Thursday, 14 February 2013

Khartoum to Gonder... Known to be the toughest section of the TdA

TdA organizers suggested we make the most of our Khartoum rest day, because the section that was to come is known to be the toughest of the entire trip. I decided it only fair to spoil myself to a hotel room with fast internet and clean sheets. Sadly, the rest day came and went faster than any other and next thing we knew, we were on the road again, making our way into the hardest part of TdA. With a daunting feeling, we left Khartoum and began the 8 day cycling stretch, camping every night with no rest days until we reached Gondar, Ethiopia. Up until this point, the longest stretch of uninterrupted camping was 5 days and that was tough, because going to bed clean is something I need before I can have a good nights sleep.

The day we rode out of Khartoum was fairly easy in that we were on flat paved roads with a manageable distance of 149km to a desert camp. The only difficulty was a strong cross wind which kept pushing us into the busy roads with trucks and buses zooming past at regular intervals. These create a vacuum that can throw you off your bike if you're not concentrating or careful.

The following day we set off early as we had 160km to cover before reaching Sennar. To keep things interesting, I simply had to break the day up with numerous "activities". So besides doing regular coke stops, it was just after lunch when I got a delightful puncture in the midday sun. As if that wasn't enough, at the 120km mark my friend Claire and I decided we should speed things up. I raced over a set of train tracks, which clipped my front wheel and sent me flying over my handle bars and skidding into the middle of the road.

The nasty tracks that caused me the worst headache ever.

Fortunately, Claire rushed over to help me to the side of the road and away from the danger of passing traffic. I tried to collect myself but I had hit my head pretty hard and so felt dizzy, along with an overwhelming sensation of nausea which resulted in me bringing up my lunch from earlier in the day. Worried that this could be a sign of a more serious head injury, we called the TdA medics to come over and check me out. By the time they arrived I had started to feel better, the colour returning to my face, and was ready to finish the days ride. I begged the medic to give me the go-ahead to continue and her reply was: "My advice is you get on the truck, but at your own risk you can continue as their are no other signs of serious head trauma, and the vomiting after the accident could be related to dehydration, shock and overall physical fatigue."

TdA medic, Nix checking my blood pressure

I took it upon myself to continue the days ride. I took it slow and I made sure I always had a friend nearby in case I began to feel dizzy again. It probably wasn't the best idea to continue riding though, because as soon as the adrenaline wore off, I suffered from an excruciating headache. Once at camp, we enjoyed a welcoming performance from locals and that night it was time to change tires, as the next 3 days were off road. It was at this point, more than before, that I felt so grateful for the Cycle Lab's generous sponsorship of my Trek Mountainbike. It really is a super piece of equipment to have come through that day relatively unscathed.

Camp and bike workshop

Tire changing time as we start the off road section.

The TdA truck is the riders socializing area, cause that's where you find the food.

Our first day off road...

Sunrise as we leave camp
Some of the locals

Puntures... again.

Fixing puncture number... I've lost count

Well all I can say for this day is PUNCTURES!!! The thorns destroyed most TdA riders tires and, as if I hadn't had enough punctures on the trip already, I had to suffer another 6 in a single day. This however was a small amount in comparison to other riders, some of which who'd had up to 14. So I was grateful I only had a few by comparison and, besides, I am getting very good at repairing and changing tubes. I can proudly say that I now get it done in no time. I even started stopping for other riders having problems with punctures and changing tubes for them, because I found it frustrating watching them struggle and do the repairs so slowly.

We covered a distance of only 84km, which doesn't sound like much, but on the off-road it took many TdA riders the entire day with some only getting to camp just before sunset. Punctures and bike problems had a lot to do with the longer day. We faced another obstacle on the first day's off-road course with a few water, or shall I say, muddy features which blocked our route. And so the different methods to get across the water became apparent. I decided the best was to remove my shoes and socks and carry my bike safely across them, trying my best to get rid of the stinky mud. This I believe was by far the best method, as others who pushed their bikes or walked through the muddy water with their cycling shoes would now agree.

Cleaning my feet
James showing how muddy a bike can get

The second day off-road, was definitely the day of FALLING. Almost everyone came off their bikes at least twice, the rough roads, loose gravel and rocks making it impossible to keep your balance. So many added bumps and briuses to the body. This day was filled with passing through cute villages with friendly locals.

The group I cycle with

Arriving at stone village camp we had the opportunity to interact with locals as we set up camp on a open dirt field.

Our camp site

This has been known to be a money making opportunity, as a local does several trips into town on his motorbike and returns with a box full of cold drink to sell to the TdA riders at a 500% mark up, but at the time we were just so grateful for a sugary, cold drink the price doesn't matter.

The Stone Village "entrepreneur"

To our delight "Donkey showers" were also available for 3 Sudanese Pounds. This is when locals bring over a cart of water with their trusty donkey and you pay to help yourself to water and bathe your body. Even though you have a village as your audience and all the TdA riders nearby watching, this is still a heavenly experience. Being able to clean yourself off of  sweat and dirt collected from cycling rough off-road on a hot day makes the "embarrassment" of locals watching to be no factor at all. Just to remain respectful, I showered with my cycling shorts on and sports bra. Sudan is a very religions place so locals will object to a girl showing too much skin.

The "Donkey Shower"

The final day-off road had the theme of dehydration, numerous TdA riders pushing themselves too hard and suffering from heat stroke and dehydration once at camp. We took it easy, lots of coke stops and refreshments, because the road was long, the heat unbearable and without shade en route it was impossible to escape.

Refreshment stop, everyone under the only real tree for miles
Camels in the village

Claire and I, sweaty but happy to be in the shade of a village Coke stop

Once at camp, bike maintenance and a tire change needed to be done, as we were back on the paved roads to the delight of all riders.

The first day back on tar felt like we were cheating. It was just too easy in comparison to the dirt roads. We reached camp in no time and enjoyed the feeling of achievement as the following day we would be cycling only 95km to the Ethiopian border. We had successfully and safely cycled through yet another African country, Sudan. It had been a wonderful experience, but I think I speak on behalf of many TdA riders when I say we were ready for something different, a new challenge and of course cold beers in Ethiopia since Sudan was a fully dry country.

The morning we cycled to the border, riders made a promise that upon arrival in Ethiopia, we would stop at the first place that sells beers and celebrate with a quick drink. The logistics of crossing borders was not complicated at all and we said hello to a new country and cold beers in no time. I'm not a big beer drinker, but I sure did enjoy that very first crispy cold one. After the alcoholic beverage, the remaining 10km cycle to camp was hilarious. Everyone is so fit, and hasn't had alcohol in so long, that a single beer sure had it's effects.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Sandstorms and Sudan so far...

From my naïve understanding, Sudan is a scary place of great danger, but after arriving in this country, all the TdA riders immediately felt the friendly presence of the locals. It has truly been a heart-warming experience, as I expected unrest and some kind of chaos. Welcomed so warmly, we all found it to be the complete opposite of what I, for one, had imagined. It just goes to show, one shouldn't make assumptions based on what one sees on TV.

The rest day in Dongola was pleasant, but frustrating at times. It was impossible to find effective Internet connections, so communicating with loved ones back home wasn’t possible and updating my blog was delayed. However, this is the deep parts of Africa. I should be pleased with an electrical socket to charge my phone, as these villages are as basic as they come. On the menu wherever we went for a meal there are only a handful of options, namely falafels, fried fish, fried chicken or beans... and that’s it. When you sit down at a local restaurant, they don’t just bring you one of the options. No, the table gets a platter of each dish and then you feast with your hands. I must say if you just close your eyes and imagine the food looks good, it actually does taste pretty delicious... just doesn’t look appetizing at all.

The next day we had our regular early start as the TdA crew made their way back into the desert for a 4-night adventure on the way to Khartoum. We had long distances to cover, more than 140km each riding day and everyone was starting to feel the effects of excessive exercise.

The first desert camp was named Dead Camels camp, and appropriately so, as we passed at least 50 to 60 deceased camels en route. This is when one realizes the actual harshness of the desert. If camels are dying... well, it’s a sign of no water for miles and miles around. Dehydration was our biggest danger during these few days and each rider made sure to replace lost fluids and salts. I’m so grateful for my Herbalife Hydrate Sachets of which I drink at least 4 liters a day, and the Endurance Rebuild has done wonders for me to recover quickly.

Arriving at Dead Camels Camp we were treated to the most spectacular desert sunset and full moon rise. I’ve never experienced so many shooting stars at night. In the desert, without any artificial light, the sky is blacker than black and the stars perfect diamonds glittering brighter than ever. The moon shines so brightly, it actually keeps me awake. I’m glad I kept my sleeping mask from Qatar Airways because without it I wouldn't have got much sleep with nature’s light shining down all night long.

The calmness of the desert, however, didn’t last very long. The following day's ride started off just as beautiful as before; one would never think weather was changing. Well after the lunch stop, a few riders and I hung out at a local roadside café, if one could call it that, and enjoyed a cold coke while sitting in the shade interacting with the locals.

Suddenly the wind picked up, and the advice of the locals was that it was time to head to camp. We were about 40km away, and it felt like 20 min and we were at the camp site. Until we stopped, we hadn’t realized how incredibly strong the tailwind was that had pushed us along the road.

It was very unpleasant being at camp after the raging sandstorm had hit us. Everyone was optimistic that by nightfall the wind would die down, well afternoon came and it seemed to only get stronger. It took the help of 5 people to set up my tent and I was truly afraid it would blow away with all my belongings, so I sat in the tent as an extra weight to keep it safe and keep myself sheltered. However, sand and dust still managed to get inside and smother me completely. With my cold and flu symptoms, it was half the desert coming out when I blew my nose, and with constant dust blowing into my eyes it felt like I was crying sand. We had dinner, sheltered behind the TdA bus. Each mouthful of food was spiced with a coating of desert sand. Frustrated, hungry, dirty, tired and unable to escape the wind and sand I knew there was little chance of getting any kind of rest that night. I crawled into my desert sand filled tent and tried my best to think of happy things and fall asleep. This was impossible, however, as my tent sounded like a massive sail flapping uncontrollably in the wind making a hell of a racket. If ever I did fall asleep from pure exhaustion, it was for no longer than 1 hour maximum.

I waited for the morning and the wind never seemed to weaken. Everyone looked like the walking dead as they emerged from their tents. Once again, 5 people needed to pack the tent down, and the mornings temperature dropped drastically. So there I was, dirty exhausted, sick, freezing cold and now I have to get on my bike and cycle 148km to the next desert camp. There was talk of the sandstorm lasting 3 days, but THANK GOD by the late afternoon it had dissipated. This day’s ride was one of the hardest. I felt I was going to fall asleep on my bike; I had to do stops along the way just to jump around and wake myself up. Luckily, there were numerous local tea stops to warm me up and keep me going.

I cycled a large part of the day alone. Visibility was about 15m and the buses along the road come out of nowhere at 140km/h and cause a wind vacuum as they pass, which can throw a rider off track easily if you're not concentrating. Definitely one of my scariest days on the road and I was just too happy to see camp by the end of the 149km cycle. I found a sheltered spot and made sure that I would get sleep that night no matter what.

Once my tent was up and it was cool enough for me to lie down inside, I was out for the count. I heard the call for dinner, but decided sleep was more important and I rested until the morning. I woke up feeling like a new person… Still extremely dirty, sick as a dog, but I had slept well and Khartoum was only 100km away, which meant shower time, laundry time and resting time.  

Filled with joy we rolled into Khartoum, a perfect developed city, and I had a hot shower in my sights. Once I was clean, fed and ready for bed,  thought back on the challenge of the sandstorm and overcoming the harshness of the desert... One cannot help but enjoy a great sense of achievement, especially when Khartoum marks the end of our first section, Pharoah's Delight. We managed to cover 1955km in 15 days and that is what its all about. Bring on Section 2, The Gorge. It's said to be the toughest of them all. We'll hit rough off roads and climb 2500m over 15 days as we cover 1600km. This is said to be most TdA riders' breaking point. I just pray my health will improve and I can give Section 2 my best shot.