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.

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