When Your Ship Has Come And You Can’t Get Off – Welcome To Egypt

Another night with no sleep. My roommate slept soundly but I was sweating in my sleeping bag and only tucked my body in there because I just didn’t like what was crawling around the place. I eventually gave up and just lied on the thing until I heard screaming children. I got up to do the usual morning business in the scary bathroom opting against the shower, though I really wanted one.

When I got back to my room my roommate was praying. Wishing not to bother him doing the ritual that is required for devout Muslims, I left my gear with the owner and walked to the train station where a gathering of people were waiting for someone to open the door of the railway car. The first car was quickly loaded but no motorcycle. Hmmm. I was getting worried. Then the second car. After more than half the stuff was unloaded I saw dock sitting there, dusty, dirty and looking lonely. When it came time to unload the beast it was evident they’d done this before. They had a secure ramp and we quickly wheeled Doc down and I headed back to the hotel.

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Rail yard in Wadi Half, Sudan. Upper left are cargo cars that sat locked all night.

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Doc managed okay but if you click the photo on the right you’ll note that the fibrous material in the sack you see on the left is much lighter than air and creates a neat effect.

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Outside Mazar’s office waiting for news on my ferry ticket.

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Sudanese beauty in the always colorful clothing.

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Even in Wadi Halfa there are no shortage of smiles.

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Sitting on the edge of the largest man made lake in the world. Lake Nassar which was created by the High Dam in Aswan Egypt.

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The colorful Sudanese women walk with their thermos of hot water and tea.

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Getting ready to ride the ramp to the Ferry that will take me and Doc to Aswan in Egypt.

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All systems go.

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Up the first ramp only to wait. This ferry never leaves on time.

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On the boat but my bike isn’t.

If you’ve been following the details of my journey through Ethiopia and Sudan, you know that dealing with Sudan in terms of getting a Visa, the requirement and cost to register with the police and the push they gave me to get out of the country in a week or less. Egypt, I’ve been told, is the most bureaucratic country I’d likely deal with. While Libya has it’s uniqueness, nothing can match Egypt. I checked in with Moez’s brother Mazar whose office was a few hundred feet from the bed in which I slept last night. Moez had arranged with him nearly a week ago to secure me a reservation in a first class cabin and space for my motorcycle. And this ferry that leaves only once a week is the sole and only way to get into Egypt from northern Sudan. If you’re not on that ferry you’re relegated to a week in Wadi Halfa, and while it’s picturesque enough thanks to the colorful people to hold my attention a few hours while Mazar coordinates with immigration and customs, I can’t imagine staying here another day. It’s hot, dusty and there is nothing of interest other than the sweet people — and the donkeys, of course.

After some confusion and waiting in Mazar’s office, his assistant shows up and tells me that I should head to the ferry landing/port. I ride the short distance to the ship only to get shut out by the guards. Seems I have to have a ticket in order to bring the bike in. More confusion but I finally am admitted and that’s when Mazar tells me that there’s been a problem with my first class cabin. Seems that my ticket was unavailable. I expressed concern because I had many loose items on my bike that I wanted to secure behind locked doors. Only those cabins have this ability. Another rider who took this ship a year ago was ripped off. There was another option that a couple guys from the U.K. took advantage. You see this is a passenger ferry – there’s no room for vehicles. My bike would simply get loaded in through the main door and stored in a small space near the stares that lead to the 2nd level and then to the open air 3rd level.

The British chaps were traveling by Land Rover. All vehicles are loaded on an independent “barge” which leaves Wadi Halfa 8-12 hours later. The British guys decided to just stay with their vehicle and ride on the barge — which technically isn’t allowed but Mazar had made arrangements. I could’ve put my bike on the barge and set up camp there. But I was hoping to land in Aswan and start the laborious process of getting my bike legally imported (temporarily) into Egypt. The ferry is supposed to leave at 1pm on Wednesday and arrive sometime Thursday morning. In the Arabic world weekends are Friday and Saturday — everything shuts down. So I was idealistic in hoping that we’d land early, I’d get things sorted out and possibly have my bike ready to roll on Thursday afternoon.

So now it looks like I was relegated to 2nd class, which was simply the 2nd level sweat box with bench seats and little ventilation in close proximity to a highly aromatic head. It took an hour to clear the bike and clear my visa and get my passport stamped. Then I rode my bike onto the dock and parked it outside the ships door where I was told to wait. And i waited. 1pm came and went. And I was still sitting on the dock. After about another 5 carloads of passengers and very voluminous “stuff” I was given the okay to ride the bike onto the ferry and tuck it into a little cubby. I put it up on the center stand and secured it with some tie-downs. Mazar told me not to worry as when the ferry landed in Aswan, Egypt my bike would be the first thing unloaded. So maybe there’s some justice to all this waiting and cramped conditions. And I’d be able to start working on the Egyptian process of importation that much earlier.

Mazar feeling bad that my faded dream of a cabin with a bed and a lock on the door faded like the paint on the of this ferry walked me to the ships control tower to meet the captain and a few other notable “VIPs”. With some deliberation I was given authorization to store my bags in the captains quarters for the duration of the trip. Then I thought where would I sit? Where would I sleep? Hell. Sleep is overrated. I haven’t slept the past three nights, why start now?

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Faces from the ferry and the last Sudan sunset.

I spotted my cabin mate friends from the train. They’d secured a small piece of the ships upper outside deck, so I plopped my backpack, sleeping bag and mattress. Checking on my bike I was a bit ruffled to find two elderly woman had set up a mini-mall around my bike. Someone had put something on the seat which I quickly liberated and returned to its owner. With the help of another English speaker, I asked the ladies to keep off and keep and eye on my motorcycle and bought a little snack for the favor. Soon others were trying to secure boxes and bulging sacks on and around the bike. I had to sit on the steps and watch for an hour or more as they were still loading the ship.

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The deck looks pretty spacious a couple hours before departure. Things changed by nightfall.

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Prayer time on the upper deck.

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Starting to pack them in. Again, we’re smiling!

We didn’t set sail until after 3pm. Just around sunset over the loudspeakers of the ship they started the Muslim prayer session. Dozens of men on their hands and needs bowed in the direction of Mecca while the prayer leader sang over the ships speakers. The sunset over Lake Nassar was spectacular. At night every inch of space on the upper deck and in the filthy second class cabin below was taken. While hot during the day, the night on the water and curled up on that deck as the wind whipped ferociously and cold. I had a very decent backpacker air mattress and my warm sleeping bag. Others had only the clothes they wore or very light sarong type material. As the night lagged on the area around me shrunk as bodies were lying on top of each other often on top of me. I’d roll over. Then get pushed. So I pushed back. In the middle of the night one guy probably looking to take a piss stepped right on my stomach. He couldn’t see me, but that didn’t matter. I screamed a gurgling yelp to let him know my disappointment. Even so, I think I had the most comfortable sleep of what turned out to be a cold and windy night.

I woke up for sun rise and for the next several hours simply jotted in my journal while checking in on Doc. As the First Cataract at the High Dam of the Nile River appeared on the horizons my friends were gleeful and eager to show me the first signs of modern Egyptian civilization.

Lake Nassar, created by the construction of the High Dam at Aswan, and at about 300 miles long and nearly 10 miles wide at its widest point it’s the largest man made lake in the world, Built in the 1960’s under the direction of then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nassar, creation of the lake displaced more than 100,000 Nubian inhabitants, most of whom lived there for multiple generations. Even more, it flooded a number of important ancient historical sites including Abu Simbel,a monument that competes in grandeur with the tombs of Valley of the Kings and even the Great Sphinx of Giza. The notion of losing such symbols spawned an unprecedented international rescue effort to save and relocate these legendary monuments.

As we approached the port at Aswan we idled on the lake until a boat carrying Egyptian immigration authorities could board the boat and begin the immigration process. Upon review of the passenger list the boat docked at a little before noon. But that’s all we did. Dock. About 45 minutes later I entered the galley and dining room where the Egyptian officials were set up in a temporary office. Then everyone on the boat crammed into the stairs, the landing pads and the deck lining up to get cleared into Egypt. When it appeared that everyone had cleared and a few officials debarked the ship, other officials blocked the exit door. Seems we were in a stale mate.

There was no communication, only a crammed stairway, hallway and hundreds of people pushing me and doc. I was tired of the physical contact. So I mounted the motorcycle and sat and watched. This gave me a birds eye view of the heads of people packed up against the exit door. An hour passed. Then two. I spotted a few new friends and asked for info but was answered with just shrugs. Then I thought, this is crazy. We sat on the lake for an hour now we’ve been sitting at the Doc for two hours. “Let’s Go!” I yelled capturing the attention of nearly everyone sharing our tight quarters including the three Egyptian officials, though I’m sure only a handful of them could understand me. I started clapping my hands and was acknowledged by the raising of a couple dozen hands clapping as well.

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The mini-mall set up by these women around Doc. Later product and sacks and luggage would be packed all around the bike – and these women.
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We’re docked but we can’t get off.
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This crowd in front of my bike and on the staris to the left crammed in this small space for three hours or more. I eventually was given the go ahead to wait outside while my bike waited for me inside.

There was no place to move. I sat on Doc while the women who’d set up their mini-mall were pressed up against the bike. Often someone would squeeze down the stairway trying to make it to the landing. But for what? I’m not sure. The crowd simply grew denser as the hours clicked by.

“Come on! Let’s go!!” I tried the tactic again. And to my chagrin my cabin mates were now in attendance and began mimicking me, “Let’s Go!” they’d repeat. Hearing this and catching eye contact Is simply raised the euphemistic question, “Atbara?” and was returned with much laughter and smiles. After creating enough noise and confusion amongst all in attendance the chief official with the most medals, pins and bars on his uniform motioned for me to come. Okay, I thought, now I’m going to Egyptian jail.

I squeezed myself through the mass of humanity stacked against the door until I go to the officer. He asked me to step outside then pointed to a bench just outside the ship. More guards stood by the opening of chain link fence. On the bench was a german backpacker I’d met the day before on the ships deck. The official said here, he speak English you talk. I guess this was the best way to shut me up and to stop shouting things in English: let me off the ship and next to another “gringo”. Though off the ship, it was clear no one could leave the custody of these Egyptian officials.

Another hour passed. It was 5:00pm we’d been docked for four hours and everyone was still standing and waiting. No one knew why. No one could tell us anything. One more faded dream for worldrider, too. There was no way my bike would be released today, tomorrow, the next day or even on Sunday or Monday as these were holidays in Egypt. Seems they have quite a bit of them, too.

Finally about 6pm the boat was released. No reason. No words. No comment. Half-hour later I rolled doc off the ship only to find the battery was dead. I enlisted a porter to watch my bags while some ship-hands to help me push start Doc. It took a couple attempts and got the bike started. It ran real rough and was vocalizing its discontent with a boat ride. Sadly I could only ride the bike into the customs office where it would need to sit for no less than four days until the insurance office opened, the traffic police office opened and the inspection facility opened.

I was in for more wasted days. I grabbed a mini-bus into town and found a place with a view of the Nile and the coldest beer in town. I’d worked hard for that beer. And though I needed a shower, shave and much more, the beer and a comfortable seat was my best medicine.

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Welcome to Egypt.

Casey Jones. Riding The Train of Dreams in Sudan.

After a peaceful yet sandy night sleeping in the shadows of two thousand year old pyramids in the Nubian desert, I had to make some hard decisions. I’ve got three days now to get to Wadi Halfa. And I need to do that without any hiccups. Given that my bike has a tendency to overheat and the sand is going to be challenging as a solo rider hoping that if I do get stuck or fall repeatedly that guardian angels will be there to help me. And nothing could interfere with the government of Sudan’s mandate that I exit the country within the seven days of entering.

What’s it all mean? I hate to do it but I’ve got to be prudent and smart. Though in some people’s minds embarking and continuing this journey wasn’t very prudent nor smart to begin with, so why change now? I’d rather not get into a battle with the Sudan immigration nor customs police. Plus, I don’t want Doc to overheat in the desert and be stuck without water. What should I do?

Take the train. I confirm that temperatures reached 50º today. I’m thinking it’s a smart move to ride in a shaded railway car to Wadi Halfa. Or maybe not?

I alerted my friend Moez who confirmed I could get a seat in first class on the slow train to Wadi Halfa. Now first class sounds very comfy and a bit extravagant, doesn’t it? Not so. The difference between first class and second class merely merely a cabin with six seats vs a cabin with eight seats. I needed to secure passage in the cargo car, too. Doc would be tied down for the 24-hour trip through the desert. I stocked with 9 liters of water, some biscuits and a huge duffel bag that I could stow away my helmet, riding suit and boots.

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The desert is lonely yet lively. Sleeping yet alive. And desolate yet inviting.

The train leaves tomorrow (Sunday) morning at 8:30am. I show up the day before (Saturday) to pick up my ticket and load Doc onto the train. It’s a bit frightening. But the bike loads first. A platform full of cardboard boxes wrapped in twine, mattresses, hose, household items, chairs, tables, there’s even a refrigerator. I’m a bit nervous. And i flip the cargo chief a handful of Sudanese pounds and tell him not to load anything on top of my bike nor lean anything on it in the cargo car. Moez has words with him and ensures me that all will be okay. I woulda believed him because next I’m told that my confirmed first-class ticket is not confirmed any longer. But don’t worry. I’ve got passage — in 2nd class.

Arriving the next morning I board what will become that train ride I will always regret. It’s madness. My tax gets me to the loading platform amidst a chaotic scene where people are running everywhere and trying to shove into a few train cars. It’s a scene out of a Charlie Chaplin or Marx Brothers movie. The taxi guy leaves and I’m standing with a huge duffel bag, two Ortlieb dry bags, my Camelback Backpack and, ready for the 50º (122º C) ride inside this train. 9 liters of water. Where am I supposed to go?

A few seconds later in classic Sudanese style the taxi driver is back and he’s found someone to help me find my cabin and carry my things. When I get to the cabin which is about 8 feet by about 5 feet, there are already seven guys, six Egyptians and one Sudanese. Now me. But it’s packed with luggage under the seats, on the overhead shelves, and under their feet. We cram everything in and in classic sardine style I find a seat on the bench and scrunch my body together and wait.

What happens for the next is a blur and likely the most uncomfortable 40 hours I’ve ever put myself through. Beyond that there’s no room in our tiny cabin, the train doesn’t leave on time. But because of the shabby condition of the tracks the train can’t go much faster than about 40 kph (25mph); most of the time moving much slower. Plus, it often broke down in the middle of nowhere where hours passed by and people in droves exited the train to escape the madness. It made four or five scheduled stops at stations along the way and these were always delayed as more people loaded and unloaded. I tried to locate the car my bike was stored, but this proved to be difficult. At times the train would rock back and forth in a heaving and jerking motion that I thought would have Doc doing the same. I prayed all would be okay.

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Crowds jam the platform and try to squeeze through the doors as it’s a run for any possible real estate where they can cram their goods.

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My cabin mates were friendly enough. They offered me bread and cheese and while only two of them spoke any English we managed to have dozens of conversations and joke-telling sessions. There was no place nor room to sleep. But one of the Egyptian guys kept dozing off during the day, night and about the whole time. Only the weight of his heavy head kept flopping up and down on my shoulder. There was no place to move, until one of the other guys got up, I quickly moved to take his seat while the head that rested on my shoulder crashed down on the guy next to me before bouncing on the seat. Finally he woke up.

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I’d spend nearly forty hours with my cabin mates, often vying for valuable seat space or when someone gets up the chance to set your head down, if only for a couple minutes.

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They’d try to connect on the cell phones and sometimes it’d work. THen they’d play games, share videos and exchanges files via Bluetooth with me.

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We’d do anything to keep out of the sun or to find some sort of solace in the shade. A thermoter pegged temperatures at 50ºC (122ºF) inside that cabin. Part of me was happy I wasn’t battling the sand for three days in this heat, the other part of me just wanted to be out there and out of the train — riding my spirit high.

In the narrow alley way the ran the length of the train sat and slept dozens of people on the floor. Getting up to stretch one’s legs or take a woke was an exercise and test of balance and patience. At one point along the journey the water was running through me and I couldn’t wait for a stop so I made my way to the bathroom passing sleeping people, nursing babies, and crying kids. The stench of body odor was enough to make me nauseous. Outside the bathroom there were about 5 Muslim woman blocking the door while a stack of cardboard boxes teetered behind them. I needed to piss. I did my best but couldn’t manage and accidentally stepped on one of the woman and by the look on her face causing her great pain. I didn’t know the world for “sorry” in Arabic so I just used Spanish. Don’t ask me way but it came out. The bathroom was a stinky ugly rusted bucket the smelled of urine, feces and looked as if things were growing on the walls and floor. The hole in the floor that served as the toilet provided a great view of the tracks and railroad ties that zipped by — rather slowly – confirming once again were going nowhere fast.

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The saving grace was stopping along the way. At least I could change the scenery and stretch the legs, but I’d always worry I might lose my seat in the train. Thankfully the Egyptians kept tabs on me and my things.

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Bulletin board post at one of the stops along he way.

Along the path I knew a major milestone would be Atbara, though not even halfway along the route, I just expected the station Atbara to come up any minute. The train kept stopping and I kept asking “Atbara?” It became a joke and soon all the guys in my cabin would ask “Atbara?” any time the train would stop — and it stopped often — sometimes just for the hell of it — or often as either the train or tracks ahead would need repair for going on or the engine needed a piston changed. The first night on the train was a nightmare. In fact the whole ride was a nightmare. Packed in that little cabin our small group quickly became friends. The comfort of the quarters forced us. They would start showing me joke video clips on their cell phones and often posed for my camera — as the only thing I could do to keep my mind off the fact I was frozen in a seated position with nowhere else to go for almost two days. Sure, I got off the train when I could.

“Atbara?”

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I wanted Atbara to come so badly. It finally did. In the wistful black of a desert night. Ahhh, Atbara.

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Some places we stopped there was no platform, no station. Just a cropping of cobbled homes and warn tracks. They’d come to our window trying to sell something.

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On the right is the perennial sleeper. At least now his head is held up by the side and not on my shoulder or falling into my lap. Normally when the train was running there’d be four sitting on this bench. And four on the bench opposite from where this shot is taken. It was no place for the claustrophobic.

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At each scheduled stop (there were five or six in forty hours) everyone would rush to the water source — a pump that brought water directly from the Nile — the source of life here in Nubia and the fertile Egyptian valley we were headed for.

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The ubiquitous donkey, some packages of USA aid products and another dusty Sudanese/Nubian town along the Nile.

A young guy dressed in a long white robe and sporting a Muslim hat invited me into his cabin which with two less people seemed like a room at the Ritz. He kept asking me questions in Arabic which were difficult to translate by those who barely spoke English. But he played me prayers in song from the Koran and using Bluetooth sent me one to my phone, while I reciprocated and gave him some Dylan and Knopfler.

Chai (tea) seller would stumble over the people draped all over the floor outside our cabin and poke his head in, “Chai?” And he’d hand out small juice sized glasses full of tea flavored with a mint leaf. He had six or seven glasses. And he used these glasses, the same ones, for all forty hours selling small cups of tea. When we stopped other sellers stepped on or walked up by our window offering everything from bread, Muslim robes, jeans, spices and more. Free enterprise, I thought, but what a hard sell.

In our cabin we all played the shifting game. That is moving our bodies within the confine of small narrow and tightly vertical space. We tried not to borrow someone else’s space, but inevitably we needed the stretch, no matter what the other thought. This is the language of traveling in close quarters. We’re living on top of each other. Like it or not.

It was hot. Day and night. I needed sleep. I managed to sneak a seat next to the wall. At least I could try leaning my head against the wall and try. It didn’t work. But I might’ve dozed in and out for a ten minute period here and there. I was so uncomfortable and losing my patience. But I couldn’t do anything. I kept my eyes closed hoping that my friends wouldn’t disturb me and I could hang onto the corner seat as long as possible. Hours later I felt compelled to give it up.

The sun glared through the window and we all tried to shade ourselves. We didn’t want to block the breeze either. I was offered more bread and cheese. I shared my water — which is funny — at each of the stops passengers would like up at a pump that brought water straight from the Nile. I was offered this water on many occasions and turning it down puzzled my friends. I tried to explain that this western digestive system wouldn’t react too well. But I don’t think this idea was translatable. I’d just rub my belly and then put a finger in my mouth mimicking a gag reflex. Even this didn’t seem to be understood. Oh well. I had my purified water.

While walking the platform at one stop I noticed there were more than a dozen people on the roof of the train. They were riding through the heat of the desert atop the train. While they had much more room than I, the heat and the sun must be killing them. Then again, they’re used to this, all of this, they live here.

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I’d do my best to secure the seat next to the wall so I could lean my head against it. I’d put in my earbuds and just crank up my iPod hoping that the nightmare would soon end.

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Try to take a walk down this hall to get to the bathroom or simply to get off the train at a scheduled or unscheduled stop. Madness I tell you. Madness.

It seemed with every stop more people crowded the narrow alley way outside our cabin. At one point a guy slowly weaseled his way into the cabin. No there were nine people. But my large Egyptian friend had words and the guy disappeared only to reappear by poking his head in the cabin now and then. We were all headed to the same place: Wadi Halfa and then Aswan, Egypt. I knew I’d be in Egypt and eventually make it to Cairo to pick up a tire, but these guys all had set destinations and plans. One to Luxor, another to the Red Sea. Two guys were headed to Cairo while another would make it to Alexandria. They’d be traveling for days like this. I couldn’t wait to get back on my motorcycle.

That’s where the difference between freely traveling by bike and traveling at the whim of mass transit separates the adventurers from the travelers. If this train ride taught me anything is that I don’t want to travel any other way. I imagined what air travel must be like outside the major hubs. Busses? It’s a living hell. There’s no freedom and the whole forty hours I had no idea what was going on. I did know one thing: the ferry in Wadi Halfa wouldn’t leave until this train arrived.

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When the train would stop in the middle of nowhere we’d have to wait hours sometimes. People would get off the train and and just lie down and sleep on the sand.

At 9:48pm two nights later (Tuesday) we arrived in Wadi Halfa. The ferry would leave the following afternoon.

Nearly every hotel — and that’s using the term liberally — was booked. I’d been told earlier to just camp out in the desert and to avoid the Wadi Halfa hotels. But my camping gear was on the train and nothing would come off the train until the next morning. So stuck in this tiny and wacky town I needed a room. One of my Egyptian friends, the guy who spoke some English, befriended me and we found a poor excuse of a room and through down our things before grabbing some boiled goat meat, rice and a soft drink. If there was one time I needed a cold beer, this was it. But I’m in Sudan. Keep dreaming.

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Ahhhh. My fave. Boiled goat meat, potatoes, hot sauce and a nice fresh veggie salad. Welcome to Wadi Halfa.

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My Wadi Halfa executive suite. I made it. And I’ll have my Sudanese visa stamped tomorrow and be on that boat to Egypt. In seven days. No more. No less.

Sudan: When It Comes To Desert I Think of Sand.

Once you cross the Nile River and head north out of Khartoum things turn desolate. Come to think of it riding into Khartoum from the south things were pretty desolate. But strategically located at the confluence of the Blue and While Nile rivers, Khartoum is capital to the largest (in size) country in Africa. And while north of here by many days riding is the rich Nile River Valley that is home to some of the oldest and very interesting antiquities of civilizations long ago, it’s no wonder that before these lands were divided by political boundaries that kingdoms stretched for thousands of miles in all directions. So wandering the blistering hot Nubian desert, and with less than five days on my Sudanese visa I embarked my “test” ride of this mind boggling land.IMG_5825_2.jpg

While the most famous pyramids and those we immediately think and visualize when we hear “pyramid” are located in Giza outside Cairo in Egypt, Sudan is home to the largest collection of pyramids in the world. And like Egypt there are ancient temples, tombs and ruins of palaces long ago diminished by the raging sand storms that wreak havoc on the nomads wandering these lands. So it was with much angst and excitement I embarked into the sands of Nubia.

When one thinks of Nubia typically it is the region between Aswan Egypt, where I’m headed in five days or less, and Khartoum where I’ve been for the last couple days. Moving north or south along the Nile, Nubia’s landscape changes frequently and rapidly, largely due to the regions proximity to the longest river in the world. According to online dictionaries, the region of Nubia is in “the hottest and most arid region of the world” and civilizations that live and have lived there depend “wholly on the Nile”.

The gnarly task ahead of me was not only to find some remnants of cultures dating back to 6,000 BC but trying to grasp some concept of the rich history of the region all along trying to make the nearly 1,000-km trip — nearly half of which is paved or in some sort of paved condition – in four days or less. I stopped in Shendi a few hours outside of Khartoum for fuel, a cool drink and to get out of the sun. So far Doc was holding up, but we’d been going at speeds sufficient to keep the 650cc single-cylinder motor cool.

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Not more donkeys than Ethiopia but seems much more donkey darts.

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In Shedi even the donkey cart pilots use mobile phones.

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Something I never saw in Ethiopia nor Botswana, here in Sudan they ride the mules and donkeys.

An hour north of Shendi temperatures were already pushing 42º C (nearly 110º F). I needed more water. Another couple hours and I was ready to head into the desert off the paved road. This would be the first test of my endurance, the bike’s ability to stay cool and the condition of the corrugated and sand roads I’d contend with further north.

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Desolate desert calls for extreme measures in home architecture and construction.

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With temperatures pushing 110º, I stocked up on more water here. I especially like the sole chair sitting in the sun.

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Nomads with dozens of donkeys cruising the desert.

It wasn’t so bad. I big squirrelly here and there. My plan was to get to the base of some of the pyramids and set up camp. The Nubian people, like the Sudanese, earn Best of Class and Gold Medals in the WorldRider competition of most friendly, selfless and hospitable. But there weren’t any people out here. Yet. I crossed over a couple sandy parts that were sort of like washes. I’m not an experienced desert rider nor do I have much confidence when it comes to riding in deep sand, but I attack it with zeal and each time I gain more confidence and learn more — often the hard way.

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Sand. And lots of it.

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The road seems okay. I can do this. But let me think. Let’s see. Hmmmm.

I came across some ruins – pyramids – and set my sites on a camp site on the back side of them. Then the track got sandy. Deep. And tough. The “hot” engine light started glaring as I kept my bike in lower gear but at mid to high revs as I trudge through the stuff. I didn’t want to stop in fear of not being able to get going again. But the bike was getting hot. I kept on figuring this couldn’t last more than a few more kilometers. I didn’t have to wait too long. I was proud of myself. I’d rode the sand damn well without falling. But then it happened. I simply got stuck. The more I tried to go, the deeper I’d get. Shit. I tried the ole trick where you topple the bike over, fill up the hole you’d just dug and get the bike up again. Amazingly cause I of the panniers and the relatively deep hole, I actually got my bike up straight. That was encouraging. But wasn’t good for my confidence nor my now sweating and heart-pumping body. It had to be 45º C. I started undressing. It was so hot. There was no one around. Though I knew I was close the pyramids where a gatekeeper and likely some locals would be hanging. I could walk there and get help.

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Things took a turn. The first time I got stuck, I managed to get out. But….

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Well Ewan & Charlie fell numerous times in this desert, but they had a crew following them. Me? I guess I had a few nomads and a camel as my guardian angels?

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Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea???

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These wandering Nubian Nomads – where do they come from: where do they go?

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Things weren’t looking good until I popped my head up from the mess the bike and I got myself into. A camel and three nomads were approaching. I’d heard that you’re never alone out here, but this proved the point. It’d been less than half and hour. I was happy. I was lucky. We got the bike up and they helped push me (key to getting up and over that sand) and I finally toiled my way through the sand to the pyramids. When I got there I was told there was an easier way with less sand. A few 4×4 trucks sat at the entrance, one with UN markings and a handful of other camels and a few locals selling trinkets. I got the nod to ride my bike closer to the pyramids, albeit through more sand — hey, nothing like practice — and began to set up camp.

The night was bliss. As the sunset casted amazing light on the pyramids. It was so quiet and the stars that enveloped the black sky were the perfect show to watch as I lay quiet in my tent. And save the unfortunate windstorm that filled my tent up with sand and made for a rather tough night of sleeping the morning sunrise and a walk around the pyramids with a friend and his camel made this night one of the most memorable on the trip.

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Sitting out here in the Nubian. Pyramids. Tombs. These are estimated to be from around 200-300 A.D.

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I’ll stop and camp here.

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Looking at Doc as the sun rose through the sheer screen of my tent.

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Buried in sand after one night’s sleep.

I was up earlier than I’ve ever been on this trip. With that sunrise and the vast desert and it’s moonlike landscape and ocean of sand glowing orange and red. There were two ways to get out of the pyramid area. The deep sandy way and the slightly deep sand and corrugated 4×4 track. I chose the track. But found myself locked in. There was a gate by the now abandoned guard shack. And a big chain and padlock on the gate. There was a big wall and then an ocean of what looked to me like hungry quick sand — at least when it comes to 500lbs. of heavy metal trying to cross it. I jotted in my journal and waited. First a couple camels showed up. I took a walk and a bit of ride on one. Then the first gatekeeper showed up. He didn’t have the key. The other guy would be there in thirty minutes. I waited. After an hour the gatekeeper picked up the cellphone and called someone. Yes. With no obstructions even way out here in the desert, there is cell coverage. After hanging up he walked over to the lock and chain and pulled the lock off the chain, opened up the gate and let me out. The lock was never secured. Just goes to show you. Perception is everything.

I squirreled out and continued on.

Ramblin’ In Khartoum. Decisions. Decisions.

I’Satellite Image of Sudan and Nile River, Red Sea etc.m in Sudan! And here in Khartoum the somewhat sprawling capital of the largest country in Africa I find myself anxious to leave. Not because there’s nothing to do here, but because I’ve only got about five days to legally be in this country. And I’ve yet to register with the police. Sudan is perhaps the first truly Arabic and Islamic country I’ve visited. There is no liquor or alcohol here. Last night I enjoyed a cold non-alcoholic beer with Trygve the owner of the guest house I’m staying. It wasn’t bad. At least half of it wasn’t. But the food at Bougainvilla Guest House was phenomenal. I’d been carrying, if you can believe this, a special unique chunk of Norwegian chocolate that was given to me months ago by the cute Norwegian women I’d befriended in Lusaka, Zambia. The shape barely resembled what it looked like when I received it because it had melted and reshaped many times on my journey. But sitting on the room overlooking the lights of Khartoum with the Norwegian owners had to be the best possible time to indulge. This truly was the best chocolate that could be found, and only found, in Norway.

Eating Norwegian chocolate in Khartoum, Sudan.

The two guys traveling filming BBC documentaries staying here spent the whole day registering with the police. There was no way I could afford to burn a whole day doing Sudanese bureaucratic bullshit, so Birthe offered to use her influence with friends to see if she couldn’t handle the registration while I handled my other errands — for a nominal fee, of course. I agreed. After she inspected the progress of my burned leg the next morning I set out to take care of business.

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A day wandering Sudan by Taxi.

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Even though there are strict regulations and US and UN imposed sanctions/embargoes on US products exported to Sudan, you can still find Coca-Cola – and in English, no less.

Instead of trying to wade my way through traffic and badly marked streets, I hired a taxi for most of the day. First was a stop at Western Union to secure the funds I’d need to continue my weeklong escapades in Sudan. Then to the hotel by brother Jon had stayed in nearly eight months before when he was here on assignment with ABC News. Turns out he’d left $300 cash in dollars in the secure safe in his room. The hotel manager advised Jon that he couldn’t send the money via transfer or Western Union OUT of Sudan. So since I “happened to be in Khartoum,” Jon contacted the manager and I was able to stop by and retrieve the cash. Then to FedEx. According to Suzanne at CAA ,who’d sent my revised Carnet de Passage authenticated for passage in to Egypt, the package would be waiting for me at a specific FedEx office. Turns out this was a non-consumer focused office for FedEx so after that goose chase we were directed to the proper location where I was able to retrieve my package with the new carnet. Next, I wanted to revisit the Blue Nile Sailing Club – the infamous haunt where overlanders doing the Cairo to Cape Town circuit typically stay while in Sudan. I’d dropped by on my way into town, but there was nobody there save a clueless guard. No armed with an Arabic speaking taxi driver I could get to the bottom of this situation. My goal was to see if there were any overlanders who I could convoy with along the Nile River up to Lake Nassar and Wadi Halfa.

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Gone are the lovely Donkey’s of Ethiopia, welcome the hybrids of Sudan.

The same guard provided little more information than before and just told us that sometimes people camp and there are 4×4’s visiting. But he hasn’t seen any in weeks. Meanwhile I was baking inside of the cab and getting cooked like a Dutch oven, we stopped for cold drinks then I shopped for supplies for my journey into the desert. Then to the office of Moez Mahir (ph: +249 91297257 or +249 122390571) who runs a small but well-focused travel service in Khartoum. Tucked down a small corridor in a windowless office the pleasant Sudan man shows me pictures of some of Sudan’s highlights, including scuba diving in the Red Sea, ancient ruins and pyramids and desolate dunes out in the Nubian Desert.

I met with him because oddly enough his brother runs the booking and facilitates clearing customs and immigration from Sudan into Egypt. I am anxious to book a cabin on the ferry that leaves only once a week from Wadi Halfa for Aswan, Egypt. I want to make sure there’s room for my motorcycle. Hoping he knows other overlanders that are leaving Khartoum for Wadi Halfa, I’d emailed him while still in Ethiopia. But no luck. He hasn’t heard of anyone going North; but he’s expecting several who will be making the journey South. In that way, I’m rather unique on this trip. The ratio to overlanders going South to those going North is very high. This is because there are many Europeans looking to make the Cairo to Cape Town (or even London to Cape Town) trip every year. Most of them in Range Rovers, Land Cruisers or an assortment of heavy duty 4×4 rigs. Then there are a handful of motorcyclists that do it, too. Me? I’m just passing through on my way from California to I don’t know where. But I’m going North and I’m out of luck in finding companions to cross the desolate desert. Everyone else I’ve talked to has done it in a group. Many were able to offload gear onto vehicles which makes navigating the deep sand a tad easier.

Bring up picture of the sand on his computer screen Moez poises the question, “What about the train?” I’d heard about it and exchanged emails with a couple motorcyclists that had done it — one of them going North. He did it in 2000 and it took him 58 hours under questionable conditions.

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Moez Mahir on a day I actually rode through the city to find his place.

“Well the Nile route sounds more pleasant to me,” I explained. “Do you think it’s possible or recommended to do it alone?” He hemmed and hawed and suggested that I do it with some one. Back to point zero. Later that evening having dinner with Birthe and Trygve, my hosts offered the same advice. “Can you follow some one up there,” the posed while going on about the beauty of the desert and the Nile. Then there’ s the train. According to Moez the ferry will not leave until the train arrives because the primary reason the train goes to Wadi Halfa is to bring people planning on crossing Lake Nassar.

I was lost. And I couldn’t make a decision. My bike overheated a number of times in Ethiopia. What if something drastic happened to my engine out there – in the desert. Sure. I’ve got a SAT phone, but if I don’t make the Ferry on Wednesday, I’ll overextend my stay in Sudan and likely get shunned, or worse, by immigration in Wadi Halfa.

So I’m thinking. The train leaves in two days and the ferry leaves in five. I’m told the ride from Khartoum could take as few as two days (though I doubt this) and as long as four or five. Gareth and Helen spent a week riding south but stayed with a local Nubian family and met other travelers along the way and stayed with them.

I decided that instead of embarking on the complete journey the following day, that I’d ride out into the desert as a test run. If all went well, then I’d continue on to Wadi Halfa. As a back up, I asked Moez to reserve me a seat and cargo space in the event I have to take the train. It was the best of both worlds. I get out in the desert and before going to far and deep, I have the option to catch the train in a couple days.

Done.

Trading Camels, Buying Benzine & Police Checkpoints: The Road To Khartoum, Sudan

At the customs and immigration office in Gallabat, Sudan I learned two things. First, nothing happens quickly in Sudan. Second, the Sudanese are in the running for the most hospitable and friendly people in Africa. The large uniformed man with a scary scar on his forehead took my papers, carnet and passport and asked if I’d like to sit down. Then asked if I would like coffee or tea. I obliged him for some tea.gondar2khartoum.jpg

I was nearly out of gas. Contrary to some traveler information, there was no petrol station in Gallabat. So I asked my stocky customs officer. He said come with me and I sat on the back of a 125cc China-made motorcycle and cruised up the road a bit. At a roadside shack a young boy unlocks a horizontal locker and pulls out a large couple plastic containers. “This gas,’ he says pointing to the red one, “this benzine,” he continued kicking his foot at the yellow one. I was confused. I needed gas. Or I needed benzine. There was a difference in the color coded containers. But was I willing to risk putting something unknown into my bike. I would not have enough to get me to Gederef where I’m sure a proper petrol station would have what I need. I pointed to a car in the street and asked what that used. He pointed to the red can. Then another. This was yellow. Shit. Then I pointed to the Chinese motorcycle and he held up the yellow container. I smelled the contents and figured this would be the right decision and closed the deal.

It took nearly an hour of sitting in the hot sun until the officers felt it was time to return the papers to me. In the immigration office they asked me if I’d like to register, informing me it would be the equivalent of about USD $30. Per the letter of the Sudan law, I knew I had three days to register. I also knew that I didn’t have the equivalent of $30 in Sudanese pounds. The immigration officer asked me to wait. Some discussions went on behind closed doors before he returned with my passport and let me go.

Not sure if the motorcycles came with the tarmac, but the road to Gederef was spanking new and beautiful blacktop, built by the Chinese. I blazed across the desert while watching the heat rise off the payment causing a hazy like blur to the horizon. At the first police check point I had to present my passport and an immigration slip. The question of registration came up again. I simply said “Khartoum.” At the points militants in uniform carrying automatic weapons milled about. But it was all very tame. Nothing and nobody looked threatening. Nor did I pose any threat to them. Later I ran into two nomads with a herd of more than 100 camels. I stopped to chat and shoot a couple pictures, but soon they were asking for my camera. My GPS. My bags. My gloves. Anything I had. They wanted. I sped on.

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Hundreds of camels disappeared to the horizon.

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The camel trader. He’d rather have anything I’m carrying.

At the gas station in Gederef, I bought a cold soft drink and some salty goods. The parking lot of the place looked like a tractor trailer graveyard. One truck had markings from Texas. Interesting. An elderly man asked if I could help him get to the United States. He said he’d tried three times but was rejected. He suggested that if he changed his religion to Christian he might be more successful. As a Muslim man he felt discriminated — rather profiled. I told him there was nothing I could do and that I doubted that changing religion would have any impact on his application. He admitted he wouldn’t mind. He’d be just as happy as Christian than as Muslim. Funny though, his perception was valid. I couldn’t argue with that, but I also said it was so untrue.IMG_8392_2.jpg

At the next gas stop still 150 miles outside of Khartoum, the attendant was eager to talk and learn about my trip and life in the United States. “I’ve never met an American before,” he said, offering me a cold soft drink. “You came from Gillabat? You must be tired.” In his stripped down “office” was a simple cot. I have to admit that the night before had been the worst night sleep I didn’t have in my whole trip. I took him up on his offer and took an hour long nap, afterwards spending time with the locals from the village who came to gawk at my motorcycle and see “an American.”

You know it’s funny. Since my days traveling in South America it was customary for me to answer the United States to questions of where I was from. But in Africa more often I was given blank stares or “where?” when answering this way. “Oh, you mean America,” they’d say in realization of where I was from. In these parts United and States have no meaning to local villagers. It’s simply America.

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The guy was kind enough to let me take a much needed nap. The day was long, windy and hot. With a huge fan and no worries that anyone would touch my bike. I took a chance to get sleep that I didn’t get the night before in Metema.

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He wanted to take the bike for a ride, and a friend in the three wheeled taxi, a common site in Sudan, was willing to trade it for my bike.

The entire ride to Khartoum, including stops at customs, immigration and chats roadside and with the gas station folks took the better part of a day. It was long and boring. And hot and dry. I managed to stop for a bowl of rice and soup — ironically enough – to fuel me which in addition to my nap got me into the mad traffic and the confluence of the White and Blue Nile rivers. I went by the Blue Nile Sailing Club which nearly everyone told me was the place to stay and camp. The guard at the gate said it was private. As I gazed over the grounds there was no one and not a bike or overland vehicle to be seen. The language barrier made it difficult to ask the questions I had and there was no one else on the grounds other than the guard. Strange. For a place that has this representation, I can’t believe the guy said “no camping”.

I had a referral to a small guest house outside the center of the city. But it would be impossible to find, so I eventually hired a taxi driver whom I followed to the Bougainvilla Guest House where I men the amazing Norwegian ex-pat owners Birthe and Trygve Overby. Trygve has had a colorful history of working and exploring Africa for most of his life while his lovely wife, Birthe, is an ex-nurse who I recruited immediately to check out the burns on my leg. While I had popped on of the large ugly blisters in Metema, Birthe suggested that I not pop the others. She went to a local pharmacy and picked me a up a bagful of antibiotic cream, bandages, antiseptic cleaning and more. In Khartoum, I cannot imagine a better place to stay and thankfully I was under the watchful eye of trained nurse. Last thing I need is infection to set in while I’m barreling through the Nubian desert.

My leg didn’t look pretty.

Once settled into the guest house I started sorting my stuff and making preparations. After today, I’ve got six days to get to Wadi Halfa.

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Sorry for the grotesque photo of my leg. But you can see the spot where I had popped the blister, plus all the big blister and ugly yellow junk. OUch.

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This is the bottle that split like the other. Now I figure the other didn’t split when I crashed. Rather the immense heat of the day somehow caused the gas in the can to expand eventually causing the can to burst? Is this possible? The bottle certainly wasn’t filled beyond the fill point. But I think this is rather dangerous as the containers is designed to contain compustible and flammable liquids.

I discovered that the second 1.5L SIGG bottle that I used to carry fuel had also split. This had my mind spinning. The split in the bottle looked exactly like the one I discovered back in Ethiopia. While there was no gas floating in a pool at the bottom of my left Aerostich tank pannier, the guide books I kept stashed her reeked of gas — rather — benzine. I don’t know exactly what happened, but a quick “smell check” revealed that the bottom of my Rallye2 riding pants also smelled of gas. Seems the gas leaked out while I was riding, got on my pants. But could have it gotten through my boot and onto my skin? Or did the heat from that very hot engine riding in the blazingly hot desert cause a reaction where the temperature rose to new heights causing the excessive heat to burn my leg? I’ve ridden through the hottest deserts and for nearly three years and never have seen anything like this. The blister lacked any puss but the floating bubble of putrid yellow skin not only looked scary but to the touch felt very bad. And the pain, safe to say wearing those boots causes a little too much friction and soreness for my liking.