#4. Goodbye to Egypt, crossing the Tropic line and Sudan beckons!

Beyond the Saddle ....Cairo to Cape Town
Howard Fairbank
Thu 25 Jan 2007 09:54
21:47.702N 31:22.185E
   Issue #4

Saying Goodbye  
to Egypt,
crossing the Tropic line
and Sudan beckons!


21:47.702N 31:22.185E


23 January 2007


I sit here on the top bunk in our cramped, but surprisingly comfortable '1st class' cabin onboard the ferry taking us from Aswan, Egypt to Wadi Halfa, Sudan, across Lake Nasser. I could think this was almost a luxury cruise, until I open the cabin door and stroll down the corridor... first the communal 'Gents Wash Room' - no toilet flushing facilities, and in disgusting shape... then onto the dining room where I had breakfast today... Sudanese coffee (just like the Egyptian one - thick, sweet, and a mud residue, but I quite like it now)...lots of different 'types' of people eating and drinking tea... all fascinated by me as an obvious standout European...then downstairs to the 2nd class area... basically benches totally overcrowded, with people lying with their luggage in every possible open space. Some even playing 'normal' card games, others just sitting chatting in large communal groups.. .then back up two floors and onto the open deck, where our bikes are...and probably 150 3rd class passengers, and their luggage... once again strewn everywhere and piled high. I guess with the weather there is little chance of rain, and maybe after seeing such a beautiful new moon night...3rd class was first class, and us 'affluent' 1st classers' people missed it again!


A view of the deck accommodation on the ferry across Lake Nasser to

They said the ferry was full, but who knows how they know when they
have too many?



Being towed by another ship are two huge barges, one carrying cars, and the other piled high with oversize cargo and merchandise. The ferry only runs once a week, and there is no public road route from Aswan to Sudan, so it provides a business lifeline for many traders.


The Aswan dam was built in 1971, and has obviously changed the whole character of the Nile... mostly positive changes, but some negative. The main positive being the ability to control the flow of the river, thus avoiding flooding, and allowing for secure housing development along the river banks. Another positive is the hydro electric power that comes out of the plant at the dam wall. The negative is that the fertile silt that used to rejuvenate the farming land in the floods every year now drops out in Lake Nasser, so the farmers downstream need to fertilize, and find other ways to rejuvenate the soil.

Lake Nasser is huge, being more than 150km long, and the flooding of the valley provided some major challenges to existing towns, and the sacred tombs at Wadi El-Seboua, which we are just about to pass. (If you are so inclined you may find it interesting to read all about this via the
internet, quite an interesting story, with UN involvement necessary.)

Because of security concerns, we have had to have 2-person guard watches since boarding the ship, and I happened to get the 2-3 am watch with my cabin mate Dave Papenfus. This was just the time I noted we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, a milestone as we head south. In total, over the 10 days now, we have come more than 6 degrees south from Cairo while almost staying on the same longitude.

Retracing the events since my last newsletter from Luxor...

The cycling continued along the banks of the Nile, with the scenery becoming more rural, and the river looking more natural and un-spoilt, other than the towns and villages along the way. Interestingly, the bird life has improved significantly... firstly egrets, then herons and plovers and a variety of ducks, and then as vegetation thickened, I spotted African Hoopoes, Pied Kingfishers, and a number of hawks. A good sign of the wildlife ahead after Ethiopia.

We over-nighted at the interesting town of Idfu, which is quite off the tourist track, and I really enjoyed exploring and tasting the local offerings. Also witnessed two funerals down the main street... the first was a fairly normal affair with a huge crowd following a 'normal' coffin held high above the crowd on the shoulders of the pall bearer, swaying as they marched quite hurriedly down the street. The second one also had a huge crowd, but this time the body was just covered with a light linen cloth, and almost appeared to be lying on 'its owner's bed, rolling from side to side as the pallbearers marched ahead!

This town must be a junction for the camel trading business, as there were a large amount of trucks passing through with camels in the back, just visible from their necks up peering like tourists in a bus over the side railings! One 3/4 ton truck had four fully grown camels in the back section, and was showing the strain of carrying that weight!

The next day we left for Aswan, and I set out early feeling like just pushing the pace out there on my own, next to the Nile, taking in the scenery... it was very special, and I did a fast time to be first at the lunch stop. Actually, I stopped a km before and joined the locals for a falafel, hummus, and tahini, with Egyptian coffee, all for 5 pounds. After lunch I decided to take it easy and really do some touring, even stopping for a haircut at a small town called Kom Ombo. A memorable experience, in a barber shop which had an outfit that looked like it was from the 1950's. Needless to say it took a while, and I was also presented with a cup of freshly made tea to round it all off.

Leaving Kom Ombo, I had my first negative community interaction while cycling - a teenager threw a huge boulder at me from the second story of an apartment complex as I cycled past. Fortunately it didn't hit me, but hit my water bottle with such force that it bent the holding cage.

I arrived at the outskirts of Aswan on my own and back in 'racing mode', being picked up by a police escort motorbike. We raced through Aswan, a fairly large town full of the normal chaotic traffic, doing around 45km/h with his siren blaring and the traffic parting to let us through. I felt like the Tour D' Egypt winner coming home!



Nile scene at Aswan....


very tranquil except
for the traders pestering!



All through Egypt we have had the same company catering for us. They also provided the follow-up vehicles, and Aswan was the place their role was scheduled to end. To celebrate this, they put on a special Egyptian dinner for our last night in Egypt that consisted of  a chopped liver, onion and garlic pot, served with falafels, tomato and cucumber salad, wheat rice, potatoes, french fries(!!!), and covered with a thick tomato based sauce.

Aswan was a pleasant surprise. With my memories of 10 years ago reducing my expectation, I was surprised to see the huge amount of development that has taken place. Plush hotels, road and infrastructure, and apartment complexes. Egypt is clearly enjoying the fruits of strong economic growth centred on tourism. If only they could address the pestering tour/tourist merchandise touters. This irritation destroys the very thing it's trying to promote.

With the luxury of the relatively smooth roads of Egypt now behind us, and the inhospitable dirt roads of Sudan lying ahead, it was also time to change bicycle tyres from my 'road slicks' to rough terrain tyres.

The following day we had to cycle the 40km to Aswan Dam to meet the ferry to Sudan. This was a very bureaucratic process starting with police convoy for a bike ride, right through clearing emigration, lugging baggage around and boarding the ship... a tiring, but very interesting day.

I can't wait to arrive in Sudan in a few hours and start the next, no doubt interesting part of this wonderful adventure. Sudan being war torn will pose the most serious challenges from customs, immigration, and controls, so hopefully no bad stories to follow. Having only recently come off the Interpol 'Suspected Drug Trafficker' list, I will be on my best behaviour!

It's now the next day .....24th January, and I thought I'd just add a piece on arrival, and first night in Sudan, before sending off this newsletter...

Quite amazingly it's 4h30 in the morning, and I am sitting here in the middle of a desert patch just outside Wadi Halfa, in my sleeping bag, under the amazingly clear night sky, which is just laden with stars similar to what one sees in the open ocean. This is our campsite, and I decided to be anti-social and move away from the group and sleep under the stars without a tent.

Our arrival at Wadi Halfa (Sudan) went very well as far as customs and immigration procedures are concerned, but it was a very slow process, taking two and a half hours to get cleared. The official in charge made a huge show of the process and his importance. It was only after us providing him with antibiotics, and other medicines for him and his sick wife that we were finally given the all-clear to enter Sudan...  oohhh I forgot - then he proceeded to give a whole barrage of welcome speeches, and apologies for how slow they were, to which we applauded loudly, causing him to continue the self-aggrandisement process requiring further applause... I guess it was a big day for him, in charge of the immediate destiny of a group of 35 people!



The exotic Sudanese truck 
that took our baggage through customs!



There is clearly tension in Sudan, and all is not well. Reminds me of the bad old days in South Africa... where we just wanted to be loved and accepted by the outside world. In the few interactions I have already had with Sudanese people, the common thread has been that they are very friendly, and want you to REALLY like Sudan - more than the normal patriotism one sees from other nationals. I witnessed a Christian Sudanese local being prevented from entering his country in Wadi Halfa, and after talking to him, he was of the opinion that the Islamic border control people were victimizing him for being Christian. He was told to wait in the neutral zone and come back the next day to try and get through immigration again - this to get back into his own country.

All the officialdom aside, what immediately hit me about the landscape was the feeling of huge openness, and vastness...with a horizon seeming further than I have ever seen it...oh... maybe Australian outback, with its red, sun parched land the same. The sky was a deep blue, contrasting against the desert sand and a few lone palm trees occasionally interrupting the horizon.

Rather than set up tent, I decided to get back on my bike and explore the end of Lake Nasser, where the Nile flows into the lake, about a 5 km cycle on soft sand roads. I was soon joined by a Sudanese teenager on a very exotically decorated, but basic bicycle. What was so refreshing, was that he did not try and sell me something, didn't appear to want anything, but rather just be my friend, and show me he is country. He led me down the road to the lake, and I was surprised how many English words he knew - sadly more than my Arabic! The sun had just set and the dusk light was amazing, and as we approached the lake I could see a huge flock of flamingos had settled near the shore for the night. As we approached them, the warning call went out and within seconds the mass take-off began... flamingoes struggling to get airborne off the water being silhouetted by the reddish orange dusk light, with mirror reflections off the perfectly still lake... this was a special start to Sudan. 



Dusk with the Flamingos.....

as seen by me and my 
Sudanese friend!


All the while my Sudanese 'friend' encouraged me to enjoy it, showing me more birds, and in our broken dialects, telling me he would meet me the next morning for the sunrise and fishing in the lake. As the light faded we picked up our bikes and cycled slowly back to the campsite, with my friend teaching me a few Arabic words along the way. As the campsite approached it was time to part ways, him heading off home, me to the camp, and in my stereotyping, I was expecting him to ask for something in return for his 'services'. But no, they weren't services - they were pure friendship and goodwill, and he initiated a goodbye and thank you to which I could now respond in Arabic... all in all, a very special last few hours of daylight, and first day in Sudan. I then cycled into the camp unnoticed by others, to see everyone busy with 'functional activities', like tent-building, bike tyre-changing etc, and I thought to myself - nothing could have been more important than the special experience I had just had...

After that little story you now know the main reason why I slept under the stars. It was dark by the time I came to have to set up my tent!

I am really excited about starting the Sudan cycling today... the roads are going to be so much worse, and I can already feel that it's much hotter than Egypt... but somehow I think it's going to be a very special experience cycling on my own in the big wide open spaces with friendly people around.. so much for being a war zone hey!

Till the next newsletter take care...


Thanks to those that have sent feedback to Africa Cycle Trip - it's really great to have your support.

The Progress So Far
  • Current Section:
    Cairo to Khartoum

  • Hours cycled since last newsletter:

  • Distance cycled since last newsletter:
    230 km

  • Distance cycled so far:
    1000 km

  • Km to go to Cape Town:
    10 884 

A steel falucca being used to carry quarried rock from the Nile east bank to the west bank. 

All manually loaded and unloaded....!  

Seems like taking coals to Newcastle...!

An interesting face with lots of history!


...happens to be the Captain of the stone carrying Falucca.

At 512 megabytes, must be the world's fastest internet connection....and in Aswan, Egypt!  

Well as expected .....

it could not be further from the truth....couldn't even open my emails...too slow!

Busy with....Section One: 
Cairo to Khartoum


The journey starts at the magnificent Pyramids on the outskirts of one of the worlds most visited and ancient cities, Cairo. It is the perfect beginning for the longest, hardest cycling tour which then heads along the shores of the Red Sea, across the rugged mountains of central Egypt, through the Valley of the Kings, and Karnak in Luxor, following the magnificent coast of the Nile until arriving at Aswan at the head of Lake Nasser.


From Aswan it's bicycles on a boat for the journey down Lake Nasser into Sudan, one of the most remote and least visited countries in the world, and a country torn by civil conflict. Cycling once again with the Nile River as companion, the route passes through villages that have not changed in hundreds of years and whose inhabitants could not exist without the river and its fertile valley. The section ends in the legendary and historic city of Khartoum, capital of Sudan, and a city that sits proudly at the confluence of both the Blue and White Nile rivers.


Section dates:  
13 January to 3 February

Coming up....Next Section:
Khartoum to Addis Abba


From the city of Khartoum to the border of Ethiopia, the route passes through the “bread basket” of the Sudan. The countryside gradually changes towards Ethiopia and there is much evidence of the transformation from the Arabic Muslim world of northern Africa to the more tribal and traditional nature of the Horn of Africa.


Once in Ethiopia, the ride of a life begins. Ethiopia contains some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world. This section will challenge the body more than any other section due to the high altitude riding. However, beyond the mountains there are also many interesting stops throughout Ethiopia such as Lake Tana with visits to the ancient monasteries and the Blue Nile Falls.


From a cycling standpoint, the highlight of this section will be the Blue Nile Gorge, an 1800-meter precipitous descent and ascent over a crumbling road that will test the mettle of cyclists of any calibre. Once the Blue Nile Gorge has been conquered, the beautiful rolling hills of central Ethiopia will ‘whiz by’ as the route moves to a newly paved road into the capital city of Addis Ababa. The descent from the surrounding hills of Addis into the downtown core will be an experience not to be forgotten.

The Complete Route


  • Total Distance Cairo to Cape Town: 
    11 884

  • Countries through which the route passes:
    Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa

  • Sections:  
    1. Cairo to Khartoum  
    Khartoum to Addis
        Ababa (Sudan/Ethiopia)
    Addis Ababa to Nairobi
    Nairobi to Iringa
    Iringa to Lilongwe
    Lilongwe to Victoria
        Falls. (Malawi/Zambia)
    Victoria Falls to
        Windhoek (Zambia/
    8. Windhoek to Cape Town  
        (Namibia/South Africa)

  • Expected arrival in Cape Town:  
    12 May 2007

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