|Title:||"end of the road, part two" - "flying dutchmen"|
|Location:||wadi halfa, sudan (189 m)|
|Text:||55 041 kilometres on the road
the first part of the road was surprisingly good; a slightly rough gravel road, going over small hills, past jagged mountains and through small villages. we reached abri much earlier than anticipated and decided to continue driving as far as we could get before noon.
just before we started our engines two beautiful women came from a house with cups of water and a plate full of dates for us. with a sudden feeling of pain i realized that we would soon reach wadi halfa and that all this would all be over. i have come to love this region with its wonderful people - i could spend weeks here, going from village to village, swim in the nile and sleep under the stars.
the road through the desert to wadi halfa, from where a ferry would take us to egypt, had become like a lifeline; a string of villages and small towns who's names on the map had taken shape by descriptions and details, provided by people on the road: "get fuel at delgo", "watch out for soft sand after wawa...", "...and for terrible corrugation around bir". "get water at akasha", "don't sleep between atiri and wadi halfa because of man-eating hyenas"; dangers, road conditions, short-cuts and temples, all described, repeated and eventually confirmed.
we reached akasha at noon. it had been a hard ride on a frustratingly corrugated road that shook us to the bone and the bikes to the bolts. akasha was not much more that a stopping point for trucks with a workshop, and some places to eat; a wild, wind-blown village on the top of the hill where rough-looking, bearded, men in turbans sat in the shade, drinking tea. we joined a group of them and took a rest. in the late afternoon we'd drive for another two hours and then sleep in the desert. wadi halfa could wait until tomorrow.
as usual a group of curious men prevented us from dozing by asking endless questions about our countries, the size of our engines and about the value of the bikes. when they expressed respectful disbelieve for our difficult journey i told them about a truly tough biker who would hopefully soon arrive in akasha: masa, our japanese friend on his tiny honda "gorilla". we had often thought about him, hoping that he was fine, sometimes doubting that his bike would make it though these rough parts of northern sudan.
"aah, mister masa!" one man said to my surprise, "mister masa has slept here last nigh and left akasha in the early morning". i couldn't believe my ears, there must have been a misunderstanding. but other men confirmed the unbelievable: masa had actually overtaken us and was already on the way to wadi halfa! i looked at mauro and, without much of a word, we started packing our bikes and left. "masa," we said, "what a tough little fellow. he must have been driving ten hours a day without a break!"
the road after akasha was terrible. the corrugation was sometimes so extreme that it nearly threw my bike off the track. we were often forced to slow down to mere twenty or thirty kilometres per hour and the vibration was nearly unbearable. i became numb and tired and i saw the way ahead as in a dream, as if delirious, it was superbly appalling.
the trip started to remind me of a familiar nightmare. i felt like going through a long tunnel towards a light that seemed to move further away with each step. the closer we got to wadi halfa the more obstacles seemed to be put into our way and the worse the road seemed to get. the town's name developed a mystical quality, became a mantra, was a fata morgana and felt like a brutal hoax: the punishment for the overly curious. it reminded me of unresolved miracles of the past, sought-for and unapproachable like timbuktou, the destiny of the niger or the source of the nile; a modern prester john.
when i hoped for a smoother surface, and less vibration, i was swiftly rewarded with soft sand, so deep and powdery that i instantly whished myself back on the washing board, which usually punished me by promptly reappearing.
in the middle of nowhere we bumped into ichiro. we had first met in khartoum and now he was travelling north in a caravan of three trucks that had stopped on the side of the road to take a break. "only sixty more kilometres!" he told us. we were getting closer; the end of my tunnel drew nearer.
we said goodbye and drove on. "sixty kilometres," i thought, "we're getting there! we'll make it!" just as i thought of cold drinks and a refreshing shower the bike started to react strangely; it felt wobbly and out of control: i had a flat back tire. this was not just a puncture. it was the first puncture on my trip, the first since leaving switzerland almost three years ago and the first after driving more than 55'000 kilometres on african roads. cruel destiny had chosen a good spot to punish me for being too confident. i was back in the middle of my tunnel, the light at the end now hardly visible and the image of wadi halfa dissolved from the screen of my imagination. i thought "cheers, mr. murphy!" and went to work. mauro and i managed to change the inner tube within less than twenty minutes, quite an achievement, thank you, mauro!!!
we were now in the inhospitable region where an american biker had been eaten by hyenas a couple of years ago - not a good place to spend the night. it was a rough landscape of huge rocks, blackened by the sun and sharp-edged. they were piled up to hills, the size of ten-story houses, palaces of the desert, forgotten toys of giants. the heat was unbelievable. we had been drinking all day without ever going to the toilet. and there was no sweat as all moisture evaporated directly from the skin. we drove on and counted: another forty kilometres, thirty, twenty and then we saw it: the minaret of wadi halfa's mosque and the nile as it entered lake nasser; the end of the tunnel.
it was late and the sun drew closer to the horizon as we drove down a road that seemed to go directly towards into town. it teased us by turning off east and leading around a small mountain before approaching wadi halfa again from a different angle. then it turned east again and went straight back into the desert. the town disappeared behind another mountain and soon we were alone, back out in nowhere. judging from the map we could only have been on another road that approached wadi halfa from the east. but where was our road?
i nearly cried. i couldn't believe it! we were completely exhausted and had been merely hanging on the handlebars, waiting for the nightmare to end. we drove a couple of kilometres back in vain hope to find the solution to the mystery but there was no other road to be found. the sun slipped over the horizon and we were alone in the approaching darkness. the tunnel of my childhood had, once again, taken control. the light at the end had disappeared.
then the three trucks arrived. they seemed to come out of nowhere, materializing form a cloud of dust that was glowing orange in the proceeding sunset. they seemed unreal in the light of the evening, as if slightly hovering above the ground, the wheels invisible in the dust. they approached us slowly and ghostlike, apparently silent to my numb ears. they glided by like flying dutchmen of the desert. we met blank stares from the passengers who were looking right through us from dull, pale faces. it sent a shiver down my spine: "where they real?"
we followed our saviours in a cloud of dust, holding on to our handlebars, no longer caring about the constant rattling from the corrugation. the smell of dust was in my nose and i was crunching sand between my teeth, i didn't care. we had been on the right road all the time but it made an enormous loop around wadi halfa before entering it from the other side. there was a check-point where i mechanically handed my passport to an officer who told me a lot of things i didn't care to hear.
then we followed instructions that finally led to a group of hotels near the port. i stopped the engine and collapsed over the handle bar. i was too tired to get off the bike so i just sat there, exhausted but relieved, we had made it. masa came out of the shadows with two bottles of sprite in his hands and a broad grin on his face. good old masa! he had heard our engines and had come to look for us.
a bit later ichiro arrived from his truck and we all shared a room in a run-down hotel whose pressed-board walls were stapled into a wooden frame, swinging forth and back with the slightest breeze. it was an ugly, dirty and smelly place, the kind you would expect in a sleazy harbour town, but nobody cared. after a small meal we all collapsed on our cheap mattresses and fell asleep. i stayed in my tunnel that night, looking for the light, searching the exit, unable to comprehend that i had arrived.