| Issue #6
Pomp and Ceremony...
The end of Section 1…..2000km behind
of the Desert…..wind sculptured sand dunes
4 February, 2007. From the centre of
Yesterday at around 1.30pm we finally arrived at our
Khartoum finish point…The Blue Nile Sailing Club, obviously a heritage
of the colonial days, a once desirable recreation club, still pleasant,
well situated, on the banks of the Blue Nile.
Emotions were running high as we entered the outskirts
of Omdurman, one of the three cities that make up the huge Khartoum
metropolis, and about 22km from the sailing club. We had a police escort with
sirens going, as we travelled in a closely packed group of cyclists,
being joined along the way by aspirant local Sudanese aspiring racing
cyclists. By the time we reached our destination we must have had twenty
five of these guys, all with top racing bikes from the 1980’s
generation, complete with glue on tyres, 1st generation clip
on cleat pedals, and leather cycling shoes…..oh… and mobile phones with
digital camera snapping away at our group as we road down the long
straight ‘boulevards’ …..It was their day as well, so passionate about
the cycling and proud of their Italian and Spanish racing
I say ‘boulevards’ but these are Sudanese style….long
and straight, and clogged with all sorts of traffic, with every type of
trading operation you could imagine lining the streets. The road was two
lanes either side, and the drivers were very polite, and almost seemed
to take part in the occasion of our arrival. That was until we hit the long bridge
that crosses the Nile, separating Omdurman from Khartoum. For some
reason, bureaucracy took over (and it’s already obviously apparent that
there is a lot of that here) and we had to wait at the start of the
bridge for at least an hour, (see photo) until all the traffic could be
halted and we could ‘own’ the one and a half kilometer long bridge! This
didn’t go down well with the local drivers, and the horn blowing hit
police to clear the
bridge across the
confluence of Blue
Finally we were on
our way for the last and very emotional stage of this 1996km first
section of the trip to Cape Town. The route took us over the bridge and
back along the Nile east bank, passing the confluence point where the
Blue and White Niles meet, and then passing building upon building of
state, and national bureaucracies, all named in Arabic, with the very
colonial English names underneath the Arabic, till we reached the
sailing club. Then speeches from the President and Secretary of the
Sudanese Cycling Federation…..all wonderful and welcoming and
apologising for any bad experiences we may have had, but "We just want
you to enjoy and love Sudan and its people".
So much for our arrival in Khartoum, it's been 5 days
of cycling since we left the Nubians in Dongola, and my last newsletter
to you….so what was the journey like…..?
Well... I have come 3 degrees further south, and now
know what it's like to cycle day after day on the long straight roads
through the Sahara desert!
This newsletter is not so much about what I saw, but for the most
part, what was a REAL desert experience…..which as one may expect, had
many humbling moments, and also many moments when I was just awestruck
by the vast openness, and special beauty the desert offers….apologies if
I sound like I am glorifying this ‘desert thing’… but from the moment I
set foot in the Namib desert in Namibia, these huge deserts and their
‘perfect void of nature’ feeling does something magical for me…maybe
like being on the open ocean by oneself… so lots of photos ‘just’
of wind sculptured sand
dunes and the windblown, endless sand waves that stretch for miles
emulating the oceans of the world, slower in their changeability, but no
less daunting to cross….as the camel carnage I saw clearly
confirmed! I have included
just two photos of this ocean of sand…the Sahara!….they really need to
be seen without the (non)effects of downsizing for satphone transfer,
but hopefully you will get a sample to go with the text!
first camel carcass….
many to follow the initial
of the find!
The trip from Dongola can
essentially be split into two parts:
The first being the roughly 200km
section from Dongola while we were travelling parallel to the Nile, albeit
out of sight and always between 4-10 km to the east - the desert here was different… obviously
still ground water available from the Nile water table, so all the terrain
was very flat and sandy, even unattractive at times, the void was
interrupted every now and then by real oases… usually supporting a family
of between 5 and 10, with lush date, tomato, and lentil fields, all kept
irrigated by a network of virtually overflowing earthen aqueducts
surrounding each paddock area. These people seem to live a pretty
self-sufficient and happy life, but there is lots of evidence around of
oases that have dried up, and the inhabitants being forced to leave the
now deserted homes and infrastructures.
I decided to take a diversion on my
bike into the desert to one of these oases… and after approaching very
cautiously two of the men working in one of the paddocks, I was invited in
and offered to share their lunch. This consisted of the staple east
Sudanese ‘pita type' bread called Kisra served with 3 different ‘pastes’
each served in a round cooking dish, that was capable of being stacked on
top of the others to keep the dishes warm. The pastes were bean, lentil,
and a spicy tomato and potato one. No utensils, just the use of the right
hand and communal dipping of a broken-off piece of kisra in the dish of
your choice! As a beverage, I was given a small ‘glass’ of the now
well-tasted Sudanese tea, being very strong and very sweet, the ideal
drink for fueling my next few kilometers of desert crossing! Two woman, also working the fields,
joined us, and then finally an old woman with a huge amount of character
’built into’ her face and dressed in a vivid pink traditional robe. She
turned out to be the mother and senior woman within the oasis, and
obviously very much respected. We tried to have reasonable communication,
but with my only Arabic being ‘shokran’ (thank you), and their English
non-existent, we struggled through basic stuff in sign language. I
desperately wanted to get a photo of the mother, but came up against a
reluctance/shyness for photos that became quite common as we travelled
further into the desert. So I left with just the memories in my head, and
now being committed to digital text form!
Another unique characteristic of this
first section was the plethora of camel caravans I came across, and the
linked camel carcasses dotted all over the desert as evidence of the harsh
conditions and the dangers of desert crossings that await even the most
adapted. Over the two days it took to cover this first section I must have
seen over a hundred camel carcasses lying off into the desert, being
devoured by the vigilant hawks, before nature finally buries them with
windblown desert sand. (See the photo of the first carcass I thought was
an amazing discovery! For my
Aussie friends….a bit like the first dead kangaroo I came across on
Kangaroo Island in the Bass Strait!) It became apparent that these
caravans (I saw one that must have had over 200 camels in it) are driven
by wealthy camel owners across the desert for sale in Egypt and Chad,
where the local camel quality is apparently not very good. I also had a
‘run in’ with one of these caravan leaders, mounted on his youthful camel,
automatic slung around his shoulder, a long herding whip in his hand, and
just a slit in his turban through which I could see his eyes - he shouted
at me to "STOP!" as I approached, trying to take that special photo for
‘my subscribers’! Alas, but at least I am still alive to write this to
you! Gone is the real
friendliness of the Nubians (for a while!), and this section deals a lot
with people who are loners, survivors, and both shy and protective of
their identity as a group who live in the desert. A counter to this was an
experience I had at a midday stop at one of the few small settlement
villages in the desert…. I was befriended by about 7 young men, who then
spent the next half-an-hour talking soccer, and showing me videos on their
mobile phones of their favourite 2005 World Cup clips. They then asked me
to take a ‘headshot’ of each of them, collectively viewing each shot on my
LCD viewer, and laughing like mad. I truly felt like a
passport-photo-cameraman (I have included one of the shots, being the most
interesting looking guy!)
The winner of the headshot
at the Desert Passport
The second part of the desert
starts where we left the Nile, around Abu Dom (for those that have a map
handy), and this is where the desert became awesome to me…. Without the
Nile providing the extensive underground veins that tempted oasis
agriculture, this section was for the REAL survivors! The desert also took on a new
character - the flat white sandstone/rock surface, changing to the rich
reddish brown, fine powder sand that the desert wind loves to shape into
knife edged dunes. Every now and then, a koppie (Afrikaans word for
a small mountain!) made of a matt black rock breaks the ‘monotony’ of the
sand dunes and provides the perfect tri-colour contrast with the clear
azure blue sky.
The one overnight campsite location
provided the perfect spot for a dawn excursion on my bike into the desert
and its dunes. The sand appearing soft at first sight, was parched hard by
the sun, and provided a wonderful, albeit corrugated surface to ride some
4km straight into the open desert all on my own….for a sunrise and
dune-viewing experience that touched the soul deeply.
……………Ooops the desert has got to my emotions!!!
Back to the reality of surviving the long road to
Talking about roads……the past 6 days has highlighted
the huge investment in road infra-structure underway in Sudan (at least
this part). The extent and pace at which it is happening is remarkable
for a so called third world country. The logistics of getting the
road-making material to these remote locations is impressive in itself.
The cycle tour this year has been made easier (vs last year) by these
efforts, and there is no doubt that each future year’s tour will have
less and less of the difficult bad, sand roads - so any of you who have
thoughts of doing this in future years should bear this in mind!
Depending on your masochistic/spirit of adventure need, you may do it
sooner or later!
More on the roads….. They are the straightest,
flattest roads I have ever ridden on ….but then again, when one sees the
terrain, one wonders why they aren’t perfectly straight connecting two
places by the shortest route possible!!….There aren’t any obstructions,
and land ownership doesn’t seem to be an issue….. ! I thought I’d include the photos
as it’s important to try and convey the ‘picture’ of what the roads are
really like.. As you can
see, even with flat roads there are still lethal accidents….see the bus
that was wiped out on one of the straightest sections!
I also included a photo of a typical overloaded
Sudanese truck that makes up more than 70% of the traffic on the road
from Dongola I have just cycled. These trucks speed along way above the
80 km/h speed limit, and give a long and loud musical tune on their
horns as they pass you on the bike, and then a wave through the window.
Most of them must have differential problems, as they emit this high
pitched differential whine which can be heard when they are still
way-off, but which becomes deafening as they overtake you…never heard it
so frequently as here.
I spent the day exploring Khartoum - had to go onto
Tuti Island to see the actual confluence point of the Blue and White
Niles. Although I am glad that I went, it turned out to be a bit of a
mission to get there and the Tuti village is a mess. I have to tell you
about these fascinating cold, fruit drink stalls they have…..loved them
in Dongola, but even better here…. I befriended the owner of the one
shown in the photo, he has just setup a very upmarket (for Khartoum)
stall, using good retailing principles he learnt while in the UK and
Netherlands for 8 years, and is doing roaring trade. There are a number
of these all over the markets, serving freshly squeezed juices over ice,
but his one is by far the best.
(See photo) Sounds simple enough…but the juice flavours and
texture are typically Sudanese - Orange, Mango, Guava, Lemon, Karkadai
and Ardeeb, and virtually like smoothies. The last one is a very strange,
local dark fruit that looks like a throw-away dried bean pod. This is
then soaked in water, sugar added and it produces a very dark, almost
black juice that is seen by the Sudanese to have good energy and healing
powers. Traffic here is
horrendous, but strangely enough the drivers are extremely courteous to
cyclists…..I got a huge amount of hooting while trying to cross a few
lanes, but soon realised I was being offered right-of-way by the
oncoming traffic….typically friendly Sudanese.
The newspaper in Khartoum (I was amazed to find an
English one…!),seemed to have an Aussie bias, as it had sports headlines
about Andrew John, and the State of Origin footie and was full of
positive coverage on the visit, two days, ago by the Chinese President.
This visit apparently against world leader advice, due to the war in
Darfur, but clearly a very proactive move by China to tap into the oil
resources and growth potential of Sudan.
The war issue comes up in conversation occasionally,
but being in the far south west, its only impact here is to tarnish the
name of the country.
While in Sudan, the issue of crime and dishonesty has
never been up for question, the people are so straight and friendly,
it’s a pleasure interacting.
Things that are so
different, yet I have almost taken for granted
I was thinking that there are now many things that
were abnormal in my environment before Cairo, but which I almost take
for granted now:
Sleeping under the stars every
night…..last night in the hotel excluded!
Woken at 5am almost every morning
with the mosque-crier calling people to the mosque
No few beers or
glasses of wine every night!
No alcohol in Sudan…strictly forbidden.
Not shaving or showering for 3-5 days
at a time
Wearing cycling shorts
Going to bed around 8.30pm tired as
hell, and waking up at 5.30am fresh and ready to go!
Not going to the supermarket or bank
others with me everyday…..
Some of you have asked me to describe the group
dynamic that I deal with everyday…ie. the fellow participants, and our
support team (a company called African Routes from Durban, South
Well, as you have probably picked up….socialising with
the group is not one of my top priorities, so I have pretty much stuck
to myself but been ‘politely friendly’ to the group. They are a diverse
bunch of people, in nationality, cycling/adventure experience, work
backgrounds, etc. and all very nice in their own way. I also do find
that I prefer to have the African experiences on my own, and for that
reason I do most of the excursions alone. I also cycle alone and find
this very therapeutic, and personally rewarding. There are a few others
like me, but for the most, the group has split into its cliques, and
people cycle/socialise in these subgroups. I did bump into two guys doing
the Cairo to Cape Town bike trip on their own, and that unsettled me for
a few days, as I was envious of their REAL freedom and sense of
adventure…..I experienced this in Patagonia last year, and also when I
am sailing and it’s a very pure and personally rewarding thing for
me…..but I understand not for everyone…maybe only weirdos…sorry
The African Routes guys are wonderful, down-to-earth
South Africans who have done this trip many times before and make all
the meals, campsites, etc. work like clockwork. The one truck broke its rear leaf
spring out in the desert last week, and they had it all repaired within
6 hrs with minimum disruption to us…..quite commendable. Yes - we do
hear lots of Johnny Clegg music - and sometimes I do have to head off
for real peace and quiet.
Finally, I hope everyone remembers that part of the
objective of all this cycling is to try and raise funds for good causes
in Africa! I promised to
introduce the two organisations to you over the four months…..and given
that WaterCan have some operations in Ethiopia that we will soon hear
about as I cycle through the area, here is an intro to their
- "in a nutshell"
WaterCan is a Canadian
non-governmental organisation dedicated to
providing clean water, basic sanitation and hygiene education to the
world's poorest people. Since 1987, we have helped more than one million
people in the developing world live healthier, more productive
lives. Currently, we support
projects in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
WaterCan does not
have a staff overseas. We work
with local organisations who are already/independently doing work to
provide clean water in their communities. These partners develop the project
plan and propose technology and methodology that is most appropriate for
the local environmental and hydrologic conditions, also taking into
account social and cultural norms.
We believe in
community ownership of the projects.
Therefore, each waterpoint (location that provides water and
sanitation services) is managed by a community team trained in
maintenance and repair. This also
ensures the sustainability of the project. To encourage gender equity, and
because studies show higher success rates for development projects that
involve women, the community management teams must include female
To learn more about
WaterCan, our work overseas, and our public engagement/education efforts
in Canada, please visit: www.watercan.com.
So tomorrow I leave Khartoum, on the start of Section
2, this initial part being a 7 day ride that will take us across Sudan
and through the Ethiopian Border on our way to Addis Ababa. Although a
few days off yet, I am really looking forward to entering the Rift
Valley and the mountains of Ethiopia…..!
Till next newsletter …take care!