In Tandem with Africa and Asia

A teacher's journey over three continents on a tandem bicycle
15 minutes reading time (3076 words)

Stage 11: Out of Africa & Into Arabia

Khartoum to Luxor, 1470km & a ferry ride up Lake Nasser. Feb 19th – March 11th

People love to talk about ‘Africa’. Yes it is a single physical continent but its human diversity- nearly 3000 ethnicities have been divided, often arbitrarily, into 48 nation states - makes generalisations difficult. As such, sub-saharan Africa is often what people mean when discussing Africa. For me, there was certainly a step change in culture arriving in Sudan, a change accentuated by the fact that we had arrived by plane, rather than bicycle from the continent’s newest country…

I had hoped to pedal all the way home but the chances of getting overland across the South Sudan/Sudan border were slim when we (I’m still with the Frenchies Jeremie & Claire) made the initial decision to take the route at the end of 2011. By the time we arrived in Juba in February, even the UN was struggling to get supplies safely up the Nile. ‘Yup, you’re probably best to get the plane!’ David's comment helped to validate our decision. He was running the logistics for UNICEF and had spent the Saturday morning loading the latest barge the on the day my arrival. I met him whilst watching the Six Nations in the hotel bar later that day. We subsequently learnt that the barges were being held up on the border, helping to vindicate our decision.

Activities in Khartoum before hitting the desert

As such, with the help of Patsy, an Irish nurse who I also met watching the Rugby, we managed to pack up our bikes and negotiate 6 boxes totalling 200kgs through Juba airport – one of the most chaotic places I’ve travelled through so far. Perhaps I was lucky just to lose my tools. “Dangerous weapons”, declared the overly zealous security official as he emptied my pannier with little regard for the welfare of its contents. “How can a chainbreaker be dangerous!?” I demanded. I might be able to torture a small kid with it but I could hardly highjack a plane! To no avail, my decision to keep my tools safe in my hand luggage had backfired. Somehow, I managed to keep hold my leatherman on board, which had a sharp knife, but said goodbye to some essential bits of kit. My attempt to slip one of the airport handlers some extra cash to smuggle the bag around security also proved ineffective.

I spent 5 nights in Khartoum with Mamoud, an 89 year old Sudanese living in his family house on the banks of the Nile in Khartoum North. On the wall of his study was a picture of a young Mamoud with Queen Elizabeth on her last & only visit to Khartoum in 1964. Next to it was a picture of Dilwyn church in Herefordshire!! The connection to Mamoud and his family is a nice one: My own father was sipping a pint of ale in the Crown pub in Dilwyn with neighbour Ivan Dillon back in 2009 when I was in the early stages of planning Beyond the Bike. Ivan’s daughter and husband were visiting for the weekend –  they had been married in the church. It turned out that Omer, the son-in-law was Sudanese and said I must visit his father if passing by. More than 2 years later, it was great to finally meet to first people that had offered me a bed before I set off.

As I would experience throughout my time in Sudan, I enjoyed wonderful hospitality from Mamoud, his nephew Ashraf & numerous other cousins! ‘Come come, you must eat more’ he would tell me, as he forced yet more ful, eggs, bread & cheese onto my plate. Even for a man known to eat more than his fair share of food, it was a challenge but one that I’m very grateful for! It was sad to leave them but we had a little over 2 weeks to make the ferry in Wadi Halfa, more than 1000km on our proposed route North. Moreover, I had learnt from Matt & Tom, two South Africans going in the opposite direction that there was a strong northerly wind blowing. They weren’t wrong: despite taking it in turns to break the wind, we’d struggle to touch 15km/h, even with a flat tarmac road!

‘Shukran Gazeelan’ & ‘Masalaama’ Mamoud & Ashraf!

The wind was so strong that it even shaped the termite mounds!

On reflection, the desert in Sudan has certainly been one of the highlights of the route so far. The stars at night; the stunning contrast of the Nile, a deep blue & green snaking its way through the red & yellow sand;  the hospitality of the Sudanese; the lack of tourists despite the rich ancient history and colourful architecture all contributed to a thoroughly enjoyable few weeks. Dervla Murhy, who cycled solo through Southern Africa in 1992 talks of that ‘magical moment where existence is reduced to the concentrated enjoyment of the present’. I certainly felt that at times. I also felt on ‘holiday’ for the first time for a while: I had decided to stick with the Frenchies until Luxor, doing manageable daily distances. I could therefore loose myself in my own thought, absorb the surroundings without having to worry too much where I was going to stay or eat that day: they were seasoned cyclists after more than 18 months pedalling around Africa.

The desert is a harsh place to survive. If it’s not the heat, it’s the trucks… Damien hurst would be proud!

Taking tea the first night with our hosts. You can see our beds in the background.

Getting water was easier than you might think… every 50kms or so, there would be cold water sitting in big ceramic vats along the side of the road…

We had got to know each other over the last few months, & had developed a nice rhythm for cycling since Kampala. Without boring you with the detail of everyday, here’s the rough routine for a day’s cycling in the desert:

6.30am: Get up ½ hour before first light. It is pretty cold so fleece, trousers & hats all necessary to start with. Filter water if unsure of quality. Visit the little boys room (much nicer to do it in the desert)

Take your pick for choice of toilet: desert v town

7am: Take Chaai (with sugar) and either cook some oats or eat local ful & bread (Sudanese equivalent of baked beans on toast but with less artificial additives)!

7.30 – 9.30am Cycle for a couple of hours, taking it in turns to break the wind.

9.30am eat more ful if available, with chaai. Otherwise snack on biscuits/nuts/dried dates

Desert Food options: 1) desert ful It doesn’t look that appetising… and it wasn’t! 2) The only date I could find here was brown & wrinkly

10am-12pm – two more hours of pedalling. I found classical music on Thandie’s soundsystem particularly appropriate for the desert

It can a lonely road out there, especially in the midday heat. Thankfully I had lots of P20!

1ish: At around lunchtime, try and find a place out of the wind & sun to relax for a few hours. In the absence of any settlement, this usually involved finding an old building, tree or rock to shelter behind and use the bikes to build some shade using the ground mate

Lunchstop options: Roadside ‘service station’ or DIY

4.30 -6.30pm With two hours of light remaining, cycling until 15 minutes before sunset. Amy Macdonald’s ‘This is the life’ would be played if we needed inspiration to find a place to sleep. Gladiator/Rocky soundtrack if needing energy boost.

Cycling in the evening light was often spectacular!


Night: Either camp in village or ‘camping sauvage’– taking care not to let anyone see you sneak off the road if the latter.


Where you going to sleep tonight? Camping Sauvage or perhaps in a police dormitory…

Dinner: Eat more ful or, if camping sauvage, cook pasta/rice & any vegetable we were able to buy. Chat to locals/hosts, try to understand how they survive here!

Life is tough here but people are super friendly. Eating Ful with prayers going on in the background…

10pm: Bed after a concert from the Frenchies on their accordions, posting a photo on twitter/facebook using BGAN & if enough battery, an episode of House (thanks to Dave Boggitt) or read book (Zanzibar Chest by Aiden Hartley is the best book I’ve read on the trip so far).

With such a routine, we cycled for about 6 hours a day but managed only about 70kms, thanks to the wind. Other things that struck me as interesting here, at least with my economist hat on, were the excellent mobile signal and the fact that even if they were still riding around on donkeys, everyone had a mobile phone and I wasn’t the only one trying to take photos!

The Economic Cycle & lessons from the desert: Background -  Get in touch with Allah through MTN & Airtel? From L to R: This piece of gold was worth as much as my bike – we met plenty of golddiggers!; policeman poses for photo using mobile phone; Boy on Donkey -21st Century technology using 1st century transport

As it was, we arrived in Karima after 6 days of such a routine with the sun transforming the already impressive Jebel Barkal into a bright orange. You wouldn’t know given the lack of tourists but this is a world heritage site with pyramids & temples dating back to the kingdom of the Egyptian Pharoh Thutmose III  in c 1450BC. It is better known for later becoming the capital of the independent kingdom of Kush. I’m not a great one for ancient ruins but the 360 degree panorama from the top of the mountain is breath taking. We tried our best to buy a ticket to walk around the site of the temple but no one at the office seemed to have the authority to sell us one! The Sudanese Authorities don’t appear to be making a lot of effort to capitalise on what could be a booming tourist industry, not that I’m complaining about the lack of Thomas Cook package tours. Nonetheless, the paperwork involved in getting into & around Sudan is tedious: you have to register in each town to stay, filling out pointless paperwork and the visa was the most expensive and bureaucratic to obtain. Three days after Karmina, we arrived in Dongela, the other major town in the region. Here, the police refused to let a local (couchsurfer) host us.

The spectacular Jebel Barkar (holy mountain in Arabic) & its pyramids. Best seen at the start or end of the day. Spot the Frenchman

Dongela marks the start of the Nubian region, one with its own unique history & architecture. We got the impression that the people are Nubian first and Sudanese second. Their hospitality was superb. One example springs to mind but all the other nights would tell the same story: On our first day out of Dongela, we followed the new tarmac road north but cut back to the riverside settlement of Kerma, having found no food or water on the road. We stopped to eat ful, bought some vegetables & fruit, filled up our water and headed north, hoping to find a safe place to camp just out of the village. It was starting to get dark, however, and after ½ hour of trying to find the old dirt road along the river, we decided it would be best to stay in Kerma. We stopped at a shop to ask directions and for a place to camp. Our efforts in Arabic to explain that we had a tent and sufficient food/water not to be burden failed at the first attempt so we continued. 2 minutes later, a small boys caught us up foot, pointing back to the shop, barely visible in darkness. The shop owner had called a friend who spoke English. After offering us a drink at his shop (refusing payment), Hussein led us to a family house (all houses have a big courtyard surrounded by a high wall and brightly decorated door) where we were fed & given beds, despite insisting our tents were fine. Most houses here, especially the wealthier ones, do have guest quarters, that double as a reception area. At least we weren’t depriving our hosts of their beds! Nights like this (indeed most nights when I hadn’t planned where we going to stop) are really the highlights of bicycle touring. In a vehicle, you are unlikely to be shown such hospitality when the next town with formal guesthouses etc is always within a day’s drive.

Hussein & his family - thanks so much for the hospitality!

From Kerma, we took the dirt road through the desert for a day that followed the Nile more closely. This slowed our speed but the scenery made up for it. Whilst we were never too worried about getting lost with the river or tarmac always within 20kms, the wind & sand can make a road disappear relatively easily. As such, we were back to using a compass and the sun to work out the way when the road wasn’t clear. My GPS was proving somewhat unreliable in Sudan. We got lost at the end of the day but (semi) accidently stumbled across the magical 3rd cataract on the Nile – one of the best places for a sundowners in Africa. Just a shame they don’t sell beer in Sudan!

The choice of road – both have their advantages

Sundown over the 3rd Cataract. A beer would have been nice

After a night in Abu Sari, where we were kindly hosted by Faisal and his family (his son Mohammed had insisted on stopping to see the Tandem and they invited us to stay afterward, again feeding us with a delicious meal). Mohamed was obviously top of his geography class at school. ‘Hey Mister, why have you got a Libyan flag on your bike? Three weeks in Sudan and I had been flying the wrong flag. Now I understand why the foreign office didn’t offer me that job 10 years ago. In my defence, many Sudanese identified it as their flag earlier on the journey.

Can you spot my Libyan Flag? I couldn't...

Faisal, it turned out was a cartographer. Given we had spent the day trying to work out the exact distance to Wadi, he was the ideal man to bump into! ‘190km’, he declared. The road sign that said 173km, he explained, was as the crow flies. Something seemed a bit fishy but my GPS was also suggesting 190km. With the mountains and headwind, we thought we’d need 3 days. After two spectacular nights of camping sauvage, we left ourselves 60 kms to do in the morning of the final day. After 30km, we were in Wadi…. We didn’t complain.

The end of Sudan

Wadi marks the border between Sudan & Egypt. I tend to enjoy ferries but taking a 70kg tandem anywhere other than a road is a headache. We had missed out on a cabin, already snapped up by two groups of European travellers. We were therefore forced to travel ‘cattle class’. After a bit of a scrum to get onto the boat (there is no point in standing in a queue here) we managed to secure an area on the top deck for ourselves & bikes. To the bemusement of local and envy of other backpackers, we put up our tents and enjoyed a good night’s sleep. Most of the men gathered for evening prayers on deck and we were woken at 5am by the adhān (call to prayer by the muezzin). Having slept in several churchs in Southern & Eastern Africa, we were used to a religious alarm clock.

Camping on the deck of the Ferry to Aswan – the start of my final country in Africa!

The last few days in Egypt have been somewhat of a contrast to the serenity of Sudan. We have continued to experience some wonderful hospitality but the more developed tourist industry has its downsides too. The other morning, a nice looking boy said ‘moning’ to me.  ‘Good morning’, I replied. I had misheard. ‘Maney, Maney… give me Maney’.I had got used to kids asking for money in other countries in Africa where tourism is well developed. But it is a shame when they throw stones when you politely decline. Another boy tried to run us off the road in his tuk tuk, again asking for money. He couldn’t have been more than 12 years old. We stopped after his third fly by – I had motioned that I’d be giving him some money. He look of glee turned to fear as we chased him & his mate out of their tuk tuk and down a street. Claire is also a teacher and clearly knows how to scare kids!

‘It’s their way of welcoming you’ Akhmed told us in Esna, the town before Luxor. Abdul and his friends showed us superb hospitality after we had stopped for a cup of tea in his village as it was getting dark but somehow I couldn’t buy his excuse. Nonetheless, we enjoyed a fascinating evening with him and his friends discussing the future of their country. He was particularly optimistic – I hope he’s right!

Enjoying a cup of tea with Akhmed & his mates – the man in white is the local muezzin

they invited us for an amazing dinner afterwards

From here, I travel across the eastern desert to Hugarda with my Brother in Law Tim & Ben Collins, the founder of Beyond Ourselves. From there, Tim & I will try to take a ferry to the Sinai for a Block family holiday in Dahab and then cycle en masse to Jordan. It will be so lovely to see them after 8 months away. I then hope to cycle across to Israel before meeting up with Lawrence Dallagio, Freddie Flintoff & their group of ‘slam cyclists’ in Athens – I’ll be joining them for a few days as they start their own mass charity ride back to London. Flintoff on a tandem? Well, the last time he tried to pedalled a two person vehicle, he went for a swim...


A fewof the people we've had Chaai with in Egypt so far:



Goldigging in Sudan...
Monetary Policy in Africa.... not for the faint he...

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