The Sahara doesn’t really look like I’d pictured it. But then nowhere ever quite did.
My bicycle rests against the milestone. A slope of crushed red rock drops from the roadside and slips into the sand. I pull a bottle of water from the rear pocket of one of my bags; take a swig. It’s hot enough for a bath.
I replace the bottle. These dusty bags contain everything I need to survive the world’s largest desert. A thin sleeping-bag, a handful of tools, a change of clothes. I’ll soon run out of water and food. But just because this is the Sahara doesn’t mean there’s nobody here. There’s a road, after all. A brand new road, unadvertised, running down through the Sahara. Sooner or later, roads mean people. And people mean water and food. Right?
The sun has barely set, but I’m cooling down now, my senses recalibrating to a motionless world. When life is scrolling past you, it’s difficult to register all the detail and intrigue – especially in a place as otherworldly as this. And there’s a stillness and silence here of a kind I’ve never felt before; beautiful, yet at the same time deeply frightening.
My breathing gradually slows, and as it does, the last remaining sound dies away. I take off my boots, and with bare feet I pad around in the sand. It feels cool and soft between my toes. I look about. Broken mounds of black and crimson rock stand out against the sand, all painted in twilight pastels.
There is nothing here. I shouldn’t be here, a young man from rural England, at home with green and pleasant. This is a place to run from, not to explore.
And I don’t know how far I’ll have to ride before I find supplies. I bought a reassuring amount of food and water and then pedalled south before I could change my mind. A day of riding later and I still have no more idea of what lies ahead. I am banking on little more than a roll of the dice. And my number had better come up, because a bad roll in a place like this could have the worst consequences of all.
I unstrap my belongings from the bike, telling myself that this is probably just another dip. The world has been merciless with my emotions. A free meal can have me beaming with joy, but this joy can be turned to rage by a single thoughtless driver. Too often I feel like I’m hanging onto my mood for dear life as it thrashes and squirms. It was never such a rollercoaster when I had someone next to me.
My tent sits upon the sand, constructed. I don’t remember putting it up. I must have done it out of habit, I think, and I rummage for my video camera. This thing has had the questionable privilege of seeing me at my worst and my best. I’m not quite sure where tonight is going to fit into the spectrum, but for almost two years the camera has been my closest confidant, so I find a rock on which to sit. Adjusting the tripod legs, I position myself in front of the lens, the interaction as familiar as picking up the phone and calling a friend.
Flipping open the tiny screen so that I can see myself, I recoil with surprise. Matted greasy hair of about three months’ growth is plastered against my scalp. My beard has reached a length at which it adds a decade to my age. The bridge of my nose is burnt deep red, and my skin and clothes are coated in a beige film of dust, sweat and grease. I look worn out by thought and worry. My face, it seems, could tell my story on its own.
I adjust the camera to produce the best possible picture. The well-practised calibrations happen in an instant. I have lost count of the hours of footage I’ve shot. I usually capture plenty of the scenery behind me, but something suggests that the important thing tonight will be written across my face, so, pressing the red button, I zoom in slightly and my mirror image fills the frame: some guy, talking to a camera in the middle of a desert. I fold the screen back out of sight, fix my gaze on the dark circle of glass, and open my mouth to begin to speak.
‘ . . . ’
I try, desperately, to force a word – just one word – to come forth. But it’s as if words have lost all meaning. I am entirely unable to speak. Because there is no utterance on Earth that comes close to expressing how I feel.
I shake my head and stare into the distance, looking around at the desert, as if answers will come springing from behind the dunes. I look back. There it is. Right before my eyes. How stupid. How stupid to think that I could pour it all out into this thing, this little black box of cables and microchips. It is nothing but a placeholder for what I really want, which is to take her in my arms and to tell her I love her and that I’m a poor stupid fool for having done this; to beg her forgiveness and to lie down on the ground and tell her how scared I am right now.
I try again.
I must continue telling this story.
Well . . .
This is it. This is where it gets tough.
This is the . . . um.
This is the . . . er . . .
This is the furthest I’ve ever been from civilisation. In my life. In the Sahara Desert. Of Sudan.
Yeah, I just . . . I just cycled out of this little port town, and into just these vast, empty wastes. Of nothing. Of nothingness.
There’s not . . . I . . . I can’t hear a thing. It’s completely and utterly silent. There’s no slight background noise from a road. There’s no dogs barking in the distance. There’s no birds singing. It’s just completely and utterly silent. And that makes me feel even more . . . even more exposed than I do anyway.
I really don’t know . . . what I’m doing. I’ve got off this boat, and I’ve put about twelve litres of water on my bike, stocked up with enough food to last me for about two days – and just left! And now I’m just hoping for the best. I have no previous experience of dealing with vast distances in the desert. I’ve no experience with cycling in sand. I’ve no experience of cycling in this kind of weather. Just pure . . . un- . . . un- . . . pure . . . ugh, my god. I can’t even string a sentence together.
I need to get my head round all of this.
Yes. Just pure unbroken sunlight from sunrise to sunset. Not a single cloud – no, nothing. Completely empty sky. Completely empty dead landscape. Just me. On my own.
And I just feel . . . I just feel confused. Really. Just confused. What am I doing? Where am I going? I don’t know what direction I’m going in, because every direction looks the same. There’s no traffic to stop and ask. There’s a river – the longest river in the world – around here somewhere, though I’ve no idea where! How ridiculous is that?!
My god, it’s just . . .
And this is just Day One.
Tomorrow morning I’m going to ride my bike. And however I feel, it doesn’t matter – I’ve just got to keep going. That’s all. Nothing else. Going, from one little pocket of existence to the next.
And I really – I miss Tenny so much. So much. And right now I’m here, talking to a camera, and she’s in Armenia, on her own. Waiting for me to come back.
And I know she’s there, and I can’t be with her. Because I’ve decided to do this instead.
A grey pallor seeps into the sky. Ripples of fabric brush up against each other, nudged by a hint of breeze, but there is little else greeting my groggy awakening. With a practised contortion I unzip the tent door by my head, roll over in the thin sleeping-bag and look out again at the world, all painted in bone and soot, without sound or sensation, as if time itself has ceased to flow. The murmur of pink in the east will soon become a roaring angry whiteness, a heat of such ferocity that it could actually kill me. I drag my bike and trailer back up the slope to where the new road still glistens absurdly, like a liquorice lace flopped across an orange tablecloth. Last night I stood here, more afraid than I had ever been. But the time for self-pity and doubt is over.
So I swing a leg over the top-tube, feel the teeth of the pedal connect with the sole of my boot, lift myself into the saddle, and suddenly the wind is untangling my hair and the sticky tarmac is crackling and the world is scrolling past like a computer game. I have returned to my natural state: pedalling until the action is unconscious, dealing with whatever pops over the horizon, forgetting what falls away behind – until the end of the day, when a moment to digest may present itself. Until then, momentum is all I need to sustain this life – this life of glorious simplicity.