Tsongwe

Life in Nairobi is easy. With Duncan dans la maison, slacking began in earnest. Richard’s Christmas and New Year on Lamu had left him drained, and Tom’s fortnight vacation on the tropical paradise of Palawan, Philippines really sucked the energy out of him, so when Duncan arrived, fresh from a mere two months spannering his velocette into near-compliance with his wishes, a period of intensive convalescence from team DarkStar was mandated.

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Regular brais, clay tennis, boule at the Tin Roof Café and a nightly game of dog-a-roo soon had us as perky as Duncan (no mean achievement!). Meantime, as many repairs and modifications to the bikes as possible were made without the spares and parts Duncan was bringing with the sidecar and its cargo. Jules arrived, freshened up by two 24-hour flights in a week, and a total of 18 hours’ jet-lag and set herself to bearing up to the gruelling regimen in Nairobi.

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The sidecar, however, was faring far, far better than the beleaguered travelers. Promises by the shipping agent to get the bike loaded up and shipped before Christmas amounted to naught, and the bike and car were relaxing, merrily, in the grounds of Heathrow airport. Eventually, with a significant surcharge, they were cadged onto an aircraft, with sedan delivery to Jomo airport, Nairobi. Unprecedented (and, significantly, unheralded) handling fees totted up and were apologetically profferred by our Nairobi agent who; while achieveing the miracle of clearing a motorcycle through Jomo in 8 hours, not to mention the mystery of how they explained the sidecar to customs with a V5 and Carnet making no mention of it; charged through the eyes for the privilege. Nonetheless: probably justifiable expenses compared with doing the whole thing above-board.

Collecting the outfit from the importation centre yielded a cluster of Kenyans all cleaning up on the detritus of a successful importation. Ratchet-straps, shipping crate components, padding and packaging had all been scrumped onto the flatbed of a Hilux, and were promptly re-scrumped into Priscilla, the beige Nairobi Mitsubishi L200 (not the new one…) amid complaints from the salaried stevedores (“What about me?”); the bike was fueled and oiled, and rush-hour Nairobi was hit. If you think everyone is looking at you riding through an African city on a vintage motorcycle, try doing it in a vintage sidecar!

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Wheel bearings for the front hub of Jens were drifted out and replaced, the Webb spring of Julian Rachet was exchanged for a super-heavyweight sidecar-suitable item; so stiff it needed cinched in with cable-ties just to get it into the fork!

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The sidecar was lifted off DHX and grafted onto Jens, aligned, leveled, and leaned-out appropriately, and soon everyone in the compound had been for a blast up to Talisman and back in the ‘car. Jules’ inaugaral ride, punctuated by squeaks denoting potholes and giggles marking thumbs-ups was a resounding success, as she declared it to be not nearly as bad as she thought it was going to be.

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Duncan’s bike, however, was having problems. The clutch needing several rounds of adjustment, oil consumption worse-than-suspect, and with the air filter plumbed onto the engine at the end of a two-foot long narrow-bore hose, the carburation and engine aspiration suffered notably.  Capping all this off, one of his head studs sheared off, and left him thrashing round Nairobi’s industrial district, getting a huge HT bolt turned down to 5/16” before being hand-died into 26tpi thread, at rather massive expense; but at least in Nairobi, such feats of engineering are possible.

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With Duncan fretting to hit the road, and begin “experiencing” “The Real Africa™”, and the rest of the team road-weary from over a year on their various roads, team-baiting began in earnest, until, eventually, after several tens of kilograms of char-grilled steak, an infinite number of pots of strong tea, and a general satisfactory feeling of velocette troubleshooting (how naïve we were, again), we finally inked over the pencil-mark and set our departure. Fully loading the bikes always depresses us, as they go from fine-handling devices to beasts of mere burden, with Tom, particularly, challenged by a doubling of rolling mass, with no increase in engine or, for that matter, braking performance. Scary Stuff!

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Setting out for a first ride out of capital cities has always been a crack-of-dawn, or even pre-dawn for the team when we were just two bikes, but another bike and the transforming of Jens into a demi-voiture made us extra-apprehensive, and so load-up was set at 0530 and, in the pre-dawn chill of equatorial africa, we set off in the predawn dark, lamps glowing feebly: the first ride in Kenya, and the first ride as the new team.

Heading out past Jomo airport, blasting past, and out onto the open road, after almost a year’s pause was a raw feeling: the engine thrums louder than remembered, the bikes far smaller and lower than seem possible; and the thrill and jubilation of finally getting stuck into the closing, second act of the adventure a powerful drug which only wore out as the bone-chilling cold of the air set its fangs into our bodies. As the sun came up, the heat didn’t, and at Kadjiano, barely 2 hours into the journey, we hove to the side of the road for a shivering, jittery round of tea and Ndazi: the first of a very great many.

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With tea warming from the outside, and the first tendrils of warmth suffusing our leathers from the sun, the ride began to turn pleasant, and we coasted down the road past zebra, antelope, camels, and Maasai: more and more Maasai.

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We had set ourselves a very conservative plan, and were aiming for Usa River, just past Arusha, where a friend of Richard had a villa. Little did we know what tribulations the border held for us. Arriving at the border was a new experience for us. Normally our land-borders are desolate affairs, with nothing more than a few moneychangers, a few drifters, and a boneyard of vehicles-that-didn’t-make-it. We’d never seen a tourist at a border post before: things were about to change. A police checkpoint a few hundred metres ahead of the border post yielded no official function, but a host of chancers hawking COMESA insurance, and generating the impression we were to remain there until we’d bought it. Meanwhile the Maasai were coagulating around the bikes, with an endless tranche of blankets, beaded items, and gourds they were determined to sell. Half an hour later, continually repelling Maasai balancing their wares atop your exposed surfaces, claiming that, by so doing, they’d sold it to you, it became clear that nothing happened at this particular hut, so we pressed on to the next.

A queue of overland-bus tourists (minions, as they became dubbed thereafter) stretched in all directions from two doorways arbitrarily placarded as arrivals and departures, the reek of stale sweat and frustration poured from the interior, and the Maasai just kept on coming.

Rich and Tom slipped some bribery-cash to the Kenyan Revenue Authority to get their bikes out on their expired carnets, while duncan was stamped out with ease and we rumbled into Tanzania, where the real trouble started.

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As Duncan had just flown DHX into Kenya, a carnet was mandatory, and he had no problem whatsoever stamping himself and his bike int Tanzania. Meanwhile, the three others had stamped themselves into the country, but struggled with the bikes. Numerous reports from the HUBB of motorcyclists doing the whole of Africa without carnet had our hopes up, and we were going to have a crack at it (well, at that price, you’ve got to!) south of Nairobi.

The girl with the stamp flinched. faltered, and called middle-management. What arrived was the single most obstructive possibility. Balding, overweight, and spittle flying, he brandished carnets, local documentation, reading them aloud, pointing at arbitrary words, nostrils flaring, and made it reasonably clear that we would not be entering Tanzania with the bikes without a carnet. He interpreted the local temporary importation permit literally, and stated it could be extended only to vehicles registered within Africa. Whether this is true or not, we don’t know. Certainly others had achieved it. Duncan’s patience was stretching as he was cleared and ready to roll, and yet we had to sit, endlessly awaiting something to give. Half-ripe mangos split into slices and dusted with a mix of salt and ground chillis made an excellent distraction from the tedium of borderpost inefficiency.

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Making little progress, we settled back to wait, and called some contacts in the country. Calls were placed, and meanwhile the ubiquitous fixers of any border post orbited closer before landing near us. They would ask if there was any possibility, any alternatives. Mr. Pointy must have been having a bad day, as they returned from the customs shed reporting that it was impossible to get the bikes through the country. Why, the paperwork to do it would cost 200 dollars alone… PER BIKE? regrettably… Nonsense…

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Thankfully, at this point, Lesujo stepped onto the scene, and found an agent who would insure our bikes through the country, provided we did not deviate from a certain route: we were being given transit paperwork normally issued to HGVs. At 100 USD a bike, it seemed steep, and by the time we had the papers, 7 hours later, the whole of the troupe was certainly pretty worried that every border would be this problematic, although with only another 4 or 5 borders, it was still a lot cheaper than a bloody carnet! We finally saddled up and, in failing light, began pushing for Usa River. As night fell, the headlamps were switched back on for the second time in the day until it became obvious we weren’t going to make it. “Never ride at night”, and we were already breaking it, on day one. We pulled off the road, pitched on a grass track across a dirt field in full-moonlight, and ate our most dismal dinner ever: not planning to camp that night, we had only rice. Delicious, it was not, but it thankfully filled us and we lay down to sleep, ragged from the stress of the day.

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The next morning we were all glad to have not pressed on in the dark, as a fuel-stop check-over showed the sidecar wheel was working loose on it’s axle, as the tab had failed on the locking tab-washer, and the part disappeared to have a tab welded on in the local arc-shop. Reaching the turnoff for our destination at Usa River led us onto a 3km track that would have taxed a trialsbike. Bre’er managed it with difficulty, Jens and Clyde made it, with the sidecar changed to a fairly jaunty angle relative to the motorcycle, and Duncan’s bike gave up, about halfway along the road, as the clutch gave out.

Charlie’s place, however, was worth the slog, and we spent a couple of nights enjoying his generous hospitality, lounging, swimming, and planning the journey. Attractions like Ngorogoro, Kilimanjiro, and Zanzibar were to be passed by, as we were keen to get a decent bite taken out of the journey with the bikes so unproven, the paperwork of Bre’er and Jens excluding detours from the arterial route through the country to Malawi, a hard time-limit on the length of the journey overall, and a general lack of exuberant funds for the journey from all sides.

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The bikes were all repaired from their ordeal on the track to Charlie’s. Duncan, finding his bike geared bizarrely highly, appropriated the 16T final-drive sprocket brought out for potential sidecar use, as a local smacked his chain into length with a hammer made of re-bar, Duncan replaced his fuel taps with none-cork-based alternatives, and lowered his carburettor float chamber by fitting an extra fibre washer under the mount under the jets. All three forks had their bush clearances reset, having been recently repaired and reassembled, Richard’s having a stripped nut thread, and a thread stripped in a linkage dog-bone proving a near-showstopper. A better attempt at the tab-washer was handcut in the motorcycle-repair shack and welding shed, and the bikes were trailered down to the highway in the back of a horse-transporter, and we were rolling again.

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Shortly after Usa River, the roadworks began, and with them the dust and the heat. When a road in Africa requires repair, traffic is simply diverted cross-country into the dust alongside the road, while the road is ripped up, relaid, and eventually re-opened. Noone considers this unusual or urgent. Richard and Duncan, with their single-mounts managed to cross the washboarded, sand-filled detours in first gear with few problems, but doubtless a lot of frustration. Tom, meanwhile, was suffering, as was Jules. Without the heat to cool, the sidecar turned into a thermal oven, the endless jarring of the dirt road was skewing the sidecar linkage and alignment with every bump, which in turn drove stakes of despair into the heart: Velocette and sidecar across Africa might just prove too much. Jules’ helmet, a new purchase, was not fitting, either, and the black leather favoured by Rich and Tom was declared masochistic, and only an idiot should think of crossing Africa so attired. The outift was not an island of tranquility, and locals were amused to find the rider, shreaking in fury, drive back onto the road, pausing every twenty metres to heft enough of the boulders laid, regularly, as roadblocks on the half-laid road, into the bush, and continue with some vestige of dignity.

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With the quality of the road testing our patience and the integrity of the sidecar linkage, regular stops for Duncan to fiddle with his bike, as he was having trouble running at anything less than full-throttle, and we were heading for an early stop and rest. A few hotels had campsites, but the going rate for a tent pitch, at 7 USD, seemed ridiculous, so we pressed on, having purchased victuals. Eventually, we reached a pleasingly sheltered but unpopulated stand of ground, surrounded by termite-hills, with termites ambling underfoot, and pitched our tents, cooked a very pleasant dinner of our staples for the next three months: rice with mixed vegetables steamed to perfection, and often beyond! Settling to sleep, we felt like kings.

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Like nights in the desert, it started hot. Too hot to do anything but lie on one’s back, naked, and radiate heat. As the heat left the day, we began snoozing into sleep. At this point, the wind started, and built. Shortly a stiff blast was howling across the camp, carrying the fine red dust of the desert through the net meshing of the tents. Duncan began fretting: “There are clouds forming on the horizon. I think it’s going to get worse. We should move the tents into the bushes. I think that baobab tree has some shelter”

Flysheets were thrown over, and cinched down to the ground on the windward side, as the wind picked up and began deforming the tents’ poles. Manoeuvring the bikes upwind, guyropes were fastened onto the frames, to hold the tents against the wind, and the occupants left to deal with the consequences of their actions, thinking of a nicely sheltered campground bypassed only two hours before. Giggling in hysterics at being so utterly uncomfortable without any element of danger, the night finally passed, and left us fake-tanned with Tanzanian dirt in the morning, bleary-eyed, grumpy and very, very, dusty.

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And so it was that we pressed on through the Tanzanian interior, at quite a canter, stopping only to get our Carnets stamped as having officially expired; regular breakdowns from the bikes, particularly Duncan’s, which was having starting problems, and problems doing anything less than full-tilt; and for our regular fare: Crêpes Africaines (African Chapatis with lime juice and cane sugar drizzled over them, to the bewilderment of the waitresses) with tea for breakfast, rice and beans, rice and meat, rice and vegetables for lunch, delicious fresh fruits by the road, and team-cooked camp-fare for dinner; although we didn’t attempt any more free-camps for a bit…

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Riding through Korogwe, Morogoro, and towards Iringa, put us on a road through the Mikumi park, where Rhino, Ostrich, Antelope, and Elephants variously greeted members of the crew, before we slumped into the Tan-Swiss campsite, just the other side of the park, for two nights of downtime with relaxing, before pressing on to the Kisolanza Farm Lodge for a night of luxury with mattresses and everything!

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In the South of Tanzania, the road rises into foothills and up to a plateau. The air cools, while the sun still heats, and the winds, dust, and airlessness of the plains are left behind. As the road rises, it winds, and as it winds, a motorcyclist begins to grin. Even lugging the sidecar round the corners is fun, and we climb and climb to the heights where the plantations turn to conifer, for paper, and tea again. The grey tarmac, under a clouded sky, on avenues lined with eucalyptus fronting forests on both sides, could be anywhere in Europe; could be Scotland, and the moist, cool air when we stop is like a draught of delicious water.

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Snaking through the wrecks of crashes, both high-speed and low-speed, as agressive incompetent drivers, shoddy engineering, dreadful road surfaces, and heaving terrain combine to form the perfect storm for the arterial route into land-locked Malawi. As the road-side land becomes more hospitable to the traveller, we free-camp a few nights, near a river of fire-ants, the ground hissing as they flow across the roadway. Dismounting to examine their number, they sense your presence, and troops break off, to march down on you, mouthpieces clamping and unclamping: aggressive little guys!

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On the road to Mbeya, we bump, for the first time, into Sive and Kyle, of Rothar Africa, Irish cyclists heading from Cairo to Cape Town. Once again, we found our pace much close to cyclists than the overlander motorcyclists on this leg of the journey.

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Our final night in Tanzania is free-camped near the Ngozi crater, in a patch of scrub in land farmed by a project taking care of the orphans of HIV-AIDS by employing them to ward off the baboons in the farmland; a role they’ve taken on with considerable zeal! Tempted, as we were, to spend a couple of nights there, the weather turned grey and sullen, and the next day, we upped sticks and set off for Tsongwe, the border, and Malawi, a certain amount of trepidation hanging over us concerning getting the bikes into Malawi.image

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How it is that it is that we are here

With nine months’ down-time off the bikes, it should come as no surprise that plans would change.

Firstly, Tom met Jules, and before he realised what was happening, he’d fallen completely in love. With her contract in Addis finishing in June, however, and Tom committed to working at the hospital until September, finishing the journey would have meant six months apart: noone was keen on this plan. Ideas rattled around before Rich’s eureka-bulb lit: 

"As for HOW we do this. Jens won’t go 2-up for the remaining (6000?) miles + tents + spares + luggage for two. So the options here seem to be:
i) you buy a sidecar (this is my favourite option) and fly it out to Kenya/Uganda, bolt it on to Jens and continue.
ii) you sack in the Velo (ship it home or offer ride to Duncan Ross) and you/Jules take the Beemer, buy a landy or hitch rides.
iii) Jules buys a Landy and is comfortable driving it (supported by/supporting us).
iv) You/I travel by Velo. Jules goes “leather” and hitches rides. We support her and travel at her pace. Maybe she takes the occasional flight to make ground on us.
v) (known unknown) your sister + famille buy a landy and Jules joins them. you and i Velo.”

Meantime Duncan had resolved to join us for the closing leg of the journey. Initially committing to riding out to Turkey with us, and then maybe through Turkey, his work had monotonously interfered with his plans, but with a decent length of down-time, he acquired the requisite Iron MSS, and plans were finalised to RV in Kenya.

In Addis, the decision was made. No decision on this journey has been so swift nor any so unanimous. Jules was joining the journey in a sidecar. A 1950s Watsonian was found, bought, and buttled from the vendor to Duncan’s house by Richard, on a brief return trip to the UK, and Duncan began a period of ferocious spannering to put right the host of wrongs dealt to his bike by the previous owner, before confronting the horror of attaching a sidecar to his mount for the flight out.

And so with Duncan’s bike and Tom’s sidecar the last additions to our troop, touching down the morning of 6th January, the last round of spannering began. The sidecar was transplanted from the temporary host of Duncan’s bike (Rex), onto Jens, and carefully aligned per the patient and helpful advice of Pete Young, and test rides completed. Rex, objecting (presumably) to the Southern Hemisphere, sheared a head-stud on test-run to the collective sound of four hearts dropping, prompting a two-day treasure hunt through Nairobi’s industrial district for high-tensile steel, a lathe to turn down the only supply (30mm ø!) to 5/16”, and a BSCy die, and we are finally running, packed, and only slightly nervous to announce ourselves rolling: Already in Tanzania, at Usa river, and heading for Malawi. Wish us luck!

On an investigative note, Tom’s trying to work out what kind of sidecar he’s bought. We THINK it’s either a monarch or an avon, but has an integral frame within the body instead of body-on-chassis design. If anyone knows, please get in touch!

PRISON (Addis to Nairobi: Richard’s Story)

We’d been in Addis a few weeks. To his surprise, as much as his relief, Tom found his tentative and loosely communicated offer from Bethel Hospital was firm and, though obliged to waste countless days in a labyrinth of Ethiopia’s administration, had secured permission to work, been provided with maid, housing, local ID and was settling into his new life rhythm. A month in and my own prospects in Ethiopia were beginning to seem wholly absent. Extending my visa seemed as futile a gesture of progress as the process itself.

My youngest sister perfectly timed her departure from a law-placement in Brussels to spend 10 days exploring the country with me, reconnecting after half a year apart to increase our UNESCO world heritage tallies and covering, in hour-long flights, distances that Tom and I’d assailed for days, before she returned to London a qualified solicitor.

Willing further distraction I met the Ethiopian Rock Climbers, my introduction coming at an inflection point in the club: a farewell drinks to core characters, victims of Addis’ high expat turnover. The two remaining members were coffee broker Aylwyn, a host country alien (white Ethio) born of Greek mother and Scouser father, and American Nico. Nico was one of an infinitesimal group that shirked typical expat-host national separation, learning passable amharic and engaging with the local community in ways few NGO/FO workers in the country do. He’d arrived in Ethiopia 2-3 years prior by following his enormous heart and Chilean girlfriend to Addis where she’d promptly given him the sack. Drawing on his earthy charm and capable Spanish he invited, by phone, another Chilean resident and old friend of his time there to up-sticks and join him. The two are now married and raising their ethio-time-conceived “porota” in Liberia! Together, Aylwyn, Nico and I began to develop the virgin 2-pitch face of Armora Gedel (Hawk’s Cliff) in the Entoto mountains. In the clear air above Addis we tentatively loaded onto our first-placed rawl bolts, picking lines and abseiling down to clean the routes we’d later climb (Nico’s climbing/parenting blog here: http://www.nicoparco.com/). But behind the action was a backdrop of conscious frustration feeling idle and embarrassed that I was incapable of finding useful employment. Perhaps responding to this air of stagnation, gaia stepped in.

Afternoon Sunday 14th April. I’m riding out of Addis on the Debre Birhan road to meet a Belgian lawyer friend in Legetafo. It’s 4 or 5 in the afternoon, sun warming the leather on my back. Roads are empty. The wide central reservation on this 6-lane arterial, usually a hive of activity under massed labour excavating light-rail foundations by hand, is completely devoid of people and long sections are hoarded off. At a dip in the road before a shopping mall on a small rise I close the throttle and take the left lane, noticing a trio of women waiting to cross right-to-left from just inside the middle lane beside a waiting Anbessa (Lion) Addis city bus. They’ve not moved a muscle in over 5 seconds of my climb and only in the last meters of approach do they begin to make up their minds. The nearest takes a rock-step, out-and-back, deciding not to cross. I brake. The farthest (with infant swaddled in cotton wound ruck-sack over her back) dashes fully across. “YOUR CHILD!”I think but she makes it. I brake harder. Finally, maybe prompted by those peripheral cues, the middle woman commits without looking and without the slightest urgency. Tracking across it was only when she was directly ahead that her peripheral reactions displayed better judgement, prompting a dash. I leant the bike hard on its right shoulder attempting to avoid collision but clipped her left leg with the front wheel, tossing her aside and spilling myself and bike onto our right hip. The lateral impact shattered the headlamp glass which skittered like hail as the bike came to rest on its side, my right leg saved from the falling bike by the foot peg. I jumped up and was surrounded by a sea of tiny Ethiopians: some out of rubber-neck curiosity; others trying to capitalise on an accident involving a Farengi “high speed crash high speed crash!” one bawled with open palm. Back-stepping I found the woman, now clearly just a teenage girl, conscious but holding the guilty expression of a person yet to acknowledge a piece of them is broken. Tom, a short distance away where we’d lunched, arrived within minutes to take charge of the bike, pushing it to a nearby friend’s house allowing me to join the girl at a nearby clinic where she was seen. There the medic delivered the stomach churning news that her femur was broken.

I’d been in the country almost 2 months and was well aware of Ethiopia’s non-existent traffic awareness. In the countryside in particular, the road serves as playground, meeting point, pavement, and restaurant with less than scarce regard for motorised users of the same space. By way of further caution, our dear friend and fellow over-lander, Chuck, who we’d met weeks before at Wim’s, had had his own more severe, though thankfully not fatal, accident under similar circumstances 6 months before. So to now find myself involved in and responsible for, at least in part, such a situation was harrowing.

-:-

Midnight. Finally we found a hospital, the 4th we visited, with that rare combination of spare bed and orthopaedic specialists on staff. These last however had clocked off at 5pm and wouldn’t be roused till next morning. So the girl, Serkalem, was placed in traction overnight and I collapsed on a hospital trolley, in the first moment of relief from hard-won progress. Two men, Tewodoros & Birhanu, who’d arrived at the first clinic shortly after the accident, introducing themselves as Serkalem’s brothers decided that now, after midnight, and in total contradiction to their initial stance, was a good time to see the police. At the 3rd police station we visited that night the commander, informed I’d paid the requisite cash deposit for Serkalem to be admitted to hospital, asked I merely left ID and return next day to leave a statement. 

As agreed with the family I returned to hospital 9am next morning and continued to pay, as is Ethiopian societal stipulation for the driver involved in a pedestrian:vehicle accident, to cover amassing medical fees and ensure Serkalem received surgery that day. Waiting for me at hospital, contrary to agreement with Bole’s police commander was an officer. Feeling isolated I reached out to the British embassy to gauge the official line. Consular emergency services, it turned out, was an automated voicemail service and no support was forthcoming.

Orderlies wheeled Serkalem away for surgery while the officer and I returned to the crash scene, communicating solely by gesticulation. I cynically wondered what unfavourable picture he was choosing to interpret from my description. Then on to Bole police station where Aylwyn met us to translate my full statement. Concluding his interview the officer presented a list of documents (besides the passport they already carried) he wished to see, interrupting himself in subsequent conversations to make additions. I proposed to collect these on Aylwyn’s bike and return within 2 hrs but was told that now, having presented myself of my own volition, and with no formal charge or arrest, I was simply not permitted to leave. For how long? It was implied that it was mere formality and I’d only be held overnight till the police had sent an officer to the hospital to verify Serkalem had received treatment. Local friend’s of Aylwyn tried to help, generously offering their own details by way of guarantee but I was ushered into a side room where a policewoman, plump as a pincushion, asked for belt and shoe laces (anything I could hang myself or others with) and mobile and wallet (anything of any value that could be snatched inside). It seemed a pointless and inherited routine, like something the commanding officer had seen in a movie, given I’d be getting these back tomorrow. “Wodeva, take ‘em" i thought.

You enter the cellblock with a knock at a flimsy eucalyptus frame, corrugated-iron clad door next to a small cut-out window where visitors bring food to their relatives inside. A narrow alley runs between 3 cells on the right and the guard’s office and storerooms on the left. At the alley’s end another officer guards the entrance to the facilities, the use of which was, ironically, timed - as if you’d be found dead in such a place. And there’s no other destination to go to in that direction but without fail each time you did the guard would ask “HEY FARENJI, WHERE ARE YOU GO?”, “outta this shithole before you, dude.

Led to Cell 1, a 7 x 9m cube with low ceilings, painted concrete floor and poor ventilation. I meet inmate Abiy, who offered a shoulder-width and man-length of floorspace beside him against a wall in the far corner. Totally unprepare, he kindly offered me a spare Gabbi, the ubiquitous cotton throw worn by Ethiopes across the country, for use as tent-like protection from flies. A fight erupted over 400 birr (USD20) that had disappeared from a man’s pocket whilst he slept and just as quickly subsided when a sage old man collected small contributions from each man to make up the sum. The cells walls are a lurid pink. 3 green steel windows are entirely hoarded save for a 12” grille at the top of each. Evening role call comes at 5pm and then the cell’s stable bolt is drawn and audibly padlocked outside. What little ventilation the open door provided is gone and the temperature soars with 50 echoing voices of jabbered amharic, somali and tigrinya. As the sun sets the lightless room darkens, fed only by a diffuse fluorescent aura from outside the cell. 15 men stand up and form up in 2 lines facing almost North. The men still seated hush themselves and those around to pin-drop silence for Islamic Maghreb. Afterward the remaining 35 form up in rows facing east for Orthodox evening prayers. Food brought to the visitor window during the day and stored for the evening is collected from small pots in one corner of the room. Those without are invited to share with neighbours. After dinner the cell’s MC addressed the inmates. Every evening there’s entertainment called “program" when new inmates or talented past performers are invited to stand before the room and give a performance: a dance; a joke; a story; a song. Those too unimaginative to deliver are heckled into giving a performance of the room’s choosing, such as mimicking calls and movements of domestic animals, or, failing that humiliating test, contributing to a pot for the cell’s janitors. The janitors are inmates who have no family or friends on the outside to bring them food and earn keep and favour sweeping the cell and emptying the bright yellow pee-bucket (brimming from 13hrs’ rough trade) each morning. I sung a song in the darkness and was rewarded with thumb clicking (clapping aggravates the guards) and a grubby 10 birr note saliva-stamped to my forehead and returned to my area of floor to enjoy the far more impressive Oromo tribal songs and dances: shuffling stomping feet and leaping through the air with spears improvised from broom handles.

I woke up covered in flea bites. An officer unlocked the door and after three attempts at counting to 50 was satisfied all were present. All inmates from three cells, 150 men, piled into the alley where a guard began calling names. The names, boys with skinny legs and beano comic round knees, men covered in scars and tattoos (some traditional like a filled dark green monobrow; others less so “thug life”, “2-pac”, “50-cent”) formed a crocodile of hand-cuffed pairs behind the entrance. We were taken by mini-bus to the local courthouse where Aylwyn and friends (though no rep. from the FO) snuck me food and cigarettes and I waited to be called before a judge. The hearing, conducted entirely in amharic, was over in 3 minutes. 5 interminable days later I was finally released when my local friends could provide proof of assets, it turned out to be an ancient Peugeot that hadn’t moved since the 80s, that would guarantee bail on any future case.

Returning to the hospital I discovered Serkalem had been unhappy with the triple post-op room she’d been allocated and had decided, at my expense, to be moved to a twin room. I found it hard to sympathise but talked to Tewodoros and Birhanu, every bit as warm and assuring as just before the visit to the police station. 24 hrs later I presented them a drafted letter exonerating me from further liability if they accepted my settlement of providing enough cash for a 2nd op. Serkalem could need one year on. They sneered and demanded we met the following day when 5 hob-nail booted new members of the family demanded USD5,000 on top of medical fees. I dropped red-herrings about a job interview in Bahir Dar, needing a few days to contact my family and that I’d be in touch early next week and left to plan my escape.

It took 4 days to conclude the essential departure plans (Kenyan visa, bike repairs, all spares from both bikes, retrieve docs from Bole) sneaking around Addis one eye over my shoulder paranoid that someone would be following, listening, taking notes and contacting their friends in the police, customs, immigration or worse. I re-drafted the settlement letter, left enough cash in escrow to cover the 2nd op and left Addis without a single goodbye. 2 days on the road and with 24 hours remaining on my Ethiopian visa I potholed the bike almost within site of the border on an awful dirt road, irreparably damaging the forks. Trucked to the border, I pushed the bike into Kenya the next morning and smiled with relief. An uncertain journey (26 spine-jolting hours atop a kidney bean and ethio trafficking truck) to Nairobi down the notorious Moyale road lay ahead but arriving in Kenya I was intensely happy.

Addis to Nairobi: Tom’s Story

Arriving in Addis, I’d already had contact with a hospital who were keen to work with me; well, I’d received a two-line email of txt-speak (we wud liek 2 employ u…) which seemed as close to a job offer as one could get from an ethiopic hospital.

Strangely, a printout of this communiqué proved insufficient to sway the Ethiopian consul in Khartoum to providing me with a business visa; but don’t worry, she assured me, you can enter Ethiopia on the tourist visa and then apply for a business visa in Addis Ababa at Immigration. Presumably she dined out on this story for the next month, as the hospital were terrified to have me on the grounds with a tourist visa in my passport, and the immigration service flatly ejected me from their grounds: “Who told you this? We will not give you this visa!”.

Three weeks of wrangling, the extremely kind assistance, UK-side, of Peter Lowe, notary public in Codsall to get my documents and qualifications recognised in Ethiopia, pleading with officials, addressing no fewer than two ministers as “your excellency” while maintaining a straight face (no mean achievement!), one threat of arrest and deportation back to the UK, and I finally (miraculously) got business visa, resident’s permit, work permit, and the hospital admitted me to the fold of their physisicans.

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The trials, rewards, opportunities, and agonies of 6 months responsible for the Intensive Care Unit, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, of a 100-bedded tertiary referral hospital could fill a blog completely, and indeed would be most appropriate in a completely different blog, but are probably experiences I’m not going to share, neither here nor elsewhere at this stage. Settling into the clinical life with the small cadre of physicians, surgeons, and nurses, in the hospital was a real pleasure, despite the injustices wheeled into the hospital. The level of care preceding their admission to our wards ranged from indifference to frankly misinformed cruelty, and the massive improvements in standard of care I could bring from first-world hospital care was tempered strongly by the ongoing agony as the same errors, mismanagement, and failures repeated themselves time after time, referral after referral.

Life in Addis is a strange lot. The Ethiopian culture, whilst charming, witty, and warm for the stranger, is nevertheless separate from the foreigner/expat contingent, and social integration with the local ways in more than a superficial manner proves almost impossible. Despite the dreams and imaginings of working in Addis during the envisioning and dreaming phase of the journey in Glasgow, the social scene available to the ferenj doctor working in Addis Ababa is definitely the expat circle. A sizeable portion of the Ethiopian budget is derived from economic aid, and the size of the diplomatic missions is large due to the many headquarters in Addis: Haile Selassie cleverly wangled the OAU headquarters there, UNECA is based there, and there is a sizeable presence from other UN agencies in the city, plus the multiple missions to the OAU from countries, the EU, and connected charities, and numerous IOs, NGOs, and charitable advisory/consultancy agencies. The consequence of this is a large population of young people (mid-twenties), enthusiastic (unjaded), hard-working (hard-partying), and as cosmopolitan as they come. Whilst an (admittedly top-end) Ethiopian salary paled in comparison to the stipend of these folks, and the pressures of the job kept me on a rather shorter leash than them, I quickly fell in with several circles, finding more like-minded individuals in this far-flung corner of the Earth than anywhere I had previously hung my hat.

Rich, however, was having a more difficult time of it: struggling to find a job capable of utilising his rather specialised skills and abilities, he was becoming somewhat downheartened. When circumstances worsened for him (and I’ll leave him to describe his travails in his own account), ditching Ethiopia and Addis Ababa proved itself to be the sensible, desirable course of action. With Rich in Nairobi, I settled solidly into the pattern of life in Addis.

Time fair flew, and before long I was half-way through my time. With occasional short trips out of the city, micro-managing the unit by telephone, to some of Ethiopias better spots for the traveller

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In addition to this, enjoying the highly idiosyncratic world of Addis’ restaurants, bars, and regular house parties, and the constantly-shifting pool of regulars as contracts finish and end, and friendships are made and either broken or stretched; the adventure was proving to be, if not what I was expecting, then certainly as much fun!


With Richard’s forks broken, he needed to take them back to the UK for the expert ministrations of Jake Robbins, and I found a very kind midwife (Thank you Laura!) who volunteered to fly my forks back home and rendezvous with Rich to get my spindles replaced and rebushed. Jake turned the job round in record time (Legend!) and before long Rich flew the forks back to Nairobi with him. Unfortunately, by now Keremt, the time of the heavy rains, had begun, and the stream of overlanders travelling north from Nairobi to Addis had dried out to the meagrest of trickles, and only at the last minute did Felix and Kathryn volunteer to ferry them to my stricken bike, wrapped snuggly in an old pair of Rich’s trousers.

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Arriving ten days before my six months’ stint in Addis was due to finish, it was a race against time to attach the forks, single-handed, before dashing down to Nairobi. Knowing the road had destroyed Rich’s forks, I chickened out, and hired an Isuzu to truck me to Moyale, and so the evening after the forks arrived, I found myself in merkato with about twenty Ethiopes teetering my bike into the back of an overladen truck before jamming me behind the seats in the cab, and setting out on a 24hour khat-fuelled careen to Moyale. Amharic pop-music is… jarring at the best of times, but 24hours straight of accordian, synthesizer, and yodelling destroyed my tiny mind. As the sun went down again, however, we hauled into Moyale, I found a cheap hotel, enjoyed my last Ethiopian shiro-wot on injera, and slumped into slumber.

The next morning the bike was pushed through the no-man’s land, we were both stamped into Kenya, I arranged another truck to Nairobi, and we were away. Lying in the back of the truck, with the bike strapped down, the pleasure of warmth of the cargo of cow and goat-skins rotting was tempered only by the stench and regular incursions of maggot, and we headed off on the infamous marsabit road. Road it is not, and we hurtled from pothole to pothole, stacks of timber slapping against each other, and the thick, red dust pluming through the cage of the truck. Impossible to sleep, or even lie down, in such conditions, I joined the rest of the passengers cadging a lift south sitting on the bars on the roof of the truck, and was rewarded with a view of ostrich, eyeing me lugubriously.

After another 24hours’ drive, Nairobi hove into view, and the bike was unloaded with the help of the forklift at the tannery buying the skins in the back. With the fuel tank full of vapours, and feeling so utterly destroyed that rational thought was impossible, I somehow managed to run out of fuel, find fuel, find Rich, and get led to the workshop of his company, and my first shower in three days; after a trip to the talisman pub, one can say he has arrived in Nairobi, and by sundown, I had arrived.

Addis

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The road got shitty shortly outside Bahir Dar. A thin veneer of asphalt painted on by the Japanese a decade before, it deteriorated rapidly under the weight of ethiopia’s stocky soviet-era trucks and heavier subsidence of the rift valley’s silty soil during seasonal rains, leaving road-width undulations several feet deep.

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There’s little indication here of the 2.5km altitude through eucalyptus lined roads and rolling wheat-covered hills till suddenly terra firma drops away down a steep escarpment to a valley floor too low to have any discernible feature beyond a burnt yellow luster. 

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The Blue Nile (Abbay River to the Ethiopes) gorge just after Dejen, 100 miles SE of Bahir Dar, is the most vertiginous example of this: vertical walls that cascade down 1,000 metres on either side of a seemingly bottomless precipice. We spent the night in a hotel in Dejen after a dispiriting day, the goal of reaching Addis in a day slipping away as we battled poorer sections of the Japanese road. With the warnings of Patrick Mass of rampant banditry within the walls of the gorge ringing in our ears, we were quick to follow his advice of not allowing any chance to get stuck there after sundown. Reaching the first gatherings of the precipitous descent as the sun bled into the horizon, we looked for a hotel.  The hotel, selected on the merits of its off-street parking was unashamedly a “by the hour” establishment - evidenced by a cardboard box of complimentary johnnies at the top of the stair (and several used examples on tops of the walls on the way down).

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Next morning we descended into the gorge riding a strip of flat verge, barely a tire’s width, between a 2 foot deep drainage culvert and the tarmac rollercoaster hard on breaks to check speed till the paint of our break hubs began to pop and blister from the heat. We pulled off and let things cool down, drinking in the scenery, still no sign of the river at the bottom. Vowing to be more considerate we selected low gears and continued down engine-breaking the remaining drop to a single lane suspension bridge spanning the river, a trickle in the dry season. Now for the climb!

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A pillion’s weight in kit and spares, rider plus weight of the bike itself have our rigs tipping scales at over 320kg each (700lbs to our vintage readers). Rolling off factory floor in the 30s each bike would be laying down a whopping 23bhp: ample for an unladen putter on gentle cambers of Galicia; devastatingly underpowered bearing tour-loads climbing out of the Blue Nile gorge. Crawling uphill in 1st gear, at times zig-zagging to lower the ascent angle, our air-cooled engines struggled with their inherent design limitation, not receiving nearly enough air flow over the finned barrel to effectively cool the engines.

Halfway into this torturous climb both bikes were beginning to struggle and pre-ignite when Jens decided wholesale she’d had enough and promptly stopped. Stops like these are akin to stubbing your toe – painful but all the more galling for the fact you know it was avoidable if you’d paid more attention to the signs.

Symptoms: loss of drive; zero compression; rider dehydration from questionable personal hygiene of road-side Wot vendor. One of the only two (and equally critical) engine valves had seized open, the heat expanding valve guide and valve stem to a point where friction overcame the sizeable returning force of compressed valve springs. What to do? We agreed waiting half an hour to allow Jens to cool off, in the hope that cooling metals would contract sufficiently to release the valve, would be more fun than stripping the engine: a gamble as the heat of the day was beginning to pile on uncomfortably. No dice. So began a roadside strip of Jens’ scalding top end under the assaulting midday sun and passing Ethiope trucks who, determined to share their commiseration, took to blasting horns at ear-level as they passed.

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With a stuck valve, Jens’ still rotating timing gear had also taken a swipe at the now loose pushrod (a long metallic drinking straw which transmits reciprocating motion from timing gear to open/close valves at the right time), the cam-lobe mashing it against the inside of the timing case on the next pass. The seized valve was pried free from the valve-guide, swarf on its shaft filed true and our one and only spare pushrod pressed into service. Jens was reassembled, fired up and we were off again, both bikes nicely cooled after 4 hours roadside.

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At the top of climb (including cautiously dutiful cooling stops) and hope nearly restored Jens again decided she’d had enough, this time with a bone dry gearbox. Mercifully the gears hadn’t seized but without a drop of spare oil on either rider, Tom sat down with a flock curious goat herders whilst Rich tocked off to find lubricants. In Rich’s absence a Good Samaritan in a pristine white pickup hauled Tom and Jens to the next village where we found a small clean pension and collapsed too exhausted to contemplate tending to the bike or our battered spirits.

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Following day was kinder: better roads; fewer climbs; easier fixes. Rounding the apex of a corner in full stride for Addis, Br’er’s throttle cable snapped releasing a small Bowden cable stop (about the size and shape of Parker auto-pencil’s eraser cover) from the throttle grip onto the road. We scanned the road on hands and knees, retracing the line the bike was tracking and every imaginable trajectory a tumbling thimble could take until Tom, way off course, shouted “FOUND IT!” from beside the parked-up bike, discovering the piece cheekily nestled on the oily sump guard. Dumb luck. A replacement cable was fitted and we were off again, beaming at how close we were to our next major milestone.

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From the Bahir Dar side you enter Addis from the hills near where Emperor Menelik II built his palace (strikingly similar forms to medieval European wattle & daub construction) peering down on the city and planted the first of the country’s now ubiquitous eucalyptus trees. The first 20 years the trees shoot up straight as arrows at which point they’re harvested for any one of a thousand uses: scaffolding (so jauntily stacked it’s a wonder a single building in the country has straight sides), wheelbarrow frames (a single wheel bearing hammered along a single eucalyptus shaft serves as a wheel) and fuel, accounting for 50% of Ethiopian energy consumption in the preparation of injera. Down the hills a never ending ant trail of tiny women, young and old, skinny as the plant they carry, bear tightly bundled cylinders of eucalyptus 500m down from hills to city for under $0.50 a load. A twine strap is tied from forehead to hip-perched bundle and they lean forward from the hip to counter the weight - a trail of laden number 7s checking acceleration with heavy steps. Each day’s injera is batch cooked in flying saucer shaped wood burning ovens that collectively contribute to Addis’ morning smog blanket.

Descending into the haze we followed a circuitous route to the train station “La Gare” as the locals still call it long since the French who commissioned the line to Djibouti left. In front of the station, itself a perfect-if-crumbling transplant from any provincial French railway town, on a small plinth in an unattended garden stands the Lion of Judah monument. The occupying Italians looted the monument, the single most potent symbol of the Monarchy, in the 30s and re-erected it in Rome where at a military display before Il Duce, one attending Eritrean by the name of Zerai Deres is said to have knelt before the monument, declared his allegiance to His Imperial Majesty, drawn his ceremonial sword and died slashing at his oppressors.

La Gare was our final waypoint to overlander hostel Wim’s Holland House. Wim (very Dutch but with every bearing of Obelix the Gaul) was a driver for one of Bono’s aid drives in the 80s. Not himself an obvious humanitarian he’d made the aid delivery and never left, making Addis his home, a local the mother of his child and collecting an impressive, if shakily recollected, catalogue of how to deal with Ethio bureaucracy. The hostel itself was a beacon of familiarity: “Shell” petrol signs and auto-hoardings, Dutch-orange regalia adorning the walls, beer on tap and hot fresh bitterballen. We’d arrived in Addis!

Bahir Dar

The border, Galabat on the Sudanese side; Metema on the Ethiopian is a sleepy affair with little evident road traffic and just a trickle of pedestrians who amble between daily business on either side checked only by a wave to the border guard, possibly a relative, in acknowledgment of the geo-political boundary that their lives straddle.

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Putting a few villages distance between us and those odd loitering folk found at any border (secret police or itinerant delinquent – Ethiopia has little shortage of either) we stopped for our first Injera in Ethiopia. Injera, the textural crossroads between jellyfish and a bathmat and tripe and a pancake; the flavoural intersection between ridiculously sourdough and a sugary brioche, is the ubiquitous fuel of Ethiopia, whose preparation ironically accounts for over 50% of the country’s energy consumption. Injera’s prime role in life is as cutlery to convey the seried stews (unceremoniously dolopped as islands in their middles) to the mouth and has supporting roles as both nutritional wadding and refreshing towlettes. The stews, known as Wots, are the main event. And from Key Wot, a red stew red by virtue of the prodigious quantity of Berberry, a deep red relative of capsaicin-paprika, to Doro Wot, the chicken served with its own egg and; Tibs, shreds of unidentified meat with Karia (green chilli) with prestige placed upon the rareness of the meat, often carried to unhygienic extremes, you’re not short of variety (at least on the menu: in practice it’s often only raw Tibs).

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After our meal we were offered coffee, the first of many - always delicious and ceremoniously presented, by the nubile girl - and then the girl herself, probably ignorant of the crude English in which her assets were being purveyed, by a grinning patron.

Declining graciously all but the coffee we sallied forth for Gonder stopping short on sight of the first open brewery, and the first (legal) beer in months. At the Dashen brewery we took stock of the scene: lush green foliage, fragrant colourful flowers, enjoyable music, a cool breeze, crisp wheaty beer and women (tight waisted, full hipped, sans Hijab), all refreshing novelties after the chastity of Sharia.

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Another notable change stepping from Sharia to “egalitarian” Orthodox Christianity was in the protection of women’s rights. The near blanket absence of women on the streets of Sudan (a solitary woman conducting business in Sudan without her husband is unheard of and would bring shame to him should she do so) is reversed in Ethiopia where men and women mix freely and indeed the latter seem even exploited, constituting the Lion (of Judah)’s portion of hard labour gangs maintaining roads and walls around the city. It makes you wonder in which World women actually enjoy a better quality of life.

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Gondar, occupied by the Italians in the 1930s has an incredibly European atmosphere: cobbled streets, cafes in little side streets, beer gardens: as if the locals kept the best bits of Euro-culture when the Italians were kicked out. 

We met Michael and Goytom, a pair of students studying Tourism at Gonder Uni, with whom we traded stories over a couple of pints of local brew, the most delicious in Ethiopia – writhing with live yeast that sadly doesn’t fair the arduous ride to Addis pubs.

Fortified, we ferried Michael, a ring leading factotum of a character, of further charm for his staunch refusal to own or operate a mobile phone, conducting all business face-to-face or by proxy, and Goytom, a stocky follower of the rasta movement, the short ride up hill to Gonder, the former seat of the Ethiopian throne. They led us to the Fogera hotel, formerly a summer house to Graziani’s goons, presently crumbling without intervention since the Italians left, where we pitched in the garden and engined-off for a few days’ relaxing and touristing. Michael and Goytom chaperoned us (sitting reverse cowboy back-to-back with rider) to a few of the key sites: the enormous ceremonial paddling pool flooded once a year by diverting a river for a mêléed (ostensibly) religious water brawl after a blessed stick, the royal palaces, the Master Chef restaurant and a cultural dance bar. Cultural dancing in West Africa, we are told, involves as little movement as possible save for jiggling, as aggressively as possible, your (the bigger the better) posterior. By contrast, Ethiopia, ever one to identify itself as different (superior) has a dance culture which has evolved to restrict all bodily movement save for shoulder twitching. Place your hands on your hips and open your chest till your shoulder blades close together. Now go to the opposite extreme shoulders forward and you’re a cultural dancing novice. When you’re really good you begin to look like a territorial chicken asserting itself with indignation to a would-be contender. Indeed the most entertaining dances are a direct competition between two chickens reciprocating back and forth, chests inches apart, hands and feet immobile, rictus grin of delight and wide-eyed chicken glares. The West’s cultural zenith is drinking to oblivion in All-Bar-One, in Ethiopia they go down the local dance-hall and flail their shoulders till the wee hours or a joint dislocates.

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The road from Gondar to Bahir Dar was an easy downhill-assisted pootle, both bikes comfortably within themselves at 55mph on good tarmac leaning into snaking corners with confidence. 20 miles short of Bahir Dar a stealth-black glossy Honda ST festooned with cameras and technology, rider head-to-toe in black, black helmet, mirror black visor sailed past us in the opposite direction without so much as a nod. He was probably Swiss.

Shortly after a pair of identical shiny Chizuki off-roaders with zero baggage came into sight and gave us a far warmer reception. Patrick Mass, a German water engineer/cooperative farmer, and his Jamaican mate Mike had each been living in Bahir Dar for some years. The unlikely pair, a Catholic in his 30s and a Rasta in his 60s shared a fraternal bond and were heading off to put some testing miles on their recent imports. Patrick had married a local Habesha woman with whom he was expecting a child. Over dinner at the Lake Tana-side Ghion hotel Patrick observed the similarities between present-day Orthodox Christianity and reformation era Catholicism: preaching things that aren’t in the good book to bolster the institution’s position and using the church as a revenue generation platform. Patrick also remarked on the absurd cultural fixation with Injera, revealing that his wife would carry a month’s supply in hand luggage when visiting his native Germany and that the Lord’s prayer in Ge’ez reads “grant us each day Injera!” instead of our “daily bread”.

Originally planning to sail through Bahir Dar, the delicious Tana Tilapia at the Ghion’s lakeside tree-house restaurant charmed us into spending a night camped in the grounds before a dawn start on the road to Addis next morning, unaware of the drama in store!

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Khartoum - Kassala

Kassala: Occupied by the Italians during their initial foray into Abyssinia after being granted Massawa by the British (but only to stop the bloody French from getting their hends on it!), now the border-town between the schizophrenic love-hate nations of Sudan and Eritrea. Blind optimism, and some encouraging words from some of our Sudanese friends had us feverish with the faint possibility that the border might be welcomes and hugs, and we decided to go and, at least, lay our eyes on Eritrea, and hopefully charm our way across the border.

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Kassala is also the home town of Ibrahim, our self-appointed guardian and host in Sudan. With huge numbers of family and relatives resident in Kassala, we would have to visit them all. Or at least to try. And so we said our final farewells to our huge host of friends in Khartum, loaded the bikes up again with all our worldly possessions (and after a month around the city light as a feather, they feel HEAVY with kit on: slow to accelerate, slow to brake, and wobbly at 20-30mph).

Another pre-dawn start saw us slinking out of the city and onto the familiar highway to Wad Madani for lunch of sandwich temir, coffee, and sudanese pastries at the regular. Breezing down the Gedaref road in the baking early afternoon, the sights of our previous passage (UN Bee preservation project, Birch forest campsite, and, yep, that dead donkey’s still there…) marking off the journey, we seemed to be making excellent progress to meet Ibrahim’s friend in Gedaref, Jamal Shoutry. After a stop for a roadside coffee and to soak our neckscarves in slightly mirky water, the road seemed to be endless, smooth, and blisteringly hot. With Richard taking point by about 500m, Tom suddenly felt his bike wobble, weave, and then start slewing sideways across the road. Fortunately the roadway was completely empty of traffic, and, brain racing through the worst-case-scenario possibilities (Sheared rear spindle? fractured frame?), the bike finally was brought to a stop on the gravel roadside with the only casualty the rider’s composure. Drenched with sweat, heart pounding, inspection showed nothing more dramatic than a rear flat tyre. Unable to put the bike on the side-stand due to the flat tyre, and standing up over the bike to hold it up, gloves, helmet, jacket were shed onto the ground, the shawl became a headscarf quickly, and after a few minutes Richard returned and the bike was lugged up onto the rear-stand and both could relax.

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Like a hammer on a tin-roof, the sun beat down on the desert, the road, and the motorcyclists; and the flies, heated from pre-dawn stupor to mid-day agitation, had now achieved an afternoon nirvana of solar energy. Landing on one’s eyes with hands full fixing a punctured tyre, the flies sat, buddha-like and content while one beat at them with elbows and shreaked as they crawled over the face, up the nose, and onto the lips. This was agonising. A job that should take about half an hour stretched well through the hour-mark, sweltering in leathers and tortured by flies (why do they do it? why?). Finally the job was done, and the small hand-pump had the tyre up to pressure. But it wouldn’t seat the bead on the rim. Nuts, let’s ride slowly to the next shade-and-water stop and sort it out there. Fortunately a heap of shacks hove into view within ten minutes’ lumpy riding, two litres of fluid apiece was consumed, the tyre was deflated, washed with soap and reinflated onto the rim, and we were ready to go.

Delayed by the flat, the last two hours of the ride into Gedaref was completed by war-time headlights in failed daylight, dodging last-minute potholes in a thankfully rather high-quality road. Finally we burst into the main souk and called Jamal, who arrived almost instantly. After a delicious dinner of mendi (Jamal and his family were of yemeni extraction) and khubs with a thick, milk-shake like drink of blended sorghum(?), milk, sugar, and cinnamon, and a lazy chat with his family, we went out to see the town of gadaref in the glowing warmth of the evening. Jamal is an academic, lecturing in the university in agricultural techniques and policies, but like most Sudanese men, has a business also, his a hardware supplies store, sitting smartly in the hardware-supplies market. Hearing the unmistakeable strains of a Sudanese wedding, we track it down and find a rowdy affair. The men are dancing, and the groom has a sword, waving triumphantly around his head, meanwhile members of the wedding party brandish long, hide whips. Guests charge up to them and present their bare backs, demanding a thrashing. We’re told this is a demonstration of strength, and the floggers certainly don’t hold back, before the men are dragged away before their wounds get too severe. Probably a reciprocal arrangement that they will drag their friends away too, before anyone gets too hurt, as no blood was shed despite the anguished please for more lashes.

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The next day we accompanied Jamal to his store and a last cup of Kirkady (Hibiscus Tea) before Tom Kick-started his bike, and richard had his bike kicked down the road by Jamal until it started, and we were on our way to Kassala! The Road follows the old Kitchener railway which weaved in and out of view to our right, as gentle dust-devils and some not-so-gentle-loockign proto-twisters strafed the desert and the roadway. Like whales breaching the surface and then dissolving into a ripple or two, silhouettes of mountains haunted us on our right flank, and the increased density and zeal of the utterly incompetent “secret police” or “national security police” signalled the approach of one of Sudan’s tenser borders. Staring at a permit to travel, written in english, upside down, only after several telephone calls were we finally allowed to roll into Kassala. Having been met and been guided through the tedious police registration by Muhammed Typhoor, an engineer we’d met in Khartoum where he’d had business, we were brought to the workshop of the Shagawi brothers. Three brothers who owned and ran an engineering and metalwork shop from the benches outside, sheltered by a shady tree in the british colonial-era buildings housing the modern marketplace. The day milled by with talk of how life was and why we were doing what we were doing. A friend of theirs who worked at the eritrean consulate appeared and took us to see if there was any possibility of crossing. None, but don’t worry, all you need to do is go to the embassy in Khartoum, and they will give you a stamp in your passport and it is easy. Right.

We stayed the night with the Shagawis in their huge house, divided into three, one section for the family of each brother, with a large, shared courtyard, where the children congregated to, mostly, climb on the brits and play with their strange objects. We were invited to stay another two nights: there was to be an engagement party for the daughter of Adil, the middle brother, a newly-qualified doctor, who was to marry a classmate of hers from university who was away working as a doctor in KSA. We would, of course, be delighted, and very happy to show our support for the wedding. And so, the next morning, we rose early and set off to climb Jebel Towteel, the huge fist of rock rising out of the ground just beside the town. Spurred on by the news that the British had dug a well which spouted fresh drinking water on the top, Tom took only a drinking-mug, with richard opting for a more sensible two-litres of drinking water.

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Finding any semblance of an entrance to the moutain proved impossible, and we soon found ourselves scrabbling through an informal landfill, dodging stray dogs, up a boulderfield and onto the slopes of the knob of rock. White nylon trousers and heavy hiking boots are the worst hiking gear, and Tom was soon struggling with the climb, but we pressed on regardless, and soon found ourselves on a sandy plateau, about half-way up the prominence. A large cat proved too fleeting for the camera, and darted off, leaving us with some prodigiously large insects, a thankfully placid flange of large baboons. Shimmying up a chimney filled with wedged boulders in the rock, on the shaded side of the largest peak, the views were stunning rising, as we had, almost completely above the dust-bowl stretching in a continuous line of sand from the western sahara for the first time since climbing the rocky peak in the nubian desert. As midday approached, the sun passed into the centre of the sky, and baked us hard. Rocks that had, previously, been cool and refreshing, began to become hot, then baking, and as the rocks became untouchably hot, and huge sheets onion-skinned off and skittered down under our tread. Discretion became the better part of valour and, maybe only a few hundred metres short of the absolute peak, we called it a day, and headed down the sunward side (both sides were now sunward) and emerged in a themed resort to drink gallons of fluids followed by a coffee with popcorn, before flopping back into town and more cool water and fruit at the shagawis’ workshop and another gentle, warm night. The wedding reception was quite an event, with car after car of distant relatives of the groom coming from Khartoum to approve of the union. Drinks, food, and coffee were served, and the elders packed into a room to confer. Within about two minutes, they streamed out, beaming in wreaths and clapping each other on the back before disappearing. Meanwhile, from the other side of the wall separating the courtyard from Adil’s home, shrill shreaks and ululations betrayed the more ecstatic nature of the womens’ celebrations. As the evening progressed, we were allowed in to give our congratulations to the beautifully dressed and adorned fiancee, and photos of everyone with everyone were taken.

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Finally, we were done in Kassala and, rising, early, we said our final, FINAL, farewells to the friends and family of Ibrahim Zanatee, and slung ourselves down the road to qalabat, and the ethiopian border. Following the railway back to gadaref, there was still enough light, and we pressed on through the scrub of Sudan, approaching the border, acacia trees became more frequent, tall crops sprouted either side of the road, and as the sun hung just over the horizon and melted onto it, we turned off the road and made our first tent campsite since our foray to gadaref the month before. As the wind rushing through the crops dropped, the flies flew off to do whatever it is they do at night, and night fell, we sunk into our last night’s sleep in Sudan, and prepared ourselves for our third African, and 13th overall country.

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The Last Days of Khartoum

So, the plan was to get back in touch with our contact, arrange a bit of bribery to get the eritrean visas, and roll out to the next country. Of course, nothing goes to plan, particularly in Sudan. Anyone who has been to Khartoum will instantly know the way that city has to lazily ensnare you. Maybe it’s the long, dusty, baking days when everything seems possible but… maybe tomorrow? Maybe it’s the charmingly affable way in which business is done: first there’s a lengthy introduction in which it is established how closely you, your tribe, and your friends are related and associated. Then tea is drunk, and at some point, maybe, and in an offhand way, the points of business might be hinted at, but never expressly stated. It is a wonderful way of life, and one is left feeling that one’s own life might well be considerably improved by taking a leaf or two from this philosophy. Until one tries to actually get something done. A phone call to the Eritrean embassy revealed that there had been zero progress on our visas. We doubted, rather, that anyone had even looked at them since their submission. Definitely time to pull some strings. All strings, if possible.

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Naturally, during our time in Dinder, Attar had left for a 6-month english language course in Bangalore, and was completely unavailable. Eventually, after many attempts, we finally connected with him (“So, Attar, India is beautiful?” “No. Not beautiful”), but his contact in Asmara was no longer communicating, and in a country as unstable as Eritrea, that could mean so many things. We explained our predicament to Ibrahim, who espoused our cause fully and immediately. He knew a man (and in Sudan, everyone knows a man…) who worked with a man who worked for the ministry of agricultural resources and fisheries. Baffled as to how this would aid us, Ibrahim explained: This man was from Kassala, Ibrahim’s home town, and belonged to a tribe of Sudanese who traced their ancestry directly back to the Arab peninsula. Proud people, and living in an area that straddled the Sudanese-Eritrean border, they had provided assistance (we didn’t ask what kind) to the eritreans in their struggle for independence from ethiopia. The minister, Dr. Hakim, was personal friends with the eritrean president, and would be happy to see us. And so our life in Khartoum changed shape again, and we became Ibrahim’s companions: friends to be introduced during the course of business; guests of honour around the city; workmates on his planned renovation of the drilling-rig, fabricating clutch-linkage components; and periodically dropping into the office of the Minister of Agricultural Resources. Progress was not good, however: every trip to the office just had Ibrahim explaining to us how difficult it was going to be to get the permission, and a slight suggestion that maybe it might be somewhat easier simply travelling to Ethiopia?

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In the meantime, life in Khartoum passed with wonderful pleasantness. Strolls along the nile-front, taking jabana (coffee with cardamom and ginger and heavily sugared), tebeldi (baobab seed-pod stuffed with ice and water with a straw to suck out the juice), talking with the locals. Every evening was spent back at Usama’s, discussing matters from the problems in Egypt, the utter unacceptability of the Ethiopian plan for a dam on the Blue Nile (Not only would it stop the blue nile for five years, condemning Egypt to a parching death, for the white nile produces only a meagre proportion of the flow of the egyptian nile), but apparently the design was fundamentally unsafe, with no foundations but instead tied only to two hills of sedimentary rock which would almost certainly shear once the reservoir had filled. Cultural exchange also extended to cuisine exchanges: sudanese vegetables were pressed into service in an excellent (if we say so ourselves) rendition of shepherd’s pie, although the sudanese cheese did a better impression of wiring flex than of cheese, and great coils of its sinewy length were left at the end of the meal. The egyptian contingent objected strongly to our claim that our rendition of moussaka was a Greek dish, claiming it as an Egyptian dish; and who are we to argue? The egyptian cuisine ranged from delicious salads of fresh vegetables dressed in mild vinegar with cumin-rich mixes of herbs and pepper so fresh it almost smelt like a fine spirit, to another rendition of the nile perch, this time fresher and stuffed with garlic and pepper before again being battered.

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The birthday of the Prophet, Muhammed: Mulid (remember our simsim adventures in Gadaref?) was soon upon us and the Sufia arrived en masse in the great squares of Khartoum and Omdurman. Resplendent in colourful robes and leather belts, their take on, and practice of Islam is in stark contrast to the more orthodox sunna in Sudan. Great encampments of trailers sunk their talons into the ground encircling the squares and streets around, flinging up their hatchways to offer ton after ton of dense, simsim-based confectionary: Usama was right, there was a killing to be made in this trade if the queues were a measure. Suitably nourished and hearts palpitating only mildly, we sallied forth into the throng, with the Sunni Ibrahim guiding us with a weather-eye out for fellow sunni judging his presence at the clearly sacrilegous ceremony, to quickly placate them: No, these are my guests, I am showing them what it is these people do, and a quick chortle: It was clear that the rift between the sufia and the sunni, although good-natured, was profound in their interpretation of how best to worship. Their dancing and chanting is hardly a festival of immodesty and hysteria, but a trip across the road to the colonial-era library, now a centre of civic government, and we had been led into the sunni demonstration against the sufi excesses. Rows of white-dressed men sat in states ranging from frenzied enervation to utter and devastating boredom at the haranguing of a robed elder, gloriously but incongrously amplified with echo-chamber digitised effects. We were invited to sit, and sat baffled by the harsh heckles. Ibrahim was clearly much more in his element: not that he was relaxed (it would be hard to relax with the high-pitched lambasting directed at all and sundry), but he was now showing face on “his” side of the picket.

Enough was enough, and we made to leave, and we were engaged by a lively group of young men:

"Come, my friends. I want to say something. You understand. These people they are singing and dancing. This is not right. It is unlegal. In Holy Qu’ran it is written that it is unlegal to sing or dance in the name of allah"

"Right. Okay" we agreed, nodding sagely and wondering whether they considered the notably melodious call to prayer to be singing in the name Allah (It turns out it isn’t, it’s considered "speaking with good tone" as Ibrahim explained to us with a twinkle in his eye that suggested he was no stranger to irony)

"And we are here to tell them that this is wrong"

"Okay" we said "and do they like that?"

"No."

"Do they ever tell you you’re wrong?"

"…no"

But it’s good natured. The two parties stand opposite each other and shout a bit at each other and then, having done their best they walk off, often with each other, arm in arm.

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In another sufi mosque we were taken to meet a man Tarik Al-Amereek. Odd name. We were enjoying the normal sudani-arabi greeting patter (A good deal of Sudani arabic is checking that your conversation partner is well, and that his condition is fine, and that he is ok, etc., etc.) when he turned to us and enquired, in perfect New-Yorkese, how we were getting on and what had brought us to Sudan. Jaws dropped, but were quickly recovered, and his fascinating story came out. Islamic from birth, he had decided, a few years prior, to visit the home of his sect of islamic, and the burialplace of its founder, a particularly large and beautiful mosque in khartum. With hundreds of Sufi now in full swing of stepping, clapping, and chanting slowly and rhythmically in their beautifully-coloured jalabiya in the background below an immense flagpole with the green and red flag of the faith, he explained how he had been granted a visa (no mean feat for a yank!) and come to Sudan about two years before. Adopting local dress himself, and immediately acquiring perfect sudani-arabic, his visa expired, and he lived on: as Sudanese as the others at the mosque. Keeping in contact with friends and family back home, he nevertheless now considered himself a Sudanese man.

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Time slunk steadily on, as didn’t our eritrean visa. We met up again with North2North cycle tourists Tim & Sharon, who had made it to Khartoum and were enjoying a few weeks with their feet up. So relaxing and immersing is the feeling of Khartoum life that it is perilously tempting to be caught up in it, and one evening we were devastated to receive a text from them with news of disaster: Tim’s bike had been stolen from within their compound. It seems they’d been lulled into near-complacency and had left them in the courtyard but unlocked. Upon hearing the news, Ibrahim pounced on their predicament and our trips to friends, business acquaintances, mechanics, and restaurants began to include more shadowy characters in the illicit-bicycle  world. Trips to various bicycle markets led us also to the rare-animal market in omdurman: Snakes, monkeys, and birds: beautiful, elegant, and astonishing. And the local pigeons: the gargantuan romany pigeon almost two-foot long, and the utterly bizarre “dancing pigeon” which just sat in it’s cage staring at the ceiling. Ibrahim explained this was abnormal, and normally it rolls around on the floor flapping wildly; that (rather enigmatically) this bird “has a worm in it’s stomach”. Unfortunately, however, no evidence of Tim’s rather beautiful Thorn Nomad bicycle ever surfaced, and they were forced to throw themselves on the charity of their friends and family and magically almost an entire bike materialised from down the end of a phoneline before being freighted into Khartoum to see them on their way.

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Yazeed is the youngest of the engineers on Ibrahim’s team working on the drilling machine, and he’d been a real gem in helping us get our Zega-boxes definitively attached to our bikes

(Note to Zega/Touratech: your boxes are great, but they really aren’t up to prewar rigid rear-ended single-cylinder motorcycles’ vibrations, and the clips spin off leaving your motorcycle precipitously lighter and significantly imbalanced at speed, with your luggage playing a delightful game of goat-curling on the sudanese highway. Not that, we suspect, they were ever intended for such use on such silly bikes, but there we go. The boxes stand up to considerable and enthusiastic curling, by the way!)

with U-bolts and steel plates. He invited us for a wonderful weekend at the nearby Jabal-awria dam: a colonial-era British (Glasgow, this time, to Tom’s delight!) construction on the White Nile. Fishing (but no swimming: electric fish in the White Nile make it a potentially fatal dip, according to Ibrahim!), boating, and castiron and rivets to delight any engineer.

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The far bank of the river plays host to innumerable parties who’ve flooded out of Khartoum in a large exhalation for the weekend. Young men in excited clusters, a circle of exquisitely dressed women of all ages dance and sing, celebrating a new wedding, with the men nearby, but not allowed into the entrancing movements. Another circle, of men this time, reveals another wedding celebration. We sit, drink jabanna, and eat fruit, and enjoy the Sudanese Uch and singing, before the musician launches into an english song of his own composition, in our honour. A fight breaks out in the background. two young men restrain a third while an older women requires three times as many people to restrain her from taking chunks out of him. Our guests explain he had looked at her daughter inappropriately. The young man is marched off by his friends to cool his heels, while the woman’s family is bundled into their Hiace and huff out of the park under a cloud, the matriarch shooting lightning-bolt glances at the scolded-looking young men on every quarter. But it’s all part of the game, and no humour is lost.

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Eventually, the drilling machine was completed, tons of mendi, tagaliya, dajaj (or gidad: we never did work out if it was a real word), and bolti consumed, the drilling machine was sold, Tim & Sharon hit the road, Tom finished “The Scramble for Africa” and celebrated the (probably) 2,000th game of backgammon by destroying the board, and it was time to get moving again. Any news from Asmara? Fat chance. With the bikes prepped and ready for the off, Richard had a final meeting with the Eritrean consul. No, sadly, there was no progress. Was it worth riding to the border, optimistically, in case we would be allowed to cross? No, categorically not: it could not be advised. We decided to, anyway :)

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Khartoum

Predictably, Egyptian customs held up the arrival of the spring by an extra day, and levied a 100% import duty, but despite this it arrived, was fitted (a perfect fit), Julien was thanked profusely and we were on our way. Bidding farewell to Mr. Rezeiky, we headed out of Luxor. South, we crossed the Nile and headed down a road which rapidly degenerated into plough-furrowed writhing mass of snake-like ruts, tugging the bikes from side to side: road-cobras. With the sun glaring off the road, and traffic blaring past us, we had quickly had enough. Heading off the agricultural road and into the desert road, the surface improved, the traffic dropped off, and the bikes settled into their usual throbbing hum. It was good to be back moving.

Arriving in Aswan the next morning, we crossed the low dam, and headed into town. Aswan was the first large city we’d been to since Cairo, and had a much more healthy tourist population: the city seemed more relaxed as a consequence. Heading across the new bridge, about 10km North of the city to Garb-Aswan, the towns on the west bank, we searched out Ashraf’s place, a campsite which had been recommended to us. Completely unable to find it, we arrived at the Nubian tombs, and sat watching the traffic on the Nile while waiting for Ashraf to appear (as ever, someone knew someone, and he was called and came shortly).

Ashraf is a lovely guy: a Nubian who ran a fleet of feluccas (broad, short iron gaff-rigged sailing boats. He also has a house: like a courtyard of sand with rooms off it, and a broad bench under a woven canopy. The only guests there, he tells a a similar story to the one we’ve been hearing all down the Nile. “Before it was great, we had many guests, but now…” and it tails off. But he remains upbeat. He’s just bought a car, and maybe he’ll have a go at driving to make a living, he tells us. We’re doing about 100kmph the wrong way down a road through nowhere when he tells us this. “Oh, and how long have you been driving?” - “I bought this car three months ago; ees beautiful?” “yes, yes. how long did you drive er… before that?” “No drive before that. No car”.

Ashraf knew one of the local shipping agents for the aswan - wadi halfa ferry, Mohammed Abouda. He confirmed we were very lucky: there was space for the bikes on the next cargo barge. We would load on Sunday. Ecstatic, we stripped the luggage off the bikes and rode, light-as-a-feather up to Darau, to see the national camel market, a sea of hobbling, vomiting, bellowing beasts of all sizes and purposes, from Racing to Meat. Further on, we visited the beautiful temple of Kom Ombo, dedicated jointly to the two pharaonic gods that we have chosen as our personal deities: Sobek, the crocodile-headed god chosen by Tom, and Horus, the Falcon-headed god by Rich. The temple features a deep  shaft with a spiral staircase around the outside wall, supposedly to contain a venerated crocodile in pharaonic days: Sobek in person, as it were. People would bring offerings of wine and mummified crocodiles for this beast and in return ask it to bring fertility to their land and to predict the height of the next flood. The obvious cruelty of barking at a furious reptile while pouring wine in it’s eyes and throwing its dead brothers at it obviously not too apparent back then.

Loading day at Aswan port was as baffling a process as our ordeal in Damietta, but thanks to Mohammed, considerably swifter and more reasonably priced. He requests that overlanders call or email him two weeks in advance, so he can reserve them a place on the cargo barge. Eventually, having satisfied the egyptian police and customs that we had indeed ridden from Damietta, and that we had killed noone on the way, our doodled-arabic number plates were removed, our licenses revoked, and we were ushered into the port. The scene was one of unrivalled chaos. The barge had, earlier, been completely loaded with trade goods, and hands had been hired to unload some of this, load vehicles (three land cruisers, our motorcycles, and two others), and reload some of the goods. There were several fist-fights ongoing concerning the finer points of this plan. A palette, serving as a loading ramp, cracked under a Honda Africa Twin, but fortunately did not dump the rider in Lake Nasser. Meanwhile a handler, possibly trying to surreptitiously load his sugar-cane crusher/juicer, wheeled the trolley a bit too close to the dock’s edge. With a crash, a ton of metal thumped into the gap between barge and dock. The man howling in anguish, and suddenly surrounded by howling abuse. Cadging an aluminium gangway, the bikes were put aboard, amid a torrent of shrieked, mutually contradictory orders and unhelpful if well-meaning hands manhandling bikes and riders around the deck.

Meeting the other overlanders, we swapped stories and, the next day, boarded the passenger ferry. Built to carry about 200, it is pressed into service with between 600 and 700 passengers for it’s 19-hour passage. Mohammed greased the appropriate palms and hurried us onto the boat, encouraging us to scramble up the side rather than wait for the doors to open, and we settled in. The lower decks were chock-full of the friendliest and most welcoming people imaginable, full of chat and invitations of hospitality, demanding only information and stories. We were particularly entranced by Attar, a bowling-ball of a man with a boisterous manner and a face capable of expressing boundless glee and utter desolation at nothing more worrying than a plate or two of chicken. We must come and stay with him in Khartoum! Of Course!!!

The other foreigners travelling were a couple (James and Anna) in a well-equipped land cruiser, two overland motorcyclists from UAE and Egypt (Omar, from the HuBB), two chinese land cruisers which now had to make it to cape town in three weeks, having been waylaid for a month by egyptian customs (it would be nice to sympathise with them, but they tried to enter egypt without carnets… bold, of which more later), a few hitch-hikers british, polish, japanese and dutch, and a couple of cyclists: Tim and Sharon. They’d set off from the top of Norway 6 months earlier planning to ride to cape town, then ship to tierra del fuego and ride back north through the americas. Feeling hopelessly outclassed in terms of journey calibre, we settled on deck, to the sound of sudanese Uch (a mandolin-like instrument) and singing, drifted in and out of sleep, the boat periodically beaming a spotlight to measure progress against various navigation buoys on this notoriously shallow reservoir. As dawn broke, the ferry drifted past the temple of Abu Simbel, not close, but close enough to see the coach-loads of tourists who’d endure 5 hour journeys to be there, and would shortly be repeating the journey. Ugh…

The ferry docked in the middle of nowhere. there was a wharf and… sand. Mohammed had called his counterpart in sudan and told him to expect us. Magdi appeared, calm, unflappable, and extremely polite. He’d booked us a hotel, but we told him it might be beyond our price range. Some taxis (1950s land rovers with bald tyres) appeared offering us a ride into halfa. Tuk-tuks milled aimlessly like ants or wading birds around the dessert. Money-lenders appeared and gave us 6.5 sudanese pounds (Pounds Gee-NAY, Attar booms, his eyes bulging with enthusiasm) per US Dollar: there was no haggling, and it seems we got a good rate (certainly better than the official rate of 5.6!) We boarded an amjad (mini-bus) with attar and his entourage and trundled to a hotel: it was full. Attar looked about as dejected as it is possible to be, and whinnied a little. We went to another hotel and took sufficient rooms to sleep the whole party. Attar emerged from his room, his eyes watering slightly. “Ah…” he said “is not beautiful”. Indeed, but at 10 sudanese pounds (GeeNAY!!) per night, it was certainly affordable!! We ambled around town, with attar’s friends, and were invited to eat nile-fish by a sudanese man who was returning from six months in Cairo, studying the Qu’ran. Over Bolti (Nile tilapia, Oreochromis niloticus) we were urged to consider Islam. We did. The fish was delicious, with lemon squeezed over it in it’s spicy fried batter.

Afterwards, we wandered round the town and out to a petrol station, anxious to check that petrol wasn’t going to have jumped from Egypt’s 20pence per litre. Standing at the pump, mental calculators flailing at the exchange rate (30p per litre: alright sudan, we’re still in business!), a european wandered up with a 5litre jerry can in one hand and the instantly-recognisable thousand-mile stare. Roman was a Pole who, though living in New Jersey, had set out from poland on a BMW oil-cooler boxer nine months before, ridden down the west coast of africa, and was now returning via the east coast. His GPS had led him along a 350km schlepp through the desert from abu hamed to wadi halfa: noone had told it about the network of chinese-built roads following the nile. He was filthy, shattered, and his bike had run out of fuel (fortunately in Halfa, not the dessert). He was camped with the cyclists from the ferry, but we walked into town and traded info: the road nort & the road south. He wanted to avoid the ferry from egypt to turkey: too expensive. Could he go through syria (no)? What about israel and iraq? Oh dear… But his tales were tremendous. He’s done the entire trip so far without carnet de passages, sometimes blasting the bike out of customs with officials running after him; and while halted in brazzaville-congo for a visa to cross DRC he’s actually charged through a border post and almost crossed the country without a visa before being dragged back the way he’d come. Roman: it would be good to hear how you’re getting on in Egypt with no carnet…

We woke on our first morning in Wadi Halfa and walked through the sandy streets to declare our arrival in Sudan at the police station. Here we met cyclists Tim and Sharon. For all the inconvenience experienced in loading and offloading their bikes onto the passenger ferry (squeezing impractically laden bikes by hand over railings, down stairwells and through a crammed lower deck about to kick off if a Japanese tourist didn’t share his bench with a Sudanese electronics merchant) their composure at the station was justifiably earned and their kit astonishing: each sitting comfortably in the shade above the dusty floor on a folding stool. Whoever it was responsible to deal with processing tourists had gone for breakfast so we frittered an hour comparing notes with the cyclists, watching locals being vaccinated against the recent wave of Yellow Fever in Sudan and talking with geology and mining students of a local university. Responsibility returned from breakfast he ushered us to a different office within the same courtyard of buildings where we waited with completed arrivals forms to pay to register our arrival. Behind the counter in this accounting office were two female employees wetting rows of postal stamps and attaching them to official looking documents, by way of validating the document as opposed to paying for them to be mailed. Soon they had accepted 213 of our Sudanese Guinea (SDG) apiece – roughly $30 – and our applications were handled into the adjacent room where they were promptly signed by the officer in charge and returned. We were in Sudan!

Returning to Sharon, who’d been sitting with their bicycles while Tim joined us in queue, she delivered news that the cargo barge had arrived. We bade them both “bon voyage”, folded ourselves into a tuk-tuk and made for the port. The hot glare of the midday sun made the unlit terminus building feel even darker but we found our fixer, Magdi, in a small side corridor, away from the bare echoey walls in the main hall where noisy crowds were amassing for the Egypt bound ferry, busying himself in completing the paperwork for the arrival of the bikes. The bikes were ready to unload. Passing motorcyclists Omar and his UAE chum on the slipway, we noticed how tall their modern bikes seemed, closer in size and stature to a small car than with what we were accustomed: meaty rear suspension, enormous telescopic forks front suspension, front/rear disc brakes, a foot of ground clearance, perspex weather screens, metal grilles over their headlight lenses, multiple pannier boxes. They seemed heavily over-laden but, Omar’s fourth overland excursion into Africa “careful, you’ll get addicted”, we wondered if it was we who were under-equipped. Tied alongside the sloping slipway we were lucky to find the height of barge and slipway more or less even where the bikes were stowed and offing easy, a blessing not bestowed upon Toyota-overlanders James and Anna who had their hands full marshalling the bevy of local hands arranging gangways to bridge a larger gap nearer the stern.

We rode the bikes to the top of the slipway to finish the bike’s entry into Sudan by completing another page in the Carnet de Passage, Magdi efficiently relieving us of any control in the exchange with the Arabic-only police officer. Bikes cleared, a rickety gate was open and they entered Sudan. Back in Halfa we met Attar outside the donkey-hotel and, to quell his concerns at approaching the entrance, made it clear that we were only entering to collect our bags and, being mid-afternoon, would gladly follow him to a new hotel for a second night prior to hitting the road. Attar, as big a man as his heart, plus two sizeable companions shoe-horned themselves into the rear bench of a tuk-tuk whose driver’s bitten lip and bulged eyes conveyed the cold terror of a costly dilemma: rejecting the fare or inevitable repairs. 50 metres from the donkey-hotel’s door the tuk-tuk’s clutch imploded attacking a small but unavoidable rise. Attar’s plus-two alighted, leading us to Hotel Kilopatra by foot, leaving the tuk-tuk driver to enrol passers-by to shoulder him over the hump and trickle 100 metres across the small opening to deliver his smug remaining fare to the door.

From Southern Egypt when we’d first met Sudanese and getting to know a few a little during the boat crossing, we felt incredibly welcomed by these people, their faces and eyes warmly engaging with ours to ask “Tammam?” or “Are you fine?”. Our first 24 hours in the country had only served to reinforce this experience: a sense of respectful interest in us and our motorcycles. We left the bikes unlocked by the hotel and wandered down the sand streets with Attar in search of local sim-cards and dinner. Attar, who we had understood to be in electronics, took charge of the negotiation for a phone for Tom and browbeat the shopkeeper down to what he deemed an acceptable price, whilst assuring us that the Indian made battery was “more beauteeful” than its China-made equivalent. Attar insisted to pay for both sim-cards and the phone. He also bought scratch-card credit top-ups for each and demonstrated how topping-up was achieved and how much each cost (“Five.. Pound.. GeeNAY” - his face opened, his eyes and mouth grin wide like a conjurer performed a trick awaiting his audience’s response). After dinner we strolled around Halfa and found a teenage boy under a strip light in a shop, without the slightest concession to safety, panning gold from bags of silty sand with water and mercury. The water removes much of the impurities in solution and is carefully poured off the top leaving a pool of silvery mercury becoming increasingly stiff as even the finest particles of gold become attached. The town is full of tales of kind and virtuous men making large accidental finds under cooking pots and of government corruption at the highest level, indeed we were later told in Khartoum that the government prints money to buy this gold to sell on the international market.

As Attar was leaving in the early hours of the following morning to take the 12 hour coach ride to Khartoum, we said our goodbyes and made our promises to get in touch on arrival in Khartoum that night, even going so far as to agree a rendez-vous at hotel “Salama Rotana” when we made it.

And so it was that, armed only with a map of the battlefields of late 19th century British - Sudan exchanges that we entered the Nubian desert. The scenery was instantly dramatic and deadly, making the deserts we’d crossed in Egypt look like a beach-club: Hard sharp rocks, Martian red and black, with no vegetation or animals for the first 150 miles out of Halfa save for the occasional prospector shoulder-deep in a pit beside the road. Other more technically equipped prospectors seemed comically incongruous to the surroundings, wandering through low earthy ridges with a metal detector in hand and large headphones on their head. Even here, though, the generosity of the Sudanese was apparent: when turning to leave a small supplies-stall we discovered our coffees had been bought by the truck driver who’d waved at us from another table and left shortly before. Steep sided buttes stood in solitude. Their peaks were sharp, dark black and featureless, and left the impression of being shaded by a cloud in the contrast to the lighter coloured earth and sands at their bases.

After many hours we came to the Nile for the first time since leaving Halfa. Unlike in Egypt, where extensive irrigation forms a 20-40 mile belt of green hiding the river, in Sudan the Nile arrives like a small oasis: a single line of tall palms at its edge in places, none in others; sometimes with irrigated fields on its banks, sometimes none. A short way on a pair of wraithy silhouettes came into sight, thinned by the strong light behind them they seemed whispy, too fragile to be battling this road. Up close they looked determined and resilient if a little sun-burned: we’d caught the cyclists. Dependant on food for their fuel, rather than the varying qualities of benzine that Africa treats the bikes to, where we carry spares, Tim and Sharon carry a veritable larder and treated us to our first cups (bowls) of PG Tips on the trip. When we’d said goodbye and time came to leave they mounted their bikes and just peddled off. Given the capricious and sometimes totally disobedient nature of our bikes to start, this seemed elegantly simple: “What, you just peddle? Weird!”

We pulled off the road for the night at an abandoned single storey window-less building near a small town. Behind the building we found a long area that had been marked out with long white lines at the verges. The compacted earth led us to believe it was a runway, evidently disused, a suspicion confirmed by a small mud hut we saw on the other side of the road the next morning with “Airport Café” painted on the door. Just when we were wondering where the cyclists would be spending the night, and a little sorrowful not to share more of their company, the pair of stealthy wraiths slipped silently past and only was it for our facing the road at the moment they past did we spot them. In the low light of sunset and a hundred metres from the road they disregarded our calls and beckons for well wishers or village idiots and cycled on. Tom gave chase by moto and they soon joined us for dinner and camp.

The next day we headed South again. We stopped to climb one of the tall buttes. 400 feet we stumbled in leather trousers up steep scree and loose rocks which reported a resonant ping if hit. The wind continued to grow in ferocity till nearing the peak you could play at leaning on the wind and had to raise our voices to be heard. We became 7-year olds again taking the largest rocks we could lift and casting them downhill (away from the bikes) and grinning in the destruction they wrought en route. We found sea shells in the highest soil layers and then looked out across the seafloor, imperceptibly flat from our height, and the road, an insignificant pencil line of charcoal black in an ocean of brown. We left the Nile at Dongola and headed East to begin to cross the first of two desertous legs where the Nile makes a large S-shaped North-South meander from Dongola to Merowe and Merowe to Atbara. The road here was empty and we made an early start the following morning in a numbingly cold cross wind. We stopped after two hours to huddle out of the wind in the lee of a small hill with three small cairns of the resonant black rocks. Blood back in the hands we set off for Merowe arriving for a breakfast of Foul beans roadside. To the Southwest of Merowe are the mountain of Jebal Barkal and the pyramids and temple ruins of a once thriving town. No hawkers, no touts, no camel rides. We pulled off the road and parked at the base of pyramids, much shorter than Giza or Maydum but far more slender, their condition more surprising for their steepness. Further west are the royal tombs of El Kurru. With little of remark on the surface to distinguish them from the neighbouring mud brick houses we weren’t sure what we had found. A group of local urchins gestured towards an old man who, for a small fee, unlocked the doors and we descended beneath an intricate herring-bone mud-brick roof into simple antechambers and tombs covered in hieroglyphs and decorations. A visible high tide mark and faded ‘glyphs beneath this line showed where the tombs had previously been flooded. We camped that night just off the quiet road halfway between Merowe and Atbara beside a small acacia tree under a carpet of stars.

Atbara we found a big a bustling town. We had lunch and lazed into the afternoon and, approaching Christmas day, both found excuses to venture into the hot, mostly fruit, market in search of suitable coloured stockings, lumps of coal, oranges, dates, chillis and other traditional seasonal gifts. After what seemed like a long day at the office (another cold winter’s morning in the desert, many hours sitting at our desks watching the desert roll by, mad last minute dash down the high street) and confident that Khartoum had to be getting close we called it a day shortly before Shendi. We found a basic village: thatched huts, goats and sheep wandering freely, dogs inviting us to leave and asked permission to camp nearby. We indulged in a shower from our jerry can of water reserves and were invited to join the village chief for tea. Through a near-impenetrable language barrier we understood the chief was trying to tell us something about the number 7 and camels when at 7 o’clock on the dot a man arrived on a camel from Atbara, over 40 miles away. The animal lay down in its dismantling fashion and begun to crunch its way through 5 kilos of a rock-hard white grain which it was offered, belching wafts of cud from one of its stomachs throughout. After tea we were sent to be on fresh heated sweetened goats milk.

Leaving the village on Christmas Eve morning after another round of heated goats-milk we discovered the staggering complex of Kushitic pyramids of Meroe little more than a mile down the road. In Khartoum’s excellent national musem we discovered that during his reign the Kushitic king would erect the monument of the pyramid to his predecessor on top of his burial chamber and have a site excavated for his own burial (essentially digging his own grave) but presumably with the benefit of seeing that his accomplishments were favourably hieroglyphed.

South of Shendi we came off the road for the night. A busier route showing few signs of slowing down after dark we had our work cut out to find a suitable camp. We headed 500 metres away from the asphalt to a line of Acacias and promptly became stuck in the soft sandy river bed in which they were rooted. The ground was fine silt-like dry quicksand and the bike tyres disappeared into it, there were huge acacia thorns everywhere, and we were rapidly getting stuck. Pushing the bikes together, one-at-a-time, through the dust, we got to some harder standing. The tent was erected and a foraging party dispatched to look for firewood. Everything looked dead: by all rights in this wilderness it should have been, but eventually enough twigs and scraps were assembled to make a little fire. It was lit, dinner was eaten, and, too excited to wait for the morning, Tom got Richard’s presents out: a stocking full of dates, some rocks, more dates, and a desert gourd! Desert gourds had been discovered a couple of days earlier: by the side of the road, growing in the sand: thousands of small gourds: some green and hard, like watermelon, but foully bitter! Others dry and floaty-lite like maraccas. The green ones were bisected and arranged on the road like a troop of tortoises crossing as a family, only to be exploded crueely by callous HGVs thundering past, while the dry ones became makeshift snowballs for two homesick brits in the midst of a parchingly dry, scorchingly hot winter of sand.

Then the main presents were opened. Steel mugs, large enough to make and drink sudanese coffee, with coffee, ground ginger, and sugar: glad we didn’t wait till christmas morning. Tom got his stocking, full of chillis, (char)coal and a single citrus, and coffee was made. At the boil, an old toothy sudanese man came out of the night: he sat down at our request and shared our coffee, glad we could repay some of the kindness sudan had shown us to date. We shared the dates with him, and he pocketed huge handfuls. Expressing interest in the citrus, we offered it to him: he took a mouthful and pocketed the rest. Now jabbering excitedly in Arabic, and with eyes slightly aflame (above the flickering embers of the dying fire), he started picking up everything, muttering in a language noone could possibly have spoken. He strolled off, and we left it at that, leaving him presents of chilis and tiger balm on the rocks by the fire should he return. He’s probably eatent them, too.

Christmas morning was celebrated with a less-than-traditional pushing-of-the-velocettes out of a silty riverbed. Pouring with sweat, liberally dusted with sudanese dirt, but grinning at the memorability of this christmas, we started the last ride into Khartoum. The road, tagged the “Osama Road” by Theroux, financed as it was by OBL, starts fine, but as khartoum is approached, degrades fairly rapidly into a metalled mess of potholes, cobras, and piles of sand. Gouge-marks signify the frequent explosions of the threadbare, cracked sudanese HGV tyres, leaving twisted curles of tread writhing in the wayside (more cobras! Tyre-cobras?). With tuk-tuks re-appearing, a bank of dust visible on the horizon, and traffic building, we sensed the imminent approach of Khartoum, and stopped for lunch at the Garri Free Zone: noting the astonishing absence of Garri, we ate an immense bowl of ripped up bread (Khubs) topped with stews, sauces, and foul. Delicious. After coffee and the customary chat with the coffee, we set off again into Khartoum. The road completely disintegrated into a chessboard of sand and tarmac. Khartoum loomed up on either side of the road: Neon-lit, baking-hot, dusty, and sprawling. Plunging headlong and without direction through the city (south is good, we’re going south) we burst onto a bridge and blink in the cool air, and beautiful, huge expanse of emptiness in the middle of the teaming city. The nile laps at gentle banks. Huge glass-and-concrete skyscrapers dot the scenery, a huge girder-bridge spans the same incredible river to the left. To the right is an island, and a bend in the river, which means… this must be moghran! The joining of the blue and white niles! It is beautiful, and huge! The bridge plunges us back into the airless traffic. But it’s good-natured. No tempers. No horns! That’s the big change from Egypt. We stop and ask directions to the hotel we are meeting Attar at: the directions are always onward. Surely khartoum can’t be this big? We drive past an entire airport runway, and still they wave us onward. At last we arrive at the hotel. Attar is called, and will arrive shortly. We lounge, and chat to the man sweeping the perfect pavement by the perfectly manicured lawn: he’s come from Ethiopia, promised high salaries and ready work in khartoum atfter graduating in ethiopia. Soon he plans to return: khartoum is not paved with gold… Attar arrives in an amjad, and we follow him to a restaurant for lunch: we are stuffed full: it really is Christmas day, we joke. Then he takes us to his flat and installs us in the flat one down from him: relax! We have a balcony and kitchen and bathroom: truly, this is luxurious. We luxuriate, before heading up to see Attar for a night-time, whistle-stop tour of Khartoum’s ice cream parlours and pastry shacks, before retiring, shattered but thrilled to have arrived in Khartoum.

The next day, boxing day, Attar and Abubakri, his friend, took us on a lap of the embassies we needed: the journey had initially planned to go straight into Ethiopia, but pouring over maps of al-havasha: the horn of africa, had piqued our curiousity: could we ride through eritrea? The border with ethiopia was closed; a war zone, but into djibouti then ethiopia? Possible. The FCO advised against it, but accounts of parts of the jounrey showed it to be possible… we’d ask. Eritrea would consider our application, but it was unusual for english to apply in Khartoum: it could take two or three weeks, and we would need a letter or request from our own embassy: regardless, we should come back the next day to discuss the matter with the Consul. Djibouti simply required a letter from our embassy, and Ethiopia just wanted a few dollars. The British embassy, however, was closed. For the next ten days. Not ideal.

Attar took us for a howlingly fast tour of the sights of Khartoum and, white-knuckled, we agreed to wait for the eritrean visa then get the others and take it from there. We explained this to Attar who looked like we had just to eat his dashboard, such was his disgust and astonishment. He made a few telephone calls and announced that he knew someone who knew someone who could arrange the visas for 200USD per head. Steep: we said we’d give the embassy a fortnight then have a think. OK, said Attar, screaming past a flipped korean car on one of the “Chinese” bridges. and an army Barracks. But, said Attar, the general the boat, not sleep here. the general the boat, he sleep in khartoum in the boat. Baffling. Furthermore, the general the blane, he sleep khartoum in big blane. We’d lost him here. “I show you!” he squeaked with glee, peeling through lanes of crossing traffic. Tearing through khartoum, we came to the ministry of defence, built like lego toys in the shape of a boat and an aeroplane (complete with navigation lights!). “SEE?! Is beautiful??”

Bridges in Khartoum are “British” or “Chinese”: All large-scale construction in this country has been undertaken by foreign powers, presumably for their own reasons, however benign they may or may not be. With the current US embargo, however, Sudan grows increasingly closer to China, evidenced by the goods available on the markets and the huge chinese construction projects scattered through the country with their camps of chinese workers and support. It is this embargo that sees our VISA and Mastercard cards useless in sudanese banks: reports of widespread ATMs on travel forums had reassured us that, although we would not meet an ATM between Halfa and Khartum, cash would be forthcoming in the capital. The reassurance was false: nothing worked. Even Tom’s internet banking account refused to accept a login, sensing a sudanese IP address. Somehow, however, western union, very much the tuk-tuk of the financial world, seems to have overcome the embargo, and emergency funds were snuck in thanks to Tom’s parents.

Meeting the Eritrean Consul (Soloman, a wonderfully pleasant man of immense calm and obviously great intelligence) got us no further, other than a quiet warning that some visa applications on his desk had been waiting many months for a decision from Asmara: “Please Hold” is so much more polite than “No way!”, but considerably less helpful if that is the actuality.

Meeting an Eritrean while scouting for a workshop, Richard explains how we want to visit Eritrea. He finds this funny, as he is desperately applying for residence in any other country, having left Eritrea with no passport. We are invited to take traditional coffe at his house. Over the etheric aromas of coffee, ginger, resin-incense, and charcoal, he showed us his applications for asylum. The story tells of summary arrest, detainment without charge, torture, escape, and flight through jungles at night. But why do we want to visit Eritrea? He asks. Our answer seems both ridiculous and perfect: to know what it is like. We cannot change how it is; we can’t reasonably help him; but if enough people know how things are, maybe things will change? Or maybe that’s ridiculous: still, you’re reading this.

After cleaning the bikes, routine maintenance, and touring the sights of Khartoum, we had only one major task: to find chain wax for the motorcycles. Overlanders take heed: this product is not attainable in Africa: take all you will need, fit a scottoiler, or by a BMW shafty (we cooked the chains in a baking tray full of grease: seemed to work!). On a fruitless sortie around Khartoum looking for this (we never learn), a sudanese man stopped by us at the lights. “This bike” he said “I think it is a BSA! I have many like this” We had met Ibrahim Zanatee, who would soon become a good friend, a fellow enthusiast for outmoded machinery, and our window on life in Khartoum. Over the next few days, he took us round and showed us his own sights of Khartum: his collection of 36 BSAs, all ex-british army or (post-independence; 1956) ex-sudanese army; his friends who collect and maintain ex-army brit-bikes from Sudan (BSA) and Egypt (Norton); the vintage cars of Khartoum, which extend from a 1903 three-piston oddity to many american behemoths of the post-independence military and presidencies, to a battered but rust-free frogeye sprite, and other british oddities; his current mechanical projects and friends, an ex-GB 19th century steam-crane at the Egyptian Nile-watching station in Al-Shagara he is determined to resurrect; and his friend Mr. Omar and his Yemeni Mendi restaurant. Mr. Omar was sudanese champion, and international competitor in scramble riding in the 1970s, a hobby he has handed down to his son, with considerable success: he races throughout the arab world, and now runs a mendi restaurant. This is a huge drum-like oven built into the floor, with walls surrounded by cracked glass and salt to retain heat. A raging fire is burnt to embers in the bottom, a 40kg pot of basmati rice lowered over this, and about 40 dressed chickens racked above this before the oven is closed with a heavy steel lid. The rice steams the chicken which drip oils and spices back into the rice, until, in a few hours’ time, the oven is opened to produce: KAFSA! Food of saudi royalty and overland motorcyclists, it seems. A delicious plate of lightly seasoned saffron rice with tender chicken, it is a staple on our khartum schedule.

Mr. Ibrahim also introduced us to many of his friends, including Mr. Usama, a friend who worked at the Egyptian Nile-watching station. Hospitable and extremely generous, he is an engineer by trade: he’d left his previous job in Luxur, as well as his family, driven by a desire for new challenges and areas of work, and had been in Khartum for about 6 months. He loved the place, not as cold as luxur in winter, but missed his family. His large colonial-era house had a spare bedroom and we were invited to stay, an offer we were delighted to accept. Usama was very excited to learn Richard worked in wind energy and turbines, as he had in mind a project to use renewables to irrigate the Egyptian dessert, and Richard’s brain was picked by a man obviously keen to run an interesting-sounding scheme, and with an obvious interest in renewable energy. One evening he seemed despondent: his scheme to import into Cairo 50 tonnes of sesame seed (simsim) for the festival of muhammad’s birthday had fallen through: his seller had reneged on his deal: simsim makes the traditional sweet for the festival, and he needed a new supplier. The place to go was Gadaref, but it was a day away. “What can I do?”

Meanwhile, we discovered that the standard ethiopian tourist visa was three months, so we went and acquired yet another festive, less-than-legible script in our passports, and planned how best to occupy ourselves while waiting for Eritrea to consider our request. Having explored the desert well, not fancying a round-trip of over a thousand miles to see port sudan, and excluded from Kordofan, Darfur, and Blue Nile by conflict, we decided to visit Dinder National Park. Mr. Ibrahim took us to meet the secretary to the minister for tourism who prepared our permits himself, not to mentioning hand-drawing us a map to get there. A long round-tour of the overlanders and tourists of Mr. Ibrahim’s circle rendered the verdict that our journey was a good idea, and safe, and so Mr. Ibrahim led us out of Khartum on the Madani road in the breaking dawn to point us off towards Dinder.

Riding south in the hot dusty air our departure was marred only by the fact that Richard’s bike, suffering from difficulty in starting from the outset, had broken its kickstart return spring. Not a fatal break, we were carrying no spares, as removing the broken spring and tying the kickstart up renders the bike fully running, but richard now has taken to parking only at the top of hills, and has a competition running to see how many push-starts he can get from the gun-toting policemen at the roadblocks and stations. He’s doing well!

Pushing hard on roads of fair to sub-fair quality, we made wad madani by lunch, sinnar a few hours later, and then got lost on a detour over the sinnar dam. Obviously British (RANSOMES & RAPIER, IPSWICH, ENGLAND calmly stated on all sluicegates), the dam staunched a river of decidedly non-british proportions. Fading to a point in the distance, and ripping water through so fast it cavitated into sucking whirlpools of spume on the downstream side, the sight was hypnotic and we were distracted from our navigation. The police pointed onwards: DINDER!, but after fifteen minutes of rutted dirt-track, it was obvious this wasn’t the road, so we retraced our steps, found the right road, and crossed the nile after senga: this matched the ministry-endorsed map! Eventually, as the sun set, and the day ran out, so did the road. half an hour later and dusk was ending on a dirt-track of corrugated dust. Finally, within sight of the glow of Dinder town’s lights, Tom’s clutch cable gave out. Camp here or replace the cable and slog into town? Close call. We fished a spare out and fitted it: of course, it didn’t fit properly: bloody classic parts. Never mind, it’ll get us there. Shattered, we flopped into the police station and fell asleep in some spare beds.

The next day they explain no motorcycles are allowed in Dinder, but no problem: someone russles up a battered-beyond-recognition landcruiser flatbed (350 guinea per day complete with driver and AK-47-toting “security”); the bikes are secured in the guardhouse; all food, water, clothing is loaded, and we’re off, amid shouted enthusiasms “There are trees, more trees. All trees in Dinder National Park! And Birds! More Birds! And animals! It is amazing!”

Six hours’ drive later (during which the theme of unreliable historic vehicles is maintained when the landcruiser rolls noiselessly to a halt in the middle of a jungle), and we arrive at Camp Galagu: a bafflingly well-manned police station in the wilderness of the park, under an immense GSM antenna (WHY?). Madad, a newly-qualified vet and lieutenant (they say it properly: leff-tennant!) in the wildlife police brings us an unreasonable bill for our stay: we point out the nonsense of paying 12 times as much for a hut with no electricity or running water than our unreasonably chic flat in Khartoum’s Riyadh district. We suggest 700 Guinea for three days. Smiles.

Shortly after we go for our first drive into the park in the setting sun. Baboons (AH! Local name… “TIGIL” calls Madad), Waterbuck (Ah! Local name… Katambor!), Antelope (Aaah! Local name … Basmaak!), and Guinea Fowl(Ah! Local name… Geedad Al-Wadi! This means river-chicken, and we find funny: christening them aqua-Jeems: Jeem being the arabic letter for the guinea currency.) Shortly Tom shouts “Back! Stop! Lions!!!” Facing suspicion, the driver reluctantly wheels us about, the lions are hiding “Sure there were…” then silently one pads into view from behind a clump of grass. Huge and slow-moving, she walks to the base of a tree before turning and sitting, watching us. Another lies still in the grass, despite a slowly advancing toyota.

Satisfied, we leave them alone. The next day we went out for a couple of drives. Buffalo, ostrich, mongoose, pelican, heron, gazelle: the area teems! The rivers full of fish (delicious, incidentally…). A trip to a completely isolated village (Um-Elkhir), the next day revealed people living completely off nature in an environment bone dry for two months of the year, and sodden to malarial swamp for four. Tom visited the MSF-built rural hospital: he was surprised. WHO-stocked western drugs in the pharmacy (quite a good range), a lab which although offered only basic tests, probably had a shorter turnaround than most teaching hospitals in the UK, and almost certainly never lost a sample! What was the majority of the caseload? 1: Malaria, 2: Kala-Azar (It had it’s own ward) 3: typhoid. what about hepatitis? HIV? He had 90 cases of HBV on his books, but HIV and HCV? Not really. A tour of the wards showed exactly this, along with an old woman: a repeat admission: she was diabetic, but did not take her medicines, because she did not trust them, so came in HONKing regularly. The doctor looked at me, suggesting she was ridiculously backwards: people would not be like this in Europe? Hmmm….

With our time in Dinder up, we rode back out. passing through Madani, we thought about Gadaref and Osama’s Simsim. We called him: did he still need simsim? yes? OK!!
We rattled down and camped halfway there. The proximity to Ethiopia was brought home when two ethiopians walked past: they had taken their savings, run away from home, and were off to seek fortunes in Sudan. They would apply for refugee status, and had high hopes. We didn’t tell them about the many ethiopians with terrible jobs on minimal pay in Khartum wishing they could go back home we’d met.

Arriving in Gadaref, we made our way to a simsim plant. Oh my, the simsim. The foreman confirmed they had more than enough for our needs, but we would need to talk to the manager: he was called: he’d come over. 45 minutes later he hadn’t arrived, so another merchant offered to show us where he was. We followed him to a large hall full of seats: gestured to sit, the hall quickly filled. Before long an auction was in full flow, and over 10 million guinea pounds of simsim had changed hands.

Unfortunately, the cruel mistress of simsim had bitten, and the price had fluctuated beyond Osama’s margin. We left empty handed, a town of sudanese wondering if we’d really come all the way from london to fail to buy such a trifling amount of simsim. They’ll never know.

Back in Khartum, we met Mark, an english teacher working there for the last 2 1/2 years. We’d been to Dinder? Recently? Did we see any evidence of the battle? “what battle?” oh, well, apparently there’d been an islamist camp training people to fight jihad in Mali and other western countries. They’d attacked the police camp at galagu. rockets, machine guns, carnage. Sounds unbelievable: if you’ve gone to the effort of driving into the middle of a huge wilderness, why on earth would you seek out the only military presence there? He left us with a decent warning, too: he’d just come back from eritrea. travel was not permitted more than 50km from the capital, and his visa had taken months to obtain, and even then only after his brother, an MEP in brussels had asked the right questions. If we had a contact, use it now, and 400 USD sounded reasonable for the impossible. I think we’ll take that advice.


Luxor

The ferry ticket said 10:00. We arrived at the port at 8:30, good and British. The first other passengers arrived at about 12. By 3, the dock was full of Syrians, leaving the escalating violence in their country. we met a couple of other Brits: Walter and Freddy, on a gap-year trip to Cape Town, but necessarily on a much tighter schedule: they must have something to get back for? At about 6, the only boat on the dock sailed off. It didn’t look promising. Fortunately, we’d been warned there might be delays, and had brought supplies. The land-rover boys had folding chairs, a folding table, and a fridge. Shame no-one had a cricket bat.

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By 11pm (Welcome to Africa!) we were aboard and slowly heading out to sea, with over 200 other passengers, all Syrian. Mostly heading to Egypt to stay with friends or family, others had forward plans. Things had been bad for years, but the last two months had seen fighting bad enough to drive everyone out. Some had left a friend or relative in charge of their house, but they seemed to expect the worst, although their humour and optimism was undamaged: anyone who takes time out from fleeing their homeland due to civil war to stock up on fresh-caught fish before a night-drive into Cairo has their life-priorities perfectly adjusted!

Tom was offered the chance to work as field medic by a young man who’d been fighting with the rebels since the start. They had no doctors, no supplies. Their weapons weren’t supplied by Russia or China, it was the guns they’d taken from the soldiers they’d killed. Now they had tanks and artillery, he said, referring to the raid on a large base of a few weeks past. Soon they’d win. He was sure.

The ferry lasted about 36 hours. Somewhat longer than the promised 19, as the captain stopped in Greek Cyprus for some cheap diesel, and we began our schooling in rudimentary Arabic, enjoyed a four-man opportunity for card games, and lazed into Damietta at about 4 in the morning.

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All the Turkey-Egypt boats now go into Damietta Port, instead of Port Said. By all accounts, this is not an improvement, as Damietta cannot deal with vehicles as vehicles, instead they are treated as elaborate pieces of freight, and the idea of driving them through customs risible. Aghast at the baffling wall of paperwork, we acquired a clearing agent, paid fees, paid more (baffling fees), paid storage fees, but finally flinched at an unexplained near-doubling in these. All business conducted leaning on steps and walls in the hilariously inappropriately named “Automatic Management Centre”. Four days of leaning on a step, playing Tavla (backgammon), swatting flies, and waiting for the occasional need to produce a passport, sign a form.

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After the working day was finished, though (3pm!), we roamed through Damietta town, and nearby Ras El-Bar, meeting point of half the Nile’s waters with the Mediterranean. Damietta, apparently the Japan of Egypt due to the amount of furniture made there, introduced as to Egypt admirably: There is nothing that cannot be pickled; the pitta bread is cutlery; and every fifth shop sells pastries. Not QUITE up to Turkish standards, but bloody good! Pomegranate and citrus make way for coconut, pineapple, date, and mango; cane sugar juice is the street-drink of choice; and the mediterranean seafood is GOOD!

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Finally, the bikes were cleared, we had our hastily-scribbled Egyptian numberplates fastened on, and we were off. Expecting the Sudanese visa to be an ordeal of several weeks, we headed straight for Cairo. The road starts as a busy thoroughfare through the unbelievable fertile and litter-strewn Nile Delta, with invisible speed bumps in singles and up to quadruplets ranging from brick-like ribs to two-foot-high ranges. Initially cursed, one shortly realise these are the only reason that every Egyptian driver, from solitary ass to five-up on the ubiquitous HaoJiang motorcycle, is not barrelling along at 130kmph+, and scrape across them with a grudging respect.

Approaching Cairo, the road gets straighter, wider, the dust builds, and eventually you find yourself on a motorway. A European would see four lanes with a central reservation. The Egyptian sees an eight-lane omnidirectional hyperway, and a road eye must be kept open for horses, carts, anything, in every direction, at every speed on both sides of the road. Fortunately, we were both just happy to be both on the road, and warm and dry. Leaning on the horn, we swerved through the fray, and finally arrived in Cairo sweaty, grimy, but grinning, and parked up. The Happy Dreams hotel is oddly named: perhaps Placid Roaches would be more appropriate? Regardless, the price was very reasonable, the staff friendly and helpful, and the view over Cairo sensational.

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A trip to the embassies of Britain and Sudan got our sudanese visa in a trice, with only a minimum of dodging protests and breathing tear-gas. Nuts, the visa is a 1-month single entry starting today: we’d better get moving, and we can get the Ethiopian visa in Khartoum! We scuttled round the tourist sights, cleaned the airfilters and chains, wrapped the fork girder-joints with towel to keep out the sand, and, at dawn on a friday morning, rolled out.

Free of Cairo’s hustlers and bustlers “you want camel?” still asleep on their day off or already at morning prayers the streets were empty for the taking. From the Happy Dreams we quickly passed along the river front, under the British built Khedive Ismail Bridge and past Garden City, home to the U.S. and other embassies, throngs of AK-toting police and rows of semi-permanent barricades of tall reinforced concrete wall and coiled barbwire that block the otherwise easy pedestrian (and perhaps molotov) route from nearby Tahrir Square. Over the river and we found ourselves back on an empty Giza high street, the day before a pulsing arterial of local dust and traffic, past the Pyramids and out of the capital.

West of the Nile valley and into the Al Fayyum basin we touched our first desert roads. No far reaching desolate expanses but our first taste and smell of desert air. Smoking fields of high chimney’d brick plants, constructed of their own product, lay in muddy dirt, creating the ubiquitous Egyptian building block. Walled rows of pre-fired bricks drying in the sun and fired ones cooling.

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Further West in the basin we arrive at Birket Qarun, a salt lake some 40m below sea level. The surrounding desert is so white and so flat, and the lake so calm at the end of a still hot day, that we arrived at its edge unexpectedly and stare across it in disbelief, trying to pick out features by which to understand it. Nearby a group of fishermen were sitting around a burned-brown pot stewing tea on naked coals. One man was at work repairing nets, oblivious to the japes and tom-foolery that was the mood around him: “Him bruther of OSAMA!” bawled one giggley pointing at another with a Bin-Laden-esque beard. The sun set a shimmering kaleidoscope on the lake as we shared their sugary tea and watched them don crude plastic sheets (as festival-goers might invent for heavy rains at Glastonbury) over their chests – for protection from desert night cold, splashing water, or the thousand mosquitoes who assaulted the outside of our tent that night? They loaded one net a couple of hundred metres in length though short in height, weighted on one side, floated on the other, and set to sea in a long rowing skiff for a night’s fishing.

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At the far end of the lake after a crisp morning ride we arrived at Qasr Qarun, the ancient town of Dionysias where we found a two and a half thousand year old dedication to the Croc-god, Sobek, Tom’s elected power-animal. Reassuringly off the beaten tourist path, there are no camel-hawkers or alabaster safinkee-towts in sight, and the sole man at the gate walks up the path with you to unlock the national monument and give you a guided tour, inevitably at small price.

Slightly miffed with ourselves for not being able to find Memphis in the dust that accompanied our exit from Cairo, we felt the urge for one more Pharaonic pyramid (many pyramids further South in Nubia but these of theCush). Turning our noses up at the small distant prominences of Al Lahun we turned North onto the Cairo road for Maydum, a 3 tiered geometric temple of Mayan proportion. Tourist traffic to Maydum, even though only a short hour or so South of Cairo was again low and we were escorted by the gate-keeper, Mohammed, a self confessed bi-lingual, up the erected wooden steps to the pyramid’s entrance, he muttering away in Arabic with an English word, usually bragging about his ability in his second tongue, occasionally dropped in. “fivtee-thuree meeders” he gesticulated the tunnel’s length and direction sloping slightly down and “10 meeders” hand pointing up to indicate the burial chamber’s location at the end of the tunnel. A long sweaty clamber in moto-leathers to the base of the tunnel and up a rickety wooden staircase led us to a triangular roofed chamber, bats hanging from the ceiling and not a single hieroglyph on the smooth walls. Outside and sweating we stand next to Mohammed. He has the gait and stance of a penguin and is equally laboured by motion on land (sadly we didn’t see him swim) and as we motion to leave asks us for a “leedle teep. Anytheeng burleese. Guude Eengleesh” holds out an upturned palm and wheezes with penguin effort.

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Up and rolling before sunrise from our camp a short distance made into the desert but on the wrong roads, we right the road and make East for the Red Sea at Zafrana. Brick factories to the West, the desert East of the Nile holds concrete factories, skyscrapers of plant that wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Mad Max by day or the Dubai skyline by night. The road east is ours. We pass through odd pockets of warm in the cold morning air, the sun still low and on our nose making vision ahead silhouette of black and white definition, and glances to the side surprising you with the richness of colour in  the deep blue sky and yellow desert. The surface of the road is a causeway, bottomless oceans of sand lapping level at its sides. One road block halfway across is the only break to the rhythm “where you from? Eengland? Welcome!”. On and through we pass between the North and South Galala Plateaus.

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We stopped at the Coptic monastery of St. Paul, signing our vehicles in at the gate and climbing to what we believe is the site of interest, a collection of brightly coloured buildings topped by bright white domes, clinging to a cliff-face at the top of the road. Not a monk in sight but a cliff festooned with large number of discrete little churches and, judging by the patina in their congregations evidently quite active. A man named Alfons welcomes us with good English and asks if we are there to meet Father Shinoda, who is due to arrive at any minute. We confess to our faith being a little shaky and accept his kind offer of a tour instead. He shows us to the top of the villages and points to the hills where he says a large number of monks live in caves full-time, supported only by the generosity of the village who take them a weekly care package. Returning to the village Alfons generously offers us food from a communal kitchen and tea. As we are leaving Father Shinoda arrives, a small plump white-bearded man in a matching brown habit and cap. Local children have arrived to pay homage in a fashion of kissing and then forehead bumping his hand. Alfons is insistent that we do the same even after Father Shinoda has shaken our hands in greeting and the time to show him this respect has past (whether or not we would have chosen to do so).

South of Zafrana begins Egypt’s Red Sea oil exploitation, the purpose of the excavated soil lying in long continuous camel-hump rows through the desert now apparent (oil pipelines buried from coast to Nile) and the aromatic tinge, symptomatic of heavy oil processing, pervading the air. 40 miles away to the East, beyond the oil platforms and support vessels, the mountains of the Sinai peninsula stand in silky light.

On approach to Hurghada and ready for breakfast we come to a small town. We pull off the main road and trundle down to an entrance road off a smaller one-lane ring road at the town’s far side to find security guards and a gate blocking our path. The guards read our Egyptian number plates, issued by the officials at theport of Damietta. “Where you going?” comes the challenge, “Into town for breakfast” we reply. They consult eachother in Arabic and, the air cooled bikes heating up, we engine off to learn our fate. “No entry. Thees staff entrance. Use main gate”. ‘Staff for what?’ We have unwittingly arrived at a mecca for the Club-Med contingent, El Gouna, a sprawling town of custom built villas and hotels with numerous waterways, golfcourses, marinas, articled daily activity boards, sign-up sheets to the ‘Crazy Signs Disco at the Pharaonic bar’ and promises of all-inclusive packages that we struggled to comprehend: come to Egypt and party like a Pharaoh? Standing at the reception desk, a pair of unlikely customers, we discover the nightly rate for one of us will be in excess of double our entire fuel bill for Egypt ‘clean and here or dirty and somewhere else?’. We fire up the bikes and roll out of the Gouna as another air-conditioned coach-load of pink fleshy tourists departs for the torturous 5-hour ride to the Valley of the Kings.

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The next morning, we decided to find a campsite: Tom had pencilled one on the Red Sea into his map of Egypt back in Glasgow, but we’d not brought the planning maps, and so we rode into Safaga, another village with a double life: the resort towers and air-conditioned buses on one hand, and a busy egyptian port town on the other. We breakfasted well, before finding an internet cafe: it was about 40km down the road; and sure enough it was. Straddling the road, and loudly proclaiming “Rocky Valley Dive Camp”. You couldn’t have missed it. We stopped, agreed the price with the owner, and flopped into the sea for a swim, and a snorkel. The coral extends up to the beach at points, but elsewhere the sand allows you into the water. Rays, soles, boxfish, too many to mention. The coral glowed many colours, and harboured sea-urchins and groups of pipefish, eyeing us disconsolately. Tom’s moustache required trimming to keep the sea out of his mask, leaving him looking a bit moth-eaten. We stayed all day, and ate dinner with a couple of Danes, Thomas and Mia and their eighteen-month old daughter, Johanne, who’d booked a week-long package tour in nearby hurghada, to gain return flights for a couple of hundred euros, but ditched the included resort room for the dive camp, and had been diving every day. They recommended the Ottoman fort in Qu’sayr, and the fish restaurants.

We went the next day, and indeed the Fort was quite something, dating from the 16th century, the town had been one of the largest red sea ports before safaga had risen to prominence in the last century. Interestingly, it seems it had once been occupied by the french in 1799. Within two months, the British had arrived in two cruisers, and bombarded the fort for 48 hours straight. The French surrendered. The fish restaurant was something else however. We were offered no menu, only “fish”. Half an hour later, our fish arrived. In aluminium boxes, with rice in aluminium boxes. By motorcycle.

We asked the owner of of the camp, Hassan, why we’d seen no other campsites yet in Egypt. He explained that his camp, with huts and room for tents, was typical of the bedouin tradition he was born to. He explained there more further down the coast, but that, owing to the closure of the land border with Sudan to foreigners, we would be unable to see any more. He explained that he was a keen diver and had been running the camp for twelve years, but that he was a bedouin, and as such travelling was at his core.

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Next day, we breakfasted on mango and pomegranate, and loaded up the bikes. Bidding farewell to those at Rocky Valley Camp, we were hailed by the German cyclist from Qu’sayr of the day before, who’d ridden out to photograph us: looking over the bikes, something was wrong with Tom’s: the gearchange mechanism was bent beyond service, and it was quickly clear what had happened: someone had had a go at riding the bike, and had mashed at the gearlever thinking it the kickstarter, and bent everything imaginable in the linkage: had he damaged the innards of the box, though?? The linkage was disassembled and straightened in the diving centre workshop. Reassembling the bike, Tom went trough the gears by hand: seems good, a trial run proved fine, although the gear lever’s in a bit of an odd shape now!

Finally, we started out and with a final wave, rumbled into Qu’sayr. Hmm.. no petrol, long queues. Tanks were 3/4 full, and we had the Jerry full. Let’s cross the dessert. We headed out on the Qift road. The police waved us down “This road very dangerous!” Really? we asked, looking at the string of decrepit peugeots and flatbeds emerging from behind them. “Yes, like this!” he mimed a corner: probably quite dagerous the way these guys drive! “200km, no police, no telephone!” It sounded ideal. Feigning non-comprendi, we motioned that we wated to go on, and eventually they grew tired and left us to our folly, and ten minutes later we were back in the desert, but the morning cool had melted off with our delays, and the sun was high: we were going to get hot.image

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This dessert was different. Following the old trading route from the nile to the red sea of antiquity (Qu’sayr traslates as “short-cut”), the road follows river-bed around bluff after bluff, with every vantage point over the route featuring the distinct stub of the ruins of a Roman-era watchtower, following our rapid progress of our pair of motorcycles, compared with the five-day ordeal they would have endured by camel, preyed upon by Bedouin. About a third of the way along is a roman fort ruined, but in astonishing condition. we stopped to explore the walls: thick for defense, the immense pile of thick pottery fragments remaining. Riding off, Rich took the lead, when “TUNG!”  Tom heard a load noise: thinking it was a stone thrown up from the road, he was about to be shocked: the spring suspending the front forks had sheared mid-way. Slowing gently, fortunately Rich noticed, and we pulled off the road.

A broken spring. What would we do? Cable-ties: we decided. We wheeled the bike into some fortunately-placed shade, and disassembled the front-end. Tying a lion’s mane of cable-ties onto the coiled turns of the spring, we tried the bike: about an inch lower, and probably not going to last forever, but a trial-run showed it was stable, and so we ran gently out of the desert and arrived, about four hours later, in Qift, Tom running on the last vapours of fuel (don’t worry, we had the jerry…), onto a petrol station forecourt. They had petrol. We filled up and went south, the repairs to the spring still miraculously holding perfectly.

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On the outskirts of Luxor, the roads changed: the reservation had bushes, trees, flowers: there was greenery everywhere. We knew of a campsite, and by fortune drove straight to it. Camp Rezeiky is worthy of recommendation to any overlanders: a large, secure courtyard for vehicles and camping, reasonable rates on hotel rooms if that’s your thing, and cooking of such quality that we’ve not eaten anywhere else since arriving! The only tragedy is that we’ve seen only one other guest since arrival: Jan, the driver of a huge, armoured, all-terrain tourism bus going to Cape Town, too. He disappeared at about half 6 to pick up his charge of tourists, staying in plusher surroundings down-town, leaving us, with the staff, and photos and surroundings that tell of happier times. Before the revolution, before the gulf wars, the town was thick with tourists. Now it is mostly Russians and a few other nationalities, universally in package tours, going from air-conditioned unit to the next. This morning we were charmed onto a sailing boat trip on the Nile. We were the only sailing boat on the river, of hundreds, and of the hundreds of immense gin-palace cruisers, only two or three had any business.

The business of the spring was the first order of business, however. Every possible in England was contacted: no dice. Ray Daniels and Elk would have a look and ask around if we gave them dimensions of the broken spring. Nick Payton didn’t have any, but would have a think. Paul Savage very kindly offered to bend up a new one ASAP if I sent him the broken one, but this was all sounding like a long wait, and that Sudanese visa was ticking. Then, salvation: Nick’s friend Julien, in Provence, had a spare spring. Measurements and photos were swapped: it looked good. In unbelievable kindness, he has sent this by DHL to keep the dream rolling. Inshallah, it arrives tomorrow, and we roll out. Meanwhile, we’ve seen Temples, and Tombs, Heiroglyphs and Hawkers; but, having established what approaches a routine, it’s time to leave Luxor, and enter the third month of our travels.

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