Many people who have not visited the Sudan (and who have not spoken to anyone who has) have a preconceived notion that it is a dangerous country; one of those ‘bad countries’ like perhaps Afghanistan or Somalia, where terrorism runs rampant and where westerners get themselves killed. Although there are parts of the country (notably Darfur in the west and the area bordering South Sudan) where security is an issue, the vast majority of the country is perfectly safe, and the danger areas are easily avoided.
I cycled through Sudan in February 2019, just before the start of the recent revolution, and I never felt remotely threatened anywhere in the country. I felt completely safe, and I was welcomed by the Sudanese people wholeheartedly and quickly fell in love with the country. It is very telling that I have never even heard of someone who has been to Sudan and come away feeling otherwise. The Sudanese really are some of the kindest and most gentle people you could hope to meet anywhere. All the more heart-breaking what has happened to them over the years. Sometimes the worst things happen to the best people.
Cycling through Sudan and crossing the Sahara today is a far cry from the challenge it might have been twenty or thirty years ago. A high quality paved road, built by the Chinese, runs all the way through from Wadi Halfa in the north down to the Ethiopian border in the south. Towns, villages and roadhouses dot the route, so it is rarely more than forty or fifty kilometres between resupply points, and water is freely available at each of these, stored in clusters of large clay pots. The longest stretch I had between resupply was only 180km, which was easily managed.
Coming from Egypt; loud, fast, money obsessed and frustrating, Sudan was an enormous relief. No-one was trying to rip me off, I didn’t have to argue with the police and the people were wonderfully relaxed. I could walk down the street or sit in a cafe without getting hassled. People were very friendly, just as they were in Egypt, but they were far more polite and respectful about it. The vastly reduced population density was also a blessing, and it was a joy to be able to camp again.
Those unused to wild camping might be frightened by the idea of sleeping alone in the Sahara, but I have rarely felt safer or more at ease than I did there, cocooned in the vast protective emptiness of the desert. I felt enormously privileged to be there and to have it all to myself. Every night I would lie back, looking up at an ocean of stars and listening to the incredible silence of the sands. Wild camping alone in the Sahara ranks among the best experiences of my life.
Riding through deserts is always interesting, despite or perhaps because it is generally devoid of anything interesting to see. Lacking visual incentives, you have to retreat into your own mind for stimulation. Vast distances and the limitations of bicycle speed mean you have days on end with nothing to do but think. A lot of people would probably say that sounds awful, but I think that time with yourself is an essential which modern society has wrongfully come to fear. Life is so fast paced now, with so many distractions. When was the last time you had a whole day to yourself just to think?
I like deserts, and I value the opportunity to get to know myself better. Cycling through becomes almost a meditative exercise. There is a reason that three of the world’s five major religions originated in desert regions. It is not always zen-like of course; riding through sandstorms isn’t much fun and if the wind is against you it can seem like the worst thing in the world, but desert cycling is always an experience, for better or worse.
Putting aside the beauty of the Sahara, things were not at all well in Sudan when I was there, and had not been for many years. The common misapprehension as to the 'evils' of Sudan is due almost entirely to the actions of the Sudanese government under their long standing president, Omar al-Bashir. Since coming to power in 1989, al-Bashir has run the country into the ground and facilitated the appalling genocide in Darfur which has left hundreds of thousands of innocents dead. Al-Bashir’s support for extremist groups also meant that for many years Sudan was on the US anti-terror watch list. Corruption has been rife and Sudan has fallen ever deeper into poverty.
Many Sudanese people spoke sadly to me about what has happened to their country. While politicians line their pockets, doctors and lawyers in Sudan’s capital of Khartoum are having to drive taxis to supplement their income. Some of those that can, leave; emigrating to Saudi Arabia or Europe in search of better prospects. But many more cannot leave, lacking the resources to do so or tied in place by dependent families. For them, there is little hope for a future beyond a life of hovering just barely above the breadline.
Such has been the reality in Sudan for years, with little change, but December 2018 saw the start of a wave of protests that slowly gained in momentum, brought about initially by a sharp rise in basic living costs such as the price of bread. After cycling across the Sahara, I found myself in Khartoum on 22nd February 2019 when al-Bashir declared a state of emergency, effectively granting the military full control of the country. Sudanese people I spoke to at the time were angry and disheartened, but also determined not to give up. The protests continued after I left Sudan, until finally on 11th April 2019 the military removed al-Bashir from power.
I was elated when I heard the news. Sudanese people are generally very calm, relaxed and low energy, partly perhaps because of the extreme desert heat, so it was remarkable that the protests were able to continue for so long, and it was testament to how bad the situation had become. With al-Bashir gone there was so much hope for Sudan; hope for a liberal civilian government and a better future. I desperately wanted that for Sudan, and there finally seemed to be a be a real chance.
Two months later, that hope was hanging by a thread. The military council had shown its true colours and over a hundred people had been murdered in Khartoum. Women had been raped, and people in the city feared for their lives at the hands of the ‘Rapid Support Forces’, a continuation of the brutal ‘Janjaweed’ militias which gained worldwide notoriety for their numerous atrocities and crimes against humanity in carrying out the genocide in Darfur. The Janjaweed were involved in the murders of between 100,000 – 400,000 civilians, raping countless women and gaining a reputation for extreme cruelty. Those same forces had been unleashed in Khartoum under the control of the military government, which was still refusing to surrender power to the people.
After weeks of further uncertainty, a power sharing agreement was finally reached just this week between the civilian leaders and the Transitional Military Council. It remains to be seen whether this will work out or whether the military will betray their word, but it is a huge step forward, and I still have hope that, after decades of strife, this could be the start of a bright new future for Sudan and its people. Few deserve it more. In Arabic they say “Inshallah”, meaning, “if God wills it.” I pray with all my heart that it is so.