Dongola to Khartoum to the Ethiopian Border
After 8 hard riding days and 1 rest day in Khartoum we've cycled across Sudan and across the border into Ethiopia.
The main challenge has been the temperature which has regularly reached 38C in the shade and 47C in the sun. The heat wouldn't be such a problem in itself but combined with having to cycle 140+km most days and sometimes with headwinds it's been a very challenging time. I've had serious difficulty with the heat for most of the time in Sudan although I am beginning to adjust by drinking water almost continuously and taking cold Coke stops whenever they are available.
I'm currently drinking about 10 litres per day. Apparently, the human body can only absorb about 1 litre per hour and I'm definitely losing more than 1 litre per hour in sweat. It's worse in the afternoons which are much hotter than the mornings. In the afternoon, it doesn't matter how much you drink, it never seems like enough. Since you can't keep up with the water loss whilst cycling you have to start drinking early in the morning before riding and keep drinking into the evening to maintain a healthy level of water in your body.
Apparently, it's going to keep on getting hotter and the conditions tougher !!
In many ways, I am really sorry to be leaving Sudan. My idea of Sudan before I got there was that it would be a somewhat dangerous and hostile country, an opinion that I suspect most westerners would share. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Sudanese are truly excellent and friendly people.
I have lost count of the number of people that have waved to me, wished me luck and shouted greetings from the side of the road or from cars. We've been able to leave our bags, bikes and other valuables lying around with no fear that anyone will steal them. On a few occaissions, I've gone into restaurants and found them short of chairs and a local has either fetched me a chair or given up their own chair for me !
Neither is Sudan a backward country. Some of the rural areas are a bit basic and some areas look probably the same as they did 2000 years ago. Khartoum is a beautiful city (or least parts of it are) and there are some truly stunning buildings that wouldn't look out of place in Los Angeles or the City of London. The people seem happy and prosperous.
There is an awful lot of construction going on in Khartoum. Sudan is clearly and upwardly mobile country. Last year, there was no internet in Sudan, this year internet cafes are everywhere.
Day 16 – Rest day in Dongola
It was pretty weird staying in Dongola. It seemed fairly clear that the locals hadn't seen many (if any) white people before and word quickly got around about where we were staying. I was certainly aware of many curious eyes watching me wherever I went. Considering that we were camped in Dongola's zoo it was aslo pretty funny to have the locals peering in at us through the entrance gates to the zoo.
At some point during the day I decided to take a few photos of the local market. I had my camera out for about 30 seconds and had taken 2 photos when a man appeared in front of me and said “Police ! No photos”. He seemed pretty aggitated and grabbed my arm and dragged me across to one of the uniformed AK-47 carrying policemen.
You need a government permit to take photos in Sudan and whilst I had applied for one, I hadn't picked it up from our government tourism representative (a Mr Abdul Baggy). The man produced his wallet and flipped out some kind of ID which presumably identified him as an undercover policeman, but which in reality was far too worn with age to be legible.
The undercover policeman was still pretty aggitated and wanted my passport, which I didn't have. Things were looking pretty hairy. He also seemed to want my camera which I wasn't going to give him. He didn't really speak good english so I just started talking at him explaining how he would have to talk to the government tourism representative back at our camp and how I had permission from the Sudanese government. Fortunately, I think he decided I wasn't worth the trouble and let me go with a stern warning - “no photo”.
I didn't risk taking any more photos in Dongola after that.
Day 17 – Dongola to Desert Camp
142Km on good paved road through flat desert with a gentle tailwind. Not too challenging, apart from the heat. We camped by a canal and a few people went for a swim, but I wasn't going to risk it - water in Africa can contain all sorts of nastiness. I don't remember too many details about the days ride but I do remember arriving in camp and being absolutely desperate to go sleep.
At this point I was pretty tired and bored of cycling through the desert. I was starting to have thoughts of “why am I doing this?”
Day 18 – Desert Camp to Desert Camp
148Km on good paved roads with almost no wind. It was very, very hot. It was really good to stop for coffee at a road side shop at around 30Km. I've started to get daunted by the distances and breaking the day with coffee stops really helps. It's not so much the distance, as the pedalling time it takes to cover the distance. To ride a 148Km can take 5 hours or less if you have good tailwind. It can take 9 hours or more with a headwind. By the time you've put your tent up, had something to eat and attended the regular evening “rider meeting” there isn't usually much time before going to sleep. It really helps to be in bed by 8pm to get up at 6am as we all seem to need extra sleep.
Got chased by a dog today which I really thought was going to take a bite at me. I tried to outrun it but it just snarled more and chased faster. I shouted at it and it stopped chasing. Lucky for the dog because it was about to get a face full of cycling shoe. A number of riders had a similar problem with the same dog.
I'm begining to develop a deep and profound love for Orangeade...
Day 19 – Desert Camp to Desert Camp
157Km paved with good roads. I started today very tired from the previous few days and it just got worse throughout the day. The first 80Km to the lunch truck wasn't too bad, but the last 77Km after lunch was a real mental challenge.
Cycling 157Km is quite a distance to cycle but for a fit cyclist it's really not a problem. However throw in temperatures of 38C in the shade and do that day after day and it starts to get really difficult. The novelty of cycling every day has now well and truly worn off. Exhaustion and dehydration are now a big part of my life.
I am also currently experiencing “accelerated digestion” and had to make a couple of emergency toilet stops on todays ride. This means finding some cover, digging a hole in the sand with a rock and doing what you've got to do. Carrying loperium hydrochloride (Immodium) and toilet paper in my rucksack has certainly paid dividends. Quite a few of riders are sick with some kind of stomach bug.
Came across a group of stone throwing children today. They seemed friendly enough I cycled up to them waving and saying hello, then all of a sudden they made a dash to pick up some stones. One of the stones was a size that would be big enough to kill you if it hit you on the head. I shouted at them and made it pretty clear that if they threw those stones, they wouldn't like me when I was angry. Why the entire population is soo friendly, but a few are so stupid and horrible is a mystery.
Day 20 – Desert Camp to Khartoum
Woke up not too happy today. Missing Clare and fed up with cycling not to mention the prospect of another 100+ days of the same. I've entertained thoughts of giving the whole thing up and leaving the tour in Khartoum – even if that means just leaving my stuff and getting on a plane. A number of other riders I've spoken to have all admitted they thought of leaving in Khartoum. Fortunately nobody did, as we've had some great times since but it gives an indication of how tough the tour is. Apparently, it's officially the 2nd hardest bike race in the world...
Today would involve a short 105Km ride into Khartoum however there would be a 20Km time trial at the start of the day. I really wasn't into racing in the time trial but I gave it a go. The first 10Km were to be a warm up and we would stop at the 10Km point and then each rider would start in 30 second intervals.
Due to my position as the slowest racer, I would be the first racer to start. I was still suffering with “digestive difficulties” and also had really tired legs. The person behind me overtook after 1.5Km followed by a steady stream of other racers. My overall time was 42 minutes compared to 29 minutes for the winner. All things considered I was pretty happy with that. My top speed with 34Kph but for most of the 20Km I was struggling to maintain 26Kph.
At the end of the time trial there was a further 36Km to cycle to the lunch truck. One of the other riders had a lucky escape when she was hit by a truck that came to close to her. It took some skin off her elbow and gave her a nasty bruise. A few millimetres closer and things could have been very much worse. The trucks rocket past on this road but normally they're very considerate and leave plenty of space. I can only imagine the driver didn't see her. A sobering thought.
After lunch we formed into a convoy to be given a police escort through Khartoum to our campsite at the “National Camping Residence”. This would be a 45Km ride in absolute blistering heat. The extreme heat made this one of the most difficult “stages” of the tour so far and I didn't thinking I was going to make it. I was very relieved to arrive at the camp and the tour director (Randy) had arranged for some cold drinks to be delivered to our camp – awesome !
It took me a while to recover from the heat, have a shower and generally get my stuff sorted out. I went for a walk and discovered an amazing market with hundreds of people sitting on the roads and pavements selling assortments of fruit and vegetables.
Day 21 – Rest day in Khartoum
The TDA refer to non-cycling days as “rest days”. This is something of a misnomer as there are still things to do and not much time to actually rest. Today I have to hand wash my laundry from the last few cycling days, re-grease the bearings on the front wheel of my bike and then go out and find some food.
If you like falafel, food isn't too hard to find from the various street sellers. I also visited Khartoums “western” shopping mall, the “Afro” mall.
The mall was complete rip off and whilst I did have a very expensive, but nice strawberry milkshake, I would much rather give my money to the market traders. Getting a cab ride back from the mall to the campsite was pretty tricky as none of the drivers seemed to have heard of the “National Camping Residence”, neither did they speak any English. In the end, I ended up navigating a tuk-tuk driver back to the camp using “the force” and hand gestures.
I also had a couple of delicious drinks. One was a mixed fruit milkshake, which seemed to a mix of blended fruit, milk and coconut – delicious. The other was “Chai Levon”, which is tea made with boiling milk and sugar – superb.
I had been borrowing some locker space from Scott, one of the sectional riders who was leaving the tour in Khartoum. This meant that I had ditch some less essential stuff in order to get all my stuff into my locker. I decided to loose some clothes and other things that I couldn't see myself loosing. One of the TDA crew suggested that I offer the clothes to some of the locals who are also staying in the campsite.
I picked a random group of men who were hanging around and walked up to them with my bundle of clothes. I don't speak Arabic and these guys don't speak much English. At first they thought I was looking for the laundry and one guy offered to take me there. I persisted with showing them the clothes and one guy who spoke better English asked me what I wanted for them. I tried to explain that I didn't want anything for the clothes as I couldn't take them with me and they could have them if they wanted.
At some point the penny dropped that I was offering them free clothes and there was a flurry of hands and all the clothes found new owners. Most of these guys were already well dressed (they were actually trainee police officers staying at the campsite during their training) but were clearly very grateful for some free clothes. I was happy too because I got to help them out. It would be difficult to overstate how friendly Sudanese people are.
In the evening I could hear some singing, clapping and drums coming from the other side of the camp. On taking a look, the trainee policemen appeared to be gathered in a circle doing the kind of “tribal dancing” that you would expect in Africa. One of the guys spoke excellent English and explained that actually it was a game which involved dancing (and stamping) in time with the drum beat. When you miss the beat, you're out of the game. There seemed to be a number of variations of the game.
I would have loved to take a better look round Khartoum but there wasn't really time to go much further than the immediate area around the campsite. From a distance the city centre seemed to have some large and futuristic sky scrapers.
Day 22 – Khartoum to Nile camp
I started the day feeling pretty good, having had a good rest day. In the morning rush, I jogged across camp and it felt like I was wearing some kind of powered exo-skeleton. It felt like I needed to be careful not to accidently jump over small buildings :). 7 hours of cycling per day for 3 weeks evidently gets you fit.
The next few days cover some long distances. Today is 142Km's on paved roads but was pretty tough. The first 75Km to lunch was a mix of tailwinds and crosswinds. The crosswinds were pretty tough and at times made it difficult to stay on the road. Traffic on the road was pretty heavy and busses and trucks rocketed past literally creating shockwaves that were both scary and irritating.
Cruised the rest of the distance to camp and arrived feeling like I could do another 142Km. I seem to be getting stronger and better at dealing with the heat.
The campsite was easily the most beautiful campsite of the trip so far. In some woods right next to the Nile. I ditched my stuff and walked straight down to the Nile for a swim which was truly awesome. I swam about 50 metres across to the other side while swallows whizzed about overhead. There were some tricky currents at points but the water was cool and hugely refreshing.
Life is good. The evening meal is one of the best so far. The beauty of the campsite has given us all a real boost. A real turn around from the last few days when I had thoughts of leaving the tour in Khartoum.
Day 23 – Nile Camp to Alfons Camp
A really tough day. 142Km on paved roads, but the last 100Km were into some strong headwinds. This makes a massive difference to your speed and how much energy is required to cover the distance.
Completing the distance today was a real challenge. I ran out of water a few K's before the lunch stop and then again about 10Km before the final camp. When you are drinking and sweating so continuously, water is like fuel. By the time I arrived at camp I was seriously dehydrated. Another 10Km would have caused me serious difficulty.
Over the course of the day, the landscape has been slowly changing from arrid farmland to grassland then finally to what you would expect Africa to look like - arid grassland with thorn trees. One of the riders even spotted a troop of baboons. This is “the real Africa”.
Alfonse camp is named in memory of a TDA rider who sadly died at the campsite in 2005. We heard some stories about Alfonse, who was 65 and a Swedish business man, who sounded like an excellent a very well liked person. Alfonse went for a nap in the morning and didn't wake up. It sounds like he will be sorely missed.
In the evening after a rest and lots of fluids I start to feel super-strong again. Despite the difficulty of the day, I enjoyed it and I'm still feeling positive.
Day 24 – Alfonse Camp to Desert Camp
146Km into a side/headwind made this a really hard today. I had some maize based semolina for breakfast and I think this really threw my energy levels out. I struggled all morning to lunch with low blood sugar and the shakes. I had no energy for pedalling.
At lunch I was pretty daunted by the remaining distance into a headwind but was feeling positive about the challenge. I crawled along at between 10-20Kph. At this speed the K's tick past really slowly. At the 121Km mark a right turn converted the strong side/headwind into a strong tailwind. Having battled the wind for so long, the tailwind was a complete joy. I went from crawling along in exhaustion to a sprint up to 46Kph. We all love tailwinds :)
Despite the distance and difficulty of today, I'm remaining positive. Many of the other riders seem to be surprised that I've enjoyed the last few days.
Day 25 – Desert Camp to Ethiopian Border
Today is our last day in Sudan. I'm keen to get into the challenge of Ethiopia but will miss the Sudanese people who are very friendly. Sudan is so different from how people in the west perceive it.
Today is 152Km's on good roads with (fortunately) a reasonable tailwind. The first 75Km to lunch aren't too hard but the final 77Km after lunch get pretty difficult with the just the cumulative of the distance and some high temperatures.
As we get closer to the border with Ethiopia, a few people in the villages have AK-47's. This isn't really intimidating as the Sudanese are such friendly, decent people. I also saw a few jeeps with heavy machine guns mounted on the back. At points there were more soldiers stationed a key points along the road also with heavy machine guns.
At one point a few Km's from the border a soldier with an AK-47 comes running out of the bush towards me shouting “halt, halt”. He didn't seem too friendly. I considered my options but I was tired and going up hill. Escape wasn't a possibilty. I stopped and gave him my best “Salam Alekum" (peace upon you) and friendly wave. He walked up to me still seeming not that friendly – not pointing his gun at me, but not pointing it away from me either. It was pretty tense moment. AK-47's definitely get your attention.
We shook hands and explained to him that I was from England, was cycling from Cairo to Capetown. Slowly he seemed to become more friendly and was very impressed that I was cycling such a huge diffenence. In hindsight, I don't think I was in any danger, he just wanted to know why all these strange cyclists were travelling along his section of road.
The border crossing wasn't much further down the road. I had to wait 2.5 hours outside the immigration building, which was basically a mud hut next to what appeared to be a rubbish dump. Whilst we waited, we could buy cold beers from an enterprising Ethiopian. Most of us got pretty tiddly as a matter of principle after a couple of weeks in alcohol free Sudan.
The border crossing was pretty dirty. There was rubbish everywhere which included human feaces. We had to camp here overnight. There were people were everywhere.There was also a brothel, where it was possible to get a shower. We camped on a bit of empty ground near to the border – there is a definitely a smell of human waste and toilet paper on the ground nearby. We had been warned in advance that this campsite was pretty awful but there was simply nowhere else where it was practical to camp.
A few of the guys wandered into town for a drink, but I was just too tired. One of the riders almost got into trouble when he went to the “wrong” bar and when paying his bill was told that he had also “bought a round” for everyone in the bar. It was pretty clear he wasn't out of the bar without paying. As expected, you've got to be careful in Ethiopia. Fortunately, with the exchange rate the cost of his round of beers only came to $20 America dollars.
Tomorrow we set off across Ethiopia towards another much needed rest day in a town called Gondar. The next 2 days are expected to be the most challenging days of riding on the tour.