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10th December 2012

Sudanese adventures of a boil-in-the-bag Biker!

Blog entry to Khartoum

My final night in Aswan will stay with me for a long time. Eve, a British woman who I had been introduced to who has lived on the Nubian island of Elephantine for several months now, invited me to join her on a sunset trip down the Nile with some of her local Nubian friends, the very entertaining Mustafa, Ekramy and Mohamed. I met them down at the waters edge and after a quick stop to pick up some delicious hot sandwiches, we five started our very leisurely pootle down the Nile, following its course around the back of Elephantine island. Both sides of the wide river banks were fringed with a dense, lush vegetation of all kinds of palm trees and shrubs of rich variety and shades of the deepest green. There were no other boats around and as we all lazily sprawled out on the roof of the boat, drinking our beers and eating our picnic, the world seemed a very peaceful place. We left the boat unanchored so that when the engines were cut, we could enjoy this gentle, peaceful float back down the Nile under a very starry sky, a warm breeze in the air and some Bob Marley playing in the background. Suffice to say it was hard to find much to be stressed about in that moment!

Afterwards Eve wanted to show me around the Nubian village on Elephantine given its extraordinarily narrow streets (the houses are so tightly packed together, you can only walk single file) as well as its beautiful mud-brick domed architecture. As we walked we soon came across a house bustling with people - one of the locals had broken his knee so was being inundated with well-wishers at his bedside and it was like a party in there! The mother of the injured young man spotted Eve, who she recognised, and became very excited, as did the other ladies gathered around outside. All of them greeted us warmly with kisses and wanted to lead us indoors, but we hadn’t intended to stay so gestured that we were going to head off. At this point the mother of the injured young man, a deceptively small woman of advanced years and few teeth came striding over to us both, grabbed me by the wrist and with the strength of 10 men, dragged me inside her house, sat me on the sofa near her recuperating son and made it very clear that she would be highly offended if I left without eating my considerable share of a vast banquet of food she had somehow just prepared. “yikes”, I thought, having just eaten more than enough on the boat, I wasn’t sure I had room for any more, but it seemed that any hesitation to tuck in would prove fatal, so I manned up and, resigning myself to morbid obesity, began to eat, much to the amusement of her bed-ridden son. Mercifully very soon Mustafa entered the room and Eve and I immediately pleaded for him to help us with this food. He refused, patting his stomach, saying “no no, I am full, no more food”. “me too!” I cried, “same same, NO different!! But look at all this food, you have to help!!”, I urged. Thankfully with that, he burst out laughing, sat down and slowly helped us chip away at the food mountain before us to a socially acceptable level. I had such a great time with Eve and these fun, kind hearted locals and was really touched that they gave me a little necklace just before I left as something to remember them by - what fantastic people.

Next day was the big day of the passenger ferry! I went with the South African couple, Stephan and Sunita (who are driving home to Capetown in a 4x4) to the port to be met with a huge crowd of people and mounds of boxed up electrical equipment and goods piled up everywhere - it was a scene of complete chaos! This was a good preparation to the scrum that ensued as all 570 passengers pushed, squeezed and shoved their way through endless narrow fenced and gated areas for customs controls and passport checks before finally throwing themselves onto the boat. It was every man for himself as each passenger was carrying at least two or three enormous boxes or bags, bound together with string, on their heads, backs and under arms as they tried to wrestle their way to the ship. Given that officially speaking, the boat only had capacity for 400 foot passengers, you can imagine how crowded it was on board. On account of the heat, most people were keen to get the the top deck as quickly as possible to save a place to sit wherever they could find it - on the floor, in the life boats - literally anywhere!

We were very fortunate in that our fixer (for a small payment of course) had arranged for some of us tourists to have a small section of the deck right next to the captain’s lookout reserved for us and cordoned off with a bench, so we set up camp there for the next 24 hours and settled in. Joining the Stephan, Sunita and I was Steve, a British man in his sixties who was cycling solo from Cairo to Capetown, Boris, a young Czech guy hitchhiking the same route, Dale and Laura, another couple in a 4x4, two more Czech men Alesh and Yarislav also in a 4x4 and 2 Bulgarians with their Landrover. We were a jovial crew and shared our food and camping supplies amongst ourselves, but once the sun had set and the temperatures cooled, everyone’s minds turned to sleep. It was quite a fantastic drift off into the Land of Nod for me, quite contentedly lying out on the floor of the top deck, snuggled up in my sleeping bag staring up at the most beautiful night sky I’ve ever seen.

The night passed fairly peacefully apart from the occasional disturbance caused by one of the several robed men crouched on the boundary bench a metre above my head changing positions and at one point, a blanketed figure leaping off the bench, over my head and onto the tiny unoccupied spot on the floor next to Steve - I imagine the temptation to be able to lie fully stretched out must have been too great, and who could blame him? I woke up feeling very refreshed but unfortunately seemed to have acquired a winged bug in my ear overnight. I had never thought that was really possible, but the panicked, muffled flapping was unmistakable! Fortunately once the boat docked, Stephan and Sunita gave me a solution to drown it/flush it out, which did the trick wonderfully well - what a relief!

The vehicles had successfully arrived into Wadi Halfa by the time we docked, so quite unlike the experience on arrival to Egypt, the lot of us were off the boat and reunited with our vehicles within 3 or so hours - a brilliant start to our time in Sudan. That night, some of the group decided to wild camp just outside of Wadi Halfa, which like most of North Sudan, is just a vast expanse of desert. We traveled a couple of kms out of town then, spotting a few decent sized sand dunes, swung right off the road and headed over the sand to camp behind them. I was a little nervous taking a fully loaded Suzi onto the sand, especially as I wasn’t wearing all of my riding gear and didn’t fancy a spill, but we managed to make it ok and the camping spot was entirely worth it. A beautiful, undisturbed night was had by all under another vast and starry sky.

Next day we all slowly prepared once again for the road and travelled a couple of hundred kms towards the major town of Dongola. Despite there being many towns marked on the Michelin map along this route, in reality they were often no more than a few mud brick dwellings with no amenities like fuel stations etc at all. By mid afternoon to my great relief (now running a little low on fuel!) we finally came across the Sudanese desert equivalent of a service station, made up of two ancient fuel pumps (sadly both in the process of being repaired), a shop and a severely visually impaired young man on a food stall selling omelettes, fuul (broad beans stewed in a spicy gravy type sauce) or “meat”, which was totally unidentifiable given its absence of any actual muscular fibres - it was just a thick yellow disc of fat with a few bristles attached. I plumped for the beans option, which was ladled out from a very heavy metal cauldron with a thin neck and lid and poured into a metal bowl, served with bread. Afterwards I investigated the adjoining grocery shop for supplies for that night’s supper. There was quite a random selection of goods on offer, all under a thick layer of dust, but in a way that gave the shop quite a fun treasure trove feeling about it as you had no idea what you were about to uncover! In the end I settled on a bag of dried macaroni, a tin of tuna and two so called “good luck” wafer bars - I’m open to almost anything to help me on my way!

Perhaps those bars really were lucky, as within 20km we came across another petrol station, this time with working pumps and plentiful supply, so I was overjoyed to have a full tank once again! Fairly shortly afterwards we found a campsite just a few tentative kms offroad in another secluded spot and set up for the night. Unfortunately I wasn’t feeling very well by this point - my throat was becoming very scratchy and sore and I felt shattered. Realising dehydration might be contributing here, I found some rehydration powder, made a simple pasta supper and turned in for an early night. As I drifted off to sleep I really started to worry - was I getting sick? I’ve always been prone to tonsilitis, what if the extreme swing in temperatures here between day and night and the crowded ferry had brought on another bout? What would I do? I couldn’t expect the others to stay with me if I needed a couple of days in my tent, but I was in the desert here!

Mercifully next morning my throat had eased but now a cold was coming out - it seemed that all this dust on the roads here was getting into my tubes and causing me some problems, not great but at least it wasn’t my dreaded tonsils kicking off! Fairly soon we had packed up and headed into Dongola, where we were required to complete our “alien registration” at the police station, a mandatory requirement for any tourist within 3 days of arrival into Sudan. This process took about 2 hours, 2 photos, 207 Sudanese pounds, a lot of smiling and obedience! Once this was all done, the 3 cars and I set about doing some grocery shopping - it was Dale’s birthday and his wife Laura wanted to arrange a Braai for her husband as was his tradition from year dot. We bought some potatoes to be wrapped in tin foil, some salad vegetables and a few kilos of beef from a market shop where flies buzzed with greedy excitement (fortunately, the outside edge of the meat was cut off and sold to someone else so we were able to take a less fly-stricken cut from underneath!). Once that was done and some firewood had also been procured (there’s not much to be found lying around in the desert!), our little convoy headed out on the desert road to Karima. We had planned to camp at one of the two ancient sets of pyramids there but alas one set was far too exposed and at the other set, a lone policeman was rather strangely adamant we couldn’t camp there, so with darkness now upon us, we headed out of town to see if there might be a good spot in the desert. Of course this is no easy task in the dark and around these parts, the desert is particularly flat and featureless. It was by this point about 8pm, we were all exhausted from the incredible heat of the day and we’d taken the wrong road out of town a few times, adding to the stress levels. Once we were on the correct road, we all pulled over to formulate a plan. Although some of our party were looking a little concerned, the two Czech guys couldn’t look less worried, jousting each other at the side of the road with a light-footed silliness reminiscent of Monty Python’s Black Knight (of “it’s only a flesh wound!” fame). I had to laugh - “you’re both pretty relaxed!” I commented. “oh sure”, Yari replied, still ducking, diving and dancing on his feet “in the last 2 years we’ve been on the road, we’ve been caught in crossfire on the Syrian/Iranian border and had nowhere to sleep on the Road of Bones, this is nothing!”, he added with a laugh and another lunge at Alesh. Their attitude was infectious and fairly soon we all decided the best thing to do was just to drive as far into the desert away from the road as we could and hope for the best. We were all a little nervous of how deep the sand would get, especially for me, toiling away in the dark on my own after this exhausting day, but there was little choice other than to get on with it. The idea was that I would ride alongside one car to benefit from their lights with another car following behind in case I fell or got stuck, but once I got going, something in my head just clicked. I was tired of being so nervous on the sand and all I could think of was the sand lesson Paul had given me back at home - “no fear, you need momentum in the sand, speed is key - just pin it in a high gear and if you feel a wobble, do NOT throttle off! You can do it!!”. And so, with these words in my head, as Stephan and Sunita started to drive steadily alongside me in the sand, suddenly I had my Forrest Gump moment - I started clicking up through the gears, faster and faster - I didn’t care any more! My proverbial callipers of fear came off and I was going for it! “Wait for the others!!” Stephan cried, but I couldn’t slow down, I was off on a mission, blasting over the sand and feeling free of all fear - it was great!! Once I finally thought I’d gone far enough I stopped and once the others caught up, I apologised in case I had freaked them out and explained what had happened, but they were having none of it - “wow Claire, that was quite a transformation, amazing stuff!!”. What a great feeling! That night we all enjoyed a fantastic BBQ/braai under another starry night sky, delicious food, an illegal swig of Port that Stephan had smuggled into the country in his car, great laughs around the camp fire and finally Laura singing a song or two to Dale’s musical accompaniment on the ukulele. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Next day was a scorcher as we headed another few hundred kilometres across the desert towards the dusty, dirty and generally charmless town of Atbara. The official maximum temperature was 35 degrees but inside my helmet and riding suit (even with every zip and vent open) it felt like 40 - even at 100kph, there was no wind chill whatsoever, which made riding very uncomfortable. I was definitely a boil in the bag biker! After Atbara we travelled for another hour or so in the direction of Khartoum before stopping to camp near the oldest pyramids in the world at the misleadingly deserted looking temples of Meroe.

Within minutes of our arrival however, majestic robed men sailed over the sand dunes on their most elegant ships of the desert and offered us rides on their steeds, but we politely declined and went to make camp. Clearly word of our arrival had spread fast as within ten minutes, a little band of 8 tunic-ed boys with grain sacks full of souvenirs trod their way over towards us, before laying out their assorted wares on their bags in front of us and sitting down cross-legged at their make-shift market. Although on the one hand all we wanted to do was make camp and eat in peace, no-one wanted to be rude to these children who were causing us no harm at all, siting as they were at a good distance from us and just watching our activities. It was apparent that we were like tv for them, fascinating people from a foreign land with endless gadgets and toys at our disposal. They stayed for an hour or so and left just before sunset, promising to return next morning, which they certainly did at first light! Being woken by the playful tinkle of young voices next day did momentarily cause me to wonder how big this cast of followers might have grown to, but fortunately it was still the same 8 boys hoping to sell something or be given a pen.

Once we were packed we took a walk around the beautiful ancient pyramids and temples (which we had to ourselves - it couldn’t have been more different to Giza!), then headed off towards Khartoum. The others were interested to drive 25km offroad to some more temples but I was more interested in the prospect of my first shower in a week, so said my goodbyes and continued on towards Khartoum solo. The ride in was quite enduring, not only with the heat and my streaming cold (still from all the dust), but more particularly with increasingly heavy traffic trying to navigate the main road into Khartoum - a challenge given every 50 metres of Tarmac was followed by a 50 metre stretch of one long, large, dusty, bumpy pothole. Eventually however I made it into town and after a brief visit to my intended hotel, described in the Lonely Planet as a “spiffy joint” (that it certainly was not - “complete dive” would be my two word description, even by the standards of my £2 a night hotel in Damietta!), I checked into a much more encouraging place around the corner and went about the extensive task of getting myself clean (in the non-narcotic sense of course).

I decided that while I was here, it might be a good idea to get Suzi serviced - given the effects that the dust had had on me, I reasoned that she could probably also do with a bit of TLC. I foolishly expected that this would be quite a simple task, but on arrival at the Suzuki shop, it was explained that they didn’t offer servicing there, but used a mechanics shop further down the road. Searching out the correct one was no easy task, as the entire very long street was occupied only by motorcycle mechanics, who all preferred to do their work in the open air of the dusty land in front of their tin- shack shops, spilling out onto the road, creating a crazy chaos of fumes, noises, throttles, exhausts and oil! With a bit of help I found the right place and they set about washing the air filter (completely filthy of course), changing the oil and de-gunking the chain. The arrival of suzi and I on the scene attracted something of a crowd of friendly enthusiasts, all asking endless questions about the bike in pigeon English. Uniforms really don’t exist here so it was hard to know who of the crowd worked there and who was just there for fun, but it was a relaxed atmosphere punctuated by one man shouting “hey you, hey you, take photo!” at me while he set about proudly pulling a set of wheelies towards where I was standing. I went along with it and took a few short videos of him, which everyone wanted to see and found very entertaining. Even the mechanics wanted to pose for a photo! In any case they appear to have done a good job and Suzi is running all the better for it, so happy days.

So now here I am, preparing to head off once again tomorrow for the final few days before I get to Ethiopia! I’m incredibly excited that I have ridden all the way down one half of my “Africa-north east Arabia” Michelin map and it’s nearly time to turn over the page for the next adventures, taking me into Ethiopia and then Kenya. It’s been great to recuperate and rest for the last two days at the hotel, especially given the real treat of meeting a wonderful Indian father and daughter who are staying at the hotel here on business. The daughter, Anneke, rather bravely just struck up a conversation with me in the restaurant 2 night’s ago and since then I’ve had the pleasure of their company twice at dinner. They are both such warm, interesting people with fascinating stories of what they have learnt on their travels about people, cultures and humanity, really excellent company and great fun too - very much an unexpected surprise at a hotel, where typically people keep themselves to themselves and I’m really grateful for their company. That’s part of what I love so much about this adventure and travelling on my own - yes there are moments of vulnerability but on the flip side you are so much more likely to meet some brilliant people who ordinarily you just wouldn’t meet. And so, tomorrow morning it’s time to move on to Ethiopia with both feet forward - til next time!