Desert Days

No consistent connections for the last ten days. We are now in Gondar in northern Ethiopia. By happenstance I see that it is February 14, Valentine’s Day. It should be Saint Valentine’s I suppose. Not a figure of importance here, in this predominantly ancient Orthodox community (not a Valentine’s card to be seen anywhere), although, as I write I hear the call of the muezzin, so ever present until we crossed the Sudanese border yesterday moving into a world that within the space of a few metres is utterly different.

We left Dongolo on the 4th of February heading south to Khartoum. We had three long cycling days ahead of us, close to 150 kms each day, crossing the Nubian desert. I check the weather report; it notes dryly that temperatures are unseasonably hot. This translates into highs in the mid-40s C (110+F). We get through the first day reasonably well, setting up our tents at Dead Camel Camp site. Not a camp site in the normal way: a patch of desert in the middle of which rests the desiccated skull, skin and bones of a camel, as if mummified and only just removed from a pillaged pyramid or burial mound. There is nothing else. No water; no shelter other than our tents and the canopy of the TDA truck under which we huddle for a bit of shade.

The shock comes on the second day. We wake to fierce 30kmh headwinds. We struggle to unrig our tents, pack, eat and get ready to hit the road by first light. I have to be up by 4:30 am at the latest to decamp. Within a couple of hours the temperature has soared; it is the wind, harsh, relentless, pushing us back at every pedal stroke that threatens to defeat us. This invisible, near silent force conjures up the terrible Old Testament story: god has sent Moses back to Egypt across the desert; but in one terrifying moment the deity sweeps out of the void, a fierce wind, to slay his messenger. Moses is saved by the precipitous actions of his wife, Zipporah flinging a blood offering to the desert god. What, I wonder, could I offer up to appease such a power. There is nothing to offer. Ours is no condemnatory god; it is a natural force indifferent to our fate; we may as well be as the grains of sand or the rocks in the desert.

We have neither the wit nor knowledge of centuries of negotiating our lives in wind and heat and sand to deal with our circumstance; there is something ludicrous in the sight of us in our fancy gear and bikes trundling through this unforgiving landscape as if on a day trip in the English countryside. Yet we persist. It is a hard coming and I think of those lines in The Journey of The Magi lifted from Lancelot Andrewes magnificent Christmas Day sermon of 1622:

“A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp….And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came.”

The Magi came driven by a star and a vision. They were making pilgrimage to usher in a new dawn, a new age, a new era. What is the nature of our pilgrimage, for even if we never set off thinking in this way, some unspoken sense of purpose, beyond our conscious awareness, drives us on through days that lead us to exhaustion and worse.

Those days in the desert saw more than a few of us, seemingly the strongest, stricken with heat stroke that even threatened life. We pushed on. I had my limits stopping at half days, even then each close to 80 kms. On the first of the half days, a truck driver stops two kilometers from lunch camp to offer me a lift. I am in two minds, it’s only such a short distance but I am staggering and I accept the offer. He opens the back of his pick-up and I am delighted to see that my bike will nestle with two goats (and one battered car).

On the second of the half days, there is no reprieve but I stop about half-hour from camp for a man wrapped in the long white robes of the region, head swaddled in the keffiyeh that protects against heat and sun. He is standing by a dilapidated mud hut with his bundles waiting for a ride. He gestures to me for water. I pass him a bottle I have, small recompense for the hospitality we have been shown all along our way. He is grateful and waves me to his hut wishing to feed me. I try to explain as best I can that I must move on, but mainly I do not want to offend him by refusing a meal that might consist of meat which I don’t eat. That night lying in my tent thinking of these hard days and yet I knew that this is where I wanted to be. A pilgrimage whose purpose I have yet to discover.