update 31.

sudan surprises

Cycling in Sudan

2 January  2009

Total kilometers cycled: 46,805

Specific country info on routes & roads/food & accommodation/the locals available here.

Africa, once visited, creeps insidiously into the travelers blood and draws them back into its depths with an uncanny fascination. William Hoffman

1,000 kilometers through the vast Nubian desert lay ahead.  A stretch of road that has taken on almost mythical proportions in cycling lore. There were those who claimed it was the toughest part of their entire Africa tour. Bloggers wrote of pushing their bikes across seas of deep sand.  Taking shelter from the scorching sun between the axles of stopped lorries. Days of slogging it through the empty desert without passing a single village.  What awaited us?

The ride to Wadi Halfa got off to a less than auspicious start.  We got lost on the way out of sprawling Khartoum and added an extra 20 kilometers to our journey.  I become distracted, hit a rough patch of gravel and took a hard fall.   My hitherto 'unbreakable' Nalgene water bottle sprung a leak.  The wind blasted us with such force that a call to nature left my shoes splattered with urine.

But if I've learned one thing over the past two years in Africa, it's that things always look up.  A passing motorist tosses you a cold coke when your throat is parched.  A friendly family invites you in for the night just as darkness is falling.  A group of scrawny kids bands together to push you up a steep pass.  Never let despair weasel its way into your thoughts.

And, as always, things did look up.  The angry northern headwind refused to relent, but gradually our days in the desert fell into their own comforting rhythm:  Waking early to grudgingly give up the warmth of the tent and face the early morning chill.   Zipping my jacket up tight against the blast of the frigid wind and pedaling like mad to make progress.  Taking in the glorious oranges and reds of the desert sunrise and basking in the early morning rays.  Relishing the stretches of smooth tarmac and slogging determinedly through the sandy and rocky portions of road.  Cursing the truck drivers who left me covered in a thick veil of dust.  Breaking into a smile when the sandy track skirted along the lush banks of the Nile, passing through sleepy villages of mud brick houses hidden behind high walls.   Rejoicing when a settlement suddenly appeared on the horizon and speeding up in anticipation of finding a little roadside restaurant serving up a hearty dish of foul and glasses of sweetly spiced tea.  Sinking into a despondent mood upon seeing that the village resembled a Montana ghost town without a single sign of commerce.  Fretting about finding a safe spot to pitch the tent and then being looked after by the ever hospitable Sudanese.  Rationing our food supplies only to be astounded again and again at the generosity of the locals...

A young man passing in a battered Toyota pick-up pulled over to present us with a bag of fresh pita-style bread. Two smiling guys in a delivery truck offered us containers of yogurt.   Shopkeepers refused payment for biscuits and soft drinks. An old Nubian man on a donkey handed Eric two tomatoes--quite a treasure in the desert.  And surprise of all surprises, a devout looking man clad in a long, white robe and turban slowed down his SUV and thrust two small bottles of imported whiskey at us (don't forget that Sudan is a country in which sharia law is in effect and alcohol is strictly forbidden).  An elderly man invited us to his home for a delicious breakfast (complete with salad and sweets) when we innocently asked if there was a restaurant in town.

The ride through the Nubian certainly wasn't the 10-day test of endurance and suffering we had imagined.   Still, it was with some pride and sense of accomplishment that we rode into the port town of Wadi Halfa.  Only Egypt lay ahead, our last stop on the African continent.  The final hurdle in Sudan would be dealing with the overly bureaucratic authorities, and unfortunately our passports weren't exactly in order.  In fact, our 14-day transit visas had expired 11 days earlier.  

To get out of the country without paying a heavy fine (Mozambique, for example, charges a hefty $100 per day for overstays) or being jailed (as is the case for some hapless travelers in Cameroon) we were banking on the kindness of the Sudanese and the fact that many have no clue how to read English.  The later we'd remarked at the numerous police roadblocks where passport details are jotted down in dusty ledgers reminiscent of those found in West African nations. Invariably, the officer charged with the task would thumb idly through the passport and then ask me for my name, mother's name, nationality and profession which he would then transcribe in Arabic.  

Sure enough, after being shuttled from the police station to the immigration office and from this counter to that counter, filling out numerous forms that had to be scrutinized and rubber stamped by a small army of tea-drinking officials, we were awarded the coveted exit stamps from Sudan.  No mention was made of our lengthy overstay.

After four tedious hours of waiting and bureaucratic nonsense, it was finally time to board the Lake Nasser ferry bound for Egypt.  Eric had gotten tickets for the upper deck--we'd enjoy fine views of the passing desert scenery, be invigorated by the breeze, and usher in 2009 gazing up at the midnight stars and out at the temples of Abu Simbel, he promised.  Why take a claustrophobic cabin like the other tourists when we could have the upper deck all to ourselves? In fact, 2009 began being splashed by the waves, scrunched up in the fetal position with the sleeping bag pulled tightly around trying not to freeze to death or be blown overboard. So much for a romantic voyage.

Egypt is something of a shock coming from Sudan.  Aswan's main thoroughfare is crammed with touts and hustlers keen to empty the pockets of the hordes of aging European tourists, many of whom trail behind their multi-lingual guides clad in bermuda shorts and capri pants despite the chilly weather.  McDonalds golden arches deface the Nile promenade and battalions of overly-eager touts offer ancient papyrus, felucca trips, pyramid t-shirts,  camel rides, authentic Nubian swords and a wide array of kitschy souvenirs all for very cheap price--for you my friend I make big  discount--no hassles- you look, no pay.  And so on goes the pitch.

 Just like the greenest of travelers, we've fallen prey to the (often unscrupulous) Egyptian way of doing business.  Charged double by the suspiciously friendly man selling falafel sandwiches, who later gave us two extra sandwiches when we confronted him with his 'simple mistake'.  The smiling bread man charged me 50 piastres for bread instead of the usual 5  locals pay.  And the polite young man selling cakes upped the price from two pounds to three when time came to pay.    

In spite of all the hassles, we plan to play tourist for a few days before setting off into the desert again for the 1,600 km ride up to Cairo.  There are temples and tombs to visit, exotic souqs to explore and lots of tasty looking food to feast on.  Then it will be time for a gentle stroll by the Nile to watch the feluccas sailing between the palm-fringed islands.  And then back to the room to revel in the luxury--hot running water, a small balcony, electricity that never fails, clean white sheets, a sit down toilet that flushes.  I could get used to this life.

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