Tea on the Nile
Sailing Today|April 2021
When you’re living in the middle of the Sahara desert and the government is a military dictatorship it can be a challenge to find fun things to do

The work could be quite interesting. As the sole Canadian diplomat resident in Khartoum (Sudan) I had in 2000 a vicious civil war to report on that had cost two million lives and had been running for 17 years. And after 9/11 it fell to me to look after journalists who had come to see where Osama bin-Laden had got started. I would show them the chemists’ shop where he’d once had an office and we’d go out and meet his ex-cook, who’d tell us how Osama had a taste for Basmati rice and loved small children. For good measure we would throw in a visit to the site of the al-Shifa pharmaceuticals factory that had been destroyed by American cruise missiles in 1998; the custodian would show us a piece of rocket motor on which you could make out the word “Boeing.” And, although it was not strictly relevant, we’d sometimes finish the tour by having tea with a Canadian friend in the flat that used to belong to Carlos the Jackal.

But the terror-tourism became tedious with repetition. For relaxation there was nothing better than getting out on the river, for Khartoum is located at the junction of the Blue with the White Nile.

Back in the 1920s, when this was a British garrison, it occurred to the Colonel of the Regiment that a good way of keeping the young officers out of trouble might be to establish a sailing club. The first problem was that there were no boats. Indeed, there was hardly any wood to be had either, the nearest forest being about 2000 km to the south. But there was a large pile of galvanised steel that had had been hauled up laboriously from Cairo in case one of the garrison’s old gunboats needed repairs. A reputable yacht designer was commissioned – Morgan Giles – and the result was the Khartoum One Design. This is a steel 18ftsloop based on a Sharpie, with buoyancy tanks, a retractable centreboard, a Bermuda-rigged mainsail and a jib. Starting in 1932, about fifty were built.

Khartoum characters

The clubhouse of the Blue Nile Sailing Club (established in 1926) is similarly ironclad: H.M.S. Melik (“King” in Arabic). The Melik is one of four gunboats that were ferried in pieces past the six cataracts of the Lower Nile. They were re-assembled in situ as British forces approached Khartoum in 1898, seeking revenge for the earlier killing in the capital of General Charles Gordon (portrayed in “Khartoum” by Charlton Heston) by the messianic figure known as the Mahdi (an equally unconvincing Laurence Olivier).

The Melik played a part in the Battle of Omdurman, where its deck-mounted machine gun was used to devastating effect, inspiring Hillaire Belloc’s short poem:

Whatever happens
We have got
The Maxim Gun
And they have not

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