From the motorcycle diaries of Willem de Wet
All foreigners entering Sudan are required to register with the Alien Registration office before proceeding with their journey. The greater part of the afternoon is spent on chasing the required paper work and the all very important signatures; which eventually only gets issued the next morning in timeless Africa. Sudan is a good place to lose your watch for the duration of such a trans-continental tour.
Desperately hungry after the exhausting ferry ride, it is time to try some of the local Sudanese fare. A couple of open air “restaurants” under the blazing sun are given a miss in lieu of an “up market” establishment with a roof and a couple of paddle fans. A meal choice between chicken, goat meat, fish and cabbage with a couple of ubiquitous flies worked into a sauce, are soon enough hungrily gulped down.
THE NUBIAN DESERT
Being a lonely traveler on the dusty roads south, I have met two young English brothers, in their old Range Rovers, in Luxor, also making their way south. Over a couple of ice cold beers, we bonded instantly. We decided to tackle the journey to Khartoum together.
There are two options to get to Khartoum by road;
1. the “main” Nile route via Dongola or the;
2. lesser traveled desert route, following General Kitchener’s railway and telegraph line through the Nubian Desert to Abu Hamed and Atbara.
Have bike, will ride the desert! The decision was instantly made to follow the railway line for 348km through the sandy Nubian Desert to Abu Hamed. Departure morning broke with a warm ferocity. A late arrival of the barge, with our vehicles from Aswan, difficulty with the off-loading process and clearance procedures, set our departure from Wadi Halfa back to 15h00 that afternoon. However, it was great to be reunited with my trusted BMW 1200 GS once again.
Leaving Wadi Halfa on the only tarred road in town leaves one with a short lived and false sense of what lies behind the first dunes. Without warning, the road abruptly spills into the softest desert sand.
Navigating my way through the desert I had a GPS with T4A software loaded and the railway line with its old telegraph poles that lined the horizon. It was hard to imagine that the railway line, that was conceived by General Kitchener in 1896, as the means to ferry his troops and ammunitions south to beat the hell out of the rebellious Khalifa in Khartoum, reached Abu Hamed, after only 5 months in October 1897 and 350km of un-surveyed and waterless desert later. Old, windblown vehicle tracks crisscrossed the desert plains and I quickly learnt to avoid them and cut my own virgin track in the sand. My sand riding confidence grew rapidly and riding at speed in the sand became a pleasure, once I mastered to “plane” my bike. Needless to say that exhilarating power slides and cut-backs quickly followed on.
As the sun started to inch down over the horizon, finding a suitable camping spot for the night became necessary. We found it behind a solitary kopje, shielding us from the brisk evening desert breeze. Once our engines had been switched off the quiet desolation of sand and rock engulfed us with the unique charm of a desert sunset! A quick meal and a short reflection on the days’ activities provided the medicine for a peaceful sleep under the stars.
THE SUN and SAND MONSTER
The desert plains is a memory to behold forever. Deeper into the desert, we stopped at a number of the train “stations” ( there are 10 in total with halfway stops in between) which consisted of no more than a few derelict buildings and outhouses. Life as a station master a 100 or so years ago out here in desert must have been tough and no wonder they are now mostly no longer inhabited! There was little sign of anything living or dead but for the odd camel carcass. No grass or any dried up bushes. The desert scene was tinged brown – dark brown rocks, light brown sand, bleach brown telegraph poles and blue brown sky (from the dust in the air). The rocky hills that we saw occasionally on the horizon floated above a shimmering mirage of mercuric silver. It was hot – and the wind was an absolute scorcher adding another hot dimension to biking through the desert. South of Station 4 the sand became thicker, drier, softer and unkind to an already sweating motorcyclist.
A forward "ninja" roll in the sand, digging the bike out of the soft sand and straining against its dead weight to pick it up in my warm riding gear, was energy sapping hard work. Revving the engine to spin the bike out of the thick desert sand and smelling the clutch straining and burning on release was most “disturbing”. There is no roadside assistance out here in the desert! Finding firmer ground next to the train tracks helped for a while. However, danger lurked everywhere. Broken train track bolts with sharp serrated edges and donga like wash-a-ways became increasingly more treacherous than the “safer” sand dunes. By noon we managed to reach Station 6 which had a deep water well, with a camel thorn shade tree and a couple of inhabitants. Time for a lunch break, fuel up from my jerry can and a short nap in the sparse camel thorn shade.
Too soon it was time to move on again as we pushed on into the afternoon desert heat. The landscape remained starkly beautiful with never ending mirages dancing on the horizon. By late afternoon, short of Station 8, we decided to set-up camp for the night on the open desert plains. There was no rocky outcrops this time around to provide any meaningful shelter. Once again the sun set on the desert horizon was spectacular. In the cool of the next morning, we were mobile again, heading south east towards the town Abu Hamed . After reaching station 9 the landscape also started to change quickly. More rocky outcrops, the odd thorn tree and camel grass here and there to colour in the picture. The road south of Station 10 (GPS 19°41'48”N 33°08'46”E), marked the start of formal civilization again. There were large scale road building and housing projects taking place. Ostensibly to support a Nile irrigation project in the area. All of a sudden there were trucks, taxi’s and construction vehicles on the fairly new dusty, gravel road which eventually wound into Abu Hamed (GPS 19°32'11”N 33°20'19”E)..