Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Amazing results of Tour d'Afrique Foundation donations and Canada.com article; exciting stuff!
Two sections and 3500km done!
If I stopped in a village, people would crowd to this density 270° around...just to look
These kids were watching us eat dinner, then without cue started singing and dancing in unison like they had rehearsed it. These are the same kids that throw rocks, obviously it is not malicious.
The amazing Blue Nile Gorge! ~1300m deep which we climbed over ~20km on gravel roads. Incredible!
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Bahr Dar, Ethiopia...so much to report!
Stunning mountain view from my tent door. The picture just doesn't do it justice
The girl who tried to jump on my bike so I could bike her back to Canada, and she wasn't the only one. I honestly tried, but my mountain bike is really only designed for one (Photo: Rémy Benois)
Typical lunch scene. The locals love staring at us so we put up orange ropes around the site so we are not mobbed. I can only imagine what we look like to them.
I can't believe how much has happened and changed since my last update. Where to begin?! Firstly, happy Valentine's Day! This is good for some more point form I think.
- Had a good rest day in Khartoum. It is a special city because it has the amenities of a bigger city, but because of the amazing nature of the Sudanese it has a small town feel. Cycling through traffic and over the Nile to the market, camping beside the well-defined line showing the confluence of the Blue and White Nile (of note: apparently Ethiopia has been dry lately and Uganda a little wetter and as such the confluence of the rivers has moved eastward), sitting enjoying my felafel watching the life of the city pass by, being treated to an evening out by the Sudanese Cycling Federation a the curiously fancy "Police Home" were some highlights here.
- The three days leaving Khartoum saw me catch a bug that has been making its way around the riders (typically happens every year around this time) and just completing the distance every day was challenging.
- The scenery slowly changed from the desert that we had become accustomed to toward more greenery and light hills in the terrain.
- Since we turned eastward, our tail winds became cross winds. One morning an extremely strong gust blew a half dozen riders in the lead peleton (including myself due to my location at the time) completely off the road. I wanted to take the picture of a pack of riders all leaning about ten degrees to the left to offset the wind, but I really didn't want to take a paw off my handlebar.
- Being in a different tribe's region, the housing turned from the mud-packed huts and homes toward grass huts. Very picturesque!
- With more greenery around, we actually began to see wildlife! Until now we have only seen domestic animals, but now the air is alive with sounds of wild animals.
- With more moisture around, the evenings have been significantly warmer and the days have felt far hotter due to the humidity. I had ridden the vast majority of the tour in tights and long sleeves, but now I have broken down and regularly wear shorts and short sleeves (complimented by plenty of 30spf sunscreen of course!).
- Roads were paved all the way from Khartoum to about 10km before the Ethiopian border at Metema.
- I understood that the last day in the Sudan was to be paved with little to see along the side of the road and since my health had returned, I went for a race day. The short story is that two riders broke away at 5km and myself and two other riders hung on. After another 45km of high pace riding, the two tour leaders broke going down a hill and my mountain gears struggled to keep up with the 70km/h pace they set, but I hung on. The three of us worked together until 140km when a few attacks started. I held on until about 2km to go when the anaerobic nature of the now unpaved roads dropped me back. I came in 1 minute behind the first two riders who had to sprint through a heard of cattle that was in the process of immigrating into Ethiopia.
- The first two days in Ethiopia were tough, but absolutely amazing! The first day was 95km of gravel roads that ended with what I would have called a long climb up to our camp. We climbed to an elevation of about 2300m and the views of the mountains were beautiful!
- Most riders found the day pretty tough and more and more riders were catching the bug going around so unfortunately many elected to ride the truck the following 114km day over the same roads with far more climbing. Though it was a challenging day with a cumulative elevation gain of about 2400m, the views and the feeling of accomplishment was fantastic! Highlights of the day were the fun descents to start the day, the 18km long climb where I used my granny gear for the first time and occasionally dropped below 5km/h, seeing huge amounts of locals walking up the mountain to the village of Aykel carrying the fruits of their labour (produce, lumber, whatever else they could sell) over huge distances (I estimate up to 8km) up massive elevations, stopping in a village to purchase some bananas and instantly having a crowd of ~30-40 curious people around, having one local girl try to set me up with her friend only to turn jealous and wanted me to take her to Canada on my bicycle (she tried to get on my seat until she realized that it almost reached her shoulder, then she got on my top tube. I tried to pedal away, but...well it just wasn't going to work), climbing up to our mountain top hotel (no exaggeration) in Gonder to conclude the amazing day were just some of the highlights. I took it easy over the day but didn't doddle and still didn't make it to camp until 5:00pm. Incredible!
- Two rest days in Gonder. Our Ethiopian contact tried to organize a flight to Lalibela, but didn't have success so offered a hiking trip to the Simian mountains, but there were not enough takers so we stayed around Gonder.
- I didn't send and update from Gonder because the internet was just not going to work for me...sorry!
- Did some errands, saw the town, had a blast having the locals make fun of us, recovered from some residual sickness, some food poisoning (a little too much local water in the amazing avocado juice I had...it was worth it!), and the previous days of riding.
- We only had two days of riding from Gonder to here in Bahr Dar where we get another rest day. Many people are still recovering from some sickness, so this is a welcome rest. Though the roads have been paved, the views and the climbing have still been awesome!
Tonight: the P-party! We are to come dressed as anything that starts with P. Tonight I will be the Patriotic Peddler with all of my Canadian garb and tattoos. Mission: make an a** out of myself!
...well more than usual!
Impressions of the Sudan
The real jewel of the Sudan, the Sudanese!
The biggest thing to mention here is the people:
- The Sudanese people really are amazing. The whole time in the country I always felt welcome. The only exception...see below
- It seems to be in their culture to offer to strangers/travellers what you can. While travelling along I lost count of the number of times I was offered tea and/or food.\
- The most stunning example of their generous tendencies is that on multiple occasions I was offered Sudanese currency (the Dinar) by children less than 10 years old. These are people that really don't have that much in the way of money, and they wanted to give it to a complete stranger. (aside: yes, the joke was made later that they wanted to give me money so I could buy some clothes, my bike shorts not hiding much)
- After being accustomed to haggling in Egypt, I quickly found that it is not done as much in the Sudan. People set their prices and that is where they stood. I like it.
- On the side of the road there were many who went nuts when we went by. This time it was not because they wanted money or sweets, but rather they ran out to greet us because they were just really curious!
- People seemed generally curteous to each other; not just us weird looking tourists.
- Though there were times when there was a great deal of traffic passing us by, the drivers were extremely curteous. Large trucks in the midst of long journeys (we were cycling along the road from Khartoum to Port Sudan) would wait patiently until they had plenty of room to pass our entire group. We were often honked at, but it was generally accompanied by a big smile and a wave from the vehicle's window.
- Great people, great people
- Unfortunately, I cannot paint as rosy of a picture under this subsection. To summarize, the rich are rich and the poor are happy.
- At check points of various types (border crossings, police check points, etc.) we were made to perform trivial tasks for questionable reason. We had to make sure that every single piece of luggage including our bikes got a sticker on them and were subjected to a 5 minute speech about how important this was (no exaggeration) and they were never looked at again. We were all asked to pay a $50USD fee per person at the border to "register with the police." Other travellers were asked to pay $35USD. Our tour organizers were asked for our passports numerous times throughout our journey for police registrations and occasionally asked for fees, but we got away with just showing our passports. Our gear truck was stopped at police checkpoints and asked for passports and money, but the driver is used to this and always talked his way out of it.
- Throughout the country, we generally had to keep our cameras concealed. Pictures of anything remotely government related (bridges, airports, large buildings, even roads) was not permitted. A few riders almost lost their cameras.
- From Khartoum to the border, we were joined by some riders from the Sudanese Cycling team; this was very cool! This also meant that some politicians followed us and took every possible opportunity to make a long speech saying anything from "thanks for coming through the Sudan" to "we are peaceful people" to "spend more money in the Sudan" to "here are a bunch of charities that you should tell your home countries about" to "tell the media in your home countries that we are peaceful people" with emphasis on us going back to our home countries and setting our media straight on what sort of people we saw in the country.
- Apparently the magazine "The Economist" ranked the Sudan as the 3rd most corrupt country in the world. From my position I cannot really judge this, but it is unfortunate that a nation of such friendly people is under such leadership.
Overall, travelling through this country was amazing! Thanks Sudan!
Saturday, February 03, 2007
Sensational Sudan Nearly Complete!
The Sudanese Cycling Team posing with our mechanic and the tandem bike of Douglas and Joash, a blind rider and his pilot from Nairobi, Kenya
I had a great day doing some washing, then wandering around Dongola. I enjoyed some freshly pressed mango juice, then some flame broiled chicken and wandered around the dusty streets, waving to the locals looking curiously at what was walking down the street before them. I enjoy the challenge of trying to convey what I am trying to say to very confused locals. I really do feel bad for not knowing more of the local language, but locals seem to get entertainment from the interpretive dance I end up doing to try to supplement the few words I do know in Arabic.
We left Dongola in a convoy and off into the desert we rode. Now on the west side of the Nile, we are in the eastern extents of the famous Sahara desert. I was expecting another five days of some rough roads, but it turned out to be two days of riding on roads in various states of construction and three days of riding chiefly on paved roads with some sections still under construction. I found this a little unfortunate since I was looking forward to the challenge of the tough roads and heat that the Sudan has offered previous Tour d'Afrique riders, but accepted it and rode with my slicks on for the the last three days.
Most days, I have started with the pack just to get warmed up and let some kilometres pass with the fast-moving group, then happily dropped off when the pace surged with attacking racers. From there, I enjoyed a combination of riding easily on my own, riding easily with others, watching the scenery pass by continually repeating "wow, I really am riding in the Sahara", stopping and quietly taking pictures while enjoying the sounds of the desert communities, stopping with some groups of locals and doing my best to have a "conversation", riding peacefully with one other rider enjoying the scenery and pointing out interesting observations to each other, enjoying good conversation between riders, and of course there are the more off the wall stories!
Riding along one day along a sandy road, we went to go up and over an irrigation canal stemming from the life-blood Nile out to the depths of the desert and noticed a bike helmet on the other side. We wondered why Tom V. (Canadian) had stopped until we rose slightly more to be greeted with about 50 camel heads! We quickly stepped aside since we had already spooked the heard and gave them right of way over the narrow bridge.
Another day we were riding along in a larger group (about ten of us) and noticed a great deal of action happening about 50m off the road. We decided to go and check it out and came across two families concurrently getting water from a large communal well. They would drop the bucket down the well and fill it, then attach the rope to a donkey with a small child on top, then the donkey would tow the water up from the depths. Repeat process...until we showed up. Before we knew it, we were hauling up the water whilst the donkeys had a well deserved rest and drink from their share of the water. We let them ride our bikes, they put a rider up on a camel and took her for a ride, we helped them hitch their water tank cart to their donkey, we played the "take your picture and show it to them on the back of the camera" game, all the mean while they were laughing their heads off and having a great time! We can only wonder what they were thinking when a gang of spandex-clad foreigners came over and started hauling their water up, but we hope that this particular day will be a water-fetching experience to remember!
One evening there was a particularly large hill behind our site, so a couple of us trudged up to the top of the ~30 vertical metre rise. The vastness of the desert was that much more apparent from atop the hill. Aside from the similar hilly features that dotted one side of the landscape, the horizon was the only limit to the vast dry landscape that was before us. Small bushes here in there somehow managed to draw whatever small quantity of water the surrounding sand would present to keep a light green tinge upon its thorny branches. The wind scoured and packed most patches of the landscape and deposited its dust on the leeward sides of any features (including all of our gear of course) in delicately carved smooth and wavy lines. The desert is a beautiful place!
The people we have come across have been great! Everyone has been very courteous, kind and very friendly! Unlike in Egypt where every time you answer the "where are you from?" question with Canada you got a response of "Canada Dry" and requests for tips for their witty lines, you are greeted with more curiosity, more questions, more smiles, more and more handshakes requests to have you take pictures of them, offers of tea and/or food and general good spirit.
The other night we were treated to a few speeches from some fellow riders about the fund-raising initiatives they have created by pedalling along with us. The stories of time, effort, energy and resources backed by their commitment of pedalling across this continent were going to causes that put back into the countries here that would like help, however too-large organizations are not efficient enough with their funds to reach the more needing cases, a rider dissatisfied by a career of selling high-tech equipment to people that have now using his marketing talents to get a list of corporations to help him build a school, medical facilities and other growing initiatives in a community that we will pass through in Zambia, a rider who lost a friend to ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) a number of years ago pledged that he would ride this tour to raise funds and awareness for this fatal and cureless disease were some of the presentations we were given. Many others have their own initiatives including the one off of this website doing our best to help this land that we are quietly rolling over with our 2-cylinder glycogen-powered vehicles.
Today, we had a short time trial of 18km followed by an escorted entry into Khartoum. What was really neat about it was that the Sudanese Cycling Team assisted in blocking traffic for us as we wound through the busy streets of the sprawling city. Talking with them, they were very enthusiastic to help us out. When we arrived at our camp, the President of the Sudanese Cycling federation and the General Secretary of Sport in the Sudanese government both offered speeches welcoming us to their country and to their capital city. I was very taken aback by their deep appreciation for our presence in their country. They both repeatedly mentioned that we should bring back exactly what we have seen in their country to the media of our home countries. They wanted the message to be spread around the world's media that Sudan is not a country of terrorists, but rather a country of peaceful, friendly people as we have witnessed.
My original goals of accomplishing the athletic challenge whilst enjoying the local cultures, helping improve local lives through Tour d'Afrique Foundation fundraising initiatives and hopefully proliferating the bicycle as an alternative to combustion-powered transportation are in the works. I am now realizing that simply our presence here and our group's collective willingness to press down on a pair of bike pedals across the continent is potentially opening up an entirely new set of doors.
From here, I get to wake up tomorrow morning to my tent's view of the confluence of the Blue and White Nile (as shown by a solid line of white sediment entering the Blue Nile's stream; quite stunning!) and then get to saunter around the city for the day taking in its unique sights and sounds, then back on the bikes en route to Ethiopia. Only five riding days left in Sudan. Too bad!
...oh yeah, to close this raging report off, yes the rumour is true, I did crack my bike frame. Uh-oh. It is okay, potential solutions are at hand!
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