Riding the Storm – The Atbara Desert Story

Ted Simon said in his infamous book “Jupiter’s Travels;”

“The one thing I thought would separate me from mortal men was my single handed crossing of the Atbara desert.”

I’d been trying to cross the deserts in Egypt, but was held up by a lack of permits, red tape, and officials pointing to other officials who pointed me to Alamein, Alexandria, Cairo, one dead end after another.  As well, I hadn’t actively decided to cross them, so hadn’t planned anything.  But then I re-read about Atbara and the planning began.

I finally reached Atbara, in North East Sudan, after a whole 2 weeks covering the 300miles to the capital, Khartoum, along with a bright orange VW camper full of Dutch and a Peugeot Camper van containing a French couple and their four year old daughter Lola.

There’s a police control point in the road and I fear here, like in Egypt, I’ll be told to go back.  When I reach the officer beside the road, the officer rises from his chair and asks my destination, “Goz Regeb” I reply, not wanting to let on to him my actual destination of Kassala, Goz Regeb is near by, but he may not twig that I’m going to the border and this is what may create some problems with my lack of a permit. “Port Sudan?” asks the official looking quizzical, expecting the normal answer. 

“No, no, Goz Regeb”, I repeat.

The official, clearly flummoxed by my variance from the script asks “Wadi Halfa?” The only other key destination, though in another direction.

 “No, GOZ REGEB.” I pronounce more carefully, and slowly, though trying not to sound cocky.

Then, from the shaded murk of the dusty straw police hut comes another, haunting voice,

“Sahaaaaara” he says in a loud whisper, as he leans forward to the window to make his face hauntingly known, hidden as it is in shadow.

The first official lets out an incredulous whistle and, with a broad smile follows this with the somewhat unnerving question “Do you have a gun?!”

Not sure whether to laugh or soil myself I just pull a stupid, ignorant face, hoping to glean more information. “Bandits, warriors, tribal men!!” he exclaims with a murderous laugh. “They will kill you!” he continues, though now no longer laughing and looking rather stern.

“So, which way is it?” I ask.

He tells me the way and wishes me good luck, the haunting man tells me to be careful as he slips back in to the darkness of the hut’s interior and as I move to leave off, clicking into first gear, the first man shakes his head as he walks away “man you crazy.” 

I make my way to the petrol station where I cram as much petrol into the tank as is possible and then fill a gallon oil bottle I find lying around and seal it up, like the locals, with a plastic bag under the lid and then on to the shop, a dusty single room with a dusty single shelf.  I buy everything I can, old chocolate, water as there may be none in the river to filter, biscuits, bread, anything that won’t go off in the heat over the coming days, who knows how long I might take to cross this section.  I have 11litres of water, 13litres of fuel in the tank, 4 extra on the bike plus food for four days and no room to put it.  A couple of locals show up, dressed in dusty white galabeias, skin dry and leathery, sunken cheeks, and tatty, thick, dry grey hair, ask where I’m going, as I move around the bike looking for a chink in the armour that is my luggage, to allow me to get to some space.  After several laps, the locals looking confused I start handing out things I might not need and manage to get he last of the water bottles on. 

“Ma-a salama” I say to the men as I leave, and soon come to a rubbish dump that hammers home a faded memory….rubbish dump, rubbish dump, rubbish dump….I remember Ted Simon mentioning this…remembering his thoughts: Is this it! when he reached this point.  I contemplate for moment that once Ted Simon stood right here, about to embark upon this very journey.  I take a photo….and push on, onto an invisible track, into the desert.


      The Garbage tip, the petrol station in the background.

I get lost instantly and after riding around the few mud houses crumbling in the sun, I ask a farmer and his young son the way.  The only map I have is a digital image on my camera, though Lord knows I tried to get one in Cairo, and as well as this a scrawl of a map in my copy of Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels.  After trying almost all the names on the vague map with the old man, without success, he suddenly points off into the distance to a faint dust cloud, perhaps one kilometre away, a truck apparently.  I give a quick thanks before I lose it and dash off to catch, racing as quick as the little engine and the bike’s meagre suspension can take me.  I make it, pass the truck and progress well despite a few tumbles, managing 80km before the the day’s end, and stop to find camp, not particularly hard in this area of the desert, but one must choose the right spot when so much is on offer.  After a while I find a beautiful spot on the banks of the Atbara river, which is flowing well – I’d expected it to be dry – and kick myself for bringing so much water when I could have easily filtered it.  But, tryign to get pictures of camp I discover my camera was broken in one of my falls earlier in the day.


The track as it started out, before I fell and broke the camera, quite tidy actually.
On the right edge, you can just see the trees lining the river, and showing the way.

The night is dark and quiet, but I sleep uneasily, on my own again after two weeks of having company with the three Dutch guys, backpacking Irish Steve and the French trio. And not just that but also through anxiety, contemplating the route ahead, what will I do should I injure myself, the bike fails, or run out of food, water, petrol, or get lost?  It’s so far.  All I can think about is getting moving again, finding it hard to control my nerves, it’s easier to just be moving, reminding me of my early days in the trip, in France when I was painfully lonely and moving was the easiest, stopping was painful.

I wake early, keen to get miles under my belt. I eat, clean the air filter, adjust the dry chain and crack on. The track deteriorates with every turn of the wheels, but still I feel I progress well, focusing entirely on progress, the best line to take. I lose the track regularly, but begin to gain some confidence in just following the sun and keeping the river in sight to my right, following the tree line. Oddly it appears as if the trees are in the absolute middle of the horizon, and surely I must be riding towards, and not parallel with the river, but I never reach it, it always remains far out of reach.

I fall several times in soft sand, but never badly and the majority of the surface is a mix of small black stone and sand grains. Up ahead, transfixed on the route, I catch a glimpse of a dust tornado, whipping backwards and forwards jerkily moving ever nearer my path far ahead, lifting dirt, stone and sticks high into the sky. As soon as I see it I feel certain that I will meet it, and sure enough I collide with it further up the track and, it seems with it I am transported into a horrific sandstorm.  My helmet is filled by the swirling debris liek a swarm of angry bees, I pull in the clutch and let the bike come to a halt.  I’m instantly distraught to find the view of the river has now vanished and with it all sense of direction.  I look ahead, all I see is sand from ground to sky and twisting to look over my shoulder behind me too, oddly, the same; nothing but sand. 

I press on, now full of panic, trying to keep the ever feint line of tracks beneath me, but soon I lose them, the track, and in over-eagerness to find it again lose the point where I had lost it in the first place. It’s like being in fog, only the road is also made of fog.  Feeling completely hopeless, looking about frantically for signs of the way and traveling numerous dead-ends in a small village I fall badly, the toes of my left foot dig into the soft sand, the heel wedges under the bike’s swingarm but 150kg of motorcycle momentum dictates that the rest of me must continue forward, falling I feel sure my leg will break, jammed underneath, unable to move forward but being pushed ever more so. It twists to an astonishing angle, but miraculously does not break and, though painful I consider myself incredibly lucky lying amongst a tree on the sand.

I follow a track which takes me to a hut, and find a woman battling to collect her flock of goats in the frenzy of sand and sticks, a huge ring pierced through her lip, or nose, so big difficult to tell. I ask her the way, but she points angrily away, but who can blame her, seeing a white man appear through the sand must have been an eerie sight.

I look to the heavens, to the burning sun, shining faintly through the sand and dust.  It can’t be that way I think to myself, but without options I travel in the direction of the sun several times, though each time returning.  Completely spun around with no clue of direction it seems impossible to be that way. I fall numerous times, getting stuck under the bike and having to dig myself out of the soft sand, petrol oozing out of the tank onto my leg, despite the bike’s small stare it is still a clumbersome and heavy lump when down, and falls further horizontal because of its small size. Eventually I decide to stop, take a moment, think this through.  Though I have no watch, I know it must be about midday, the sun must be directly south, if I aim to the sun, I’ll end up at the river which tends south-east on my right. It’s not an easy option as it will see me push further in to this storm, this thing, further in to “lost” but I have no choice I must follow the sun.

Eventually, ridign along doubting myself again and again, wondering if I should turn back, or continue I make it out of the storm and once out of it, looking back there is not even a sign of a storm, the sand is settled and the sky is clear and blue and to my right are the trees of the river, goign on and on to the centre of the horizon.

Feeling more relaxed I feel I deserve a break and some food, I look around at the nothingness of the place and wonder what the heck I would have done if I had have broken my leg. I tell myself to remain calm, think, and take my time, be careful, though it is not long before my inner voice is urging me to press on.

Up ahead, I see sand dunes in the silvery haze on the horizon.  I can’t ride them, not on this bike, with this load, these tyres. I stare at them for a full half hour before I reach them such are the distances compressed, though in the thirty minutes it seems my heart doesn’t make a single beat as I watch the golden dunes grow before me.  Luckily, when I reach them I am able to find a shallow area to get through, and by running alongside the bike and pushing in first gear, dropping it a lot and having to heave and sweat the unwieldy beast back upright I am able to make it through.  But there’s more….

I see a very big set of dunes approaching; they are at once beautiful and terrifying and as I get closer I see some tracks going straight into them.  200m in, the tracks end, punctuated by an abandoned land rover, up to it’s windows in sand.  Not only this, but unlike other dune sets I passed to one side, here I can find no way around. The dunes are huge and seem to be alive and all around me, waiting to gobble me up like the landrover.  I ride up and down the front edge, trying to find a way through. This could be the end of the road. I ride back a few hundred metres, and down to the river, nearby are some huts, made of animal skin, shaped like aardvarks, they look peculiar, alien, but from near here I see some deep vehicle ruts in soft silt, and decide that I have no option but to try that way.  I fall, deep in soft, deep silt, and push and heave, sweating buckets, in first gear, pushing and pushing, panting, fearful, the engine screaming, coming to a point where the view opens up, sand as far as I can see, there is just no way forward.

I stop, panting hard, propping the bike up, for it won’t stand itself in the soft powder.  I can’t do it, I can’t get through. Miraculously, some trucks approach, coming with grain from Kassala, revving hard in a high gear, a truck made for the job it seems.  Men jump out and we talk, they tell me there is no way I can make it, the dunes are too big, too soft I must go in a truck. “Then I must go back” I tell them forlornly. The trucks leave and I stand thinking that this can’t be the end, but also contemplate how I don’t want to go back, back in to the sandstorm. Can I even do it, do I have enough petrol.  A boy arrives on a camel, and though I can’t understand him, I think that he tells me I can do it, I can make it.  He encourages me over towards the river, he grabs a rock to prop the bike.  I take a look with him at a rocky precipice over the river, perhaps that way I consider, but I can see this rocky pat fading narrower and narrower and can only see the dunes rolling on into the far distance. Still he urges me on and he helps clear a path to allow passage to the precipice. I go back to the bike, with little thought I push and heave the bike towards and eventually onto the rock, and with feet flailing for balance, the boy following from up high upon his camel and make it some way up to a point where it looks a trifle hairy, steep and with rocks jutting out at angles, a hike more than a “way.”  I stop, the boy sets his camel down, jumps off and ties its front legs and tells me to take a wash in the river, it will make me feel better he tells me splashing his face.

“I’ve got to get to Kassala!” I tell him in impetuousness. Sod it, I’m not going back and I’m not giving up. The boy talks again, I understand nothing, but again I swear that he is telling me  that I can do it, I can make it, and he smiles with confidence.  Fine, I submit, almost to prove him wrong, in tired submissive defeat, I push on over the vertical rocks, through more sand and eventually find myself, immensely satisfied, not surrounded by dunes any more.  Rather sweaty I look back to the dunes behind me, for the boy without whom I’d never have made it, but when I look back, the boy is gone, I thank God for him and wonder if he was ever there at all?

Now I start to wonder if there are worse dunes to come, or other obstacles, harder, that I have not even contemplated, for now I cannot go back, having travelled too far, having used up more than half my fuel, including my spare.

I stop at a small collection of huts and get, of all things a slightly-less-than-warm coke!  I can’t believe it, but happily partake and sit on old metal bed frames, happily amongst some local men, content with my days progress and pleased with my latest success! I ask where Khor-el-Fil is, the half way point and the point at which Ted Simon hitched a ride in a truck to Goz Regeb. “Last town back,” I am told, as far as I can tell, and this news, that I have ridden what Ted Simon was told and believed impossible, makes me immensely happy.

I stop for the night soon after, realizing how tired I am, I also notice the bike is running terribly, missing, making some strange noises, and barely ticking over. In the morning I check the plug, clean the air filter and check the valves to little effect. Perhaps dirt from the petrol bottle? It’s moving so I’ll carry on, what else can I do?

I ride on with more confidence in the sand, though still falling. I come to a long plateau, riding it fast (for me and my small 125cc YBR at least), forth gear for hours and hours, nearly coming a cropper, somehow managing to catch the violent swing of the bike in a rare patch of soft sand on the plateau as the back wheel bucks out. Then, a great sight, the smooth mountains like ice cream dollops appearing in the dust. I stop for a celebratory jam sandwich, starving as I am and make it into Kassala with barely enough fuel, to be greeted at the petrol station by a large group of children and a taxi driver who congratulates me on my feat. Telling me, in my memory of the day at least, that I am a real man….the same as told to Ted Simon when he too rolled in to the same petrol station, to be greeted by the ancestors perhaps of these very people!

On to Ethiopia.


Taken with my broken camera, approaching Kassala and eating my celebratory Jam sandwich

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BELOW: This is my first draft, so you need read no further, I just don’t want to delete it!!!

I finally reached Atbara, in North East Sudan, the bike crammed with four days supply of food, eleven liters of water, a brimming petrol tank and an extra gallon, I was ready to tackle the 450km stretch of desert to Kassala on the Eritrean border, the route followed by Ted Simon in his epic adventure ‘Jupiter’s Travels’ he said;

The one thing I thought would separate me from mortal men was my single handed crossing of the Atbara desert.

I was shitting myself.

Reaching the police control point I am asked my destination, “Goz Regeb” I reply, not wanting to let on my actual destination of Kassala, as this may turn up some problems with my lack of a permit. “Port Sudan?” asks the official, “No, no, Goz Regeb”, the official, clearly flummoxed by my variance from the script asks “Wadi Halfa?”, “GOZ REGEB”. From the shady murk of the police hut comes another, haunting voice “Sahara” he says (Sahara is Arabic for desert), the first official lets out an incredulous whistle, followed by the unnerving question “Do you have a gun?!”, not sure to laugh or soil myself I just pull a stupid, ignorant face, hoping to glean more information. “Bandits, warriors, tribal men!!” he exclaims with a murderous laugh. “They will kill you!” he continues, though no longer laughing. “So, which way is it?” I ask.

I take a photo of the rubbish dump, signifying the start, Ted Simon stood here I think to myself, remembering his thoughts Is this it?! when reaching this point.

I get lost instantly. I ask a farmer the way, he points to a dust cloud one kilometre away, a truck apparently, I race off to catch it. I progress well, and manage 80km with only two hours riding to do before I stop for the day.

I find a beautiful spot near the river, but sleep uneasily, on my own again after two weeks with the three left hands, Irish Steve and the French trio and of course contemplating the route ahead, what should I do should I injure myself, the bike fails, or run out of food, petrol?

I wake early, keen to get miles under my belt. I eat, clean the air filter, adjust the dry chain and crack on. The track deteriorates with every turn of the wheels, but I progress well, focusing entirely on progress, the best line to take. I lose the track regularly, but begin to gain some confidence in just following the sun and keeping the river in sight to my right. I fall several times in soft sand, but never badly and the majority of the surface is a mix of black stone and sand grains. A dust tornado whips about to my left ahead, lifting dirt, stone and sticks high into the sky. I collide with it further up the track and with it am transported into a horrific sandstorm. The view of the river vanishes and with it all sense of direction. Full of panic I lose the track, and in over-eagerness to find it again lose the point where I had lost it in the first place. Feeling completely hopeless, looking about frantically for signs of the way and traveling numerous dead-ends in a small village I fall badly, the toes of my left foot dig into the soft sand, the heel wedges under the bike’s swingarm but 150kg of motorcycle momentum dictates that the rest of me must continue forward, falling I feel sure my leg will break. It twists to an astonishing angle, but miraculously does not break and, though painful I consider myself incredibly lucky.

I ask a woman battling to collect her flock of goats in the frenzy of sand and sticks, a huge ring pierced through her lip, or nose, so big difficult to tell. She points vaguely to a point I have already tried.

I look to the sun, burning faintly through the sand and dust. It can’t be that way I travel to the sun several times, each time returning, completely spun around with no clue of direction it seems impossible to be that way. I fall again numerous times, getting stuck under the bike and having to dig myself out, petrol oozing out of the tank onto my leg. Eventually I decide I have no choice I must follow the sun and some hours later I find myself in clear air and back on track.

Feeling more relaxed I feel I deserve a break and some food, I look around at the nothingness of the place and wonder what the heck I would have done if I’d broken my leg. It is not long before my inner voice is urging me to press on.

I see sand dunes in the silvery haze on the horizon I can’t ride them, not on this bike, with this load, these tyres. It takes a full half hour before I reach them such are the distances compressed. Luckily I find a shallow are to get through by running alongside, pushing the bike in first gear, dropping it a lot and having to heave and sweat the unwieldy beast back upright.

I see a very big set of dunes approaching; they are at once beautiful and terrifying, as I get closer I see some tracks going straight into them, an abandoned land rover, but no chance of going around. The dunes are huge and seem to be all around me. I ride up and down trying to find a way. This could be the end of the road. I ride back and down to the river, near by are some huts, made of animal skin, shaped like aardvarks, and see some deep vehicle ruts in soft silt, and try that way, I fall, and push and heave and sweat buckets, coming to a point where there is just no way. I stop, panting hard, propping the bike up. I can’t do it, I can’t get through. Some trucks coming with grain from Kassala, revving hard in a high gear, the men jump out and tell me there is no way I can make it, the dunes are too big, too soft. “Then I must go back” I tell them forlornly. The trucks leave and I stand thinking that this can’t be the end, and also contemplate how I don’t want to go back, back in to the sandstorm. A boy arrives on a camel, he tells me I can do it, at least I think he does. I take a look with him at a rocky precipice over the river, perhaps that way, but I can see it fading narrower and narrower and can only see the dunes rolling on into the far distance. Still he urges me on and he helps clear a path to the precipice. I ride onto it, and with feet flailing for balance make it to a point where it looks a trifle hairy. I stop, the boy up on the dunes sets his camel down and ties its front legs and tells me to take a wash “Suck that, I’ve got to get to Kassala!” I tell him in impetuousness. Sod it, I’m not going back and I’m not giving up. I push on and eventually find myself, immensely satisfied with the dunes behind me, back up from the precipice. I look back, the boy is gone, I thank God for him and wonder if he was ever there at all?

I wonder if there are worse to come, for now I cannot go back, having travelled too far using up more than half my fuel.

I stop at a small collection of huts and get of all things a slightly-less-than-warm coke and sit happily amongst some truck drivers heading to Kassala, content with my days progress and pleased with my latest success! I ask where Khor-el-Fil is, the half way point and the point at which Ted Simon hitched a ride in a truck to Goz Regeb. “Last town back” I am told, this makes me immensely happy.

I stop soon after, realizing how tired I am, I also notice the bike is running terribly, missing, making some strange noises, and barely ticking over. In the morning I check the plug, clean the air filter and check the valves to little effect. Perhaps dirt from the petrol bottle? It’s moving so I’ll carry on ,what else can I do?

I ride on with more confidence in the sand, though still falling. I come to a long plateau, riding it fast, forth gear for hours and hours, nearly coming a cropper, somehow managing to catch the violent sing of the bike in a rare patch of soft sand on the plateau. Then, a great sight, the smooth mountains like ice cream dollops appearing in the dust. I make it with barely enough fuel, am greeted at the petrol station by a large group of children and a taxi driver who congratulates me on my feat. On to Ethiopia I ride on a pretty boring piece of asphalt, but extremely happy at my desert crossing.

  • Ted Simon

    Well done Nick you salty sea dog

  • Tracey Mansell

    Gripping tale. Just discovered your blog and am loving your literary style. A rare find in a motorcycling travel blog.