From the deserts of Sudan….

We arrived into Wadi Halfa following a 24 hour boat journey from Aswan in Egypt on 22nd January. Having pulled into port around 1230pm we were finally able to cycle from customs at 445pm. With all bags checked and stickered, passports and immigration forms completed we were in Sudan. Wow. I would never have thought I would be here – on my blke. Amazing. We stayed in Wadi Halfa that night – a sandy football stadium on the edge of town providing our base, a small restaurant in town offering falafel and phool (beans) for dinner and the usual shoval was once again the regular ensuite facility.

Since then we have followed the same road for around 900 km to reach the capital – Kartoum. The landscape goes on for miles and miles, the road leads straight ahead, with sand and dunes going off on both sides of the road. There is so little else around to take from the view, just odd buildings and Sudanese cheerleaders to push us on. Breaks come at occasional coke stops – small metal shacks with freezers full of local refreshments. Perhaps the biggest beach I haver ever been to!

It’s hot and the reflection of the asfalt makes temperatures feel higher still. In the afternoons we reach around 36 degrees in this very dry climate. It’s not so sweaty until you stop but with factor 50 suncream on the skin, factor 70 on the lips and lots of water on the bike these are trying conditions. With little shade at camp and hot tents you have to wait till the middle of the night to finally cool down before starting the ride again at around 745am to get in as many miles as you can before the temperature rises. I pushed myself and covered 74km in two and a quarter hours. Chuffed.

Waking up in dead camel camp to another great sunrise as we headed out I felt great again on the bike and set off at quite a pace. I was able to get to the faster riders group and 12 of us rode, taking turns on the front with any wind. We arrived at the 75km mark at 1015am for lunch. A couple of quick sandwiches and we were all off again though this time my pace was a little slower – the group became my carrot for the rest of the afternoon until a coke stop at around 110km. I left the coke stop quickly and again found great speed on the wheels. I came in third of the girls that day – amazing when surrounded by really strong riders and with me on a touring bike. Five hours, 3 minutes to do 143km.Unfortunately it was not the day to arrive early – wind tossing sand everywhere we were not able to pitch a tent until many hours later and even then it was held down by large rocks on all pegs. Going to the toilet was interesting!

We woke the next morning with the wind still strong waiting until it was light to let down the tent – Irin sitting on it while we unpegged. Visibilty was poor and as vehicles passed the sand kicked up on legs and faces with a viscious sting. People are still getting through the wet wipes finding sand in their ears. However, while heading south the wind was behind us and I was able to reach 50.4km/hr. Great. Fortunately while still in an open space the wind had also dropped making for a slightly less frantic camp.

Today brought an individual time trial as we made our final journey into Kartoum before the police led convey into the city. My race will be for a personal best – I made 25km in 43 minutes. I was a bit disapointed but have to remember I have a heavy touring bike. I’m tired now but we have a great apartment now in Kartoum and it will be a good break before the next part of the challenge -off road!

It’s just different.

Firstly, thanks to all who’ve been in touch since my last blog. I was having a real tough time in those early days. I’ve read a blog by a previous participant who left the tour at a certain point (just used to cycling on his own) and spoken with a current rider who also joined a previous organised trip after months of sole riding. In essence the conclusion I’m coming too is that I just need to recognise it’s different.

Things have settled down a bit now, while still finding it hard at times I’m also also coming to recognise the good and least preferable aspects of a group trip. We have a great bunch of folk, the tour is well organised and in essence this is all about my reaction and adaptation.

Perhaps the biggest obvious difference would be that rather than there being just the two of us on the open road, on this tour, we are currently 57 riders and 13 in the support team. I’ve already spoken about how this in itself has impacted on John and me and our different riding speeds but perhaps the other really critical difference is in how local interactions do and don’t take place.

As two people in our previous trip we took regular stops and were easily approachable as we made progress on two wheels around various parts of the globe. Here, the larger group size means people, while inquisitive do not approach in the same way and even at tea/coke stops it’s much more us and them than we’ve experienced before now. I’m sure we certainly now won’t meet folk who pay for lunch before we get chance to say goodbye and say thank you! I miss the regular chai stops we had through India. It will be interesting to see if anything quite matches up to that. Let’s hope so!

On the more positive side, despite the lack of chai,  it’s great not having to worry about water and calorie intake, particularly given much of our riding so far has been in a desert landscape. Last time John and I were stuck without water in a tiger reserve in India we needed to load our bikes onto a bus. Here, as water ran out we were able to flag down the support vehicle soon after. When my lips got badly sunburnt early on (yes, it looked like lip surgery gone wrong) someone in the group gave me their factor 70 lip balm. (Thanks Vince!). It’s great having that support and meeting such friendliness.

John and I have often referred to the tour quite flippantly as a “travelling circus” and boy we are travelling. We now have covered around 1400 km in 11 days of riding. We are in our second country now, there is no chance to step off and I do value my independence very highly. The freedom of the road and the ability to go with the flow on a bike, with panniers and all I need is still so important to me. Here, we get up at the same time, queue for breakfast, cycle where we are told (often on one straight road), arrive at camp, pitch tent, eat dinner and repeat… for four months.

On the last part of our trip, I planned routes, sightseeing, trains, flights and between us we decided how far we would cycle, where we would stop and how long we would stay at certain places. It will be our two weeks after arrival  in Capetown before we do any of that decision making… and I’m already looking into that!

We’ll get to Capetown and it will be quite an experience. One things for sure – without the group we would not be in Sudan, either just through an element of fear or in difficulty with VISAs and this is a journey and continent I’m really looking forward to.

From one to many

Since leaving Cairo on the 11th December we have now cycled 762km – around 508 miles in 6 days. Despite the longest of these days being 166km (just over 100 miles) and the greatest distance I have ever covered this has not been the toughest part of the challenge so far for me. Indeed, while I was not looking forward to digging my own toilet in days of wild desert camping it was the difference of environment from one cycle buddy to being in a group of more than fifty that has proved to be the hardest adaptation.

I like groups and most who know me would say I’m pretty social. While I can be shy initially, once comfortable I am more than confident with all sorts of people. When deciding to do this trip through Africa it had been John, my cycle buddy, who was more concerned. I have however found it much harder.

Of all the riders taking part in this trip to Capetown most ride much faster than me. While good on endurance I am not speedy, whether it be running or biking and with John also being a faster rider this has proved to be tough.

The first day from Cairo started as a group convey, led with a police escort we all had to cycle slowly for the first 35km or so. Traffic was busy and safety was paramount. It was cold as we slowly ambled out from the pyramids towards our first desert camp. Once on quieter roads, and following a long queue for the one ladies toilet in the gas station, we were off. We still had aound 95km to ride and the slow start meant there was still a lot of ground to cover before darkness set in.

I set off at what for me was a fair speed. I had been looking forward to starting the ride ever since packing up the bikes in Mumbai. It was too cold to cycle much while back home at Christmas and being on my bike was now part of a very regular routine. Unfortunately I arrived at camp very deflated and with everyone dispersed I collected my bag and tried to find a pitch for my tent. While the ride finished with slight uphill against the wind I had cycled around 75km on my own. Ordinarily this would seem no problem but having got used to the banter, humour and all round company of my cycle buddy John I found myself feeling alone amongst this new, larger crowd. I cried that night and could not look through his photos depicting his more exhilerating afternoon in a group with around eight others. It just seemed to make things feel worse for me.

He rode with me the following day and despite feeling much better that day I was still finding the adjustment really tough. The following morning I did not know who to cycle with and once again I left with John. It was a mistake. The tailwinds were strong and despite pushing my hardest I could see he was very frustrated staying with me as others overtook. I stopped sharing any information on distance covered and was just looking forward to the ride being over. This was the worst day yet. After lunch I cycled with two other folk to reach camp and despite having a better afternoon I was not 100%.

I arrived at camp to find John had lost his tent to very strong winds and as as we tucked into my tent that evening we tried to speak about how the journey through Africa would work. Having thought a group trip would be a good idea, given John and I had only met three times before we headed off last July, I was now not so sure. There was nothing wrong with the trip – staff and other participants, food and even desert camping were all fantastic. It was the feeling of loneliness that I could not stand. I felt like I had just lost my best buddy. He’d described his afternoon with others as being let off the leash in his blog and I slept little that night as I mulled over these words he had meant as a light joke.

I woke the next day and all I really wanted to do was go home. I was hating this and after more crying on John’s shoulders we set off. Normally such a strong minded individual it was hard to understand just why this was so hard. The headwind continued and I drove down on the pedals, conscious not to be too slow. We arrived at lunch quickly – at least by my standards – and I waited around to cycle with folk from the previous day. John headed off at a faster speed and I felt we reached a good compromise so we both get the best from the trip. I certainly don’t want to hold anyone on a leash, much as I would hate that too, but I also want to share this next stage of our adventure with him too.

We’re a couple more days in now and things look to be settling down. We usually set off in the mornings together, giving me a chance to push myself and then he goes on from lunch to ride faster too. I have found some greart folk to cycle with and as i feel less lonely I am of course more happy to be alone. I hope we’ll go on to share our African adventure, with each other of course but also with new friends too. We’re both here and looking out for each other and that’s good for me.

Tour for freaks!

It’s the 11th trip for the Tour D’Afrique company taking riders from Cairo to Capetown. To date 430 riders have completed the ride since 2003 and to date covered a total of  5,235,000 km.

For me – it’s my first time on the African continent and we have 11,793 km to ride over 121 days riding. We’re expecting a very mixed terrain, the longest day being just under 200km and the biggest climb increasing our altitude by 2500m with a total of 74,000 m to ascend. Of the 430 riders so far, 116 have completed every mile. Known as EFI’ers they have to date included 97 men ands 19 women. It goes without saying that all riders hope to be in the 25%, including myself, though with illness  and bike problems it’s as much luck as anything. To sign up in the first place you have to be pretty determined.

We’ll leave Cairo at 530am on Friday morning. Given we’ve been in fleeces and it was only 7 degrees today throughout the day we’re expecting to be tired and cold as our police escort leads us through what we hope will be quieter than normal streets – that’s why we leave on the day of prayer.

Since arriving late on Sunday night we have been meeting the rest of the motley crew we will get to know pretty well over the next few months. Typically riders in the past have ranged in age from 18 to 70 and this trip is representive of this with participants from various continents. According to the staff team tents are usually grouped closely in the early stages though as time progresses so too do alliances, snoring zones etc!

While in  the first stage of our trip, covering around 6000km through America, Japan, Nepal and India we were unsupported, carrying all our gear and planning all aspects of our adventure, this trip will provide a very different and challenging trip. For sure this will be as tough as the Nepal section of our previous ride. Both the Yak Attack route we followed in Nepal and TDA through Africa are listed in the top 10 world bike endurance challenges. While we have some miles under our wheels, experience in the heat and setting up a daily camp, in addition to road quality, the distances are further, camping will be much more basic and the group dynamics also bring something new into the equation. The adjustment from being two independent folk to part of a much wider team should not be under estimated.

In our briefing today we heard that our first three days will be “bush” camping and the second day will cover around 140km. Straight in at the deep end eh? Long days, no showers and having to get used to using the trowel pretty quick! So that’s it. Yes it’s something I’m really looking forward to doing but I hope you’ll see how this is certainly a challenge and with that in mind may see something in sponsoring me to raise money for The Homeless World Cup as I take this on. I’ve paid for all the trip myself and every penny donated will go to make a real difference and provide hope and opportunity to folks who’ve had it tough at times all over the globe.

Here’s the link  if you are interested…


A real life fairytale

I’ve seen pictures of Tutankhamen’s mask, the pyramids and the Sphinx from childhood and while interested I have to be honest and say I was never a mad Egyptologist. However, my visit to what is listed as the number one must see attraction in Africa (according to the lonely planet guide) did not disapoint. Both the pryamids and the subsequent visit to the Egyptian Musuem left a sense of wonder that I can only describe as the children’s fairytale that’s actually real. Truely amazing.

We left our hotel in Giza for the short trip to the Pyramids. There are 9  pyramids in total on this plateau overlooking Greater Cairo and we purchased a ticket to head into the Great Pyramid, standing at 146.5 metres tall. So, with a ticket in hand and ignoring busy streets, taxi rides and using a ” little ” imagination the story begins….

It was no ordinary day. In contrast to the often intense heat one imagines in Egypt the wind was blowing, the air was cool and the sand was being whipped up. As the whirling grains flew in the air six intrepid explorers set off, led by local guide Soloman. A dozen steep steps led up to the low entrance around 5 metres at the base of the pyramid, which itself spanned 226 metres in length. We clambered inside and immediately ducked. It was much warmer inside and we were happy to feel the heat even with the slight stale smell in the air. The ceiling was low and we all needed to stoop considerably to make our way through the initial tunnel entrance. The route was flat so far but as we progressed we were confronted by what looked like a never ending set of steps through the centre of this ancient structure.

Our temperatures rose as we climbed and I upzipped my fleecewhile placing my feet on the metal poles that formed the steps on the plank of wood we were slowly making our way on. This was no time for mistakes. Just one slip from any of our team and it would be a bumpy fall, taking whoever was below on the same journey.

In addition to the stone tomb, long since emptied, there were two small holes in the walls of the room. One brave adventurer decided to check it out, slowly moving their hand forward, unsure of what may be concealed. The hole originally was there for the soul to escape as part of the rebirthing process. Now, it was simply dusty and at this prescent at least  time free of spiders or other such creatures. It was a calming place though it is strange to consider being inside a burial chamber, halfway up the largest of the pyramids.

While part of a different tomb, the discovery by Howard Carter of Tutankhamens chamber back in the 1920’s seems reminiscent of Alice falling down the rabbit hole. An accidental discovery thousands of years later leading to an Aladins cave of treasures.  A small number of  connected rooms housing a vast array of treasures and jewels built up before an untimely royal death aged 18. Concealed within was a mystery encased like a russian doll – a gold leaf painted box, in a gold leaf painted box, in a gold leaf painted box, in a gold leaf painted box. Inside, a casket adorned in gold, bright aqua blue and orange revealing a smaller version inside and in that would lie the mumified body of perhaps the most famous king of Egypt. Covered in the famous golden mask, with gold jewels and ties arond the linen cloth this oiled and preserved body may not be the present everyone may wish tro find to the archeologist the site of the tomb was surely the greatest gift of a lifetime.

As you can see I was blown away by my own discovery here in the museum but to try and step into the shoes of Howard Carter, relatively recently and discover this site compiled such a long time ago really did seem like a fairytale. That said, there is also a feeling that given the effort put into this once upon a time story, for the Pharoahs and their original vision this was not necessarily a happy ending.

Stuff you miss

December the 8th saw us fly back from Mumbai for a month at home before we would head out to Africa.  An opportunity to enjoy the things you miss while travelling – a rest maybe?

As I landed at Heathrow my facebook post noted that, in addition to friends and family,  I was looking forward to salt and vinegar crisps, pickled onion monster munch, real ale and earl grey tea. With a trip to the pub to see John’s friends on our first night home the desire for real ale was soon fulfilled though it would be the following day before the crisp and tea needs were met.

We were not due originally to be home for Christmas, both had the World Cycle Challenge gone ahead or our original plan to travel for 12 months or so started in July. It had been my ma’s health that had changed that. While I did not wish to regret a cancelled travel plan and bike tour I was certainly also not going to regret time not spent with family. As it  happens doing the  trip this way also means one does not take travel for granted – no longer being interested to see what is around – it was a great chance to see friends too. John and I had only met three times before we set off and, while we get on well and have made a good team, a hug from others was much appreciated.

On reflection Christmas is a tough time for this with time out for festive celebration  and the preparation it involves and while able to meet people it was brief. I felt I saw few people properly and while I enjoyed my real ale etc having had a five month period with little booze it succeeded mainly in giving me a headache. I hope on my next return from Africa I can plan proper time rather than a mad dash.

It was the mad dash that made the rest impossible. In the 28 days I was home not one was spent with my feet up on the sofa! We’re in Cairo now and with bikes assembled, pyramids visited (amazing and more to say on that in the next write up) I’m finally able to read, lie in and write a blog! For those folk I saw over the break… it was fantastic to see you, however brief. For those I didn’t see enough of – let’s make more proper time in June and as for the crisps and ale -well,  whatever? For now it’s just the earl grey that made it to the final Africa pack.