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Crossing the Nile to discover a whole new Sudan

Extracted from Tom’s excellent book Janapar: love on a bike.>/em>

The last time I’d looked at a map of Sudan, no road had been shown on the Nile’s west bank. Nothing, it seemed, existed over there at all. But now I can see palm trees and foliage on that distant shore, just as over here. And anyway, I figure, the world needs trailblazers. For people to stop treating places and experiences as products to be consumed; to refuse to allow fear to dictate where they do and don’t go.

I plan to make a small contribution to this campaign, and in order to do it I will spend the afternoon gathering intelligence in the small settlement of Faaka. This turns out to be most enjoyable, as it involves sitting in a little restaurant-hut for several hours, eating fried fish and chatting to anyone who wanders past.

‘There is nothing over there,’ says an Egyptian telecoms construction manager who pulls up in a pick-up truck. ‘There is no boat to cross. It is a wild place. No people. For at least one hundred kilometres, there is just sand.’ He laughs, clearly pleased to have put me off this ridiculous idea, and shows me pictures of his girlfriend’s breasts on his mobile phone, expecting that as a European I will approve of his progressive sense of sexual liberality.

His supervisor, an engineer from Khartoum, disagrees. ‘Well, it is beautiful over there,’ he admits. ‘There are a few people. Small villages . . .’

But he too seems to think I’m going to suffer riding a bicycle – or, more likely, pushing it through the sand for the next few days. The restaurateur appears with another huge platter of flour-coated fish steaks, lights a cigarette and fires up a small gas stove upon which is balanced a huge frying-pan full of oil. A wonderfully decorated old single-speed bike rests against the wall; someone’s pride and joy, no doubt, but the owner decides not to show up. And I have heard enough to convince myself that I am going to travel the rest of the way to Dongola, the first decent-sized town on my route to Khartoum, on the opposite side of the Nile. I’m pretty sure it will beat another few days of dodging roadworks in the desert heat.

Mr Abud, a plump and ageing Nubian with a densely wrapped headscarf and a comical bug-eyed look, regards me with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion and eventually shrugs me off as a madman. He starts the outboard motor of his tiny wooden boat and we speed off towards the midstream of the broad green river, leaving Faaka far behind amongst the receding palms. With the wind lifting my matted hair and the river spray in my face, I think back over the day, and about the spontaneity I’m finding in travel, of the way I’m starting to say ‘yes’ when the chance comes to divert into entirely unknown waters.

Like all of the nations I’ve cycled through since I found myself alone, I have deliberately done as little research as possible about Sudan. If I know two pieces of essential information (how to get in, and how to get out again), that’s all I want to know. I’m tired of the opinions I never chose to have, and I’m tired of being proved wrong, time after time after time. I don’t want to arrive in a country I’ve never visited and expect to find myself in danger. I just want to arrive and to see what is put in front of my eyes. I don’t want to know what someone else thinks the cheapest or cleanest hostel is, or where I can get the best street food in town. I want to find my own way, and whether I end up at the same place or not is irrelevant. And I don’t want to know how old the ruins are that rise up from the sand, as impressive as Egypt’s yet devoid of tourists. I want to wander around them in complete and utter ignorance, having stumbled across them by chance. I don’t care whether or not I ‘understand’. It’s no longer important. It’s not the point.

Mr Abud drifts away from the shore. I push my bike up the bank and through the palm trees, the buzz of his outboard motor receding behind me. Wandering through the undergrowth, I stumble across a faint trail and, following it, I find myself in the middle of a tiny hidden village in the sand, on the far side of the river’s fringe of trees.

Village in south sudan
I stop amongst the buildings and honk my horn. The first Nubian to peer from a shady doorway gapes in disbelief; I wave and act out my sleeping-in-a-tent mime routine and, without a moment’s hesitation, he welcomes me to camp under the tree outside his front door. The tree is infested with millions of tiny fruit flies, so I set up the tent with my eyes closed and run away from the swarms to see who I can find. Wandering amongst the brightly painted walls that sprout from the sand, I meet another man, who suggests that I sleep in the small mosque where the insect population is less zealous. I thank him, and he gives me his head-net to wear for protection from the flies. And, on returning to strike my tent and move into the mosque, I find a little silver tray on the sand by my tent. On the tray is a pot of tea, a trail of steam drifting from its spout, and next to it a small glass, a bowl of sugar and a little silver teaspoon. I stand beneath the tree, looking about, but there is nobody to be seen.

Extracted from Tom’s excellent book Janapar: love on a bike. This vivid account of a long-distance bikeride has also been made into a film. Buy both or just check out his website for some travel inspiration.  Photo courtesy of shutterstock.

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