Khartoum to the border: lonely pyramids, emotional farewells and one hell of a lot of puntures

03/01/2001 KHARTOUM TO GALLABAT (Reza)


- Distance cycled: 600km

- Total distance since London: 5360km

- Head wind: most of the time

- Punctures: too  many to count



On our final day in Khartoum, we decided to explore some of the country's history and so travelled north to the Meroe pyramids.  These were much smaller than the colossal structures in Egypt as well as being more numerous.  A different style altogether, with steeper walls, orange bricks and obvious entrances to the tombs.  What they lacked in size, they made up for in character.  We walked around and between the maze of cones for hours.  The intimacy and tranquility taking us back thousands of years.  All until the electronic Nokia ring tone of my mobile phone echoed against the stone walls.  A flock of crows fleeing the sound in the background.  My mother on the other end of the line bringing me crashing back to the 21st century.  ‘Yes Mum, we’re ok. No, we’re not hungry. Yes, we’re safe’.  How I cursed the Vodafone empire who truly have brought the entire world to within a push of a button!  There is no escaping modern technology, not even in the depth of the Sudanese desert.  Nevertheless, this was a far more enjoyable and enchanting experience when compared to the anticlimax of the touristfest that is Giza.


In the morning, it was finally time to leave Khartoum and say goodbye to our adoptive family.  It was a very emotional farewell with grandparents, brothers, sisters, children and the maid all present to see us off.  Some prayed for our safety, others cheered, tears flowed while others laughed.  It was difficult not to be touched by the whole experience and its memory will be with us for years to come.


Well rested and well fed, we were back on the open road.  We had anticipated that it would take about 4 or 5 days to reach the Ethiopian border.  But we were not to be so lucky.  After a good run of luck with the bikes, we came upon a recurrent and testing problem. Punctures.  And more punctures.  At first we dealt with them as any other puncture. Replace the inner tube; repair the puncture in the evening.  Oh, 2 punctures in the same day… this hadn’t happened before.  OK, replace and fix later.  Another puncture! Really???  Yep, and another, and another, and another!!! What was going on? Why are we getting so many punctures? I’m sorry, did I say we… I meant me (Reza)… same tyre each time.  We were quickly running out of spare tubes. Most had already been repaired 4 or 5 times and so were already weakened.  Then new problems… not just one hole in the tube but a series of defects spanning the entire circumference!  No patching this tube, down to 6 tubes. Then 5, and soon after that 4 tubes.  What were we doing wrong? Grit inside the tyre? Were we that careless so many times?  Right, time to get clinical. We cleaned the rim, taping its inside and lined it with an old tube. Cleaned the inside of the tyre, cleaned the tubes.  A surgical approach to putting the components back together.  Could we have left grit inside? Not this time.  But 30km down the road – another puncture. Frustration alternated between the two of us.  What was going wrong??? We persevered with no explanation and thus, further punctures.  4 days passed and we had just about made it half way to the town of Gedaref.  Tired and annoyed, we submitted to paying for our first night in a hotel in Sudan.  On the road again in the morning and after 50 km, a further puncture.  Our patience had run out, as had our inner tubes.  Was this to be how our journey would end? Sorry guys, time to come home… we couldn’t work out the mystery of our recurrent punctures.  And so we sat in the shade by an isolated petrol station 150km from the Ethiopian border.  But then something great happened.  Thinking back to my engineering days – the more air that is forced into a balloon, the thinner the walls become which would leave it susceptible to mechanical failure. Some formula involving a fraction, π, the radius, thickness and of course the mechanical properties of the polymer used to manufacture the tube! Yes, I am a nerd at heart. But regardless of my now very poor street cred we had an answer. We had changed our slick road tyres (with standard inner tubes) to wider off road tyres a few weeks ago.  However, we were still using the standard tubes but inflating them excessively in order to fill the extra space. The plastic was simply failing under the load of the already heavy bike by coming apart in a straight line along the tubes weakest points.  Now that we had a working hypothesis, we had only one more problem to solve.  How were we going to get back to the town of Gedaref and find a bicycle shop.  We hailed down a pick up truck whose driver kindly agreed to take us and our bikes all the way back – free of charge.  However, we must have had some real bad karma on our hands because we didn’t get more than 100 meters along the road before the pick up broke down.  The closest village was only 1 km away and so we decided to stay true to the only driver kind enough to stop for us and pushed his truck.  To see the funny side was not so easy at the time, but on our trip from north to south by bicycle, we found ourselves going south to north while pushing an old pick up truck.  Easy to laugh now but it was definitely a low point of the trip.  At the village, our driver decided that the damage was too severe to fix that night and he now also needed to get to Gedaref.  This was only after a persistent 5 hour attempt and so we were all forced to sleep (in our tents) beside the village.  


In the early morning, we hitched a second lift on the back of a truck carrying large bags of grain.  Once in Gedaref, we managed to find an exceptionally well stocked bicycle shack/shop which had the exact the inner tubes that we needed.  We bought what we needed and rested the remainder of the day.  In the morning we made a dash for the border with only 3 days remaining on our Sudanese visas.  I would like to tell you that we had no further problems with punctures but alas I can not.  However, on this occasion, it was a true puncture (thorn) as well as a faulty valve. Nothing to do with our previous problem – we had solved and remedied our first testing set back and arrived at the border with over a day to spare.  Finally, we had made it to Gallabat.