Friday, June 27, 2008

Review: The last weeks on the Tour d'Afrique

By now I am again fully accustomed to the comfortable lifestyle at home with all its treats and perks. The simplicity of life in the desert with nothing other than my bike and my tent seems far away, almost surreal.

Yet, I look at my pictures, flick through my diary and as little as a single blurred image or a few written words instantly unleash a flood of memories. I remember what I and my fellow riders were doing that day, what the overall mood was; how we started off in the morning and the challenges we faced throughout the day. Even things such as what the weather was or particular smells. It all comes back overwhelmingly. The diary entries are evocative of my emotional ups and downs. I am reminded of the gloominess I felt when I thought my entire gear was giving up on me and the elements were conspiring against me. Or the uplifting feeling of having the sun shine on my face and the wind blow in my back, ready to take on the world.

I am pasting some entries, which I made in my diary during the last quarter of the tour going from Livingstone in Zambia at the Botswana border all the way down to Cape Town.

16th April 2008
Bush Camp (15km from Zimbabwe Border), Botswana

First full day in Botswana we ride in an 8-man peloton. It’s the usual racers plus Max, Dave B., myself and Heinz, the new Austrian sectional rider. We have silly winds throughout the day and its a very flat stage. However, chunks are extremely beautiful, reminiscent of the vast grassland we saw in the Serengeti. I can sense game being all over the place, but don’t see any. Others do. There are elephants, giraffes, zebras and antelopes. At the speed we were riding today and the concentration required to stick to the slipstream of our front man in the peloton we would probably ride past pretty much anything.

Today’s camp was not flagged. Anticipated distance for the stage was 160km. At 143km people start sprinting. All of a sudden I see the trucks on the side of the road…too late!!

Our camp is located very close to Botswana’s Chobe National Park. Elephants must have been here recently. Footprints and dung are all over the place. Actually there is a pile right next to my tent.

I had my tent set up in a perfect spot before. Shortly before sunrise a pair of notorious snorers and early risers set up ½ m next to me. For the sake of a good nights sleep I move my tent to the next best option, far inside the bushes. Now, lying in my tent at dark I come to think that this was maybe a stupid idea. Chobe National Park isn’t far and wild lions do roam around sometimes. I get really paranoid. For the lack of a better idea I “mark” my territory and light coils around my tent…as if that is going to make a difference.

19th April 2008
Maun, Botswana

Four days in Botswana and no elephants! Very frustrating and I wonder if that would be different if I would have taken it slower. Hmm, no way to know. At times we were riding so hard that a herd of elephants could have been standing right next to the road and we would have missed them nonetheless.

Yesterday we raced the 170km to bush camp. Fairly repetitive and dull landscape, except for some interesting looking salt pans filled with water. Everybody pushed on though and I tried to stay in the group. No time for pictures. At the next (only) coke stop we staid for a quick refreshment. Heinz is new to the tour and incredibly overzealous, doing less than 5 min break for the whole day while we had a rather lengthy lunch and the coke stop afterwards. It paid off for him and he came first for the stage. Bent too skipped the coke stop and was ahead of us. Jos, Bernd & Chris pursued hard and dropped me in the process. I make 6th place for the day. Max and Dave B. were out of the game even earlier.

Bush camp was a gravel road in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but the Kalahari’s typical scrubs and dust. It was early afternoon and the sun was burning down vertically, baking everything. No sign of the trucks. One of the vehicles had a broken spring and the guys tried to fix it, working ‘till late into the night before and early that morning. Poor buggers!! One of them has malaria, the other one is sick as well. Anyway, no sign of the trucks, no food, no water, virtually no shade, no sat phone to check on the status. The next day was scheduled as a non-race day. Somewhat jokingly I suggested finishing the 145km to Maun instead of waiting around. However, after a while the idea stuck. Four people (including me) were up for it. Next (huge) obstacle was water supply. We all were almost down to zero and hitting the road without the precious liquid would have been near suicide. We waited on the road and flagged down four vehicles. One told us of a little village somewhat off the road, the other three ensured us there is nothing at all. Not very promising.

The only remaining hope was for the lunch truck to arrive before 2pm, our cut-off time to make it before nightfall. At 2.15pm it pulled in.

So we set off, with nothing but a little water, some energy bars, a few dollars in our pockets and our minds set on achieving what 3 of us had never done before: going beyond the 300km mark for a single day.

15km into our new challenge the wind began turning out of our favour and into our face. Soon after, stomach cramps started setting in and my throat hurt from the lack of water. But rationing was crucial. We had to preserve what little we had left. Rationing water, rationing food and rationing our own energy. My body was being pushed over a distance exceeding anything I had ever done before. Halfway through and all I wanted to do was get off my bike and sleep on the side of the road. There was no time though. We had to push on to beat the sun to the end of the day. African drivers are bad enough during daylight; I don’t dare imagine what being on the road is like at night.

At 85km a police checkpoint was blocking the road. Our only thought was ‘imagine, there could be something to drink around’. We got stopped but couldn’t have been more single minded about what we wanted or care less about the police’s plight. Eventually they gave up trying to make sense out of our dazed minds and pointed us towards an old lady with a cool box and some snacks. Half running we jumped the box, taking out cans of coke by the lot and ripping open packets of crisps. We must have looked like a bunch of lunatics. A few minutes only and we had to get going again. The sun was edging dangerously close towards the horizon.

Finally, entering the outskirts of Maun we got wrapped in darkness. All that was left was the feeble light shed by the moon. A police patrol stopped and begged us to get of the road for the sake of our lives. We bargained for them to escort us to the nearest hotel. Tired as a log and half starving we crashed at Riley’s. There was one last thing to do for the day…hit the hotel’s buffet dinner. Still dressed in our cycling shorts and jersey minus shoes we must have looked badly out of place in the restaurant. We got more than the usual odd glance.

Total distance for the day: 315 km

06th May 2008
Garies, South Africa

We crossed over the Orange River and into South Africa yesterday. Some big climbs (where I promptly get dropped) as we gained the 800m altitude out of the valley, which the river is flowing through. At the end of the day I came 6th . Dave B. gained 10min on me. I THINK that leaves me with only a 10min edge on him for the section. Better be careful in the coming days!

South Africa greeted us with a terrible cold weather front. Apparently that is unusual for this time of the year. But then again so was the first week of freezing cold in Sudan. And the dry ‘rainy season’ in Tanzania. Anyway, its freezing cold, its windy, rain is pouring down and I’m feeling let down by my gear. My rain jacket seems to accumulate more water on the inside than there is on the outside; my vision is blocked by the water splashing on my glasses; my bike computer has stopped working (God knows why…I replaced it only a few weeks ago); both my aero bars got loose (not ideal when going down the hill with 70km/h and strong gushes of wind coming from seemingly all directions); my big 42 tooth chainring is vastly insufficient (some of the others have a 52 tooth chainring and they are pedalling like crazy at 65km/h…what am I doing!?!); the lockout on my rear shock is toast, meaning wobbly climbs.

On a more cheerful note, we were just informed that our reception in Cape Town will be attended by the city’s mayor as well as ambassadors from Germany, USA, Canada, Holland and Austria. Pretty cool.

Sitting in camp I observe the others pitching their tents. There are some simple guidelines that we have come to learn during the past months: pick an even, preferably smooth spot; stay away from termite mounds and bare soil, which attracts the little buggers (they will eat holes into your tent); if its windy, look for a protected spot; try to minimize the distance that you have to carry your gear; avoid snorers; avoid early risers; avoid couples (they talk in the night/early mornings). You see, a good night’s sleep requires some careful preparation.

4 days left ‘till Cape Town. 6pm has just passed and I desperately need some rest. I’m feeling so tired these days.

Monday, May 19, 2008

16th May 2008 - CAPE TOWN

Cape Town…Mother City!!! Last Saturday in the early afternoon we crossed the finish line in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, marking the end of our epic 4 month journey. I pause and try to grasp the moment in the short chaos that follows as fellow riders are being reunited with their beloved ones and the media descends on us. Slowly I realize: I got on my bike in Cairo and now, 4 months, 10,000km and one continent later I am finished. This is it.

A week has passed since and my adjustment has pretty much continued throughout. We have been so busy riding and sampling new experiences that we didn’t really have any time to process them. It is just now that we start to digest everything. Watching the slideshow at the gala dinner was overwhelming. By now I have gotten used again to shower everyday, not having to carry toilet paper (a hot trading commodity in bush/desert camps) wherever I go and taking up a more normal eating habit.

Apologies, my blog hasn’t really been updated since Livingstone in Zambia. I will make up for that and post something on Botswana, Namibia and South Africa in the coming days (Highlights include: wild elephants in Botswana, our 315km day, Windhoek, Fish River Canyon and last but not least my attempts to keep our crazy Austrian Heinz’s racing efforts in check).

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

14th April 2008 - VICTORIA FALLS, ZAMBIA

End Zambezi Zone, enter Elephant Highway
During any journey time seems to speed up as the end approaches and the same is true for the Tour d’Afrique. Whilst the time spent in Sudan and Ethiopia felt (and in fact was) extensive, we are now constantly moving on. Tanzania, then a few days in Malawi followed by just over a week in Zambia.

Already we are at the Victoria Falls, which (by some measures) qualify as the largest waterfalls on earth. The rainy season is coming to an end and the huge amounts of water carried by the Zambezi River fall over a 2 km wide edge into a narrow gorge, sending up a spray of water which can be seen from the town of Livingstone 10km away. A little bit closer and we start hearing the impressive “Smoke that thunders” (Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Vik Fall's original name given by the local people). Standing on the opposite side of the gorge, the water doesn’t only fall down on us like rain or even a shower, but it is a downpour that soaks us down to the bones. Depending on the wind, streams of water are running down the paths and create little waterfalls themselves. Experiencing the Vik Fall’s magnificence makes it fully understandable, why they are rated as one of the world’s 7 natural wonders.

I feel I have been getting stronger on the bike over the course of the past three months and, to test my limits, I decided to curb up my racing efforts for the section Zambezi Zone, going from Malawi’s capital Lilongwe until Victoria Falls. It was by no means an easy section, with many stages between 150 and 195km long. My mission required more than just sweat and sore legs and on the 73rd stage riding in the peloton at 40 km/h my front wheel got caught up in Bernd’s rear wheel and a close encounter with the tarmac followed. Luckily I got away with nothing more than some nasty abrasions and the bike is still in one piece as well. We have had numerous pretty bad cases of infections resulting from as little as a mosquito bite or a scratch, so I am left praying for the best. In any case, I managed to secure a respectable 4th place for the section Zambezi Zone.

Tomorrow’s stage will kick off with a 40km time trial, after which we will cross the Zambezi River into Botswana (with 750m length the probably shortest international border).

Friday, April 4, 2008


Our compulsory 2 week break (we skipped Kenya due to political unrest) has passed and already lies 10 days back. In fact, we are scheduled to exit Tanzania and enter Malawi tomorrow. I fondly reflect back on a great time in a great country. People are extraordinarily hospitable, admitteldy also more used to foreigners. The contrast to Ethiopia couldnt be bigger and plunging into Tanzania without Kenya as buffer feels like a culture shock. For example: a group of 10 people would enter an ethiopian restaurant. Eventually a waiter would come to take our order. Seemingly as a matter of pride Ethiopian waiters never carried pen and paper. Add to that the communication barrier and you see what I'm getting at. The first person would order. The second would continue and in the middle of a sentence the person would walk away. This was actually quite a common phenomenon. Enter a shop and ask a the middle of a dialogue the person turns around and walks away. As a contrast in Tanzania people seem almost refined, suave and incredibly attentive. These differences were nowhere greater than in Arusha, a northern Tanzanian town. Arusha functions as hub for some of East Africas greatest tourist attractions: Mount Kilimanjaro, Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, etc. Consquently, it is one of the most westernised places in Africa. Prices are double of what you find anywhere else and all the perks of western society are readily available (one of the first things I did upon arriving in Arusha was load up on huge amounts of KitKat and Snickers have no idea what 2 months of deprivation can do to you).

In our 2 weeks in Arusha, looking for a new challenge, a little group of intrepid cyclists and myself decided to measure our physical and mental stamina against the challenges of Mount Kilimanjaro, at 5.898m the highest mountain in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world (as comparison, Mont Blanc in the Alps reaches only 4.800m). Our tight budget had us opting for the no-frills organiser.

Exceeding 4.500m altitue on our 3rd day on the mountain, a strong, throbing headache set in. 5th day was summit day. We were to be fed tea & biscuits and start our summit attempt at midnight. The evening before I already start getting hungry, yearning for the early hours to arrive and thus receive my meal. 23.30 a porter knocks on my tent and hands me a plate of 3 joke. EVERYTHING has to be carried up the mountain and as it turns out no-frills really means no-frills.

The summit attempt was made in the dark, leaving me with no sense of remaining distance or current altitute. Halfway to the top I began suffering from serious altitude sickness: nausea and vomitting, headache, drowsiness and high heartrate. The pace was incredibly slow, yet my pulse was pushing towards its maximum and I thought my heart was going to explode. Rest was kept to a minimum to avoid us cooling out. During the little that we did get I was seriously struggling not to fall asleep. I have to admit, at that point I didn't see how I could muster the energy to summit. But I kept going, step after step. At 6:15, our guides all of a sudden stopped, shook our hands and hugged us. We had reached the mountain's crater rimm and were only 1/2h away from Uhuru point, the peak. In our back the horizon was turning into shades of red and orange, announcing the sunrise. Then, at 6:45 I was standing on top of the roof of Africa. This was in equal measures one of the toughest and most overwhelming days in my life.

Monday, March 17, 2008

02nd March 2008 - Moyale/Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

This country is more complex and challenging than any other I have previously been to. The group’s toll of problems ranges from (many) rocks thrown at us, canes stuck into our spokes, having been whipped, beaten, spat and urinated on…one rider even became the target of a portion of donkey dung. We have been warned that anything not bolted down will get lifted and indeed, countless things have been stolen within the first few days. Children run along the bikes and unzip bags or rip things off the backpack or the bike’s rack. Most of these actions seem unprovoked and most explanations I get from locals go along the line “you are white, you are rich, so it’s ok”.

Yet, I have had some fellow riders describe Ethiopians as warmer and more open people than either Egyptians or the hospitable Sudanese.

How can these to stark and opposing aspects be descriptive of the same people?

Many things offer themselves as potentially suitable explanation. For example, over 50% of the population are under the age of 20. We see children raising their younger siblings, while classical parent-child-relationships are not or only seldom seen. One of the first impressions of Ethiopia upon entering at Metema was how widespread the use of sticks and stones as disciplinary measure is. Grownups throw stones at children and children throw stones at other children. Sticks are carried by most male Ethiopians and are used not only for walking and handling livestock, but also on their peers. So it may not be surprising that some responses to our presence are of this kind. They are sometimes vicious with the intention to harm or other times harmless, being simply a misguided attempt to draw attention. Much of this risk can be diffused by our actions. Being alert helps. Smiling and waving, a warning glare, or in rare cases a shout are best means of prevention.

Sounds easy, yet it is everything but. Ethiopia is one of Africa’s most populated countries and it appears impossible to find a non-populated or agriculturally used spot. This leaves us riding stages very tense, trying to read body language and checking thousands of little hands for stones. Unfortunately, it also fosters certain hostility towards the general population and makes our duties as responsible travellers difficult. As Duncan, the Tour leader, points out, we are in a foreign country and we all function as ambassadors. Our actions affect the local’s attitude in the immediate and longer term. For example, throwing a stone back or retaliating will make life very difficult for other visitors, starting with the next rider behind. However, suppose you travel at 60kmh and are hit by a handful of large stones at close distance with nearly catastrophic outcome. Or you exchange greetings and smiles with a kid only to have a projectile thrown in your back once you pass. You will struggle to continue smiling and waving and greeting. However, these problems make it so much more important to continue to leave a positive impression in the villages and undermine the barrier between locals and foreigners, which skin colour and wealth seem to create.

Note that our problems are quite bicycle specific. Talking to a chap from the US embassy, he is surprised to hear of our encounters. Reflecting back, he realises how travelling in a Landcruiser through rural villages stones don’t really bother as much as on a bike. And once you stop, Ethiopians can become the loveliest people. In some places, the entire village will gather around you, eager to be of assistance or touch your bike. In Ethiopia you WILL attract attention. The question is of what kind. This is a very weird mixture, which takes getting used to.

Due to the very unfortunate post-election events in Kenya, we will not be crossing the country. This is a big pity I find, since some of the best off-road as well as most challenging conditions were to be found in Northern Kenya. Instead, we rode up to Moyale (Ethiopian-Kenyan border town) and flew across Kenya to Arusha on the Tanzanian-Kenyan border.

Having been spared of sickness so far, going out of Ethiopia I finally caught a nasty Virus, causing heavy vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach cramps. Keeping any amount of liquid or food in my stomach was almost impossible. In the past I have always been able to deal with the heat by drinking large amounts of water. This time any quantity larger than a small sip forced me to throw up. Instead, I had to resort to pouring water over my head and clothes to cool myself down in the burning sun.

One month ago I failed to finish the last 40km of a stage, effectively making me loose my EFI. Back then I promised myself to continue riding as if I had retained my EFI. This last day in Ethiopia really put that promise to the test. Sighting the finish flag after 90 km agony without giving in was a great feeling.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

13th February 2008 - Baher Dahr, Ethiopia

Researching the Tour d’Afrique, one of the most striking features and challenges seems to be the physical exertion under extreme temperatures in Sudan. We had been warned of a rapid temperature increase from our port of entry in Wadi Halfa onwards and were mentally preparing ourselves. My bike was modified to carry 4 bottles (2.8 litres) on top of a 3 litre hydration backpack. Instead, we found strong winds, cold nights/mornings and somewhat warm afternoons. My windbreaker jacket became an essential piece of clothing and I placed my hydration pack and some bottles into my permanent bag (this is loaded on top of the support trucks and can be accessed only on rest days) for their lack of need. So really, conditions were modest and the daily grind on the bike remained just that…cranking away in our acquired routine. That is until Khartoum. Seemingly overnight temperatures jumped up by almost 20oC. At noon, readings went up into the 40s and my required water intake leapt up similarly. Hydration before, while and after stages became an absolutely crucial part of recovering and ensuring a steady performance. John, who used to serve in the Royal Air Force, recalls some key figures from his survival training: given our environment and exercising levels, the body looses 3l of water an hour, while being able to take up no more than 2l orally…whether the exact figures are correct or not, the moral is that dehydration is a serious threat and extreme care must be taken. However, my bottles and hydration pack were in my permanent bag, leaving me with no more than 3 bottles on my bike. During the last days in Sudan, water indeed became a precious resource and I had to stop in most villages we passed through, scrambling for the liquid gold. The heat had some other effects as well. Apart from the road kill starting to smell pretty bad, countless bush fires were scattered across the landscape. On our first night on Ethiopian soil, these were clearly visible in the far away mountains…going to sleep in my tent and seeing through my mosquito net the orange glow under the sparkle of the stars was a bizarre experience.

Africa is unpredictable. The stages on the Tour can be classified according to their profile: length, elevation, wind and surface. These may grant statements along the line of “tomorrow is a tough and challenging day”, “many people will struggle on this stage” or inversely “that stage is simple and straightforward”. However, most of us have long stopped paying attention to this descriptive commentary. Sure, the daily grind is considerable and I am suffering from a severe lack of recovery time. But the real challenge is so much more personal. It is illness, injury or mechanical failure that is most likely to bring a rider to his knees and prevent him from completing a stage. Or in my case the ridiculous bureaucratic workings of Ethiopian immigration officials.

Entering Ethiopia should have been straightforward. Entry was the crossing of a little bridge and indeed the immigration authority placed in a hut on the side of the road could have easily been missed if not pointed out by the tour organisation. I dropped of my passport, trying to kill the waiting time by sampling the first beer after three weeks Sudan and taking advantage of the local brothel’s showering facilities. Meanwhile, the smiling faces at immigration were slowly but surely working their way through the pile of passports and randomly flicking through a huge book containing thousands of hand written names (the IT wave has not yet advanced to Ethiopian border control). I am still completely puzzled about what exactly they were doing or trying to do. Anyway, after continuously checking on the status of my passport and repeatedly being assured of everything being in order, I make a final visit in the evening after sunset. Seeing my passport as the last remaining one on the desk was certainly not a good sign. I was informed, that my entry into Ethiopia was impossible until further notice from Addis Ababa (the capital) and that I would have to return to Sudan until the next day. Talking, negotiating and pleading were all fruitless, yet I was permitted to sleep in our camp for the night. It took up to noon the next day for my passport to get that all-important entry stamp, by which time the other riders already had up to 5h head start. Making this very difficult stage before nightfall was with certainty going to be a tough task.

(Note: out of almost 80 people, my entry was the only one to be delayed. The reason, it turns out, was my name: Edward Din. On Ethiopia’s list of wanted individuals was a person whose first name was also Edward…nothing more but my sharing a common Anglo-Saxon first name with a wanted individual had delayed my entry by almost an entire day. Even more ridiculous was what I witnessed in the morning while waiting. A man with a clearly Sudanese appearance and distinct Sudanese accent attempted entry with an Ethiopian passport. The passport’s date of issue was 4 months in the future and it was lacking an Ethiopian exit stamp. Him they permitted entry, me with my FIRST NAME they did not…ridiculous).

I could have dealt with this portion of bad luck and still mastered the 100km of heavy off-road, steep climbs and boiling heat…if it wasn’t for glueless patches’ intolerance of high temperatures. While waiting for my entry permit, my already patched tube started leaking air. I replaced the faulty patch, only for it to leak again. A slow leak, requiring me to pump up the tyre every 10-15 min. I can deal with that. After 30 km a puncture in the rear tube followed, which I promptly patched up. The patch started leaking and was replaced. Another flat followed and I had no more patches or tubes left. In my desperation I turned to some construction workers, who are attempting to pave stretches of the road in the coming couple of years. These wonderful guys offered to drive me to their next camp, repair my tube with Tip Top used for their 4WD vehicles and drop me off again. At their camp a new puncture was identified, repaired and I was driven back to the initial place. After a couple of hundred metres, the patches leaked air again. In a last attempt I located a barber in a remote Ethiopian mountain village, who also happened to repair bike tubes with glue and patches of cut rubber. Half the village assembled around me and my bike and together we fixed all leaks in the tyres. However, luck was not to be mine that day. 40km before the finish line and 90 min before sunset my beaten-up tube finally gave up and the Tour’s van, searching the route for me, picked me up. I could have dealt with the bureaucratic tinkering. I could have borrowed a tube/patch of another rider behind me if I would have started in the morning. But both together on the same day proved too much and left me 40 km short of completing my EFI (i.e. finishing every single stage).

The first day in Ethiopia surely contained enough bad luck for the time being. That was my string of thought anyway.

Our everyday items are packed in a 70l box called the RED BOX, which is loaded onto the support trucks before departure every morning, to be offloaded again at next camp. To quote Tour d’Afrique instructions: “Your life must fit in this box. All of your daily necessities including … must fit in this box”. You get the message. Until today I am unsure of the exact events that happened on my 2nd day in Ethiopia. It appears that during transit on the bad roads my red box fell out of its slot, the door opened and half my belongings were scattered across a stretch of Ethiopian gravel. All my camping gear, all my toiletries and a large part of my clothing was lost (fortunately, a kid picked up my Petzl headlamp and tried to sell it to Mike, a Canadian rider…one item retrieved, many lost).

This is Africa, full of the unexpected. All there is we can do is to take things with a healthy portion of humour and deal with the situation.

My fellow riders were incredibly helpful in assisting me with gear and words of support in those days. Words cannot express my gratitude for these many gestures. THANKS GUYS!!!!!!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

02 February 2008- Khartoum, Sudan

Heading into the heart of Sudan, we are increasingly facing a very flat desert facilitating some strong and persistent winds. At night and in the mornings, temperatures drop to as low as 3-4 degrees Celsius. Add the strong winds and you get conditions way beyond the comfort zone of most of us (save the odd hardcore Canadian). Even more, the wind carries the sand everywhere…our clothing, ears and nose, sleeping bag, food and drink. Waking up in the morning, my face is covered with sand and grinding my teeth I get that gritty feeling. Eventually, one becomes accustomed to that. Electronic equipment does not. Digital cameras are dying like flies, but mine was holding up pretty well. During our latest sandstorm I am therefore fully aware of the hostile conditions and keep my gadget nicely tucked away in its bag. That is until that one beautiful shot comes along. I quickly take aim, use the palm of my hand to shield the lens against the sand-filled wind and place the camera back into its case within seconds. Too late…sand has entered the lens and I have learned my lesson.

Yesterday we entered Khartoum in a police convoy with people cheering and greeting left and right. Since leaving Cairo 3 weeks ago, our life has consisted mostly of desert camps and small settlements. Purchases rarely exceeded the choice of fuul (a basic but tasty Arabic dish of fava beans) or egg omelette and chai (tea) or Turkish coffee. New acquaintances were mainly humble but poor locals. Our last real showering facilities were 12 days back in Aswan, Egypt. So waking up in the desert, we found ourselves only a few hours later groomed and shaven in a large western style mall. Entering the mall, I literally had to stop for a second, trying to absorb the wealth of choice and abundance of splendour and luxury. It is also the first time since Cairo that we see any serious amount of non-African faces. These fall into one of two categories. There are Chinese engineers building roads, drilling oil wells etc. …you name it, they do it. And there are UN employees, many of them (shops even start running discount schemes for them).

As a whole, Khartoum, the home of an Islamic dictatorship, seems surprisingly Western and fairly wealthy. Certainly, our girls have been told off (sometimes rudely) when showing skin up to the elbow or not covering their head. However, there are some interesting observations. In a funny incident, we turn towards some locals on our quest for food and drink. These direct us towards what later turns to be the student refectory of the Sudanese University in Khartoum. Imagine a group of tourists walking into YOUR university canteen. So far we have always attracted a fair amount of attention, but I have never had so many faces laughing out loud or heads being shaken at me in disbelief. Anyway, it seems that as long as your dress adheres to a few stringent criteria, there is a fair amount of liberty regarding appearance and behaviour. The parallels between this crowd and my own student experiences are stunning. MP3 players, western designer clothing, latest fashion fads and cliques everywhere. It should be noted that these all looked like a fairly wealthy bunch. Therefore, the point I am trying to make is that conservatism and strictness with rules may be very heterogeneous across Sudan’s various income classes.

The daily workloads on the bike slowly but surely grind away our energy reserves and most people are struggling with knee problems, sore bums, that persistent bug going around camp etc. Miraculously, I have been spared so far. Riding out of Dongola, many were relieved to find smooth tarmac (once again part of Sudanese-Chinese relations) after the strenuous off-road. Nonetheless, over half the participants have at some point so far not managed to fully complete a stage, either due to fatigue or not reaching camp before nightfall. Fatigue is a big issue for me as well and pacing myself is paramount, but I have managed to retain my EFI (i.e. riding every single stage) and am still going strong. Khartoum marks the finish of the 1900km section “Pharao’s Delight” and race results have been published. Unfortunately, there has been a mock-up with the time taking and I have received a couple of 12h penalties. Very annoying and I will definitely look into that.