The following is an account of the 313km that we rode in two days through the Sahara Desert to reach the capitol of Sudan, Khartoum. This was our final ride in the Sahara, and it was certainly a ride to remember.
El Multaga, Sudan
8:00pm, day zero – We chowed down on our second dinner of the night. This time, cold beans and bread. The outpost town that we found ourselves in was the last hub of civilization before a massive swathe of Sahara that separated us and Khartoum. The nearly two hundred miles between us and Khartoum is trivial in a vehicle, but for us it was a challenge we had been thinking about for days.
8:30pm – Stuffed and stocked with provisions we took off into the night towards Khartoum. Each one of our bikes was loaded with 14 liters of water, an arsenal of canned beans, bread, Nogilla, citrus, and celebration mangos. Our goal for the evening was simply a place to rest our bones until a 3:30am start the next morning. The 303km to Khartoum sign was an imposing thing to see. Our final challenge presented by the vast Sahara Desert. Undeterred, we rode on into the darkness.
8:36pm – A military officer stopped us at a mid-road checkpoint. His words, “ police, passports” were familiar but we were not all too enthused by them. Our passports are tucked into secure locations, and to frequently remove them while exhausted is the kind of minor inconvenience that quickly turns into a pet peeve on a bike tour. This is partially because of the seemingly trivial nature of the passport checks. Ninety percent of the time, the person checking the passport will aimlessly rifle through the pages then hand it back. It is more about the act of transferring and acknowledging power than the contents of the passport. Thus, we tried plan B.
“Show him the photo!” I called out. Dan’s phone was in his hand and our camping photo was easily accessible.
“Police Army Passport!”
Out came our tried and true animated photo of a family in a tent that we use frequently when language prevents clear communication. We pointed at the photo, pointed at the road winding into the desert, and smiled.
“Please, we camp, we have tents.”
“Very good! Very good! OK. Goodbye!”
Hardy handshakes and smiles all around. No passports required. We took off into the void.
8:47pm – We spotted a huge, unlit building with a shade structure out front on the left side of the road. We pulled in an set up our sleeping arrangements under the canopy of mud and thatch. We chugged water, took a final look at the ocean of stars above, and tucked into our bags. The stars in the Sudanese Sahara are some of the best in the world. The milky way, a thick stream above us, branches into directions we had never seen before. It is a dizzying array.
12:31am – Wake up to pee, hazily stare in awe at the sky, pass out again.
3:30am – Molokai Slide blasts out with its cheerful encouragement that we take the day. Encouragement is needed from the cozy embrace of our bags. We all eye each other to make sure everyone is moving. Inertia is a killer for early morning starts. Our morning routine of packing up is so familiar that the pitch black did not slow the progress of packing up. Pillows are deflated first so you can’t lay your head back down. Then sleeping bags, then sleeping pads. Everything packed away, we scarfed down on cold falafel, bread, and water.
4:10am – Into the night. Every constellation we know in this hemisphere shone piercingly bright above us. The viscous flow of the milky way pointed us towards Khartoum, guiding our route and our imaginations. The stillness of the night in the Sahara is all encompassing. When we paused, the rhythm of our breath and hearts filled the void of sound. The stars sang along in vibrant silence. Every pedal we took towards Khartoum in the cool air reduced our soon-to-be blistering experience under the Sahara sun.
6:00am – Daniel and I stopped riding to take in the sunrise. The orange and pink glow which had enveloped the stars soon gave way to blue sky as the sun crested the mountains on the horizon. The sun, with despite its promise of astonishing strength, crept gently upwards. The race of time to ride in manageably cool temperatures had begun in earnest. The sun, the definition of consistency in this environment, chugged along in 1st gear. We dropped into third and started moving.
8:45am – I stopped for a bread, Nogilla (knockoff Nutella), and citrus break. By the time of writing this blog post we have explored a huge selection of off-brand Nutella. Nogilla is a middle-upper tier candidate. The current favorite is the 1kg tub of Bifarela.
10:50am – I am pushing hard for 100km before noon. The wind is up and the sun is showing its strength. My glasses protect my eyes from the blasts of sand that whip through the air. My beard and face, the latter coated in zinc, take on layer after layer of new sand protection. Rubbing my face is like coarse-grit sandpaper. The wind, mercifully, is often at our back. When the road turns, however, the blustery waves of heat assail our sides. Our wide bike frames and loaded panniers catch wind from every angle. Wild camels roam on either side of the road, presumably looking for some water. The camels provide a feeling of liveliness in what is otherwise endless shrubland. The ocean of bushes extends until it fades into the horizon of dust clouds that now wraps 360 degrees around us. I am riding hard towards my noon goal when I see Daniel on a scorched piece of shadeless earth, all of his panniers lying in the sand. I presume he has a flat tire or a mental breakdown. The reality is much worse.
Dan’s seat post had snapped cleanly in half.
We are prepared with tools and spares for a wide variety of bike issues. This, however, was as unexpected as it was serious. Without a seat our bikes are unrideable. Less than two days to complete two hundred remaining kilometers of largely uninhabited Sahara riding became much more imposing. In a sun and sand blasted environment we sat cross legged and contemplated the issue. Attempt #1 to fix the seat post was with Gorilla-weld. We were less than optimistic, but it was the easiest thing to try. As we waited for the epoxy to settle our patch of desert became our de-facto lunch spot.
Beans, bread, lime, and oranges. Once the Gorilla-weld settled we reloaded Dan’s bike and he hopped on. We made it less than 100m before the repair failed. Dan, equipped with determination, and a raft guide’s knowledge of knots, set to work on the jerry-rig of jerry-rigs. Version 1.0 of what would eventually turn into many increasingly functional marginally comfortable “fixes”. It was agreed that I should ride on. Dan would give it his all to make it to our meet spot for the evening. If he was unable he would catch a ride on one of the many trucks that whizzed past. When I left dan he was knees to chest, a slow moving dot amidst the 100 degree air and ripping wind. I knew he would make it.
2:30pm – I am delirious. The road shifted its direction, and a strong side wind slowed my progress to a snails pace. Busses on the other side of the road fly by, propelling a stinging rush of sand every time they pass. The bus drivers misguidedly honk hello nearly every time they pass. The piercingly loud blare of the bus horns pairs remarkably well with the facial sand blast. Humour prevails in this scenario. Only 15kms remain in today’s ride. I am determined to push through.
3:00pm – I blow through a small town despite all of the tea houses with employees beckoning. Eight kilometers remain and nothing is stopping me now. Almost. I see Q’s bike leaned against the final building in the town. I pull off the road and push my bike through the sand to join him. Shade and friendship pull like a magnet. Quincy is tucked in the cool shelter, protected from the wind, with a book in hand. We share our Locos-handshake, share stories of high velocity sand attacks, and I settle into the shade. Q shows the cot where he had taken a joyous heat-delirium nap. Before I register anything else I am asleep on the cool concrete.
4:30pm – I woke up feeling like animated lead. I rubbed my eyes and face and chuckled at the layer of sand that came with the motion.
“Good morning sunshine” Quincy is chomping down on an orange.
Q and I had a round of citrus, talked up our enthusiasm, and creakily pushed ourselves onto our feet. The bikes fought back with every inch we pushed them through deep sand to reach the road. Under the setting sun we took flight. Each pedal rejuvenated, the air became cool again, the colors radiated glowing and soft.
5:07pm – We reached our distance goal as the sun made its final descent to the horizon. A small mud and thatch shade structure beckoned to us.
There is enough room for three to sleep inside if they are as comfortable with each other as three people become on a trip like this. Hopefully we would end up with three people in that hut tonight. Still no sign of Dan. Quince and I kicked off our shoes, leaned against warm rocks, and plunged into sunset celebration mangos. We rejoiced at the sight of wispy clouds. Our time in the Sahara was drawing to and end. The further south we went, the more hints of moisture kissed the air. Our weary bodies melted into the stones as sunset transitioned to dusk, and the first bright stars appeared above us.
6:15pm – A shirtless man wearing an orange safety vest emerged on what appeared to be a clown bike from the height his knees reached with each pedal. DAN-O! The team celebrated. The seat jerry-rig was on V3.1, a marginal improvement from a passable torture method. Props to the man Dan.
7:30pm – Sleeping area set up three pads wide on the floor of this hut. We all chowed down on beans, Nogilla, and bread.
8:45am – Exhausted and sandy we hit the (Luci) lights and tumbled into sleep.
3:15am – I woke to a very uncomfortable stomach and set of bodily needs. I hustled out of my bag and into the desert. The astonishing stars provided a contrasting backdrop to some extremely unfortunate gastrointestinal activity.
4:15am – Repeat 3:15am.
5am – Alarms go off. Pack up the bags, repeat the early AM activities. Seven bouts of that nature before 7am is yet to be listed as a recommended way to start a one-hundred mile bike ride in the desert. Less weight in the system I suppose. Water and ciprofloxacin to the rescue.
7:00am – Slow start today. After citrus, bread, Nogilla, and a few more bathroom breaks I am on my way into the low-hanging sun. Good luck to Dan.
2:00pm – Peak heat. 115km down. A ripping sidewind makes a 10km stretch a true battle. I know the road bends at the end of the 10km and the wined will be favorable after, so this is a battle to be won in good fashion.
2:25:pm – I find Q under the partial shade of a thorn bush and I join for a lunch/nap break.
3:30pm – DAN-O! We have 40km to Khartoum and we are determined to make it before dark.
6:30pm – Having completed nearly two century rides through the desert in varying states of physical and bicycle disrepair, we found ourselves in a small outskirt town of the Capitol. We guzzled chalice after chalice of fresh juice and stuffed ourselves on stew and potatoes. We are yet to find a chef or waiter who is not amused or disturbed by the quantity of food that we order.
8:30pm – After befriending some police and showing our all important photo, we are allowed to sleep behind a truck stop. We are exhausted to the core but we agree to wake up early. It is critical that we get our bike issues resolved tomorrow and tracking down the right mechanic might be a process. Aside from Daniel’s missing seat post, my front break had been fully dysfunctional due to a missing piece since Egypt. Neither of these problems would fly in Ethiopia’s mountains.
7:15am – As we packed up our tents in our trash ridden plot of dirt that we called home, the first three Sudanese that we had saw wearing bicycle race attires rolled by the truck stop.
7:20am – We were now friends with three of the four members of the Sudanese National Cycling Team. They were training for an international cup in Eritrea three days later.
3:00pm – We say goodbye to our new friends after a day a full day of riding, hanging out, and bike repair. Our bikes were fixed beyond what we could have hoped.
8:00pm – Three rounds of ice cream. It’s time for a rest day.