To Khartoum

Nine in the evening, seated on a terrace four stories high looking down on the bustling activity in Gondar below. The following day I was heading for Sudan, and had mixed feelings about leaving Ethiopia. I was very fond of this fascinating country, but also there was the anticipation of the new campaign in Sudan.

The next morning, all geared up, the bike packed, I stopped into a café for my last Ethiopian meal. This sense of leaving-taking was lending an added significance to the little things (the last injera; the slap of hands in greeting, leaning forward right shoulders touching; the distinctive shuffle of Amharic dance music from the radio...). I chose 'nashif', the breakfast of stale bread re-baked with a spicy berbere sauce, topped with scrambled egg and yoghurt. Followed by my last delicious Ethiopian macchiato!

What to expect ahead?
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Sudan, the largest country in Africa and one of the poorest, lay between Ethiopia and Egypt. My route would lead down from the highlands of Ethiopia through the eastern Sahara desert and semi-desert plains that stretch north uninterrupted all the way to the Mediterranean, broadly following the Nile River. I understood the roads were sometimes good, but north of the capital Khartoum they disappear into sandy tracks traversing the barren and inhospitable Nubian Desert.

What did I expect on the journey? For one, the difficulty involved in getting a visa led me to understand the government is not so comfortable with foreigners - or anyone for that matter - wandering about in their country (permits, checked at the frequent checkpoints, were needed to travel anywhere). I understood it is a strict Islamic republic; alcohol is forbidden; all women wear the
burqa, or veil covering their head; and sharia law (the rules laid down in the Koran) is practiced.

Before entering
Ethiopia for the first time, my impression was formed, like most others, by childhood memories of famine, malnutrition and then Live Aid. What I experienced was so much greater, and so rewarding. And like many others, my image of Sudan, was similarly jaundiced: the terrible stories about the government support for the jinjaweed paramilitaries carrying out atrocities in Darfur to the west of the country; and the continuing conflict in the south which, Christian and black, see themselves as ethnically and culturally different from the rest of the country governed from Khartoum, which is Muslim and more Arab. A war for secession over the last number of decades, after brief periods of ceasefire, has again escalated after the discovery of oil and mineral reserves. But I had also read stories from other travellers of the Nile route, through the desert in the north, as being a highlight of their overland journey through Africa, and reports of the Sudanese people showing extraordinarily kindness.

My Route
I was planning to keep to the eastern part of the country, via the capital Khartoum, and north through the Nubian Desert to Egypt. This last section I saw as one of the major challenges on my trip - six hundred kilometres of desert following the course of the Nile, the first part asphalt road, the last 350 kms sand. I knew I was leaving it a bit late in the season, as it was now getting very hot. I was travelling solo on a loaded bike, and understood I was exposing myself to some risk as there would be long stretches through the desert with no road, no water, no habitation and no shade.

And always in the back of my mind, two things nagged, no matter how I tried to ignore or rationalise them. One - the bike had “history” with overheating (in the north Kenya desert), and with an even sterner test ahead I wasn't completely confident this had been sorted. And secondly, after two months convalescing from a disc problem in my neck (and being warned by the radiologist that was the end of the trip for me) how was the neck going to hold up?

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So it was with some feelings of anxiety and uncertainty I left Gondar in the Ethiopian highlands that morning. But more of excitement. Both the familiar excitement of entering a country for the first time, and also the excitement that comes with anticipating a challenge. Physically and mentally I was going to be pushed into unknown, uncomfortable territory. I was going to be extended. How would I respond, deal with situations? Would I succeed? While in South Africa I had read in the popular 'Bike' magazine, serialized reports from their journalist doing the 'Cape to Cairo' route. In Sudan he had elected to put his bike on the two-day train crossing of the desert north of Khartoum. I realised it may have to be a consideration but really didn't want to do that.

Entering Sudan
The descent from the Ethiopian highlands was dramatic - from 2,300 metres to 700 metres - and slow, on a winding, stony dirt road. A welcome stretch of about twenty kms of new asphalt only flattered to deceive. The Koreans are building the new road, and expect to have it finished by the end of the year according to the Ethiopian Customs officer. That seemed a very optimistic estimate to me! But there would then be a sealed road connecting the two capital cities, Addis Abeba and Khartoum.

The scruffy Ethiopian border town of Metema straggled along the road a kilometre, goods for sale piled high outside the makeshift stalls lining the road. It was now noticeably warmer, the landscape rocky and arid. After completing the exit procedure without any problems (when handing the Immigration my passport I realised with a start I had overstayed my visa by a few days, but fortunately he didn't seem to notice), I crossed over a creek, through a gate and was not only in a different country, but a different culture. The men (hardly any women were about) wore white jellabiyas, the North African long sleeved gown. The police and Customs officers were in white uniforms. While waiting in the Customs building - for what I wasn't sure exactly - the muezzins call rang out from speakers attached to various roofs, and some of the customs men came over to the water barrel next to my seat to fill their brightly-coloured, tea-pot shaped plastic jugs made in China. In a ritualistic fashion they washed their hands in the slight stream from the elongated spout, took off their boots and did the same with their feet and ankles, before standing in a line off to the side of the building on an unfurled mat and together reciting their prayers. (I was interested to note their black, typically African features for the most part, imagining it wise government policy to co-opt blacks from the south into the country's administration.) Lattice brick walls of the open Customs building naturally ventilated the room, but it wasn't long sitting on the plastic chair before I could feel the little rivulets of sweat begin to roll down my back.

As for the language, this was going to be interesting. Not only did I not have any Arabic, the written language has a different alphabet and script. Including numbers. And I was finding that, unlike neighbouring Ethiopia, English was understood by nobody. The head Customs man who finally stamped my carnet had a few words - enough to charge me to enter the country. I managed to change some dollars to Sudanese pounds with him as well - at a fair rate. This I was to find, outside of Khartoum, was quite difficult to do, confounding my assumptions. Everywhere else in Africa wants dollars.

On the road
The dark soil of the Sudanese plains stretched endlessly into the distance flat, dry, and barren, light whisps of desiccated yellow grass indicating some fertility. A strong wind came across at a 45-degree angle making the riding difficult. There was little sign of life. Occasionally I passed a dead cow off to the side, ribs clearly showing under the skin, victims I imagine of drought. A crew of a few men were working - well, one was working, the others sitting - on a stretch of roadside. A string of sheep and camels along the road were being led a group of nomads. Bringing up the rear three women astride swaying camels were covered head to toe in shiny, royal blue
jellabiyas. Silver jewellery around their heads glittered in the low afternoon sun. I was passing into Saharan Africa.

After an hour or two, a hut with a Coke sign in a lay-by appeared, enticing me to pull off the road. It was shuttered up. Two men in a lean-to next to it beckoned me over. Breezily greeting them with a “
Salaam aleikum” I made drinking gestures. "Coca Cola?" I asked hopefully. “Passport”, barked one of them. I had, voluntarily, approached a military checkpoint and ordered a drink off the man. When it dawned on me, I just couldn't help myself from laughing. My amusement wasn't shared. After a bit longer than I would have thought necessary to examine a passport, even in a foreign language, he handed it to his mate who did the same. Ignoring my “What seems to be the problem officer?” they spoke between themselves. My eyes were on my passport as one of them disappeared into the hut with it. Eventually coming out, and after their questions and efforts to communicate weren't getting anywhere, my passport was handed back, and I took off, laughing again to myself. What an eejit!

A town
This was desert, with no towns, agriculture, or habitation. Until the town of Gedaref, my destination, came into sight… and began to recede out of sight as the road I was on turned into a major ring road heading away from the town. Tempted to continue rather than ride the six or seven kms back, I accepted it was getting on a bit, I probably didn’t have enough water, and a bed would be good. It had been a long day. So after turning back, ten minutes later I was entering the town of Gedaref.

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I had stopped at a fuel station and realised how much I had relied previously on my journey on some words in English (or French on the West coast of Africa). Here there was just zero comprehension by the guys in the fuel station, or the customer present at the time, when I was looking for cheap hotel suggestions. Looking for a room to sleep wasn't going to be simple.

What would a hotel look like? The Arabic signs were of no help. One place that looked promising on the edge of town was in fact some form of military barracks. Fortunately I managed to avoid another unnecessary courtesy call to the country’s guardians when I spotted the troop-carriers parked in the compound before actually entering. (The general rule in all but a few countries in which I’ve traveled is to avoid encounters with men in uniforms if possible.)

A ferociously ominous black cloud was gathering force in the evening sky, the wind whipping up, blowing dust and scattering rubbish. Stopped at the roadside before entering the town proper to zoom in on my GPS (where
was the centre of town?), a tuk-tuk - the three-wheeled scooter taxis imported from India - pulled up. He understood what I needed by my sleeping signs. The first place we stopped cost $60 a night. Realising we were looking for something a lot more basic, he led me to the Amir funduq (guesthouse) in the market area. Very basic with shared bucket shower and ablutions, it was fine at $5. We agreed the two extra beds in the room wouldn’t be sold – the usual practice - and I would have the room to myself. The tuk-tuk driver refused to accept anything for his guiding duties, until I insisted on pressing a couple of dollars on him for 'benzene' (petrol).

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Sudanese hospitality
This was only the first of many instances of generosity I was to encounter in Sudan. That evening I asked a friendly fellow lodger at the Amir, Mohammed, a Kurdish medical student from Palestine, for a suggestion on where was good to eat. He took my hand and led me outside. An inundation, lasting all of five minutes, had turned the busy main street to mud, and we carefully stepped our way through by the light cast from bulbs suspended above the many stalls. He wasn't eating himself but after I'd ordered, insisted on paying. With his basic English, he explained above my protestations, “it is my ethic”. And bid me goodnight. When I ordered a second chicken schwarma, and went to pay I was told it had already been looked after, the cashier nodding towards a figure disappearing out the door and down the street. A pal of Mohammed, who had obviously seen me inside ordering another. Stepping into a pastry shop to sample something sweet after dinner, I selected a sticky deep-fried confection. The shopkeeper picked it out with his tongs, wrapped it in wax paper and handed it over the counter to me with a smile. He refused to take payment. This was crazy. I could not spend money!

Despite the darkness and muddy surface underfoot, the streets were teeming with shoppers bustling from one stall to another, walking around or stepping over large puddles of dirty water. Shopkeepers squatted on small stools chatting, or shouting across at mates or potential customers. At the brightly lit covered-market arrays of vividly coloured fruit were displayed in open crates in stall after stall. Open sacks of nuts and dried fruit lay stacked one next to the other. Further down at the meat section, various parts of sheep carcass, bright red and white in the illumination hung suspended from hooks or were being butchered on the counter for the customer.

Hailed in English by a wiry, unassuming individual in his forties, I stopped and chatted with Tewdros, who worked in Gedaref as a laboratory technician. He was one of a number of Ethiopians here, and had been five years waiting for refugee status from the UN, which he finally received a year ago. Now he was waiting to go to whatever country he was assigned - Canada, Sweden, Australia. He didn't have a preference. His father had been an army officer under Mengistu when Ethiopia had been under the rule of the repressive Derg, and now his family was persecuted because of that. He couldn't find work in Ethiopia. He led me through the mucky streets in search of a gold shop that would change some dollars, without success. We said goodbye and I wished him luck getting assigned to a country to start his life anew. It was so refreshing not to be asked for something.

Early the next morning I joined a number of people for a cup of tea at a small stall - a tea-man sat in front of his charcoal fire with simmering kettle, a few jars with tea, and some spices, a big bowl of sugar, and his basin of water for dunking the used cups. Patrons were perched on a few planks between blocks, or on upturned crates. Breakfast in Sudan is tea first thing with maybe a biscuit or something sweet, with the main meal of the day about ten.

Next to me in his white
jelabiyya was Ibrahim, a black Sudanese in his forties. He was a consultant engineer, and having worked in the Gulf States could speak some English. He was also staying at the Amir, and offered to change some dollars with me when I asked for advice. After tea we went to his room, where I noticed a suit of Western clothes hanging against the wall. He didn't know the exchange rate and I told him the rate the Customs man at the border had given me - 2 pounds to a dollar. He was even unsure about the dollar bills, looking at them as if for the first time, but willingly produced the Sudanese equivalent for me. It seemed the transaction was relying a lot on his trust of me.

To Khartoum

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I set off on the long days ride towards Khartoum. The black soil looked fertile - once a year the rains come and cotton is grown. But this was an arid semi-desert region that couldn't support habitation. Occasionally a cluster of shacks by the side of the road indicated a truckstop, and after a couple of hours I pulled into one of these dusty lay-by's for breakfast (pictured above).
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Three or four sheep carcasses hung on hooks advertising the menu. Not knowing what to order - and emphasising no meat as I wasn't interested in chewing through a plate of gristle - I left it up to the jovial and cheery cook. And was pleasantly surprised by my delicious meal of 'kibda', deep-fried liver and kidney; 'adees', a bowl of yellow split pea puree with lots of garlic; a salad of cucumber, tomato, onion, and lime; and a few pieces of flatbread. At $3, a delicious, satisfying and reassuring introduction to Sudanese breakfast.

The temperature was rising and even though I kept drinking the increasingly warm water through a tube from my reservoir packed in the tank bag, I found myself stopping more frequently for a Coke to help quench the thirst. Images of a refreshing cold drink were never matched. Despite coming out of a fridge it was invariably disappointing - not quite cool, and sweet. As the day unfolded I was making progress. Approaching the (Blue) Nile, the landscape became less arid, with more settlements. Straw huts gave way to mud walled compounds and dwellings, some quite elaborate.

Oh no. Engine problems again!
And then, a couple of hours short of Khartoum, the engine stopped. Opening the throttle for some more power to overtake, I felt a little hesitation. Hmmm. Shortly after the same thing happened and it began to stutter, and then stopped. My immediate thoughts were desperate and bleak.
“Hugh you were too complacent. Taking the bike's health for-granted. Did you really expect to just get on (after the bike's heart transplant and gearbox surgery in Addis Abeba) and continue the journey that simply?” Was this the end of the journey? I wasn't going to even reach Khartoum, let alone attempt the crossing of the Nubian Desert.

That was the initial reaction of despondency. But back to the situation at hand. Is there any shade? I pushed the bike in the fierce heat to some thorn bushes that offered some dappled respite. First things first, unload all the luggage. Then sit down and have a cigarette. I had a feeling, hoped, it was a fuel supply problem, as it seemed to coincide with asking the throttle for more acceleration. First I checked the spark plug. It was issuing a spark against the engine body when I turned over the starter (giving me a jump when I held what I thought was an insulated part!). Ok, then the injector. A fine spray pulsed out when the engine was turned over. But was there a slight faltering? Should it be a bit stronger? Putting it back together, I started the engine and it ran fine again. For a minute or two. When I throttled up to four thousand revs, it stuttered and stopped again. Could it be the fuel filter/pressure regulator, the part between the fuel and fuel pump and the injector (which then injects a fine spray of fuel directly into the cylinder chamber)? It is an expensive part and when I had put a new one in during my service in Nairobi, I had made sure to keep the used one just in case. But I didn't recall seeing it recently, as I searched my bag of spares with an increasing sense of despair. It wasn't there. Where the f*ck was it?!! Not for the first time I castigated myself for not being better organised.
“Face it Hugh, you're just not going to learn.”

And then a Mitsubishi pickup stopped. A neatly dressed, balding man is his early forties got out and asked did I have a problem. I was miles from the last town, in the scrubby, sandy bush under the patchy shade of the only thorn tree in the area. The luggage was all on the ground behind, the seat and covers were off the bike exposing the engine, my bags of tools and spares lay next to me. It was mid afternoon in serious heat. I suppose that would have been a fair assumption.

Good Samaritan
Ahmed Abashar was going to Khartoum and offered to bring the bike and me. I had been considering camping where I was but was getting a little low on water (which was now the temperature of a cup of tea. And my urine was alarmingly that colour!). The dusty conditions were not ideal for working on the bike, and I wasn't confident I could sort it. What if I needed to order a spare part from home? That is if I could accurately identify the problem.

I gratefully accepted Ahmed's offer, asking how much it would cost. He looked offended and insisted there was no question of a charge. He was going there anyway. He drove off to find some help to load the bike and came back a few minutes later with three peasants in white
jelabiyas walking this direction. It was a pickup with back seats in the cab, which meant a smaller area in the back, but we successfully fitted the bike diagonally across, the rear wheel resting on the open tailgate. The three men refused my proffered few pounds for their assistance. I turned to Ahmed who shrugged and said it is their duty to help - and they continued on their way.

Ahmed had his own civil engineering company, small he said, but had a project building a new road near Port Said and was returning home to Khartoum. He drove very carefully and very slow, stopping at one stage at a roadside mosque to do his prayers, and when we arrived in Khartoum in darkness insisted on bringing me to O-Zone, a Westernised café downtown, for something to eat. The prices were European (a macchiato for which I’d paid about 20c the previous morning in Gondar, cost $4) and I ordered a chicken mayo sandwich, one of the cheapest things on the menu. Of course he insisted on paying. We were joined by a well-dressed and cultured lady, his friend Sammaya, “She has good position Economics in government”. A little older than Ahmed, they were obviously old friends, chatting away comfortably and laughing. (Afterwards he insisted she was just a good friend. “Sammaya is forty two. My fiancée”, he had shown me a picture earlier in his wallet of a beautiful woman, “is of course younger.”) At 9pm, it was hot! A fine mist sprayed from a system of sprinklers overhead, cooling the immediate air somewhat. About half the clientele were Westerners, all working for the UN and other NGO's according to Ahmed.

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I took to Ahmed (pictured right) - an unassuming, modest and generous man. On the journey, he was content to leave silences unfilled with chatter. “Have you seen…” he paused to remember the name, pronouncing it with a strong accent. Then I recognized it, laughing. “Braveheart. Fillum.” A few times in East Africa I had heard this confusion - the film depicting the Scottish battle against the English - with Ireland. Similar Celtic characteristics I imagine and same foe. “Mel Gibson.” “Yes”, he grinned, repeating the actors name with delight, agreeing that was it. Ireland had a certain image abroad I had encountered, the small country admired for standing up to the powerful coloniser. Ahmed surprised me by referring to the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland in the early eighties. We discussed it a while, me giving him my simplified take on the situation, and Margaret Thatcher's involvement (trying to explain her famous dismissal of the hunger strikers, “A criminal, is a criminal, is a criminal,” in refusing to speak to them). Ahmed believed that for a small country, Ireland gained a lot of sympathy in the Middle East after that.

Despite his English being a bit limited (and my Arabic non existent) I learned a few things about him, and his views. In response to his curiosity about how Sudan was portrayed in the West, I told him we think of Darfur and the trouble in the south. "Ah, yes. John Garang. A communist. Dead now. But still they want to be separate. They have different culture, religion, language in the South. But we are all one country. Look me,” he said pointing at his face. He was of a dark complexion and full face but had, I suppose, near Caucasian features. “Sudan is meeting of black Africa and Arab.”

Ahmed had told me his father, “a good man”, used to work for the government in the time before the British left in 1956. “He like England, spoke English very well. I am not so good,” he admitted smiling. Passing a large petroleum-generated power station serving Khartoum - most of Sudan's power was hydroelectric - Ahmed proudly noted that “The Princess, sister of Queen… Yes, Princess Anne, opened this station.”

“Europe is different from Americans. Their grandfathers cowboys and criminals,” he laughed. “Europe is much older. More civilised. But Africa hundred years behind Europe,” he believed. “They are like animals.” Asking him to clarify that, I understood he meant that instead of reacting to others without consideration, a society must learn how to deal with other people and live peaceably. “That comes with civilisation.” I found my rather lame response - “what does a society lose though, in adopting 'civilisation'” - didn't really carry much weight. I was confusing 'civilisation' with 'Western'. What this man said to me made obvious sense - you can live in a barbarian, reactive way, or a civilised way, with a legal system, justice, and security, which is better for all. I was confusing that with the consequences of consumerism in the West.

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In the late nineties a factory outside Khartoum was attacked by the Clinton administration in response to Al-Qaeda bombings of the American embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. It was subsequently (tacitly) acknowledged that their Intelligence was faulty. The factory targeted by US jets was not in fact manufacturing chemical weapons for Al-Qaeda, but baby diapers. I was curious to know Ahmed's views on Sudan’s position and the West.

“Terrorists are animals,” he spat out. Except he pronounced it 'tourists' which dismayed me momentarily. “But this country has expelled any of them. We are against them. But we are still on blacklist of America.” I understood that Sudan certainly had 'non-favoured' status as opposed to their neighbours, who get major funding and support (Egypt is the second biggest beneficiary of American aid after Israel. Ethiopia is now ‘co-operating’. In return for aid and trade, their troops are used as surrogate peacekeepers in Somalia.) I asked Ahmed what problem did the US have with Sudan? “I really don't know. We do everything they want, but still we cannot trade with American companies, or companies that trade in America.” He blamed all the tension and trouble in the Middle East on the conflict between Palestine and Israel. A view I was to hear a few times from others. He was optimistic though about economic progress in his country, fuelled mostly by exports to the other Arab states, and of course increasingly China who have mining and oil prospecting rights in much of southern Sudan. Chinese engineers were supervising improvements on the road between Sudan’s main port, Port Said, and Khartoum, when I had passed.

Eventually at about ten in the evening, we pulled up at the Blue Nile Sailing Club near the city centre on the Nile, traditionally the place to camp for overlanders. I didn't waste much time unloading the bike, and finding a spot for the tent. We bad farewell, amid my effusive utterings of gratitude. Ahmed got a little emotional, claiming strong friendship, and anything I needed to call, etc. I'd got to Khartoum.

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Pictured above, the British Lord Kitchener's boat the 'Malik' , now used as an office and sleeping quarters for the staff of the Blue Nile Sailing Club in Khartoum.

With a strong breeze at night blowing from the Nile, and the air temperature over forty degrees, it felt like a massive hairdryer was positioned over the city. Maybe it was the humidity near the river, but it was seriously uncomfortable lying in the tent, sweating. One of the advantages of my tent - an MSR, single man ‘Hubba’ - is that it is free standing. This has been very handy on ground too hard or soft for pegs. It also means I can use the inner part of fine mesh as a form of mosquito net when needed. Trying the option of lying outside, after a few minutes I was getting bitten by mosquitoes (this wasn't quite out of the malaria zone yet) and ended up placing my tent up on two tables I pulled together, and eventually getting some sleep.

Getting the bike running again
So I had a bike that wouldn't run. The camp manager offered to call a bike mechanic that assisted any bikers passing through here and I agreed. But after half an hour I thought I'd start the investigation myself and see how far I'd get. Andy from the Isle of Wight and Noleen from Armagh were camping at the Blue Nile on their way south in a Land Rover, and Andy offered to give me a hand. Two heads are better than one. Once again I started at the basics. Spark working, yes. Injector… now it was just coming out in spurts. It should be a fine spray. Well I didn't have a replacement fuel filter/pressure regulator, so I thought, “let's go back a further step in the process”. Check to see if the fuel pump is working, which pumps the petrol through the regulator.

Releasing it from the fuel tank, I examined the unit - fairly straightforward, a little electric motor that powered the pump. Two wires, a negative and a positive. Actually one of which looks a bit perished, shouldn't it be…? “That wire doesn't look too healthy”, Andy noted. We separated the motor unit and the pump from its housing, repaired the connection, put it all back, and tested the injector. Yes! A fine, strong spray. The bike started and responded well to the throttle. I took it for a spin around town with no cutting out. However the throttle started to get loose and flabby, only getting up to a maximum of 3,000 revs. Nursing it back to base I checked the accelerator cable and found somehow it must have got knocked during the repair, as it wasn't positioned correctly at the adapter on the air intake unit.

Relieved once again it was something I could sort out, I then took the bike for a twenty-minute burn around town, wanting to push things. If there were problems I needed to unearth them now. The evening was extremely hot, with that hot wind blowing uncomfortably on my bare arms. Lifting up the visor on the helmet while moving, even in slow traffic, wasn’t possible. In the traffic the bike was finding it difficult to cool itself in these conditions, and began to get very warm. I could barely tolerate the heat radiating off it to my legs. Is this normal? I mentioned this to Andy and Noleen in the Land Rover back at the campsite. “Yes, I know,” Noleen sympathised. “Its so hot our fridge can't keep stuff cold.” I laughed. Oh, for their problems.

Concerned about the desert conditions ahead where the bike would be working harder in hotter conditions, I went looking for reassurance - is it normal for the bike to generate so much heat - and posted a question on the F650
forum. And got reassurance from among others an F650 owner in Western Australia where it gets hot. Basically, like they say about a computer, if the rider can handle the heat, the bike can. And as my pal René a regular contributor to the site commented in a reply “When has it ever let you down? Open it up and go for it!” That was what I needed.

It was a great feeling of satisfaction - having first identified then dealt with the fuel pump failure, and other little problems. Once again I was learning the bike isn’t rocket science, things make sense. It gave me more confidence.

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The White Nile, originating from Lake Victoria in Uganda, and the Blue Nile from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, eventually join forces at Khartoum. It is here at the confluence where General Gordon was famously besieged and finally killed by the Mahdi, and where Lord Kitchener, sent to 'restore order' - avenge his murder - enforced a British presence. So many things about the city – from its design and street layout, to the country's administration, military, and infrastructure - are all results of the British presence here until 1956. I was invited up to the offices of Omar, a Khartoum lawyer and owner of one of two Africa Twins (Honda 750cc) in town, his brother being the other. In the plush, air conditioned rooms lined with leather-bound books, his chambers, I noticed the gown of a barrister hanging from a stand in the room. “Here there are no solicitors and barristers. I am a lawyer. We follow roughly the British system of justice,” he explained. “The Law of Precedent and all of that. Of course its not actually practiced as it should be! That's the problem.” Obviously an educated and successful professional, Omar had some interesting political views, and like Sudanese I'd met so far was, understandably, quite anti-American. And like my friend Ahmed not particularly sympathetic to the separatist arguments of the South of the country, and dismissive of 'Western media reports' about government support for the paramilitary
jinjaweed in Darfur.

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Adrenalin rush
The UEFA Cup semi-final between Manchester United and Barcelona was being broadcast. Half an hour before kick-off there was a power cut in the area. So, along with
Arthur, a young Brazilian cycling around the world on a bicycle, we went off on my bike looking for the Hilton hotel, that I guessed, would have its own generator. With Arthur on the back riding through the darkened streets, I skirted what appeared a token barrier to cars - a lump of wood lying across the road. Twenty metres further, from the darkness a soldier jumped out in front of the bike crouching in combat position with a rifle at his shoulder aiming at us, screaming. Loudly enough fortunately I could hear him through both my helmet and the noise of the engine. I jumped on the brakes, dimmed the headlight and put my hands up waving, “Tourist, tourist”. He shouted something further, still pointing his gun and approached. Another guard then materialised demanding to see “papers” and I hurriedly handed him my passport. He barely looked at it before waving his gun in the direction we'd come and I got the message to get out of there. Which I did without delay! Poor Arthur told me afterwards he was terrrified as, on the back of the bike, he was now first in the line of fire.

With my heart still thumping after the encounter, we found the Hilton. It had no sign in front of it. I guessed this was for the security of the foreign businessmen who stayed there. I could imagine a young fired up extremist deciding the hotel was an easy target for an attack. Hilton, being an American company, had been expelled from the country, and handed over the running of the hotel to a Sudanese hospitality company. Despite the security presence on the approach it was clear we were harmless Westerners on the bike when I explained our wish to watch the football, and we were allowed entrance without a problem. However despite the huge number of satellite channels being flicked through, the one showing the match, to the frustration of ourselves and a few British businessmen, wasn't available.

Coptic Christian church Khartoum 350 1
So, having at least indulged in fifteen minutes of sublime air conditioning, we headed back to the Blue Nile sailing Club in the hope the power had come back. It had, and we watched the second half of an exciting match, won for Man Utd by a cracker of a shot from outside the box by Paul Scholes. Ronaldinho was no longer in the Barcelona squad for some reason that was half explained to me - some disagreement with the management - but the marvel was seeing the young Lionel Messi, an amazing player, who whenever he got the ball looked promising. He beat his man every time he took him on.

Time to get moving
I had spent half a day looking for the Alien Registration Office, and two hours there before handing over a further $44 (on top of the $61 visa fee in Addis) for the honour of transiting the country. It was a requirement for every foreigner to register his or her presence within three days of entering Sudan. With the expenses, controls on movement and red tape it certainly is not a tourist friendly country. I wanted to get out of the capital. The physical discomfort and torpor from the heat, particularly in the evening when the hot breeze made it worse, meant a settled night's sleep was becoming seriously desirable. And I had the challenge of the Nubian Desert ahead to look forward to.

Meroe 530 small peak1