Desert cycle completed, it was time for a little rest to clean the sand out of my ears, gorge on bounty bars and generally not worry about sitting in the saddle for a few days, or weeks as would be the case.
However, before I could relax I needed to sort out some money. I had arrived in Khartoum with 0 Sudanese pounds remaining and my last $60 was changed before I checked into the hotel. A faux par perhaps, but I had heard there were one or two cash machines that accept Visa in Khartoum. However, having checked around the city, surfed the internet and from speaking with locals, my smile was slowly draining. The cash machines that used to work had been withdrawn; Visa or MasterCard cannot be used anywhere in Khartoum. It may be possible to get a cash advance on a Visa card at Byblos Bank (a Libyan bank) but with a minimum $70 charge it was a last resort.
Bugger. After checking the Internet further and perusing the shops I noticed Western Union; I had never wired (nor had money wired) so now seemed like an appropriate time to give it a spin. Forwarding money via Visa (or indeed any card) to Sudan is currently blocked but it is possible for someone to hand cash to an “agent” in the UK and for the money magically to appear at the other end.
So, after a phone call my parents very kindly (and thankfully!) accepted my challenge to withdraw money from their accounts in Exeter and send it into the abyss. Western Union charge a fee (of course), but give a very competitive exchange rate. Its approx £14 for next day, but £35 if you want the money the same day. Off I trotted to the “agent” in Khartoum and after a few flashes of my passport and heavy paper stamping, I had Sudanese Pounds! Alhamdulillah! Enormous thanks to my parents for that one.
After a few nights in my hotel enjoying the air conditioning, being conscious of costs I decided to fully setup my profile on Couch Surfing and see if there were any willing hosts. Being in Sudan, I shouldn’t have worried about hospitality; within a day Titi had accepted my request and so off I headed to the southern part of the city named Al Diyum.
Titi was a fantastic host; he introduced me to his friends and on the first night I found myself out and about at a local party. With UN folk there too, to my surprise and sheer delight there was even a few beers! A smile grew on my face (as I duly tucked into a chicken kebab) and once the beer top had popped I quenched on a Carlsberg; at that moment it really was the best beer in the world.
Dan had made it safely and on time to Damascus, so over the next few weeks I got to know the city a little better. Khartoum (which is locally pronounced like you’re couching up phlegm from the back of your throat and then spitting it out), is actually a rather expensive city. Average hotel price is $100 per night and many of the shops and cafes can set you back a few pounds. I tried to hunt out some cheaper options which of course do exist, but even so, I needed to keep an eye on the wallet. Ozone Café, Solitaire and the area around Al Amarat are pleasing, but expensive. Laziz café I found to be the best compromise.
Through Couch Surfing, I also met Omar who although originally from Iraq is living in Khartoum (soon emigrating to Canada). Omar was very generous with his time and over the next weeks helped me gain access to some of the local social clubs that have swimming pools, gyms and even a spot of Salsa Dancing. On the later I’m happy to admit I was awful; but hey with a bit more practice and a few Mojitos to warm me up, next time, you never know, I may master the bare essentials.
The time passed and I managed to catch up on emails, blogs, phone calls and generally take it rather easy. Titi very kindly put me up for almost 2 weeks which is longer than I initially had requested, so I’m very grateful for his friendship and hospitality whilst in Khartoum.
As Dan had left Sudan he needed to get another Visa – which at $100 carries an expensive price tag. With the Sudanese embassies in Damascus unable to help without an 8 week delay, he opted to fly back via Cairo which is the best and easiest place to get your visa (same day service); he also utilised the time to purchase a new SLR Camera.
So, safely back in Khartoum he hopped on the back of my fully loaded bike and we “taxied” over to meet a new couch surfer (Amit) who had kindly offered to put us up for the night. The next day Omar had kindly agreed to host us for a few days. For us his apartment was a gift from above; a fast laptop, decent internet connection, comfy beds and air conditioning.
Grateful to Omar and before we started anything, we created & uploaded his own personal CV website to help him secure a job over in Canada.
We then took full advantage of the situation and maxed out the Internet connection with full time work on the www.betterlifecycle.com website. We were fully aware it needed an oiling. Blogs and functionality needed to be updated, as did the information on when and where we’d be visiting orphanages.
We also needed to reflect the fact that rather arriving at orphanages with pre-designed educ-aid packages, instead we’d arrive with nothing, decide what (if anything) they really needed and then source locally (or have the supplies sent from the UK).
During this time Ramadan also started; thankfully (and luckily) for us the Quran states that if you’re travelling you don’t (and should not) fast. However, for the days we remained in Khartoum we fasted along with the rest of the Islamic world. Fasting started at around 05:10 and breaking of the fast (Iftar) happened at about 19:15.
During the fasting period no smoking, eating or drinking is allowed. In honesty for us the fasting was rather easy; we were working so late (sometimes until 7AM) that we slept for most of the fasting period.
And so with web updates completed and not wanting to overstay our welcome with Omar, it was time to get back on the saddle and pedal towards Ethiopia.
Collecting our Visa was very easy from the Ethiopian embassy (at the top of Mohammed Najeeb St) and at $20 pretty cheap too. Note: Ethiopian Visas start at date of issue, unlike Sudan, which start at date of entry.
We peddled off at around 18:00 only to get about 2k before we decided to rest one more night. Setting off that late was counter productive; we’d be better off resting, which we decided to do at The Blue Nile Sailing club, a popular haunt for fellow travellers (and local mosquitoes). We ended up staying 2 nights there to get a few final last things sorted before the off. We even bumped into a fellow cyclist (Terrence, from Ireland) sporting almost identical kit and bike (Thorn Nomad).
Islam is beautiful
It’s true; it is. Life in London is fantastic; through work and social circles I’m able to interact with people from many cultures and backgrounds. There are people from all walks of life; tensions surface from time to time, but that’s to be expected; generally, it works.
I was curious about Islam, but I hadn’t experienced what life is like in an Islamic country until I entered Egypt and then Sudan.
A question I was asked frequently in Egypt/Sudan was “what religion are you?” As the beard grew ever more present, the question changed more often to be, “are you Muslim?”
I am agnostic, or at least it is the term which fits closest what I accept. That is, I don’t know or personally feel any attachment to a God. I tend to “believe” in what Science is able to explain; clearly there are some elements of Science which are so far fetched I can’t say I quite understand them, but basic Science is able to give to me justification of what is and what could be. I can understand it. But I categorically don’t believe there is no God; far from it – it’s just I haven’t felt that attachment, certainly not one I can truly believe.
A particular moment I fondly remember was at the Blue Nile sailing club. Dan and I had perched ourselves up on the banks of the Nile; we were simply talking and looking forward to the next stage of the ride. We stood up and walked over to the café to order a drink; as we walked we passed a young girl and her two brothers playing on the swings. They were there with their parents; both Sudanese but her father had recently retired after working in London as a tropical pharmacist.
Lena, about 16/17 years old was there just enjoying the evening with her family. She was happy, though as she was recovering from a recent operation she had to stay standing. She was curious about us, so we talked and I explained what Dan and I had been doing and where we were heading. She was fascinated and before too long, like so many others, she asked if I was Muslim. I explained my Agnostic “stance” and she of course understood. And then she said “well if you ever do find one, I hope you find Islam or at least a religion like Islam” – “Islam is beautiful”.
In that moment my understanding of Islam, or certainly my opinion of it, grew immensely. It was in the very humbled, soul-touching way she said it; simply, “it’s beautiful”. I was really taken by her comments and it’s a moment I wont forget.
Reflecting on that moment, you soon see a strong similarity with how so many of the Sudanese (certainly the ones I’ve met at least) live their life. Generosity is everywhere; there’s a strong feeling and belief that by giving to others, God (Allah) will reward you. Whether that is true or not, I can think of no better example of a “win, win” situation.
Time to leave KRT
So after our time at the Blue Nile sailing club, bright and breezy we hit the road at 6AM. The quiet and dark roads of Khartoum led us to the outskirts and onwards into the sunrise and towards Wad Madani. The wind picked up and with a strong headwind we battled 45ks out of the city.
Progress was good, that is until we were pulled over by the Police. They seemed pretty annoyed at something; we asked what? but they simply pointed us in the direction of the Police Station. Confused, we headed over only to find out that the issue was over Dan taking a photo of plastic bags stuck onto barbed wire blowing in the wind.
Whilst a nice photo, it soon came to light that the barbed wire was actually protecting a military compound – oops. In Khartoum photography requires a licence and even then certain targets are strictly off limit. With no licence and a photo of a military compound to boot, we had some explaining to do; the police were concerned we were Israeli spies.
But more of a worry for me was that my Visa had expired; I was sure I was about to get a serious telling off. However, despite the room continuing to fill with offices, all of whom scrutinised my passport – nobody noticed. Eventually, we explained the photo mistake and it was all smiles again…phew! We got the typical “lecture” on how bad a country Israel is and, after that, were back on the bikes and free again…
As we cycled further down the road we were hastily ordered off the road by a man waving the kind of torches normally used to direct aircraft around an airport. Slightly confused, we soon realised that it was Iftar (time to break the fast); the kind people simply wanted us to eat as the fasting for the day was over. Despite feeling a little naughty because we’d been eating during the day, we tucked in; they had no care other than to ensure we were suitably fed – such is the hospitality in Sudan. We tucked in and enjoyed the feast – a particular favourite being the thirst quenching lemon juice.
During Iftar the food is eaten at rapid pace before partakers stop and pray. We remained silent, observed and then gratefully made our way further down the road.
The cycle continued over the next days; the heat and wind causing minor problems but as we got closer to Ethiopia (cycling via Gedaref) the landscape turned ever so slowly greener. At first the odd tree, but soon after tough grass before rolling green landscapes and forests.
As we climbed slowly uphill, the temperatures dropped and the occurrences of rain increased.
Our last night in Sudan was spent camped about 7km from the border with Ethiopia. We chose what we thought was a good spot – it seemed flat, protected and far enough from the road. As thunder rumbled in the distance we settled down for our last snooze in Sudan. About 2 hours later we woke to light rain and breeze, but somehow we knew Mother Nature was about to display yet more of its awe. It was the middle of the night, but Dan got to work on putting the cover on the tent; I would have helped of course, but it seemed my services were best honoured in the horizontal position.
The rain built and soon we found ourselves merciless as the heavens opened and a constant strobe of lightening lit the tent and surrounding valleys. Rain leaked into our tent; leaks became streams and soon water pools began building. The pools built until our thermarests (sleeping mats) were floating in around 20cm or water – everything outside was bobbing (including freshly laid local cow pats) and Dan lay there clutched onto personal belongings. We had our own lake. We laughed; there was absolutely nothing we could do except ride out the storm. Thankfully it wasn’t too cold but after about half an hour we exited the tent and decided to find a better spot to spend the rest of the night and see things out until the morning where we’d asses the damage.
Our initial spot was indeed well protected, but so much so all the water flowing down the hill could pass no further! Oh well, it could have been much worse. Our panniers had kept most of our stuff dry though one of mine had unfortunately leaked – but a minor headache and nothing damaged.
In the morning I awoke to a local cow herder passing the tent singing “Rain, Rain, Go Away!” before I rolled over and snoozed through another damp hour. I eventually hauled myself out of the tent and after a morning of cycle maintenance we headed towards the border.
I was a little nervous as my Visa was almost a month out of date. In a bid to save money I chose not to renew it; saving $100 but risking a bus ride back to Khartoum from the border. We arrived and proceeded to start the process of leaving Sudan. After a stop at a local café for some last minute fuul and water, we exchanged our remaining dollars for Ethiopian Birr and headed to immigration for the final stamps. Dan with his kosher Visa handed his over first and got the necessary stamp – one down. I handed mine over and with a confident look hoped all would be OK.
The officer went through and analysed my passport completing the necessary forms to authorise my departure. Then he stopped; he turned the passport around before handing it to another colleague with slight laughter. He had clearly spotted that my Visa was expired; the other officer duly doing his job asked if I was entering or leaving.
The reply was of course that I was leaving and with a response gesture similar to “sod it – let him off”, my passport was stamped and my departure out of Sudan authorised. I was immensely relived; all I had to do now was walk my bike across the bridge and it was Ma’Salame Sudan and Selam Ethiopia!
But as I did, I reflected yet again; this was the end of Sudan for me – but what a wonder. As the wheels rolled towards Ethiopia I acknowledged that I may just have met some of the nicest people on Earth.
Sudan, Mia Mia! (Sudan is 100 100 – Great!)
The border was easy to cross; a local in return for a small amount of money helped us through the process explaining what we needed to do and showed us to the appropriate buildings. Immigration, customs and we were done! After a quick break we peddled up the hill to take in the new culture. From Islam to Christianity; mosques to churches and cafes to bars and beer adverts – it was quite a difference. We were nervous as we’d heard and read about it being a difficult experience for cyclists (and motor cyclists) with stone throwing children, but we peddled on – inquisitive but mentally prepared for any difficulties.
The landscape grew ever greener; lush rolling hills turned to mountains and as the sun slowly began to set we headed through the villages smiling and waving at the locals as we went. At around 10km from the border we entered another village, but this time it was different. A road block appeared, not with security but children armed with water barrels. They surrounded us; they smiled and then sang at the top of their voices.
We were speechless; right before us was just one of the amazing gestures Africa would offer us. It would be a life long memory, we knew it; we smiled in amazement – absorbed the energy then cycled off into Middle Earth in sheer disbelief at what had just happened.
From Alhamdulillah to Hallelujah; we had arrived in Ethiopia and what a wonderful welcome.
So what is Middle Earth you ask? Those who have seen the opening scenes from Lord of the Rings will know what I mean. Lush green valleys and mountains; cows and donkeys pulling all manner of materials up and down the rolling hills; wood and straw constructed circular huts with smoke slowly puffing from the top filling the air with a very healthy, natural country aroma. We had gone from barren sand and wind to some of the nicest scenery I have ever scene – it was exactly like I remember in Lord of the Rings only it was real and right in from of me; astonishingly beautiful.
On our first night we settled in a local village with plenty of activity and decided to try our first Injera, the staple food of Ethiopia. With our palettes accustomed to new and exciting foods from Egypt and Sudan, we tucked in. Injera is a very large, airy, spongy and rubbery type bread made from fermented teff flour. It’s served like a large pancake and all manner of foods are placed on top; it was delicious.
That night we stayed in the house of an Ethiopian family (at their request) – parting with 50 Birr afterwards, but on reflection, happy to have taken in the experience.
We wound our way ever closer to Gondar; slowly uphill but then ever increasingly – seriously uphill. The climb up to Aykel was particularly tough; an ascent of nearly 1,000 meters…but making the top was an immense feeling of achievement. The journey wasn’t without its events however; at about 2/3rds of the way up I noticed small rocks falling down the cliff face past which I was cycling. After moving forward a few more meters I heard a noise to indicate a much large rock falling to the ground. As I looked up to my horror the rock had four legs; a cow had seemingly grazed a little too far and toppled over the edge. It landed like a sack of potatoes about 20 meters from me; the locals rushed over; I weighed up whether to go back and offer some assistance or carry on. In the end realising that there was almost nothing I could do, I decided to leave the situation to the local farmers and villagers – but I felt bad about that and reflected on it for a good few hours.
Once over the highest point we rolled into a village where we were able to enjoy more injera and refuel, before heading out of the village with fresh supplies. That night, after seeing if we could sleep in a church (in doing so causing a minor village disagreement), we were very kindly offered a hut to sleep in; perfect.
Up early(ish) the next morning we began a further small uphill before a very rewarding downhill as we slowly approached Gondar. As we cycled through ever greener scenes we made it to Azezo which is a junction where left is Gondar, right Bahir Dar. Fuelled with biscuits we began the final 11km to Gondar, passing the brewery (yes I spotted that) and into the valley that nestled Gondar. Halleileuiyah, we had made it; after 10 solid days on the bike we were very relieved to be there! Our only remaining task was to find a hotel – which we did after trying a few; Genetics was way to pricey and Belegez was full, so after the help of some local street kids we ended up in Krawn Hotel.
The beds were very comfortable but the shower not a marvel of plumbing. The only way to get water out was to lie flat in the bath and shake the shower head for some cold water; not overly impressive given the price of 200 Birr for the night (~£8 but that’s expensive in Ethiopia)…but hey worse things could happen. In fact they did, I electrocuted myself checking the hot pipe of the boiler; marvellous. I gave up and went to sleep…and slept very well!
The next morning we moved rooms; a mild improvement with lukewarm water but still less flow than sap coming out of a tree.
Needless to say we didn’t stay there long before we switched hotels and opted for Mercruiw Hotel which at 100 BIRR was better value. The shower had pressure but was cold; the beds were riddled with fleas but sod it, it was better than what we had before so we put up with it.
Finally we moved to Belegez which is without question the best value accommodation in Gondar. Clean beds and hot water for 100 Birr per night!
So we had made it; settled and ready to explore Gondar. I had read in the Lonely Planet about an orphanage called Yenege Tesfa. After speaking with a local street kid I arranged a visit; what happened next is a moment that would change our cycle across Africa in a very big, wonderful & beautiful way.
To be continued…