Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Getting to Wadi Halfa

Sand storm travelling across the desert...  Glad I only caught the tail of it.

Hmmm, diesel in the petrol tank: novice error.  I wouldn't like it, and neither does my bike.  I push the behemoth back to the filling station - always amusing in the heat - and offer a few choice words to the attendants who'd filled her with poison.  I'm not completely stupid: I had 'checked' with them which pump was the correct one, and (to try and avoid misunderstandings) had confirmed this separately with the manager - he had spoken pretty good English, I thought.

Despite that, the critical information had been lost in translation.  Mental note: learn the Arabic words for 'unleaded petrol, please'.  Repeating 'benzine' leaves some room for confusion, clearly; and that, ultimately, was my error.

The most senior guy at the station is also the most sensible.  Seeing the number of toys I am throwing from the pram, he doesn't hesitate to agree that his team of mechanics will assist me now.  They set about trying to remove the key from the ignition, which seems to stump them - not a good start.  I borrow a cell phone and put a call through to Kingtec Motorcycles, down in Cape Town.

Kingtec is the private BMW service shop, run by Andrew King.  He was a voice of calm reason and practical sense when I was in town, and had since answered a couple of questions I've put to him from the road.  To my relief, he answers his cell and with characteristic pragmatism explains the solution to me.  In short, I need to drain and remove the gigantic petrol tank and clean it out.  The engine is not ruined by diesel, but needs to draw good petrol (laced with injector cleaner) in order to clean out the cylinders.  I am about to learn some more mechanical knowhow.

Two hours later, and things have gone well.  We got the tank off and, perhaps more importantly, got it back on again.  With a coughing and a spluttering, and plenty of black smoke, the Bavarian bursts back to life with a snarl.  I settle up with the garage, too (I don't begrudge them US$20, given that we had a team of five working on the bike).  My feeling of relief is huge, and somehow we part on very friendly terms - the situation was unfortunate - infuriating - but as the manager observes...  it's not the first time it's happened.

At the Horizon Hotel, I collapse into a sofa, under the air-conditioning.  The weekend traffic is horrendous out there, and in the midday heat my bike (already put upon this morning) was within a few minutes of spontaneous self-combustion.  I know the feeling.

Ships in the desert?

I call up DHL to enquire where my carnet is - the internet tracker shows it's been with the delivery courier today for seven hours already, even though the airport is only five miles down the road.  'Patience, young Jedi, it'll be there in another 90 minutes or so', is what the nice lady seems to say.

I wolf down a curry, update the blog, respond to a few emails and get a quick telephone call through to my family in the UK.  Still no sign of the carnet.

Grinning widely, the lovely girl from reception, sweeps into the dining area to announce:  the courier is here!  I jump up, grab the document and say a hasty farewell to the manager and his staff.  They really have looked after me very well.

With the temperature still nudging 45 degrees, I fire up the bike and start to plough my way through the haze.  It's a slog, so slow and frustrating - buses and carts clog the dusty road; pedestrians and tuk-tuks thread against the flow: in front of my bike and looking the 'wrong' way.  In this heat, it takes a power of concentration to stay alert.

At 5pm I'm at the outskirts of the city and the road opens up.  I chose the middle of my three route options: plenty of straight, fast highway to get me north quickly; but, one or two tourist attractions along the way.

The appeal of the desert fades fast, but still I have a long way to travel.  A sand storm blows through, but I'm lucky: the road skirts around the back of the storm and I pass by undetected.

I'm expecting the heat to dissipate quickly, once the afternoon sun slinks into the horizon.  However, I've not factored in the radiating warmth coming from the earth.  My dashboard thermometer barely drops as twilight descends and there's no point trying to sleep (outside) in this heat.  The road is in very good condition and there are few animals or people out in the desert: so I decide to drop the speed a bit, and keep riding.

Finally, at about 9pm, I pull in at the town of Merowe.  There's not much to see here - few vehicles, lots of mud-brick compounds walled and anonymous.  Clusters of men, about a dozen, sit outside mosques or around a shisha smoking water-pipes.  In their white robes and turbans, there's something a little spooky to me about these ghostly figures.

I find a quiet convenience store and sink a couple of cold juices.  There's a chap about who speaks a bit of English, so I confirm my directions with him and ask permission to rough camp next to my bike.  He's bemused and offers to put me up in his home across the street - typical Sudanese hospitality.  I decline politely, and explain I only need a few hours' sleep.  It's mostly truthful - I intend to wake early - but I'm pretty exhausted from the heat and would rather not spend the rest of the evening engaging in faltering conversation.

That was an opportunity missed - I have fond memories of homestaying in Mexico, so it's sad I've lost the will power to embrace such hospitality here.  The heat and my rush up to the ferry are poor excuses in the bigger scheme of things.

On the eastern horizon, an electric storm flickers wildly, though I can't hear any thunder.  I look around me and reckon there's been no rain here for months:  I'll take my chances tonight.  Pulling out the air-mat I lay down next to the bike and wait for sleep.  Maybe I should have taken up that kind offer...


In Sudan, 5.30am is the first call to prayer.  I'm praying for a cooler day, but know that with 650km still to ride, I must make the most of the early morning.  Time to get up.

650BC: Nuri Pyramids - old and ransacked...
Up the road, I find the pyramids of Nuri: architecture from the 7th Century BC.  They're pleasant enough, visible from the road and in the gentle morning sun seem enticing.  On the other hand, I'm not going to sink the bike into the sand dunes, nor try to walk out there myself in all my kit.  I satisfy myself with a good look, then ride west a way. 

Next up, Merowe's better known pyramids, only 10 miles west.  These pyramids are in better condition, and presumably restored, but it's interesting to see how they must have looked when the original project completed.  (Did they have construction law issues back then, too?)  The angles are steeper than your classic image of Egyptian pyramids, and these Sudanese examples are peak-less without being pointless - if you see what I mean.

300 BC: Merowe Pyramids

At 8am I'm riding the desert road proper, again.  The landscape varies a little, but there must be sand in the air - there's none of that crisp see-for-miles clarity I loved in Ethiopia.  No, it's very drab and very dry.  This landscape also lacks any cactus plants, such as those I enjoyed seeing in Mexico, for example.  All deserts were not created equal.

Towards 10am the heat becomes soporific.  I play games in my head to delay dropping off; then stretching exercises, and now I switch to singing and yelling to keep me alert.  There's nowhere to stop and rest on this desert stretch, and with every twenty minutes the temperature goes up another degree.

I reach Dongola, a major junction of desert roads, and shelter in the shade of a truckers' stop.  There's a surprisingly good breakfast here, and cold drinks.  Aaaahhhhhhh.  Twenty minutes of rest.

Restored... Or else I want the contact details of the builder
Back to it: I have to cover miles before noon.  Another stint of two hours .  The Nile is on my left all the way, and I catch occasional views of the mighty waterway when the road presses up close.  But then, it sweeps out to the desert again, and any thoughts of water start to torment me.  I'm not joking - I can well imagine how quickly this would get serious if circumstances changed.

At Ashabar, I pick my final stop.  There's no fuel here, but I have enough so don't worry about that.  No cold drinks either, but even room temperature Sprite is better than the hot water sloshing in the stash on my bike. 

The locals are friendly - everyone is, it seems, in Sudan.  They admire the bike and proudly show me a metal-detector kept behind the counter, in an odd kind of boys-with-toys bonding moment.  Yet, it's hard to think them strange, when I'm the idiot in the desert dressed like a Scandinavian.
We do have some common ground: the road to Wadi Halfa, they assure me, has far more bends and will be much better riding.  They're correct, of course, and in eighty minutes more I reach the end of the road - it was quite fun that last bit, or perhaps I was getting excited to have completed the journey?

Wadi Halfa

Wadi Halfa rocky outcrops.  Good for sunsets.

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