Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Sudanese Swansong

Weeks and months fly by. The last update brought me to Khartoum, since then I’ve been back to Damascus [blogged here], cycled across from the sands of Sudan into the lush green mountains of Ethiopia. These are the memories of the last days of Sudan.

Getting set

After reuniting with Kenny in Khartoum, we spent a workmanlike week updating this website, building a CV site for our CouchSurfing host, Omar and importantly for me finalising some new tenants moving in to my place at home. Luckily my Mum was on hand to make a smooth transition; without her much about this trip would be considerably more difficult; thank you Mumma. As a result I’ve now got about £250 of income a month to sustain this ever-lengthening adventure.

Bike Maintenance I love Sudan Kenny By Night Finger Light Waiting for Ifta Fat and full Shadows on the mosque Oxygen by night

KRT

Khartoum is an intriguing city, although there didn’t seem much to visit or actually do; especially on a budget. Kenny, by now well accustomed with the city, offered me some options on my second day back; “Well we could go to this nice roundabout… or ... (long pause) … a cemetery”. To be fair options did improve but I felt oddly caught in the ex-pat bubble.

Khartoum is a rapid changing place; the evidence of modernisation is clear, although the regime could be said to be lagging. The goodwill of the Sudanese people is as evident as ever, although nearly all I spoke to felt the repression of the state as a daily feature of their lives.

On Januray 9th 2011, there is a referendum on independence for the south of the country. Who knows what will happen but it seems the vast majority feel the south will vote for independence. Here’s hoping this is a genuine gesture by President Bashir to offer them control of their future.

Olympic Marathon Man

Israeli Spies

The first few days cycling out of Khartoum were quite brutal; gusting headwinds, searing heat and one of the rare stretches with little distracting natural beauty… although we did get refreshing roadside sprinkler shower.

Sprinkler shower

Looking for some alternative beauty I filmed some plastic bags stranded on a barbed-wire fence blowing in the wind. This innocuous action almost caused an international incident when we were swiftly apprehended and escorted to a police station. You need a permit to film or take photos in many parts of Sudan; a fact I’d conveniently (until now) ignored this.

Normally we wouldn’t have worried but on this day we weren’t quite spot-free. I didn’t have the permit; this was a military facility… and Kenny’s visa had expired. After a little roadside protest, the chief was called; in no uncertain terms he demanded us at the police station.

When there's no flowers...

When we arrived, there were stern looks all around. Our passports were carefully analyzed. Grave looks appeared. My Arabic is improving but still basic but from what I could understand the situation didn’t sound good. More sergeants arrived. The word safara (embassy) was banded about. Then the passports were scrutinized again. We were playing it cool but internally wondering what on earth they were gong to do.

Then to our relief it was discerned that we weren’t Israeli spies, as initially expected; you know the type of hobo-like spies you often find on international missions cycling around filming plastic bags. It must say something about the propaganda these police are fed.

Miraculously Kenny’s expired visa wasn’t spotted despite at least seven set of eyes on it. We were given a quick lecture advising us of the perils of being Israeli and we were soon sent on our way with a parade of smiles and waves. Incident over; free to find it funny and unclench sphincter.

Ramadan

Cultural awareness and sensitivity should be two ever-present travel companions, so it was with some delight Kenny and I were told that Koran makes concession for travelers during Ramadan, allowing them to eat and drink during daylight hours. This was like the best of both worlds, eating during the day and feasting a night.

Sudanese family by the Nile

As sunset drew near on our first night outside Khartoum we were waved insistently off the road by a man with light batons more at home on a Top Gun flight deck. We were ushered into a roadside feast put on purely out of the kindness of the people and their desire to please Allah; what a fitting way to do it.

As the sun fell beneath the horizon, we awaited confirmation of the end to the day’s fast on the radio. A hundred or more men lined the matted, desert floor awaiting the call; gazing and murmuring at the feast in front of them. The call came and in a dignified rush, hands flew from dishes to mouths and back to dishes. There was a fervor only a hard working man who’s fasted over 12 hours in searing heat can muster. The food and the water were quaffed at remarkable rate before being called to an abrupt halt for prayer. I’m sure most of them could have used more than the five minutes or so they had to eat, I certainly could of, but they would get their fill later. It’s quite an oddity that most Muslims gain weight during Ramadan.

Petrol Station Sunrise

That we were not Muslim didn’t seem to bother anyone. Our hosts were delighted to show us their hospitality, and as now had become customary we ended up being given a place to sleep for the night in the nearby petrol station. This was a ritual repeated each night, without fail – without ever wanting something in return. The beauty of this culture in Sudan left us with a humbling lesson: who do you know who would offer their own bed to a complete stranger if he asked where he might sleep? Or the food from their plate simply because they thought he was hungry? What I thought of my attempts at generosity, showed how little I knew.

Sands to Grass

We’d had nothing but sand for well over 1000km and virtually no hills for almost 3000km. 3000kms of flat cycling may sound good but on the other hand from ground level you just don’t see very much. Hills are tougher but even when you curse them, the pleasures outweigh the pain - hidden landscapes are revealed; the unexpected rears its head and of course there’s the downhill cruising with the wind in you hair, glowing with a sense achievement. So with that said when the first hills rose from the sandy pan landscape it was a welcome sight. I scrambled up the first mound we reached. Looking down from high it cast the altered perspective I’d been missing.

Grass at long last! Kenny Flying Sunset rays Rockin along nicely Bright light for breakfast Out comes Kenny Pressing on Frying pan flats

Not on the map

As the landscape changed so did the caste of the people; the Arabs of the north mixing with their dark skinned Nubian countrymen from the south and brown gold skin of the Eritreans, Ethiopians, and Somalis to the East.

Blinding smiles

There was lots more children; running around partially clothed, in fitful arrays colour. There was laughing and screaming. Skinny livestock moseyed along roadside followed by boys with sticks. Circular mud huts appeared with thatched roofs and open doors, at first on their own and then in whole villages. Fires smoked. Towns buzzed. We had arrived somewhere new; not on the map; the Africa of my childhood imagination; ‘Black Africa’.

Roadside rapscallions

Sleeping on water

On our last night in Sudan we sketched our memories of our time, almost too much to remember. We found what seemed like a good pitch for our tent and snuggled down listening to the thunderstorms to the east raging over Ethiopia.

Night pitch Light of the storm Camp kithcen Licked by flame Lone Rider Sky Hills Road K.m. 100

A few hours later we were awoken by the rains pummeling our tent. It’s a brilliant tent but not as waterproof as it used to be and the rain fell on us like a mist inside. This was soon accompanied by a buoyant feeling as our sleeping mats began to rise. It quickly became evident where we’d pitched our tent was flat because it was a dried up pond. As we sat tight in the tent wishing the storm to pass we chuckled at our predicament; after spending much of ride through Sudan wishing for water, on our last night it ended up giving us just what we wanted – like the rest of the country – more than we ever could have wished for.

Memories of Sudan (sketch)

Friday, 13 August 2010

Life on the Nile

From the mouth of the Nile on the Mediterranean Kenny & I have pedalled over 2000km upstream to Khartoum. We’ve faced knife wielding Cairans, fulfilled boyhood dreams and conquered the vast expanses of the Sahara Desert en route; quite a journey. Here’s the best of it:

Ghetto Wedding

Wandering home after a gig, Kenny, Ahmad and I stumbled upon a street wedding. On taking a closer look, we were enthusiastically welcomed and beckoned to join a table. We were plied with drinks and I was invited to dance… a knife dance! I defaulted to capoeira mode and reproduced a ‘makulélé’ stick dance with the monster blade that had been thrust into my hand. It went down a storm.

BLC_DSC05904 BLC_DSC06025 BLC_DSC06026 BLC_DSC06052 BLC_DSC06056 BLC_DSC06074 BLC_DSC06069

It was a great night only mildly interrupted by a blade being thrust menacingly into my guts for switching tables; a social faux pas, I just about managed to explain my out of it – I am a dumb foreigner after all! Knife withdrawn; all smiles; part of some macho game I somehow survived; I’ll stick at my table next time.

BLC_DSC06064

Photo slideshow: Cairoooooo yeah!

Pyramid Climbing

The real pyramids to treasure near Cairo are at Dashour, 30km south. Almost the same size as Giza but crucially free of tourists and touts and surrounded by desert. The ‘Bent’ Pyramid, so called because it changes angle half-way up, is the steepest in Egypt and just 30m shorter than those at Giza.

Sizing up the 'Bent' Pyramid Pyramid climbing in Dahshur Pyramid climbing in Dahshur Bent Pyramid: Steep! The 'Bent' Pyramid Peaking the Pyramid Pyramid climbing in Dahshur

It was one of my boyhood dreams to climb a pyramid; here with guards snoozing and no-one else in sight, I got my chance.

View from the Bent Pyramid

In truth it didn’t quite have the majesty I’d pictured as a kid yet it still gave me a childlike lightness from being a bit naughty and fulfilling this long held dream. This sense of lightness is called ‘deam haffif’ in Arabic, which translates literally as 'light blood', it is a state of being I increasingly strive for.

Pyramid climbing in DahshurPyramid climbing in Dahshur

Photo slideshow: Cairoooooo yeah!

Nile Heat

The 600km ride to Luxor was a return to solo cycling for the first time in a while. Kenny had cycled ahead a week earlier to meet Kiran, a friend from home. I cycled out of Cairo past the Pyramids and South along the Nile.

City Creeping in on the Pyramids Saqqara Pyramid Sunet Cycling along the Nile: Friendly Locals Palm Reflections Praying Mantis Hanging Cycling along the Nile: Police Escort Desert & Irrigation

Jovial and otherwise bored policemen had orders to escort me; shielding me from some unlikely hidden danger. It seemed all the more preposterous given the friendly greetings of almost everyone I passed and met on the way.

Nile Sunset

The real danger was the heat; at times it reached over 50oC; even the Egyptians called it a heat wave. It was suffocatingly hot; the most physically torturous days of the ride to date. So affected was my mind, it spent hours composing odes to the blissful silken touch of a breeze or the embrace of cool waters. I’ll spare you the punishment of repeating them.

British Bridge on the Nile Grubby Tyre Boy Feluccas on the Nile Three Jugs & A Donkey Falafel Portrait Cycling along the Nile Cycling along the Nile

I raced through the endless stream of towns; one day topping 200km, a sizeable but exhausting feat. When I finally rolled into Luxor, the air-con, chilled drinks and power-shower in Kenny & Kiran’s room were sheer luxury. The joy tickled me to a smile, then laugh in mild hysteria at the wonder of these ‘simple’ things.

Photo slideshow: Luxor & the Nile

Hypostyle Hall

Boyhood dreams of Egypt were many and another was to visit Karnak Temple. The whole site is as huge as it is impressive but the Hypostyle Hall is the jewel I’d longed to see. Its mighty columns dwarf all beneath them, standing tall for over 3000 years. The deeply etched history and cartouches of Ramses II adorn the columns, his attempt to limit his successors’ ability to overwrite him.

Karnak Temple: Height of Hypostyle Karnak Temple: Lame Sphinx Karnak Temple: Deep Hieroglyphics Karnak Temple: Boyhood Dreams Fulfilled Karnak Temple: Gazing Up Karnak Temple: Through Kenny's Eyes Karnak Temple: Goodbye

Kenny and I lingered around the site until closing when the crowds were ushered out. We wandered around discreetly having the whole place, one of the most majestic on the planet, entirely to ourselves… at least until we were discovered. Being able to soak it in alone in quiet and astounded contemplation was heavenly.

Photo slideshow: Luxor & the Nile

Dream Boat

There is one border crossing from Egypt to Sudan, a ferry across Lake Nasser, which runs once a week. I was on a tight schedule to make a flight back to Damascus from Khartoum so we arrived early to secure our places… but we were too late. Mr. Saleh the official in charge empathised but didn’t budge; there was no room on the boat.

Notes on Egypt Boarding the boat Boat to Wadi Halfa Boat to Wadi Halfa Full on deck Abu Simbel Unloading in Sudan

As we left contemplating a Plan B, we met an irrepressible Dutch lady Kiem, and her husband, who on hearing our predicament offered their places to us at the drop of a hat. This meant they’d have to wait anther week to go. Who does this?! Good people do. As it turned out the same had happened to them in South America and a New Yorker named Justin had stepped aside. How lucky we were for Kiem, for Justin, and Mr. Saleh who miraculously found a way to squeeze our new friends back on.

Boat to Wadi Halfa

The boat itself was noisy, overcrowded and quite fantastic. Rammed with friendly Sudanese folks travelling home, it crawled through the night, appearing to face the wondrous sight of Abu Simbel at dawn. We met several other travellers driving through Africa, most of whom thought we were mad; we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Photo slideshow: Aswan & The Boat to Sudan

Crossing the Sahara

The Sahara we entered was not the ocean of dunes I’d envisaged. Instead something of Martian landscape of sand hewn with rocky outcrops and peaks. The newly laid road made it an almost welcoming wilderness. It was still, noiseless and strangely startling.

Crossing the Sahara: Two AmigosInquisitive Kids

Two days in with 668km to Khartoum, a tough decision had to be made. Kenny was suffering with heat exhaustion and a dodgy stomach and we were running behind time for my flight back to Damascus. In truth there was little choice. We parted ways with a smile but it was a sad moment.

After adjusting to being alone once more the kms raced by. I relished the solitude in the massive expanses around me. That night I camped beneath a sea of stars; a cooling wind blew, and as the camp stove bubbled I raised my hands aloft, soaking in the moment: naked and alone in the desert; totally contented. That night I slept under 10,000 stars.

Crossing the Sahara: Staring at the abyss

The Sudanese people I met were so kind, gentle, and inquisitive. They had an energy I like to be immersed in; they seemed innately spiritual. I can’t adequately describe it but to say they represent humanity in a way I wish I saw more.

The road to Khartoum was an army like routine:

  • 04:00 - 05:00 - wake up, pack up camp, eat noodles
  • 05:00 - 12:00 - cycling, snack, drink, drink more
  • 12:00 - 16:00 - cook a big pasta, eat, snooze (if possible), eat leftovers
  • 16:00 - 21:00 - press on, stay hydrated, find a spot to camp
  • 21:00 – 22:00 - eat and drink as much as possible, pass out

I had a mission: 6 days to cover almost 1000kms. I made it. It felt like great achievement to have ‘cycled the Sahara in summer’ …and just in time for my flight.

Crossing the Sahara: 894km to Khartoum (+40) Crossing the Sahara: Touch Crossing the Sahara Crossing the Sahara: Parting Company - Waving Goodbye to Kenny Crossing the Sahara Crossing the Sahara Crossing the Sahara

The routine and the environment could be harsh, serene, wearing and delighting. Challenging then utterly fulfilling, this is what I came for.

Photo slideshow: Crossing the Sahara

Salute the hosts

Many of the unexpected highlights of Egypt were the result of CouchSurfing. First in Alexandria then in Cairo, Kenny and I were hosted by and introduced to people who transformed us from tourists into guests.

No longer at the whim of Lonely Planet guides, we were shown the places our local hosts are proud of, invited to events, and became part of what was going on rather than just looking at it.

We owe a big thank you to Shehab, Manu, Ahmad, and Nada – all of whom hosted us and made the last few months so incredible.

(If you haven’t heard of CouchSurfing, check it out. In short: kind people offer their spare beds or couches for people to stay for free. It has a tried and trusted system of referral that works. In my experience the hosts offer a level of hospitality you can’t buy. It is an outstanding way of meeting people and example of the internet dong what it is best for, bringing people together.)

CouchSurfers of AlexandriaBLC_DSC02406