We are in the queue to buy the tickets for the boat to Wadi Halfa, it's 46 C in the shade. While we wait, two nice Egyptian tour agents get in the queue behind us and exclaim effusively the usual: “Welcome to Alaska!” to engage in a conversation with us. The ask they usual things about the trip, the bicycle, the distances and I mention to him that during the last days before Aswan the heat began to be an issue. One of them bursts out in laughter and very tenderly asks me: “Do you really think that today is hot?....wait until you reach Sudan, there, it will be hot, this is nothing” - and he takes a handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his forehead while I can feel my stomach shrinking.
Please don't sink!
Reaching Sudan is an odyssey in itself and deserves a separate chapter. There is a law that prohibits cycling from Aswan to the Sudanese border, therefore we are forced to take the boat that sails the entire length of Lake Nasser until the Sudanese side. I suspect the owner of the shipping company must have something to do with the local politics and he doesn't want anybody to ruin this exceptional business because really, there is no danger or political instability of any kind along the road. It forces virtually all the people that transit between the two countries to take this boat, the one of the only shipping line operating the route. The whole process begins at the port of Aswan, at about 8 am. It's still closed but that's when people start arriving and goods start stacking up. At 9 am when the doors open, chaos unleashes. Like in a demonstration going out of control, hundreds of people start pushing their way in through the only gate which is only 90 cm wide. It's hell on earth, the pushing, the kicking, the, the elbowing, the carts loaded with stacks of boxes, everybody trying to cut in “line” (there is no line at all) at the same time. It takes us two and a half hours of being mashed to get to the gate, go through customs, pay for the ridiculous extra fee for the bicycles, get the passports stamped and get on the damn boat. Once on it, we have to move quickly to get the bicycles to the upper deck and find refuge from the sun under one of the few lifeboats. The narrow corridors, the super steep ladders, the people pushing through and dealing with our heavy loaded bicycles makes this a true nightmare ( although the nightmare hadn't even begun). Having arrived early had totally paid off as we were actually able to find a spot under one of the lifeboats. There, far from ending, it's just the beginning. The boat starts filling slowly, drop by drop like in a bucket of water, people and packages get in until overflowing. While this happens we are under the lifeboat protecting ourselves from a blistering sun at 45C. Hours pass by and I just can't believe what's going on before my eyes. They won't stop coming in. What used to be an empty deck, now looks like a storage of piles and piles of boxes sometimes up to 2 m high with 20 cm wide corridors left for people to keep coming in and transit this maze of goods. The crowding of people and stuff is such that a miracle is the only thing I can think of to prevent this boat from sinking. It is past 6.30 pm already and we are still there docked at the port, the boat keeps filling up but we are in Islam and it's time for praying so where there was no space before, now they make it.
We finally sailed at 8 pm, the sun isn't there anymore but the air is still very hot. Underneath the lifeboat, we are not three anymore but twelve people. There is virtually no empty spot available. When I go down to the toilet I have to push my way through piles of boxes, stepping on them, jumping because it's all blocked. I don't want to be paranoid but in the darkness, I try to see how far the coast is because really I have no idea how this thing can stay afloat for the next 17 hrs. In the middle of the night, dozens of people jump on top of the lifeboats to find a place to sleep. From underneath, I look at the chains from which they hang and pray for them not to cut loose so we don't die smashed under them. The air cools down and it even gets cold. The only thing that prevents me from worrying is that we are surrounded by exceptional people, they are the first Sudanese we meet and right there, during those first conversations I realize that these people are different from everybody else, they are like truly joyful and happy inside. I find it very hard to get some sleep because of the wind, the people that accidentally step on you in the darkness while trying to find their way through, those who try to use our bicycles as ladders to get into the lifeboats, etc.
Early in the morning, I open my eyes and after expressing my gratitude for this piece of junk to still be floating, I look into the distance and get sight of the magnificent temple of Abu Simbel. Lake Nasser is the largest artificial lake in the world, it was created in the 60's and it's a side effect of the great dam of Aswan. The dam caused the complete flooding and ultimately the whole disappearance of Nubia, and the Nubians lost everything they had. They later had to choose which side of the border they wanted to settle in. This is a tragedy of which very very few people have ever heard of. They were transplanted like the Abu Simbel temple was, in one of the most amazing engineering manoeuvers to date, that relocated the whole temple, as it was, along one of the shores of the new lake.
The sun started to burn very early and we didn't get to destination until 2 pm. 30 hours have passed since our arrival to the port of Aswan the day before and now we finally reached Wadi Halfa, but with our bicycles and us up in the fully loaded deck, we were now literally trapped on the fucking boat, so we had to wait until they pretty much unloaded everything so we can find our way out. After two and a half extra hours of torture, soaked in sweat, we finally made it out of the boat, went through customs and entered Wadi Halfa, a village that once a week comes back to full life with the arrival and departure of the boat. Unlike most border towns, Wadi Halfa has a relaxed atmosphere. Streets of sand, houses of mud and corrugated steel, people are infinitely friendly, not only with us but between themselves too. Sitting on the restaurant, outside, I look at al of them and I get the feeling that they are all friends. People pass by, the stop to say hi in a very charming and friendly way, they chat with us, they invite us tea, coffee, dinner and once again I get this feeling of inner joy that comes out of them, their faces, their gestures and their smiles.
The sun's dictatorship
Aladeen, a police officer on duty during the night let us sleep at the immigration office, but he warns us: - Do not sleep on the floor outside, this place is full of scorpions!. So he opens an office for us. It is a very hot night and there's nothing worse than a bad sleep before beginning with the remaining 1000 km (622 mi) of Sahara desert. I roll over and over on my floor mat, I try but I can't fall asleep. By the time the alarm clock rang at 4.30 am, I had slept 3 hours, but we must start early, we have at least 90 km (56mi) of nothingness until reaching the first cafeteria. Starting is easy, the early morning hours are magically nice. The air is so cool that as one cycles before the sun rises, it invites to fall into the delusion, or better said, the utopian feeling, that maybe today it won't get so hot. However, the sun finally shows up in the horizon, threatening, it is this huge burning orange ball whose ascent triggers the inevitable countdown to what I can only define as a slow and relentless descent into hell fire. Its progress is imminent, the sun rises with impunity almost violently and there are no clouds around that can mitigate its power. By 8 am, there is absolutely nothing but sand and rocks all around us and nothing that stands in the way between it and us. We cycle as fast as we can because we know we must find shelter in just a few hours. By 10 am the temperature is already above 45 C (113F) and by 11 am its rays are so aggressive that its oppression forces us to run and hide like cockroaches under any stone we can find. The so-called "cafeterias" are nothing but a precarious arrangement of burning steel sheets or even straws set right on the sand where a few guys cook fuul all day in the middle of nowhere. These are the few possible shelters that appear every 60 to 90 km in this part of the Sahara. The "shelter" preserves us from the direct attack of the sun rays but it does nothing against the heat, if anything, the sheets of steel make it even worse. We lie on the praying mats to try to rest for the next 6 or 7 hours when the temperature rises well above 50 C (122F). Although here the verb "to rest" loses its meaning. It is nothing more than a way of saying as there is no possible way to truly rest. These are hours in hell during which, the heat creates like these imaginary walls that are being pressed against you, provoking an almost claustrophobic feeling. It's like being in a prison in a state of total freedom, you can run indefinitely in all directions and yet never escape it. The weather is extremely dry, at 3 to 4% humidity. So dry that the body barely sweats despite the heat and yet you can see your T-shirt and pants getting mysteriously impregnated with salt. From late morning through late afternoon the sun seems to try to raise the temperature of all things on earth to take them to a state of incandescence. It gets to a point when the sun isn't the one who abuses us anymore but each and every object and surface around us, he made them its accomplices. Everything burns and the heat comes from above, bellow, the sides; the world at 60 C (140F) is appalling, so awful you can barely breath. When the end of the day finally comes, it is time to jump on the bicycles again. The triumphant sun says farewell leaving a burning world behind that will persevere hot until very well into the night. We cycle completely lonely in the absolute darkness, headlamps illuminating our narrow path. All around us is pitch black but the air is persistently hot. It is 7,8,9 o'clock and the temperature does not want to come bellow 40 C (104F). It takes hours for the fresh air to fully come down and freshen the burning surfaces of this furnace of hell in which the world has turned into. At around 11 pm we finally lie down on the typical Sudanese stretchers made of tight threads that the cafeterias offer to those who travel these lands filled with dangerously poisonous scorpions.
Everybody warns us that we have to check our shoes when waking up and never under no circumstance to sleep on the floor. But sleep? how can anyone sleep here? It is midnight and it still is 39C (102F), I close my eyes and try to relax and breath slowly in order to be able to fall asleep but all muscles and joints are sore because of the heat, it is impossible to relax them. There are nights in which the wind is so hot and blows so strong that there is no way to find a comfortable position, it is like trying to sleep under a hairdryer. As the hours pass by, the cool air takes over and the temperature finally descends. In a place where during the daylight hours temperature soars well above 50 C (122F) it isn't unusual to wake up shivering in a 28C (65F) morning. It didn't take more than a couple of days to find ourselves at a crossroads. The best time to cycle is same as the best time to sleep. Between 3 and 7 am you can sleep or you can cycle but not both. We opted for sleeping because it is impossible to do it during the 6 to 8 hours that we stop during the day. During the days along the Nile, we would find shelter under the trees on the shore of the river, but since the temperature would drop two degrees under them, the swarms of flies, who also try to survive the heat, would make our lives miserable. The only way to avoid them was to cover ourselves with something, but how could I cover myself in this heat???. The fatigue overcomes the annoyance sometimes but I find myself in this half-conscious state between asleep and awake, shaking my body to ward off the flies that time and time again walk over my face, my arms, my legs. It is unbearable, I think they will lead me to dementia.
Getting to the shore of the Nile from the road is always worth it the extra kilometers. When the temperature goes above 55 C (131F) I don't care anymore that the river is infested with crocodiles, I ask the local shepherds if it is safe to bathe although I have already made my decision; ultimately, it is probable that the crocs can fix my knee problem. I bathe in the Nile every afternoon, I fully plunge in it with my clothes on, I give in to the elixir of its cold water, it is revitalizing.
I plunge time and time and time again, I feel the water run all over my body, it brings me back to life. I can breath again when I am soaked in its cold water. In it, we find the trick to cope with these long, burning 600 km through hell. It is not only the refreshment that allows us to continue on this journey but it is the water that we have drank every day, vital to be able to cross the desert. In a place where you need to drink at least 10 liters of water a day, the people from the desert conveniently place zirs (clay pots that keep the water cool and also filter it) along the roads and refill them every day for those who venture in this road, the water comes directly from the Nile and it is perfectly clean. Reaching the river comes with its risks though. Not only crocodiles can be a problem, but when crossing the thick fertile strip of date palms and plantations until reaching the shore of the river you may disturb the wrong inhabitant. You must be careful, you don't want to trip on what potentially is a resting Mamba, the most lethal snake in the world.
The vengeance of the dictator
In Moltaga, 350 km (218 mi) before Khartoum, the road completely steers away from the river and after days of mocking the sun using the magical waters of the Nile, the vendetta came. When reading the reports on the blogs of all cyclists that have crossed the Sudanese Sahara, you read repeatedly the remarks on the strong winds coming from the north. They seem to be chronic and dominant throughout the year. That theoretically means that the ones who cycle towards Egypt suffer it and the ones who travel south benefit from it. Friends, the mockeries of fate use to be cruel and have no scruples.
Contradicting the reports of mostly every single cyclist out there, all along the 1000 km (620 mi) until reaching the capital, we've had headwind. When you add wind to temperatures above 50 C, what you have as a result is like hairdryer of massive proportions in front of you. It not only raises the temperature but it stops you and dehydrates you at a much faster speed. From Moltaga to Khartoum the despotic sun allied with the wind unleashing brutal gusts of sand, and dust that reduced our speed to a miserable 6km/h (3.7mi/h) . Since there was no Nile or villages near us anymore, we couldn't refill our water bottles every few kilometers anymore but now we had to cover very long distances facing this evil wind until being able to find new zirs.
Hydrating yourself with very hot water is horrible, but much worse (and dangerous) is running out of it. Two days before Khartoum, we ventured past 10 am to reach a village only 20 km away. We had little water left already but it wasn't safe either to stay around in the desert under one isolate roof in the middle of nowhere. It was already 49 C (120F) at that time but the wind was gentle. We cycled 5 km pretty fast when gale winds, the worst until now, started to blow
out of the blue. With no more than an inch of water left in one of my bottles, an infernal wind and a vindictive sun joined forces to tear us apart. There is nobody on the road, the wind bend the bushes all the way and the sand, the fucking sand that covers everything, I see a thick layer of it dancing on the asphalt under my bicycle, it blocks the horizon, I can feel it in my mouth, I have nothing but thick dry saliva and I'm grinding my teeth chewing it. It sticks in my body, it goes into my eyes, it pierces through my skin, yet another non-solicited acupuncture session but this time with an outrageous temperature. We have to push so hard on the pedals to move forward to compensate for the strength of the gusts that from time to time it makes us even fall off the bicycles. I can't stop to take photos at this time but I do my best to make a video (these are images extracted from one of them)
This is not a hairdryer anymore, this is like standing behind a running aircraft's engine or having a burning iron on my face. I can feel it in my eyes, my forehead, my cheeks when the wind bends the brim of my hat all the way back. I look all around me, I look at the sky and I can swear that there is a magnifying glass between the sun and Sudan right now. At 1 pm, an unthinkable hour to be riding, we finally found shelter in a house made of mud and straws where a some children gave us water to drink. We drank desperately even when the water was disgustingly hot. Julia had already been having chills and goose bumps for the last few kilometers, that is one step before heatstroke. We threw ourselves inside the shelter, we drank as much as we could even when it felt like drinking tea and we sat and waited. It was one of the most difficult times of all the trip so far but we passed it.
Two days later we finally arrived Khartoum triumphantly where we didn't know a Sudanese family would adopt us and spoil us as part of their own family. The journey left us filthy, exhausted and very much in need of a long and well-deserved rest. It was as much of a hard journey as it was fascinating. Compared to the Egypitian Sahara, the Sudanese one is much more rugged and rougher and not as beautiful in terms of landscape but along all those days, there have been people there, the most special people we have met in the whole world, but they....they deserve a post for themselves, they are the Sudanese.