Around the world by bike
(1 611km - 26days - 1 December – 26 December 2007)
1 December - Metema - Galabat - Doka – 88 km
Not being early starters, it was already late in the day before crossing the border from Ethiopia into Sudan at the scruffy border town of Metema. The immigration office was no more than a mud hut under thatch, and on emerging from the dark and dingy room, one found yourself in super conservative Sudan.
The day was hot and windy, and not feeling 100% it was a struggle, only reaching tiny Doka towards the end of the day. The tents were pitched in the vicinity of a police checkpoint at the turn-off to the village. Camping close to the police wasn’t the safest place, as the trouble in South Sudan was ongoing and police were continuously under attack. The only reason for camping near the checkpoint was due to the availability of water. Checkpoints always had plenty of water, and we could, therefore, wipe ourselves down and have water to cook as well as fill our bottles. Water is always a major concern in the desert and, fortunately, the police didn’t mind sharing. Before setting up camp, we first cycled to the market, but as Doka was no more than a few simple homes, a mosque and small market, all we could find were a few potatoes and tomatoes.
Sudan was a conservative Muslim and desert country and never in my wildest dreams did I think I would cycle it twice!
2 December – Doka – El Gadarif (Al-Qa-ārif) – 90 km
The following day we pushed on to Gadarif, a slightly larger town a further 90 kilometres north. It turned out another scorcher, and again I had to drag myself along and felt weak, nauseous and without energy. While filling up with water at a petrol station, a local farmer befriended us and gifted us 50 Sudanese pounds (a substantial amount of money in those days). After thanking him profusely, we headed straight to the nearest hotel. Our benefactor will never know how handy his donation came in, as the entire night was spent vomiting and I could at least do so in the privacy of a room.
3 December – El Gadarif – Migreh – 97 km
The next morning, I felt much better and could at least look around Gadarif’s famous markets selling sesame and sorghum. Anyone entering Sudan needed to register with the police within three days of arrival, and Ernest and I, therefore, set off to the police station. The police appeared reluctant to perform this task and informed us it was ‘hard for them to do so’, and that it would be better to register in Khartoum, a distance of more than four hundred kilometres and not a distance I thought we could do in a day. Big eye-roll. By the time all was done, it was already 11h00. Fortunately, the wind died down a tad, and Migreh reached without too much difficulty. Once again, camping was in the vicinity of a police depot as there was nothing more than desert as far as the eye could see.
4 December - Migreh – Desert camp – 110 km
The route north, unfortunately, led straight into the prevailing wind, and there wasn’t much pleasure in cycling. It was, however, a task which had to be done. Encountering a headwind is never a pleasure, but having to cycle into the wind day after day becomes a mission. Most days it was head down, one pedal stroke at a time.
I was only 100% sure of one thing, and that was nothing ever stayed the same. Everything passes, and sooner or later, the wind had to stop. It was apparently not going to be that day. The only positive thing was the many small villages at regular intervals along the Nile where one could get a Marinda or Pepsi. Having the luxury of buying something sweet to drink became the highlight of the day.
Although cycling on a tarmac road, the road was in poor condition with heavy traffic (large trucks) all seemingly heading to Port Sudan, Sudan’s main port situated on the Red Sea. I was dead tired almost every night, and Ernest had the job of making food after which I usually went straight to bed, not that there’s much else to do when camping in the desert.
5 December – Desert camp – Wad Medani – 41 km
A short cycle led from our desert camp to Wad Medani, situated on the west bank of the Blue Nile and only 41 kilometres away. Being the centre of a cotton-growing region, Wad Medani was quite a substantial town, for the desert that is, and had a population of nearly 300,000. The town was established due to the Gezira irrigation scheme and came with accommodation and food. Staying the night was a no-brainer, and we spent the evening stuffing our faces with falafel. To this day, I swear it was the best falafel in the world.
Although most of the political trouble at the time were in the Darfur region, a strong military presence was visible just about everywhere. Killings of villagers were on the increase and the government failed to disarm the armed militias known as the Janjawid, who continued to attack civilians in Darfur. Hundreds of civilians were killed in Darfur and Chad, and some 300,000 more were displaced during that year.
6 December – Wad Medani – Desert camp – 81 km
Good thing we were well fed as the next day was an exhausting ride in blistering heat and into a howling wind. Sudan wasn’t kind to me as again I felt tired and nauseous - things were just not going my way. As we pulled off the road to set up camp, I immediately had about 100 thorns in my tyres. This was the last thing I needed. Ernest was a star and quietly went ahead and changed both tubes and filled them with sludge. I had no energy to even think about changing tubes.
Being winter, it got dark almost immediately after sunset, and best to find camping at around 18h00. The mozzies were ferocious; I had no idea there were that many mosquitoes in the desert, and it felt they had been lying in wait for unsuspected cyclist to set up camp. The safest place was in the tents, at least until way after sunset.
7 December – Desert camp – Truckstop – 71 km
On waking to the violent flapping of the flysheet, I knew it was going to be another day battling the wind. Ernest in front and me following closely behind, a difference to our usual formation as I have long learned he didn’t like taking the lead. Still, little headway was made all day.
There might not have been beer in Sudan, but at least there was always water. Each village came with a shelter where pottery urns filled with water were kept and not once were we refused this glorious and lifesaving liquid. The water stayed surprisingly cool in those pots, even in the extreme heat of the desert.
In the dying moments of the day, we came upon a truck stop with restaurant, showers and toilets where one could camp at the rear and enjoy the luxury of a shower. While sitting outside our tents, we were befriended by a Sudanese man who spoke English, of which he was immensely proud and showed us his English textbooks. The conversation took a turn and became somewhat bizarre. He accused me of lying as according to him a woman couldn’t cycle such long distances and there I was sitting all hot and sweaty. I wondered how he figured I got there. He then continued to inquire whether I had any education, and I confirmed I did indeed attend school for 12 years, after which I spent quite a few years pursuing further studies. Not believing me, he threw me a few questions (to check, I guess). Fortunately, the questions weren’t very hard, LOL, more like general knowledge. Still not happy, he insisted I wasn’t able to drive a car, on confirming I had not one, but two vehicles back home he exasperatedly exclaimed, “But you can’t climb a mountain!” By then, I had lost interest in the conversation as we were clearly worlds apart. One couldn’t blame the man as it was what he had been made to believe from a young age. It once again confirmed my belief that children shouldn’t be exposed to either political or religious beliefs at a young age and that both should be taught as a scientific subject at school; otherwise, it’s nothing more than brainwashing.
8-11 December – Truckstop – Khartoum – 50 km
Finally, we cycled into Khartoum where camping was at the Blue Nile Sailing Club, a favourite amongst overlanders and the place I camped on our way from Cairo to Cape Town two years before. The sailing club had a wonderful location right on the Nile with a gentle breeze coming off the water. Outside was a shack which sold fruit juice consisting of half mango and half avocado in two distinct layers. The stall was immensely popular!
The sailing club was also where one met just about anyone on their way either north or south. It was, therefore, no surprise meeting Clive and Denise, a British couple on a 1954 Triumph on their way from London to Cape Town, and as can be imagined they had enough experiences to keep a conversation going through the night. Also camping at the club were Charles and Rensche on two motorbikes heading south. It was a blessing meeting them as it was from them we learned the places one could find water further north. The route to Wadi Halfa involved an open desert crossing, meaning one left the Nile and water; therefore, a serious problem.
The next four days were spent in Khartoum trying to extend our Sudanese visas (without any success) and registering with the police. The rest of the time was spent (as usual) eating anything in sight.
12 December – Khartoum – Desert Camp – 106 km
It was Wednesday 12 December (winter) before finally cycling out of Khartoum, and another day battling into the wind. By five o’clock, we’d only done 105 kilometres.
When cycling Africa, it’s best to do so north to south as the chances of the prevailing wind being in your favour would be far more likely.
Camping in the desert usually meant there was no one around and we could go about our business undisturbed. When, however, there were people in close proximity, the pitching of tents and hauling out cooking equipment was understandably of huge interest to them. Mostly, they kept their distance and observed the madness in wonderment and awe.
13 December – Desert camp – Desert camp - 86 km
The following day, we left the Nile to take the desert road and, in the process, cycled straight into a desert storm. I have to add here, that on leaving the Nile, there is no reference and within a few minutes everything looks the same. The wind was exceptionally fierce and whipped up sand to such an extend visibility was down to a few metres. With bandana-covered faces, we pushed the bicycles through the thick sand. No road, no direction, not even a path, hoping we’re heading in the right direction. At one stage, I lost my cool, threw the bicycle down, kicked it and shouted to the wind, just to realise I might have broken my little toe in the process. Feeling defeated, I had no choice but to pick the bike up and, by then, limping, pushed the bike into the wind. What a sad sight we must have made - two lonely cyclists at snail’s pace through the desert.
14 December - Desert camp - Desert camp – 81 km
On this day, we only managed 81 kilometres from one desert camp to another. There were hardly any water stops, and it was heads down pushing into the wind until time to set up camp. The only water stop found couldn’t have been more interesting. These places often had a dhaba (a basic stall selling food, usually only one dish) and were, therefore, a place no one ever passed without stopping. We sat in wonderment, staring at Sudanese men, dressed in jallabiyas, eating raw goat.
With a gale-force wind even pitching a tent became challenging and, in no time at all, everything was covered in sand. Ernest, eventually, managed to light the stove, which produced a sandy pasta meal after which we crawled into our equally sandy beds. I know I’ve been harping on about the wind, but there are no words to describe how challenging it can be both cycling into it and camping.
15 December – Desert Camp – Al Dabbah – 111 km
Eventually, the route spat us out at the Nile at Al Dabbah, and it felt like meeting an old friend. The wind seemed stronger every day. Not only was it a challenge cycling into it but setting up camp and packing up in the mornings were equally hard, and I’m sure I lost half my belongings to the wind. That night, we located an old derelict building and after dragging the bikes through the thick sand set up camp behind it (even more difficult with a broken little toe, and I vowed never to kick the bike again).
16 December – Al Dabbah – Sali – 92 km
It was a Sunday and the two desert rats, (which we jokingly called ourselves by then, as I’m sure we looked and smelled the part) cycled 92 kilometres from Deba to Sali. The route led close to the Nile which always came with numerous settlements right on the riverbank. On turning into one of the villages to fill up with water, we were promptly invited in. The stove was hardly lit to make supper when a large tray laden with goat’s milk cheese, olives and dates arrived. The desert folk were incredibly hospitable, and I think they gave us their sleeping quarters while they slept in the kitchen area.
17-18 December – Sali – Dongola – 71 km
It was a further 70 kilometres to Dongola and, needless to say, another day into the wind. I was, therefore, in no mood for petty bureaucracy on arriving in Dongela were it was required to first register with the police before we could book into a hotel. I suspected the reason being that I was a woman. I was not happy and with my lip dragging on the ground set off by tuk-tuk to the police station.
Interestingly enough, it was here where General Herbert Kitchener killed 15,000 of the indigenous Mahdist tribes in 1899. The British were brutal in those days. Not only did they kill the locals but later proceeded killing the wounded, raising the overall death toll to over 50,000.
The following day was also spent in Dongola and, true to its location in one of the hottest and driest regions in the world, it was sweltering and a good place to do much-needed laundry, clean ourselves and stock up on provisions for the road ahead. All while stuffing our faces for the next big desert starve (by that time, the lip went back where it belonged, but I was still limping. I never said it was easy!).
19 December - Dongola - Kerma – 54 km
After a well-deserved break, we left Dongola while staying on the western side of the Nile, heading north to Argo, where crossing the Nile was by a small ferry. On arriving at the crossing point, there was no one in sight and, as it was prayer time, there was nothing to do but wait until the boatman returned from the mosque. Once on the opposite bank, the road left the Nile, making it impossible to find your way and a good thing Charles gave Ernest the GPS coordinates on where to meet up with the river afterwards. That night, camping was on the bank of the Nile under palm trees which sounded far more romantic than it turned out.
20 December – Kerma – Kahli - 53 km
From Kerma it was about 53 kilometres to Kahli (not sure whether it was the name). The midges were ferocious and got in everywhere - nose, ears, mouth and food. In the evening, it was a matter of pitching the tent as quickly as possible and hiding inside till after sunset when they miraculously disappeared.
By then, we were well entrenched in the Nubian lifestyle of drinking sweet black tea, and could hardly wait to pitch the tents and boil water (strange things one does when there’s a lack of beer - my mother would have been proud of me).
20 December – Khali – Desert Camp - 54 km
From Khali, we planned on doing the infamous open desert crossing, moving away from the Nile where it made a big loop and where we planned on going straight as it was much shorter. We were, by then, well into the Nubian desert which, surprisingly, wasn’t all sand; instead, it became mountainous, rocky and corrugated. In other places we sank deep into the soft sand and it was with great difficulty the bikes were dragged along and me still limping, I kid you not). As can be expected from a desert, the area was plagued by windstorms which became our biggest nemesis. With bandanas tied around our faces, we leaned into the wind, sometimes cycling and sometimes pushing (that toe was never the same again).
Irrespective whether one looked north, east, west or south, everything looked the same. In the distance, a structure loomed, and on reaching it, found not only the ruined remains of a building but also four guys on motorbikes huddling together while trying to have a bite to eat out of the wind. Astonished to see us, they offered us a few chocolate biscuits, a prized item in the desert. They had problems of their own. Although going with the wind, their motorbikes were much heavier and sank much deeper into the sand. Eventually, they wished us good luck, and with renewed energy we set off into the wind.
21 December – Desert camp – Desert camp - 52 km
The past few days, we could only manage approximately 50 kilometres of cycling and at night camped in the wadis (dry riverbeds), cooking our fast-dwindling supply of rations. The nights and mornings were bitterly cold and reluctant to get up, it was nine thirty or ten before we got going.
22 December – Desert camp – Desert camp - 72 km
The next day, the desert rats managed 72 kilometres, a distance we were pleased with as, with leaving late and the sun setting around 6 o’clock, cycling days were short. During the day we found a dhaba selling foul (pronounced fool) and aish (warm pita bread), a dish which became our favourite while cycling Sudan.
We tried our best to do longer distances, but the going was dreadfully slow and catching the weekly Wadi Halfa/Abu Simbol ferry on the 26th, appeared more and more unlikely by the day. The interesting part was that camp was amongst the ruins of a deserted town and to this day I wonder what the history of it was, but Maslow was right and all I was concerned about was food, water and pitching the tent.
We tried leaving earlier but still only got away at 9 o’clock. Our eyes were set on the small community of Akasha about 74 kilometres away. At least we were on a road of sorts, but it deteriorated as soon as it left the Nile. Conditions were getting worse by the day, not only the wind but also sand, corrugations and mountains. At least Akasha was reached before dark, where we bought a few items from the little shop. The shop had a rather limited supply, but we were thankful and excited about buying more tea and a few sweets.
We also filled up with water before heading out of the village to camp in a nearby dry riverbed. So happy were we that Ernest warmed water for me to wash, as it became downright freezing after sunset (and I don’t do cold very well).
24 December – Akasha – Desert camp - 59 km
We woke to another freezing morning and after our sweet tea set off. It became another day of pushing the bikes through the sand and over stony terrain. There were no water stops or villages, except one about 30 kilometres into the day.
After a further 30 kilometres, we came upon a road camp where the staff were kind enough to fill our water containers. We, therefore, had enough water to cook and wash. Our days mostly consisted of shivering while drinking our sweet morning tea, followed by pushing our bikes into the wind through sand or over stony parts in the heat of the day, and at night setting up camp in the wadis.
25-26 December – Desert camp - Wadi Halfa – 72 km
We were up early and keen to get going as this was the final stretch to Wadi Halfa. The only way to get from Sudan to Egypt overland was by ferry from Wadi Halfa to Abu Simbel in Egypt across the Aswan Dam.
Being a weekly ferry, it was of utmost importance to get the boat the following day or we’d to wait another week. With that our visas had already expired more than a week before we were desperate to get the coming days’ ferry.
We were, therefore, immensely happy to find the last 30 kilometres into Wadi Halfa paved and were all smiles cycling into town where there was the luxury of a dirty room with a sagging bed and plenty food stalls.
27 December – Wadi Halfa – Aswan, Egypt
The following day was an early start to purchase our ferry tickets, and get our police stamps and a million other stamps to exit Sudan. Even with all the checking and stamps, no one said a word about our expired visas, and we couldn’t wait to board the ferry and get out of Sudan before anyone noticed. It was an overnight ferry which left at four a.m., and I splashed out and treated us to a cabin on the boat.
The border between the two countries ran somewhere through the middle of the lake and after some time a speedboat came hurrying along, police jumped aboard, and our passports were nervously handed over. Fortunately, no one noticed the dates, and we were free to go. Phew!
With all the formalities done, we could relax, chat to the interesting other travellers and enjoy a beautiful sunset over the Aswan Dam.
The ferry from Wadi Halfa, Sudan arrived in Aswan, Egypt at around nine o’clock the following morning. We, however, only managed to place our feet on Egyptian soil at about eleven. The saying that, “Egypt was like a visit back in time”, appeared true in more ways than one.