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Khartoum


Before getting to Khartoum, we would need to cross a big stretch of desert. Thus far, we had been following the Nile quite closely, which provided us quite some water refill opportunities and shade for lunch stops (although closer to the Nile we would be constantly bugged by small biting flies called nimiti- translation: ‘small annoying fly’). Khartoum is where the Blue and White Niles converge, to continue their journey Northwards and ultimately discharge into the Mediterranean after the delta in Alexandria. The White Nile drains from Lake Victoria which lies on the borders of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania (high time for a non-colonial-era name for this massive body of water, perhaps Lake Nyanza as it’s most commonly known African name). The Blue Nile drains from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and contributes the majority of water flow in the main Nile (86% in the rainy season), as well as silt. The yearly flooding was central to ancient Egyptian civilization and the fertility of the Nile Valley, but this ended with the building of the vast Aswan dam/ Lake Nasser in 1970. In February 2022, electricity generation started from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, another vast dam on the Blue Nile which will contribute a backbone of 6000 Megawatts of power to the Ethiopian grid, and be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa.


350km desert crossing and the big bend in the Nile

Just North of Khartoum, the Nile does a big bend, big enough that we decided to take a shortcut instead of following it, a shortcut which would take us 350km through the desert. We were a little anxious for this crossing, as we again had limited information about what would be available along the route, water and food wise, and also what the conditions would be with regards to wind and road quality. We stayed for 2 nights at a dingy hotel in Al-Dabbah, just before the turn off to the desert, to give our bodies a rest after the last 6 or 7 days on the saddle. Here we were shown around town by Ibrahim, and ate lentil dal with him and his brother. He came from Khartoum for work, and was now selling vegetables and fruit at a small stand. After stocking up on some fresh food and filling all our bottles as well as our 10L water bag, we took off for the crossing. Luckily, we had good wind, and on our 2nd day we managed to cover 134kms. This was a time of putting our heads down and listening to multiple podcasts and music on our earphones (thank god for them and downloaded music for offline listening on these roads). We passed a few ‘cafes’ on the route where we were able to fill up with water, and which also offered the option of goat meat pulled from (perhaps operational or perhaps not) chest deepfreezers. This route was quite heavily trafficked by trucks and buses, and the unpredictable blast of wind and sand from the front, back, or sides often nearly pushed us off our bikes when they passed. We did find some beautiful spots to camp (some more wind sheltered than others), and the last rays of sun penetrating the dust-soaked atmosphere made for fantastic orange sunsets. Seeing the sunrise as well as the sunset everyday is one of our favourite things about camping.


We often have to think of Oma when we stay in places and how much she would especially LOVE the bathrooms :)

Just before the end of our long day on the road, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we came across a big pile of watermelons for sale by a farmer and his sons. On this stretch of the dessert, there seemed to be a dry river system which provided ground water and the option for some agriculture, and some trees for camels to feed on. We ate half a delicious watermelon for dinner, and half for breakfast, what a treat. And this one wasn’t even mushy or anything, just a bit warm from being in the sun :) We had a slight money problem in Sudan (which would become a bit more than slight in a few days). We had only been able to exchange our Egyptian cash at the Sudanese border, and had been living off this until we got to Khartoum. No Sudanese ATM would allow us to draw cash from either of our bank cards. We had about 3 Euros worth of Sudanese pounds left for the desert crossing, so the watermelon which set us back 1.50 Euro was a slightly controversial but very worthwhile investment.



Biggest and best treat in a while!





Wait for the babies to enter the shot!



On our third day of cycling this stretch, we had 2 not such great encounters with people. I was cycling about 150m ahead of Emma, going fast on a slight downhill, when a young man motioned for me to stop and stepped slightly into the road. Because this is quite common, I just motioned back ‘no, sorry’ and went around him. When I looked back, he was trying to stop Emma, by standing right in her path. He grabbed her arms and also her bags as she passed, but she managed to shake him off, he sprinted after her but luckily we were going fast enough to leave him behind. 20kms or so later I saw another 2 men crossing the road from some house/cafe, and motioning for me to stop, again I said no, sorry, and greeted them. They wouldn’t move out the way until the last moment, when they both grabbed my arms and my bike bags, shouting, but again I was going fast enough to push them off. Emma was just behind me, and luckily they were focussed on me so they didn’t have a chance to stop her before she went past them. Throughout the rest of the day, whenever we saw people (especially men), we had a feeling of suspicion and skepticism towards them, which was really unfortunate. That day was also really hot and long, and the scenery not so interesting, and I noticed how the negative experience (although not terrible), was impacting my mood and colouring my general outlook on how things were going on the trip. We later discussed how exposing ourselves to so many external stimuli could be quite draining. The ups and downs of emotions themselves was draining. Some days felt as if we could just keep going forever, and everything was amazing and beautiful, others more difficult and we could tend to get stuck in our heads. On days like those, we tried to remind ourselves that it’s quite an unusual and crazy thing that we are doing, and is bound to have downsides and challenges. It is not everyday that you cycle through the desert of Sudan, or in the highlands of Ethiopia. Also a good reminder is that despite having sometimes thousands of human encounters every day (even if brief), it is really surprising how the vast majority of those are very positive encounters, and that we should try not let 1 or 2 negative ones overshadow all the others.


Camp spot on arrival

Camp spot plus Emma and bikes

A smiley, proud man with his mother and child camels

We loved the colours, shade, and wind shelter provided by the few cafes in the desert


Kitchen

On our last night in the desert, we camped behind the wall of friendly and relaxed farmer and his wife; he offered us water and gave us the space we needed, and even came around to let us know that he would be walking around the border of his farm later that evening with a torch, so we should not get a fright. According to the milestones (we had no internet to check maps), we only had about 40kms to Khartoum, so we thought we would get there early afternoon. The city turned out to be much bigger than we expected, and the milestones were indicating the distance to the outskirts of Omdurman, another big town before Khartoum. The streets were crazy busy for miles at a time, and we could only just squeeze through the traffic concoction of tuktuks, buses, trucks, minibus taxis, donkey carts, goats and motorbikes. We eventually reached the Nile again and crossed over it, just to enter the most chaotic and crazy street market we had ever seen. Each stall holder was the owner of a loud hailer advertising the prices of their fruit and vegetables, and combined this turned into some kind of manic static. We were trying to move fast at this point, because we had been told by our friends Arturo and Jeremy (who had arrived there the day before), that there was a big anti-government demonstration planned and they were advised to stay indoors. It was difficult to know whether we witnessed the demonstration or if this was just the general state of affairs. We made it to one of the big fancy hotels that charge $300 a night to stay at, and found one of the 3 ATMs in Khartoum which could supposedly handle international bank cards. After trying this one, a few down the road, and getting advice from the hotel staff and bank manager, we realised this wouldn’t work for us either because we had 2 Maestro cards, and my South African Visa card had expired just that month. We had kindly been invited to camp at the grounds of the International school, through a friend of a friend of our uncle’s, and so we finally gave up on the money hunt and went there. When we arrived we had cycled 90km instead of the 40km we had thought we would, and were quite exhausted. It turned out to be the stable and events grounds of this wealthy school, right on the Nile, and we had the whole garden area to ourselves, as well as access to toilets, a shower, a kettle and a fridge (!).


Lush campsite at the stables, everything seemed ultra-green at this point


We were able to buy 20 flat breads with our last cash, and some bananas, and luckily still had jam and emergency pasta and lentils left over. Reem, who was the school counsellor and the connection who offered us to camp on the grounds, would very kindly give us cash in exchange for a transfer to get us through our time there, and she would also help us out in so many other ways. It was great to stay there for a few nights, but it was also incredibly windy and there was a minor dust storm blowing over the city for some days, so we decided to move to the hostel in town where Jeremy and Arturo where staying, so that we could also have better access to some shops and do the bike repairs we needed. On the cycle back into town to the hostel, Emma started feeling very tired and weak with a headache. We hoped it was just a flu, and after checking into the hostel (Emma had to sleep alone in a dorm upstairs for women, while I slept downstairs in the dorm with Jeremy and Arturo), she started feeling better. We decided to do a malaria self-test just in case, which we had bought the week before when entering the low malaria-risk Northern part of Sudan. It showed a thick red positive line. Because malaria is quite common in some African countries, the treatment medication is also quite easily and cheaply available, and we had stocked up on Comether (which is a combination of Arthemeter and Lumefantrine), which was 6 pills to be taken over 3 days. Emma slept most of the next 3 days and nights, with the fever returning in the evenings, headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, chills, and intense sweating. Luckily she had the dorm to herself, and some other girls who were staying next door would bring her tea, chocolates, and offer her cigarettes. These days often reached 30+ degrees, and we were very grateful for the ceiling fans. One of the nights during a power outage, we could barely sleep due to the heat in the rooms, and again we took a moment to appreciate normally having regular access to electricity and the huge improvements to quality of life and comfort it brought.


Street scene from small restaurant in Khartoum that served the best fresh mango and guava juice and cheap falafel


After quite a lot of deliberation and looking at options, we had decided to take a flight to Addis Ababa. This would skip out about 1200km of cycling in South Eastern Sudan and North West Ethiopia. There were a number of factors that led us to this decision. We had been struggling to get up to date and reliable information about the security situation in Ethiopia, and also felt it would be strange and perhaps inappropriate to be cycling as tourists through an area that had recently felt the spillover affects of the civil war between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF. We did not have enough cash to make it to the Ethiopian border, and couldn’t keep asking Reem to bail us out. We had heard through other cyclists about a recently introduced border tax where you had to pay upfront in cash the value of your bicycles (and show proof of this by receipt), and then get the money back when leaving Ethiopia again. We didn’t have nearly enough money fro this, we also didn’t have any receipts for our bikes because we had bought them 2nd hand on eBay Kleinanzeigen (great site, check it out if you’re in Germany). We had also heard through other cyclists and through reading blog posts that Ethiopia unfortunately had a bad reputation for children chasing you and throwing stones at you as you passed. So it was a bit of an obvious call for us to take the flight, even though it would be more expensive than the costs on the road, and went against our principles of slow, low-Carbon travel.

Unfortunately, we misjudged the timing when we booked the flights a week before. Emma had malaria and was still feeling very weak and exhausted, and on top of that both of us had a flu/ cold (never know which is which). Our e-Visas for Ethiopia took longer than advertised to arrive, and we could not locate any bike boxes at all in Khartoum, so we couldn’t catch our flight. This was very frustrating and expensive for us, but after consultation and brain storming with our patient parents, we grumpily accepted the loss and re-booked flights for some days later.


Kitchen set up at the hostel, we were happy to be able to cook on a 2-plate gas stove, small luxuries

Our visas arrived, I did a deal with the bike mechanic that we could get 2 of his recently arrived bike boxes in exchange for Emma’s bike lock (which was heavy and we decided we didn’t need), as well as a spare tube and some other bits and pieces we didn’t need anymore. Emma slowly started feeling better and stronger, and we were able to rest at the hostel. Although the facilities were questionable, there was a great garden in the front with some big mango trees with chairs underneath, and the staff were very friendly and helpful. We ended up staying in Khartoum for 10 days, which was a bit of a difficult time and we couldn’t do very much because we had only just enough money to buy food, and had to ask for a discount for our stay at the hostel. But we got to walk around the city a bit, which was full of life, tuktuks, good food, small coffee and tea stalls and fresh fruit. We also got to meet some interesting people, including the hostel manager who was about to start his PhD in Arabic Linguistics and had thoughtful insights into the politics, leadership, people and potential of the country; Zekarias who was a translator at the UNHCR across the road and was quite critical of international ‘aid’ organisations; Adrien who was a fellow cyclist interested in sustainable agro-forestry and would also be travelling down to Cape Town and then perhaps up the West Coast of Africa to learn about and get involved in sustainable cocoa production. He offered us $20 of his emergency cash which would save us at the airport a few days later. We also met Talal, who was a local Sufi dancer, Couchsurfing host and cyclist, with whom Adrien and I discussed different ideas of ‘development’ being imposed from the outside, and different priorities of working people. He spoke about how he had quit his job to focus more on human relationships and simplifying life, as well as about people he knew who, after being connected to the electrical grid, decided to disconnect themselves again because they realised it was pushing them into the ‘faster, better, more efficient, not-enough-time-for-anything’ frame of mind.


The view from Emma's balcony onto the big mango trees in the front yard of the Khartoum Youth Hostel where she spent time recovering from Malaria


Finally at the airport, we had to deconstruct quite some pieces of our bikes, because the boxes were quite small and we had to fit a lot of our luggage in there as well. At the counter, we were told we would have to pay $100 each for the bikes, despite it clearly stating on the airline website that if they were below a certain weight and dimension we could travel with them for free. We also simply didn’t have any cash (and card payment was not a thing), so paying for this was not an option for us. After about 2 hours of refusing because they had to follow what it said on their system, I was finally able to show the manager the website conditions on my phone and he accepted it just before check-in closed. In the meantime, Emma was bargaining with the immigration police, because we had been informed that on top of the $150 cost each of the entry visa to Sudan, we also had to pay $20 each for an ‘exit visa’ which was a novel thing to us both. But we only had Adrien’s $20 emergency cash bill, so after Emma spoke to various police people in various offices asking kindly, they offered to give us one exit visa for free with a handwritten note to show to the further security controls. We tried to imagine these kinds of scenarios happening in Europe. Although it is exhausting at times, it definitely keeps things interesting, and so far Africans have been reminding us of their humanity through these situations. Finally on the plane, we agreed to never fly with bikes again, as far as possible. We were on our way to Addis, which would be 2000m higher in altitude, 10 degrees cooler, more lush, we would be able to draw cash to buy food (!) and we had been invited by friends of a good friend of mine to stay at their apartment for our time in the capital city :)

As always, we'd love to hear any feedback from you, in the form of suggestions, ideas, discussion, whichever!


Oscar































229 views4 comments

4 Comments


Sarah Danvers
Sarah Danvers
Mar 14, 2023

Emma and Oscar

Thank you, thank you for sharing your journey! I think of you guys everyday, and just sending so many hugs and so much love to you both! You are both so incredibly courageous and must have absolute legs of steel by now!! 😎

Love from New Zealand

Sarah xxxx

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Replying to

Hey Sarah, Haha legs of steel, arms of jelly! Thanks for the words, and it's a pleasure for sharing, it helps us reflect and process the journey. Emma showed me your hand-stand cliff jump video, I think you are pretty courageous as well!

Lots of love,

Oscar

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Tim Eldering
Tim Eldering
Mar 08, 2023

Hey Emma and Oscar, your tour, your reports, your photos and videos - this adventure is simply fascinating. We fever with you and admire your courage and perseverance from our comfort zone. Enjoy every kilometer and say hello to the world from us! Greetings from Bensberg (Cologne) Tim and Family

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Replying to

Hey Tim and Family, thank you for this comment! We are finding it quite fascinating ourselves, and feel super lucky to be able to have these experiences and meet the fantastic people along the way that we do. Our perseverance is aided by words of support from those like yourselves, so Asante Sana (thank you very much in Kiswahili)

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