"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more."

Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz

 

As I dragged my bicycle off the ferry from Egypt at about lunchtime, anything seemed possible, even perhaps munchkins and wicked witches. This was the start of 'Africa' as far as I was concerned, and I was primed and ready for strange and unexpected goings on. First up was border control: It was quick and painless. That was certainly unexpected. (although the American couple behind us in the queue were asked by the immigration officer, "do you think black people are mentally defective"). Next was the intolerable wall of heat we had been promised. But it was nowhere to be seen, and the weather was refreshingly mild - similar to an English summers day. A cool breeze was blowing from the north which would translate into a lovely tailwind once we were on the road, but we weren't out the woods yet. The roads in Sudan are famously treacherous and I've read many accounts of people toiling for hours as they pushed their bikes on foot through the deep sand. However, thanks to the Chinese, this prophecy of doom also never materialised. As Sudan's largest trade partner and new best friend, they had just finished building a beautiful smooth tarmac road all the way to the capital. They'd even put in little markers every kilometer - starting at about 900km - which we could use to count down our journey all the way to Khartoum. I felt that whatever greater power was responsible for sand-blasting us for three days in the Sinai desert, was now trying to say it was sorry. Like Dorothy and Toto, it seemed that all we had to do was faithfully follow our own little yellow brick road and we would eventually - but surely - end up at our destination (in fact there was literally an unbroken 900km yellow line painted on the side of the road that went all the way there!). Also like Dorothy and Toto, we were thrown together with some rather unlikely companions. Sadie and John, an American couple of soon-to-be PhD students, Josh, a photography student from Yorkshire, and Yves, a Belgian PE teacher were all on the boat from Egypt and heading the same way as us, so as we set off into one the most remote locations on our whole trip, we had found more cycling buddies than anywhere else. Sudan was certainly providing some unexpected twists, but not the kind of ones we'd expected (if that makes sense). And it didn’t stop there.
 
As we cruised into the border town of Wadi Halfa to look for some lunch, I was ready for the notoriously basic Sudanese diet which I'd heard about, which supposedly consists almost solely of fuul, a sludgy brown bean stew. More nonsense! In the first restaurant we came to, there was a veritable feast of goodies bubbling away. They had orange potato stuff, brown meaty broth, an oily red vegetable stew, and loads of other stuff. And it was all delicious. Sudanese cuisine seemed brilliant to me, and by this point, I hadn't even found the piece de resistance (in my baked-goods-obsessed opinion) which are legemat, or 'breakfast donuts'. That's right! They have delicious fresh donuts smothered in sugar....for breakfast. The only problem is, they're not served for long so I had to get up early to find them. But it's worth it.  Even on our first rest day in a small town called Dongola, I was hungrily prowling the streets by 7am.
 
And whilst we're on the subject of baking, another familiar foodstuff that I keep finding in is Lyle’s Golden Syrup. It's the only British import I've found, and I find it very confusing. It's always in small grocery stores in amongst local staples, and often in large supply, but I never see anyone buying it, and I can’t work out what the locals would possibly use it for. Not for baking presumably as most people don't have ovens.
 
Anyway, back to cycling. The day after arriving in Wadi Halfa we set off southward with brand new chunky off road tyres fitted on the bikes, and few African additions to our equipment including water filters, anti-malarials, and a healthy stock of emergency instant noodles. With the cool wind behind us and the good road ahead, it looked as if the gateway to Africa might actually let us through without a fight. We were covering well over 100km a day with no trouble and at one point the wind was so good that I used my fleece as a makeshift sail and managed to keep up 20km/hr without peddling. The terrain was flat and the road stuck close to the Nile, occasionally dipping into the desert and emerging back out next to the water after 10-20km. Egypt’s broad and voluptuous ‘Nile Valley’, had now slimmed down into the more modest but still beautiful ‘Nile Corridor’. Only a few palm trees and the odd cultivated field now bordered the river, before the desert took over, stretching away as far as the eye could see in low black rocky hills, and bare sandy plains.

The entire north of the country was desert, and seemed very sparsely populated. The peace and solitude was a welcome change after Egypt, although it did raise some concerns about finding water sources. On the first day, we had gone 70km before we came to the first small settlement of low mud-brick buildings. Outside near the road, were four huge clay pots filled with water that looked like ancient roman amphora (see photos), sitting in a kind of giant test tube rack. These things as we soon discovered, were Sudan’s answer to public drinking fountains, and they were a real lifesaver. The water inside did seem a little murky at times, but we always filtered it, and that 70km is still the longest we've had to go before finding one of these water stations.
 
Even more easy to find, have been campsites – you just turn off the road at any given moment, walk for a minute or two out into the expansive nothingness of the desert and hey presto, you’re in a secluded and beautiful campsite. Unfortunately, camping in Sudan has also been problematic: Our pegs won’t stay in the sand. On the first night camping, I turned to our new friends to find out what they were doing about it and to my horror, all of them had freestanding tents (no pegs needed). ‘Bugger’, I thought to myself. Although we managed to use rocks to weigh down the pegs, I'm sure we'll end up somewhere without rocks before too long. On the second we camped near the Nile and the soil was a bit more compact and on the third night we dropped into a village and pitched up in someone’s barn.

This was our first proper chance to meet some locals and they were a great bunch. One guy got some tea on the go, and another came over and drew a big scorpion in the sand. He then rather alarmingly mimed ‘being stung’ and ‘dying’. I was definitely a bit more careful than usual crawling out my tent the next morning, but there were no scorpions, just some fresh goats milk. This was a bit disgusting, but a very nice gesture nonetheless. Some time after we left, I realised that the unusual thing about our visit to this village was that for once, we hadn't been mobbed by kids. They certainly knew we were there but must have been too shy (or well behaved) to come over. After the obnoxious stone throwing little brats of Egypt and Jordan, I had a lot of admiration for the respect we were given by these and all the Sudanese children we’ve encountered. They must be very curious about the weird Europeans on bikes, but they don't run at you, screaming and shouting and grabbing - they just wave and smile and say hello. And it's not hard to see where they get it from. The Sudanese in general, seem to us to have the most wonderful disposition: Reserved and understated, yet warm and friendly; Proud and dignified but at the same time without any arrogance or bravado. They give us plenty of space but always make us feel welcome, and often take the time to introduce themselves and ask a few questions about life in England. I'd heard about the poverty and political strife in Sudan, but the locals we met did not have the demeanor of a desperate or oppressed people. For one thing, we've felt absolutely 100% safe all the time, even riding all the way through Khartoum at night after misjudging our distances (and bear in mind, like all foreigners, we're carrying over $1000 cash becase we can't use ATMs or travellers cheques - and locals must realise this!). I understand things may be different in the tribal south or in Darfur which are the bits that usually make the headlines, but the relatively prosperous north where we've been travelling, it seems like an entirely separate country, which coincidentally, it soon may be.

So with persistance of favourable conditions, we made it down to Khartoum and said goodbye to our new cycling buddies who were taking a different route, and we also said goodbye to the desert which is now finally coming to an end. Somewhere on the last couple of days cycling toward Khartoum, gnarled thorn trees started to appear sporadically in the sand, followed by tufts of dry bleached grass. Both gradually increased until the landscape had morphed into a kind of dried out savannah. Arriving in our campsite on the banks of the Nile in the middle of town, we definitely need a little rest. Although the wind has kept temperatures down, the constant sun has been slowly irradiating our lower lips which have become painful and unsightly blistered messes. When we set off again, we'll be turning East toward Ethiopia and the 2000 metre climb up to the source of the Blue Nile (one of the two branches of the Nile). It's been almost two months since we've cycled up a hill, so we're not looking forward to this. Thankfully our old friend Nutella will be close at hand.