The last time I’d looked at a map of Sudan, no road had been shown on the Nile’s west bank. Nothing, it seemed, existed over there at all. But now I can see palm trees and foliage on that distant shore, just as over here. And anyway, I figure, the world needs trailblazers. For people to stop treating places and experiences as products to be consumed; to refuse to allow fear to dictate where they do and don’t go.
I plan to make a small contribution to this campaign, and in order to do it I will spend the afternoon gathering intelligence in the small settlement of Faaka. This turns out to be most enjoyable, as it involves sitting in a little restaurant-hut for several hours, eating fried fish and chatting to anyone who wanders past.
‘There is nothing over there,’ says an Egyptian telecoms construction manager who pulls up in a pick-up truck. ‘There is no boat to cross. It is a wild place. No people. For at least one hundred kilometres, there is just sand.’ He laughs, clearly pleased to have put me off this ridiculous idea, and shows me pictures of his girlfriend’s breasts on his mobile phone, expecting that as a European I will approve of his progressive sense of sexual liberality.
His supervisor, an engineer from Khartoum, disagrees. ‘Well, it is beautiful over there,’ he admits. ‘There are a few people. Small villages …’
But he too seems to think I’m going to suffer riding a bicycle – or, more likely, pushing it through the sand for the next few days. The restaurateur appears with another huge platter of flour-coated fish steaks, lights a cigarette and fires up a small gas stove upon which is balanced a huge frying-pan full of oil. A wonderfully decorated old single-speed bike rests against the wall; someone’s pride and joy, no doubt, but the owner decides not to show up. And I have heard enough to convince myself that I am going to travel the rest of the way to Dongola, the first decent-sized town on my route to Khartoum, on the opposite side of the Nile. I’m pretty sure it will beat another few days of dodging roadworks in the desert heat.
Mr Abud, a plump and ageing Nubian with a densely wrapped headscarf and a comical bug-eyed look, regards me with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion and eventually shrugs me off as a madman. He starts the outboard motor of his tiny wooden boat and we speed off towards the midstream of the broad green river, leaving Faaka far behind amongst the receding palms. With the wind lifting my matted hair and the river spray in my face, I think back over the day, and about the spontaneity I’m finding in travel, of the way I’m starting to say ‘yes’ when the chance comes to divert into entirely unknown waters.
Like all of the nations I’ve cycled through since I found myself alone, I have deliberately done as little research as possible about Sudan. If I know two pieces of essential information (how to get in, and how to get out again), that’s all I want to know. I’m tired of the opinions I never chose to have, and I’m tired of being proved wrong, time after time after time. I don’t want to arrive in a country I’ve never visited and expect to find myself in danger. I just want to arrive and to see what is put in front of my eyes. I don’t want to know what someone else thinks the cheapest or cleanest hostel is, or where I can get the best street food in town. I want to find my own way, and whether I end up at the same place or not is irrelevant. And I don’t want to know how old the ruins are that rise up from the sand, as impressive as Egypt’s yet devoid of tourists. I want to wander around them in complete and utter ignorance, having stumbled across them by chance. I don’t care whether or not I ‘understand’. It’s no longer important. It’s not the point.
Mr Abud drifts away from the shore. I push my bike up the bank and through the palm trees, the buzz of his outboard motor receding behind me. Wandering through the undergrowth, I stumble across a faint trail and, following it, I find myself in the middle of a tiny hidden village in the sand, on the far side of the river’s fringe of trees.
I stop amongst the buildings and honk my horn. The first Nubian to peer from a shady doorway gapes in disbelief; I wave and act out my sleeping-in-a-tent mime routine and, without a moment’s hesitation, he welcomes me to camp under the tree outside his front door. The tree is infested with millions of tiny fruit flies, so I set up the tent with my eyes closed and run away from the swarms to see who I can find. Wandering amongst the brightly painted walls that sprout from the sand, I meet another man, who suggests that I sleep in the small mosque where the insect population is less zealous. I thank him, and he gives me his head-net to wear for protection from the flies. And, on returning to strike my tent and move into the mosque, I find a little silver tray on the sand by my tent. On the tray is a pot of tea, a trail of steam drifting from its spout, and next to it a small glass, a bowl of sugar and a little silver teaspoon. I stand beneath the tree, looking about, but there is nobody to be seen.
Magalie had decided to accept an offer from a university in England, and so Andy, Maria and I stood at Bucharest airport by passport control, waving goodbye to a fellow traveller who had become a friend.
Then, just across the border in the northern hills of Bulgaria, Maria failed to show up as we stopped to regroup. It was some time later that she appeared on the back of a small truck, unloaded herself and her bike, and told us that her knee had seized up and that she could barely ride. She was a person of purpose, and her lack of fear sometimes came across as recklessness rather than bravery, but it was obvious that she could not continue in this state. I was disappointed for her, knowing from experience how frustrated she must be. But she showed no trace of it, having already decided to hitchhike the few hundred remaining miles to Istanbul with only her bike for company. Soon she had flagged down another pick-up, Andy and I had loaded her bike, and she was waving at us from the passenger window as the vehicle pulled away.
‘Look after each other! See you in Istanbul!!!’
And off she went, barely batting an eyelid at her sudden change of plan. Almost without warning, our merry band of travellers had been disbanded; the end of a period of time on the road more enjoyable than any I can remember. For all the heroics and hard riding this journey was supposed to be about, these sudden separations were numbing.
Andy and I rode onward though thin green woods towards the Bulgarian coastline. A short while later I spotted him up ahead, dismounted and standing on the roadside. He had ridden ahead as usual, his natural athleticism still outstripping whatever fitness I’d gained from cycling across Europe. At least it would give us both some much-needed time to ourselves.
I pulled up beside him.
‘Mate,’ he said dryly. ‘We have a problem. A really big problem.’
I looked down. After only a few thousand miles, his dream bike’s rear wheel had – with a dramatic cracking sound, he said – exploded. A six-inch split ran along the rim, and the inner-tube was bulging horrifyingly from this jagged aluminium maw.
It was the latest in a merciless run of unfortunate events. We’d had so much fun in Bucharest, and then, leaving the city, I’d discovered my wallet had gone missing. I’d even taken a taxi back to our host’s apartment and turned the place over, revealing nothing. And now the bikes we’d spent an entire year designing were disintegrating before our eyes. We’d barely even taken the bloody things off-road!
Short of the frame snapping clean in half, a cracked rear rim was just about the most critical failure possible. Along with the shock came a jolt of nostalgia, a memory of a time when bicycle technology actually used to be interesting. When my bike had spent more time in the garage than actually being ridden, it had been easier to believe that this or that amazing newfangled engineering innovation might make me a better rider or improve my sex life. Indeed, the entire mountain bike industry revolved around convincing people with cash that this was in fact true.
Four months of living in the saddle had evaporated all interest in shiny bits of metal, especially when confronted with a couple of girls who had rescued old bikes from a scrap-yard and proceeded to get on just as well as us – if not better, as they hadn’t had to worry about expensive bikes breaking.
After discovering that staring at the crack would not cause it to go away, we elected to continue carefully in the hope that the wheel wouldn’t fail completely and render the bike unrideable. Paranoid and painstaking in our progress, dodging every pothole and rumple in the asphalt, we eventually came to a little seaside town perched atop a rugged promontory. Since there was no bike mechanic in town, we attempted to remedy the situation by getting fairly drunk in a bar and talking to anyone who would listen.
Quickly realising that nobody was even faintly interested in us, we bought some overpriced street food and wobbled back downhill in the dark from the peninsula to an empty beach we’d seen earlier, setting up camp for the night on the decking in front of a boarded-up beach hut. Bulgaria had been the only nation whose inhabitants had failed to offer us a night under a roof. Perhaps the sight of two serious-looking blokes with beards invited less sympathy than two pretty girls and their ‘boyfriends’ – or, previously, a blond guy with a goatee and a fluorescent yellow sock on his head.
Somebody had kindly left the dregs of a bottle of whisky and a pile of firewood in plain sight in front of the little hut. As we helped ourselves to both, I realised that this was the first night that Andy and I had spent on the road with nobody but each other for company. And, as the nostalgia of group riding faded away, there came in its place a strange sense of finally having begun – as if the previous four months had been one long goodbye to Europe, the places we called home, and only now were we setting out on the mission that had begun all that time ago with that text message. In Romania I’d received an email from one of the veteran cyclists we’d met at the Royal Geographical Society:
‘I’ve just calculated that at this rate it will take you eight years to cycle round the world!’ she’d written. If we were going to be taken seriously by the long-distance cycling community, it was time we stepped up our game.
‘I bet this beach is actually really beautiful,’ said Andy, breaking the campfire silence. ‘Especially at sunrise, with the sun over the water. Might go for a swim!’
‘Mmm – that’ll be romantic!’
‘Probably about as much action as I’m going to get with a beard like this!’
In the run-up to our departure from England, Andy had been dating a Czech girl who lived in the nearby town – though I’d never met her, and he’d never brought her along to any social occasions, which was not entirely unusual for Andy. He had ended the relationship before we set off, knowing that Ride Earth would occupy his life for several years to come. I tried to imagine how that conversation over a candlelit dinner might have gone:
‘I’m really sorry, but I’m leaving you.’
‘Er … because …’ – utter deadpan – ‘… I’m going to cycle round the world.’
‘What d’you reckon’s going to happen with Maria?’ Andy asked. She’d be well on her way to Istanbul, if not already there. The journey already felt quite different without her; the circumnavigation sidling back into view.
‘Dunno, really,’ I said. ‘It’s one thing saying, “Yeah, I’ll cycle with you to Romania on a fifteen-euro bike from a scrap-yard” – it’s only a few hundred miles, and it’s only one country. Cycling onwards with us to India … as soon as we leave Istanbul, there’s no decent bike shops until New Delhi. That’s the best part of five thousand miles!’
Back in the Romanian capital, we had made a tough financial decision. Our video camera was beginning to grow faulty and unreliable; a message had arrived from the film company that a whole batch of tapes had proved unwatchable due to recording errors. We’d had a long and difficult discussion, and – with the producers in London unable to help with funding – had eventually decided to put more than a thousand pounds of our savings towards a brand new video camera. It was superior in every way, and would produce fantastic quality footage. But it had eaten over a year’s worth of our budget in a single purchase, and I began to feel that despite the encouragement, Ben and James were no longer quite as enthusiastic about our story as they once had been. But things were just about to start get interesting. They needed to understand that.