Chapter 9 – Sudan

Sudan was always intended to be just a country we had to go through to get from Ethiopia to Egypt. What I knew about the country was not much, mainly knowledge from my school days about soils, geology and the physical geography of the Nile.  Of course the news at the time, and not without grounds, painted a very negative impression of Sudan.

There had been a long and brutal civil war between the north and south; atrocities committed in connection with Chad and Dafur; international arrest warrants for Sudanese leaders for alleged breaches of human rights and war crimes; and a complicated history that includes the Ottoman empire, Egyptian rule and from the late 19 th century until 1965, British colonization.

When we entered Sudan at Matema the country had very recently separated into a  Black Christian South and an Arabic Islamic North. Clearly the Sudanese infrastructure was still rather chaotic and so we expected to be delayed with admin and paperwork at the border and we were. Arabic was now used instead of Amheric and we soon learnt the standard As Salamu Ali Kum, a commonly used and very peaceful greeting that always brought a very warm response. The people seemed very mild in temperament, friendly, calm and conservative. Chalk and Cheese when compared to the Ethiopians who always jumped about like excitable Shih Tzu lap dogs.

There were of course new rules and protocols to adhere to that were unfamiliar and very different to those that I was brought up with and generally ignored during my English middle class roaming catholic upbringing. No doubt they were also very different to Fanny’s “pinko commie capitalist atheist confucian sports school” upbringing in Shanghai as well.

We had been fortunate to get our visas in Nairobi, thanks to the very useful consular letter given to us by Ms Li in Cape Town (Consul General). The Chinese seemed to be very much in favour in Sudan and so I would often use Fanny as our trump card, not only because she was Chinese but she was able to charm anyone we met in Sudan. VisaHQ, the UK agency I had used to get my Ethiopian visa (I had to actually send my passport back to London from Nairobi), was not issuing Sudanese visas at the time and so we had been fortunate that we had been given the letter.

Unfortunately, the period of stay permitted by our visas was only two weeks, and it required us to further register within three days of arrival and part with even more cash at the Immigration offices in Khartoum, which would prove to be a very frustrating and tedious procedure. Its seems that Sudan is to bureaucratic efficiency what King Herod was to babysitting. Still, it could be worse…we hadn’t been to Egypt yet!

We had been told by fellow travelers we met coming from the north that Sudan was rather boring, there was very limited food, fuel and water, that it was blisteringly hot, but on the positive side that the Sudanese people were very friendly.  Our experience was that only the last two things were correct and we were never sure why there was a general perception that there wasn’t any food. The food was plentiful, cheap and delicious, provided you like “ful“,  the Sudanese version of tibis. I’ll eat anything…I even ate food from a 7-11 in America once.

Anyway, the food situation was just as well because when we opened our motorcycle panniers to retrieve our precious tomatoes, cabbage, onions and chilis all we saw was a bag of hot grey slime. The temperature in Sudan was just so hot and reach up beyond 50 degrees centigrade at certain times in Khartoum. Everyone had said we had to drink lots of water and we were grateful for the 30 litre water bag the Dutch guys gave us in Malawi. Water discipline is important and you need to keep drinking large quantities of water even when you are not thirty.

In the deserts of Sudan there appears to be no sweat on your body, but in fact you are dehydrating quickly and perspiration evaporates immediately. Fortunately, there are communal water drinking vessels and large earthen ware jugs placed almost everywhere and whilst it might be pushing the hygiene envelope somewhat, the alternative of dehydration is even more serious to health and well being and will creep up on you if you are not careful.

Standing out from the crowd in a Sudanese street

Standing out from the crowd in a Sudanese street – Al Qadarif

Very friendly people

Sudan-physical-map

Sudan, before it was split into north and south used to be the largest country in Africa

Lots of curious faces…  as a woman biker in a very strict Muslim country Fanny really stood out.

There were mosques everywhere and calls to prayer were five times a day and very loud.

Often we would be only people on the road. Here there is some greenery near the border with Ethiopia. Later the classic golden desert fills the landscape

A very annoying waste of the good part of a day (out of a total of 14 permitted on our visa) spent registering ourselves and our bikes in Kartoum. Waste of money and waste of time.

Delicious food .. some of best we had in Africa so far. A big surprise. Later the food in Egypt also  got a big thumbs up.

A typical meal for us in Sudan .. and setting. Couldn’t be happier.

Bring your own customs official... in fact its Magdi cadging a life on back of my bike

Bring your own customs official… (the famous Magdi at Wadi Halfa)

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As a probationary inspector at the Royal Hong Kong Police training school in Wong Chuk Hang (Aberdeen) in the mid 80s–and I am sure my former squad mates can testify that I am not exaggerating–we used to stand to attention during drill lessons on the parade square, dressed only in baggy shorts, boots and with a peaked cap on our heads in temperatures that could reach the late 40s. It was so hot that the polish would melt off our boots and whilst standing bolt upright to attention you would have to discreetly shift from foot to foot, much like those lizards do in the outback of Australia, to reduce the heat coming up from the parade ground tarmac and scorching your feet.

I can safely report that Khartoum was even hotter.  It was one of the few places that the faster you rode on the motorcycles the hotter your face became. It was like putting a hair-dryer onto full blast and pointing it directly at you face for hours on end. This is why we, and the locals were covered head to foot. Far too hot to allow any flesh to be exposed to the elements.

We didn’t have a great deal of time to get to Khartoum and so we set off on good roads through rather flat and featureless terrain. The motorcycles were going brilliantly…no problems at all. I was a bit worried the scorching heat might affect the engines but as long as we were moving along at a good pace and getting air across the radiators the temperature gauge seemed to be OK. Whenever we stopped of course it made sense to switch off the engine to prevent them overheating.

We got to a town called Al Qadarif (Gedarif) as the sun was going down and searched the GPS database for a place to stay. I had wanted to bush camp, but the food had spoiled and the ground surface was surprisingly boggy from the border so far and not ideal to pitch a tent on.  After riding around the very busy town and being quite tired from a journey of more than 400 kilometers from Gonder in Ethiopia, including a reasonably stressful border crossing, we were not too bothered where we stayed so long as the bikes were safe and we could lie down.

Eventually we stayed in a very cheap and very basic hotel, in a room without windows. It was not very nice at all and so we quickly unpacked, secured the bikes inside the lobby next to a guard, dumped our things and went for a walk around the town.

The town was an unexpected and welcome surprise, teeming with activity, the markets and bazaars were still in full swing at 7 pm and it was full of restaurants and exotic food stalls. What was this about there being no food?  We had truly left so called “Black Africa” and were now in the Middle East, with all its exotic smells, noises and sights. As for food, we were spoiled for choice and settled on Arabic style chicken, falafels and ful with bread and delicious fruit juices.

There may be no beer or alcohol in Sudan, but they know how to make great tea, coffee and fruit juices. There was also the aromatic smells of apples, cinnamon, cloves, raspberries and other flavours coming from Shishas which were bubbling and being puffed on in all the coffee houses and street corners.  We sat outside in the hustle and bustle, with men in white robes (jallabiyahs)  and turbans or embroidered hats who politely welcomed us and asked kindly about our trip and impressions of their country. So this was Sudan.

‘Its a bit hot isn’t it, Fanny’

This stretch of road passes through sandy desert near Khartoum and is quite busy with trucks. The sides of road were strewn with tyre retreads that have come off.

Its like being blown with hot air from a hairdryer

We are often asked why we are wearing thick riding gear in such heat… surprisingly its cooler than just being exposed to the hot air.

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The next day we got petrol, filtered again through our “Steve Thomas” invention, with no hassles from the patient and friendly attendants despite the fact we faffed about and spilled fuel everywhere and then we headed off towards Khartoum.

After a full days riding along decent roads with moderate traffic we arrived and Khartoum was not what I was expecting. Addis Ababa was a complete karzi, but Khartoum was more modern, interesting and organised. There were modern car show rooms on the outskirts of the city, much like in other developed cities, but interspersed with lots of mosques and minuets. The traffic lights worked, unlike in Addis Ababa, and nearly everyone was dressed in the white jallabiyah. I did not see many women, but those we saw were conservatively covered as required by Islamic custom.

We were not sure where to stay, but we had earlier bumped into two German motorcyclists, Tobi and Kati riding southwards on the Ethiopian side of the border. They were riding smaller cc trials bikes and we swapped notes and they recommended we stay at the National Camp in Khartoum where the Sudanese athletes are trained. Not at the Blue Nile camp which was universally considered by all reviewers as ‘not very nice’… especially the lavatories.

Whilst we were at the side of the road Tobi asked if by chance we had a spare rear inner tube and as it happened I did. It was taking up room in my pannier, repaired and in good order from the puncture Fanny had in Tanzania.  I handed it over to Tobi who seemed very relieved as he had been agonising about lack of inner tubes for the journey ahead … especially the tough roads in north Kenya. Its very comforting that the adventure biker community is such a close knit one and mutually looks after each other.

Anyway, now in the capital of Sudan we rode into the National Camp, the coordinates of which I had entered earlier into the GPS from a notice board at Wim’s Holland guest house in Addis Ababa, among other useful coordinates for Sudan. It was common for travelers to share the GPS coordinates of places to stay and useful locations such as garages, repair shops and fixers. The camp was a bit bleak, utilitarian and spartan, dominated by a huge mosque right in the middle, but a very welcome sight to Fanny and I.

The whole of Khartoum was full of mosques from which calls to prayers would be blasted loudly and often. This sounded quite nice for about five minutes, but the wailing and chants continued almost constantly until we left two days later. I know salat required praying five times a day, but what I didn’t know was it started at 4 am and was unrelenting throughout the day.

We were to notice many similarities between Arabs and people from China…such as a fondness for bickering, haggling over prices and making a lot of noise. However, I have personally found both these ancient cultures to also have in common strong traditions for producing superb food, very warm hospitality and an unbridled curiosity in what other people are doing, especially foreign visitors. My own culture no longer has any traditions or values, and if there were ever any in England they have been watered down into anomie. I suppose this is why I find international travel and especially living in places like China so fascinating.

In Sudan everything is down to Insha Allah (God wills), but for me, God has neglected to include me in his distribution list about his will and to my secular mind the human earth bound prophets throughout history seem to be in complete  disagreement. Later when we reached the Holy lands I would keep a lookout for the new iCommandments version 2.0 and any clear and unambiguous messages coming from any burning bushes, but sadly the only burning to be found in the Sinai desert or Jerusalem were my piles. How about a miracle to restore my Faith? Just a little one. A phone call from Max junior perhaps, or a logical and rationale conversation with his mother. Like high octane petrol in Africa, I seemed to be running a bit low on Faith.

I don’t want anyone to think I’m an atheist like my commie riding partner, Fanny… or Stephen Fry or Christopher Hitchens or Stephen Hawkings. Why are atheists so smart and the faithful so intolerant and dimwitted? Who knows? God maybe?  I think I believe in God and I also think I believe that England will win the FIFA World Cup again, that Pakistani cricketers aren’t all cheats and accountants are interesting people. Perhaps more accurately I am a member of the “undecided”, a non superstitious and rational group of people who just likes the peaceful ambiance, history and architectural splendor of ancient religious buildings and the beauty and wonder of the natural world. Or, perhaps, an agnostic, dyslexic insomniac….laying awake at night wondering if there really is a Dog. Ouch!

Anyway, after we arrived at the camp gates and explained what we wanted and registered yet again we were shown to a very nice little grassy spot where we could pitch our tent, right under a minuet’s loud speakers which were adorned with colourful purple and pink fluorescent strip lights.. which were on all the time. Insha Allah.  Fanny got out her MC Hammer modesty trousers again and we settled into camping along side Sudan’s national football team and the country’s other athletes.

Fellow desert travelers

Sudanese Pyramids at Meroe

I rode off road on sandy tracks for a closer inspection of the pyramids. Not sure a police blue flashing light is absolutely essential on a motorcycle but it amused me and that’s the most important thing. Pyramids were good too.

Umm… pyramids in Sudan. Would you adam and eve it?

Nubian pyramids are pyramids that were built by the rulers of the Kushite (centered around Napata and Meroe) and Egyptian kingdoms. Prior to the Kushites building these pyramids (which are located in modern day Sudan), there had been no pyramid construction in Egypt and the Nile Valley for more than 500 years. The area of the Nile valley known as Nubia, which lies within present day Sudan, was home to three Kushite kingdoms during antiquity. The first had its capital at Kerma from (2600–1520 BC). The second was centered around Napata from (1000–300 BC). Finally, the last kingdom was centered around Meroë (300 BC–AD 300).

Bit of history ……The Nubian pyramids were built by the rulers of the Kushite (centered around Napata and Meroe).  Prior to the Kushites building these pyramids in Sudan, there had been no pyramid construction in Egypt and the Nile Valley for more than 500 years.
The area was home to three Kushite kingdoms during antiquity. The first had its capital at Kerma from (2600–1520 BC). The second was centered around Napata from (1000–300 BC). Finally, the last kingdom was centered around Meroë (300 BC–AD 300).

Fanny and the bikes … on the banks of the River Nile at sunset (sung to tune of Madness’s Night Boat to Cairo far too many times)

Don’t think I could ever be a Muslim.. the hats don’t suit me.

Would I like a ride on his camel.. umm… no. Would he like a ride on my KTM… umm.. no. Each to their own.

Nice little camping spot by the Nile in northern Sudan. What’s this about crocodiles and snakes?

What!?  No KFC or miniature pyramids in a snow globe? Oh yes.. this is Sudan, not Egypt. Phew!

No wonder George Bush the 2nd said it was the Axis of Evil. Not a KFC, McDonalds or plastic pyramids in a snow globe to be found anywhere. My goodness.

Fanny loves riding on sand ...

Lots of sand and gravel roads …  Fanny loves them (not)

Self portrait at Meroe

Me with my KTM 990 Adventure R at the Meroe Pyramids in Sudan. Happy days. indeed.

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Very soon after arriving at the National Camp we were discovered by Vladimir, a Ukrainian oil engineer who was marking time in Khartoum while his papers were being organised for his new posting to an oil refinery in South Sudan. Vladimir had been told that his papers “will be ready tomorrow”, for several months now, and rather than living in a tent like us, his company had splashed out on two adjoining air conditioned containers with satellite TV and other creature comforts while he waited. He quickly briefed us on the lay of the land, rules, what to do and not to do, and importantly where to get food.

Everything was “No problem” with Vladimir and although I don’t think he was bored, because he seemed a busy, smart and energetic sort of guy, he was clearly very lonely and so when two foreigners rocked up through the gates he was very happy to have some company, even if they were English and Chinese.

Vladimir had gone sort of native, could speak very good Arabic and had given up drink, but only through necessity. When I told him I still had two bottles of fake whiskey and vodka in our panniers he was very alarmed and warned me I could get 40 lashes for alcohol possession. I had actually forgotten that we still had these bottles and not given it much thought as I just assumed you couldn’t buy alcohol in Sudan…not that you would be beaten like a red headed stepson if you actually possessed it.

Very soon after we had set up our tent Vladimir sidled up to me, looked left and right in a very guilty looking manner and said in a whisper, ‘I have a proposition for you’. ‘You bring over vodka to my room and we watch film and enjoy air conditioner, yes?’

Sounded like a plan to me and I gave commander like instructions for Fanny to get the contraband and bring it over.

‘Why me?’ She protested.

‘Because they are in your pannier, you are a woman and you can hide them in your MC Hammers’

You can’t argue with that logic and a few minutes later Vladimir and I had our feet up on his table, “Johny Varder” whiskey for me and “Smearitoff” vodka for my new Ukrainian friend whilst we watched “Men in Black” and descended into a conversations of scribble and an evening of muted laughter, lest the alcohol police come round and take us off to chop chop square for a good whipping.

Fanny wasn’t having any of it and decided to spend an evening with her new 19 year old Sudanese friend who ran the camp Internet office which was air-conditioned down to a positively chilly 22 degrees from the outside temperature of over 50.  She left Vladimir to seriously fall off the wagon and for me to acquire a hangover that lasted for 48 hours.

For some bizarre reason all foreigners had to register again with three days of entering Sudan. Actually its not a bizarre reason, its a blatant tactic to screw more money out of any person visiting the country. A double whammy of visa and processing fees.  So, we got up early and in temperatures that were already high and rising quickly we set off through the streets of Khartoum to where Vladimir told us the government offices were located.

It took us about an hour weaving through the unfamiliar city streets to find the offices, but even so we arrived bright and early at 7.30 a.m. so that we would be first in the queue. However on arrival we were told the offices did not open until 9.00 a.m  and so we went for a wander and came back later to see the government officials still reading newspapers behind the glass of the cubicle compartments.

‘Excuse me I’d like to register, what do I have to do?’ I enunciated slowly

The official, without looking up, pointed up at a clock on the wall which was indicating a few minutes still to go until exactly 9.00 a.m.

Registering in Khartoum … again.

As we did to get around  many cities and save fuel and hassle, we on my bike.

As we did to get around many cities in Africa and save fuel and hassle, we rode one bike and left the other at the camp site.

Blue Nile where we had to go to in order to get an invitation to stay letter in order to complete registration.

Blue Nile where we had to go to in order to get an invitation to stay letter in order to complete registration.

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And so I stood exactly where I was watching the seconds tick by, and spot on nine asked the same question.  The official made a sort of irritated huff and slowly folded up her newspaper and I thought she was going to say “the computer says nooo”, but instead she sent me off to photocopy every piece of documentation we had, and which we already had several photocopies of.

‘What’s wrong with this photocopy?’ I pleaded, waving a wad of paper at her. Without a word or even looking up she prodded her finger towards an old fellow who was sitting in a corner of the office with an ancient looking and well used photocopier…at a pound a sheet. Oh for goodness sake, but there was no choice.

Things got no better and this tedious and completely unnecessary pen pushing and red tape went on for about an hour with the officials displaying every annoying trait learnt by public servants across the planet. Inevitably a document was required that we didn’t have and we were instructed to find an agent or go to a hotel that would issue us with an invitation letter.  Couple of deep breaths, calm down and get on with it… no point arguing the toss … and so we left the government buildings and rode through Khartoum to the other side on the city in temperatures that were to reach over 50 degrees centigrade by mid morning.

In fact, we had to go to the only other campsite we had heard of called Blue Nile and after eventually finding the manager, he scribbled some Arabic on a largely already completed proforma and handed it back to us in exchange for ten US dollars. By now it was ridiculously hot and the city was busy with traffic, mostly SUVs and 4x4s with their windows firmly closed and air-conditioners on full blast. Our GPS was not very accurate or up to date and so by accident we ended up exploring most of the city.

By midday we got back to the immigration office, handed over the required documents and the fees and had our passports endorsed for the remainder of the two weeks stay. Why couldn’t all this have been taken care of at the border crossing? Why was it necessary anyway? Anyway, by then I was too relieved it was all over to be angry any more and so rode off back into the city and found a shady spot to park the bikes next to a local restaurant and had ful and salad for lunch – and breakfast.

In the afternoon we decided to play the game, “Find the Egyptian Embassy” as I still did not have a visa to get into Egypt.  Fanny had already got her visa, not just any old visa but a diplomatic one having charmed the Egyptian Consul General in Shanghai before she set off. I heard it was possible to get a visa on the Wadi Halfa to Aswan ferry, but it made sense to try and get one in advance… just in case.

Eventually we found the passport and visa section of the Egyptian Embassy about an hour or so later after nearly being arrested for riding our motorcycles too near to the presidential palace. Apparently it is an offence that only a motorcyclist can commit .. no idea why. A tank or one of the many bakkie pick-ups with a mounted machine gun on the back I could understand, but a motorbike? .

We parked the bikes, again in a shady spot to stop them melting and banged on the doors until someone came. Its closed we were told. And tomorrow and the day after and the day after that. Was there any way I could apply for a visa?  No.

‘Right, I’ll get it at the border… I’m British don’t you know’. Then added for good measure and Fanny’s amusement  ‘We used to own Egypt… how hard can it be?’.

‘Are you sure?’ Fanny asked

‘No”. And with that I had had enough of dealing with Sudanese officialdom for one lifetime and we returned to the camp, despite the GPS trying to get us arrested again.

The next day we packed up and left while it was still dark and just before calls to prayer. Khartoum wasn’t that bad and the camp-site was a pretty decent one and apart from the government officials people treated us very well, but time was running out and we had a long way to go. We filled our 30 litre water bag again with water that Vladimir had assured us, through his own scientific content analysis of the communal water tanks, was clean and actually contained trace elements of minerals good for our health. Excellent.

Vladimir gave me a Sudanese woven white hat that made me look a bit daft, but I accepted it gratefully, wore it proudly and we said our farewells and vowed to visit the Ukraine one day. Yet another amazing character we met on our travels and a new friend.

Our Internet research, our Michelin map of north east Africa and the GPS were not helping with our planning of the route ahead. Basically Sudan just looked like a huge yellow desert with a squiggly blue line through it that depicted the Nile. Khartoum is where the Blue Nile and White Nile merge and further north it is just the Nile–an incredible river that cuts through the nothingness of the desert all the way to the Mediterranean sea, the lush banks of which have spawned some of the worlds oldest and greatest civilizations. It is truly amazing to see and we count our ride through Sudan as one of the highlights of the entire trip.

It also resulted in “Night Boat to Cairo” by Madness being played far too many times on my iPod and too much silly dancing. I had to explain to Fanny that the style of 2-tone ska dancing, which I was clearly not very good at, was very popular and cool in the late 70s and early 80s with bands like the Specials, The Selector and Madness. Fanny remained unconvinced and put these jilted movements down to my stiff ageing joints and general lack of rhythm.

There is in fact a tarmac road that follows the Nile for several thousand kilometers in the direction we wanted to go, but allegedly there was also a road of unknown quality and surface that cuts across the Nubian desert. The existence of this road could not be verified by my GPS or any maps, but the local Nubian people were adamant that it existed and so we took a risk and decided to try and find it.

As we rode north through the town of Shendi on the road towards Port Sudan we could see the road littered with tyre re-treads that had come off the numerous overloaded trucks that used the busy route. My father, Peter used to be in the retreading industry, first with Pirelli and later with his own company. Looking at an endless verge of shed treads I thought we could have been millionaires if he had chosen to work in Sudan rather than Burton Upon Trent, and my mother wouldn’t have run off with the village blacksmith’s Neanderthal son, and, and. The things that run through your mind when riding through the desert. Amazing.

By stopping and getting directions from people in the street we found the new road and would follow it in a west north west direction through pristine white sand deserts. It was not marked on my GPS which just indicated we were “off road”, but it did exist and was very good quality and obviously very new. Often the fine sand drifted onto the road and the wind would blow it about and form patterns like flowing water. I am quite sure if the road was not used and maintained that it would completely disappear and become engulfed in the desert as the sand was constantly encroaching.

Our beautiful tar road straight through the sandy desert

Our beautiful tar road straight through the sandy desert

Pyramids in the distance

Pyramids in the distance

Time to reflect and enjoy the silence

Time to reflect and enjoy the silence

Meroe

Meroe

The NIle and its lush banks meandering through the scorching dry desert

A Souvenir from the Sudanese police. A speed camera in the middle of the desert. We never saw the speed cameras and no idea how they were camouflaged. In the end the police just gave us a warning and let us keep the pictures.

A Souvenir from the Sudanese police. A speed camera in the middle of the desert. We never saw the speed cameras and no idea how they were camouflaged. In the end the police just gave us a warning and let us keep the pictures.

And one for me too...  The police even had a printer in the middle of the desert to print out this "evidence".

And one for me too… The police even had a printer in the middle of the desert to print out this “evidence”.

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As it started getting late we were both keen on bush camping, but our attempts to find anywhere around Atbara were proving difficult. We actually looked around a very colonial part of town that had big British style family houses that were beginning to look quite sorry for themselves and all traces of Britishness had been Islamified, a bit like Bradford, and indeed the village of Utley where my ancestors come from in Yorkshire which now looks like a squalid suburb of Karachi on “bin day”.

‘Lets camp by the Nile’, I suggested to Fanny, and she was quite keen and so we zigzagged through town and back streets to the banks of the huge river and found a grassy spot which we could camp on and make a fire. It looked really nice, but we were soon discovered by the sort of menacing teenagers found throughout the world that you don’t want to meet. They were very much like the hyenas in the movie “The Lion King”,  a couple of cocky ones and a very dumb one.

It was obvious to me that they were “scoping” us out to steal or rob from later, perhaps during the night. The “Idiot Boy”  kept giggling to himself, and he visibly dribbled when he caught sight of our cameras and other possessions as I opened my tank bag. They continued to hang around and annoy us with feigned and insincere friendliness. Its the same anywhere in the world… you have to be suspicious of teenagers who actually want to spend time with adults. There is always an ulterior and inevitably selfish reason. I was slowly losing my patience with them and so I discussed with Fanny in Chinese what we should do.

She wanted to stay, but I knew very well these local oafs were nothing but trouble, and now they had found a target in their own back yard. It would not end well for one of us, probably not for them as I had a bag full of offensive weapons and Fanny is perfectly able to take care of herself… she is a boxing champion after all. Had I misjudged the situation? Nope, I didn’t think so. My sixth sense that always seems to serve me well had kicked in and I recognised it for what is was. A bad place to be and a very bad place to set up camp.

I have a passionate hatred of feral thieving yobs that started from my police days in London when I saw the viciousness and harm they could cause their innocent victims, often preying on the elderly and most vulnerable.  I decided to err on the side of caution and so we rode off to find another safer spot where we could relax and sleep in peace.

A nice camp site by the River Nile, until we were discovered by the local yobs. We would have to find a more remote spot.

Our home for a day or so near Atbara

Our home for a day or so near Atbara

Fanny wastes no time settling in.. in fact she's fast asleep

Fanny wastes no time settling in..

And wastes no time falling asleep

And wastes no time falling asleep

Our host and his little girl

Our kind host, Ahmed and his little girl

Thank you very much to Ahmed and his family.

Thank you very much to Ahmed and his family.

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We had noted that the opposite bank of the Nile looked more remote and so we went back into town, rode across the main bridge, down into the papyrus fields and weaved our way across agricultural paddy fields to a sunny spot by the banks of the river. We thought we were alone but soon realized there were some people inside a thatched hut next to the river. It turned out that inside were some very laid back middle aged guys who were smoking hashish and appeared to be very relaxed and chilled. We broached the idea of camping with them. ‘No worries’, came the answer, ‘you like some?’ one added offering us a huge spliff.

‘No thanks’, I replied, ‘I never smoke and ride’.

‘No worries’, ‘be happy’ and they gave Fanny a regular Sudanese tobacco cigarette which she gladly accepted, as indeed a recipient of the Shanghai Sports Personality of the Year Award should.

We did a quick recce of the river bank and worked out the optimal position to pitch our tent that looked dry, smooth and flat and yet sufficiently safe from a nocturnal visit by crocodiles, snakes or scorpions, all of which we were assured were plentiful at this particular location, although I couldn’t see any sign at all and was slightly doubtful that any would cause us any trouble anyway.

While we were looking around another man came up and introduced himself as Ahmed and the owner of the land– all of it.  I apologised for trespassing and asked if it was OK for us to camp on his land.

‘No problem’, came the answer, but after a pause he said  ‘but here not good place’  and then said some Arabic words which we did not understand but through sign language we found out meant snakes and scorpions–and apparently a lot of them. What about Crocodiles? – Yes some of those too.

‘Stay at my house…good’, he insisted. ‘Marhaban   مرحبا Welcome’

After some thought, that included wondering about Sudanese snakes and Nile crocodiles, and getting over the initial embarrassment of too much unfamiliar generosity, we agreed to go back to his house.

He ambled along paths and across small ridges and bridges spanning the irrigated farmland and we followed him slowly on our bikes. As we approached the nearby walled village, still crawling along and wading our bikes as slowly as he was walking Ahmed gave a running commentary and introduced every house we passed– it seemed every single one of them belonged to some kind of relative or family member.

Eventually we arrived at a gated complex, not too dissimilar in looks to the infamous compound Osama Bin Laden was captured in in Pakistan a few months later and after riding through some impressive wooden gates, we parked up our bikes in his courtyard. Ahmed then went off and I was really hoping he wasn’t going to reappear with some mates armed with various sharp bladed instruments and a video camera.

When he did come back he was dragging some steel framed beds and I will admit the first thought that went through my mind was that we would be tied down onto them and become the latest stars in some macabre YouTube video, but all Ahmed was doing was setting them up in the courtyard outside his house with mattresses, sheets and pillows so we would be comfortable for the night. I looked at Fanny and she was positively brimming with excitement at this latest development in our adventure. Ah the Chinese… bless them … no imagination whatsoever.  I, on the other hand, with far too much imagination, was already in the advance stages of an escape and evasion plan.

Once the beds were set up we hung our huge mosquito net above them using our pannier bungee cords attached to nearby trees, unpacked the minimum amount of overnight kit, prepared the bikes for the next day and washed ourselves. Finally I started to relax  and we both looked around in amusement at the strange situation we found ourselves in.

Later, just as the sun set we were treated to a meal that consisted of everything that Ahmed and his wife had in their pantry, a truly eclectic mix of food items that included jam, tinned pineapples, some kind of sweet coconut and milk mixture, tinned sardines and processed cheese triangle, just like the ones I used to eat as a kid. Clearly they were not expecting guests.

Ahmed was apologetic that the meal was not good enough and pleaded with us to stay a few days so that he could show us around Atbara and prepare a lavish banquet of roasted goat, Nile fish and other Sudanese specialties. It was very tempting, but the visa problem remained. Ahmed explained that one of his eleven brothers was a high ranking general in Khartoum and everything was ‘No Problem’.  ‘Visa– no problem’, ‘Stay, please’, ‘Everything no problem’.

With a good deal of regret we had to turn his generous offer to stay longer down. I am never entirely sure of the polite and correct protocols and etiquette when being offered such kindness, but with an internal time clock that was nagging me to press on and having discussed with Fanny we decided to get going. One thing is for sure, my previous impressions of Sudan, its people and it culture was changing rapidly and very much for the better.

As it turned out Ahmed was very well connected. The house next to the courtyard we were sleeping in was still being renovated and Ahmed gave us a guided tour of the many rooms inside. He very proudly described the decoration in progress, right down to gold leaf covered ceilings and bejeweled curtains. It was obviously going to be a palatial home and we said we would love to visit again in the future. Ahmed was insistent that we should return and stay with him and his family. He was also, so it seemed, very taken with Fanny, clearly a candidate for wife #4.

We had an amazing and restful sleep under the stars, protected from any insects by the mosquito net and wafted with gentle breezes from the Nile and surrounding deserts. Could not be better and we slept soundly, occasionally waking to wonder where we were and take in the star studded sky.

We were greeted in the morning to amazing coffee and breakfast. We swapped contact details, met some of Ahmed’s children, one of his wives and many of his extended family, learnt more about Islam and Sudanese life and again, as was all too often on the trip, we had to bide our farewells to a new friend all too soon. They were absolutely fantastic people and we were truly humbled by their kindness and hospitality.

Later after we had left Fanny asked me how the women in Arabic countries put up with being hidden away in the shadows, as we rarely saw any in public, and how they put up with being married to a man with other wives. I replied its probably just the same as in China as many so called successful men I know keep a mistress, sometimes a few, and sometimes by the hour. ‘You know what KTV lounges in China are for, don’t you?’

‘Karaoke’, she said with a laugh. Yeah, right!

We then packed up and left a crowd of cheering and waving friends and relatives of Ahmed, crossed the Nile again just outside Atbara and we would not cross it again until we reached Merowe, 400 kilometers away on the other side of the Nubian desert.

As we rode at a steady 100 kph we entered a world very few people will ever see. Pristine white sand desert, sand dunes, rose coloured rocky mountains, Bedouin camps and the occasional camel. There was very little traffic and none of the tyre retreads littering the side of the road that we had seen on the highways around Khartoum and on the relatively busy route to Port Sudan.

Our GPS database was completely unaware of this road, as it must have been quite new.  It appeared, as indeed it was, that we were in the middle of nowhere. It was all that adventure riding was meant to be. I absolutely loved this bit of our trip.  The route from Atbara cut through the desert to the ancient pyramids at Jebel Barkal and across the desert again to Dongola where we would pick up the Nile again and follow it north to Wadi Halfa near the border with Egypt.

More sand.. it is Sudan after all.

Riding through the outskirts of Atbara along a long sandy road… and then up onto a tar road and across the Nile and desert again towards Jebel Barkal.

Fanny cruising through the Nubian desert under the hot sun.

Fanny cruising through the Nubian desert under the hot sun.

Crossing the Nile again

I barely get off my bike to have a pee, Fanny being a woman mades a bit more effort. Watch out for those vipers and scorpions!

Strawbucks

Strawbucks and our KTMs

A rest stop .. Nubian style

A rest stop .. Nubian style

Our new friends... they gave us coffee and we shared a water melon with them  at what must be the most remote and interesting coffee shop I have ever been to. What fun.

Our new friends… they gave us coffee and we shared a water melon with them at what must be the most remote and interesting coffee shop I have ever been to. What fun.

We really were a long way from anything

In the car park at Strawbucks

In the car park at Strawbucks

Sometimes you just have to stop and take in the surroundings.

Sometimes you just have to stop and take in the surroundings.

And do some push ups and sit ups. Why? Because I can.

And do some push ups and sit ups. Why? Because I can.

Bit of jog too.

Bit of jog too.

When ever we get near to the Nile life appears again

As we got nearer to the Nile life started to reappear.

Its amazing to think that this part of the world has pretty much remained unchanged for millenia

Its amazing to think that this part of the world has pretty much remained unchanged for millennia.

Back in a small town by the Nile

Back in a small town by the Nile

More Pyramids ... this time at Jebel Barkal ... Napatan Pyramids

More Pyramids … this time at Jebel Barkal … these are Napatan Pyramids

Riding past Jebel Barkal... extremely hot and Fanny's starter relay is having problems

Riding past Jebel Barkal… extremely hot and Fanny’s starter relay on her bike is having problems. We really don”t want to break down here and of course, we do. One of the few times we had a problem with our KTMs on the whole expedition. 

Jebel Barkal pyramids

Jebel Barkal pyramids

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After about 150 kilometers we stopped for a rest and a water break at a straw hut in the middle of the Nubian desert and found out they had coffee. So this must be Strawbucks. The people who lived here in the middle of nowhere recognised themselves as Nubian rather than Sudanese or Egyptian.

We drank very good coffees under the shade of a canopy, were encouraged to take some water from large earthenware pots using a long ladle and played with the children. We had been balancing a huge water melon on the back of Fanny’s bike and here seemed a good place to cut it open and share with our Nubian friends. In the sun the temperature was in the late forties, but in the shade of the straw hut much cooler.  And so we sat eating cool water melon, drinking coffee and enjoyed the incredible friendliness and hospitality offered by people with no real material possessions. In reality they had more than most people…  they seemed happy and content.

Later on after another stretch of riding for an hour or so we stopped for another water break. We each had to drink about 8-10 liters of water a day in Sudan as it was so hot and dry. We were again in the middle of a dry sandy desert and when we attempted to get going again Fanny’s bike wouldn’t start.  Its not a good feeling to break down in such a place, but I had a tow rope and there was a small town next to the Jebel Markal temples and pyramids we could get to.

I did try to bump start her bike, but with a 1000 cc V-twin engine it is nigh on impossible, especially on hot sandy roads. I then did some banging on the starter motor and fortunately the engine got going again. I was, however, a bit concerned about what the problem actually was and whether we could get it fixed and get to Wadi Halfa in time for the once a week ferry, and before our visas run out.

We cruised into town and Fanny stopped the bike and it refused to start again and so I had to push it until we found some people who pointed us to a very small garage and workshop which seemed to be mainly repairing tut tuts, the three wheeled taxi things found across the world from Thailand, India to Egypt.

We were soon surrounded by a huge crowd as I started my attempt to explain what had happened and what I thought was wrong with Fanny’s bike. I was very concerned that their general enthusiasm to help might disguise general incompetency to understand the complexities of a modern KTM motorcycle, as most bikes they would have come across were the generic and ubiquitous Chinese 150cc ones covered in chrome, with little more sophistication than motorcycles from 50-70 years ago.

Anyway, beggars can’t be choosers and a mechanic started poking about with his lighted fag hanging from his lips and dangerously close to the fuel tanks, with of course much debate and heated discussion from all the people around. He spoke no English whatsoever and somehow or another we managed to communicate and we eventually became quite good at rather technical discussions.

The KTM 990 Adventure is not the easiest bike with which to get to the guts of the LC8 engine and electronics and requires removing fuel tanks, panels and importantly remembering where all the bits originally came from and were attached to. From my EOD days I learnt tidy, systematic procedures and discipline which are often employed by western mechanics, but in Africa they do it their own way, and this always stressed me out as bolts and wires were strewn about in the sand, being collected by me and placed in logical sequence in a container, only to be knocked over by one of the many onlooker’s flip flops and strewn about in the sand and debris again.

A very nice brass, and much used, multimeter tested all the circuits and eventually we came to the conclusion, as I correctly guessed, that the starter relay had a problem. If it was hit with a spanner it worked, but eventually this technique stopped working despite ever larger spanners and heavier tools being used to bang it.  Short circuiting the electrical connectors at the top of the relay did start the bike, but to a dangerous firework display of sparks and when it was put back together this would be too dangerous and inconvenient to do, and so a generic Chinese starter relay was sourced from somewhere or another.

I inspected it closely as it beared little resemblance to the KTM one, certainly it had less wires sticking out of it and no safety fuse along the main circuit. I am quite sure KTM put a fuse along the main circuit for some reason.

We tried fitting the relay in parallel to the existing relay and it worked but it would no longer fit inside the Touratech belly pan protector, and the mechanic’s suggestions to use gaffer tape to secure it to the side did not appeal to me…whatsoever.

I think I am on my knees praying rather than fixing anything.

Easy to lose a bolt or nut in the desert sand so I insisted that everything was laid out in an orderly matter... but not easy with dozens of people swarming about try to help and give advise.

Easy to lose a bolt or nut in the desert sand so I insisted that everything was laid out in an orderly matter… but not easy with dozens of people swarming about try to help and give advise.

Fanny supervising me doing the bike fixing in fifty degrees heat.

The great mechanics who helped us. The guy, Ahmed on the left remains a good friend of ours to this day

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The only solution was to replace the KTM relay with the Chinese one and use a circuit junction box that I had packed with the spares in my panniers. I insisted on using this rather than joining the wires with tape as suggested by one of the local mechanics. I also made sure that a 30 Amp fuse was wired into the circuit, scribbled the wiring circuit onto the inside of an opened cigarette packet, tested the circuits with the multi-meter and then started the bike several times to make sure everything was OK.

The only problem now was to make sure the Chinese relay, which was cylindrical in shape, could fit in the rubber casing that the KTM relay fits into (a rectangle) and Bobs your uncle. With some rearrangements, filing off some corners and securing firmly in place with a few other cigarette packets, wire and tape it worked.

By now it was 9.00 p.m, dark, I was covered in oil, grease, sweat and Nubian desert and I would quite happily have given Fanny away for a cold beer. Whilst sorting the bike Fanny had been busy and found us a place to stay only 50 meters from the mechanics place and had already unpacked all our stuff.  It was one of the grimmer dungeons we stayed in, but we didn’t mind. To my mind everything was a complete success and after getting most of the grime off in a mosque foot bath we could relax and get some bread, ful and water, get a night’s kip and get off early in the morning… if, of course, our handiwork was successful.

Despite the grubby surroundings and being in an environment as far removed from anything else we had ever experienced we slept soundly. I was up early the next day and checked that the relay was working and that everything else appeared to be in ship shape. I refilled the bikes with the Steve Thomas filter and we prepared ourselves to cross the Nile yet again and head across another long stretch of desert towards a town called Dongola.

The desert was again spectacular and I reflected on how lucky we were to see it and to ride wonderful motorcycles across it. It was definitely not on the tourist itinerary and later when we saw all the red skinned and lardy Europeans ambling around the tourist spots in Egypt, I thought back to this privilege and how unadventurous many people are and what they are missing out on.  Unless you are sailing a small yacht in the middle of the ocean you will rarely experience such peace and solitude.

If you are a multi millionaire sitting in your office, you are still a human just sitting in an office however much money you have. I remember conversations in the past with high salaried Big 4 and law firm partners who, when not talking about work or networking to get work, would talk about golf, vicious ex wives, other knitting circle members or ways to commit suicide.  Their only other activity would be drink and drugs to drown the drudgery and disappointments of the day into a soporific haze.  You only have to see the pubs and watering holes that surround the financial centers around the world to see this.

Lower down the pecking order, the world’s lab rats sit all day in their cubicles, adorned with cheery holiday snaps of themselves at Disneyland or at the office Christmas party, with “Star Wars” and “Hello Kitty” figurines balancing on their luminescent spreadsheets. They beaver away all day, and often into the evening without a glimmer of recognition for their efforts or a kind word, looking forward to the highlight of the day.. mealtimes. To my mind this must be the place we Catholics call Purgatory.

A few enlightened people do live the dream though and this can be achieved  regardless of how much money you have, although having some cash does make it easier. Its mostly about attitude and living life to the full. Travel does indeed broaden the mind and there are a million excuses to say ‘No, wish I could, but…” and only one to say ‘Goodbye, I’m off to see the World’.

Just before my father passed away he confided in me that he never did do what he really wanted to do in life and for one reason or the other had been rail-roaded towards second best choices and desires. His final words of advise to slow down and smell the roses, and a warning that life is not a dress rehearsal did not fall on deaf ears.

To me motorcycling is about freedom–a modern day way of getting on your horse and trotting off into the sunset.  See new things, breathe fresh air, meet new people, face new challenges–and overcome them. Of course the exhilaration of  riding a motorcycle is always a pleasure that I never get bored of. Its never predictable, boring or mundane. The desert crossings were also a time when I would be quite happy in the moment, not thinking about other things, not wanting to be anywhere else. Only paragliding can compare, living the moment and enjoying peace, tranquility and Joie de Vivre. 

I was a tad disappointed when the pristine white desert we had been riding across started showing signs of green, then electric pylons, mobile phone towers, and then evidence of human activity. All too soon we had reached the Nile and would follow it all the way to Wadi Halfa where I knew we would encounter hassle and annoyances in connection with getting our motorcycles and ourselves across the border to Egypt.

The road was not too bad and the density of towns and villages was less than further east. We planned to bush camp in the desert section to Wadi Halfa but as the sun went down we had several unsuccessful attempts to get off the main road as Fanny was very reluctant to ride on deep and soft sand, and every single route to a promising site to pitch our tents required doing so.  The only alternative was for me to ride my bike first and then come back and get Fanny’s bike but this was more difficult than it seemed as a fair degree of exploration was needed to find a good spot. In the end we decided to “plough”  on to Wadi Halfa.

It has been wonderful riding with Fanny and occasionally we had to confront her riding limitations. Perhaps one day she’ll race the Dakar as the first Chinese female competitor. I believe she could do it with training and practice. I have never met a stronger and more determined woman. China Dakar team and sponsors take note.

Camping site

A typical camping site making use of a bit of shade for bikes and our tent.

Not alone ... even in the middle of the desert

Not alone … even in the middle of the desert

Rest break.. peaceful and tranquil country

Rest break.. peaceful and tranquil country

Fanny and her KTM cruising through the Nubian desert.

Fanny and her KTM cruising through the Nubian desert.

Getting late ... sun is very low. Keeping a look out for a campsite

Getting late … sun is  low. …and so keeping a look out for a good campsite

Fanny behind me. A long ride from sunrise to sunset.

A long ride across the Nubian desert from sunrise to sunset.

Still in the mountains through which the Nile cuts on the way to Wadi Halfa

The sun setting above the mountain in north Sudan. The Nile cuts its way through these mountain ranges on its way to Wadi Halfa where it widens into Lake Nasser, formed by the dam further down river at Aswan, that provides electricity for a large part of Egypt.

Wadi Halfa .. with our hotel — The Kilpatra (center)

Watching the sun set at the end of a day in Wadi Halfa as we wait for the ferry to Aswan, Egypt

Locals praying as sun setting … .

Wadi Halfa

Fanny up above Wadi Halfa

Wadi Halfa views

Walled compounds and settlements around Wadi Halfa

Wadi Halfa views

Wadi Halfa views

Enjoying another amazing sunset in Sudan

Enjoying another amazing sunset in Sudan

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We descended down from the desert mountains and into Wadi Halfa which is the only entry and exit point between Sudan and Egypt. There is actually a huge land border stretching all the way to the coast along the Red Sea, but no one is allowed to cross, despite several new roads being built. We had looked at roads shown on Google Earth along the coast, but we were told they were not open to foreigners. The only crossing was here at this rather scruffy and dusty town on the shores of Lake Nasser where we would have four days to kick our heels applying for permits and waiting for a barge on the Tuesday to take our bikes, and a ferry the next day to take us to Aswan.

We booked into the Kilpatra hotel, which was about the only place to stay and acted as a sort of RV point for the document and ferry fixers. The room was pretty bleak and dirty, but the outside bathroom was absolutely disgusting and made me gag each time I had to go in. In the end I disobeyed the out of bounds sign and used the women’s bathroom which was only slightly better. I have seen worse in China, but I never had to experience such a bad one for more than 5 seconds before I hastily retreated and made alternative arrangements. But here we were stuck with this revolting hole, something on this planet only a human could create and tolerate. It seemed the management of Kilpatra hotel don’t eat pigs, but they seemed perfectly happy to live like one. Strange.

It was pretty hot and the room had no fan and no windows. Fanny being a woman was not allowed to sleep outside where all the men put their beds at night and so we soldiered on, spending as little time in the hotel as possible and suffering somewhat at night. On reflection we should have camped outside the town, but it would have been inconvenient given all the admin we had to do. Most of the time we got it right, this time we didn’t.

Apart from the hotel I got to quite like Wadi Halfa. We had fried fresh fish each morning;  ful and falafel each night; there were stalls selling fresh fruit juices; a few nice walks to go on; we could use an internet cafe to contact the outside world; watch movies at night on a communal TV, provided it wasn’t showing thousands of people walking round and around a big cube in Saudi Arabia; and we met all sorts of other travelers who had gathered at this bottle neck.

There was no other way to cross between Sudan and Egypt at that time. New roads had been built, but they were controlled by the military and were not for public use and so the ferry, which takes eighteen hours, was the only way. The Nile is dammed at Aswan where there is a hydro-electric power station and the lake (Nasser) extends as far as Wadi Halfa where the ferry’s and barges are moored and where there is a chaotic immigration and customs building, police station and a military base. Pretty basic stuff.

Our fixer who we contacted in Khartoum was called Magdi, but his estranged cousin Mazaar turned up and there was some confusion about who was doing what and looking after us. Some kind of fixer turf war. In the end I handed all our documents, passports and fees to Magdi who turned out to be very efficient and arranged for the bikes to go on a barge on the Tuesday and for us to go on the ferry the next day. We bought the cheapest seats available which meant we had to camp on the deck which wouldn’t be too bad for a “Night Boat Up The River Nile”.

Fanny and our friend, Antoine from South Africa who had cycled across the African Continent and like us was waiting in Wadi Halfa for the ferry.

Fanny and our friend, Antoine from South Africa who had cycled across the African Continent and like us was waiting in Wadi Halfa for the ferry.

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Taking our customs fixer Magdi down to the barge jetty with me … perched up on the bags.

Preparing bikes

Preparing bikes

Sorting the bikes

Nubian guys helping us get our bikes on a barge to Egypt along the Nile

Fanny riding along the banks of the River Nile in Wadi Halfa to a jetty

Securing bikes on the open deck with whatever I can find. The Nile looked calm at the moment, but it was not uncommon for storms to break out and for Lake Nasser and the Nile to become quite choppy and so it was important the bikes were firmly strapped down.

Lining up the bike … I had to wait for gap between barge and jetty to narrow and also for the barge to lift slightly in the swell so the belly pan didn’t scrape over the edge ….. Its all in the timing. Of course the KTM with its Touratech belly pan is as tough as it get which is why we were riding them.

Our ferry that will transport our motorcycles up the Nile. We will take a passenger ferry the next day.

Riding my bike off the jetty onto the ferry at Wadi Halfa

Riding Fanny’s bike along the jetty… and then off the jetty and hopefully onto the barge

Making sure bikes are secure

Making sure bikes and all our riding kit is secure We were only going to carry valuables and a light bag onto the ferry so everything including our riding gear and boots and helmets was secured onto the bikes or locked in the panniers.

 I have never had a problem taking command of a situation and I wasn't going to accept faffing about and taking risks with our bikes.

I have never had a problem taking command of a situation and I wasn’t going to accept faffing about and taking risks with our bikes…nor was Captain Hamada (on right)

Ride along the shores of Lake Nasser

Ride along the shores of Lake Nasser

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The barge which the bikes were to go on wasn’t really designed for vehicles and I had no idea what it was actually carrying, but I was grateful we could get them on a boat to Aswan cheaply, which left the interesting task of actually getting the bikes physically onto the barge and securing them.

The usual loading dock was not designed for drive ons, being too low as cranes were used for the cargo and so for a small facilitation payment the Captain agreed to move the barge to a pontoon a kilometer or so upstream where I managed ride the bikes off the edge of the pier and plunge a couple of feet down onto the deck without too much trouble. My Adventure R had no problem as the suspension is high, Fanny’s bike has a little less ground clearance and so the plunge off the edge had to be timed to when the barge was closest and at its highest.

With a firm hand I helped with and supervised the securing of the bikes behind the wheel house and then we waved goodbye as our only possessions disappeared in the hands of Captain Hamada and his crew of strangers to hopefully arrive in Aswan on the following Thursday, the day when we were also scheduled to arrive on the passenger ferry. A big dose of trust was needed in such a situation, and perhaps a prayer.

We had of course ridden our bikes to the ferry and had to walk back, but not without shaking hands with every single customs, immigration, police and army person. I had used up a few “I used to be a policemen” credits to smooth things along and this resulted in dozens of handshakes and back slaps before we could escape and walk back across the desert to the town and relax until the next day. As we were hiking across a barren and scruffy bit of sandy desert between the shores and the town a pick-up truck pulled up alongside us and inside was one of the custom officials and he kindly gave us a lift back to town in the back of his truck.

Back in town we had a dinner with some of the fellow travelers we met.  Antoine from South Africa had ridden his bicycle all the way from Durban, only taking a flight from Kenya to Sudan as he was not allowed to ride through South Sudan, but he had pedaled across all the deserts, starting very early each day, resting from eleven until three when it was hottest and then cycling again through the late afternoon and early evening. Amazing stuff and if you want to lose 20 kilograms try it yourself.

There was also an “over-lander” truck that had started its trip back in Cape Town, one of the very few overland trips that crossed the whole of Africa. Later, the truck would go missing for a few weeks in Egypt due to the vehicle barge breaking down and some dodgy customs shenanigans. We very nearly took the same barge, but I did my homework and over some coffee I was educated about the way things were done and correctly made the right choices. There were also some guys who were backpacking around the world using public transport and had some amazing tales to tell. One from the French bit of Canada and another from the USA (brave guy, although he looked middle eastern and spoke Arabic).

The next day we boarded the ferry and due to pulling some strings we got on first and secured the best position on the deck, laid out our sleeping bags and settled in for the eighteen hour ride to Aswan. I still didn’t have an Egyptian visa in my passport, but importantly the bike documents were all in order and we were onboard. Three hours later, in the middle of the Nile we saw a small speed boat approach, some documents were exchanged with some officials and we were told we were now in Egypt.

Great, I thought. Right, where’s the bar?

Inspecting the bikes and wondering if I’ll ever see them again.

KTMs now all secured on the barge next to a jetty in Wadi Halfa on which they will travel up the Nile to Aswan in Egypt. I hope.

Just handed all our possessions and bikes over to some complete strangers

Just handed all our possessions and bikes over to some complete strangers

Using the trouser legs from my cargo trousers as hats as we hike back to Wadi Halfa town after putting our bikes on the barge

A bit hot walking back to town. Trouser legs make good sun hats

A bit hot walking back to town. My trouser legs make good sun hats

Pack of desert dogs

Pack of desert dogs

Getting a lift back to town on a pick up after getting bikes on barge at a jetty on Lake Nasser

Getting a lift back to town on a pick up by the customs officials at the prot

Having a rest with a fellow Chelsea supporter

Having a rest with a fellow Chelsea supporter

Tut tut to the ferry

Tut tut to the ferry

Our campsite on the deck of the ferry for the next 18 hours

Our campsite on the deck of the Wadi Halfa to Aswan ferry for the next 18 hours

As expert campers we have secured the best bit in the shade on desk that will also protect us from a rather strong and cool wind during the night.

As expert campers we have secured the best bit in the shade on desk that will also protect us from a rather strong and surprisingly cool wind during the night.

Heading north towards Egypt

Heading north towards Egypt

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Settling in and enjoying the sunset. Wondering where the bikes are though... they have 24 hours head start on us.

Settling in and enjoying the sunset. Wondering where the bikes are though… they have 24 hours head start on us.

Sun sets on Lake Nasser at Sudan/Egypt border

Sun sets on Lake Nasser at the Sudan/Egypt border

Goodbye Sudan ... Hello Egypt

Goodbye Sudan … Hello Egypt

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Next Egypt….

Chapter 8 – Ethiopia

Paul and Marja from Holland who accompanied us along the tough roads in north Kenya to Ethiopia and kindly carried extra petrol, water and our panniers for us in their van, The Wobbel.  Thank you both so much.

File:Ethiopia shaded relief map 1999, CIA.jpg

Our hut for an evening... come complete with lots of little friends

Our hut for an evening… comes complete with comfy bed and lots of little jumping friends

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Ethiopia is a large landlocked and very mountainous north eastern African country with a population of about 82 million people. It has an amazing history and is surrounded by what I would describe as some of the worlds most hostile, or at least, volatile places… Eritrea,  Djibouti, north Kenya, North and South Sudan, and of course, Somalia.

Reaching Ethiopia brought both of us a huge sense of relief and a well deserved break from tough riding conditions. We had heard so much about Shiftas (armed bandits), lack of fuel and water and truly bad road conditions in north Kenya.  Indeed the road to Moyale had been tough, no doubt about that, but it was behind us, beaten by Fanny who had less than eight months motorcycling experience and her lao touzi (me). We did not know at the time that some European tourists and aid workers had been kidnapped by Somalis just a short distance away on the east coast island of Lamu and also at the nearby refugee camp in Dadaab.

Whilst completing the usual formalities at the Kenyan/Ethiopian border I noticed that the local people’s appearance had changed dramatically from the rest of Africa. Taller, slimmer, lighter skin tone, aquiline features and wavy longer hair. The language had also changed from Swahili to Amharic and we would be asked often if we could speak it and would receive blunt admonishments because we could not.  I did picked up a very few words, but Fanny launched herself enthusiastically into learning the basics and used them as much as possible. Sadly, my brain is too old and too full of Chinese words and characters to remember Amharic, to my ear a complicated sounding language and in 2011, as pointless to learn as Cantonese or Welsh… except of course if you are actually live in Ethiopia, Wales or Hong Kong.  Later I would make more effort and pick up some Arabic… a much more widely used language in north Africa and the middle east.

There seemed to be a lot of people everywhere and they were noticeably noisier and more confrontational than the other people we had met in Africa. It was not long before we encountered our first onslaught of begging and ‘YOU YOU YOU…MONEY MONEY MONEY’. Hands outstretched and pleading faces.

Fanny and I found out at the very scruffy Ethiopian immigration department that we only had two weeks left on our visas which was a bit of a shock and a disappointment. Apparently the one month long visas we had been granted had already started from the date of issue in Beijing and London where we had to send our passports. Our attempts to extend at the border were fruitless. To make extension even more troublesome the customs documents for our bikes and carnets were also stamped for the same duration making our stay in Ethiopian short and due to its size, rushed. We also had a long wait with customs as they painstakingly and slowly filled out reams of paperwork and translated everything phonetically into Amharic. Its their country of course, we were guests and they can do what they like, but it was annoying and to my mind, illogical and counter productive. Anyway!!

Paul and Marja and another Umigog 4×4 truck that stayed at the camp site in Moyale.

Super roads… stunning countryside (south Ethiopia)

The strange conical huts we stayed in for a night, the green wobbel next to our bikes and some fellow travelers in a very nice 4×4 truck

Ethiopian kids .. and there are lots of them.

Ethiopian kids .. that girl has exactly the same sunglasses as Fanny … hang on… wait?

Lush and green and very nice roads…

The rains had just finished and the countryside was lush and resplendent with yellow and white flowers….

A small little fellow. Whenever we stopped kids would miraculously appear

Me...

Me…

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An idea of what its like to ride a motorcycle through Ethiopia is at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ko6wUN89DQ

I had to work out a route that would allow us to see as much of Ethiopia as possible and yet exit into Sudan before our visas ran out. This exit would have to be at the optimal time to start our short two week visa period for Sudan, register in Khartoum within three days, and at the same time be able to catch the once a week (Wednesday) ferry from Wadi Halfa in Sudan up the Nile to Aswan in Egypt.

There is actually a new road that stretches across the long border between Sudan and Egypt, several in fact, but they are closed on both sides by respective military powers for security and commercial reasons and so the only border crossing is by “Night Boat up the River Nile”.  We would actually have to reach the remote border town of Wadi Halfa early enough to complete all the paperwork, load bikes onto a separate barge that would leave a day earlier, but arrive at the same time as our ferry. Tight schedules and long rides. What could go wrong? Breaking down in the middle of the Nubian desert, perhaps?

Riding through South Sudan was not an option at this time because of the very recent separation from the north, administrative chaos and continuing skirmishes along the new border. Extending our visas would be tricky too as the only place to do it would be in Addis Ababa and the country was about to launch into a period of national holidays for the 2004 New Year as Ethiopia follows the Coptic calendar… which is about eight years behind the Gregorian calendar that most of the world use.  I was rather annoyed at this… not for using a different calendar… but for inflexible and unfriendly policies.  The UK and other countries have been ploughing  money and aid into this dependent country for years and I thought, rightly or probably wrongly, that they should be a damn sight more grateful and pleasing.

As we were waiting at Ethiopian immigration and customs for various forms to be laboriously filled out I observed a  huge man, at least 1.9 meters tall throwing himself around violently in front of cars and shouting at us. He was either mentally handicapped or had been waiting in queue for the wretched forms to be filled out and had seriously lost the plot. Who could blame him. However, its always distressing to see someone behave like this, or so Fanny tells me when I act up.  Strangely, everyone seemed to be ignoring him, even as he launched himself onto the bonnet of a car and rolled about yelling and shouting. There would be many more very odd and slightly annoying encounters from the locals to come.

We camped at a place recommended by a sort of “fixer” person who latched onto Paul, Marja (our Dutch companions who carried our fuel and panniers), Fanny and myself  on the Kenyan side. Actually the lodge, which had strange conical shaped straw huts, was the only place we could stay at and was fairly cheap, as indeed most of Ethiopia proved to be.

Paul and Marja had their Mercedes truck, “The Wobbel”, to sleep in as usual and so when we arrived they didn’t hang about finding a bar and getting a beer. I was still in a rather grumpy mood from the shenanigans and time wasting at the border and decided I would immerse myself in maintenance activity and sort out the bikes which had received three days of violent punishment and re-fit Fanny’s windscreen among other things that needed attention or tightening up.

By now, some of our kit had started to break or were constantly being patched up.  Since our Chinese made blue tooth “in helmet” intercom set broke on our first day most things had lasted quite well, but now things were feeling the strain of the ride. My sunglasses, for instance, that I really needed for riding had broken after I trod on them in the middle of desert helping someone with a puncture. Now they were held onto my face with a piece of string which I took from my binoculars and which caused them to be a bit too tight against my face and cut into the side of my nose where I would have permanent grazes as a result for most of the trip. It also meant that I had to put my helmet on after I had the  glasses already on, something most bikers know is very awkward.

Another annoyance was that our South African “Thermal Comfort” camping mattresses had started to leak in Kenya and our gaffer tape and puncture kit repairs were only moderately successful, giving us 3 hours before they deflated at night. This was fine as it usually coincided with my night time weak bladder activity, but later this period of time shortened so much that I would need a more serious prostate problem to keep up with the mattress deflations.  Later I employed a bit of innovation by using the gas canisters full of tyre weld to try and plug the leaks from inside, but even this started to fail as the mattresses became more and more porous. On reflection we should have bought the more robust and guaranteed Therm A Rest ones. In fairness I think the UV and the exhaust fumes did not do the material much good.

And Fanny’s bike?… always a repair project in progress. Well not really, but I had to attend to the maintenance of both bikes throughout the expedition, and each time she dropped it, which was becoming much less often, I would need to repair something or another, usually the panniers, the pannier frames or the mirrors etc.. She still had the improvised indicators on and these were not looking so special, but worked. The only time I had come off so far (and I dare say this now the expedition is finished), was when I towed the broken down BMW in the Masai Mara and got yanked off on a couple of occasions when crossing muddy streams and so my bike was looking pristine, as indeed it did until the end of the trip and still does.

It was well into the evening and dark when I had the bikes back to tip top condition and ready for the long ride the following day and I was very grateful for the icy Saint George’s beer Fanny brought over when she saw that I was finished with my bike maintenance duties.All bikers know the sense of pleasure that comes from staring at their beautiful machines after a good session of maintenance and cleaning. ‘How about that then, Fanbelt?’, I said with pride and satisfaction as Fanny inspected my handiwork.

Fatigue caught up with both of us very quickly and we were out for the count on what we would discover in the morning were bug infested mattresses, but at least they were comfy and we could sleep feeling a bit safer and more secure than we had for days. That said, I was also lamenting on the fact that the road we had been riding on for the past three days was behind us and will probably not be the test of adventure riding skill and endurance it is for much longer.  There were rumours that the Chinese were going to tarmac it.

In a bizarre sort of way, that would be a shame. I think all the adventure bikers I know who have ridden from Cape to Cairo or the other way round look back fondly on this tough stretch of their trips. If not exactly fondly, then definitely with a huge sense of achievement. It is a bit of planet Earth very few people will ever see, and certainly a place only a very few will ride along on two wheels. We belong to an exclusive club.

Starting to climb … we would get up to 4000 meters in places. Higher than the Alps, Dolomites and Pyrenees  in most places and only later when we are riding through the Himalayas in Tibet will we get so high again.

GIMME MONEY .. they learn young and we give it.

Southern Ethiopia

Southern Ethiopia with our super bikes.

A lot of Ethiopia looks like this. People live next to the road and the animals also live and eat by the road side… and very often on it

Valleys and mountains… amazing scenery.

Looks familiar

Looks familiar… our average cruising speed on decent roads. Good for bikes, good for fuel economy, fast enough to make progress and yet slow enough to smell the roses.

Riding northwards

Riding northwards

Grasslands in the south and pretty little villages with thatched huts

Our very nice landlord at the Lake Side Motel in Asswala.

Tibis … its good stuff.. which is just as well because we will eat a lot of it in Ethiopia.

Coffee ceremony with popcorn. This was very typical and the set up always the same. As you would expect in Ethiopia, the coffee was excellent. As it was also in Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania, but in Ethiopia it has a special place in everyone’s lives.

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The next day we bumped into a group of Chinese telecommunication engineers while we were having breakfast and we had a chat about our travels so far and our plans. They were very forthcoming and warned us that Ethiopians are rather aggressive and that we should be very careful at roadblocks as the police often stretch a rope across the road at neck height to a motorcyclist that could potentially decapitate us if we were not alert enough.

As employees of a Chinese State Owned company they had received security risk advise from their headquarters and had to reside in military camps due to some previous incidents of theft, violence and aggression. The advice about the road blocks would prove to be accurate and we had a few close shaves as the ropes and indeed road blocks were hard to see. However, to describe the local Ethiopians as aggressive was perhaps a little off the mark, perhaps charitably some should just be described as “rather excitable”.

Breakfast consisted of the local dish “tibis“, a huge sour tasting wheaty pancake onto which is usually placed vegetables, meat (often goat) and a spicy bean stew. We thought it was delicious, but the novelty of the dish would wear off somewhat as this was pretty much served up at every meal.  Of course, there was great coffee as one would expect in Ethiopia.

We set off early and headed north through very green and lush fields and pastures on very decent roads which had recently been built by Chinese engineers. As it was early September the rainy season was coming to an end and the countryside looked glorious. There were fields and hedgerow of yellow and white flowers stretching far and wide. The temperature was about 28 degrees and the air fresh and clean thanks to the lack of traffic.  

I thought about the fact that we were still riding along the Great Rift Valley and into the true  Cradle of Humankind where our common ancestor, Lucy came from. I remarked to Fanny what an amazing place Ethiopia was to ride through…like a perfect early morning motorcycle ride through Wales or Yorkshire on a sunny spring day.  This was the Garden of Eden and surely all the negative reviews we got from fellow travelers who had journeyed through Ethiopia were exaggerated.

I continued to marvel at the beautiful roads and pristine surroundings as we rode leisurely through fields of flowers and past the occasional villager or child who would wave enthusiastically towards us. After a few hours we stopped for a call of nature and were suddenly swamped by kids. Where on earth did they come from? The only words many of  them knew in English were ‘Money, money, money’. Poor little things I thought and then felt my “nuts”  being moved about inside my trousers and looked down to see an angelic looking child of about three or four with its arm in my trouser pocket.

‘HEY’, I shouted, ‘OUT’ and with some effort removed the thieving little arm and resisted the urge to smack the back of its smiling snotty head. Arms were everywhere trying to liberate us of our things. We had some sweets to hand out and we did so and then we got back on the bikes with a few little friends still hanging onto us and our bikes. The effective Akropovik exhaust crowd dispersal technique was again used to very good effect, literally blasting a small urchin trying to get into our panniers off the ground.

And so started our descent into a sort of underworld, much like the horror movie, “The Descent”. The idyllic landscape remained the same of course, but the density of people got greater and greater as we entered our first and last village, for it never ended. As soon as one looked like it was ending another started. Its interesting seeing all the people going about their lives, but at the same time a bit depressing seeing the obvious hardship and poverty.

The Chinese tarmac was covered in people, goats, dogs, cows and occasionally camels. Each animal requiring a different approach to get around safely and swiftly. People waved, shouted and sometimes tried to touch us, throw stones or wave sticks dangerously close to our heads; dogs would skulk about, or just sleep on the road in the sunshine; donkeys would just stand stubbornly in the middle of the road and only be persuaded to move with a vicious whack administers by some young kid with a stick or with a lash from a bull whip; cows were preoccupied with moving from roadside grassy snack to another, only being deviated from this preoccupation when whipped savagely; and goats? Completely stupid creatures. Impossible to predict and we saw a couple taken out spectacularly by the speeding buses, being tossed into the air and landing in a shaggy lump on the road.

The road kill was always hurriedly taken away, after the compensation negotiations had been resolved, no doubt to reappear in pieces on top of sour pancakes. Dogs and other creatures that had been mashed by wheels were often left for the many vultures and carrion birds that would busily and messily feast on the decomposing and smelly carcasses. Lunch anyone?

The road started meandering upwards into mountains and the scenery became even more spectacular, although the eternal village continued and the density of roadside creatures increased. Although the rainy season was coming to an end, I saw suspiciously black clouds on the horizon. The road really weaved about, left and right, up and down, and we caught glimpses of the lakes through the clouds and valleys. It was like a roller coaster and I was becoming a bit disorientated as the sun was obscured and my compass on the GPS was spinning as if we were in the Bermuda Triangle.

I was starting to think about where we should camp up and then the rain started, got heavier, even heavier and then truly torrential. As heavy as the tropical downpours I had experienced in Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, perhaps heavier. The sky was almost completely black and it was extremely difficult to see anything as not only had the rain and dark obscured everything but our visors started misting up. We were soaked through immediately and so there was absolutely no point stopping and seeking shelter, but we crept cautiously along water logged roads and navigated across streams and through quite deep ponds that appeared across the roads.

The  “village” had suddenly become deserted, but I could just about see clusters of people huddled under any form of shelter, peering at us riding by with mild astonishment.  The rain continued for about two hours and we only made about 30 kilometers progress and then started descending into the first big city we had been to in Ethiopia, Dilla near one of the big mountain lakes.

Dilla did not look that appealing, and so I discussed with Fanny whether we should carry on to a town next to Lake Awassa that might be quite interesting and we agreed to push on for a further hundred or so kilometers. When we arrived in a town, called Hawassa,  we aimed for the lake where I presumed accommodation might be found around the shores, or better still find a camp site.  The GPS program, “Tracks on Africa” was now giving very erroneous information. The maps were OK in a where’s north and south sort of way, but the data about accommodation, petrol stations and points of interest was seriously out of date.  Later we would find out the road information would also be inaccurate too.

Decent roads, not much conventional traffic, although a lot of horses, carts and domestic animals

Another coffee ceremony .. luckily we love coffee

Interesting places by the side of the road

Ethiopian landscape and villages

Getting higher and higher.. up to over 4,000 meters in places

The rain just holding off … for now

Actually quite high up at about 3000 meters and still surrounded by mountains rising above us

Many huts like this … and very green and lush

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By trial and error we ended up at a modest hotel next to the shores of Lake Awassa, nothing very special, and certainly the sort of place my junior forensic auditor colleagues in the day would have turned their noses up at had we booked them in on a project, but the sniffy receptionist was demanding US$100 a night, about US$90-95 above our budget.  We knew that hotels were cheap in Ethiopia— everyone had told us so —and so we back tracked along the road we came and saw a hotel, just called “Motel” as the rest of the sign appeared to have fallen off.

After pulling in and discussing our requirements, primarily somewhere to securely park our bikes and perhaps with running water we were taken to a very nice room in what we later found out was called The Lake Side Motel.  We had ridden close to 600 kilometers that day along roads that needed a lot of concentration and evasive action and to say we were grateful is an understatement. Unpack, arrange and secure bikes, take off wet clothes that had actually dried out quite a bit already, and a very welcome shower.

That evening we sat outside the Motel’s very popular restaurant called “Dolce Vita” and had a very good meal of lake fish and –yes — tibis again. When the bill came I had to to double check the exchange rate. Blimey… less than a pound for a very decent dinner for two people with drinks.  The room rate wasn’t much more.  It was certainly cheap in Ethiopia and if you searched you could find excellent places to eat and sleep for next to nothing.

The next day after breakfast we set off looking for petrol as usual. Ethiopia proved to be challenging and a bit worrying on that front and the spare fuel cans were always used to extend our range between stations in most of Africa. Again the GPS’s data was often out of date and it required random riding about in places where we thought one would expect to see a station.

I insisted at each petrol station that I filled up myself using the “Steve Thomas” fuel filter, often with messy results as the pumps would not automatically stop and we would have to guess when it was about to overflow by how many liters had gone in. We couldn’t afford to ride without the tanks being absolutely 100% full and so our bikes and gloves constantly smelt of petrol throughout Ethiopia.  I could tell by the engine sound,  and performance, even on the low ECU mapping setting, that the octane level was well below 80 and so octane booster additive was also added to reduce the knocking and help the EFi system, especially at high altitude.

Be careful on the last 80 kilometers into Addis Ababa everyone had told us, the traffic is treacherous they all said. We had 400+ kilometers to ride to Wim’s Holland House, our rest stop in Addis Ababa and on the way traveled along increasingly busy roads, albeit mostly with trucks and buses heading in and out of the Capital.

At the beginning it wasn’t such a bad ride as the route north took us past many beautiful lakes, such as Abijata, Ziway, Koka and we saw a huge number of water birds and birds of prey, including the classic vultures with the furry necks. I would like to have gone off the beaten track more and seen more wildlife and nature, but we were pressed for time due to our illogical and unreasonable visa limitations.

Surely Ethiopia and other countries in Africa should encourage tourism, encourage foreigners to spend their cash, encourage investment. But no… seemingly they raise revenue by fleecing people with bogus charges and fees at the border. Take South Africa for instance, it offers three month visas (well to most nationalities .. not to Chinese people) and does a great job to encourage tourism to one of the most beautiful countries in world. The rest of Africa which is just as beautiful in its own way, especially north Africa seems to go out of its way to discourage tourism and make travel difficult.

When we hit the big T-junction at Mojo we turned left onto the notoriously bad road section towards Addis. It was indeed an extremely busy bit of road with head to tail traffic, but nothing two residents from Shanghai couldn’t handle with ease on two powerful motorcycles that can overtake quickly and squeeze through gaps between the vehicles. ‘Wasn’t so bad’, was Fanny’s comment as we weaved and honked our way into Addis Ababa.

‘It wasn’t that brilliant either, was it?’, I replied. ‘Let’s get on and try and find Wim’s’, and with that we followed the GPS as it took us the wrong way up one way streets, down dead ends and off road through constructions sites and occasionally through people’s private property. We eventually pulled up outside Wim’s Holland House in the most unlikely of places… right in the city centre next to the decrepit and now disused central railway station that looked like a film set from a post apocalypse movie like, “I am Legend”.

Wim greeted us when we arrived and asked if we would like to camp or stay in a room. It had been raining a lot and I looked down and squelched the camping pond with my boot and asked how much to stay in a room. We were shown two, one for about two Rand and another for a Rand. They both looked like prison cells, with no windows and with a shared outside bathroom with a dodgy water pump and a blocked drain. Forcing a smile I said ‘Thanks, Wim, that will be nice, we’ll take the cheaper one without the meat hooks on the wall’.

We had brought a good mosquito net with us which we strung up using our pannier bungee cords above the beds as Ethiopia is insect heaven.  I parked the bikes in the pond against a tree so they wouldn’t fall over and then we went over to the bar.

Wow… a proper pub. Now I knew why people came here. I ordered a beer and was asked if I would like a bottle or draft. The little things in life, you only miss them when they’re gone. ‘Um… Oh… Draft, please’, I replied, hesitating over the rare opportunity to decide between choices of beer. Fanny?  A bottle of Orange Fanta, of course.

It was Ethiopian New Years eve and so we decided to have a wander around the city center of Addis Ababa as the sun was going down. Woman were wearing traditional white dresses for the occasion that looked like, well, brides maid’s dresses to be honest. They arranged their long curly hair in plaits at the front only, a style I had only seen in Ethiopia.  Grass was laid out in places where some of the woman were preparing coffee which was served with popcorn, A traditional coffee ceremony we were told. There were also quite a few Rastafarians hanging around and reggae music was blaring out from a solitary loudspeaker, but generally these efforts at jolliness were overshadowed by obvious poverty and decay.

Sweets and candies were taken out of their wrappers and packets and sold separately on street corners. I have seen this in South East Asia and it always strikes me as a red flag of poverty. In Addis there were hundreds of kids and even some adults doing this. The buildings looked awful and the squalor and rubbish was depressing. The more we explored the more depressing it became. We wanted to wait in Addis for Paul and Marja to arrive and also go to the museum to see Lucy…. Australopithecus afarensis ….a fossilised humanoid skeleton about 3.2 million years old.

We were very kindly invited to the New Year’s day celebrations which involved a traditional lunch prepared by Wim and his wife with other guests. Again,Tibis was the main course, but there was a rather spicy dish that was absolutely delicious, and of course popcorn that seems to appear at every meal.

We found out that Addis Ababa National Museum was closed … and no one had any idea when it would open. So too was the immigration department, the only place we could possibly extend our visas and as the clock was ticking and as we had no reason to stay in lovely Addis any longer we decided to leave… 马上.

I was disappointed it was so awful and wondered where the LWD guys had stayed and why they liked it. We could see nothing charming or interesting about it.  I am quite sure that if you have the money, as they no doubt had, there were very nice places to stay and eat at. Actually Wim’s Holland Guest House was great… all part of the adventure, but I have to say we were both disappointed with the capital of Ethiopia.

The next day left Addis very early, or at least tried to, going around in circles trying to find the road to Wadhaya, riding through shopping malls, the wrong way up streets and being chased off by unpleasant and aggressive policemen each time we got lost and stopped to consult the map or inaccurate lying GPS.  We had refueled the bikes with something that smelt vaguely like petrol, leaving bits of debris in the Steven Thomas filter but eventually managed to escape and head for the hills.

We really wanted to go to the Afar Region and Danakil depression to the the north east of the country, but with time running out on the visas, reports of heavy rains, a shortage of petrol, and trouble on the borders to the east with Shiftas we decided to engage in a bit of culture and visit the 900 year old monolithic churches hewn out of rock in Lalibela.

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Its a hard life for many people

Quite a lot of camels

Addis Ababa .. near the communist statue

The run down railway station. Once it would have been magnificent. Now? Not so. I think the guy is actually alive… but you never know.

A little oasis in the middle of the city.. Wim’s Holland House. Great place .

The picture looks a lot nicer than it actually is. To be fair it was dry (ish) and very cheap. We had a safe place to park our bikes and a central base to explore Addis Ababa. In fact, there were two young BMW riders from England in the room next door and their GS650 ‘s were actually in bits  inside their room while they were waiting for spare parts to be shipped in from Germany.

Kids everywhere

Lucy

Lucy… or should we all say … Mummy

Huts in Lalibela … very strange shapes

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Enjoying Ethiopian New Year lunch at Wim’s… it was good food … nice and spicey

The Afar/Danakil depression area … we were pressed for time by the visa restrictions and its my big regret that we never saw it. An excuse for another visit I hope.

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The ride there was long, but an excellent one and we started riding back up into huge mountain ranges along steep windy roads with precarious cliff sides. Fanny complained that she was scared of heights and certainly this phobia was tested as we looked down many thousands of meters across lush valleys. The donkeys, goats and cows were back again in huge numbers on the road, and so were the brats throwing stones. The altimeter on the GPS showed us at over 4,000 meters on one occasion as we rode along a spectacular mountain plateau to the turn off down into the Amhara region towards Lalibela.

On one occasion a stone thrown from the side of the road by a small boy hit my helmet and momentarily stunned me. Right, that is it I said to myself. I yanked on my anchors, leaped off my bike, but not before grabbing my catapult and pips (prune stone ammunition) kept in my tank bag, and legged it as fast as anyone can in Alpinestar motorcycle boots towards the brat who was literally frozen on the spot. He then came to his senses and made a fatal mistake by running into a field… open ground. Still running at a fair pace I loaded, employed the marksmanship principles learnt as a child and perfected as a tactical policeman with perhaps more lethal weapons.  Breathe out, hold it, aim and fire. I watched with increasing glee as the prune stone arched through its trajectory and landed on the brat’s skinny arse resulting in a satisfying yelp.

Lesson #1 in my Ethiopian brat behaviour modification campaign.

My bike would have been causing serious obstruction in the road, except the few vehicles on the road had already stopped to watch the spectacle. As I marched triumphantly back to my bike I gave the thumbs up to Fanny and theatrically dusted off my hands towards my audience, many of whom seemed amused, others had their mouths open in stunned silence and looked visibly frightened at the image of a black clad Mad Max, armed and clearly very mad. I am an Englishman, so I don’t whoop like an American, but I should have done. Whooaaa….Yee friggin haaaa… 

Later the same day a youth in his late teens swung a stick at me whilst laughing with his friends on the road. Had the end of the stick actually connected with me I would definitely have come off my bike. Fortunately I anticipated the swing of the stick and managed to duck.  Had Fanny been leading who knows what would have happened.

The miscreant received the same treatment from the catapult and disappeared quickly into a house only to appear again and have the audacity to pick up a rock, but while his arm was arched backwards in mid throw he was hit again squarely on the side of the head causing him to drop the stone and so he ducked back into the house never to be see again.. well not by us.

Following an Anglo Saxon expletive filled lecture to his stunned friends we roared off again. Quite sure nothing was understood except the sentiment and the expression beginning with F that sounds like clucking bell and the C that sounds like James Hunt. Ahh!,  the joys of cross cultural expression.

On other occasions small kids who I saw pick up stones and consider throwing them were too preoccupied waving back to us if I managed to waved at them first. A better technique I suppose than violence. We saw too much of that, especially directed towards their poor beasts of burden that were constantly whipped and beaten savagely. I increasingly hated the sight of it and no doubt it has added greatly to my negative and rather jaundiced view of the country which I am sure at least one of my three readers will think is unfair.

BUT…I worked on a diary farm for years as a child and teenager and never saw domestic animals being beaten and so I do not know why these children, some very young, are brought up to behave in this spiteful and savage manner. In the absence of any appropriate socialization I hoped my few lessons in “cause and effect” made a few think twice about stone throwing and that it may at least prevent serious injury to some other motorcyclist travelling through Ethiopia in the future.

About 70 kilometers from Lalibela the road turned to gravel and we zigzagged up and down hills and across rivers and through streams. Enormous fun and I was secretly happy that all the technical riding had not finished at Moyale. The scenery was amazing, much like the Alps in Switzerland or Austria.

Riding to Lalibela

Riding to Lalibela

Lalibela

Lalibela

Our hotel on the right

Our hotel on the right

Some of churches

Some of churches

Fanny contemplating a raid into the complex to take pictures

Fanny contemplating a raid into the complex to take pictures

Rock Hewn Churches at Lalibela, Ethiopia

Rock Hewn Churches at Lalibela, Ethiopia

Best restaurant in town… unfortunately lots of fleas

We sneaked in…..

Spare a shekel for an ex leper.. I mean an ex forensic accountant who has been ripped off savagely and unfairly by FTI Consulting Hong Kong.

Had FTI Consulting actually paid me what they owed me I could have afforded to go in and see the churches, but alas no… so just a sneak peak

Cave and a man

Lalibela

Lalibela

Central Ethiopia

Interesting place to wander about

Monolith near lake

About 4000 meters … quite high

Fanny and I wandering around the "free"zone

Fanny and I wandering around the “free”zone tunnels and caves in Lalibela

Not sure what to say about this one...

Not sure what to say about this one… Celtic cross meets Coptic cross , perhaps

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When we got into the town there was no immediate sign of the dozen or so Coptic churches that Lalibela is famous for and Christian pilgrims come from all over the world to visit.  In fact, it was full of touts and people begging. We found and stayed at a very basic and cheap hotel that was recommended by other travelers. It was basic, perfectly adequate for a night or two, and much like many of the others we had seen in Ethiopia thus far.

We ate Tibis for every meal at a family run restaurant across the road in which we could watch English movies on an old TV. When people were not begging, throwing rocks or touting they are actually extremely nice, friendly and helpful. The little restaurant was very pleasant, except that we both got viciously bitten by fleas that seemed to be everywhere, especially in the carpets and soft furnishings. We were scratching and shaking them out for days until we got re-bitten all over again at Lake Tana.

The next day we explored the town which was for the large part very scruffy and found the site for the old churches. The entrance fee was 300 Ethiopian Birr each, way too expensive we thought and so we made the cardinal sin of deciding not to go. Ethiopians could go in for free, but foreigners had to pay which I thought was patently unfair. Could you imagine if the UK National Trust only charged foreigners for Stonehenge or the Tower of London in England. Outcry from the PC brigade no doubt. If fact, such is the way in England is nowadays I am sure it would be the English who have to pay and the visitors can go free. China also charges foreigners considerably more to visit parks and tourist attractions than they do for Chinese citizens. I think everyone should be treated the same.

We both thought it was amusing, if not a little sad that we had ridden all the way to Lalibela in Ethiopia and did not go into their main tourist attractions. Of course we did the same with the Serengeti in Kenya, and would do so again with the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt. The expedition was all about riding our bikes and seeing as much of the world as we could. But given our finite and limited budgets we could not afford to pay to see every tourist attraction that we came across throughout or 50,000 kilometer ride.

We had no sponsorship, no financial assistance, no support and everything was self funded. Tourist attractions and activities were off the itinerary unless they were cheap or free ..and so no gorillas or chimpanzees in Rwanda,  nor rock hewn churches in Ethiopia for us.

Unless of course we can sneak in… ????

So we actually hiked around the mountain side to a position where we could freely see a lot of the archaeological sites, churches and take some pictures. It was fairly interesting if you are an archaeologist or Christian Pilgram, but I have to say the Norman church built about the same time in Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire where I was brought up is far more interesting and spectacular, less fleas, you can get in for free and get a wafer and a swig of wine. Salisbury Cathedral and the Pantheon in Rome?  No contest.

Later we will employ the same “get in free”  tactics, or ride our motorcycles as close as we can to other tourist sites in the world such as the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Marine Park in Ras Mohammed, St. Catherines Monastery in the Sinai, the Pyramids and Sphinx at Giza, Jokhang temple in Lhasa Tibet, and Mont. St. Michel in France…. to name a few.

Very clever Fanny … now do me a Twinky from Hong Kong “V” sign for the picture

Getting some of our clothes and bags repaired by a local tailor

one, two, three flea bags … with the odd tick. Nice.

You could see the fleas jumping off the dog and into my food... yum .. more protein.

You could see the fleas jumping off the dog and into my food… yum .. more protein.

This is a Wild Cat mix.. very beautiful but not for stroking

A mix of domestic moggy and African wild cat

A mix of domestic moggy and African wild cat at Lake Tana

Our bikes parked up by the lake

Ride to Lake Tana

Ride to Lake Tana

Amazing flowers, tress and birds in Ethiopia

Pull Cow Flower

Off on walkabout

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Around the Lalibela area, while filming with the GoPro camera whilst standing on the foot pegs I had a momentary lapse of concentration as I forgot that cars drive on the right in Ethiopia and narrowly missed an on coming and speeding van. It was a close call and a very loud wake up call to ride more sensibly.  Fanny also had a fall, an increasingly rarer occurrence as her riding was by then really good, but she stalled on a hill saying she forgot to shift the gears down from third to second. It happens when you’re tired, but the panniers and crash bars were bent slightly again, to be fixed later. I was becoming as much an expert banging out the panniers into shape as Fanny was with picking up a fully loaded 990 Adventure.

After doing as much as anyone can do in Lalibela for free we loaded up the bikes and shipped out, riding back along the gravel and mud section that we came and back up into the Simien Highlands and towards Lake Tana and Gonder. Again an awesome ride in spectacular mountainous scenery and very comfortable and sunny weather.

As we got nearer to the north west of Ethiopia near to the Sudanese border we noticed that the general levels of anti-social behaviour had decreased somewhat. That is except from me. I am afraid a fortnight’s diet of Tibis and beans was taking its toll on my digestive system and I had to spend a lot more time standing up on the foot pegs than is really required on a smooth tarmac road. Better out than in, and as my trusty travel companion noted, better on the bike than in the tent.

We eventually got to a very nice town called Gonder, re-fueled at a decent petrol station and then headed due south for sixty kilometers or so along a muddy dirt track to a campsite called Tim and Kim’s. Now if anyone from my former company, LECG is reading this they will see the inside joke, and I was laughing to myself at the coincidence, especially as the place was full of donkeys going “EEEE OOOOR”.   Anyway, Kim has a new stable at a firm called Control Risks  … EEEE OOOORRRRRR and Tim is at a Chinese firm teaching their compliance team how not to make any decisions of any kind … ever.  I really miss those guys… they made me look good.

Bananas by the lake

Fanny cooking dinner by the lake

Local village was interesting, but very poor and scruffy

The dog still looking for the lump of flesh that was gouged out of my leg

Back on the road… the way I like it

Baboons at Simien Highlands

Baboons at Simien Highlands

YES…. press the button… AND give us back the camera … there’s a nice boy

Gonder, Ethiopia

Gonder, Ethiopia

Fanny in Gonder

Just before I went to watch Chelsea get beaten by Man U in the cinema … still it was good fun.

Fanny and I now near the border with North Sudan … lots and lots of kids

We are joined by two very friendly guys who are from Sudan.

Looks like Fanny

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Anyway, the other Tim and Kim are a young Dutch couple and run a very nice camp-site in very lush countryside on the north shores of Lake Tana. The place was being refurbished when we visited to make it completely self contained with, solar panels, recycled water and electricity and had six self contained huts, a bar, a restaurant and a large grassy area with thatched shelters for camping.

When we arrived we were the only guests and the cook and many of the staff were missing and so we set up camp, got out the Whisperlite cooker and Fanny prepared a spicy Chinese cabbage dish (re qiang bao cai) that is very popular in Hunan with fried egg and tomato (fanqie chaodan), another basic favourite all across China. Outstanding food and very welcome. There was no running water at the camp-site yet and so we had to use buckets of  post rainy season brown lake water. You gotta love camping.

The camp site was really nice and relaxing, but our walkabout to explore the surrounding area was less so. Only about 15 minutes away was a local village.  To get there we walked through beautiful fresh countryside, resplendent in flowers and greenery and then into the town that was squalid and smelly. What a contrast.

The afternoon walk got even more unpleasant as we were aggressively evicted from a lakeside marine workshop that we accidentally strayed into only to then run into the village mortuary which was basically dead bodies wrapped in cloth by the side of the roadside.  Nice. Fanny did not think much of this and literally ran away and so we hurriedly made our way back through the squalid village with all its little kids pestering us back to our little paradise. The joys of adventure travel, warts and all.

I decided to do some bike repairs at LakeTana and whilst attempting to straighten the pannier frames by leaning Fanny’s bike against a rock the bike suddenly slipped and fell on top of me and I couldn’t get it off. Fanny, the world’s expert on lifting up KTM 990 Adventures came to my rescue, lifted it back up and then recoiled shouting, ‘EEER, YUCK   ER XIN’.

I looked down at my leg and it was slightly bleeding. On closer inspection after wiping away the blood I saw that there was a inch square hole in my shin down to the bone. Worse, when I looked at my foot-peg a small lump of me was wedged in the metal serrations. Barf! It did not hurt too much but it needed cleaning, disinfecting and wrapping up quickly as it started bleeding quite persistently and the place we were in was ground zero for infections. Fortunately, we had gone to great efforts to pack a very well stocked first aid kit, and I quickly sorted out the flesh wound as Fanny was grimacing from a safe distance.

As the 200 + kilogram bike fell on top of me the serrated foot-peg had gouged out a size able piece of flesh from my shin which was now firmly wedged into the metal work.  This left me with the rather disgusting task of working out how to dispose of it. One of the dogs was looking longingly at me and at the lump of flesh and it didn’t seem right to be eaten by Bonzo and so I loaded the slimy lump of Rupert flesh into my catapult and fired it into the lake for a sea burial. Later the wound would be further picked away at by coral fish while snorkeling in the Red Sea in Egypt. How nice …fish food.

Because of the ridiculously short length of stay on our Ethiopian visas we had to press on towards Sudan. We decided to stay in Gonder for a night as the town looked quite nice and we thought we should stock up on supplies for Sudan, which we had been told was short on food and water, scorchingly hot and very remote.

After finding a decent and cheap hotel in Gonder we went out to find something to eat and buy some supplies for bush camping in Sudan. We also had to get some cash as we were told there were no ATMs in Sudan either, advice that turned out to be inaccurate on both counts.  What shall we have to eat? Tibis. Hurray we love tibis. Unfortunately the meal, which we ate at a rather nice rooftop restaurant, immediately went through the system like an ice cube does in a bar in Delhi. Its so often the case that nice looking places are less hygienic than basic lu bian tan (street side stalls).

Maybe it was one of those road kill goats that got catapulted into the air by a bus, or perhaps it was just reheated leftovers.. who knows… but whatever it was or contained it was not staying inside Rupert Utley. It is never the easiest task to find a bog in an emergency, but as an experienced traveler I know one should head to the poshest hotel one can see, and walk as confidently and purposefully across the lobby ….as anyone can with clenched buttocks… to the target loo without eye contact with anyone. Make it look as if you belong.  Also, I suggest you go Muslim if you can. The water jet not only cools the bum, but you can hose down the walls and ceilings at the same time. This blog is full of useful hints and advice.

My next task was more important. Chelsea were playing Manchester United that afternoon and I needed to find a bar or hotel that was showing the game. My inquiries with the local street urchins, who always seemed to have the best “intel”, came up consistently with the same answer. The cinema.

Indeed the cinema right in the middle of the town square was the right place to be on football day in Gonder and I bought my ticket for the equivalent of ten pence and joined a queue of far too many people wearing red. In fact, I think as a Chelsea supporter, I was in a minority of about 0.05% and we were all squeezed into a huge old style cinema.

I never got a seat, far too slow and polite to barge and so I leaned against the door throughout the game. It was noisy before the game even started, but when it did there was chaos, and a near nuclear bomb level cacophony when bloody Man U scored.  What? How come Rooney never plays like that for England. To add to the excitement there was a huge fight in the middle of the cinema and the security people, who were actually armed with rifles, were sent in, but sadly the drama ended swiftly without shots fired as everyone soon made friends when Man U scored again … hugging each other, whistling and clapping.

Chelsea did manage to score a goal and the “other” Blues supporter, a boy of about ten, got on the stage and performed a very decent little jig and light silhouette show until he was eventually tackled and thrown off to general cheering and applause. Fanny had come in at half time with cold St. George’s beers, but as an Arsenal supporter she had completely jinxed the game. Its all Fanny’s fault. That said it was a lot of fun, despite the undeserved defeat.

Early the next day we filled up our 30 liter water bag from the communal tank, adding some preventative drops of water sterilizer to prevent a repeat performance of the trots, carried extra fuel cans, loaded all the fruit, vegetables and noodles we had painstakingly found and purchased and packed up the washing which was still damp from one of Fanny’s “let’s wash everything” campaigns.

On the way along truly spectacular roads that weaved left and right and up and down through mountain passes and lush green valleys I saw the headlights of two motorcycles heading towards us. I immediately recognised them as belonging to two fully laden adventure motorcycles that had clearly ridden into Ethiopia from the border. When we reached them we stopped and greeted our fellow adventurers who turned out to be a couple from Germany on mid sized engined Suzuki motorcycles. We had not seen these kind of motorcycles on the trip so far, the vast majority of adventure bikes being BMWs.

It was nice to meet some riders who had just come from where we were heading and swap notes. It seemed our worries about food and fuel in Sudan were exaggerated, but we were alerted to the fact it was blisteringly hot in Sudan, sometimes reaching up into the late forties. That said we were told it was very easy to free camp in Sudan and that it was a huge country and in places actually very interesting to ride through. This was great news and Fanny and I were now very excited about the prospects of leaving what was essentially known as Black Africa, and into Arab Africa.

A little further on when we were taking a break at the side of the road with dozens of local children a Sudanese registered 4×4 pulled up along side us and the very friendly occupants were very enthusiastic about welcoming us to Sudan, gave us their contacts details and offered to help us if we needed anything. This raised our spirits considerably and both of us were very excited about what lay ahead.

When we eventually got to the border I have to say I was a tad disappointed to see the same green pastures and countryside on the Sudanese side. I was sort of half expecting to immediately see white deserts, mosques, camel trains and Bedouin camps.  Of course, all this was to come very soon.

The kind Sudanese guys we met just before the border

The kind Sudanese guys we met just before the border… pointing to their Sudanese licence plate.

It is always very heart warming to be warmly greeted by complete strangers in far flung places. This has happened to me in the USA, Europe Africa and Asia, but never in the UK.

It is always very heart warming to be warmly greeted by complete strangers in far flung places. This has happened to me in the USA, Europe Africa and Asia, but never in the UK.

Meeting fellow bikers in Ethiopia

Meeting fellow bikers in Ethiopia

Chatting by side of the road and swapping stories

Chatting by side of the road and swapping stories with two bikers from Germany

Goodbye Ethiopia, stop throwing stones, and do your homework.

Goodbye Ethiopia, Hello Sudan