May 2, 2017

Feb.3: Entering Ethiopia

Biked: 152 K Elevation: 740 masl
Metema, Ethiopia

Rode 152 kilometers today. Beginning to climb, but so still no major elevation gain. We came off the flat land today for the first time since Khartoum and generally gained elevation as we got into more rolling terrain. There was less crop land today, more shrub and savannah. There were fewer people and less traffic, but more military presence as we approached the Sudanese border with Ethiopia.

For the first time today I saw people loading charcoal bags on big trucks, by hand. That means more trees, more rainfall in this area.

There is lots of what appears to be dry shattercane in harvested sorghum fields. Everything that is a grass is golden in color. I find it interesting that most trees do not have leaves on them currently, but that there are a few scattered here and there of a certain species that are a deep green. The golden grass under scattered trees is very pretty. Also, for the first time it is apparent that hillsides have been burnt. I suspect this was done for the enhanced regrowth once the rains come. It was surprising to see quite a number of fires and smoke from the burnings.

It was good that we had a tail wind of sorts today, as it was a long day. We made it to the border with Ethiopia at Metema at about 2:30p.m. It took me 2 ½ hours get cleared through customs. This evening we had to exchange currency and switch tires and tubes on the bikes. This is because now we will be on gravel, rocky roads in addition to climbing more than descending.

Leaving Sudan and entering Ethiopia means one can once again purchase beer and alcohol. It also means an end to hearing prayer at mosques in the evenings and the mornings. It means leaving behind a culture where one does not fear from theft or robbery.

So, our camp tonight is almost literally a dump across from customs on the border between Ethiopia and the Sudan. Not far up the road are the brothels, where a needed shower was available.

I have become accustomed to the heat and flatness of the portions of Egypt and Sudan through which we have traveled. I, like many other riders, am apprehensive of the hills and mountains ahead.

Feb.2: Hot and Dry

Biked: 137 K Elevation: 440 masl
15 kilometers past Gedaref on the Road toward Metema

We rode 137 kilometers today. It was all paved and flat. A guess at altitude would be about 440 masl. There was less traffic, but busses passed with high speeds. It was the third straight non-race day, with very strong side and semi head winds.

I did not see any irrigated fields today. All crop agriculture must happen around July and August when it rains. Most fields have no residue left on them – as sheep, cattle and camels grazing has been intense.

Saw some combines in one village and another huge grain elevator in Al Gedaref. Again, it was on a rail line. Most of this stretch from Khartoum has had power lines visible. Except for that, this vast dark brown flat topography reminds me very much of parts of the Bay Region of Somalia. Although, there is better infrastructure here, in terms of available petroleum, diesel, and access to fertilizer and other agricultural inputs.

Again today we passed several places where the government of Sudan has made an attempt to reforest parts of the landscape. Signage suggested there were numerous 5 to 10000 ha tracks planted to Acacia species back in the early-to-mid 1990s. Tree diameters were about 5 to 15 centimeters. The Acacia species are legumes and generally thorny. The thorns, not the longer 3 centimeter ones, but the much shorter ones can be a problem on bicycle tires. Thus, we carry our bikes when walking to our off road camp sites.

The highlight of the day, besides the stops for liquid refreshments, was seeing a double long truck get loaded with sorghum grain from a huge stack of bagged grain. The burlap bags had to weigh at least 50 kilograms each. Workers would load them on their backs one at a time and walk them up a staircase of stacked grain bags. It was hugely labor intensive, much harder work than biking. I declined their offer that I assist them in exchange for them riding my bike.

Continued to see large (greater than 50 or so) herds of sheep, cattle, and camels. Whenever we see a village we also see people with donkeys and donkey carts.

Wimpie, the South African Afrikaner who is in charge of the trucks, worked diner tonight. He served dodotie, a South African delight. There will be more on that in a couple months. Wimpie is a character. You will hear more Winpie stories in the future. I joked with James the Chef that he should learn how to drive the truck so that Wimpie can made dinner more often. Perhaps that will jeopardize the generous portions that James serves me, but it was all in jest.

Feb.1: Crossing the Blue Nile

Biked: 146 K Elevation: ~420 masl
Alfones’s Camp, between Wad Madani and Gcdaref
(Camp site is named after a 2005 TDA rider

We biked 146 kilometers today. It was another windy, hot one. We traveled about 35 kilometers along the Blue Nile before crossing it at Wad Madani. Just before crossing the Blue Nile we passed the University of Gezira, Gezira. The Gezira Scheme. I heard of the successes in sorghum breeding and development as part of the Gezira Project when I was working in Somalia in the mid- to-late1980s. Hybrid sorghum, combined with massive irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticides when needed dramatically increased production in this region. The Gezira Scheme was a model for sorghum and cotton of what could be achieved in other African regions. In Somalia, with inputs, the Gezira sorghum hybrid lines did double production, but acceptance of the sorghum hybrids did not catch on.

Taste, appearance, and storability inhibited adoption of the new sorghum varieties. In addition, governmental as well as social instability continue to fail to provide appropriate infrastructure in Somalia (and elsewhere in Africa). It would be interesting to Google the Gezira Scheme and read what history has said about that effort. Quintin, one of our new Lonely Planet sectional riders, flew into Khartoum the other day, and next to him on the airplane was a South African coming to the Sudan to be a seasonal crop duster. Evidently he will fly pesticides on wheat and cotton fields.

The vast majority of fields we passed today were fallow; probably 80% or so. Evidently the rainy season in the Khartoum area is July and August – definitely not February.

So, at Wad Madani we crossed the Blue Nile and traveled due East, while the Blue Nile went south. We will not see the Blue Nile again for about a week, and then it will be in the mountains. Today was incredibly flat, except near camp there is a range of hills which we followed on our left.

Took pictures of cotton in huge bags out in the field. Eventually the bags of cotton will be loaded on a truck and sent toward Khartoum.

At last night’s camp a Sudanese student identified one of the beans planted near the Blue Nile as Lubena. It was indeterminate in growth and its somewhat rectangular seeds were brown and white. I didn’t get the English name of the legume, but probably should have recognized the distinctive seed.

There was a pretty sunset by 7:00p.m. with the moon high above, half full.

(Alfonse was a TDA rider some years back – the only rider to date that died while on the tour. Randy told us his story tonight. I think Randy said Alfonse was from Italy, in his 50s or 60s. Alfonse always had a smile, Randy said, and was a positive influence on the group. While in Khartoum he visited a historic Catholic Cathedral. There, Alfonse saw an elderly Sudanese women sitting near him. She was humming a tune he recognized so he started singing the words in Latin. To his amazement she started singing, also in Latin. He later told Randy how they sang the whole song in harmony. The next day, around noon, Alfonse died in his sleep while riding on the truck. Sometime later Alfonse’s family contacted TDA to express their gratitude toward the TDA staff on how they handled the death and gratitude that Alfonse was able to live the life he chose and died doing what he loved. It was a somber evening at Alfonse’s camp.)

Jan.31: Sorghum, Wheat, and Alfalfa

Biked: 142 K Elevation: 400 masl
Blue Nile Camp at El Hasaheisa east of Khartoum

142 kilometers today- no race- good thing as it was the most difficult traffic today of the whole trip. Very narrow pavement, wide sand shoulders- lots of traffic both ways. Randy warned us it would be hazardous and it was. Came upon two overturned trucks. We paralleled the Blue Nile all day. It was on our left- to the north.

Today I saw the agriculture that helps feed Khartoum and the Sudan. All day, on both my left and right, we passed agricultural fields. The soils were actually soil and not just sand. The terrain was flat for as far as the eye can see. TDA rider Ivo, my GPS altitude guru, has had this bike computer on the blink – as is mine- so I don’t know the exact elevation0 but I think it was about 380 masl in Khartoum and about 400masl tonight.

Of the agricultural fields we passed I would estimate less than 50% was currently planted. Wheat-sorghum-alfalfa-cotton-and a yellow flowered plant I didn’t go investigate were growing. Stacks of sorghum stover protected by cut thorned-bushes from livestock- dotted the landscape.

I saw two large grain elevators today- both on a rail line- One would easily store the quantity of grain that the Meadowland Cooperative in Lamberton, MN can store. I also passed one N distribution center, several poultry facilities and fenced fields for cattle.

Because we started a new section of the tour today we picked two new Lonely Planet Sectional Riders and two additional sectional riders. We lost Sharif and Scott Kennedy- as they ended their ride in Khartoum. Check out Scott Kennedy’s blog- the Tour d’Afrique on Lonely Scott is a writer, a photographer, and a great person – true salt of the earth.

Trucks coming toward Khartoum carried full loads of grain, wood, charcoal, cotton, and produce. Buses, cans, vans, and people made for some close quarters cycling.

Highlight of the day is camping on the Blue Nile near irrigated field. A swim across the Blue Nile – about the same width of the Mississippi Ricer under the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis – with a lot less current, was refreshing.

Jan.30: Where the Blue and White Niles Converge

Biked: 0 K Elevation: 384 masl
Rest Day – Khartoum

A number of us went of a three hour mourning tour of the Khartoum area which lasted eight hours. We went by a chartered bus to a YMCA-run camp for displaced children. The camp was located in Western Omdurman- so we retraced a portion of our bike ride of yesterday to get to the camp. It housed 330 kids – all appeared under 12 yrs. old or so. Age is hard to tell- I suspect all of the kids have been malnourished in their lifetime. Most all were pretty thin still. This YMCA camp is being supported my YMCA’s in Germany and Canada. It is dependent of their aid. The kids sat patiently of benches and sang to us. They have had a tough life and generally it shows. Mosquito nets were handed out to the kids. Our bus then drove us to the famed Kalief House which was closed because today is Friday. Next we took a 1 hour ride on a local ferry on the Nile River to where the Blue and White Niles converge. Nope- I couldn’t tell a difference in water color between the two rivers.

Evidently the volume of flow is greatly in the White Nile for several months of the year and the Blue Nile for the other months of the year. I was stuck by the volume of water in both rivers and the speed of their currents. I counted over 20 small diesel run irrigation pumps- but couldn’t see over the river bank what crops they were irrigating.

Next we went for a big lunch provided by our YMCA host at his home. Food consisted of tomatoes, cheese, cucumbers, green beans, rice, carrots, beats, turnips, chicken and cola and water. I was told all was produced locally.

There I met and talked with Alfred Taban a BBC – Reuters correspondent from Southern Sudan. His views on the politics in his country were quite enlightening. Earlier in the day at the camp we are staying at I had the chance to meet the Silver Medalist in the 800 meter run at the Peking Olympics. That also was very neat.

Jan.29: Entering a Community with Millions of Inhabitants

Biked: 105 K Elevation: 384 masl
Khartoum – National Camping Residence

So 20 days after departing Cairo we arrive in Khartoum, the capital of the Republic of Sudan. I did not go back and look at our total bicycling mileage, but I know it is about comparable to traveling along the Mississippi river from Minneapolis-St. Paul in Minnesota to New Orleans in Louisiana. What a contrast in agroecosystems! Here along the Nile, agriculture is limited to an irrigated riparian strip generally less than a kilometer wide on either side. Sugar cane, wheat, alfalfa and other forbes in Egypt gave way to primarily wheat and forbes in Sudan. Here the last week or so we have baked – with the prospect of more heat to come. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, if I had left on a bicycle about twenty days ago I would have froze my patuie off and only seen fields covered in snow. I would not have seen a portion of the vast corn belt- where corn and soybeans are planted in the spring. This time of year I would not have seen rice or cotton in the fields of the more southern states. Perhaps I would have seen some winter wheat or maybe even canola. I wonder what would have been different had we traversed this part of Egypt and Sudan three months or six months from now.

We covered 105 kilometers today. Did a 20 kilometer time trial in the morning, then convoyed in a tight convoy with a tourist police escort the final 37 kilometers through Omdurman and Khartoum. One estimate I heard is that this area has 5 to 7 million people. We literally saw tens of thousands of them during our convoy. What a contrast after coming out of the desert.

I thought I would see more irrigated agriculture coming into Khartoum, but I didn’t. For this first time this morning I saw termite mounds- some as tall as 2 meters high. Also- while still out of the populated area we passed two separate buildings labeled “Arab Chicken Breeding Company.”

That reminds me- last night prior to dinner James, the chef, warned us to watch out for bones in the beef stew we were going to eat. He said sorry, but the meat he purchased was cut with an ax and not a knife.

Set up the tent. Took a needed shower. Called the class back at the U of M and went out for dinner. Came upon a very interesting market where just about anything could be purchased. Saw mango for sale for the first time. I dined on bread, bananas, peanuts, grapefruit and mango juice.

Jan.28: Celebrating Erik’s Birthday

Biked: 151 K Elevation: 330 masl
Desert Camp in the Sahara

Started the day at kilometer marker K212 and ended at K61 so today we rode 151 kilometers. Stayed on the only paved road we saw. Raced 80 kilometers to lunch- in a gentle peloton until the last 10 kilometers. At lunch at 11:00a.m. or so it was about 97˚F/36˚C. Hot, dry, and a brisk tail and side wind. The last 71 kilometers were hot, dry, and brutal- even going slower. It would have been very difficult to make this stretch if the roads weren’t paved.

All day we passed maybe ten clusters of homes-most with a water tank/water tower. Most with potential for a wet drink. Before lunch and again after lunch I finished off 2×24 ounce energy drink water bottles and one 1 ½ L Camelback. A couple soft drink stops after lunch plus two energy bars helped me make it through. Lunch was pita bread stuffed with a tuna tomato cucumber mix, plus a pita PB&J sandwich, several orange slices and a grapefruit half.

I arrived at camp about 2:30 p.m. pretty bushed. By 4:00p.m. I had consumed more water and a 24oz. water bottle full of soup. Soup sometimes consists of last nights left-overs, plus more noodles and water and salts/ electrolytes – It hits the spot.

So at 4:00 p.m. our time it was 7:00a.m. at my home is Minnesota. I called home then to wish my son, Erik, a Happy 17th Birthday. I mentioned the Birthday to fellow riders and we all sang him “Happy Birthday” on the phone. About 25 people were sitting in the shade of our 2 trucks and canopies. All pretty tired – from maybe 10 countries – all singing in perfect harmony. It takes a special family to let dad to go traipsing off to Africa for four + months. I am most appreciative of them and my every encouraging parents.

After several days of virtually no vegetation, for a brief time it looked like we were entering an area of increased small trees/ shrubs. At a couple places there were small stacks of bags of wood for sale. I would estimate less than 20 bags total. Just when I thought maybe annual rainfall might be picking up some from the slight increase in shrub number- it turned pretty barren once more. All said slightly more people today than yesterday. Tomorrow will be different.

So again Happy 17th Birthday Mister E. I am with you in spirit.

Jan.27: A Vegetable Stand and Sheep Carcass for Water

Biked: 142 K Elevation: 280 masl
Desert Camp in the Sahara – marker 212K from Omdurman

Traveled 142 kilometers again today- the first 50 kilometers were somewhat along the Nile. At Abu Dom we continued SSE on the shortcut paved road toward Omdurman/Khartoum.

Shortly after leaving camp this morning we crossed over two other relatively big canals and passed some irrigated fields. One field was fallowed except for a fenced border and a lot of one and one-half meter tall wood stakes which apparently were used to stake up some sort of vine(y) plant.

We stopped for a Coke break at the circle at Abu Don and I visited several small stands. There were a couple of different kinds of dates for sale, along with oranges and grapefruit, but very few tomatoes or cucumbers. The hanging sheep carcass had most of the best cuts of meat already carved off.

About 70 kilometers later we stopped again for a cool Coke, a mango and water at a small village not on my map. There I got my picture of Hostess Bars for sale. I’ve been looking for them since seeing last year’s pictures of Hostess Boxes being loaded on the ferry at Aswan and seeing Hostess Boxes being loaded again this year.

Someone wrote a book- I forget the author, entitled “Twinkie Reconstructed.” I doubt Michael Pollan- author of the book “In Defense of Food” would count most Hostess products as food. Pollan,s message of ‘eat food, not too much- more vegetables less meat’ is sound- unless one bicycles a lot each day.

I suspect I’ll average around 6000 to 7000 kcal/day – if I stay healthy. Most TDA riders have had some sort of sickness- from sore throats, cold, flu, diarrhea to hear stroke.

Tonight we ate cooked potatoes, a veggie cucumber tomato okra mix and chicken. The chicken was bought frozen whole in Dongola. Evidently there are chicken farms in the Khartoum area.

One interesting aspect of today’s ride in the Sahara desert was seeing numerous petrified wood stones along our route. Some of the petrified tree trunks were as much as a half meter in diameter. Now that’s a beautiful site to see in the morning.

Jan.26: Entering the Sahara Desert

Biked: 142 K Elevation: 243 masl
Canal Camp near Abu Gussi

1 day South of Dongola, 243masl. Tonight we camp near a large canal on the West side of the Nile. We traveled 142 kilometers today – all on tarmac and most with a nice tail wind. Never really saw the Nile all day- but most of the time we could see the palm trees off in the distance along the Nile. I would estimate about 30-40% of the land adjacent to our road was farmed – the remaining majority was just sand. Again the main crop is wheat – some of which was planted with a grain drill. The wheat paddocks have been planted at different times – some wheat is in stem elongation and heading and some has just emerged.

The unusual sight of the day was the number of desiccated camel carcasses along the road. I would estimate we passed more than 50 and perhaps even double that number of dead camels. Evidently this is a major route to a camel market in Dongola. Life can end prior to being sold in Dongola.

The canal we are camped near is very large. The walls of the canal are about 6 or 7 meters above ground level and the width of the water in the canal is about 8 to 10 meters wide. Most TDA riders took a swim in the canal to wash off salt and dirt. The depth of the canal was a little over a meter- and the bottom was muddy/silty- about ankle deep. The current in the canal was relatively fast- I would not have lasted 10 minutes swimming upstream especially after today’s relatively fast bike ride. Downstream from out campsite one can see green fields irrigated from this canal- but there are no fields close by (within a kilometer or so).

Tomorrow we pull further off the river and take a short cut across more desert toward Khartoum. Perhaps now is a good time to suggest you look at a map of the Nile- look for tributaries- you might see lines on a map but I can tell you that since Cairo we have not crossed a bridge over a flowing stream or creek with water flowing into the Nile. Instead we have crossed numerous canals with water flowing from the Nile to irrigate agricultural fields. I am in awe of this river. Will it ever run dry? Will we ever run it dry?

Jan.25: Chickpea Falafel and Lupines

Biked: 0 K Elevation: 245 masl
Rest Day – Dongola

Today, being a rest day, meant we didn’t have to take down our tents, pack up our gear, load it in the trucks, and cycle on down the road. I went for a short walk around town and ate oranges, pita bread, and almonds for breakfast, then worked on reducing photos since Luxor so I could send them over the slow Internet. There is some electricity at the Zoo to recharge the camera, computer, and phone batteries. I had some watermelon, tuna and bread for lunch. I changed tires and tubes and the rear cassette on the bike. Changed the tire size from 700 x 38s to 700 x 23s, as the remainder of the riding in the Sudan will be on tarmac. Starting tomorrow we’ll have four more riding days in the desert – the Sahara Desert – until Khartoum. After doing some laundry I walked back downtown to wait in the queue to get on the Internet at one of the two functional internet cafes in Dongola. That internet café had nine computers and TDA riders kept them all busy all day.

James, the cook, showed me some lupine seeds he was eating. Evidently the seeds soaked for seven days in a salt solution. The falafel here is made from chickpeas. At one shop, one could see the soaking chickpea seed, the meat grinders like device used to grind the seed, the chickpea “ice cream” scope used to scope the ground meal into an appropriately golf-ball sized ball, and the hot oil frying humus, as they call it here.

For dinner I had one half of a rotisserie chicken, ‘benya’ or fried dough, pita bread and a Khartoum Coke. No alcohol is sold openly in the Sudan, and the call to prayer is ever present. It is tough today to find a relatively quiet place to place the phone call to leave the audio blog. I would estimate in town today I saw traffic which consisted of 30% tuk-tuk taxies, 25% pickup trucks and 15% other cars.