Day 46 - Cross The Desert to Wadi Halfa

Trip Start Aug 07, 2007
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Trip End Nov 07, 2007


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Flag of Sudan  ,
Saturday, September 22, 2007

Hair: Lego
Beard: Beaverish
Distance Travelled: 7665km
Frame of Mind: Jubilant

I just crossed 1,000 kilometres of the Sahara Desert on a 250cc motorbike.  That's pretty fucking cool.

Day 43 - Khartoum
I rolled into the Blue Nile Sailing Club on the banks of the Nile where I was going to camp for the few days I spent in Khartoum.  I immediately noticed a familiar motorbike in the car park.  It was the South African chap who I had bumped into in Gonder about a week ago.  He was heading to London from Durban (nice website, have a look: www.durban2london.co.za).  I had expected him to be well on his way by now but it turned out that he had some administrative difficulties with Sudan and was delayed. He was also looking to travel through the desert with someone else.  I eagerly accepted his invitation.  It would mean leaving Khartoum a little earlier than I had planned but the pros (safety in numbers, companionship, reduced cost of hotel rooms etc) definitely outweighed the cons (spending several days in hot, dry, empty, hungry Khartoum).

The city is a big, sprawling beast with sand covering many of the roads (having being blown in from the Nubian Desert to the north).  During Ramadan, which was in its eighth day when I arrived, the streets are practically deserted (no pun intended).  Few shops are open, regardless of whether they sell food or not, as the people of Khartoum try to stay out of the sun and rest their hungry, thirsty bodies until the sun dips below the horizon and the muezzin calls to the faithful (everyone) to pray.  They break fast first.  Then they pray.  I think this is the sensible way round, if not the official way, as after an all day fast in 40+ degree heat those prayers will be even more heartfelt!

Because of this, at sunset the streets are eerie and completely empty.  No taxis, no beggars, no one.  They are all breaking fast and praying.  The strange atmosphere is intensified as the desert winds pick up at this time and the sky turns red.  You can see lightning in the distance.  Not caused by rainclouds but by a dust storm out in the desert that may or may not find its way to the city, covering everthing with sharp, still hot sand.

This is a foreign city in every sense of the word.  But by no means frightening. But certainly not as welcoming as those in Amdangla.  It is Muslim first, Sudanese second and there is no third.  No foreigner-fever like in Ethiopia.  They do not need The West or tourists.  Only the richer and more educated Khartoumites seem interested in  foreigners.  Everyone else just carries on with life as normal.  A nice change.

Day 44 - Preparations in Khartoum
After six hours of wrestling with 45 degree heat through the dusty streets I had managed two things only:

 - To pay 45USD to be 'registered' with the immigration (a necessary but unnecessary task)
 - To fail to find a replacement chain in the whole city (Andrew (the SA chap) had a spare chain so that was a last resort)

I gave up, bought some baklava and went back to the sailing club to do some washing.  Half an hour later the clothes were bone dry and I was soaking wet.    

The next day we were heading off early to cross the desert.  Although we had little idea of exactly what to expect we had a good idea that it would be three or four days of unpleasantness.  It was, however, the last big challenge of the journey.  We were ready for it.  Or as ready as we'd ever be.  Our final preparation was to have a large Debonair's pizza.  Critical.

Day 45 - Khartoum to Dongola
We rose before dawn and packed up our kit.  Bad start: my newly changed oil was leaking.  The screw thread on the oil plug was damaged and was slowly dripping oil.  Based on my trials the day before I held no hope of finding a replacement in Khartoum.  Press on.  The only thing to do.  I did not savour the idea of my engine seizing in the middle of the Sahara.  I'd have to check oil often and carry an extra four spare litres.  What a cloud hanging over me - at the very beginning of the hardest part of my journey!

This section was 515km of sealed road to Dongola, a small town on the banks of the Nile.  Just outside of Khartoum we would leave the Nile to meander its relentless course through the desert.  We would cut off one huge meander and meet it 330km north, then follow it all the way to Dongola.

It's empty.  Except for that flat, black road running off into the distance the desert is empty.  And despite its lack of features, remarkably beautiful and peaceful.  we encountered a strong headwind that slowed progress considerably (my 250 didn't have enough beef, Andrew's 600 was a little easier).  The headwind turned into a side wind that threatened to force me off the road (again, Andrew's bike being so much heavier weathered this better...but his time would come in the sand and mud when that extra weight would be a millstone round his neck - this is what he was most worried about, I on the other hand had too little experience of these things to know whatg to be worried about!).  Then it turned into a sand storm, which whipped curling lashes of sand across the road like sidewinders.  It was amazing.  Especially when four pyramids rose out of the desert storm ahead of us.  Unmapped and looming.  This is why we were doing this.

My bike continued to struggle through the wind and heat and more than likely poor quality petrol but we made good time and hit the Nile by lunchtime (the oil leak turned out to be fairly minor, but I kept on checking in once an hour just in case).  You can't see the waters from the road but the wide snaking line of greenery wending its misplaced way through the desert is proof of its location.  Another 200km along almost perfect roads and we were in Dongola.  I felt like I'd run a marathon.  I had been battling the wind and heat for over eight hours and was exhausted.  Five years ago there was no road along that stretch.  Gulp.  The worst was yet to come....

Day 46 - Dongola to Abri
It was only 200km.  Only 200km.  It was easily the longest, hardest day of driving I have ever done.  It compares to  climbing Kilimanjaro in terms of stress, emotion and physical exhaustion. The desert destroyed my pannier, one bungee cord, my rope, my boots and trousers.  I lost 100SP in cash, burned my leg, jammed my chain.  I got stuck in mud and in deep sand.  I fell half a dozen times.  Andrew's equipment faired better but when he got stuck he got stuck deeper and for longer.  He definitely did not enjoy the sand. The road, when there was a road, constantly changed conditions: dusty rock, gravel, sharp stones, dry mud, wet mud, and of course sand: light sand, medium sand, deep sand, powder sand, thick sand, rutted sand, smooth sand.  It never  let you get used to the conditions, never let you relax, always ready to pounce if you lost concentration for a moment.


 
 
The landscape altered as dramatically as the road.  There were Nile-side villages lined with palm trees, rocky moonscapes, flat sand pans, and rolling dunes. Some verged on ugly, some was breathtakingly beautiful.  Most of it wasn't the desert of story books, but from my only previous experience with the Sahara Desert from atop a camel in the far north west in Morocco I didn't expect much Lawrence of Arabia.  And all four of us were very glad there was less of that to drive through.

For over 12 hours we battled with the desert.  We had already done 200km by 4pm.  Where was Abri?  Why is it longer than on the map?!  This is not the sort of thing which is good for a fragile frame of mind.  We had done so many diversions from the main road, because it didn't exist or was blocked, that we ended up travelling almost 250km before Abri appeared.  The sun was setting.  The sense of relief between us was almost tangible.  We were stopped by a man breaking his fast with his friends.  We were invited and eagerly gulped down huge quantities of cold, sweet juices.  Despite not having anything since 6am I could hardly eat a bite of food.  But the drink!

We found the local hotel. It had two televisions in two different rooms, both on full volume, and a radio in a third.  There was no question that the din would keep me awake.  I felt a mixture of relief, pride and happiness for the day that had gone and apprehension for the day that was to come.  Tomorrow was 200km.  Just 200km.  It was also supposed to be worse than today.


Day 47 - Abri to Wadi Halfa
This 200km mercifully stayed at 200km.  It was more of the same conditions that we experienced the day before.  But we were prepared. We knew how to drive it.  We knew how to detour.  We were desert rats.  Heroes.

My boots had been 're-engineered' and lasted but my frame broke again, as did my rear suspension, my kidneys and lower back were aching from all the corrugations, we got separated and reunited, I packed and re-packed my kit many times, we got hot again, we got thirsty, we got grimy.  We completed the 200km in only 6 hours and rocked into Wadi Halfa mid-afteroon and within a few minutes had big grins and cold Pepsis.  We had conquered the desert.

I wax lyrical about the hardships and pain but in reality the trip was like running a marathon or walking up a big mountain.  It is exhausting both physically and mentally but is achieveable...by anyone. I believe anyone can do these things if they want to enough.

Now all we had to do was conquer the infamous red tape of Sudanese customs and immigration.  This would take more than the three days in the desert.

Andrew, who had come from Durban, calculated that there were only 1,500km of unpaved roads between Cape Town and Cairo (the traditional north-south overland route across Africa).  All 1,500km were being either upgraded as we drove, or at least being surveyed for upgrade.  In five years you would be able to travel the whole distance in a Fiat Punto.  Now where's the fun in that?
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Comments

amy_n-b
amy_n-b on

WOW
Sounds and looks like it was a breathtakingly heartwrenching or maybe heartwrenchingly breathtaking journey through the desert. I am so glad to hear that you had a companion through that trip. Sudan is the tough part, right? So if you've conquered this bit, you can do anything.

Am missing you and the Mwanza crew a lot. Back from Hawaii for a week (crazy lava rock hikes, manta ray night dive, horseback riding on a ranch, sea kayaking, and lots of snorkeling with turtles) and no job in sight! xx Amy

charlesaclark
charlesaclark on

Re: WOW
Sounds awful. Pole sana.

Sudan's the bad bit...in terms of roads. Red tape is the killer from here on. And how!

caragh
caragh on

Take Care
Hi Charlie
Fab to read about your adventures. Sounds pretty exhausting but really amazing. I laughed out loud at your simien encounter (with the troublesome scout), blowing my cover of pretending to work, whilst reading your blog. Looking forward to seeing you sometime soon. It really has been too long.
Lots of love, Caragh x

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