The Nubian way

My 10,000 km milestone in the Sudanese Sahara
It is prohibited to cross the Egypt-Sudan border on land, and no paved roads connect the two countries, so a boat across Lake Nasser was our only option. We boarded the boat after stumbling through hours of beguiling bureaucratic chaos and paying an array of equally befuddling taxes. We settled on the top deck with a small band of foreigners. Each of us expectant, cheery and full of intrigue about the new lands waiting beyond the water. This felt like how you should enter a new African country. By night and by boat. Crossing a vast wild lake gave our entry a surreptitious and mysterious edge. We were past Aswan high dam where the densely populated Egyptian Nile ends and where crocodiles roam.



The boat was due to leave at noon. The sun had long since set by the time we were underway. I had already adjusted to African time. No matter how fast we cycled, I knew Africa would never change her pace for us. Four hundred souls crowded on board, many with all their worldly goods. It was a tight squeeze, people slept in the life boats, in the gangways and on every inch of the ship, above and below deck. Our small group hailed from northern latitudes, we were two Canadians, one Swede and two Brits. The other passengers on board were a mix of Egyptians and Sudanese. The five of us stood out all the more in our shorts and t-shirts. The remaining three hundred and ninety five looked ready to tackle a Siberian winter. Mummified in an array of thick over-garments, they observed us with the look of wonder and concern that most people reserve for the very, very drunk.

When I reel off the list of the places I will travel through, a select few are guaranteed to provoke a sharp intake of breath and raised eyebrows; places perceived to be too hostile for the cyclist, either due to climatic extremes, conflict, crime or political unrest. Amongst them northern Alaska, Colombia and of course the Sudan. In my mind the name invoked images of war and danger and violent disorder. However the north and the east of Sudan are relatively safe places for independent travel, not just safe relative to the rest of Sudan but safe relative to the rest of Africa and the rest of the world. The rate of violent crime is vanishing low. Islam is the predominant unifying force here, as opposed to the tribalism of the south where warring factions compete for power and oil revenues. Sharia law was implemented in 1983. We were arriving at a historic moment. In January there is to be a referendum to decide whether the country divides, north from south. An exodus of people was flowing to the south where the original inhabitants had fled from conflict years before. Frightened by the prospect of a divided nation they were returning home and we saw them en masse traveling the roads leading towards Khartoum.

The reputation of the Nubian people indigenous to northern Sudan precedes them. Cyclists I had met talked of unparalleled hospitality from these generous and kind-hearted desert dwellers who frequently take in and feed weary travelers. A Nubian man on the ship’s deck welcomed me to Sudan. The festival of Eid was upon us and I was worried about the availability of food if shops throughout Sudan were shut for the three day public holiday. “Don’t worry” he told me “if you are hungry just knock on someone’s door. Anyone’s door. They will feed you. It is the Nubian way”.

We debarked and loaded up with supplies and almost twenty litres of water. The contingency supply was a wise move. We started out through the desert and after 50 kilometres there were no signs of people, no water points and no buildings in sight. Just sand and rock under the formidable Saharan sun. At 70 and 100 kilometres still nothing, it wasn’t until we’d ridden almost 150 km could we refill and rehydrate. Even so the desert was a welcome friend after Egypt’s Nile valley, often congested and cramped. The Saharan silence was a penetrating, piercing silence that I have lived in only once before, a decade ago when I rode through Patagonia. It’s a silence so complete and unsullied that it almost has volume. A muffled scream in the open blankness of the Sahara. It becomes even more profound at night or when there’s a lull in the wind, insects scuttling under the tent can sound like huge machines. With the serene solitude comes a filament of vulnerability, something I’ve always been drawn to, and the essence of a good adventure. We wild camped at night, unaware at this point of the stories of travelers ravaged by hyenas and wolves nearby. Later I heard Nubian men recount these tales with great enthusiasm. Local folklaw or fact? I can’t be sure. Little wildlife exists in this region, but when I greeted these accounts with a dubious frown I was assured a motorcyclist had been hunted, mauled and killed by a hyena just two years before. If I wanted they would take me to his BMW motorbike, still by the roadside. I declined their offer, choosing blissful semi-ignorance.





During our breaks for lunch or for a snack we wriggled into the shady shelter of the ubiquitous tubular drains that ran beneath the road. Aside from the infrequent Acacia trees, these were the only sanctuary and retreat from the scornful, merciless Saharan sun. Eventually we were reunited with the Nile. The verdant cloak of riverside pastures had been ripped from her, she appeared naked against the desert backdrop. The heat was intense and oppressive. In the whole of 2010 this area of Sudan had received just ten minutes of light rainfall and on one day in June this year the temperature had been recorded at 49.6 degrees Celcius (121 F) in the shade. In the sun we recorded a high of 48 degrees Celcius (118 F) and this was winter. We drank the murky turbid water from clay pots by the road with fingers crossed after our filter gave up the ghost, hoping that it had been drawn from a well and hadn’t been lifted straight from the Nile.

Lunch time in the drainage tunnels

It was goodbye to the delicious melon flavoured Fanta of Egypt and hello to feta cheese in a carton, equally good but without the flagrant Egyptian over-charging. There were lots more welcome small differences. Sudan is still Arab but has a slightly different dialect of Arabic, the temperature is even hotter here, there are slightly different customs but outwardly it was the manner and attitude of the Sudanese that contrasted most sharply. They appeared conservative, demure and polite as opposed to the gregarious, voluminous and excitable Egyptians.

When Eid came Nubians did feed us and when Eid was over they fed us some more. I enjoyed these meals. Typically Nyomi and I would split up, women and men dining in separate parts of the home. The women wore bright colourful robes with floral motifs and, if married, henna adorned their hands and feet in elaborate swirls and curlicues. The men were clad in white robes and the white prayer cap or taqiyah, their lower lips bulging with clumps of moist tobacco. Occasionally I would see Nubians with scars on their cheeks. Facial scarification is a Sudanese tradition, many ethnic groups and tribes have their own mark of distinction. We would greet with a hand on the shoulder followed by a shake of the hand. Eating was also done with our hands and was a velocious flurry of food snatching. Conversation was impossible if you wanted any nourishment. Sometimes they would give us food to take away, often completely unsuitable for carriage on the bikes such as huge raw joints of lamb, but as the man said, that is ‘the Nubian way’.

After eating we got the chance to practice our less than pigeon Arabic. On one occasion an elderly man thought it prudent to warn us of the ‘dangerous people and thieves’ we’d find in Africa after we left Sudan. It all sounded a bit familiar. In Eastern Europe it was the Turks who were demonised as bandits and thugs. I encountered nothing but the greatest hospitality in Turkey, but whilst there I often heard of how the neighbouring Arabs would slice me up and rob me blind if I wasn’t careful. In the Middle East I found many good-natured and generous characters who went out of their way to help me. Now in Sudan I was getting the same old warning. I wondered if every community harbors a dark paranoia of their neighbour.




Nyomi and Nubian women having lunch

As we continued through the desert I began to feel a bit uneasy. We were coasting along with a swift tailwind, my knee felt sturdy, people were friendly, there was no snow, no chasing dogs, no insects, no mountains, no police, no bandits. Cycling through Africa shouldn’t be this easy. Something had to give and that something was Belinda, my bicycle.

Before I left for South America ten years ago I was worse than useless when it came to bicycle maintenance and repair. Over the following five months of riding, when every sub-standard component on our cheap bikes fell off, cracked or shattered, I never really improved. Every time I went near a bicycle with some tools and optimistic intent I would invariably do more harm than good, initially through my own incompetence and then later when I lost my temper with the tarnished machine. The result was that I developed a sort of phobia of tools and bicycles, a bit inconvenient if you harbor dreams of cycling around the world. So I before I left from London I did the fantastic Cycle Systems Academy (City and Guild) bike repair course which gave me loads of skills and confidence sorely needed. More or less every component on my Santos Travelmaster bike is serviceable by the road. One vital part that I had no intention of going near was the infamous Rohloff hub. Without getting too technical the Rohloff hub is an internal gear mechanism, which means there’s no derailleur to faff with. It allows me to switch between fourteen gears. Ninety percent of serious cycle tourers have one. It adds almost a thousand pounds to the cost of the bike and has been on the market for twelve years. Rumour had it there has never been a mechanical failure. It is revered, respected, allegedly indestructible and is a very complex feat of German engineering.

It felt like a small puncture. I looked back. Tyre looked OK. Then I noticed the spoke flapping in the breeze. A broken spoke could easily be replaced but on closer inspection I saw the real extent of the problem. Inexplicably a piece of metal had spontaneously fallen off the Rohloff shell, the part where the spokes attach to. There was no way I could re-attach the spoke by the road and by the look of it I would need a new hub and with it I would have to deal with a whole world of problems. I was wary in my ability to build a wheel strong enough to take me to Cape Town but I also knew that whatever I did, I had to do it fast. My Sudanese VISA expired in three weeks. I had to pedal onwards to the next sizable town, Dongola, 50 km away. We were still 500 km from the capital Khartoum. The wheel became more and more untrue as I rode, dancing an erratic shimmy every turn. Now Sudan, once vivid, new and exhilarating was the last place in the world I wanted to be and the broken hub was beginning to look like an almost insurmountable problem. That night my mind was in turmoil. How could this happen? Every obstacle, every option, every possible outcome and consequence tumbled through my imagination in my semi-conscious doze.

The next day we arrived in Dongola. I photographed the damage, emailed bicycle experts in the UK and went on the hunt for the best bush mechanic in town, or failing that any guy with a drill or a welding iron. I kept hearing the same mechanic’s name and after three days, with some help, I’d tracked him down. I was particularly lucky. He had the kit to weld aluminum, a rare skill, and he set to work welding a piece of metal to the hub and re-tensioning my wayward spoke. He worked with attention and skill and when he was done I almost hugged him. The weld had strengthened my hub, my resolve and my hope that I can complete my journey across six continents without using other forms of transport, aside from boats across those watery stretches. It’s an absurd, ridiculous and petty ambition I know, but never-the-less it remains somehow important to me. I waited to hear from mechanics at home and in the meantime we delved into Sudanese life, frequently being invited for meals as well as attending two wedding parties and taking a dip in the cool waters of the Nile.



Word came that Santos and Rohloff had teamed up to ship a whole new wheel and hub to Khartoum. I have since learned that the incidence of this type of hub failure is approximately one in five thousand. Karma owes me one. We set out for Khartoum but yet another problem re-surfaced. The widest inner tubes available locally were too slim for my new back tyre which I fitted in Cairo. Unable to fully inflate the tyre, the tube could move around inside and pressure was applied to the valve when I used the breaks. The tubes had been rupturing again and again, right by the valve. Only just out of Dongola and another tube was heading for the bin. I had to reduce the internal size of my tyre. “Socks!” I announced “We need socks!”. I stuffed nine socks into the tyre and inflated the tube and rode on with no more problems. If my plan had failed I knew I had no more socks left to add, but I was ready to ride ‘commando’ if it got me to Khartoum.

We continued, sweaty and sockless, our progress marred by those problems ubiquitous to travel in Africa; oppressive heat, insects and dodgy bowels. Our protracted symptoms were perhaps consistent with the parasitic infection Giardia from the muddied water we’d binged on. We kept up our spirits by riding side by side, talking of life in England, shared friends and past experiences, the good and the bad. The desert sand was an ochre sea with a million ripples over the surface. The limitless terrain was dotted with thorny bushes and prodigious termite mounds and occasionally the sky would appear on the earth, a desert mirage, the exhausted desert traveler’s nemesis. We passed huge trains of camels, one hundred and fifty strong, loping through the desert. They were being taken through the Sahara from Southern Sudan to Birqash, a large camel market in Egypt where they would be sold for meat. The ancient camel route north was named after the time it takes for them to arrive, the ‘forty-day road’.

A termite mound

A rare patch of shade

Camels on the ‘forty day road’


On our approach to Khartoum I passed my 10,000 km  milestone and then wrote another to do list. The first task was a cathartic throw away…

“Go on a gram-saving mission. Get rid of anything and everything we don’t use. Be MILITANT“.

We chucked away a load of clothes and a few luxuries. Shampoo and deodorant were surplus accessories we could also afford to ditch. We might smell funky but that’s the price you pay to get quicker up those hills.

It wasn’t my ingenuity or resourcefulness and it wasn’t good fortune that helped me solve the problem with my bike. It was people. The Nubian mechanic, the Korean family who found him for me, the bicycle experts in the UK, especially Cycle Systems Academy and MSG bikes, Rohloff and my bike sponsor Santos. Thank you all. Next stop will be Christmas in Ethiopia after we tackle the first proper mountains Africa has to offer. Afterwards we get much more off the beaten track by skirting the shores of Lake Turkana, a desolate wilderness and tribal area in the borderlands of Kenya and Ethiopia where few cyclists dare to venture and where lions, crocodiles and carpet vipers roam. We’ll need strong legs, strong wills and probably a lot more socks.

Nyomi riding a ridge in the desert

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Comments (9)

  • Avatar

    Anonymous

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    You are riding in Africa,your skin is burned by the sun meanwhile here- in Irl and the UK we are freezing;) This year wintertime came really quickly! Enjoy the heat Steve and ,,szerokiej drogi'' he he Jack

    Reply

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    welshcyclist

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    You write very well, I'm enjoying your adventures here in the freezing UK. I haven't been cycle commuting on my bike for a week now, because of the conditions. After reading your post I feel very guilty. Good luck to you both on the road ahead. Cheers.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Hkisgoood

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    guys i really envy you .. i wish i could to be with you .. miss you all and hope to finish your journey in peaceز

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Jocelyn

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    I remain completely riveted. And, incidentally, from the perspective of a working English major, I have to compliment you on the writing here, Steve. You've gone beyond your usual excellent storytelling and fine humor and dipped into moments of reflective poetics here. Well done. In every possible way. Well done.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Matt

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    Amazing Steve! Glad you got the hub fixed. Really enjoying the blog, very inspiring! Watch out for the lions though!
    Matt

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Amaya

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    Sorry to hear about the bicycle troubles, but looks like everything turned out fine in the end. In my expereince, someone always steps in and saves the day when you're on the verge of despair.
    Looking forward to your Lake Turkana tales. We cycled the western shore in 2009 and it was tough but worth it.
    Wishing you cooler days and strong tailwinds,
    Amaya

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Pete Reeves

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    Fantastic tales as ever Steve – keep it up, it's really riveting reading…thoughts are with you for Lake Turkana…

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Sam Rendell

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    Inspiring stuff!

    Unlike some above I am entirely content not to be there with you. But delighted to be able to follow your adventures all the same.

    Keep at it Steve, I look forward to your next installment.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Candaca Nubian Guest house

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    Nice to hear your experienced story in the Nubian land. I will follow your journey with you. all the best and blessing on your way.
    Isa Youngsoo

    Reply

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