February 08, 2010 GMT
Sudan and arrival in Khartoum

We arrived here in Khartoum about four days ago, and have been pretty busy since.

Oil changes, filter changes, new rear tyre, repacking, and still no sight-seeing yet.
Except for the 'Whirling Dervishes' at the Hamed el-Nil Mosque in Omdurman. More later.

We are camped in The Blue Nile Sailing Club which is right on the south bank of the Blue Nile.

Ken's tent

Caroline and Beau

Ken's bike covered up like the boats.

And sail they do, as we watch, sipping afternoon tea right on the river bank.
You see, despite all the work to be done, the afternoons are too hot to undertake anything else, as I suppose it was in Gordon's and Kitchener's day.
There are lots of memories of them here, or at least of the British colonialism of the day. The Sailing Club is in the middle of the very large area of government buildings, with buildings and ministries all having very British-sounding names.

So some words and photos of our journey here from Aswan in Egypt.

Firstly, Mr. Salah's secret society of the Aswan Customs Office, and the port, certainly did keep us busy for around five hours. But it was entertaining.
The port is tucked away in a little bay on Lake Nasser at the eastern end of the Aswan High Dam about eight miles from Aswan town.
The purchase of vehicle tickets was a small storm of paperwork - an hour and a half for all of us with very large quantities of Egyptian banknotes flying to and fro, the vehicle tickets costing thousands of Egyptian pounds for each car and truck. Cash only.

Then off to customs, three motorbikes, four overland trucks plus the two trucks of the Tour D'Afrique group.
This was a large storm of paperwork.
Forms, papers, passports and carnets flew back and forth, stapled furiously and rubber-stamped violently, the desk trembling with the constant energetic pounding of rubber stamp on flattened ink-pad. The half dozen loud thumps on the pad for each stamp on a form added thunder to the storm.
The customs man was quite a jovial character, and had obviously met one of the Tour D'Afrique drivers before. When he joked about baksheesh, the driver promptly emptied his pockets and scattered a good kilo of children's sweets all over the customs man's desk and amongst papers and passports. Joviality went up a level and I wished I'd brought a bottle of ink for his rubber-stamp pad. It might have trumped the sweets.

Eventually all paperwork was done and the adventure of loading the barge started.

First, above the dirt embankment which led to the barge, overhead cables barred the way for the big trucks.

A brave fellow climbed onto the roof and moved the cables out of the way as the trucks crept along below.
We didn't have that problem.

Next, the massive steel loading ramp onto the barge had been through some serious adventure, the entire lefthand corner was bent upwards by a foot or more.

The big trucks had to manouevre back and forth in the tiny access space to avoid the left hand wheels plopping straight into the lake.
We didn't have that problem.


Bikes neatly slotted between big trucks.

To our untrained eyes, with a couple of trucks and our bikes loaded and all the remainder assembled close to the bent ramp, it was clear that they would not all fit on.

But then again, the afternoon sun was now in our eyes, so loading continued under the direction of the expert local stevedores. They seemed to know exactly how much the bumpers of the big trucks had to scrape the sides of the barge so that the narrower vehicles could just squeeze in alongside them.
Maybe the paint was too thick, because in the end, six into one wouldn't go. It all had to come off, over the bent-up ramp. Much Arabic discussion and measuring later, we all embarked again. Successfully this time.

My bike dwarfed by over-lander truck. We're supposed to be travelling the same roads!

All safely gathered in and cast off for Sudan.
Looks like The African Queen all over again.

"Wish me luck, as you wave me goodbye.
Cheerio, here I go, on my way."

Our bikes are on there somewhere.......

That was Sunday 24th January. The next day, minus our bikes, we caught the 8:00am train from Aswan to High Dam.
Eight miles, half an hour, sixteen pence, seats for all.

The line from Aswan, at river level, to the High Dam has quite an incline in places. But no danger of run-aways back down the slope when we stop at stations on the way.

Someone has thoughtfully left a spare brake shoe under Beau's seat.

Egypt's troubled past - bullet holes in the carriage window opposite my seat.


The ferry was packed to sardine capacity. We departed at around six pm and by midnight there were still passengers walking around with suitcases unable to find a place to sit, or floorspace for their cases.

There are two options for this ferry:
Take sleeping mat and bag and claim sleeping space on the roof of the upper deck. It can be cold and windy at night.
Travel light and claim whatever space you can in the passenger lounges.
Caroline and Beau chose the former, I took the latter option.
All us passengers with vehicles on the barge had hardly any luggage with us, so we were first on.
And it seemed I sort of struck lucky. The first passenger lounge I reached was empty so I claimed a ten-seat space, two long thinly-padded seats. Shortly a youngish Egyptian with an elderly Sudanese man walking with a stick sat opposite me. He explained he was accompanying his friend home to Khartoum.
Then another elderly man, blind in one eye, sat on the end of my seat. I helped him stow his bags under the seats.
Then the lounge filled and filled and filled. Early birds who had claimed three or four seat spaces for lying down were politely cajoled into sitting up so more passengers could find themselves seats, until hardly anyone had more than a single seat to himself.
Except us, four passengers in a ten-seat space. We were more or less left alone. I'm pretty sure it was the presence of the two elderly passengers with walking stick and poor sight, and me - not quite so old.
The advantages of age...........
Eventually though two more passengers squeezed in so we ended up six in the space of ten seats.
By midnight there were passengers all over the floors, the stairs, everywhere.
Everywhere that is where there was not already passengers' luggage.

The port entrance that morning was like a small market village. Passengers arriving in pick-up trucks joining the queue, and depositing their luggage in the customs area. Luggage for each passenger or family amounted to about the size of a small car. Upright fridge freezers still packaged in makers' boxes looked popular, outdone only by wall-sized colour TVs in first place and 'Ultra Powerful', made-in-China food mixers in second, each one about the size of an ordinary TV.
Memories of loading the vehicle barge yesterday lead me to the inescapable conclusion that there would be far more room on this ferry if they put all the washing machines and freezers on the barge and all the vehicles on the ferry.
But hey, this is Africa!

So every bit of deck space outside the lounges was stacked high like your local electrical-goods discount warehouse. Some parts of the ferry had definitely become completely cut-off.

I ventured out to the upper deck roof to see how Caroline and Beau were doing. They had sleeping space OK, but were squashed in tight by other sleepers on three sides and fifty bicycles on the fourth.
Actually on two sides there were railings, but passengers had put down mattresses on the other side of them directly on the edge of the deck overhanging the waters of the lake below.
Floor space was so rare that the largest pieces I could find would just about accomodate a single foot. To stand with two feet together was pretty well impossible. And there were still passengers trying unsuccessfully to do that, carrying bags as well.

So shortly after midnight complaints must have been listened to. An authoritative-looking man entered our lounge and screamed orders in Arabic, waving his hands all around, exhorting everyone to get off the floors, sit on the seats properly, as others were still stranded on the few one-foot-sized pieces of empty floor that remained outside. He grabbed the life jackets that had been strewn around the floor as makeshift mattresses, stuffing them furiously back into their lockers.
Then peace broke out and an interesting night continued.

On Tuesday morning we passed by Abu Simbel.

A few of the 50 bicycles in the foreground.

Originally built in the valley way below us, the Egyptians moved this monument here before it was flooded by the construction of the High Dam.

Arrival at Wadi Halfa, Sudan, was at about noon on Tuesday as expected but the cyclist took priority with the on-board passport control, so we three didn't depart the ferry early enough to get our bikes through customs that day.
No matter, Wadi Halfa turned out to be a very pleasant small town with excellent and cheap restaurants. There we met a Russian rider heading north who had been in town almost a week, he liked it that much. Not only that, this was his fifth motorbike journey between Cape Town and St. Petersburg, so he was a mine of information for us.

With bikes finally on Sudanese soil the next day, we assembled outside the previous night's reastaurant. Here, a magnificent piece of fish with complete Sudanese loaf of bread was around a pound I think, and what's more, it was served on newspaper! On a steel dish.

Ready for Sudan, Wadi Halfa shopping mall in the background.

And the bank and customs house.

There are three options south from Wadi Halfa:
The train to Khartoum via Atbara, carries vehicles and passengers across the Nubian Desert.
The road alongside the railway tracks. No water nor petrol, at least two days.
The road that follows the Nile.
You need Charlie and Ewan-sized bikes, and back-up, to carry enough water and fuel for the road that follows the railway, so we opted for the Nile road instead.

After a couple of hours we caught up a cycling couple, Hiula and Eva, from Mexico and Germany, who had been on the same ferry and had also stayed in Wadi Halfa that night. So we all went off the road a short way and camped for the night.
They were both accomplished musicians and gave us a little concert on didgeridoo, flute and two hand drums, all of which they carried on their two bicycles!
The things people do! (The didgeridoo was plastic and slotted together in about four sections).
So Beau helped out with the drums as well. In the Sahara Desert as predicted!

Also that night a clear and distinct halo formed in a huge circle around the moon.
Called a paraselene, I don't think they are that common and some computer doctoring of this photo makes it just visible I think. But it was very clear in the dark desert sky at the time.

Sunrise on the edge of the Nubian Desert.

Long sunrise shadows.


We camped again the next night after shopping in one of the Nile villages and taking this photo on the banks.
This had to be a quick photo - as soon as you stop and remove helmet, it becomes difficult to see, let alone use camera, with the dense swarms of flies.

The following day, a rest stop on the edge of the Nubian Desert.

We took a two-day hotel break in the pleasant Nile town of Dongola. There was internet there, but riding and camping in the desert is a surprisingly tiring thing, and we had no energy to update this website.
We made use of the nice cafes and tea bars instead - and there's ALWAYS laundry to do.........

We followed off and on the meandering route of the Nile, but generally the road is a few miles away. In Sudan, the green and cultivated banks of the river extend for only one or two hundred yards each side. Then, the desert begins.
We headed for the pyramids at Nuri, and camped between there and the town of Merowe.

Morning at our camping place between a river-side palm plantation and the desert.

When we arrived, a local farmer on a donkey said it was OK to camp and pointed out his house nearby. Later, after nightfall, he returned with his little grandson and a flask of tea and cups. This was different tea, made with hot milk that was absolutely delicious. We thought maybe it was camel's milk. But no, it was cow's milk, but unpasturised. Makes quite a difference.

Entering a mud-brick village near the Nile town of Karima.
We did food shopping here for the next night in the desert.

And the Mosque.

There are then two long desert hauls to Khartoum. The first is the Merowe-Atbara road across the Bayuda Desert. Completely empty and desolate, maybe three other vehicles spotted the whole day.

One for the telecom engineers, retired or not:
Surreal road sign halfway across the emptiness of the Bayuda Desert.

If it's not clear, it says:

The second long stretch is the Atbara-Khartoum road. A road busy with freight trucks and 12-axle trailers. These have the habit of, if they've started overtaking something, maybe another 12-axle monster, they don't stop. If you're going the other way you're expected to get off of the tarmac onto the gravel shoulder. Which is just wide enough to do so, I'm glad to say.

Posted by Ken Thomas at 04:15 PM GMT
February 09, 2010 GMT
Khartoum - update

Still camped in Khartoum, we were able to see the Friday prayer ceremony at the Hamed el-Nil Mosque in Omdurman.

This is preceeded for some hours by singing in the Mosque, and then for even more hours, until sunset, with an intense ceremony of drumming, chanting and trance-inducing dance by the participants on the large and dusty forecourt. This includes some of what is usually referred to as 'Whirling', but this is only a small part of the proceedings, and no one wears those classic white voluminous robes normally associated with 'the Whirling Dervishes'.

The participants are from Nubia (the north of Sudan and the south of Egypt), and are in groups of about twenty or more. Each group is dressed in a different design of colourful Arabic robes and comes under the tutelage of a master. He leads and encourages his group in the ever more intense chanting and dancing to the never-ending rhythmic drumming of a large band of percussionists.
Quite an experience to be standing right on the edge of it all.

The many spectators watch in a circle surrounding all the groups. As the proceedings become more and more intense the participants need more and more room, so we get gently and politely shoved outwards until we're right at the edge of the huge forecourt, dodging around trees and lamposts.
There aren't many foreigners amongst the spectators, so we are noticeable and receive warm welcomes from the organisers and leaders.
And from the children.



The groups arrive and take their places.






And a note about Sudan and its people.
It's certainly a desert country here, even the Nile doesn't irrigate much land either side of the banks.
So it's incredibly dry and dusty. Drinking water consumption goes up enormously compared to Egypt.
And the dust is everywhere.
I sat in a Khartoum restaurant the other day and watched the main industry going on in the street outside.
Car washing.
It's done everywhere, most street corners, any place where cars can be left without blocking traffic too much.
A big section of the road outside the Sailing Club is used for car washing.
All done by hand, usually by two people at a time, with bucket and cloth.
And, they are meticulous about washing the tyres. Sidewalls, treads, and everything else that can be reached by hand under the wheelarch.
Then when all is done, they remove the spare wheel and wash that as well!

And the people are very different from those of Egypt.
The same friendliness is everywhere, the same "Welcome!" from everyone in the street as you walk along.
The same desire to help wherever possible, and eagerness to practise English.
But without any of the pushiness found in Egypt. The intense Egyptian desire to sell any tourist anything at any price, and anger, faint or otherwise, when the answer is "No!"
Nor the insistance of accepting hospitality.
In comparison, the Sudanese seem to be very happy and serene and relaxed people. They have no desire to push themselves or their hospitality or their merchandise upon you. And always smiling and waving, wanting to know what country you are from and always thanking you for being in their country. And often wanting to know what sort of time you are having.
I would definitely recommend Khartoum to anyone wanting a holiday in an African city. It really is very easy-going.
And the winter climate is pretty good too (summer, pretty hot). Very dry, just a bit too hot some days in the afternoon - for changing tyres.
It also, it seems, has a reputation, away from the unfortunate areas of trouble that tourists can't get to anyway, of being one of the safest of African countries.

The Sailing Club is THE place where overland travellers stay in Khartoum, nearly all of them on the Cairo to Cape Town route or vice versa.
(Except a young couple just arrived this morning on bicycles, travelling from Djibouti to Cairo on a Round-the-World cycle trip).

So we have been meeting many other Cape Town travellers, going either north or south.
Those going north have been an excellent source of information for us, while quizzing us on our experiences in Egypt and the Middle East at the same time.
We have found that their stories about the two major aspects of the next stage of our journey, the people of Ethiopia and the notorious Moyale to Marsabit road of northern Kenya, have been dependent almost entirely on their own personal outlook and attitude.
Those of a positive frame of mind say the Ethiopians are an outgoing and demanding people appreciating instant contact with visitors, a ready smile and wave, and the chance to practice their English. "Wave to them straightaway, say 'No' to their demands positively and with a smile, and say something else."
Others say they are difficult, very demanding of 'gifts' and money, and aggressive if the verbal contact is insufficient to exercise their English.

Similarly with the condition of the road. Some say it's a chassis or frame-breaker, torture, and dangerous. Others, that ordinary vehicles and ordinary buses do it with no problems, take your time, your bikes will be fine.
A typical story is that of an English couple recently heading north from Nairobi. At the start of the problematic road the gearbox broke on their Volkswagen campervan. For whatever reason they abandoned their journey and donated the immobile van to some local people working for an NGO voluntary organisation. Two days later the van arrived at the Kenya/Ethiopia border, fixed and perfectly capable of negotiating the road in a pretty quick time.

So we continue our preparations here for the next couple of days. The next major stop will be Addis Ababa, maybe about two weeks, no internet till then.

Posted by Ken Thomas at 02:07 PM GMT
February 15, 2010 GMT
Playing Khartoum

Still in Khartoum. Very nice place. And the prophesy of Beau riding his drum kit across the Sahara has come true.

About five days ago, Hiula and Eva arrived on their bicycles. Hiula is from Mexico City, and his girlfriend, Eva, is from Germany.
We camped with them in the desert on our first night out from Wadi Halfa.
Well, it seems that the 'Hiula And Beau Duo' was formed that night, in the Sudanese Sahara.

Although some bad news first.
The route from Dongola to here includes a couple of long desert crossings, and to be able to carry enough water on his bicycle, Hiula had to sell one of his drums.
But never mind, he still has his best drums, as well as his didgeridoo, a flute, and, a secret kept till now, a cow bell complete with foot-pedal.

Now the Sailing Club here is a very active and busy social club for local people. Many of them workers from the government buildings that fill this part of Khartoum. Members arrive at about dusk and the place fills with locals partaking of Sudanese coffee and hubble bubble pipes, seated all around and amongst our tents. The few staff hurry from group to group with trays of coffee pots and baskets of glowing charcoal embers. The baskets are whirled on the ends of chain handles to get the embers sparkling and crackling, then deposited at each table with a pair of tongs for feeding the burning charcoal into the hubble bubble pipes.
Most of the evening the air is filled with the pungent aromas of the wide variety of charcoal scents available, strawberry and mint seeming to be the popular choices. Accompanying that, long bursts of racous laughter invade the darkness from the crowded tables.
I know nothing about the Sudanese sense of humour, nor Khartoum jokes, but when a table-full of locals gets laughing, it goes on and on and on. No alcohol required.
The men are almost universally dressed in the standard white robes, the women in fairly 'liberal' and very colourful head-to-toe Moslem robes and headscarves.

So a warm night at the Blue Nile Sailing Club found Hiula, Eva, Beau and Caroline in an impromptu acoustic session on the steps that lead down to the water's edge and the yachts. Beau playing his hand drum and finger cymbals acquired in Aswan.
Also within earshot was Amin, a member of the sailing club and a sort of road manager for a popular Khartoum band.

"Hey!" says Amin. "There's a wedding going on in the suburbs." (Moslem wedding celebrations take place over several days).
"My band's playing there, you could all come along and join in!"

And so we did.
First, we were invited into the home of one of the musicians.

Pre-party lunch. Two band-members, and Hiula, Eva, Beau, Caroline and photographer (me) tuck in to the spread.

Then, out onto the street where the band would play, and where seats were waiting for us.
But no!
All stand up again! We must go to the home of the mother of one of the band's guitarists, where more refreshments have been laid on.
Fed to bursting, we are escorted back to our seats, in amongst, it seems, all the children who all want their hands shaken. And the band plays.

And Beau and Hiula are invited/instructed to help the percussion section. (Amin had given strict instructions to bring their instruments along).

Hiula (seated), Beau, and Amin (lilac shirt) set the rhythm going.

And the children move in closer.

Beau switches to finger cymbals.

The kids on the Khartoum block.

It was a great evening, capped by the ride back to the sailing club (quite a long drive, we were way out in the north-eastern suburbs) in a 1960s Morris Minor for Beau and Hiula, driven by one of the band's guitarists.
(Caroline, Eva and I were in a taxi organised by Amin. The driver took us there, partook of the celebrations and then drove us back).

But there was more, Amin explained.
The Costa restaurant in central Khartoum (which I had already tried, as had Hiula and Eva) holds a talent show every Sunday - "And you're on the Bill!" he says.

The Costa restaurant, Khartoum. Another British traveller at the Sailing Club is up on stage first.

Hiula and Beau play Khartoum.

Their rhythm captures the audience.

And things warm up nicely.

The following act.
The Hiula And Beau Duo were in GOOD company!.

And who'd have thought it?? Come the time to announce the winners - and Amin is one of the judges!
The winner was a very popular smart rapper, who gave a performance full of emotion about his love for Sudan and a plea to sort out the troubles in the South. His acceptance speech revealed more of his passion to find a solution and I thought he would do well, maybe, to get into Sudanese politics as well as music.
But I don't know, because one thing is for sure, Sudan is a complicated country.

But another great day in Khartoum. Little wonder we are still here.

Yesterday afternoon before the talent show Amin whisked Beau off to the Khartoum College of Music and Drama where another band was studying and rehearsing. They were pleased to see him, took part in Beau's impromptu workshop, with the band's drummer finally asking Beau for a private lesson today!

All that was yesterday, and Beau is now waiting to hear from Amin if he has been successful in organising a jamming concert at the Sailing Club for tonight! It seems quite a few local musicians were keen on the idea.
So when we will leave, we do not know. But we have crossed the Sahara, and Beau has indeed ridden his drums!

And on to more boring news.
Caroline decided it's time to fix the carburetor on her bike before the mountains of Ethiopia. So commenced the removal of same.
I'd heard of a Yamaha dealer in Omdurman, the large city, larger than Khartoum, just across the Nile. I had the GPS position so went off and found it.
It was a large-ish smart car showroom, done out in Yamaha livery and logos, with two Toyota cars and three 100cc Yamaha bikes on the showroom floor.
And no parts department.
That was buried deep in the southern Khartoum suburbs. And probably not worth visiting I thought, with only one model of bike on sale.
But I took a different route back to the sailing club over one of Khartoum's other bridges. On the way I found myself in the motorbike-repair-shop area, 8 or 10 shops in a row and dozens of bikes outside being worked on.
Anyone who remembers Pride and Clarke will get the idea, but set in Africa, not Stockwell.

Back at the campsite I collected the main jet from Caroline's carb and returned to the repair shops. There I joined some of the shop owners in rummaging through their boxes of carburetor parts which contained quite a few jets of the same fitment. But nearly all too small, for much smaller bikes.
But we found a 97.5 (the jet in Caroline's carb is 115, I thought maybe 100 or 105 would be worth a try), and another with no size stamped on it (one of many), that on visual inspection looked a possible candidate.
Twenty five pence for the two.
Well, the unsized jet on a closer look is probably bigger than the 115, so Caroline's Serow now has the 97.5 fitted and seems to run pretty well around town. The test will be up in the mountains. So we wait for Ethiopia.

When we can extract ourselves from Khartoum, that is.

Posted by Ken Thomas at 09:38 AM GMT
February 16, 2010 GMT
Playing The Nile

Last night's planned jam session certainly happened. The band from last week's wedding (The Bleeding Hearts), along with students from the School of Music and Drama, and Duo Hiula and Beau got together at the Blue Nile Sailing Club for a fine session of set pieces and improvisation.

Normally, as the night sweeps in over Khartoum, it cools just a little from the heat of the afternoon. Last night it cooled not at all.

The photos:

Warming up on the decking just above the river moorings.

Beau in white, Hiula in yellow.

'Bleeding Hearts' lead guitarist.

Beau gets his feet behind the drums for a variation on Brubeck's
'Take Five' in a duet with a young trumpeter from the University.
Lights in the distance are streetlights on the nearby road bridge over the Nile.


Hiula lends a hand with the percussion.


Lead guitars and vocals.

Beau and Hiula together.



'Road manager' Amin helps with vocals on the last set piece.

Plenty of end-of-show jamming.


Where's Beau? - Arranging the next day's workshop with the college students.

Hiula keeps the session going.



That was last night.
This morning, with still a long way to cycle to the Ethiopian border before their visas expire, Hiula and Eva set off on their way.



Khartoum is certainly a very easy place to stop in for a long time.
But our visas are running out, Ethiopia is calling and there is news of the rains commencing further south.

And here's a little extract that I like from a guidebook for Ethiopia, giving advice to travellers feeling stressed by African bureaucracy - the important thing being to stay cheerful:
"Whatever your fears about bribery and bureaucracy, the humbling reality is that as a visitor to Africa you will generally be pushed to the front of every queue and treated with the utmost courtesy by officials." (Certainly our experience).
"Now when British post office staff start saying 'Hey, that chap at the back of the queue looks like a foreigner, we'd better serve him first', then perhaps we can start complaining about African officials."
And amazingly, I've just experienced that very thing. A few moments ago an electrician in this internet cafe came up to me and said in halting English, "Turn power off. For moment. On off quick. OK?"
And about 10 seconds later, just enough time to save what I'd done, all the power went off, then on again after the electrician had quickly fiddled with something in the fusebox by the cash desk.
Then I realised that of the eight or so customers in this cafe, only I had been forewarned, being the only foreigner here!

And back at the campsite, when I left to come here, Beau was again waiting to hear about more musical possibilities at the college. Maybe a workshop this afternoon.
So no, we still don't know when we will be on our way.
At least we can look forward to catching up with Eva and Hiula again.

Posted by Ken Thomas at 11:24 AM GMT

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