Saturday, 6 February 2010


Today, we entered Africa, the Africa I know, with thousands of kids, with women carrying wood and wateron their heads, the Africa of pot holes and dirty road sides, the Africa of acacia trees blooming and colourful birds flying.

Southern Sudan is so different. Soils are now black and clearly highly fertile. There are farms as far as the eye can see, irrigation canals that date back to the English days.And kids, everywhere. The challenge of the day was not so much the 163 km distance, but pot holes and kids. Every town we passed, hundreds of them would flock into the road and run straight at us, trying to touch us or to grab us. We are most likely the biggest piece of entertainment they have ever seen. I even witnessed one busy having his day relief when he saw us and he rushed towards us with his pants half way down as he would not miss us. Most of these kids don't mean anything bad, but the sheer number of them and the excitement we create can turn the situation into something nasty. Crowd behaviour can degenerate very quickly, especially when it is made of uneducated kids. So we had a bit of good and bad as most of them would cheer us, but when some started throwing stones at us, the cheering instantly turns into something that sounds more like a war song... As a cyclist, the best thing to do is get out of there as fast as you can. You feel that you would like to give one or two a correction, but it is simply a matter of numbers. It was actually amazing to witness how a small coke stop that looked pretty empty filled and turned into a crowd in minutes. Another important thing is to ride in groups in such places, especially the female cyclists.

I personally came close to an accident, but not with kids, with a stupid young donkey that had run away! As he came towards me on the road side, I ignored him thinking that he would simply carry on straight, but I should have known better... The stupid animal veered straight in front me and I almost hit the donkey. I was going at a reasonable pace, while he was running as fast as he could, so technically I came today close to the end of my TDA... As they told us, to make it EFI to Cape Town will take a lot of pain, sweat, willingness and will require some luck as well. Oh boy... I was lucky today... The funny thing is that I managed to capture the animal as I was busy taking a photo when he appeared, so the picture is taken a second and a half before he almost hit me...

Today we also changed the tyres to off road as we are leaving tarmac tomorrow. Needless to say that camp was busy with tyre levers, pumps and hungry riders who were not getting their fat knoblies to fit easily.
                                             Sudanese women along an irrigation canal
                                            We have left camel country fro cattle country
                                          A truck had just overturned, hardly surprising given
                                          the way they drive here...
                                           The truck was loaded with sugar (driver survived)
                            This is the kind of road we have been riding on since we left Khartoum
                            2 days ago. You need to be so careful with destroyed road shoulders
                            and the enormous pot holes everywhere.
                   Along the road we came along this little shed who sold "NOKA" phones... he he...
                            Now, watch this stupid runaway donkey... I came close to finishing my
                            Tour D Afrique today as he took a fat 90 degrees turns right in front of
                            me and I came a few centimeters close to a collision... with a donkey...
                            Come on! Let's not be ridiculous here..
                                  This is the modern generation of Sudanese. They came to meet
                                  us at camp tonight. They are equipped with Nokia cell phones
                                  and are taking pictures of us...
                                                                        Adam and Sam
                              Lots of activity around our camp. Women carrying wood passing by.
                                     We are now leaving tarmac and will start dirt tomorrow,
                                     so the tyres need to be changed to off road
                                  We stopped in a little town, but so many kids rushed in from all
                                  over that the situation became out of control and we had to leave...

                              Along the road, kids rush to touch us as we are probably the biggest
                              entertainment they have ever witnessed, but is dangerous for us,
                              as most of them have no idea about keeping any kind of safety distance...
                              Some try to grab us by the arm or worst to grab our bicycles....


So today we are starting stage 2 of Tour D'Afrique. Stage 2 and 3 are the hardest and we got to realise that as we left Khartoum. South of Khartoum is another Sudan. It is very different from the quiet, and peaceful desert.Khartoum is the place where the blue Nile and the White Nile meet to become the Nile. We are now following the blue Nile. The countryside changes immediately to a dark clayish soil that looks very fertile and farms are now everywhere. Trees are also appearing and with it came the people and the traffic. The roads so far have been in good shape and with so little traffic that apart from entering some cities, they have been very safe. Well, it all changed today... The road degraded as fast as our strong legs were pedalling south... We now realised that we had had it easy but it was over. Huge pot holes, uneven surface, crazy truck and bus drivers made the ride epic and reminded us that in Africa the cyclist sits at the bottom of the food chain... So as the TDA organisation had warned us, we all had quite a few situations where we just had to jump off the road into the non existent road side made of loose gravel and sand. This resulted in a few falls, but luckily nothing serious. It is a main road leading straight into Ethiopia and it carries a huge amount of traffic. Busy truck and bus drivers have no time to slow down for our luxury ride and clearly expect us to get out of their way, so they overtake into the incoming traffic without any considerations for us. I know it might sound frightening, but you get used to it pretty quickly and when your life is at risk, you become very wise, very soon. So the trick is to listen at the traffic behind you, they do hoot and when they are telling you to get off the road, it is a long, aggressive and loud hoot, and while you evaluate the seriousness of that hoot, you analyse the situation of the incoming traffic. If you see a truck being overtaken by another and you hear hooting behind, you get off the road. So the trick here is to ride in relatively small groups of cyclist and have a good communication system in place so that the guy at the back immediately informs the rest of the group about potential danger coming from behind, whilst the guy in front keep on monitoring the incoming traffic. In between, you still have to look and signal pot holes and other hazards such as stones and bricks on the road. So riding here is a challenge, but it is ok as long as you follow these steps.

By the way, on a positive note, the temperature has dropped significantly, so that was a bonus point.

As soon as you have high population concentration, you get the littering and we are now back in the middle of a dump site at camp. The roads are also heavily littered and plastic bags seems to be the most popular flower blooming in the short acacia trees that grow along the road. The nice surprise was that the blue Nile carries a white sand and its bergs are like a tropical beach. It did not take much convincing for all riders to jump into the Nile after having their recovery soup. (this is the first thing you do as you arrive at camp, you have a bol of soup, it contains salt and it dehydrates as well).

The camp also attracted the local communities, many young people who spoke some English. All of them would like to study abroad and are begging us for help. One of them, spoke to me for a while. He had a bachelor degree and had been looking for work since 2 years without any luck. He wants to come to Europe. I tried to explain to him that Europe also had its own employment issues, but he clearly did not believe me.

Today we also the first clouds since Day 2 and it was nice to see something else than just plain blue sky.

We have a very heavy week ahead with 7 riding days without a break, that is the longest of the tour. This includes two 160 km stages (today and tomorrow), then 2 days on dirt roads, then we will have another day back on the road also a long one, and will come 2 of the most cruel days of the tour... The climb into Ethiopia. EFI's status are going to fly....

But so far so good, despite today's challenging traffic conditions, all riders made it safe and early to camp. The tailwind is still there, so it helps for clocking kilometers.

                                       We are not the only one doing their washing in the Nile

                                                        Encounter along the Blue Nile

                                              Brick makers are working hard for very low pay.

                                 The clay is mixed on the site where it is found with the cattle dung
                                 and then carried further for molding
                                                     The clay site, next to the blue Nile

                                Tony, who wasn't feeling too well today, missed the finish flag
                                and carried on straight, adding an extra 30 km to the already
                               160 km long stage....

Thursday, 4 February 2010


                                  This is how many building look like in Khartoum, quite a mess....

                                     Bread is widely available in this part of Sudan and is delicious.

                                           Khartoum is full of take away places and here is
                                        a typical menu. A meal here costs about 1;5 dollar

                                                 Daniel having his body remeasured in case
                                                 the 2000km on the saddle shrunk him....
                                                 That cost a whooping 20 cents.

                                                     Have you heard about this bank?

                                    One of the hundreds of man holes missing a top in Khartoum

                             The Nile is the only river I know that gets larger as you go upstream.
                             It is so much bigger here than 2000 km further down. I guess
                             irrigation and the lack of major affluents downstream are to blame

                                                  Did you say "Emphysema" doctor?

                                          Daniel replaying what happened to Frans last week....

                                                    Jos making that point even more obvious...
                                                 The Soccer world cup is already everywhere

                                 Walking your way through the dirty, busy and run down streets
                                 of Khartoum requires some training


Today is "rest day".... which of course has nothing to do with resting since it is the only opportunity riders of the TDA have to catch up with a million and one duties such as laundry, cell phone card purchasing, internet, bike cleaning, and shopping extra food for the days ahead. One thing we are all dying for is some salty stuff. Since we let Egypt we have found only sweet biscuits everywhere, but no chips or salty bits and given the amount of salt we lose every day through sweating, we are desperate for salty things to eat between meals. Khartoum has one "modern" shopping center called the "Afra Mall" where the entire TDA was gonna spend their Sudanese pounds today. The mall even has free wifi, so say no more...

I have a different priority and it is called DHL. I have come to this tour pretty well prepared from an electronic equipment point of view, with literally everything backed up by something else when something brakes or gets stolen. Unfortunately I am missing a crucial piece of cord between my laptop and my external power Gorilla battery, which means that at the moment the bottle neck is my laptop battery time. This little cord has been a series of bad luck. I ordered it many week before leaving for the TDA adventure but everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. It was lost in transit on its way to my house in Andorra, then a second one arrived, but is was the wrong one... and by the time I ordered a third one on Amazon, the huge snow storm that hit England delayed all postal services and I had to leave for Cairo without it. So the plan "D" was to get another one sent to my son Oscar who lives in Scotland and he would ship it straight to Khartoum via DHL. Plan "D" worked.... by a few hours, but it worked. This morning as I accessed the DHL tracking page on line I was relieved to see that my cable had been cleared by Sudanese custom at 16h03 pm yesterday afternoon and would be available for release this morning... 6 days for Edinburgh to Khartoum... That is the time it had taken us to ride 800 km on a bicycle... He he.. Imagine if we had used the postal service instead of DHL....

So the first challenge of the day was gonna be to get to the DHL office and get my cable. This will give me almost unlimited power for my laptop, a great relief, so I might now have enough time to check my text and correct the spelling mistakes. Well, lets not make too many promises...
The DHL exercise turned out to be a real expedition. Taxi drivers in Khartoum speak as much English as I speak Arabic, about 5 words... and DHL is not one of them...

So needless to say it was fun. The interesting thing here in Sudan is that as soon as people see you struggling, they stop and try to help. So within a few minutes, I had managed to gather a group of 20 men who were all trying to explain to the taxi driver what they thought "DHL" was... he he... I realized that my chances to get to DHL where smaller than finding a clean street here, so I asked the taxi driver to follow me (by now, I am getting really good at my gestures) and took him back inside the hotel where the Chinese receptionist would translate in Chinese English to the Sudanese concierge who would at his turn tell the Sudanese taxi driver that I wanted to go to DHL... And the funniest part of that story was... DHL in arabic is DHL... I could not believe that I had just been telling to 20 different people "DHL" "DHL" and none of them understood, and now the receptionist was saying "DHL" just like me and the taxi driver went "ahhh! DHL".... So, Amin the taxi driver finally knew where this strange European man wanted to go and his face was clearly illuminated with relief.

Amin's taxi was so run down that it had no mirrors, the window on the passenger side had gone missing quite some years ago and the fact that this car was still keeping together was definitely an "Inshallah" situation. (God willing). I realised that if a bicycle had to hit us, we would probably have more damage than the bicycle.... When you look at the surrounding traffic and how close everybody drives to each other, it adds a new dimension to the ride. Khartoum traffic is definitely a good place to inspire science fiction movie scenario writers...

As we were making our way between furious bus drivers and overloaded trucks, Amin offered to play some music. He pulled an MP3 player out of his pocket, plugged it in the cigarette lighter and here it was.... Celine Dion! The song was "Dans un autre monde" (In another world). How awesome was that! He he... I have never enjoyed a Celine Dion song as much as I did today, in the middle of the mad Khartoum traffic, in a taxi that does not have mirrors or even window, but has Celine Dion playing... Amin noticed how much I enjoyed Celine and played it again just like in "Casablanca" movie... By then Amin had run out of petrol and we had to stop for fuel. The funny thing is that they don't really buy much at a time, they seem to buy enough for the next 2 or 3 customers, and that is if they don't go far. Amin bought 3 liters and we carried on. I was wondering if it was more a cash flow problem than proper planning, or could it be that he did not really trust his car to live that much longer?... The next surprise aws that soon after refilling for petrol, the taxi stalled... In the middle of the traffic adding to the hooting and the mess... I had only one option, getting out and help Amin to push start... That cable really was not gonna come to me easy... But I was so grateful about the Celine Dion experience that I was ready to help Amin. After 3 attempts and being almost killed just as many times by trucks who didn't care a dime about us, driving so close as they were flying by, we finally got Amin's taxi back to life. "Starter, Starter" he shouted... So at least he knew one English word and that was the name of the disease his car had been hit with. I realised that I certainly was not the first foreigner to push his taxi and by now Amin even knew the english name for his car problem. The solution did not seem to be very much part of his plans though... But as they all say here "Inshallah"...

I felt sorry not to be able to exchange more words with Amin, he was genuinely friendly, he smiled a lot and made sure I was happy too. Great encounter. These are the little details that make such a trip extraordinary... As we finally made it to the DHL office, it turned out that DHL has 2 offices in Khartoum and it was the wrong one... He he... This cable was really going to be hard to get until the end... Once we got to the second office and I was handed my DHL packet, I kissed it and asked the staff to immortalise this moment of glory on a picture; Never ever before in my life, had I been so happy to get a stupid piece of cable....

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


That is it!

Stage one of the Tour D'Afrique is already over. We reached Khartoum after a fun riding day. The TDA staff had organised a short 20 km time trial as we left camp and after that we would ride a further 45 km before stopping at the lunch truck. From there we would all convoy into Khartoum escorted by the police. The time trial was fun. I gave it a go, although my chances to rank well were non existent on a mountain bike against racers equipped with road bikes and drop bars. I gave myself a target of raising my speed of 5 km per hour each 5 km, so I started at 30 km per hour, then brought it to 35 and then 40 but unfortunately by km 15, I was not able to go any faster than 47 km per hour. I would need a few extra teeth on the front cranks. Anyway, it was fun and it lifted the spirit of all riders who took part in the time trial. It also lifted my heart rate pretty well...

We had to wait for everybody to arrive at the lunch truck before convoying through Khartoum escorted by armed police forces. This was the not so funny part of the day as convoying is always slow and Khartoum is a hot dry and dusty place. Anyway, I kind of enjoyed it as we were given presidential treatment here. They cut the entire traffic of this huge city, just for us. The policemen seemed to be having the most fun. They kept their sirens on all the time during this 2,5 hour process and were taking the task extremely seriously driving up and down our convoy at fast speed.... The people along the road looked amazed at this strange noisy group of cyclist who were getting so much official support.

Once we got at the camping site where the trucks were gonna spend the rest day, quite a few of us jumped into a bus organised by the representative of the ministry of tourism and we were taken to one of the better hotels in town. This hotel is called Khartoum Plaza and was built by the chinese a few years ago to accommodate their own citizens. (As I have previously mentioned, China is investing big time here in Sudan). The hotel is clean, has internet and working showers, all the necessary ingredients for TDA rider on his rest day.

Khartoum is a city that frightens you first. It is so messy, dirty, windy and everything is so run down, apart from a few modern buildings. But when you start walking around you get a second impression. Firstly, it is very safe and people are friendly, except for a few touk tuk drivers. The danger though is the mess everywhere. You really have to be careful. Traffic is horrific, there are no rules as you can imagine and traffic light are more used like Christmas decorations than anything else. As if watching traffic wasn't bad enough, you must look where you are walking. This city is so run down that many man hole covers are missing creating deadly traps on the walkways. Actually one of the TDA riders, Frans from Holland fell into one last week. He saved his live by having the very fast reflex to spread his arms open as he went down. The hole was 3 meter deep. He did hurt himself and Caroline, our South African nurse had to patch his legs. But it could have been a lot worst. It happened like in the comic strips books. Three of them were walking on the side walk of a dirty street, the two in the front avoided the hole by going around while Frans who was behind missed it completely and fell in. As the two in front turned around all they could see was his head and his two arms stuck around the hole.... A classic in comic strip books... But this was no comic strip and it was really a close call for Frans...

Khartoum is full of such holes, so tonight when we were walking back to the hotel in the dark, dirty and dusty streets, we were really careful. I wonder how many locals die every year in those open traps...
The good thing about Khartoum is that it has a true African soul. Plenty of side food stalls playing music, people sitting everywhere having tea or juices, wonderful smells of grilled meat coming out of every street corner and even quite a few international names such as Pizza hut and South African Steers. It is a busy city, the streets are packed with people and vehicles, most side streets are unpaved and the wind keeps on blowing dust all over, giving it a bit of a mad max movie atmosphere. There is dirt and waste lying everywhere, but as I said, once you get over that, you get to discover a vibrant community of people. The Sudanese people are surprisingly tall and the women are really beautiful. Khartoum seems to be a lot more relaxed than the small places we have been through and most women here do not cover their face or wear only a small scarf, so these are the first sudanese woman faces we get to enjoy, and they are really beautiful.

Tomorrow is our rest day, so I'll be walking around Khartoum and hopefully will be posting some interesting stuff about this city. Not many foreigner here, that is for sure, especially ones that come on a bicycle.

                              We had to convoy into Khartoum, so we gathered all riders and TDA
                              vehicles 40 km before the finish under heavy Tourism police security
                                                                   Tourism police car

                           The goat skin in which they cool down water, a very efficient and CO2
                           emission free way to refrigerate. It really works! The water in there
                           is so cold!
                                                                       Jim at a coke stop
                                                         Gabriele enjoying a short brake

The SA clan
                                        Watch the amount of sand coming out of that shoe...