I rode out of the tiny outpost of Wadi Halfa into the fading light and into the Sahara desert of northern Sudan. I had no map, no guidebook, no sun cream, no insect repellent. A lone man stopped me on the outskirts of the village, his head and body robed and wrapped in loose white cotton which flapped in the brisk evening air. “There are wolves in the desert”, he warned me. “Wolves!!! Do not stop! Do not camp!”
But I carried on riding down the slick, empty tarmac. It stretched far into the distance, where it disappeared amongst huge dunes of golden sand and black, broken rock. Alone, staring out into the vast silent emptiness as the sun sank below the horizon, I experienced a rare moment of incredulity. What the hell was I doing? Where the hell was I going? I cackled at my seemingly ridiculous circumstances and tootled my horn into the empty night.
Almost at once, a pack of dogs appeared from some distant abandoned building and charged across the sand towards me. “Fuck”, I said to myself. I pedalled harder, but they kept pace, evidently quite hungry. After a couple of minutes of flat-out sprinting my legs were about to give in and I readied myself for a good old-fashioned brawl, with stones and yelling and everything, but evidently I had exited their territory just in time as they had fallen back and were nonchalantly sniffing around in that embarrassed way dogs do when they fail to catch whatever they are chasing.
Flopping in the sand just below the road, I put up my tent and slept. I was nervous about the journey ahead. I knew it was possible to ride across it to Khartoum, and that there was a place called Dongola somewhere beforehand. I had heard it involved great hardship and great hospitality. Apart from that, I stuck to my usual philosophy of researching only the practicalities and leaving everything else to the process of discovery.
Next day the tarmac ran out. It would only appear again sporadically and for such short distances that the effort required to get to it from the nearby dirt track wouldn’t often pay off. This track was rough and corrugated from years of occasional truck passage, but it was solid enough and the route through the rolling wasteland was usually clear. Being an occasional mountain-biker, and riding a bike I had built specifically to deal with conditions like this, I actually found myself enjoying it. It was a novelty to be concentrating so hard on the ground in front of me, and I’d never been so appreciative of big tyres, good suspension and a wonderfully well-handling trailer carrying my extra water.
Occasionally I came across groups of road workers, blasting their way through the rock or pounding the reddish foundations or laying the fresh and pungent tarmac. They always waved and shouted greetings when they saw me bouncing along the track in the distance, and happily invited me in for big bowls of bean stew or glasses of tea, even accommodating me for the night in one of their camps.
I think it was in this camp that I drank some water that didn’t agree with me. The next day, between riding, I spent a lot of time dashing for crevices of suitably human size or larger. The sudden onset of intestinal disarray left me groaning and sweating and weak, and I was thankful to reach the village of Wawa later in the afternoon. I shuffled forlornly between the low houses and courtyards to the main street, which was nothing more than a particularly wide passage between the houses. Electricity cables trailed across the ground towards a distant generator and the occasional villager strolled past in the distance, but it was otherwise eerily quiet.
Making for what looked like a tiny general store, I met a young man who was just leaving. His name was Nashradeen. In faltering Arabic I explained that I was ill and looking for a place to sleep for the night. Amidst hilarity at the unexpected manner of my arrival, I was ushered through a bright-blue pair of metal doors into one of the compounds that housed my new friend and 3 of his colleagues. They were civil engineers from Khartoum, working on the new road, and they would be my hosts for the next 2 days. Such, I discovered to my delight, was the abundant and straightforward hospitality of the Nubian people.
Nashradeen’s place was typical of the Nubian village dwellings. Enclosed traditionally by a thick high wall, built of mud yet entirely robust in the unfaltering heat and dryness of the desert, the houses were spacious, with little distinction between indoor and outdoor areas, windows and archways and pillars carved from the mud, some areas roofed with palm branches and trunks and all brightly painted in white, yellow and blue. Appealingly simple and uncluttered in appearance – like that of the people and metaphorical of their way of life, I thought.
The village was typical in that it sat on the fringes of the fertile land that reached down to the banks of the Nile a few hundred metres away. This land was dotted with stands of tall date palms and cultivated with wheat, beans, and for some reason opium (the effects of which were animatedly demonstrated by my host and his friends) and was fed by big rusty diesel-powered pumps that were occasionally fired up to fill the irrigation channels. Local transport consisted almost exclusively of donkeys and donkey-drawn carts, with Mitsubishi pickups and big old buses used to take people on long trips to distant places (such as the next village along).
I recovered my strength in Wawa, sharing each meal with a consortium of local men, some of whom spoke a little English. With my small Arabic textbook, between us we managed to communicate pretty well. I had bought the textbook in Egypt, the idea being to grasp the basics of Egyptian Arabic, being the variety most widely understood due to the plethora of Arabic films emanating from Cairo. Meals appeared on big round metal trays balanced on small boys’ heads, containing dishes of stewed fava beans with cumin, lemon, onion, chilli and oil; green bean and tomato stew; a kind of bread rather like a huge, thick and dense pancake; and another, thinner bread made in a similar way to a crepe. All fresh, simple and delicious, from field to stomach in just a few hours (and back to field a day or so later).
Conversation often quickly turned to Tony Blair’s foreign policy antics and I quickly steered it elsewhere. Thanks to the easy availability of satellite TV, British politics has just as bad a reputation in the Middle East as the vice versa, and is such an intricate subject that I hesitate to elaborate further, other than to say that the primary cause of resentment here (other than the near-impossibility of visiting the UK, USA or Europe) is not a difference of opinion as to who was right, who was wrong or who did something bad, but the very act of Western meddling itself.
Sudan is a prime example. As I write, the political classes of the world are hounding the current Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for war crimes, prompting some of my friends to remark on my sanity to be travelling here, evidently unaware of the fact that (as Andy succinctly put it) 99% of the people are actually too busy drinking tea and having families to be causing any trouble. Just like the rest of the world.
On the road again, I picked my way through half-finished road foundations and tracks in the sand of varying consistency, remembering a delightful afternoon swim I’d had the previous day and wondering what was on the other side of the Nile. (Nothing, according to Google Maps.) After a morning of pleasant trundling and tea-drinking in shady village shelters, I decided that the world needed trailblazers and that I would go and find out. I spent the afternoon gathering intelligence in the small town of Faaka, which was most enjoyable as it involved sitting in an open-air cafeteria for several hours eating fried fish and chatting to anyone who wandered past.
“There is nothing over there”, said an Egyptian telecoms construction manager who pulled up in a van for lunch. “There is no boat to cross. It is a wild place. No people. For at least 100 kilometres there is just sand.”
His supervisor, a Sudanese engineer from Khartoum, realised I was serious about getting over there. “Well, it is beautiful over there,” he admitted. “There are a few people. Small villages…”
But he seemed to think I was going to suffer badly on a bicycle. Another man nodded in silent agreement. By this time, however, I had heard enough to convince myself that I was going to travel the rest of the way to Dongola on the west bank of the Nile. I was sure it would beat another few days of roadworks in the desert heat.
The trouble was that here in Faaka I would have to arrange my own crossing. A little investigation revealed that somewhere there could be found a local man, a certain Mr. Abud, who had a small motor boat. He was tracked down by a network of locals as I chatted away in the cafe and a couple of hours later I was clambering down the steep bank of the Nile with my bike and luggage. Mr. Abud eyed me with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion as he started up the little Yamaha outboard motor and we sped off across the wide green river. What an adventure Sudan was becoming, I grinned to myself!
On the other side I pushed my bike up the bank and through the palm trees and unexpectedly found myself in the square of a tiny village in the sand. I hooted my horn expectantly and sure enough the first local to peer round their front door smiled and welcomed me unhesitatingly to camp under a particularly fly-infested tree. I set up my tent and ran away from the flies to explore. Shortly I met another man who said it was better to sleep in the small mosque where the insect population was less zealous. On returning to my tent I found a little silver tray with a small glass, a bowl of sugar and a pot of tea waiting for me. What a delight to be amongst these people!
I didn’t see a scrap of tarmac, or even the slightest hint that anyone had ever considered maybe building any type of actual road here, until about 20km before Dongola, which I reached 3 days later. The track threaded through the dunes and rocks of the desert along the fringe of the Nile, and was defined simply by the route most people had gone through the sand before. Sometimes it was too churned up for my tyres and I would come to an inelegantly abrupt halt as my front wheel sank into a furrow. Then I would drag my bike off the track into the pristine desert, riding cross-country, whooping occasionally at distant donkeys and colourful flapping figures as I rolled across the dunes, hoping the wind-swept hard-packed surface wouldn’t give way. It was beautiful. I’ve never enjoyed the act of cycling itself so much since the mountains of Romania in 2007. That was nearly two years ago… blimey. Two years. What a trip!
One morning I dug out the piles of bread I’d bought days before and found it to have gone mouldy. I do not exaggerate when I say that I prepared myself no more than 3 or 4 meals since I arrived in Sudan, the entire remainder being supplied enthusiastically but without the remotest fuss by the Nubian villagers. Nobody I spoke to on the west bank had ever met a bicycle traveller before, but if anyone was surprised, they didn’t show it; they simply helped me on my way. I was never a stranger, always a guest, as one man said. I was welcome to knock on any door, sleep in any home, eat with any family or group of working men. His were not just beautiful words – they reflected my experience exactly.
This man, Mr. Taj, a teacher in the village school, was one of the only people I met here who had a good grasp of English, so I ventured the question: What was the weather like when you were young? Was it any different?
“The weather…” He pondered for a few seconds before continuing. “The winters were cold! Not like now. Now the winters are almost as hot as the summers.” It certainly was hot – much hotter than in Egypt, although I supposed that the Sudanese defined ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ differently to, say, the English. It was mid-March, and I would rarely be riding between 2 and 4 in the afternoon, as the heat would become unpleasant – besides, it was a good chance to loll about in the shade and drink tea with old men. But it was the relative difference in his story that was important. It reminded me of several anecdotes I’d heard in other parts of the world – in France, Turkey, Armenia – from people who’d been living in the outdoors for long enough to know what they were talking about.
Plans are being laid by Sudan and China to build another dam across the north Sudanese Nile to supply electricity to the area. While sustainable hydroelectric power beats filthy diesel generators in the long term, damming the river would destroy numerous Nubian villages in the area. 4 people have already been shot dead by their own military in this area for making their protests heard, such is the manner of government here. What confuses me is that if ever there was a prime candidate for productive solar electricity generation, it is here! It never rains. Sunlight from dawn to dusk except for the occasional dust storm. Reliable, low-maintenance, affordable and clean electricity for all. But with the UN hell-bent on destabilising the country’s political situation even further, options like this are simply not even going to be considered.
“When a country is ruled by a military man, it is not ideal”, continued Mr. Taj. “But it is worse for the people if he is suddenly taken away by foreign governments on the other side of the world.” Yes, imagine if the Arab League nations called for the arrest of George Bush for waging illegal war in Iraq. We would scoff at the idea, whether or not we thought Bush was a nincompoop.
With the first democratic elections in 20 years coming up, if the Sudanese want al-Bashir to stay they will vote him in. If they vote in the opposition, it makes no real difference whether or not he stands trial. But when the UN jumps in to deliver its self-proclaimed version of justice, the system falls apart.
This morning I rode into Dongola, a buzzing town where rickshaws compete with donkeys and crowds of Nubian people for space on the roads, with men and women buying and selling cookware and beds and fruit and eating fish and felafel amidst a lively chorus of beeping and hollering. Suddenly everything is available, stacked high and neat in little square compartments that line the walls of the little grocery stores. Soap, custard powder, instant noodles, even, for some strange reason, a copious supply of those familiar shiny green cans of Lyle’s Golden Syrup (partially inverted), all with tacky and colourful plastic packaging that I will later find adorning the scrubby plain or lying in smouldering heaps on the outskirts in the complete absence of waste management.
From here I am planning to cut across the desert to Khartoum, but I don’t plan to linger there. The road is long in Sudan, the biggest country in Africa. I have only a month to cross it, and I have a wedding to attend this summer. (More on that later.)
The Sudanese have delighted me, not only in their generosity and simplicity, but also in their tendency to take tea with milk and not to hesitate to dunk biscuits in it. As an Englishman, you can imagine the feeling of fraternal closeness that this activity has generated.
Enjoy the photographs, and write to me if you want. It’s always nice to hear from you.