#5. Sudan...huge challenges and rewards...a world away from Egypt!

Beyond the Saddle ....Cairo to Cape Town
Howard Fairbank
Tue 30 Jan 2007 05:22
19:10.734N 30:27.843E  
   Issue #5

Sudan...huge challenges  
and huge rewards...


a world away from Egypt!


29 January 2007.  From Dongola.


Last newsletter, I’d just arrived in Sudan and experienced the wonderful sunset with 'my Sudanese friend’, and wasn’t sure if that was a Sudanese experience or just some one-off?


Having been seven days in Sudan with five of those cycling, I have a better perspective, albeit still a narrow one, of the Nubian dominated, north east part. Sudan, covering 8.3% of the area of Africa, and stretching more from 4 to 23 degrees north is the largest country on the continent, and so applying my limited experience to the whole of Sudan would be potentially misleading. However, in my pre- trip research, I did find the following that maybe useful to extrapolate my experience to other parts of the country:


Sudan’s national emblem is the Secretary Bird. This bird is known for its might, ability to fly at great heights and powerful sight. It can run for long distances, and the people of Sudan say the emblem symbolises might, sacrifice and dignity, characteristics that represent the very core of Sudanese way of life. (Needless to say…so different to those experienced in Egypt!)


In that context, I can honestly say this past week has been an amazing experience of interacting with people who are just fascinated by foreigners, and open their homes generously in friendship, and hospitality. 


the first village after Wadi Halfa 
on the Nile.

Colourful, but shy,
Sudanese women. 

I was invited into the family
house, and they made me tea
and local food.

My first dare, sunset at the lake experience, was followed up by ‘my friend’ Mohammed, meeting me again, just before sunset the next day, and this time we went on our bikes to another part of the lake. Here there was a huge group of pelicans and a wide range of other water birds. He then took me to his school, passing the ‘Be careful of school kids’ road sign you see in the photo. After that he just disappeared and I was left wondering why……


The six days that followed, until my arrival in Dongola, have been an amazing adventure supposedly following the Nile, but in actuality, rather crossing the barren Nubian desert, with occasional (and welcomed!) meetings with the Nile. From the photo you can get some idea of the roads and terrain, but one photo can’t explain it all! Basically around 450km of sand roads, predominately flat, with occasional undulating hills, but varying in surface from quite smooth (not often), to heavy rocky and heavy corrugation (mostly), to unexpected soft sand patches (too often!). For me the scenery was special….that ‘special- ness’ that the big deserts offer, with lunar type landscape, and then the occasional 360 degree ‘horizon-less’ patches.


Typical road surface for the 5 days of cycling in the Sudanese Nubian desert.....not good for covering huge kms rapidly on a bicycle!  


The openness of the desert with the lunar landscape rewarded me with a very special experience



As I rode from Wadi Halfa to Dongola, the remote and extremely isolated villages along the way increased in number and population, all having a similar look and feel, but each having their own character. Each home being surrounded by a clay brick wall with its unique and ornate entranceway, all being part of a surprisingly clean, tidy and strongly, community- centred village. There would often be huge, clay brick pot plants with palms, bougainvilla, or hibiscus trees splattered around the communal areas. (Never saw anything like this in Egypt’s mostly squalor…yet Egypt is the ‘richer’ country…..Makes one think what rich is hey?) The first ‘village’ out of Wadi Halfa consisted of two middle age guys (hmmmm!), and two donkeys in the middle of the desert….but they have a tea and rest area, and offer passers- by free tea….the villages increased in size and diversity from there on out!!


All the villages at either entrance have a covered shaded area, with huge clay water urns, and a steel mug, for visitors to drink and refresh, with the occasional one also having a Sudanese bed for relaxing before moving on.


Through the past six days, the one thing that stands out is the people…how unbelievably friendly they are. I cycled on my own all the time, and must have been invited into 50 peoples’ homes, practical necessity allowing me to only accept maybe half a dozen. These experiences without exception were very special, including freshly made tea, offers of food, and generally continuing the goodwill and friendship theme that I experienced on day 1. Most who invited me in could speak a few words of broken English, some were surprisingly fluent, but always we communicated intensely.


These guys invited me in for tea as I cycled past...
about 5 hrs into the 3rd Sudanese day. 
Free tea, they offered me food and water, no obligations, and we had a good chat for an hour in broken English. 
I went through my map of East Africa with them, showing them where there village was, much to their delight.


Particularly in the first three days, they all made the point that they were ‘Nubians, not Arabic’, and were immensely proud of their roots, and wanted my positive acceptance of their country and culture. Interestingly, I am told that the Nubian language is significantly different to Arabic. I guess I see the Nubian ‘band’ as being the transition zone between the Arab world of North Africa and the Negro African world further south.


And now some of the more specific and hopefully interesting experiences of the past six days:


A couple of nights back we were fortunate to be camping overnight right on the Nile, in an undeveloped section. This after a hard 80km’s (now taking 5 cycling hrs on the bad roads). I immediately found my ‘alone’ sleeping spot on the river bank, away from the group who all opted to camp on top of each other next to the two trucks! Crocodiles were a bit of a worry, but after a quick recce, and talk with a local, I decided it was ‘very safe’. and had a wonderful long swim (and wash!) in the river. I was surprised how fast it was flowing, and how cold it was, but just what a tired, and completely dust coated, outer- shell needed!


Just before sunset Josh, the Kenyan, did see a crocodile a few hundred metres upstream…….A story which did make me question my river bank sleeping plan! Anyway, assessing the situation and largely putting my hands in fate, I decided the tranquil experience was worth the risk. I was rewarded with a very special night, where I heard the water lapping, fish jumping, and was treated to having the brighter stars reflecting off the water.


Sunset over the Nile, in the Nubian Desert... 

A view from my sleeping bag down by the river. 

Josh did see crocodiles
a few hundred
metres upstream, 
but I was assured by a local
I was safe!



The next day, with the temperature over 40 deg C, I caught wind of us being at a very desolate, ‘no shade’ desert camp. At around 3pm I was fortunate to find the only ‘tea room’ virtually along the whole six days, that had a refrigerator with REAL cold, cold drinks and it also had a very nicely set out open seating area, so I decided to make this a two hour stop in the shade! As usual, it's never lonely, and before I knew it I had 7 teenage boys around me. They could speak fair English, and were on their way back from school so showed me their day’s English lesson. I was surprised at the level. Later they took me down to the Nile and showed me how the canal system and farming methods work….quite interesting. The truck with the original painting on its rear, pulled in here, and I was eventually swamped with locals….hence the photo.


While traveling through one of the bigger villages (probably 400 inhabitants) around 9am, I bumped into a mass of kids on their way to school…in uniform, and very orderly, using all forms of transport, including the three sisters on the donkey I photographed. They all say either,  ‘Welcome!’, ‘Hello mister!’, ‘Where are you from?’, or ‘What’s your name?’ all in a very friendly approaching way.


The day I ran into
the school kids off
to school....

3 sisters on a donkey with all their school gear...very sweet!





As far as the ‘Where are you from?’ question goes, as I type to you now sitting in our campsite, I have just been interrupted by a teenager asking me that same question!  My answer, being ‘South African’, always causes confusion…..either because most of these north Africans don’t seem to know anything about south of Ethiopia, or if they do know South Africa they point to my skin and say ‘No African!’. Mentioning Nelson Mandela and Bafana Bafana always makes the connection, but doesn’t solve their skin colour dilemma.


Now a ‘not-so-good’ donkey story…..


I was close to one of the villages, but still in the desert, going quite fast and noisily over the stone surface approaching an elderly traditionally dressed (all white kaftans) Sudanese man riding towards me on his donkey. Suddenly, hearing me approaching, the donkey took fright bucking its rider right off the one side and onto the ground, while it ran off into the desert. Shaken, the guy recovered, as I turned around to offer my apologies and assistance. I felt bad for the guy, but in another context it would have made for a really amusing video….with a caption something like ‘When a donkey sees a cyclist for the first time!’  


On the last day into Dongola we did our first ‘open desert crossing’……sounds strange when I have been telling you I have been cycling in the desert for weeks now???…well ‘open’ means there wasn’t a single and continuous road taking us across the desert, and for most of the time there were no landmarks or signs of civilisation on the horizons!  Yes, there were paths which may have resembled roads at times, but they inevitably were a maze and on divergent paths leading to a whole range of destinations.


Because of the risk of losing someone, it was decided we were to do the crossing as a group of cyclists. The surface was also very soft and being heavier, the tandem, with blind Kenyan Douglas on the back and Joshua as his pilot, was really struggling to keep up. I offered to change places with Josh, who accepted with a smile on his face, and next I knew I was leading the blind! Having owned a tandem some years ago, this turned out to be not only a welcomed challenge, but fun too! So Douglas and I powered our way across the open desert, only ‘falling’ four times when the sand got so deep we came to a standstill. As Douglas said…’A change is as good as a holiday’, and he really loved the experience. In many ways it was humbling for me again….as I suddenly had to think as if I was blind, and then take the information I had (as a sighted pilot) about the terrain, landscape, and road ahead, and communicate that appropriately to Doug so he could anticipate. We eventually got a good system going, and at my word ‘Power!’ I would feel Doug’s huge strength coming through the chain drive to power us through the soft sand…well most times!  



Me on the tandem with Douglas at the rear.....

powering our way through the Nubian desert!


Our fun came to an end after about 50km of cycling together…mostly at the head of the pack, I might add!...When the front bottom bracket bearing suddenly parted ways. This sidelined Douglas, and the tandem to finishing the remaining 40km to Dongola aboard the support vehicle (see photo), and leaving me to join my faithful bike and enjoy a fast dash to the end in 45 deg heat.  


The punt for the crossing of the Nile to Dongola...
all loaded up
with bikes, cyclists, and the support vehicle. 
Note the orange tandem bike
on its roof rack...
sadly this was after
the mechanical
problems forced Douglas and I to stop cycling together for the day. 
I continued on my own bike.


Bird life has improved enormously, with the warmer weather and in areas when we are close to Nile. The exotic one for me being a type of bee-eater, quite common here, and beautifully coloured in green and orange. Nobody can tell me exactly what it’s called.


So what is Dongola like….?
Well let me just say……it’s interesting, but not exactly paradise!  A huge and interesting market, but it's very third world, and lacks the charm of the little desert villages. Interestingly though, I am told that it’s going through boom times, with lots of new developments, but still lacking the basic visitor infrastructure. All of Sudan is in boom times with 12% pa growth last 12 months, being the second fastest growing economy….but I have to think this growth is mainly related to oil production and reserves, and these are in the south!


And how is the cycling going?..... for those who want to know….
These past 5 days of tough cycling have sorted out the group…..quite a few riders have had to use the bus to complete a leg - fortunately not me!


From the good roads and fast speeds in Egypt, it was steep change, to the poor road conditions and heat of Sudan. The soft sand and poor surface requiring more energy for the same km, and then the low average speed meaning more time out there in the heat, and the slower progress more challenges for the mind to deal with. All this means an exponential ramp up in the difficulty of the cycling of the past 5 days, with 100km in Sudan equivalent to 200km in Egypt.


All in all, I am very happy with how I am feeling, the ‘first two weeks’ training is now over, and I am enjoying being on the bike everyday. Other than a slight butt twinge, I feel like I now have the formula for being able to cycle endlessly day after day…something I was a bit worried about before the trip. It’s never boring for me as the scenery and people are always changing, so the days are very interesting, even the desert!  I guess the Ethiopian landscape will be a lot different with some huge mountain passes to climb, so maybe I’ll be telling another story after that!


My bike is another area that needs watching…I have had no more spoke problems since reducing tyre pressure and changing to off- road tyres, but it's still a long way to go and I am trying to look after it with preventative maintenance. With the huge amounts of fine desert sand getting in everywhere, I have been cleaning the bike and specifically, the drive train, every night.


As far as my health goes….I am pleased to say I am well over the flu, and haven’t had to use my glasses to type this email…would have been necessary before!…and I put this down to me being relaxed and on a good diet. I have been strictly taking whey protein everyday after the cycle, for muscle repair, and also take potassium, 1000mg vitamin C, and a complex amino acid food supplement tablet daily.


So all in all, after 16 days, I have settled in really well to the lifestyle, and feel at home sleeping under the stars without warm showers, having the adventure of my life!


Next newsletter from Khartoum, capital of Sudan…..till then Take care!



  • As you can imagine I have been taking a huge amount of photos, and what I find difficult is sending through ‘just’ ten to summarise the week…. I try and pick ones that are unique and/ or have a story attached, rather than the traditional travel scene ones. I have lots of these and do value them highly, as I do the ones in ‘The Faces of Africa’ file, but with the limit being satellite phone data transmission time, you won’t see these in the newsletters. I’m putting some thinking into ways to share this after the adventure, with those who may be interested. Any ideas, interest are welcomed.

  • Many of you visit the blogs, or daily diary/position report I place on
    http://blog.mailasail.com/howfair. I’ll be using these in future to give mainly a description of the day's cycling, rather than duplicating stories with the Beyond the Saddle newsletter.

  • Please feel free, and I’d like to encourage you, to contact
    africa {DOT} cycle {DOT} trip {CHANGE TO AT} mweb {DOT} co {DOT} za, to let ‘us’ know what else you would like to know about in this newsletter. (Note this address is not my new personal email address, and I don’t personally open emails sent to it, but I do get daily summarised feedback.) Being out here, there are two main limitations….power for my laptop, and data speed for ‘talking’ to you and the world! I have to use these sparingly.

The Progress So Far
  • Current Section:
    Cairo to Khartoum

  • Hours cycled since last newsletter:

  • Distance cycled since last newsletter:
    450 km

  • Distance cycled so far:
    1450 km

  • Km to go to Cape Town:
    10 434 

A school road sign in a Sudanese village...

Summarises the country....
all the people are individuals and each special...

I have a photo file that is growing called 'The Faces of Africa', capturing faces of interesting people I meet along the way. This one is a
special one..... A scarecrow!  

This was the best, and most amusing example
of a huge number of scarecrows I have come across that guard the parts of the farm lands....

The Sudanese are very proud and dignified people....a typical entrance gate to a basic house in a typical village I cycled through. 

The colours and designs vary enormously, and the rest of the home is typically brown plastered,
clay brick. The bricks are made on the property and just baked in the desert sun.

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

One of our overnight, open desert campsites, looking down on the group from my 'eagles nest' site!  

Note the truck passing by on the road we cycle on. This 'traffic' is few and far between....lucky if we saw a vehicle all day some days!

While having the many COLD, cold drinks for the first time in 4 days, this bus pulled in, heading for the Khartoum overnight journey, packed with locals and merchandise. 

Five guys sat on the cargo on the roof the whole way!  

This is the view of the rear...very decorative, to the point of even having an original painting of a Nile scene just above the Arabic number plate!

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 Km

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

  • Sections:  
    1. Cairo to Khartoum  
    2. Khartoum to Addis
        Ababa (Sudan/Ethiopia)
    3. Addis Ababa to Nairobi
    4. Nairobi to Iringa
    5. Iringa to Lilongwe
    6. Lilongwe to Victoria
        Falls. (Malawi/Zambia)
    7. 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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