Sudan has recently held a referendum on the issue of the independence of southern Sudan, a geographically and ethnically distinct region of the country which, in 1956, was – thanks once again to the good old British Empire – lumped in with the northern tribes to form a single independent nation. Civil war has been the de facto lifestyle ever since.
I was happy to hear, then, that 98.83% of votes were in favour of independence. Anyone who knows something of the history of Sudan’s civil conflicts and of the acts that the current government has committed will be unsurprised at the outcome. I sincerely hope that southern Sudan will manage to flourish under still-difficult circumstances, because cycling through Sudan produced so many experiences I hold dear in my memories today.
The following photo story, about my ride there in early 2009, was originally written for Al Humphreys’ blog, and I hope you’ll also enjoy revisiting this time and place with me.
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Nearly two months since I left England. I hitch-hiked across Europe to Istanbul, picked up the bicycle I’d left there from previous wanderings, departed Turkey in the south-east and set my bearings for the Levant and the classic trans-Saharan route into East Africa.
Now, aboard the good ship Sina, on her weekly voyage from Aswan to the remote North Sudanese port of Wadi Halfa, I’m well on my way.
I’m in possession of little more than a pair of dusty panniers and a handful of preconceptions about the largest of African nations – the nation that is now fast approaching across the calm waters of Lake Nasser. I have brought no guidebook, map, GPS or suncream. The looming horizon of rock and dust is an invitation to second thoughts.
“There are wolves in the desert!” warns the town’s solitary perimeter guard as I trundle past into the dry, empty twilight. “Do not stop! Do not camp!”
I freak out on my first night alone in the Nubian desert. I lose it, sitting pathetically in front of the video camera, my sole companion on this journey. I open my mouth to tell this robot eye how I feel but the words don’t materialise. Everything I’ve worked towards in the last weeks of riding seems aimless and self-indulgent.
Here I am, deliberately punishing myself, lugging 15 litres of water through one of the harshest desert landscapes on Earth, amidst the mocking stares of black rock hills and bare white sand – what a ridiculous whimsy! I am all-too aware of the onus that I have put upon myself to succeed. Sleep’s sweet oblivion promises to blank all of this out, so I crawl into my tent and close my eyes. The mind plays games with the lonely traveller. I’m at the bottom of one of my lowest ebbs.
The next morning I feel better, because I have woken up realising that I have a job to do, and all it requires is to keep at it until the job is done. Just like re-painting the windows, or writing code for a new website, I think, trying to put the task at hand into terms with which I’m more comfortable. I notice a reassuring flicker of life on the side of some freshly-dug road foundations, and remember that, despite appearances, I am not really all that alone out here, on this thousand-kilometre-long set of tyre tracks through the sand to Khartoum.
In fact, I soon realise that things are changing fast in Nubia. The era of lost cyclists pushing heavy bikes through deep sand is set to become the stuff of legend as Sudan begins to pave herself. A lick of tarmac across this diabolic land will change its face forever. Soon there will be roadside kiosks serving hot and cold refreshments, air-conditioned buses to the capital, and all modern conveniences will slowly roll out from the country’s distant epicentre. I spot giant earth-moving machines in the distance, cross more sections of road foundation, and am stopped by workers for a few minutes while a distant mound of granite is blasted in two to make way for this brand new artery.
The engineers invite me to stay the night in their camp. I’m grateful for company. More days pass without event; long days of concentrating purely on picking a path through the nuanced earth beneath my wheels. Civilization as I knew it in Egypt is soon a distant memory.
Get up before dawn and ride. Listen to half-an-hour of drum & bass – uptempo and energising, the music continues in my head on permanent repeat for the rest of the day. No batteries required. Begin to dream of cold, carbonated beverages. Carry on riding through the intense heat of the day because there are no cold, carbonated beverages for several hundred kilometres. Pick a patch – any patch – of desert during the brief twilight. The equator is drawing closer, so the sun slices the sky almost clean in half during its infernal, inevitable, repetitive journey across my little universe.
Lie down, gaze heavenwards. Enjoy the silence.
Soon I head away from the monotonous road-building route and closer to the Nile, which, while often not visible, is always to the west. It’s a great comfort to know this as I lose my way amongst the myriad trails for the umpteenth time, and have to push my bike through soft, gravelly sand until I stumble upon the trail again.
Refreshment arrives at last, in the form of a shaded shelter and several urns of deliciously-cold water. I have no idea where the water comes from, and I don’t care, because it’s clear and cold and I’m parched and tired of eating dust and cleaning my sunglasses and adjusting the rim of my hat to keep the sun off my face. These urns turn up with pleasing regularity as I follow a chain of tiny farming villages along the river’s fringes.
It’s peaceful here. Some of the most gentle people I’ve ever met invite me in for meals and to stay the night in one of the multitude of spare beds that seem to litter the villages’ courtyards and public areas. I’ve never seen so many spare beds! But the tension between these Nubian people – with their distinct history, language and beliefs – and the hardline Islamic government is not far beneath this quiet, ruralistic exterior.
Now I’ve discovered the hospitality of these small villages, I start to look forward to them hugely. In one village I negotiate a boat ride across the river to continue my journey on the west bank. I have no idea what I’ll find over there, but therein lies the thrill…
I push through the undergrowth and date palms and emerge into a tiny village courtyard. The villagers are amused at the manner of my entrance. But I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time – it turns out that a particular species of tree is in blossom. To avoid ingesting the thousands of tiny flies that immediately take up residence around my head, I gladly accept a stylish headnet from the locals.
No hint of a road exists on this side of the river. The pace of life here is meticulous and is conducted with the surety of countless generations of experience. Each village invites me to join the communal meal that the farmers are sharing. I’m told that hospitality is integral to this culture – with no accommodation or transport and very few shops, those passing through are almost entirely reliant upon it. The unspoken agreement, therefore, is that all members of society provide for the traveller in the expectation that they may one day find themselves filling the traveller’s shoes.
I discover that ancient Nubia’s ruins have been left where they fell, entirely deserted – in stark contrast with Egypt and her 13 million annual tourists. Had I brought a guidebook I would have no doubt read all about these ruins, but instead I’m able to stare in simple wonder as I pass amongst these mysterious monuments to feudality and tribalism.
A track emerges from the sands and my otherworldly journey through this incredibly special place is coming to a close. Signs of habitation and traffic begin to appear, and soon I’m on the outskirts of Dongola, the main market town on the route to the capital.
I cackle with glee at the feeling of tarmac under my tyres – asphalt, my old friend, my guiding light! It’s only five hundred kilometres to Khartoum now. Plain sailing. It’s time to get my head down and put in some miles. I confide my deepest thoughts to my video camera as the sun sets over the Sahara one more time.
Hold on – forming relationships with inanimate objects? I think I’ve been alone for too long…