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Riding through the sand in Sudan

By Brian Vernor

Headwinds, sandstorms and miles and miles of perfect new pavement ...

Headwinds, sandstorms and miles and miles of perfect new pavement …

Photo: Brian Vernor


Filmmaker Brian Vernor is best known in the bicycle industry for his documentary “Pure Sweet Hell,” which chronicled the cyclocross lifestyle on 8mm black-and-white film. His most recent project is filming and riding the Tour d’Afrique, a four-month bicycle adventure road race across the African continent. This year marks the sixth running of the race, which begins in Cairo, Egypt, and finishes in Cape Town, South Africa. Riders pass through 10 countries at an average distance of 75 miles a day. They are fed enough to survive, given basic directions and generally looked after by a slim crew of seasoned expedition leaders.


The Tour d’Afrique and I continue in a brutally hasty trajectory toward South Africa. While the majority of our travel has been by bicycle, an odd ferry ride was mixed in while we traveled from Egypt to Sudan.

Twinkie, anyone?

Twinkie, anyone?

Photo: Brian Vernor

A glance at our impossibly over-stuffed ferry convinced me that no amount of Twinkies could satisfy the Sudanese, as 10-15 truckloads of the tasty treats arrived to go along with refrigerators, blenders and washing machines. The booty was thrown from truck to porter, and onto the ferry with a basic lack of regard for its value. A few washing machines were simply dropped 10 feet into the hull of the barge our ferry towed.

The other riders and I boarded before the ordeal started, and we calculated the weight of our overloaded ferry. With some luck we might reach the other side. We stayed on an unenclosed upper deck with sparse seating space. Sleep was out of the question on the ensuing overnight 20-hour ride, as I drank 10 cups of black tea out of boredom. The next morning we arrived in Wadi Halfa, Sudan, only to watch the same international economic circus in reverse. We passengers were unloaded after all the Twinkies.

Before my journey, most of my impressions of Sudan were based on the country’s civil war and the continuing aggression in Darfur. Just entering the country raised questions in my mind of whether we were supporting genocide. My $150 visa — what is that paying for? The answer proved difficult to find, as every person we met was both kind and greatly interested in our journey. With a few Arabic phrases I searched out the essentials like toilet paper, batteries and laundry soap. Our camp was located in a small soccer stadium, and our ears could not escape the loudspeakers on the local mosques announcing prayers. The call to prayer woke us at 5 a.m. each morning and the seemingly competitive local Muezzins went on forever in an attempt to out-pray each other. I have realized that no amount of denial will resist the overwhelming cultural disorientation into which I’ve been thrown. Some riders have become frustrated, while others embrace it as what they came here for in the first place.

The riding has become much more difficult — it is hot, fewer shady soda stops dot the side of the road and now windy, nasty sand ruins the spirit and the drivetrain. Perhaps it’s the oil, but China has taken a great interest in developing Sudan’s infrastructure. As a result, more of our route here is paved than in years past, and the asphalt stretches go on forever with few turns. Try cycling 100 flat miles without a bend in the road — it just isn’t any fun.

The loooooong road ahead

The loooooong road ahead

Photo: Brian Vernor

Notorious headwinds persist, and on some days airborne sand and dust reduces visibility to a mile or two. One day my cameraman Benny Zenga and I tried filming some tracking shots with me pedaling and him filming from the back of our Xtra-cycle equipped bike. After the sand killed one of our cameras we packed up and waited for a support vehicle. We sat on the side of the road and were immediately covered by blowing sand. It’s hard to imagine how paved roads remain visible here without simply disappearing. The walls of small houses collect berms of blowing sand and then collapse, and all structures appear older than they really are.

Sudanese bike swap

Sudanese bike swap

Photo: Brian Vernor

On any hard day I have found numerous excuses to stop riding. I need to rest, find more liquid or hopefully find some shade. Local children swarm me at the stops. At one stop I decided to offer up my Fat Chance bicycle in temporary trade for a nicely decorated, but poorly performing, Chinese imported bike. A young kid took a ride and appeared extremely stoked. His older brother then stepped up for a turn. Once rolling he picked up the pace, set up a potentially sweet power-skid, and immediately flopped over the handlebar and onto his face. Not accustomed to the left-side mounted front brake, my young friend wrecked himself as badly as anyone I’ve seen wreck in years. He popped up with a mouthful of dirt and a wail of pain, which he quickly stifled as his friends erupted in laughter and jeering insults. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had a broken neck, so I decided to introduce him to a helmet. As I left town he confessed to being a better soccer player than cyclist.

Nuba wrestling

Nuba wrestling

Photo: Brian Vernor

After more than a week in the desert we pedaled into Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum. The carbon-clogged air, heaps of untended trash and endless maze of unnamed streets made for a harsh transition. We scrambled into taxis to go find hamburgers, which were served with carrot, fried egg and feta cheese, and a few of us then found our way to the outskirts of town where a wrestling match was happening. The match was held on a dirt surface, meaning hard takedowns drew blood, which drew an uproar from the crowd. We interviewed a few wrestlers after the match, and found out they were regular men with regular jobs who receive tips from the crowd when they win.

We anxiously headed out of Khartoum, and the heat quickly peaked at 103 degrees. We simply couldn’t carry enough water — hydration packs and bottles weren’t enough. After four days we arrived at the Ethiopian border, which proved to be a relaxed crossing. A small bridge over a dry riverbed separates the two countries, and people easily walk back and forth without passing through immigration. We had to seek out immigration formalities on both sides before crossing, and the procedures were minimal but time consuming, as everything is done by hand, not computer.

Lunch in Khartoum

Lunch in Khartoum

Photo: Brian Vernor

On the Ethiopian side we dropped few Burr (local currency) on some much-needed Dashen Beer — unlike Sudan, Ethiopia allows alcohol. We camped right on the border. For about twenty cents we were given permission to use the showers at the building next door. It was a brothel.

In the next 16 days we will cross Ethiopia and climb 63,000 feet. Temperatures are expected to remain above 100 degrees.

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