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Scorpions and desert storms: cycling Sudan

The road across the Sahara was both pleasant and challenging: loosely shadowing the Nile, enjoying consistent tailwinds and very light traffic. The heat was intense (reaching up to 50°C in the shade) but the nights were just bearable and I lay outside in only underwear gazing at the imperceptibly-wheeling nightsky until dropping into exhausted sleep, sometimes waking later for a spectacular moonrise. Getting on the road before sunrise under paling stars to make the most of the cooler mornings; eating simple fuul lunches in the sporadic roadside cafes; dozing away the withering afternoon swelter under trees.

When the heat became overwhelming I forced myself to remember the misery of biting cold in extreme mountainous winters. This was a hard bit of self-deception to pull off. I wondered if I sometimes whinge inwardly to myself during the hard times so I can reward myself with a greater sense of achievement upon getting through them. In the future, when I look back at now, these will all be the ‘good old days’ so I should strive to treat them as such now. Annoyingly this is much easier on paper than in practice. This lead me to reflect on the nature of my currently lifestyle. For almost three years I’ve largely lived an unpredictable day to day existence: always on the move, new places, new faces, sleeping rough, wondering where I’ll next find food or water, grappling with unfamiliar tongues. This abnormality has become my norm and no longer surprises me. I decided I must fight to recapture and harness a sense of novelty. I remember the simple surprises that struck me so long ago when I charged wide-eyed through Northern Europe with such heady expectations.

When the road ran closer to the river I would pass small Nubian villages of mud-walled bungalows and a little cultivated land dotted with palm trees. Thankfully there were regular roadside shelters with clay pots of cool, often-silty water, fresh from the Nile. I drank around 10 litres a day and kept water bottles cool by insulating them with a wet sock. If I opened my mouth to the harsh wind, my throat and tongue would become paper dry in seconds so I often sucked a pebble, forcing me to breathe through my nose.

I took a rest in the mid-sized town of Dongola before turning away from the river onto a little-used road running across a waterless 120 miles of desert to rejoin the river again further upstream in a town called Karima. I set off early evening weighed down with 17 litres of water and rode into the night. 30 hours later, and with not a drop of water remaining, I rolled into Karima and greedily drank a couple of litres in seconds.

Pyramids in Nubian Desert

Pyramids in Nubian Desert

There is a cluster of small, steep-sided Nubian pyramids (300 – 130 BC) near Karima and I had them to myself, happily clambering around them and the scattered ruins of a Temple of Amun built around 3,500 years ago when the Egyptian empire stretched this far south.

While passing the midday hours under a large tree with a couple of dozing men, I was stung on the forearm by a scorpion that had crawled into my pannier. The sting was a sharp jab and completely took me by surprise. I didn’t want to wake the men over potentially a trifle so I briefly searched my brain before sucking hard at the sting and spitting several times over. I plunged a knife into the small, greenish scorpion’s back and watched with cold, petulant vindictiveness as it fought; its body flailing while its fine brown sting repeatedly and desperately stabbed at the metal blade with violent futility.

My arm ached with a pulsing sting that came and went but I decided to go about cooking my lunch. Fifteen minutes later a man arrived and spotted the dead scorpion. I indicated that it had stung me and pointed to my arm which now had a goosepimply rash spreading from the sting. The man hurriedly tied a painfully tight tourniquet above my elbow and rushed me to hospital where I was given a local aenesthetic and four other injections before being turned loose. The pain grew until late that night but in the morning was no more than a faint numbness.

The road swept me south along the river for 100 miles then made a 250-mile shortcut across the desert to Khartoum. This was the hottest, driest stretch yet and the temperature soared to over 50°C in the shade. I can only guess at what it may have been under the sun. One night, while camping, the wind picked up and I was being lightly sprayed with sand. I looked upwind and saw a solid blackness swallowing the stars and the inky blue sky. I had just enough time to stuff everything into a pannier and encase myself in my sleeping bag before the hard wind wall of sand struck. The storm lasted almost an hour and a strong wind continued afterwards throughout the night. By morning my hair, beard, ears, nose, eyebrows and bags were filled with sand. My bike was half-buried and I had to dig my roll mat out.

The continuing wind blew a constant stream of sand across the tarmac that would swirl and dance in the wake of overtaking trucks. When trucks passed in the opposite direction I had to close my eyes and mouth, turn my face away and brace for the gritty wall of sandy air that slapped me.

The road to Khartoum, SudanNearing the capital, the desert supported more thorny bushes among which non-Arab, non-Nubian nomadic tribes live with their herds of camel. I enjoyed watching the mysterious beasts swagger through the sand with their inimitable rolling gait. I stopped at the reed huts of these tribes sometimes to ask for water which they hang in goat skins so the wind cools it.

Riding into Khartoum’s ugly smog cloud one morning, I crossed a bridge just below where the Nile splits into the Blue Nile (leading up to the Ethiopian highlands) and the White Nile (leading up to the East African lakes region). I was uninspired by the hot, busy city and running low on cash. In Dongola I’d been stung with an unexpected $30 tourist registration fee and, as Sudan has economic sanctions imposed on it, I couldn’t use ATMs. So, I stayed a night, visited the impressive National Museum, and set out on the 6-day ride to the Ethiopian border with $12 in my pocket.

Much more by Charlie Walker on his very excellent blog, or donate to his chosen charities here.

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