perfect even, unless of course the weight of the box is actually about 10 kilos heavier than the specifications indicated and that this is only made apparent at the airport, standing over some scales with an official watching you. In these instances you are screwed. I was certainly screwed.
I had a box containing some expensive kit and the only way to get the lot on board a plane was to empty the box and send the costly and delicate kit separately. A truly moronic situation for which I take the blame although I will forever regard the weighing scales at the BSR as incapable of doing the one function they were designed for: namely that of accurately weighing items placed on them. It took 2 hours of discussion, trips back and forth to the scales (conveniently at the far end of the airport to the check-in desk), smiles, looks of utter despair, head grasping, seeking alternatives, more despair and a lot of discussions with a lot of kind members of staff before they summoned the big boss of the world, or so it seemed by the way they spoke of him.
He appeared as a huge, slow-moving figure of a man boasting more width than height, although he was very tall too. He was shaking his head before he had even greeted us. He needed to authorise the transit of an enormous box that weighed too much. Empty. I was soon informed that the box was also too big (not that they specify on their website, nor when you phone them up and ask, what the maximum dimensions are for outsized luggage).
The boss was shaking his head at the large box and I was busy shaking my head at the equipment which was now in disarray on the floor of the airport without the protection offered by the box. I turn from smiley face to desperate despair face. And then I remember a change in the facial expression of one of the officials when he had asked me what we were doing in Sudan and I had responded “working with the British Museum”. He had suddenly made himself a little taller and smiled a smug smile. “Ahhh the British Museum” he replied “very good. Very important”. I am not one for *ahem* name dropping but when in desperate circumstances… So I name drop to the boss that we are working for the British Museum in Sudan and suddenly the shaking head turns into a nodding one. Suddenly he was fishing out ‘fragile’ stickers, slapping them on our kit and sending us on our merry way.
I say merry… I have paid for an empty box to journey with us and simultaneously placed the critical, expensive equipment in the hold covered in green wrapping, offering the protective strength of clingfilm. If this works it will be a miracle. If it doesn’t I’m screwed even more than I was.
I owe a debt of thanks to the British Museum for being such a globally respected institution that the mere mention of its name has the effect of transforming a situation impossible to one that is more than possible. Thank you.
Arriving in Khartoum to that almost sickly sweet smell as you walk off the plane is actually reassuring. Luggage all arrived and on inspection customs were interested in 4 of our bags which they mark with a cross. Unsurprisingly the georadar, magnetometer and monitor are all of interest. What was slightly surprising was their interest in our empty box. Maybe because it seemed implausible that anyone would travel with a huge empty trunk of a box so I will give them credit for being suspicious or just thinking us plain barmy. You can try and do paperwork in advance of your trip and I certainly specified every serial number of every piece of electronic kit we have. But, should you give these numbers to a succession of others a form of Chinese whispers begins and the end result bears precious little similarity to what you began with. Hence 3 hours of discussing the equipment, trying to explain the slightly odd spelling of all the technical names and attempting to brush over small detail that every serial number differed. With the help of a local set by George* from the Acropole we convinced the confused officials and now everyone in Khartoum airport has a fairly decent idea of how to undertake a geophysical survey of archaeological remains. My coup was haggling the price for the deposit. Being British I am not supposed to be good at haggling and the Monty Python beard and gourd scene from Life of Brian haunts me. But at 5:30am apparently my haggling skills come into their own and the deposit I left for the kit was considerably smaller than the one initially proposed. So, slightly down in pocket, tired of negotiating but chuffed that my few words in Arabic seem to amuse airport officials we, with all our kit left the airport. No mean feat. A short taxi ride later and we arrived at the haven that is the Acropole Hotel.
*more about the legendary George anon.