I peer out through my mangled sunglasses. I dropped them long ago – in the Alps, I think it was – and ran over them before I noticed. Still, they do their job. As mile after indistinguishable mile goes past, palpable waves of heat pass through me. The brown tint of the glasses makes the place feel even hotter.
A distant whir invades the trance. I pull over to watch the passing of my first vehicle in Sudan, when it’s still just a shape in the north. The shape grows quickly, and then in a spectacular explosion of dust and violence the first of many trucks thunders past me in the greatest sensory assault I’ve had for twenty-four hours. Of course – it’s the day after the weekly ship comes into port from Aswan. Skipping the paperwork has put me a day ahead of the slow train of trucks and buses that begins to rumble past, drivers honking elaborate symphonies in greeting. Then I come across a little lizard perched upon the roadside, and it’s as if between the tiny animal and the enormous vehicles I’ve somehow found my place within this family of desert travellers.
As if to confirm the notion, an encampment comes into view, figures and machines moving slowly through the dust. The tarmac comes to an abrupt end, and I rattle along a tyre-track, emerging into a wide circle of shelters and shipping containers. Stinking tar-stained barrels sit beneath the sun among mounds of sand and gravel, like heaps of dye powder waiting to be mixed on an artist’s workbench. Under one of the shelters is a group of men. I instinctively send a wave in their direction. The act of smiling seems to change my mood, and I suddenly want nothing more than to join them in the shade for a nice little glass of tea. Luckily – judging by the way they’re waving me over – it seems that they’re of a similar mind. I flop down in the shade, feeling immediately at home, and all the trepidation of the previous day evaporates into the heat of the desert noon: I know now that everything in Sudan is going to be OK.
The labourers are not surprised to see a white man on a bicycle. I know nothing about them, the Nubian culture here in the north, or the circumstances of their employment out in the desert. But it’s clear that they’ve been camped here, blasting rock and moving earth, for long enough to have seen my kind before.
‘How often do you see a cyclist?’ I ask the most forthcoming tea-drinker. He regards me from between a moustache and a furrowed brow, his front teeth missing. I put him at around forty. He’s wearing a tidy cotton shirt and trousers with socks and smartly polished shoes. It’s an interesting outfit for a road-builder in a stifling desert camp. Roughly once a month, a cyclist – or usually a pair – is seen passing through these parts, he says. That’s more than I’m expecting to hear, but I’m not altogether surprised. Because it seems that the renaissance of the long-distance bicycle journey is about to begin.
A few months ago, Scotsman Mark Beaumont had set a new world record for a bicycle-powered circumnavigation of the globe. A few gruelling months of unsupported cycling, linked up with flights between the continents, had secured him a place in the record books and a television career. Several retaliatory attempts on the record were announced, and soon Mark’s record had been broken, then broken again, until almost halved in duration. It’s funny, because – aside from our mode of transport – I feel little in common with Mark and his peers. My reasons for being here have nothing to do with a circumnavigation, even less to do with breaking a record. I’ve learnt the hard way that the essential beauty of the bicycle journey lies with the freedom that it gifts the rider: bound by no route, beholden to no timetable. My ride wasn’t always so unstructured. But a lot has changed in the last couple of years.
‘You see?’ asks the chief tea-drinker, walking me out into the sun and pointing up. Squinting, I scan the skyline from our spot deep in the stony hills. Ridges sit starkly in all directions against the burning sky. Following his outstretched arm I notice the telltale lines and angles of a man-made structure. The size and purpose, from this distance and with my less-than-perfect eyesight, are indistinct. Given its hilltop perch, however, I guess at an old military watchtower.
He lowers his arm and looks me square in the eye.
With a grin whose meaning I can’t fathom, he catches me out with my own ignorance. I smile sheepishly, not knowing what to say. Nobody has taught me about my home nation’s imperial past except for these people, the descendants of its subjects. Given the scale of its influence in the world, though, the British Empire seems quite an omission from my history lessons.
But the look turns to laughter and he claps me on the back: there’s far too much tea-drinking and lying around to do to bother teasing a khawayya – a white guy – over a historical triviality. He sits down, and I glance back up at the watchtower. Up on the hilltop I imagine tiny figures: bored, feverish redcoats, wondering what whim had torn them from their families to travel thousands of miles and sit sweating in the sun, looking out over the parched, diabolical landscape of Nubia, days away from even a modestly sized town. And I laugh, because right now I am doing exactly that.
Refreshed and rejuvenated as much by the pleasant company as by the tea and the shade, it’s time to continue. I say my thanks, heave my dusty mountain bike up from the ground, and set a course for the least treacherous-looking path on which to disappear over the horizon – forever out of sight and mind of another collection of souls who briefly became the closest thing I have out here to friends. I didn’t even learn their names.
The camp sinks away beneath a ridge of rock. Ahead of me and in every other direction lies the desert; the same sand-blasted landscape that has existed here for millennia. And my road – my final thread of attachment to the world of man – has vanished. Only a faint set of tyre tracks disappearing into the nothingness indicates that anyone has passed here before.
Well, I came here for a challenge, didn’t I? For something I wouldn’t be sure I could pull off unless I tried. It was the only way I could justify the decisions I’d made. And now I’ve found it.