PANAFRICAN CYCLE PROJECT
10/12/2010 ASWAN TO KHARTOUM
- Distance: 950km
- Total distance since London: 4750km
- Days cycling: 8
- Average distance per cycling day: 118km (wind! in our favour!)
- Longest day: 160km
Part 1. Aswan to Dongola (Hannah)
The ferry from Aswan to Wadi Halfa is a weekly business, carrying people with their varied loads across lake Nasser into Sudan, and bottlenecking all the overland travellers on their way South. We met month-old friends as well as a whole new cohort of Europeans on the ferry travelling either by 4x4 car, motorbike, bicycle or quad. (Yes, quad. Three Aussies. Very proud of themselves.)
There is, in fact, a road that follows the western shore of the lake all the way to Abu Simbel - where the famous temple of Ramses II lies - but as far as we could tell, it was prohibited to all private motor vehicles unless in a convoy, and to bicycles under any circumstance. We later found out, through reading the blog of a Cape-to-Cairo cyclist (www.cape2cairo.co.uk) that he had managed to convince the authorities, through a day's worth of phone calls including one to the emergency consular line in the UK, to allow him the privilege of pedalling the 280km from Abu Simbel to Aswan, accompanied by 2 or 3 police cars, in one day, with only a few breaks. (Oh what we missed!) Fair play to him, he truly was dedicated to cycling every possible mile of his route. We contented ourselves with the 16 hour second-class journey by boat, sprawled out with several other overland travellers (African as well as Western), on the top deck, sleeping under the stars, and opening our eyes at 6am to the sight of the temple of Ramses II, on the shore, facing us, a kilometre or so away.
Having been accustomed to the Egyptian hassle, obligatory bartering and general hard work, Sudan presented us with a haven of peace, and has continued to lull us into sweet comfort to this day. We were rapidly eased into the culture with the help of our friend Hannie, who approached us as we exited the police station in Wadi Halfa after the required "registration" (costing a further $50 each in addition to the $100 visas - yikes). Young, bearded, and dressed in a crisp traditional white robe, we first took him for a wealthy local. When he spoke, however, he revealed in an undisguisable American accent that he was in fact only visiting Sudan and that his life until then had been split between Italy and Texas. He had come with his father, for a month, to what was his homeland. His parents were from the original Halfa which had been submerged underwater when the dam in Aswan was built, creating lake Nasser. Much of the original village's population had been forcibly displaced to "New Halfa", a purpose-built village over 1000km away which bore little resemblance to the first. Some people, however, had remained in the area and built what is now Wadi Halfa. Some of Hannie's family were of those few, and we were lucky enough to be invited to their house for dinner and to spend the night. Hannie's father, incidentally, had worked for the UN (mainly in Kenya), was now a University lecturer, and was a fountain of knowledge on all cultures East African (and many more). In Wadi Halfa, was were started the string of Sudanese hospitality that would lead us all the way to Khartoum without a night in payed accommodation.
Hannie and his father left us with 3 pages of contacts to get in touch with along the way, in various villages down the Nile. The three of us (us two and Simon, an Austrian cyclist we met in Luxor and again in Aswan) set off the following morning with a plan laid out for us: stop at the first cafeteria 50km along for lunch (we aren't sure if we stopped at place they meant - but when we came across some sort of quarry approximately the correct distance away, we were called into the adjacent buildings by the workers and offered free lunch there), then carry on 40 km to a cafe, where we would be met by our first contact - Saleh Khairry, of the big and renowned Khairry family whose grandparents singlehandedly populated the 150 head strong village of Malek el Nasir. The village lay some 15km or so from the main road, down sand tracks through the desert, that we were told would be impossible to follow on our own. Instead, our bikes were loaded into the back of a "Boxy" (a 4x4 pickup truck) and we bumped our way along to the shores of the Nile. In our two days spent there, we witnessed self-sufficient village life at its rawest. Everyone was somehow related - all had a common ancestor in the original Khairrys. All lived in apparent harmony - every house's courtyard and rooms were filled with beds and who slept where seemed to simply depend on who they were having tea with latest in the night. The village had been built a kilometer from the river and between the two was lush greenery and the rich agricultural land on which to grow the necessary food for the village. There was no plumbing yet in place and drinking and washing water was instead hauled up from the river in large vats strapped onto the backs of donkeys. The people swore by the cleanliness and purity of the water which they all drank straight, but it's cloudiness and our initial belly groans convinced us, after a few glasses, that it was better to use our filters. The toilets were a dedicated area behind a hill and were surprisingly pleasant - far enough from the village and with enough space not to have to tread on any one else's business (it was usually dried to a crisp within a day anyway), it seemed a much more hygienic place to relieve yourself than many of the toilets we'd been to up until then. Showers involved a private room and a bucket of water, I prefered to swim in the Nile to get clean, despite crocodile sighting earlier in the day! We'd been promised there hadn't been a crocodile-related death in at least 3 years, anyway.
Within half a day the village's second-in-power (Mohamed Ali), who was hosting us, figured that he might as well put our medical knowledge and skills to use and we soon had throngs of villagers coming to his door to seek our advice. Many presented with very minor issues such as a cough and headache, some were things that we could physically treat, such as a UTI or a small abcess. People kept coming though, the thought of free care and medical attention was something few could resist, even if they had to make something up!
News somehow travels fast in these seemingly remote and isolated places (mobile phones are rife so it's perhaps not that surprising) and by the time we had cycled 60km down the road from Malek al Nasir, after eventually getting away from their extended hospitality, people were expecting two british doctors on bicycles. We had stopped for lunch in a roadside cafe and the young man who served us stated that in the nearby village of Mufraka was a fully equiped but doctorless clinic. He asked if we could stop off for a few hours, to see "maximum 12 patients". It was difficult to say no, and an hour later, after saying goodbye to Simon who continued on his way South, we were sat in a rather nice room with 5 men of undisclosed role and one medical assistant, who usually manned the place. People were slow to come as many had to travel from other villages, some from the Nile's islands. A diploma in tropical health would have come in useful: a few of the things presented to us matched nothing that we were used to seeing. Reassuringly though, there was actually a doctor available in the town of Abri which was 20km away, and the more severe cases had already been seen by him - for better or for worse (mefanemic acid for pain?). We didn't finish until late and so were offered a couple of beds in one young man's house, behind the hospital. When we set off early the next morning, we hadn't gone 500m before coming across a crowd who were waiting for us for some last minute roadside consultations. "Professionalism" had to be redefined.
A description of the houses is perhaps required. Where, in Egypt, we seldom had the chance to see the inside of peoples homes, in Sudan, it was quite the opposite. All village homes are made of mud bricks which are then covered in a mixture of mud and manure - so called adobe - and they range from the simplest, unpainted version, to the fancy patterned and colourful ones. Windows are scarce, courtyards prevail and many have rooms looking onto the courtyards. All the rooms, except for the kitchen, toilet and bathroom, have several beds in them. It transpired after a while that they served several purposes, were used as chairs/sofas for example, and that they weren't assigned to anyone in particular - you could change bed as you liked. Mainly, though, they reflected the huge importance of good hospitality in this country. This brings me to the most important point I want to make in this entry: the Sudanese are wonderful! Everywhere we go, people want to help us, pay for us, host us, welcome us. We have yet to meet a bad bone in Sudan. People have been brought up with a friendly, intelligent, open approach to visitors and it shines through them. Scholarly education may not be excellent, but home education in values and morals seems to have turned all strata of the population into good and fairly informed people. Their generosity has been unmatched in my experience of the world so far, and I hope it never stops to astound us. We feel ashamed of the welcome these people get in Europe and have pledged to make an extra special effort if a Sudanese crosses our path back home! Anyway, we've been inspired by our experience and have started to make plans to come back for longer in the future, to work, and form some sort of a mobile "outreach" clinic to the most remote populations of the North of Sudan. We thus stopped in the next town, Abri, to visit the hospital and speak to the doctors and nurses. We also had the luck of bumping into the Minister of Health for the Northern State, who kindly gave us a few minutes to listen to our sketch of a plan. Later, in Dongola, the capital town of the state, we met another minister, that of Tourism and Development with ties high up in the governement, to further discuss our plan. Everyone has shown enthusiasm and support, so should everything else go to plan, we may return in 2012.
We spent a couple of nights camping in the desert on our way down towards Dongola, our first wild camping in Africa after the first failed attempt in Egypt. Numerous paw prints in the sand wherever we went and promises of scorpions and snakes sent an initial ripple of fear and anxiety through us. We found hidden areas behind dunes or within small valleys, lugging our bikes over the rocks and through the sand, our fierce effort for speediness (before cars or curious kids saw us) reduced to a snail's pace by the ground beneath our tyres. We found nothing to threaten us though, and the days' effort and resulting tiredness anihilated any potential to keep our eyes open.
We got to Dongola late at night and after sitting down with a cup of sweeter than sweet tea, we set out looking for a reasonably cheap hotel. There aren't any in Sudan. The only budget option for accomodation are lokandas, a basic courtyard filled with beds, and for men only. Luckily, the first one we came across was run by the friendliest of men, Nasir. He was our next best meet in Sudan after Hannie. He arranged for us to stay in the adjacent, and empty, courtyard, which had a roofed room with a lock. Otherwise furnitureless, we set it up with our mats, mosquito-net and the rest of our luggage, so that it looked like a picture-perfect squat. We stayed there four nights and wanted for nothing. Nasir, and Yassin, the head of the police (who we met on our first night after the required "signing-in" at the station), became faithful companions over those few days. We chilled in the souk, chilled some more in the souk, drank chai and jebanna (spiced coffee) aplenty, ate at Nasirs favourite eateries (Hannan's was arguably the best). Yassin helped us contact all the people we needed to contact including the minister, who he knew personally. He has continued to safeguard our wellbeing by regularly contacting us since we left Dongola. Nasir made us promise to stay with his family once we reached Khartoum. They both became good friends and great company during our stay.
Part 2. Dongola to Khartoum (Reza)
Back on the road again after a wonderfully relaxed and lazy stop in Dongola. There were now 500km to Khartoum, over half of which was nothing but the brick red Sudanese desert. This first day was relatively uneventful; we cycled past crumbling villages, occasionally taking refuge from the heat of the relentless sun under the thatched roof of a road side shack, which also offered cold drinking water contained in large clay vestibules. With the flat roads, minimal head wind and feeling well rested, we achieved a respectable 92km before deciding to try and find a decent camping ground for the night. As we kept a watch of the passing landscape, hoping to spot an adequate mound of sand or barrier between the desert and road, we came upon a police check point. A young, short officer of about 5’6” approached. What he lacked in height, he surely made up in volume of voice. A straight back, stiff upper lip and well kept clothes added to his authoritative character. We went through the formalities of showing our passports and explaining where we were heading, after which he offered us a bed beside the police hut where he would be sleeping. It was perfect. A few trees providing shade, a water hut, toilet and kitchen. We thankfully accepted his offer, set the beds under a tree and hung a mosquito net up to cover them. A comfortable night sleep followed a hearty meal and we set off in the morning hoping that we would at least reach the desert road. The second day afforded much of the same until we reached the last 303km. Here it was, finally: the end of the easy stretch and the beginning of the desert. Nothing here but sand and rocks, and thanks to the expanding Chinese industry, a single 303km tarmaced road. We said our farewells to the Nile and stocked up on supplies, buying enough food to last 4 days and filled every container we had with water which amounted to 17.5L. Our bicycles were fully loaded weighing in excess of 85kg! A beast of a weight to carry through any terrain. Nevertheless, in the cool breeze of early evening, we set off into the vast expanse and aimed to get deep enough into it and to be far enough away from the village in order to camp. After an hour or so, we spotted a horse shoe shaped heap of sand that had been crafted by the wind. It offered us cover from the North, South and West and here, we set up camp. Under the starry night sky with the temperature dropping by 20 degrees to a refreshing 11 or 12 degrees Celsius, I lay in my sleeping bag and thought of the journey thus far; the small quaint villages in the south of France, crossing the Italian Alps, my family in Florence, experiencing the Egyptian white desert with Jamie. I was the centre of the calm of the world, I had found my happy place. I drifted into the abyss of dreams. Babies don’t sleep this well.
We woke before sunrise in order to get sufficient kilometers done before the heat kicked in. The ritual of packing up camp had become second nature a long time ago and we sat watching the sunrise over the horizon as we ate our processed triangular cheese and honey spread bread with luke warm water; breakfast of champions? Maybe not, but enough calories to get us to lunch. We set off with the wind behind us pushing us 10km/h faster than normal, a massive bonus in such an extreme environment. By mid-day we had covered 95km, the furthest we had managed by this time. We took refuge in a rest station and ate ‘foul’ the local staple of beans. The heat was unforgiving and there was no escaping it. Tolerating the 25 degrees in the shade, we sipped on warm water and waited for the temperature to drop before heading off. Luckily, the wind remained in the same direction and pushed us further along the road. We managed a staggering 160km by the evening and proudly stopped by a large roadside shelter manned by a small number of men. We were offered tea and a place to sleep, and once again we thankfully accepted. Only 125km to go to Khartoum. We were in with a chance of reaching the capital if the wind remained faithful. To our amazement, the wind didn’t change direction. It wafted us all the way to our destination. As we passed the 303km mark, small buildings began to appear, traffic and people increased in number. We had made it. With daylight fading, we navigated our way to the address given to us by Nasir in Dongola. Cycling through the dusty streets and various ‘souks’ lifted our spirits and gave me a new sense of energy stemming from excitement. A vibrant city bursting with new smells and sounds, a more African vibe to the culture with music playing amidst the smoking pots of food. No order of way on the road itself but a feeling of safety. We cut through traffic and dodged the pot holes until we were reunited with the river Nile, majestic as ever in the sunset. Here we took a breather on the grassy banks and drank refreshing mint tea before rejoining the chaos on the road and finding our way to the family house of Mr Yousef. It turned out Nasir hadn't, as he'd promised, made the phone call to warn his family of our arrival, but once we explained - in a combination of gestures and our few words of Arabic - who we were and how we knew Nasir, they welcomed us with open arms. As true to their nature as always, this humble Sudanese family has been ever so hospitable to us. In the large but simple house are enough rooms to host the extended family as well as guests. Nasir's parents, originally from Dongola, are of the generation that still ritualistically decorated their faces with scarifications and tattoos - his mothers bottom lip is augmented twofold with the blue tinge of ink, her cheeks shaped by three longitudinal scars. A framed photograph of the family from 30-odd years ago, when the children were young, was shown to us by the father, a distiguished man of now 70. In the photo the fresh version of the facial art was strickingly beautiful, as was the stoical pride on their faces. With the two elderly parents lives the youngest daughter, who, despite not speaking any english, enthusiastically communicates with us, her willingness resulting into true understanding. We have been made to feel part of the family and will be sad to leave. 700km lie between the Ethiopian border and us; Sudan is likely to be one of the highlights of this trip and we are in no hurry to get out, but for the expiry of our visas on the 22nd of December. This should neatly deliver us to Gonder, Ethiopia, in time for Chistmas, where, after a month of abstinence, we will be able to celebrate with a soul-warming drink!