Monday, January 29, 2007
Hello from Sunny Sudan!
My first stage win! One goal for the tour complete
Curious Sudanese kids posing with my bike. One of the smaller ones was able to ride my big 21.5" bike (of course he came back).
The loose sand and corriguations of Nubian Desert roads that made this section really fun!
Making our way through the Sahara desert now at the end of a 9 hour, >45°C day
- Riding in convoy to the ferry in Aswan was pretty funny. They shut down the road over the Nile dam for us to cross.
- Getting on the ferry, then watching the ferry being packed from the boat was absolutely hilarious! Picture 40 people trying to get over 100 heavy bags and 40 high-end bikes onto a boat while being trampled by people with massive bags of potatoes, car parts, textiles, you name it also trying to get on the boat. People (I'm assuming were officials) would occasionally close the gate to the boat, but would let us climb over and/or around it with our payload. The neighbouring barge was also being packed to enormous heights from trucks that were packed to double the height of the cab. No words can describe, absolute mayhem! I can't believe that this happens every week.
- While on the ferry, I met some guys that I met in Cairo from Iceland and Sweden that decided to head to Sudan. They were going to try to head to Khartoum by camel, not sure how that will go.
- Getting off the ferry in Wadi Halfa, Sudan was pretty much the same. This time however, we had be to "inspected" by customs. The official (my guide book warned me about) wanted us to unload the truck, put the bags from the square that they were arranged in to two lines, have all of the bags open, started to call from a list of names, inspected one bag, asked if we had a doctor, asked the Swedish rider whether he had medication for his wife's stomach tumor, after a long awkward discussion, decided ex-lax and immodium would do the trick and accepted some, told everyone to bring their bags to him, told everyone to put the bags back in a line, was fed up inspecting bags so put an "inspected" sticker on all of them, etc., etc., etc. You get the picture. I think he was getting some entertainment from all of our weird gear.
- The biking in Sudan has been awesome (note this is coming from the point of view of an adventure racer that doesn't like paved roads)! Though most days have been on the order of half of the distances we were doing in Egypt, the effort is far higher. I seem to start my daily journal writings with something on the order of "Amazing day, just amazing!" Washboards have been abundant, violent and seldom avoidable, but makes the arrival at camp extremely rewarding. Taking off shoot roads has varying success, but occasionally warrants some great riding! I am very happy to be one of the riders that is on a mountain bike with wider tires and a suspension fork.
- Some have noticed, I got my first stage win! The first day in Sudan, we discovered that though all roads go the same direction, some lend to faster riding. Jan and I came into lunch first the other day even though we thought we were 4th, 5th. I waited for the top riders to arrive and was going to wait for them to leave until I noticed that the tandem bike snuck away from lunch without my noticing. I left about 5 minutes behind them and decided that since there were no towns along the road, I would push that day. I eventually caught them and was the first rider to arrive. Not the sweetest stage win, but I got my stage winner plate none the less.
- Since then, I have slowed a great deal. The scenery through the desert is amazing and surprisingly diverse! I have stopped in many villages along the way. A few times I was offered a wife. She didn't seem to accept when I offered to take her back to Canada by pointing at my bike seat. The Sudanese people are extremely friendly and generous! I stopped in one town along the Nile where a Swedish rider and I were given a massive platter of bread, pasta, beef and dips. It was very good! My limited Arabic (to the effect of good morning, hello, water, thank-you, and a few other basics) entertains the locals as English is not as abundant here. We have gone through pockets of a Nubian language as well. I only know thank-you and hello in that one.
- Now I'm in Dongola, half-way between the Egyptian border and Khartoum on a rest day. Even though I have been taking it much easier over the past couple of days, the longer time in the saddle and more riding in the heat of the day takes a lot out of me.
- Overall, having an absolute blast. This whole experience from the fun stories, to waving and talking with locals, to riding some great terrain, to passing through some amazing scenery, to enjoying the incredible desert night stars is far too much to explain.
Reflections of Egypt
- It seemed that Egyptians love noise! In traffic drivers always have one hand on the horn. Many bicycles are equipped with air horns that are louder than some truck horns.
- Prayer songs occur 5 times per day in the largest of cities and smallest of villages. The speakers they use are always cranked to their max (as judged by the raspy quality) and are atop the mosque towers so the voice travels far.
- Brake lights in some cars are accompanied by a catchy electronic Arabic tune that I long thought was some one's mobile phone. You can imagine what that is like in Cairo.
- Emergency vehicle sirens are drowned out by so much other noise.
- Our wake up call while with our Egyptian tour company that supported us for the first leg of the journey consisted of a number of loud horn blasts from the buses, accompanied by a whistle, banging of pots and pans and occasionally the fire truck siren when it was there (I am still not entirely sure why the fire truck was at a number of our camps).
- It was interesting to repeatedly note that children were often shoo-ed away like dogs.
- Children are also very independent; parents are seldom seen. The kids not only get a good "street-wise" education, but apparently receive good schooling as well. Most could speak very good English and some spoke decent French as well. Economically smart in the interest of future tourism I guess.
- On one hand, there is an expression of "Egypt time" where things will happen eventually. Generally, it is pretty laid back which I don't mind. For example, after ordering some pita bread from a place where there were many ready and many were piling out of the oven as we were standing there, it still took a great deal of time to have someone actually take our money. Much in Egyptian life seems to work on this schedule; it works.
- On the other hand, the second anyone is behind the wheel of a car, they are in the biggest rush of their lives! I thought traffic in Cairo was pretty entertaining, even in more rural settings people still try crazy things just to move a little faster. Incredible!
- Needless to say, there is a gargantuan amount of ancient history in Egypt. As such, tourists are in abundance all over. It seems that most towns have the touristy front to it where you can be quoted some incredible prices (like the equivalent $5USD for four oranges), then have a section slightly removed where locals frequent ( i.e. $1USD for four good oranges and some bananas as well).
- Since tourism generates an incredible revenue, the police are unbelievably abundant and have check points frequently on the main roads. Foreigners are only allowed to travel these roads in police-escorted convoys that stop all traffic when they pass at 90km/h. I have met some along the way that easily overcame this with bribery though.
- Photos are not allowed to be taken of any ancient historical item for claims that the flash will degrade the artifacts. Some places will however sell you a permit to take pictures of these artifacts for a high price.
- I noticed first in a town, I was seen as a walking $. Everyone wants to help so that you will offer a tip. I biked by a guy that pointed to a mountain then asked for a tip for doing so. However, once you have been there for a bit, they seem to treat you as one of the locals. I enjoyed this since I could observe typical life unfold from a fly-on-the-wall point of view.
- Once you were not seen as a source of money, people are very friendly. I was walking back to camp from a temple in Luxor and had a police officer jump out from behind some bushes to try to scare me. He laughed hysterically, then introduced me to all of his co-workers while making fun of the few Arabic words I know. The Emeco staff (tour company) were not only always friendly, but highly entertaining as well. Many other fun stories about fun interactions with locals!
Thanks Egypt! I had a blast!
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Thanks Tree Huggers!
Egypt (1032km): Done!
Sitting in the Valley of the Kings surrounded by tombs including Tutankhamen's
Riding with the locals on a non-race day. This guy kept up with us for quite a while; impressive on that bike!
A view of the waterfront in Aswan
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Egypt almost done!
A bunch of Egyptian kids posing for the camera. That poor donkey hauls many loads and apparently gets used as a jungle gym!
The reports were right, we did start with a 40km long climb, but as it turned out the grade wasn't too steep and we had a tail wind (again) in certain spots. We were averaging around 25km/h on the climb so it didn't turn out to be too stressful. Once at the top, we enjoyed the ride winding through the mountain tops and out on to the desert plateau where we stopped for a picture of the first natural tree we had seen in a long time! Myself, Patrick (South Africa) and Rémy (Montreal) eased our way along as a threesome until we caught another group in the last 30km where we worked as a team to fend off our first head winds.
We camped at an oasis that night. What an oddity it seemed! The landscape was the barren, desolate, dry desert we have become accustomed to, but we were in a small circle of greenery providing us with a commodity we had become foreign to: shade!
The next morning (this morning) we descended back down to the Nile again at Qena and turned south toward Luxor. My original plan was to stop with some others in Qena and take a look around, but once we arrived there, it was clear that the police wanted no part of that. I then decided that this would now be my last racing day since I figured there was nothing else to see along this road. Wrong was I!
Luckily (in an overly optimistic sense), I bent a chain hammering to catch up to the lead pack. I and some others got a little left behind when a pothole surprised us, I hopped it, others hit the brakes and went in the dirt, but no one went down. I cursed at my decrepid chain, repeatedly, then went to fix it watching my draft and my vie for a stage win spin into the distance. Whilst fixing my chain, a few locals came by to see what was going on and to try to earn some tips by offering assistance. I got going again with Patrick whom came back for me when he realized I wasn't in the peleton and with Rémy who had a flat on the start line and just caught up as I was finishing fixing my chain. We went along at a comfortably quick pace which in retrospect was a great way to spend the day. Now out of the desert and into the fertile and populated band surrounding the Nile, we were bombarded with "Hello!" "Hi" "Welcome" and the inevitable "Money, money, money,..." from what felt like thousands of people on either side of the road for the entire ~60km between my chain failure and Luxor. I can only imagine how alien we must look to them using things that they don't see often like sunglasses, bikes under 50lbs. and colourful spandex. Poor Dean, our mechanic who manned the lunch table alone had a large gaggle of ~20 kids around constantly asking for money or food from the table. We stopped for a little while to talk to the kids there, took pictures of their asses (there were two donkeys there) and the like. Remi had his multi-tool stolen from his under-seat bag without any of us noticing. We made the feeble attempt at spanning the language crevasse using the few Arabic words we know to ask who may have taken it. That was when the men with rifles yelled something at the kids and they all took off. Oh well, it was only a multi-tool.
We have our first rest day tomorrow in Luxor and we have some tours planned of the Valley of the Kings (incl. King Tut's tomb), Valley of the Queens and other historic sights. We only have two more riding days in Egypt, then we finally get to put the knobby tires on and hit the "roads" of Sudan. I am very excited for that since cruising at 40km/h along pavement doesn't make for too much challenge.
Next time from the sands of the Nubian desert (well, figuratively of course)
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Getting to the start line is half the challenge!
The whole group at the start line in front of the pyramids.
Arrived in Safaga tied for 2nd on the day. I'm camping on this beach on the Red Sea!
I had planned to post long before now, too many other things on my plate! I'll put them in point form to help out:
- Even though I have been preparing for this trip for months, it still came down to a sprint to get to the airport in time. I didn't even have time for a shower. Sad really. I still managed to get there with everything necessary. Thanks for the ride Linda!
- I had a fun walk around Amsterdam for the day on my 12 hour layover. What a cool city. It was a very appropriate stop over before this trip since there are bicycles everywhere! That was great to see a city that thrives on the bicycle!
- I arrived in Cairo and was VERY happy to find that all of my baggage had arrived safely and with me. I payed way too much to get a taxi downtown and stayed in some dodgy hotel, but found a cool roof-top hostel for the next couple of nights.
- Walking around Cairo was absolutely hilarious. Apparently traffic laws were only adopted in 2000 so there is very little order to the madness. I walked around and saw many streets and markets around downtown. I felt like I slowly started to blend in and got to watch life in Cairo from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. ...well, blending in as much as someone with an orange shirt and a Salomon pack-vest can blend in that is.
- Bikes are well used around Cairo. I saw one guy cycling with a 6 foot ladder on his head and both hands on the handlebars. I saw so many riding with a gargantuan basket of pita bread on their head and weaving their way through the insanity that is Cairo traffic. Too cool!
- I finally made out to the hotel from which we were starting the day before the Tour. It was very strange to all of a sudden be around gear, fancy bikes and people whom are not trying to sell you something. It took me a little bit to adapt to that. I got to get on my bike and try it and my legs out since I wouldn't dare venture out on my bike in downtown traffic! The bike felt awesome; I was extremely excited to get started!
- My alarm didn't work and we didn't get a wake-up call so myself and another Canadian rider had to get ready to leave on our bikes in all of about ten minutes. Gong-show! continued!
- We rode to the pyramids and had an opening ceremony on a plateau overlooking the great pyramids. Pretty special!
- We convoyed out of town and the Police closed down the east-bound lanes of a four-lane freeway for us. A little extreme, but appreciated.
- Once out of town, the convoy was stopped and the race started. I pulled myself instantly back from the peleton and rode at a comfortably quick pace with some others for the first day of ~120km. I was a little tired, but overall felt pretty good. We camped by the side of the road in the desert; what a strange landscape!
- The next day was a big day at 170km. The stage started downhill so the peleton stayed together for much longer. We were still ~15 strong all the way to lunch at 90km. We then dropped down to a group of four and slowly dwindled to the finish line where I finished 6th on the day. With the massive tail wind and the beautiful scenery of the Red Sea beside us, that was by far the easiest (and likely fastest with an average speed of 35.6km/h!) 170km I have ever done.
- The following day was a shorter day at 140km: fast, fast, fast! The whole day was along the red sea and the wind was pounding at our backs. I averaged 44km/h over the whole distance! Though the landscape is pretty barren, the few people that we do see wave with a tonne of enthusiasm.
- Today was another fast day. I decided that since the landscape was going to be the same, this would be my last racing day with the peleton so I started with the front in mind. The incredible tail wind was there again on this 110km shorter stage. A group of four of us broke off of the front but were unable to catch a Swiss rider that broke off early in the day. We hit 85km/h on a very slight downhill; a testament to the tailwinds! We ended up with a five way tie for 2nd place on the day.
- Tomorrow we head uphill back toward the Nile. The day starts with a 40km long sustained climb. I will probably stop for more pictures along the way.
- I have been getting to know the riders and there are some amazing people here! There is a blind Kenyan rider that is doing the whole tour on a tandem bike. They are extremely fast! There is a South African rider that has never ridden more than 25km in his life and many others that bought their first mountain bike for this tour. There is a South African girl that only found out about the tour on December 27, 2006 and she is here! The list goes on. Every single rider here has a pretty unique story and though we are all looking for something different out of this tour, we all have the same goal of cycling our way toward Cape Town!
There is the extremely shortened version of what has been going on so far. Thanks to a long line of extremely generous donors, I have raised $1600USD toward the Tour d'Afrique Foundation. Many thanks!
Now in Safaga for the night, I'll go back to my tent on the beach of the Red Sea and sip my soup from the bar. Not bad!
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