With the Ethiopian border just days away the open road gives me room to reflect. The terrain of northern Sudan pushed our resolve and forced us to question whether we could see this adventure through. We got robbed twice and knocked out by tonsillitis for two weeks straight. In Khartoum, someone spat in my face. But we were also awakened to the power of a stranger’s kindness and I felt regularly grateful for the patient rhythm to life in the Sudan. When you pass someone on your bike here, more often than not, he’ll hold his hand to his heart and say ‘Welcome’ or ‘Join us’. And welcomed we truly were. With a spirit of generosity, it may be impossible to find elsewhere.
We gave; our energy, sweat, determination, un-blistered skin, a bit of pride that we were savvy travelers and near a thousand pounds worth of kit (!)
And were given; food, encouragement, shoes, help, countless cups of tea, a photo shoot, henna, advice, the best beds in people’s houses, perfume, conversation, evenings of music, escorted tours and a new bike basket. It is impossible to thank all those who deserve thanks but Eltayeb, Hasseen, Midhat, Mohammed and the DiBebba crew, Saddique, who I doubt will ever read this, thank you.
Rest days are essential. When you hatch a lie-in your body feasts on its first day off but take a chunk of time and the dexterity of the daily turn is lost with frustrating ease. We had sailed through the Western Desert at 120 Kilometers a day but an enforced lay off in Aswan and overconfidence from our 3-week desert stint through Egypt meant we approached northern Sudan as fools.
The wind fought against and across us, buffeting handfuls of sharp sand into our faces. Our legs uncharacteristically useless - like some joker had traded our real ones in for fakes (look closely and the label reads Lags, not Legs). And the sun! This wasn’t the sun that decorates butter packets or pops up from behind a set of spherical green hills, it was raw, real and commanding. The mercury had catapulted since Egypt and by 11am rested at 43 degrees. It didn’t take long for us to feel in desperate need of shade that didn’t come.
No abandoned building. No solitary checkpoint. No bank of sand.
Our first failure was an anxious scarf strung between the two bicycles. It cast a shadow broad enough to cover our heads but nothing more. The second was a desperate decision to erect our tent at midday. The sand beneath had been collecting and storing heat since daybreak and it was, of course, impossible to lie down. We clambered out almost to cry. The thermometer in the static bike computer registered an unfathomable 56 degrees.
Our third mistake was to carry on, though at the time we felt we had no choice. A band of blisters soon camouflaged my arms, which began to itch and burn. We would later learn it a side effect of our anti-malarials, any exposed limbs felt as though they were being pressed and held against a radiator. Our hearts raced faster than felt healthy.
By 3.30, a pitiful 45km from the Sudanese port of Wadi Halfa, we found a tree. A tree. The only tree. A flat topped Acacia carpeted by a scramble of scrub, thorns and flies. We dropped our bikes, moved hastily into the scattered shade and lay down only to breathe. Letting our chests retrace restoration and wordlessly arriving at the same conclusion. Perhaps it wasn’t possible. We had just confronted the limits we has tasked ourselves with meeting. Beaten not by distance or dexterity but by nature and no-one was going to hand us a gold medal come sun down. The parameters of this trip were of our own invention. My good chum’s Victoria’s dad John warned me not to make a martyr of myself on this trip and I heard him for the first time then.
Later in Sudan, we would meet Johannes. A young Ethiopian ducked beneath a similar roadside acacia. We stopped to fill his water bottle, only for him to unexpectedly catch up with us some 15km down the road. I clocked him, shouted hello and he dove into the roadside rest stop to see us. Impossibly polite he had to be coaxed to sit down. I’ve never seen someone who needs water as a matter of urgency. Johannes did then. When we stopped, I knew he was walking but I hadn’t thought he was walking far. Ignorantly I presumed he was on his way to work at a nearby farm. In fact he was walking further; to Gedaref the last big town before the border and an 8 to 10 day walk away. Work had dried up and with no money to hitch a ride he had no choice but to head out into the sun’s fury on foot. Johannes and the three or four other young men we saw walking east that day screamed a vital if wordless instruction: only a fool puts their life in danger just because they can.
Northern Sudan was a shock. We did eventually limp into Khartoum but visibly weakened by the experience. Skin and fingernails scorched, spirit and pride dampened. We’d made it but it hadn’t been fun. Unlike the peak of a climb or the lunar beauty of the Western Desert the heat and hostility of this muted land had caught us unprepared.
There’s been a Wobbery!
It was hardly surprising then that the first robbery happened when it did –five minutes after our dazed arrival in Khartoum. Stood at a bustling junction, sandwiched between a disorderly wall of empty cars, I pulled our panniers out of the rickety taxi we’d slumped into to help us navigate the city and escape the sun. With two bags down by my feet I twisted to yank the other out and lay it down next to the...
GONE. Where’s my bar bag? GONE.
Drained of all fight and suffering from heat exhaustion I had nothing to offer the situation but a few pathetic tears and an incoherent warble while Diarmaid gave chase in compulsive through utterly arbitrary manner. We hadn’t seen or noticed anyone.
Whoever took that bag hit the rollover. Any other pannier and he or she’d have inherited at best a decent sleeping bag, at worst some shredded underpants and a half eaten jar of jam. Instead they left with a digital SLR camera, an ipod, a kindle, a GPS emergency locator, a bike computer, a phone, a rearview mirror, some sesame snap biscuits and a Dictaphone. This you see is the one bag you never let out your sight.
Our knight came in the broad, jovial shape of man called Hasseen – a young software developer who had spotted me in tears. Hasseen it turns out is a total gent and that day cast himself as a key character in the 3-week sitcom that unfurled. He called the police, went to the station, helped us make a report and dropped into our hotel to check we were fine the next day. He’d later take us for medical tests, see if he could get someone to lend us an SLR, get a GP to call me on my sickbed, buy us dinner and take me out of town, as a surprise, to be painted with henna. None of which he let us pay for or contribute to, not because he earns a lot but because we were his guests and guests of Sudan. A concept deeply rooted in the culture and the psyche of the Sudanese people.
In just about every town, roadside hut, house and hotel we stopped in we met with dumfounding generosity. Restaurants refusing payment, cokes from bus drivers, watermelon from gold miners, and dinner bought once again by the smiling stranger in the corner. As an experience that is an extraordinary gift to receive. The simple act of treating every new face as a guest has a profound effect on people’s interactions with one another. For rather than this simply being for us, the foreigners, it is the Sudanese way of honoring any new acquaintance.
A sense of togetherness not easily squared with a country whose past and present we know to be riven with disunity, internal conflict and violence. That said the importance of separating the actions of a government from those of its citizens cannot be understated.
Sudan’s ICC (International Criminal Court)-indicted president, Omar Al Bashir, has clung to office with the tenacity of a true politician since 1993. Following a period of significant growth for Sudan and with it investment in much needed infrastructure - Chinese built roads, new schools and hospitals - the country’s economic health has deteriorated rapidly in the last two years. Unable to buffer food and fuel price hikes, separation - and loss of reserves - from the oil rich South and continued military campaigns in Darfur and against its own citizens in key border states have left the country in economic despair. The official inflation rate is close to 50% though rates for food are much higher. Most of the traders and shop owners we spoke to talked of goods having more than quadrupled in price.
Are people angry? Some are, no doubt. In the dead of night, as we slept peacefully, in downtown Khartoum tanks rolled through the streets a few blocks away. A dawn raid and the arrest of several senior political and military figures accused of plotting to overthrow Bashir. The papers conspicuously silent and people unaware, we only discovered this had happened via the BBC. But what of the average citizen - the unofficial gold miners, hoteliers, traders, farmers, tea sellers, students and young entrepreneurs we had the fortune to meet and talk to? No, a bit, perhaps. The truth is it is difficult to tell. He’s a good man but a bad politician said Kareem, an assessment that I could have quite comfortably turned on its head. Despite a quietly growing protest movement (see and follow the #SudanRevolts on Twitter – they deserve more ears), I didn’t detect much anger or sense that people felt capable of making demands of Government. Most sounded reticent, even weary. But having relatively recently emerged from the longest civil war in African history and with separation from the South still fresh and unsettled it’s hardly surprinsing that people have no appetite for upheaval. Nevertheless, with political and economic problems mounting you have hope that the sense of togetherness we witnessed and people’s extraordinary strength of the character will be enough to see them through.