#6. Into Khartoum with Pomp and Ceremony - The end of Section 1... 2000km behind me!

Beyond the Saddle ....Cairo to Cape Town
Howard Fairbank
Sun 4 Feb 2007 23:07
15:35.962N 32:31.705E
   Issue #6

Into Khartoum     
with Pomp and Ceremony...


The end of Section 1…..2000km behind me!



                         Magic of the Desert…..wind sculptured sand dunes


4 February, 2007.  From the centre of Khartoum.


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 machines.


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 fever pitch.


Waiting for the
police to clear the
bridge across the
White Nile into

Just before the
confluence of Blue
and White Niles...


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!  




My first camel carcass….

many to follow the initial
excitement of the find!











The Sahara Desert… 

wind-blown ocean of





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
of the day...

at the Desert Passport Photo






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 Khartoum!


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 until now:


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 everyday

  • 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 - ever!


The 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 Africa!):


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 wanderers!


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 organisation:


                              Watercan - "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 participants. 


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!



Arrival in Khartoum…

The Speeches by The President and Secretary of the Sudanese Cycling Federation. 

That’s Douglas, the blind cyclist sitting on the left, my cycling partner for the day time trial and ride into Khartoum. 

The Progress So Far
  • Current Section:
    Cairo to Khartoum

  • Hours cycled since last newsletter:

  • Distance cycled since last newsletter:
    522 km

  • Distance cycled so far:
    1996 km

  • Km to go to Cape Town:
    9 912 km 

The most expensive road sign in Sudan…! 

... because they only had to make one like it
… a very rare ‘S’ in the road!

The family of five and their house alone in the desert!

 Say no more….

Douglas and I finishing the 18km time trial on the last day into Khartoum. 

Each section has a time trial, and we agreed to do it together. We were doing well, until soft sand at a road construction section made us fall…..different type of time trial in Africa hey!  We ended up about eighth fastest! 

Watch the next section!

A very typical, and overloaded Sudanese truck crossing the desert.  

Friendly drivers though!

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

A typical isolated settlement village that I came across maybe once a day while crossing the desert. 

Same place as the Passport Photo Centre!

Even the straight roads see their accidents…

a colourful bus - written off with the chassis on the extreme left. You can also see the endless road!

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 juice stall in Khartoum…..

and believe me, this is real upmarket. The proud owner is the guy in white.

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

Helping Conserve Africa …
The Deal

As a subscriber to this newsletter, Thank You for agreeing to do your bit by helping to conserve Africa through our two partners:


The African Conservation Foundation:



Over the course of the trip, through this newsletter, you will get a chance to learn more about these organisations and their projects on the ground.

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