Sudan may not be the first place you think of for your next bicycle tour. But ask cyclists who have completed Cairo to Cape Town – the famous long-haul overland route down the entire eastern edge of Africa – about their favorite country and many will say Sudan.
What is so special about cycling in Sudan? At first glance, it doesn’t make much sense. The north of the country is mostly a scorching, empty desert. Filling and nutritious food can be hard to find. Route options are limited, traffic can be chaotic, and unless you speak Arabic communication with the locals is going to be limited to a spirited game of charades.
And yet, Sudan keeps winning cyclists over, and always for the same reason: the people. Sudan combines the hospitality characteristic of many Muslim cultures with the genuine friendliness and curiosity of a country that doesn’t get many visitors.
Though Sudan as a country faces some deep economic and political challenges, the mood most travelers will encounter is peaceful and friendly. The result is an intriguing mix of feeling adventurous, safe, and welcomed all at the same time. For mindful travelers with the opportunity and inclination to dig deeper, some very interesting conversations await.
Not to say that my bike ride through Sudan was perfect. In fact, I had a couple uncomfortable encounters there, and the desert heat was truly intense. But overall it was a remarkable experience, and I would recommend it to any intrepid cyclist who likes to get off the beaten track (and ideally really likes desert landscapes).
This post is intended to help cyclists planning a bicycle tour in Sudan, whether you are taking on the full Cairo to Cape Town route or just a segment. I’ll give an overview of the route I took, share notes and key sites for each segment, and talk a bit about the general considerations for traveling in Sudan, on two wheels or otherwise.
This is a big post, so to help you navigate, here’s what to expect:
- Feasibility of shorter cycling trip in Sudan
- Important tips for cycling in Sudan (food, water, money, climate, etc)
- Route map and notes for each section from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum
- Archaeological sites overview
- Gear for cycling in Sudan
- Notes for women cycling in Sudan
- More resources for planning your Sudan bike trip
A short(er) cycling route through Sudan?
Most people cycle through Sudan as part of the Cairo to Cape Town long haul. If you have many months to spare, I’ve heard this is an amazing adventure, but I was on a tighter schedule.
I’d heard such good things about Sudan that I wanted to find out: is it possible and worthwhile to do a shorter bicycle tour only in Sudan, without crossing from/to Egypt and/or Ethiopia?
The answer is: not really. In almost all cases, if you’re going to go all the way to Sudan, it makes sense to cross at least one border. But you CAN have a rewarding trip in just a few weeks, if you plan carefully.
These are the considerations:
- Sudan doesn’t have a lot of paved roads, and unless you love sand, you’ll want to stick to paved roads.
- The stretch from Khartoum to Port Sudan via Atbara is very busy with traffic and not pleasant or safe to ride.
- The only notable airport, aside from Port Sudan, is in Khartoum, which is located roughly in the middle of the country.
- The wind usually blows from north to south, which is a major factor in the open desert, and would make an out-and-back ride frustrating.
- Egypt is challenging to cycle in due to mandatory police escorts and, for solo women especially, higher than usual rates of sexual harassment.
- Ethiopia is challenging to cycle in due to steep mountains, rock throwing children, high population density, and an attitude toward foreigners that can feel aggressive and threatening. (I heard three stories of cyclists injured by thrown rocks in Ethiopia, just in the time I was riding in Sudan!)
If you spend some time looking at a map and putting these pieces together, you’ll likely arrive at the conclusion that these are your options:
Segment 1: Cairo to Khartoum
- Time: roughly 1.5 – 2 months
- This is an amazing tour of ancient Nubia, with fascinating archaeological sites in Luxor and dotted around northern Sudan.
- The most interesting parts of Sudan are in the north, so you don’t miss too much by stopping in Khartoum.
- If looking to maximize time in Sudan and spend less time in Egypt (and also avoid the expense and hassle of Cairo), you could start from Luxor. Luxor to Khartoum took me around 1 month. You can reach Luxor from Cairo by plane, train, or bus.
- This option really highlights Sudan, and is all about desert, Arabic, Islam, ancient archaeology, and flat roads.
Segment 2: Khartoum to Northern Ethiopia
- Time: Around 1-2 weeks from Khartoum to Metema border crossing, and then however long you want to spend in Ethiopia, with the closest airport in Gondar just a couple days from the border.
- Once in northern Ethiopia you are close to the famous historic northern circuit, the most popular travel route in the country.
- Ethiopian Airlines has an impressive network in the north of Ethiopia, allowing you to fly out of Gondar, Bahir Dar, Axum, or Lalibela if you don’t want to ride all the way to Addis.
- Many cyclists choose to take the bus in Ethiopia due to the challenges of riding there, and this is apparently easy to do.
- This option skips the best part of Sudan, in my opinion, and is best for those who love mountainous riding and really want to focus on northern Ethiopia.
Of course, if you have 2-3 months and a taste for adventure, you can combine both segments for a three country tour of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. If you really want to see the best parts of Sudan and don’t have a lot of extra time, I recommend Luxor to Khartoum.
After doing a lot of research, my original plan was to ride from Luxor in Egypt, through Sudan, and into northern Ethiopia, taking around two months. I ended up cutting my trip short in Khartoum as the pandemic escalated (they closed the airport the day after I flew out!). Ultimately I spent around one month riding from Luxor to Khartoum at a moderate pace.
I’ll describe my route in detail below. But first, some general considerations for cyclists thinking about a bicycle tour in Sudan.
General Tips for Cycling in Sudan
Before I get into the route details, here are a few key considerations for anyone thinking about cycling in Sudan.
Climate in Sudan
From about April to October Sudan is very, very hot. The rest of the time it’s just very hot. I was there in early March and riding through the midday heat was already a struggle. There aren’t a lot of places to just rest in the shade in the north, so don’t count on a comfortable siesta every day.
In the desert, especially from December to February, it can get chilly at night even though it’s hot during the day.
The wind usually blows from north to south, and can be quite strong. This is part of why most cyclists ride north to south. In the spring sandstorms (called haboob) are more common, and you don’t really want to be out riding in the desert when one hits.
You will definitely need a combination of water filtration and purification that offers protection against bacteria, parasites, and viruses while also filtering out particles. The drinking water in much of Sudan comes from the Nile and can be cloudy brown in color, not to mention probably filled with nasty little buggers from the polluted Nile.
Some sections of desert riding require carrying enough water for two days in very hot weather (note that you can skip these via bus if you want, but I found them rewarding). Unless you want to deal with begging for water at poor villages without enough of their own, or flagging down trucks, you’ll want a flexible water capacity that can expand from around 4 liters to 10-12 liters per person.
The most common way to find water while cycling in Sudan is to look for the big clay pots by the road. Most get filled regularly with water carried from the Nile, which is dirty (filter and purify it!) but often pleasantly cool. Don’t count on them all being full though, because I found plenty that were dry when I passed.
See the gear section at the end for more detail on my water purification and carrying system.
Things are loosening up ever so slightly since the revolution in 2019, but Sudan is a conservative Islamic country with parts of Sharia law in force. Alcohol is forbidden (though people have their ways, in private) and dress code is strict.
Interactions between men and women are quite different than what you find in most other countries, and women are mostly confined to private life. This means, as a traveler, you will mostly be interacting with men unless you’re invited into a home. After many days of this, as a female traveler, I really craved interaction with women! In Khartoum things are different and women are much more present in public life, but in rural areas not so much.
For more context and tips I recommend reading this nuanced collection of impressions from bicycle travelers in Islamic countries.
What to Wear While Cycling in Sudan
For those interested in respecting cultural norms and not feeling out of place (any moreso than already necessary), women and men should both wear long pants and a shirt with at least short sleeves. I felt more comfortable in a long-sleeve shirt everywhere outside of Khartoum.
I did see a few (male) tourists wearing shorts, but personally I would have felt uncomfortable in anything besides full long pants. At minimum everyone should cover knees and shoulders. You will pretty much never see a local’s arms or legs, male or female, unless perhaps you are inside the home of a progressive family.
Women will want a high neckline and loose fitting clothes; leggings are a definite no-no in my opinion. Covering your head is optional and didn’t seem to make much difference in how I was treated. In Khartoum things are slightly more relaxed and you will occasionally see women without headscarves, but in the rest of the country they are essentially mandatory for local women. Either way, they also make great dust masks and help prevent your nose and mouth from drying out in the hot desert air.
Sudanese are generally understanding of foreigners dressing differently, but dressing conservatively made me feel more comfortable. Under the blistering hot sun in the shadeless desert, you’ll be glad for the coverage anyway. For more detail, see What Should Travelers Wear in Sudan?
I cycled through Sudan alone as a woman and mostly had a great experience, but there were a few challenges. I’ve included more detail in the section at the end about Cycling in Sudan for women.
I hope your Arabic is good! Mine wasn’t, but I did my best to learn a few basics. A few words that will come in handy:
- Shukran – thank you
- Tamam – versatile word, can mean “How are you?” as a greeting, or “it’s all good” as an affirmation.
- Salaam Aleikum – sometimes shortened to Salam, a greeting that means “peace be with you”
- Ma is-salaama – goodbye
- Moya – water
If you want to do better than I managed to, study this more extensive list.
Throughout Sudan I found there was usually at least one person around – almost always male – who spoke a few words of English and was eager to practice. Expect the usual questions about nationality, job, family status, and your trip’s origin and destination.
As with most international bike touring, a smile and game of charades is usually enough to find what you need.
Money is tricky in Sudan. In summary: carry cash (dollars or Euros) in large bills and excellent condition, and change it to Sudanese pounds in small amounts on the black market as you go. Don’t change too much, because it’s hard to change it back, and it has a tendency to devalue quickly.
The black market rate is usually around twice the official rate, and though it’s technically illegal, everyone does it. Sometimes there are even black market money changers who hang out and do their work right outside of banks! Discretely ask at your hotel and they can tell you where to go.
When I was in Sudan in March 2020, the black market rate was around 100-120 Sudanese pounds to USD.
Don’t count on ATMs. I believe because of sanctions it’s still impossible for foreigners to use them. Credit cards are also off-limits, and you’d be hard pressed to find a credit card machine anyway.
Sudan is a very safe country (more on this below) but I still recommend carrying your foreign currency in a money belt or (my personal favorite) pocket underwear. Pro tip: keep it in a plastic bag so it doesn’t get sweaty!
Traveling in Sudan can be very cheap. Outside of Khartoum it was nearly impossible to spend more than a few dollars per day. Camping was often free, motels were cheap, and basic food is very affordable (and basic food is the only food you can find).
In Khartoum it’s easy to spend more in the foreigner-friendly restaurants and more expensive hotels, though you can still find budget options if you look.
Honestly, I struggled with food in Sudan. I might be the only person who’s gone to Sudan and had trouble finding ful, the staple bean dish that everyone else seems to get tired of. There were times in the desert, after a day of only moldy bread and those processed cheese triangles, that I would have paid all my remaining Sudanese pounds for a bowl of ful.
But whenever I stopped at the little “cafeterias” dotted sparsely throughout the inhospitable desert, there never seemed to be any food cooking, just lots and lots of tea. A few times people generously shared their meals with me, but I never felt comfortable eating my fill because I wanted to leave plenty for others.
On the road I ended up eating a lot of bread, biscuits, cheese wedges and feta “cheese” (mostly vegetable fat) boxes, oranges, cookies, peanuts, and dried dates. When I could find them I bought canned beans, and sometimes tins of sardines. In some towns bread seemed to be in short supply, with long lines at the bakeries, and in other towns it was readily available.
In the towns I binged on falafel, yogurt, and milk boxes. Fortunately fresh fruit and veggies were easy to find in most towns and tasted delicious in the heat.
In the desert heat you will drink a lot of water and might deplete your electrolytes, especially if you’re not eating enough (heat can really sap your appetite). Try to buy salty snacks (a bit hard to find other than potato chips) or, if you have the option, bring some salt tablets from home.
Camping is easy in Sudan. It’s common for travelers to spend the night at the cafeterias along the highway, often for free. If you ask around in villages you will usually be directed to a safe place to pitch your tent for the night, and some motels and guesthouses allow camping on their grounds for a reduced price. In the empty desert areas you can sneak off the highway and wild camp undisturbed amongst the rock and sand.
Sudanese culture values hospitality and kindness to visitors very highly. Sometimes people will buy your tea or refuse your money. You might be invited into homes. Many people will shout “Welcome!” if they know the English word. As a traveler it’s lovely, though it does come with its own questions about the culturally appropriate ways to react.
I don’t feel I fully cracked the code on this one, but I tried to read each situation on its own. Some of my attempts:
- When money was declined, or if the person was obviously proud of their generosity and I knew they would decline money, I sometimes offered a token gift like a couple oranges or a bag of dates. Passing around a bag of dates in a group was always well received.
- I always offered two or three times, because it seemed like people politely refuse at least once before sometimes accepting.
- In a couple special cases where I’d really spent some time with people, I gave them a picture of my home and family as a souvenir. This was very well received.
There seem to be two opinions about safety in Sudan, and nothing in between. Those who haven’t been think it’s a dangerous hotbed of terrorism and crime. Those who have been think it’s one of the safest countries in the world.
The reality is much closer to the latter than the former, as long as you’re in the central part of the country and avoiding the no-travel areas like Darfur. These areas, unfortunately, see a lot of tribal conflict and are not considered stable or safe enough for foreigners to travel through.
Violent crime in the accessible areas of Sudan is very, very low. I’ve heard there are some dodgy neighborhoods south of Khartoum that should be avoided, but they are not on the route to Ethiopia and as a traveler you’ll never have reason to end up there.
Theft is uncommon, and it was interesting to see locals wandering around busy parts of Khartoum with their smartphones in hand, not at all worried about phone snatching (in contrast to most other African capital cities I’ve visited).
That said, I suspect theft is not unheard of, so don’t be completely complacent. Sometimes I was encouraged to lock my bike and take my bags into my tent at night while camping at roadside cafeterias. I also had an unsettling experience with a mentally unstable man in Atbara grabbing at my bike and running after me. It was in broad daylight on a busy street, and a bystander immediately yelled and the man ran away.
In small groups or with families, or anywhere there is social accountability, I would not worry at all about leaving my bike unlocked or my things sitting around. Several times people, including little kids, picked up things I had dropped or put down and handed them back to me. Most Sudanese would never dream of stealing from a visitor.
Northern Sudan Cycling Route Notes
In this section I’ll explain the route I took, highlights and notes for each section, and potential alternatives.
Here is a map showing each place I spent a night, and the major archaeological sites pointed out in red:
Egyptian Border to Wadi Halfa (30 km)
I arrived at the Sudan border after 11 days of cycling and sightseeing my way from Luxor in Egypt. You can find my guide to the Egyptian part of the route here.
Roughly speaking (as with all things timing-related in this part of the world), if you take a morning ferry from Abu Simbel you’ll be at the Egypt-Sudan border by early afternoon.
The border crossing itself is not difficult, but it can be slow and confusing. Prepare to fill out many similar forms and wait several hours. You must have your visa arranged in advance, and it may be a good idea to work with a fixer like Mazar Mahir (+249-122-380-740, good English, recommended) to help you navigate the confusing sequence of paperwork.
From the border to the turnoff to Wadi Halfa is about 30 km of flat open desert, very low traffic, and often with a tailwind. If you leave the border by mid-afternoon you can be in Wadi Halfa before dark, though you could also easily find a hidden place to camp in the desert on the way.
Wadi Halfa has plenty of cheap motels and hostels. The downtown area has a police station (marked on iOverlander) where you can complete the required foreigner registration, though you can also wait and do it in Khartoum. They officers are friendly and it takes about an hour. A couple blocks from the police station is an MTN store where you can get a mobile sim card with a data plan. I ran both these errands in the morning before leaving town.
Wadi Halfa to Abri (175 km)
This section took me two pretty easy days with a tailwind most of the way. More open desert and light traffic. I don’t remember seeing too many clay water pots, though I’m sure there are some, and you’ll be able to fill up about halfway at the first cafeteria.
Supposedly there’s a paved road on the west side of the Nile now too! That would probably be very interesting, with even lighter traffic. If anyone tries it, let us know in the comments. I took the east side road the entire way.
I spent the night at a small cafeteria across from the “El Beer” sign (there is nothing else around there). The men were very friendly and respectful. They had eggs and meat available for dinner, and bread in the morning (and of course tea, always tea).
A few kilometers after this cafeteria there’s another, but when I passed it in the morning it looked deserted and I was glad I had stayed in El Beer. Farther still is a place marked “Cafeterias” in iOverlander where I was glad I did NOT sleep. It’s a big bustling shanty town of a truck stop and would not have been a peaceful place to spend the night.
When the road drew close to the Nile a bit north of Abri, the mood instantly changed. The local traffic picked up a bit (still quite light) and the people were very, very friendly. Nearly every vehicle honked, sometimes entire trucks full of people waved. A few folks stopped their car or donkey in the middle of the road to come shake my hand and say “Welcome.” It was quite the reception!
In Abri there seem to be two options for sleeping. Supposedly there is a cheap lokanda / hostel where mostly locals stay, but I had trouble finding it because the locals kept pointing me to the Nubian Guesthouse. Rooms there are a bit expensive ($25), but camping is allowed for just a few dollars, with access to hot showers and wifi. The owner speaks English and is friendly.
Abri to Dongola (225 km)
I rode this section in two days with an overnight at Delgo, but others might find it more pleasant to take three days and see the archaeological sites along the way (details below). Water is available periodically in clay pots along the road. At times the usual tailwind can become a stiff crosswind when the road turns, making progress difficult.
In Delgo there is no official place to sleep, but I was allowed to camp at the police station and the officers were friendly. I’ve heard it may also be possible to camp at the hospital.
If you have the time and like to see the sites, instead of staying in Delgo you could take two nights and stay near these two archaeological sites along the way:
- Temple of Soleb ruins – Soleb (west bank): I didn’t see the ruins because I couldn’t find a boat to take me across from Wawa (east bank) to the west bank. It was Friday and very quiet in the village. However, I didn’t spend very long trying. There is a small guesthouse in Soleb that supposedly has a boat, and a place to stay in Wawa as well.
- Kerma: museum and two defuffas: I skipped these as well because of how my schedule worked out, but have heard they are interesting (especially the museum) if you are interested in archaeology.
Between Kerma and Dongola the landscape changes for the first time since crossing the border into Sudan. The land is irrigated further from the Nile, and a sliver of green fields lines the highway before giving way to sandy desert. There are more people, more water, and a bit more traffic.
In Dongola I stayed at the Olla Hotel. It’s rather run down but the price is good and the friendly owner speaks some English.
Dongola is a lovely place to stock up on food and snacks after a few days on the road between smaller towns. This is good, because if you’re heading across the desert to Karima next, you’ll need to pack two days of food.
Dongola to Karima (180 km direct)
This is a two day stretch through mostly empty desert. It is extremely hot and dry, and potentially very windy, including possible sand storms. Traffic is very light, but vehicles do pass periodically.
To ride from Dongola to Karima over two days, I would personally recommend carrying 10-12 liters of water and planning to go the whole way without a refill. There was a small rest stop with clay pots around halfway (90km), and a few families living by the road, so I imagine you could refill water if necessary. Flagging down trucks could also be an emergency option. However, it’s a brutally hot place and I would not want to risk running out. Being self-sufficient with my water really reduced potential stress on this stretch.
I also brought all my own food, which I would definitely recommend, as you won’t find cafeterias out here.
I camped in the desert behind some little hills about 78 miles from Dongola. It was a beautiful night and I saw no one. The next morning, around 85 miles from Dongola, I was invited in for tea and breakfast by an incredibly friendly and very large family. I couldn’t fully understand their story, but they seemed to be temporarily away from their home due to tribal problems.
Some cyclists choose to take a bus across this desert section, especially if there’s a strong crosswind blowing. I can understand this, though personally I’m glad I rode it. I like wide-open desert landscapes, and the morning I spent with the family who invited me in was very memorable.
An alternate route is to follow the Nile south from Dongola and back north to Karima, around 300km. I didn’t take this route, and I’m happy with my decision to take the desert route. Here is the information I used to decide:
Advantages of desert route:
- Extremely low traffic
- Mostly follows typical wind direction (unlike Nile route which turns north)
- Was told the villages on Nile route aren’t always close to the road or very interesting
- Gorgeous wild camping in the empty desert!
- Getting to Karima doesn’t require an out-and-back
Advantages of Nile route:
- More water available
- More food available
- Old Dongola archaeological site is on the way
- If in a hurry you could skip Karima and Atbara and go straight to Khartoum from this route, but you would miss the pyramids of Meroe and a lot of wide open desert riding.
In Karima I stayed at Hotel Al Nassr, which is a fine budget option. There are plenty of shops nearby selling basic food, though the selection seemed limited. I couldn’t find the canned beans I had found in Dongola, so I had to get sardines instead (not my favorite). But the usual basics – falafel, milk, processed cheese, yogurt, biscuits – were easy to find. Prices seemed a bit higher than in Dongola; not sure if this was just for foreigners or in general.
Karima to Atbara (300 km)
This is the longest remote desert stretch of the route, taking most riders 3 days. From Karima there is about 30km through suburbs, and then a left turn out to 270 km of open desert. It is possible to cover this section by bus for those who’ve had enough desert.
Water: If you choose to ride, be prepared with at least two days of water (for me this was 10-12 liters). There is a police checkpoint at mile 108 / km 174 after the left turn onto the desert highway. They have water in clay pots and are very friendly. There might be a few other places to top up before then, and stopping trucks is always an emergency option, but in this scorching hot environment it’s best to be self-sufficient. The cafeteria I camped at, for example, was almost out of water on the day I arrived and very much looking forward to their next delivery. Some of the nomadic people I passed actually tried to beg for water FROM me, as if I carried enough to magically fill their jerry cans.
Food: I didn’t buy any food along the way, but wish I had – I finished hungry! There are a couple tiny cafeterias where you might be able to buy a meal, or kind people might share one with you for free, but it’s all very informal and I wouldn’t count on it. Stock up on food in Karima as best you can given the limited supplies.
Sleep: This desert, the Bayuda, feels different than the crossing from Dongola to Karima. There is a bit more plant life, more animals like camels and donkeys, and also a few more people, usually very poor nomadic families somehow eeking out a living in this harsh place. You might think you’ve found the perfect secluded campsite, but don’t be surprised if a sheep herder wanders by to say hello. I slept the first night at a little cafe, and the second night in the desert about a mile past the police station (no visitors that night).
Archaeological sites along the way, both close to Karima and best visited on your way out of town:
- Jebel Barkal, temples, and pyramids: on the way out of Karima, worth a stop, especially the pyramids which are free. The temples supposedly have an entrance fee, though when I was there I couldn’t find anyone in charge.
- Nuri pyramids: 13 km extra each way on the east side of the Nile. I skipped these, since I felt satisfied already with the pyramids in Karima and was planning to also visit the Pyramids of Meroe.
Coming into Atbara at the end of this stretch can be rough. The outskirts are industrial, and the town itself is grittier and busier than earlier towns on the route. I had an uncomfortable encounter with a seemingly unwell man who grabbed my bike; fortunately an onlooker yelled and he ran away.
When I arrived in March 2020, the railway bridge into the west side of the city was closed going north, so I had to make a run for it between vehicles on the wrong side of the road. I would recommend taking the bridge on the east side and heading to the area around the “new bus station.” There are plenty of affordable motels there, and some food and restaurants.
The new bus station is where you’ll find a bus south if you don’t want to ride the high-traffic road to Shendi (more on that below). The nearest good grocery store seems to be about a mile or two away though, back toward the west side of town.
Atbara to Khartoum (350 km)
There is a road on each side of the Nile from Atbara to Khartoum. The east side is very busy with traffic, including lots of trucks, and doesn’t have a shoulder. The west side is much nicer until the last 50km or so, BUT, you can’t get to the Pyramids of Meroe, which is the most popular tourist attraction in Sudan (it’s all relative – the place still only sees a handful of tourists each day). You can cross from east to west via the bridge at Shendi, but the pyramids are awkwardly situated midway between Atbara and Shendi on the east side.
These are your options:
- Bus from Atbara to pyramids (ask to get off at Bajrawia, the nearest village), camp there or ride on to Shendi, cross to west side of Nile, ride to Omdurman / Khartoum. Will take about 3 days. This is what I did.
- Ride from Atbara to pyramids, camp there, then ride to Shendi and cross to the west side of Nile, ride to Omdurman / Khartoum. 4 days. I don’t recommend this because of the traffic from Atbara to the pyramids, but plenty of people do it.
- Bus from Atbara to Khartoum, with a stop at the Meroe pyramids along the way (you’ll likely need to hitchhike or ride from the pyramids to Shendi). Doable in 1-2 days.
- Ride the west side of the Nile all the way from Atbara to Omdurman, skipping the pyramids. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you’ve really had your fill of archaeological sites, because the pyramids are very nice. 3-4 days.
- Technically you could ride all the way on the east side of the Nile, which would take you by the turnoffs to two other spectacular sites, Musawwarat and Naqa. But the traffic is horrible and those sites require many km of sandy desert riding to reach.
Personally I don’t think it’s worth the danger and hassle of riding in the heavier traffic, so I took a morning bus from the “new bus station” in Atbara and asked to be dropped at the pyramids. The bus station was orderly and easy to navigate (they even have English-speaking staff). The buses seem to leave as they fill up, once every hour or so throughout the morning. They put my bike underneath (the baggage handler will likely expect a tip).
From the pyramids to Shendi is about 31 miles / 50 km, and I started early in the morning to try and beat the worst of the traffic. I was only partly successful in that regard, but it was pretty quick riding and I made it to the bridge with no issues. From there it’s a fairly painless ride through Shendi, a nice university town.
On the west side of the Nile south of Shendi, you have about 100 km of low-traffic roads and then another 100km of busier roads. For the first 100km, there are plenty of villages but all a few kilometers away toward the Nile. Still, when it comes to camping (or bathroom breaks) there is the feeling that a person could pop up anywhere, and there are many little clusters of homes hidden all throughout the hills.
I camped about 100km from the Shendi turnoff at a restaurant on the northern end of what Google Maps shows as the “Sabaloka Game Reserve,” which is actually the start of the Omdurman/Khartoum suburbs. The people seemed nice but I had an uncomfortable encounter with a man visiting my tent at night asking for sex. Fortunately I felt safe enough in the village, but I would think twice about trying to stealth camp in this area, especially for solo ladies unfortunately.
South of here, the last 100km into Khartoum are increasingly busy, chaotic, and unpleasant. Traffic grew quite heavy and larger villages were everywhere. On the plus side, there were shops selling cold drinks. 🙂
Once in Omdurman it’s a free-for-all with gridlocked traffic and chaotic streets. Perhaps there is a better way into the city, but I didn’t find it. Once in Khartoum proper things are a bit easier, but the navigation and traffic will still take all your energy. In hindsight, I might have tried to hitchhike or bus these last 100km.
In Khartoum there are plenty of options for where to stay. Check iOverlander for budget hotels as well as some nicer ones popular with expats. Warm Showers and Couch Surfing are also great options, and by now it’s possible you have a few contacts in the city from chance meetings on the road. Enjoy the variety of food and indulge in some ice cream!
Summary of archaeological sites between Atbara and Khartoum:
- Meroe Pyramids: 100km south of Atbara on east side. It’s possible to camp here.
- Musawwarat and Naqa: about 30 km south of Shendi on the east side, then another 26 km (Naqa) or 30 km (Musawwarat) on sand and dirt track. Both share the same road for the first 15 km after leaving the highway. There’s not much out here except some nomads and sometimes archaeological teams, but I’m sure it’s possible to camp. Don’t be surprised if the local people beg for money or food though.
Khartoum to Metema Border Crossing with Ethiopia (570 km)
I didn’t ride this section, because the pandemic was just beginning to hit and I needed to get home while I still could. I ended up flying out of Khartoum the day before they suddenly closed all the airports!
For the stretch from Khartoum to Wad Madani, locals suggested taking the east bank road to avoid heavy traffic. After that it’s on to Al Qadarif / Gedaref, and then the border with Ethiopia. I estimate the whole section would take 5-7 days, and could be shortened with a bus ride from Khartoum to either Wad Madani or Gedaref, depending on how much you like traffic and are ready to move on to Ethiopia. It’s easy to sleep near the border crossing; check iOverlander for details.
Cycling to Archaeological / Tourist Sites in Sudan
For cyclists in Sudan wanting to see the country’s archaeological sites along the way, here’s a quick summary of where they are and what the implications are for route choice. They are all in the north of the country, along or relatively close to the common route from Wadi Halfa down to Khartoum.
- Temple of Soleb: Between Abri and Dongola on the WEST side of the Nile. If riding on the east side road, you’ll need to go to Wawa and find a boat to take you across.
- Kerma defuffas and museum: Between Abri and Dongola on the east side of the Nile, roughly ~10km off the main highway.
- Old Dongola: along the Nile between Dongola and Karima, which is out of the way if you choose to take the desert route.
- Temples and pyramids at Karima: on the way out of town just to the south.
- Pyramids at Nuri: 25km extra out and back on the east side of the Nile after leaving Karima and heading toward Atbara.
- Pyramids of Meroe: 50km south of Atbara on the east side of the Nile, right on the main highway, which has heavy traffic. Note that this is not the same as the town Merowe, which is next to Karima, confusing because Karima also has pyramids but they are not as impressive. You can also visit the ancient city of Meroe a few km from the pyramids, but it’s mostly in ruins.
- Naqa ruins: about 30 km south of Shendi on the east side, then another 26 km of sand and dirt, partly sharing the same road as Musawwarat .
- Musawwarat ruins: 30 km south of Shendi on the east side, then another 26 km on sand and dirt track. Near Naqa.
So which sites are worth the effort? Most travelers in Sudan visit them in a private car with a guide, but for cyclists the effort required makes the calculation a bit different. Here are my personal recommendations:
Definitely see (directly on the way):
- Jebel Barkal, temples and pyramids at Karima
- Pyramids of Meroe
See if you have time (relatively easy detours) near good places to spend a night:
Definitely see IF you have access to transportation or don’t mind a long slog through sand:
See only if you’re heading from Dongola to Karima the long way (along the Nile), or heading straight from Dongola to Khartoum:
- Old Dongola
Nuri is not on this list because it’s a bit too far out-and-back to be easy, and I’ve heard other pyramids are more impressive. If you’re seeing the pyramids of Meroe, I think you’ll still get your fill of pyramids. 🙂
For more detail about most of these sites, including pictures and descriptions of the few I didn’t manage to visit, see this guide to Sudan’s tourist attractions.
Note that some of these sites, especially the Meroe Pyramids, now charge pretty exorbitant entrance fees for foreigners. I’ve heard as much as $50 USD! Negotiation skills might help, but be prepared. Unfortunately the money does not go to maintain the sites or support the archaeology missions there, which would make me feel much better about paying it. But in any case, Sudan’s economy could use the money.
Visa for Sudan (and Registration)
Getting a visa for Sudan has always been one of the trickier parts, and things are still changing fast. When the country opens up again I don’t know if any of this will still apply, but here’s what I know.
When I traveled in March of 2020, most travelers were getting their Sudan visa in Cairo, or in Aswan as a backup (apparently it takes longer there). It USED to be true that American citizens needed an approval from the Ministry of the Interior in Khartoum, and thus needed to work with a tour agency or “fixer” instead of just showing up at the embassy in Egypt. From what I heard while traveling, this has just started to change. In early 2020, American citizens were getting Sudan visas in Cairo with no letter of invitation or prior approval! If this is an option for you, I’d recommend it.
At the time I didn’t know this was possible, so I worked with the famous Midhat Mahir. He can arrange a visa waiting at the Wadi Halfa border with only a scanned copy of your passport and for a reasonable fee. I absolutely believe he is trustworthy, but be aware, the standards for responsive communication are a bit different in Sudan and he is no exception. I ultimately had to delay my entry into Sudan for two days due to a delay in my application (despite having sent my documents over a month earlier) and had a stressful period where I was unable to get in touch with him or get any updates.
For more up-to-date information, keep an eye on this excellent post (including the helpful comments section) about getting a visa for Sudan.
As of March 2020, foreigners were still required to register with the police, but it could be done pretty much any time before leaving the country. I did it in Wadi Halfa, but was told I could have done it in Khartoum a couple weeks later with no problems.
Gear Notes for Cycling in Sudan
Unless you love sand and are thoroughly equipped for remote travel in an extremely hot and dry place, you’ll want to stick mainly to the paved highways in Sudan. For this purpose I think a simply and sturdy touring bike, like my own beloved Long Haul Trucker, is perfect. You won’t find any real bike shops in Sudan, and if you ride on any vehicles your bike might get knocked around underneath or strapped on top.
Most bicycle travelers in this region will be heavily loaded for long-haul travel, but if we’re focusing just on Sudan I think water capacity is the most important consideration. For this reason I chose two rear panniers over a more minimalist bikepacking setup, allowing me to carry two extra hydration bladders when I needed to expand my capacity for desert crossings. I also carried water in my frame bag and on my front fork, so my setup was kind of a touring/bikepacking blend.
You will definitely want a water treatment system that both filters and purifies, and you will definitely want a backup method. The drinking water you’ll encounter is often taken directly from the Nile.
Roads are flat and generally decent quality. I used my typical dual-sided clip-in pedal system and thought it was perfect. The attachment is really nice for powering through those long flat stretches, and the flat side is nice for staying nimble in Khartoum city traffic.
Even in March I found the weather too hot for a sleeping bag everywhere except the first couple days in the north. However, those desert nights can be chilly, especially in Egypt if you’re starting there, so a light sleeping bag or quilt is a good idea. A simple silk sleeping bag liner is ideal for the rest of the time, and for those guesthouses with questionable sheets.
For clothing, I really only used the following:
- Two pair lightweight long pants (one to wear while riding and one cleanish for town).
- Two long-sleeve shirts
- Two buff headbands for sun and sweat protection
- One scarf for covering hair or mouth (in case of dust, smog, or dry hot wind).
- One pair padded bike shorts, easy to wash and dry quickly in the hot weather
- One pair running shorts and a t-shirt, only for sleeping inside my tent
Notes For Women Cycling in Sudan
Sudan, despite its very conservative culture and gender roles for local women, is generally quite a welcoming place for foreign women. People were surprised to see me traveling alone, but not overly pushy about it.
Most men were polite and respectful, but staring is very common, and women don’t venture out of their homes very often except in main cities. Most women I did encounter in rural areas were very reserved and didn’t speak a word of English. Over time it felt draining to be the only woman amongst so many men.
I did have two cases, both while camping at small cafes, where my male hosts asked for sex. One seemed to be mostly a flirtatious joke. The other was creepier, since he was sneaking around my tent in the middle of the night. In both cases I didn’t feel in danger, and they took no for an answer. But solo women, be prepared, some men will assume you’re available simply because you’re foreign and/or traveling alone.
To cover your head or not to cover your head? It’s complicated. I never figured out the best answer. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t, depending on what made me feel comfortable and what I could gauge of what made others feel comfortable (usually difficult to tell). Foreign women are generally not expected to wear headscarves, and no one hassled me when I didn’t. Sometimes even when I did, the message didn’t get across (both men who asked for sex did so while I was wearing a headscarf).
My advice is to bring a scarf and keep it handy, but don’t worry about it too much. Outside of Khartoum you may feel more comfortable throwing it over your head from time to time. In Khartoum the vibe is very different; they are used to foreigners and sometimes even the local women don’t wear scarves or wear them very casually.
Mostly I was glad to have my scarf for practical reasons and sometimes wrapped it over my face while riding. It helped block the hot wind that dried out my mouth and nose, and filtered out some of the gritty dust and smog on the busier roads. If you’re unlucky enough to encounter a sandstorm while riding, a scarf is essential.
I always covered my arms and legs fully with loose-fitting clothing. I think short sleeves could maybe be worn, but I would have felt very uncomfortable in shorts (even loose and knee-length), tights, or leggings. The coverage is nice anyway in the relentless sun. In Khartoum, and around some of the archaeology sites, foreign women sometimes wear short-sleeve shirts or calf-length dresses / pants without any issues.
For more about this experience and the current situation faced by Sudanese women, you might want to check out this piece I wrote for Adventure Cycling Association: Sudan, in the Company of Men.
Americans Cycling in Sudan
America and Sudan don’t have the friendliest political history, and some Americans suggested I might want to lie about my nationality to keep myself safe in Sudan. I never felt a need to do this. As I’ve found in each country I’ve visited, people are well aware that a traveler cannot be held responsible for the actions of their government. In some cases, with politically aware Sudanese, I felt like we had a nice moment of mutual bonding across these imaginary lines.
Still, it’s worth understanding the history before you go. It’s possible you will run into a situation where it’s best to claim European nationality (most non-native English speakers won’t be able to tell the difference from your accent). And in all cases it’s nice to show a hint of awareness in your voice when answering the “where are you from” question. The reception will be a bit different in Sudan than in Egypt, for example.
More Sudan Cycling Resources
Here are some of the resources I used when planning my own bicycle trip in Sudan:
- Route notes from Blanca on a Bike (2018)
- Pictures and route notes from Jin (Universe With Me)
- Detailed route and water notes (2015)
- Trip journal with water notes (2017)
- Gorgeous pictures (German text)
- Blog from solo female cyclist Emi
- Another solo female cyclist in Sudan
- Crazy Guy On A Bike journal from early 2020 (just a week behind my ride)
Backpacker-focused Sudan travel guides, still very useful for cyclists:
I also used the Bradt Sudan Travel Guide. The third edition was published in 2012 and is very out of date, so don’t count on it for the details. I found the sections on history, archaeological sites, and cultural information useful though.
Other Bicycle Touring Resources
- What you need in your bicycle touring repair kit
- Fixing cycling saddle soreness for women: an awkwardly comprehensive guide
- Tips for flying with a bicycle as cheaply as possible
- Exploring Wild’s full collection of bicycle travel resources
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