I promise you this camera is on its way out. I give it another . . . I give it another three weeks.
Having now cycled in temperatures approaching fifty degrees Celsius, and comparing it to cycling in temperatures of around minus thirty degrees Celsius two winters ago, I have to say – it’s definitely better to be too hot than to be too cold. I suffered a lot more that winter than I have done here.
Yes, it is very hot, and it is uncomfortable, but in the extreme cold it’s a real . . . I dunno . . . you’re aware of your mortality, and the fact that these are seriously dangerous temperatures, and that without shelter and without the right equipment you won’t last long. At least in the heat, as long as there is water around, it’s probably not going to kill you.
I know I’m putting it in a very general sense. But it’s better to be too hot than too cold. Definitely.
There’s another reason why I’ve been doing really long days recently. And it’s because Tenny and I have been in touch with each other by email. And it’s given me the motivation to push it a little bit further every day. Because I do miss her a lot. I mean, there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about her.
It’s not something that should distract me from the experience I’m having here. But it’s something that’s keeping me going, and it’s giving me focus. And therefore . . . therefore, it’s got to be a good thing.
I think that before I met Tenny, Andy and I – I think that there’s a danger when travelling to get lost a little bit. There’s always a danger that you . . . there’s a saying that ‘you can be so open-minded that your brain falls out’. And I think that might have applied if we’d carried on. There’s no knowing where we’d have ended up, and how long we’d have travelled for.
In the end, it does become more self-indulgent than anything else, I think. There’s always a natural end to every stage of one’s life.
The heat sits across my back and shoulders like a cloak. My route has swung south-east on a newly built tarmac road. Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, is behind me, and I will soon arrive at the Ethiopian border, the remainder of Sudan still being out of reach for the independent traveller. The south is preparing for a referendum, and Africa’s largest nation looks set to be cleft in two. By the time the sun dips below the horizon I’ve cycled a hundred miles, and it is clear already that an entirely different atmosphere shrouds these lands. Gone are the pretty, friendly, brightly painted villages. Gone are the reassuring sprouts of palm branches that told of closeness to the riverbank. The most enigmatic period of travelling I can remember has come to an end, and the road heads out into the featureless wind-blown gravel plains of the Sahara, which is beginning to look increasingly like the ten million square kilometres of purgatory I’d always seen in my childish imagination. I snatch a few hours of sleep beneath my mosquito net, and am back on the road an hour before sunrise, head down, face shaded beneath the sunhat I’ve tied to my head with string to prevent it being taken by the infernal wind.
These are the longest days I’ve ever spent in the saddle. My body had never been so attuned to the task of cranking out sheer distance. But the newly paved surface is not here to help. Dotted occasionally alongside the tarmac are collections of sad crumbling shelters, some inhabited, some ruined and empty, none resembling a community. I revert to eating alone from my supplies, carrying as much water as possible. Lonely figures shuffle across the wastes between forlorn huddles of houses, sometimes wandering the empty desert, like sickened animals looking for some place to finally give in to the unrelenting heat, sand and god-damned sun.
I stop briefly at a tiny shop with a fridge full of Pepsi, Sprite and – my personal favourite – Stim, something similar to Appletiser. The owner’s existence depends on selling a few bottles or a packet of overpriced biscuits every day to passing buses and pick-ups travelling the long road between the bigger towns. He doesn’t ask why I’m alone in the desert on a funny-looking bicycle. An old woman shoos me away like a stray dog when I approach to ask to camp within the perimeter of her village. Nobody smiles or waves. The atmosphere is heavy with oppression. And, knowing nothing but odd snippets of hearsay about the history of Sudan and her internal conflicts, I can only pass by. That night, as I lie on my back in the sand, sinking into sleep’s oblivion beneath the clearest starscape on earth, I can’t help but wonder why it has to be like that. But, for now, I am about to leave Sudan behind. And, as always, I will leave with more questions than answers.
‘Are you fine?’
‘Yes, thank you.’
‘Where are you from? Germania? Farrance? America?’
Ah, the Germans. Great travellers indeed.
I wonder what name my home country is known by here. Anything beats the Arabic ‘Br-r-r-itannia’, or previous incarnations: ‘Ingilterra’, ‘Anglia’, ‘Angle’, ‘Inglestan’.
‘Ah, my friend! England! Wayne Rooney! Margaret Tatcher! David Beck Ham!’
‘Er. Yes. I couldn’t agree more.’
‘My friend, you like football, no? I very very much like Chelsea.’
I haven’t the foggiest clue about football; if I had, I would still be somewhere in Egypt having a stimulating conversation in a tea shop about the ins and outs of the English Premier League.
‘Before, I like Liverpool. Everybody like Liverpool. Very, very good. But not now. Now everybody like Chelsea.’
‘Oh, right . . .’
‘My friend, maybe you need help? What are you look for? Hotel restaurant-bar-change-money?’
Yes, I was waiting for this, and I’m sure you have friend who has very good hotel-restaurant-bar-change-money.
‘No, thanks, I’m OK. I’m just walking. I like to look around on my own.’
‘Why? Mister, you need help! I have friend, he has very very good hotel-restaurant-bar-change-money!!!’
One expects an arbitrary frontier on a map to bear little relevance to what one sees on the ground. But borders are often established where they are for good reason. In many cases there really is some major geographical distinction – mountain ridge, significant waterway, deep valley – that was fought over at some point or other in the past and which was too defensible or treacherous to allow either neighbour to overcome the other. And, once past this historical boundary, modern-day social and economic influences shape the landscape on each side: differences in land-use alone can mark drastic changes in the space of a few metres.
The Ethiopian side of the river is greener than Sudan’s scrubby desert, bristling with strained, ambitious flora; a hazy backdrop of distant peaks telling of the high-altitude ride ahead. Ethiopia, the continent’s most mountainous nation; rarely remembered for that reason. Those I’m still in touch with back home doubtless harbour the same guilt-laden images of Ethiopia as I do: dusty skin stretched over sunlit ribs, bellies swollen with hunger, flies gathering around staring white eyes. It’s been two decades since the awful pictures of that famine reached British screens, so I’m hesitant to guess at what I might find as I take a pedal-powered cross-section of this wounded place.
But these dismal thoughts are quietened by the unadulterated sense of life that radiates forth as I stare up the wide gravel road in front of me. Lined on either side with unkempt rows of tumbledown shacks that extend beyond the reach of sight, as if carelessly scattered from on high by a distracted creator, Metema’s street scene is absolutely crawling with people. Men. Women . . . women in public! Children weaving among adults like rivulets down a streambed. Rickshaws. Donkeys. Wood smoke and freshly baked bread. Honking and yammering and a cacophony of competing sound-systems – music! How long has it been since I last heard music played in the street? I eagerly push my bike up the track and into the fray, Islamic Africa and the Middle East already a relic of my mind.
As a rule, I’ve avoided hanging around national frontiers. These settlements evolve to tempt newcomers with their trade, to extract the maximum possible cash before moving guiltlessly on to the next punter who comes their way. The tricks of the trade are ever-changing and easy to be duped by, but the rule of thumb remains: there is no free lunch in a border town. Yet for every rule of thumb there is a contrary little pinkie to be found.
I follow Nega from his office across the road, and we duck down an alley between grey, rickety wooden walls and emerge into a small yard decked out with a couple of little tables and stools. Nega has a centred, confident air about him, applying himself to each task as it comes with equal quantities of calm and concentration, whether giving the waitress our food order, making a path through crowds of street-vendors and loiterers – or finding a particular page in a medical textbook in order to show me a magnified image of which of the four strains of malaria he has just diagnosed me with.
Malaria. . .
It had been that unusual ache in my legs, together with the very beginnings of fever, that gave it away; that groggy feeling you get when you stand up quickly and the world seems to glow slightly, lagging a split-second behind. A little twinge at the back of the throat rounded off the symptoms I needed to send me in the direction of Metema’s sparsely furnished clinic and into Nega’s treatment room for a blood sample. While the smear of red on the glass was left to dry, he’d asked me to accompany him across the road to one of the many eateries, and that was where I realised that I was in fact about to get a free lunch in a border town. Then I’d sat in the clinic’s waiting room, reading the bold, lavishly illustrated posters on the walls that detailed the fundamentals of condom use. He’d delivered the news to me shortly after with the same friendly, plodding diplomacy that he employed in everything else he did. Don’t worry, he said. This is just the first stage.
Still not sure what to make of having malaria, to be honest. I feel very weak . . . and . . . mentally weak, also. I feel . . .
I don’t know, really.
In Sudan, the temptation to do very very long days, day after day after day, was too high, and I couldn’t pace myself. And now I’m paying for it. I’ve just run myself into the ground, basically, by pushing it too hard.
My – my body just feels like it needs a rest, and I don’t mean a couple of days in a city, rushing around trying to do chores – I mean some proper rest, where I do nothing but stay in one place and have some serious recuperation time.
It’s just what to do while I’m waiting, really, because resting while you’re ill is not really resting, if you see what I mean – it’s being ill. I don’t really know what I’m talking about, to be honest – I did start this video diary with something in mind, but it seems to have gone astray somehow. Erm . . .
I think I’ve talked too much, now. I think I’m going to stop.
I return to the hotel in which I’d spent the previous night to tell the staff that I won’t be checking out just yet. I’m clutching a small packet of multicoloured pills and instructions to rest throughout the three days of heavy medication I’ve been prescribed. I’m not planning to argue with this – after all, I’ve just learnt that the world’s single biggest killer has taken up residence in my bloodstream. I should be terrified. I have malaria, for goodness sake – the disease that kills one African child every forty-five seconds. So why do I feel so flippant? I have a bit of a fever, sorer-than-usual legs, a handful of pills, and a couple of days off to look forward to. What’s missing is any sense of the gravity of having being diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease. Why is that?
Here’s the thing. I have already accepted that what happens to me on this journey is mostly outside my control. I prepare for a balance between expected and unexpected. I’d taken anti-malarial drugs, for example. They hadn’t worked. I’d covered up and slept beneath mosquito nets: a couple of bites got through anyway. Bad luck. I’ve already dealt with so much in the way of unpredictability, of being exposed and vulnerable, on this journey that is rapidly proving the biggest test of my life. Learning precisely how little grasp I have over the way these elements of life play out, I long since stopped trying to fix the odds in my favour, or wasting energy on emotions like fear or frustration or anger which have absolutely no positive effect on the cards that have been dealt. And I suppose it is the same with this. I know that a reaction will not change what has already come to pass. So why bother? Why waste energy on tears or terror or panic when that energy would be much better spent taking the medication, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, and making a quick check that – were things not to go my way – I had at the very least been pursuing a life that was authentically mine?