“Four days”, I said to George when he asked me how long it would take to ride to Khartoum. “Depending on how hard I ride, but I think four days is about right.”
I had met a rag-tag band of other travellers in the small hotel in Dongola — from Austria, New Zealand, Singapore and England. They’d met on the boat from Egypt a week after I’d made the same voyage. That had been yesterday, and they’d taken the overnight bus to Dongola, covering in a few hours much of the ground through which I’d spent 8 days crawling.
I left the next morning to test my theory. About five hundred and fifty kilometres of Sahara desert lay between me and the capital. Some cretin had swiped my cycle computer the previous day (11,843km at the last count), so I relied on the stone markers beside the new tarmac road to judge my progress.
I swooped out of the urban sprawl with the wind behind me. The road was smooth and flat. I had made about 150km by the time the sun dipped below the horizon, but it was clear already that something entirely different lay ahead from my previous experiences north of Dongola. Gone were the pretty, friendly, brightly-painted Nubian villages. Gone was the reassuring greenery of the Nile valley in the distance. The road headed out into the vast orange desert, featureless, barren and wind-swept.
The new road here, as I had feared, brought with it a new way of life to the people inhabiting the area. Riverside villages required a long excursion through the sand towards the horizon, and doubtless seldom saw the number of overland travellers from afar that maybe they had used to. Dotted occasionally along the new tarmac road were collections of sad, crumbling mud-brick shelters, some inhabited, some ruined and empty, which sufficed as villages in this part of Sudan.
The silence and heat accentuated the harsh living conditions as I sweated my way through the baking days. I reverted to eating alone on the roadside from my supplies, and carrying more water rather than stopping at every opportunity. Lonely figures shuffled across the sand in these depressing little settlements. I could only imagine how they made their living here.
Sometimes I found a tiny shop with a fridge full of Pepsi, Sprite and (my favourite) Stim, a version of Appletise. The owner’s livelihood depended on selling a few meagre bottles or a packet of overpriced biscuits every day to passing buses and pickups travelling the long road between the bigger towns.
I felt alone — more alone than ever before. People ignored me and shooed me away when I asked to camp near their villages. Nobody smiled or waved. The atmosphere was desperate and oppressive.
Three guys driving donkey carts hollered at me as I overtook, and one of them demanded to ride my bike. I gingerly conceded and spent a few minutes looking after Omar the donkey, watching in frustration as the incompetent man weaved and crashed my bike all over the road while his friend ran after him shouting advice on how to ride a bicycle. Eventually I shouted at them enough to make them understand I wasn’t happy with the way this man was treating the only thing I had in the world, and vowed to get the hell out of this dump and to the tantalizing hideout of Khartoum as soon as possible.
My strength was failing as I’d been ill all day with an upset stomach. There were, according to the annoyingly-regular distance markers, three hundred kilometres to go until Khartoum. According to my target, I had 2 days left to ride it. The road turned south, leaving the Nile meandering east before doubling back on itself to the city. No doubt this route would have been more relaxed and interesting, but I needed to make some progress after my enjoyable dilly-dallying in Nubia.
I stopped at a collection of roadside stalls to acquire some petrol for my stove. A man tried to charge me $2.50 to fill my half-litre bottle. I snorted and walked off. I tried to buy a felafel sandwich but the price was 4 times higher than normal. Mangoes (local) were, apparently, a dollar each. I was getting really hacked off with the fact that everyone wanted to rip me off. I cursed the new tarmac road, the way it bred dependence on passing travellers, the way I was stereotyped as just another endless font of cash.
Children, barefooted and dressed in rags, spotted me a mile off. They waited by the roadside as I approached, sweating and cursing the heat, the wind and the sand.
My natural response to meeting myself on that road would probably be “my, you must be exhausted after cycling hundreds of kilometres alone through such inhospitable terrain. Would you like a rest and a cup of tea?”
I ignored them or barked at them in English to beg at the truck stop a couple of kilometres back or asked them what the hell they were doing out here in the first place. It didn’t really matter, because any response that didn’t involve giving them everything they demanded resulted in being screamed at, chased, having things thrown at my receding form, or a combination of the above.
Everyone I met on that cursed road wanted my money. People sprinted from their roadside stalls and ran alongside me, trying to convince me that I wanted to buy the peanuts or biscuits or cheap plastic footballs or tiny bottles of imported fruit juice in their outstretched hands (“only three dollar!!! OK two dollar!!! OK one dollar!!!”). Air-conditioned pickups and big trucks sped past indifferently. The winners and losers of this new road were starkly obvious.
In the afternoon I hid behind any big rock I could find to escape from the afternoon sun. I quite literally fantasized about nightfall. Then, the heat would rapidly dissipate into the night air and I would lie down on my back in the desert in raptures. Evenings were beautiful, going a long way towards making up for the trials of the day. I will never forget sleeping under the Saharan stars on my way to Khartoum.
On the last day I almost broke. The road turned east, the wind south-west. I groaned with each pedal stroke as the sand blew into every crevice of my bike and being. The heat was crushing. The distance markers became sometimes my personal nemesis, sometimes the only thing that kept me going. “Just one more kilometre, one more” I said to myself. I crawled along at an abysmal pace. There were still sixty-one kilometres to go.
I flagged down a pickup. “Fifty guineas”, said the driver. Roughly 25 dollars for a 60km lift. Merciless. The next driver was even more optimistic. “A hundred guineas!” he said, and seemed surprised when I laughed and pedalled off into the wind. Fuck them, I thought. It was time to grit my already grit-filled teeth and go for it.
I set myself targets. I would stop at the 30km marker, half-way since my near-breakdown. When I got there, I decided to make it to the 25km marker instead. Then the 20km marker. Two-thirds of the way there! 15km. Three-quarters!
Then I happened upon a broken-down tour bus. The two drivers were idling in the luggage hold, waiting for the mechanics to arrive. I thankfully collapsed in the shady compartments and they fed me 9 cartons of pineapple juice and gave me a handful more to get me to Khartoum.
I grinned happily. It would be plain sailing from here on in.