The names of the last few stops on our journey roll off the tongue as nicely as the breakers of the Atlantic they sit upon: Strandfontein, Elandsbay, Yzerfontein and, at long last, Cape Town.
We have arrived. Mission accomplished.
The celebrations have begun. There will be more to come in this space down the road, but for now we are going to rest, process, enjoy the “Mother City”, and figure out a way to resume our normal lives in a week or so.
If you have been following this blog and are tempted to ride from Cairo to Capetown with TDA Global Cycling in the future, or to recommend the trip to a friend or worst enemy (both understandable), here is a summary of what we consider to be the 3 main components of the tour to take into consideration: a pretty hefty bike ride, a temporary new life among complete strangers, and a chance to experience Africa in a way few others ever have (P.S. it involves camping).
A Pretty Hefty Bike Ride
TDA started in 2003 when company founder Henry Gold had a notion to organize a one-time charity bike race expedition across Africa. At the time, 30-odd adventurous souls signed up and made the trip, camping and cooking their own freeze-dried food along the way. For years the tour ran a race component in addition to the touring version in which we are participating. In 2013 the company put out a 10 year anniversary book featuring, of course, a compilation of the most dramatic photos from the years to date.Extreme images of ankle deep mud, endless goat paths and demoralized cyclists served as a poor promotional tool for yours truly, making us feel that the endeavour was beyond us. Then the race element was dropped, the Chinese laid down some tarmac and the promotional media became a little more inclusive. Last year we were fortunate to meet some previous tour participants who convinced us that it was within our capabilities.It was, it is, and we are now nearing the finish line.
There are a huge variety of bikes, a wide range of abilities and big differences in the way each participant approaches the 140 km (average) that need to be covered every day.The common denominator is that we all are happy to be on our bikes.That is a good thing, because the thing about signing up for a trip that involves cycling the length of Africa, one of the Holy Grails of bicycle touring, is that you have to actually cycle the length of Africa. Almost every morning, early as it is, unappealing as the ration of porridge has become, weary as our bodies are after the previous day’s effort, clipping into the pedals and making those first rotations feels like the right thing to be doing. Fresh air and the anticipation of the road unseen are all a part of the deal, but a love for riding itself is a must.
Living With Strangers
We talked about “Our Tour d’Afrique Society” last time around in this space (see archives elsewhere on this page).Basically, riders coexist in what can often be close quarters.We stand in line together to wash our hands, dish up our meals, use toilets and showers when lucky enough to have them, or else we share shovels to bury our business in the desert or forest.We huddle on stools often bunched together in the shade for meals, rider meetings and after the day’s ride to eat soup and decompress.
A tent makes a poor sound barrier. It is common knowledge who burps, farts and snores. Everyone is aware of which alarm goes off 1st, who is 1st with their bags on the truck, 1st at the feeding trough, who is anal about laundry, who is nonplussed about wearing the same cycling jersey for days on end.
At home, a person can retreat into their routines, their job title.No one can hide behind a facade for 4 months in this environment.Out here, the collective is going to call out bad behaviour. With 50 plus people on board now, and more that have come and gone, this is a prime location for socially oriented people.There are those in the group who manage to keep their distance and still integrate well when they chose, but this is not the ideal spot for those who need their space.
This expedition is very much a social experiment.As one of those things that need to be experienced to be fully understood, it is nice to have new friends (at a minimum through social media) to share memories with going forward. For the 2 of us, it is wonderful that we have each other.
Africa as a Backdrop
Africa is a fascinating, diverse, wonderful and sometimes challenging place to ride a bicycle.We have been lucky to avoid rain for the most part, but extreme heat presented difficulties.Challenging roads, heavy traffic in the large centres, and encroaching humanity can be intense.4 months in a tent as a “home away from home” dictates that it really helps to enjoy camping.
We have made the argument many times that travel by bicycle lets the world in at a pace where the details reveal themselves while still covering significant ground.We have traversed 10 countries, spending long enough in each one to get a sense of its geography and it’s people. The tour has taken us throughremote areas where villagers have stood behind rope barriers to watch us set up our travelling show, but we have also ventured into the big cities and seen a side of the continent that may appear to be more like our western world, but often comes with an unattractive underbelly.We have had the good fortune of visiting the Pyramids, taken a safari, seen Victoria Falls and other top tourist draws.The tour is structured so that on our days off we are meant to fend for ourselves, in a way forcing us to interact with locals, get sick on street food and (probably) realize how lucky we are to be spending most of our time in the “TDA bubble.”
In 2003 the Cairo to Capetown route was mostly gravel, another factor which contributed to the foreboding look of the 10th year anniversary book.The 15 % of the route that remains gravelbrought us through areas with remote populations (Tanzania) and incredible stretches of beautiful desolation (Namibia) while testing our mettle.
Up until recently the route through South Africa was mostly gravel.We are enjoying a new coastal route which was fashioned to make the end of the tour more “friendly” for riders.The scenery after crossing the Orange River and entering the country was a continuation of the baron landscapes of Namibia.After nondescript nights in Springbok and Garies, a hard day’s cycling (the last century ride with 30 km of gravel thrown in) brought us to the upscale town of Strandfontein on the coast.There we swam in the 1st salt water we have seen since the Red Sea in Egypt, confirmation of the fact that our journey is coming to an end.
We can recommend the experience unequivocally. Riders wanted.
A sneak peek at the TDA day by day manual revealed that this stage merits a 10 out of 10 on the difficulty scale, potentially the toughest of the tour.Game on.
On the day of our predicted “worst nightmare”, we watched the sun come up over the oldest desert on earth, revealing hot air balloons already surveying the dunes of Sossusvleiin the distance. We spent the next 10 hours following its arc across the sky, casting light and darkness on the surrounding hills and valleys, racing to camp at the end as if it was chasing us before falling off the horizon. Long shadows appeared, grew shorter during the heat of the mid day, then lengthened once more. We toughed out the distance on bone jarringcorrugation, sand and gravel. In the end it was not the toughest leg of our tour. Sudan stands in the way of that distinction.It was nevertheless an epic ride.
To experience all of this in a harshly beautiful desert devoid of civilization; to be completely in the moment, knowing that these sights and this perseverance is what we will take home with us; and finally, to pull into camp to the cheers of a group of people who have become our society for the past 4 months – all of this is our incredible good fortune.
In “The Cast of TDA” (blog post from January available in the archives elsewhere on this page) we gave an account of some of the people here with us.Since then our number has swelled to 50 riders from 33 who began in Cairo.30 of us are here for the entire distance (with one having taken 6 weeks off to recover from injuries). 15 sectional riders have come and gone.The difference in the beginning and ending totals is made up of sectional riders who have joined at various points and will finish in Cape Town, including 5 recent additions in Windhoek.
The changing lineup has worked out well.The “newbies” seem to benefit from a feeling among us “veterans” that it must be hard to hit the ground running, both in terms of fitness and integration into the group.They have invariably been experienced riders who have been up to the task, and their presence has enriched the overall experience. War stories from Ethiopia and Sudan are finding a fresh audience, and there is no shortage of storytellers.
Four months is a long time.On a recent tough day the comment was made that “we might be getting too old for this – we were fine in the beginning but it has been going on so long . . . “. During the 1st weeks of the ride there were few options for hotel rooms or towns to explore.This, and the smaller group size, gave the original core of riders a chance to get to know each other. The degree of cooperation and concern for each other was (and largely remains) quite remarkable. Recently, more people are renting rooms and even eating off site occasionally, splintering the group somewhat.A few people seem ready to move on, some due to fatigue as the program has actually gotten tougher.It is only normal at this stage that some conversation has turned to “what’s next?”
On the other hand, we have riders who in the beginning were questioning their abilities or seemed little out of sync with the whole who have become stronger or found their place in the crowd as the tour has progressed. Individuals have found compatible partners for riding, socializing, and (educated guess) other extracurricular activities.A particularly happy turn has a group of riders who recently discovered the benefits of energy drinks cycling in a pack they call The Wild Cats (the name of the beverage). They have taken to growling as they pass others after high test refreshment stops.An unlikely 3’some consisting of a Swede, a Canadian and a German named Wolfgang have been dubbed the Wolfpack in response. all good fun. The counterpoint to “what’s next” is that most of us seem to be relaxing now that the “work” is almost done. There is a sense of relief and satisfaction.
The TDA staff seems to also be excited for their next assignments.2 members are headed to Tuktoyaktuk this summer to begin duties on TDA’s North American Epic which goes all the way to Mexico.Our assistant tour director is off to lead TDA’s Orient Express Ride from Paris to Istanbul (a ride we studied in 2014 for our own Istanbul to Amsterdam trip – blog from that trip available elsewhere on this page).Overall,tour leader Tallis and his staff have done an outstanding job looking after us.It is demanding work.The full time crew of 9 is up well before dawn and still cleaning up and making preparations for the next day when many riders are already curled up in their tents at 7:30 PM.The template for TDA’s many offerings across the globe was created here in Africa, and it works.
Years ago we were enchanted by a National Geographic article about the Skeleton Coast, a name coined for the northern section of the Namib Desert by the author John Henry Marsh for a book he wrote chronicling the shipwreck of the Dunedin Star.Portuguese sailors once referred to it as the “Gates of Hell”.The images of unspoiled dunes and preserved carcasses, of ships and animals, made it a place we have always talked about visiting.
We came close on this trip, descending the central escarpment into the Namib Desert to the south and east of the Skeleton Coast, missing out on the fog off shore which perpetrated the shipwrecks.Our visit to Sossusvlei and a “splurge” on a lodge within the Namib-Naukluft National Park, where oryx gathered at a watering hole in close proximity to where we sat sipping gin and tonics on our deck, may stand the test of time as a compromise.At a minimum, we did get a sense of how the name of the desert was derived from the Nama language.It means “the place where there is nothing”.
The uncharacteristic asterix indicating avery tough stretch was not an overstatement. Exiting the Namib Desert after our “worst nightmare” ride, the route turned south through more beautiful, harsh and thinly populated lands en route to Fish River Canyon, 2nd only in size in the world to the Grand Canyon. The 171 km finale was another desolate affair until the lush greenery of vineyards stunned us as we hit the Orange River. It was the 1st surface water we had seen in days.
Invigorating cool mornings and vistas channelling the moon and mars compensated for bad road conditions, most of the time. Support vehicles came along to replenish our water during impossibly long stretches with absolutely no signs of life. We did makethe most of a couple of stops catering to the thriving 4×4 tourist crowd (both run by former cattle ranchers who have been forced out of that line of work by drought) where we were treated to apple crisp with fresh whipped cream and bodum coffee if you please! Feast or famine. The Sesriem to Betta ride set the standard, but the line between road surfaces labelled as “your worst nightmare” and “tough gravel” is a thin one, and is moreover in a state of fluxdepending on the amount of grading that has taken place.The sheer number of hours to complete the rides has taken its toll.We’ve said it more than once, “stronger is better”, and this section had us feeling like we might be a little wanting.We were not alone. A lot of bikes spent days, half days and even minutes (when the sunlight curfew forced them off the roads) atop the support vehicles with their owners riding within.Some have lost their EFI status at this late stage.
A team “Olympics” event has been organized for our off day on the Orange River within sight of South Africa.Nothing like a little exercise! Tallis will be manning the braai (bar-b-que) afterwards.It will no doubt be an upbeat gathering with everyone conscious of making the most of our time together: one last week, 6 more adventures on bicycles, and a final gathering before our little society disbands.
Our wheels are pointed dead south for Capetown.The barren and desolate landscape of the Namib Desert and the dunes at Sossusvlei have restored the WOW factor to the Tour.All is as it should be, except for a growing feeling of dread that this will all end soon.
TDA calls the final section of the Tour Dunes and Atlantic.It began in Windhoek, easily the most modern looking city we have encountered in Africa. New roads are under construction and housing projects are climbing the many hills that comprise the city. We dined in fashionable eateries on delicious game meat (kudu, gemsbok and oryx), washed it down with South African wines and paid prices comparable to home. The group suffered a stolen phone and a shakedown for cash in a city where gated communities speak to the wealth disparity in a country with among the largest diamond and uranium deposits in the world and a thriving tourist industry.A 4 year drought has certainly contributed to high rates of unemployment and poverty. Africa is ground zero for the haves and the have nots.
30 km out of Windhoek we hit what will eventually total 891 km of dirt and gravel. Crossing the central Namibian plateau and eventually descending into the Namib desert after an epic 400 meter descent at Spreetshoogte Pass, in short order we experienced the the highs and lows of cycle touring.A 124 km ride into the town of Solitaire was one of the most exhilarating riding days of the trip. The highland scenery is reminiscent of Tucson minus the Saguaro cacti:the surrounding mountains cast in a rust colored hue as the new day dawns, giving way to ominous shadows as they become backlit with the shifting sun. The desert presented apricot colored dunes, dry pans and heat. Temperatures were 10 degrees cooler than the mid 40’s of Sudan, but there we had smooth surfaces to ride on.The roads themselves were rough, serving up stretches of deep sand to power through, bone jarring corrugation, but enough interludes of hard packed surfaces to allow us to make reasonable time on relatively fresh legs.It was a day during which the surroundings masked the strain, reminiscent of Ethiopia where at times we “could not pedal slowly enough”, a day like others in the deserts of Arizona and Texas which have us turning circles with the GoPro to capture on film 360 degrees of wide open space without a hint of civilization, save for the road.
The follow-up 83 km ride into Sesriem looked to be a walk in the park ahead of a rest day. Wrong. As has happened in the past, the low mileage fooled us.The road surface was less forgiving, forcing us off the bikes in stretches to search out navigable lines.The desert heat hit hard after lunch.With one TDA vehicle in Windhoek to tend to an unforeseen eventand a second support vehicle stranded for part of the day with a tire blowout, some riders were short on water.Spills resulted in broken phone screens, bruises and even stitches for some.A right turn with 12 km to go would normally have signaled relief and the welcome “home stretch”, but deep sand turned the distance into a an endurance test.
What a difference a day makes.
Sossusvlei is a large salt and clay pan in the Namib Desert set amid red sand dunes that rise 325 meters above the valley floor.The dunes are among the highest dunes in the world.We had the fortune of visiting them on our rest day at sunrise, climbing “Big Mama” before running down the dune to“Dead Vlei” where the dry riverbed and ancient treespresent a surrealcontrast to the surrounding dunes. Yet another unforgettable trip highlight.
Here is a link to a movie chronicling 3 days of our ride into Lusaka, Zambia. Enjoy, and thank you for following:
Giddy Up! Since entering Botswana we have had 9 cycling days sandwiched around a single off day in Maun. The average day’s assignment has been 162 km for a total of 1463. It hasn’t all been fun. We are tired in general, our rear ends are sore, and the only chocolate to be had at Easter was a smear of Nutella on a slice of white.
3 days ago the number was 208 km, the biggest of the trip and our lives, falling on a day with the added inconvenience of yet another border crossing. The morning had us packing up wet gear after violent thunderstorms through the night.Camp was set 3 km back from the tarmac on a sandy road forcing us to walk most of it’s length as the sun came up.We cleared customs at the Namibian border (country #9) at the 207 km mark and rolled into camp at Buitenpos with just enough time to set up the soggy tent before the skies opened up once again.Dinner, showers, SIM card navigation and $ exchange left little time for recovery.
The following 2 day’s rides were arguably more challenging. A welcome brisk and foggy morning ride and lunch proceeded a refueling stop in Gobabis, where we were so happy to see civilization that we gorged on cokes, milkshakes, capuccino (2 sugars) and a fist full of biltong before making a right turn which steered us directly into the teeth of a stiff afternoon wind for the last 50 km. The same weather pattern held for riders on the way into Windhoek, our home for a 2 day break.
Of course we knew about all these statistics going in.On some level the absolutes did not sink in. It was a kind of denial, a theory that we would work up to it, a blind faith that the wind would carry us as it had our predecessors from other years.Now that all has been revealed, we are frankly amazed what we, along with our fellow riders, all soldiers in a common battle, are capable of.
What we are less than enthusiastic about is the underwhelming scenery of the Elephant Highway section of the tour which has ended here in the capital city of Namibia.As reported earlier, elephant encounters on our bikes and in camp were the stuff of dreams.After the anticipation and excitement of the likeliest spotting opportunities (the 1st 2 days), however, we were left with the contourless scrub of the Kalahari, few towns, people or civilization of any sort.
So, after 3 months of escalating superlatives in this space, we admit to a brief lag in the story. It seems that we are at a juncture in the plot where the object is to lay down the miles in a hurry – while the scenery is wanting. No matter, we’ve got our eyes on the big picture, and there is much to come.
The Okavango, one of the world’s largest inland deltas, served as a bright spot in contrast to the long days spent cycling in the Kalahari. Vast quantities of wildlife shift with the seasons here in waters originating from the northwest in Angola that expand and contract with the season.It is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site..
We hope to return in the future for a multiday trip involving a mokoro (a dugout canoe complete with a poler), camping and hiking.This time around, we opted for a stunning overview of the verdant delta out of Maun from the window of a Cessna Caravan EX flying low enough to make out the animals among the shallow pools and twisting arteries of water.We saw elephants walking in processions and basking solo in streams, hippos by the dozen, giraffes, assorted antelopes grazing over large areas, water buffalo, wildebeest and a single large big cat that was identifiable by its slow and ominous progress across the endless green.The perspective from above provides an unforgettable sense of the beauty, bounty and transience of not just the Okavango, but of the continent’s fragile ecosystem in its entirety. This was certainly one of the most treasured gifts of our time here in Africa.
Thanks for your donations to SuitcasesForAfrica for the water project we have committed to.If you have not had a chance and would like to contribute, please specify “Shamoni Community Well” and do so here:
Among the side benefits of the Tour d’Afrique which we hadn’t focused in on during the planning phase are the incidental “stand alone vacation destinations” that we come across by design (or are offered access to with convenient excursions): theGreat Pyramids of Giza, the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, Abu Simbal, the Ngorongoro Crater, Victoria Falls and now Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta in Botswana.Arriving at these utourist destinations we look out of place in our limited selection of non biking garb, hobnobbing with purposefully dressed (invariably khaki safari suits with multiple pockets –indispensable for viewing wildlife) tourists primed to see world class monuments or the big five.We have spent the dollars and done the same thing ourselves in the past (minus the safari suit), so forgive us when we say that it feels like we are pulling a fast one on everyone around us when we drop in on these sites while just “passing through”.In our opinion, this is an underrated aspect of the tour.
Compared to some of the countries we have come through, Botswana is decidedly tame. It isAfrica’s oldest continuous democracy, has the lowest perceived corruption ranking on the continent, a fast growing economy (mining, cattle and tourism) and one of the highest per capital GDPs (18K in 2015). 700 km over the past 5 days have provided ample evidence that this is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world.
The Kalahari Desert covers about 85% of Botswana (and extends into South Africa, Namibia and Angola). The terrainconsists of trees, grasslands, scrub and thorny bushes. Exceptionally, the occurrence of the Okavango Delta region in this semi arid environmentis what makes it so unique. We miss the villages and schoolyards teeming with children.Wemiss the challenge of hills and release of the downhills in this flat land.But this section of the tour is labelled TheElephantHighway, and in that respect it has not dissapointed.
We left Zambia behind and entered Botswana at Kazungula, crossing the Zambezi River on a short ferry at a point where those 2 countries meet Zimbabwe and Namibia. A short (80 km) “shake out” ride for 8 newcomers who had joined us in Livingstone took us to Kasane, which is the launching point for tours on the Chobe River.
The Chobe Riverfront has one of the densest concentrations of wildlife in Botswana.The numbers are larger in the dry season later in the year, but over the course of 3 leisurely hours cruising the marshy river floodplain around Sedudu Island on a large pontoon style boat we saw crocodiles, hippos, kudu, water buffalo, elephants, marabou storks, Jacana (also known as “Jesus birds”for their seeming ability to walk on water) and fish eagles with yet another spectacular African sunset as a backdrop.
Over the next days we headed south to Natathrough Chobe National Park, forest reserves and vast tracts of sorghum, then west to Maun through Nxai Pan and Makgadkgadi National Parks. The protected areas are not continuous but wildlife roads freely in the Kalahari – another revelation. Even the 12K square kilometers of the wildlife rich Okavango Delta region is not actually a National Park or reserve.
Our nightly briefings gave us all but a guarantee of spotting elephants and other game, along with stern warnings to stay well clear.The promise was partially filled by abundant sightings of baboons, warthogs and impala before we had even cycled out of Kasane. By lunchtime some riders had seen elephants and giraffes, giving the rest of us hope.At the 170 km mark, a kilometer shy of camp, we spotted an elephant crossing the road in the distance past the TDA orange marker tape signalling the turnoff.Peter from Toronto and G. raced ahead for a closer look.It dissapeared into the forest just as 2 others emerged another 500 meters down the road.This time we were able to get much closer and snap some decent photos, including the “money shot” with a bicycle in the foreground.As we stood and watched, a giraffe poked its head above the forest canopy not far beyond the elephants. Magical.
The next day presented an even closer opportunity to admire these hulking creatures at a watering hole just off the road.A pair of them entertained us for a good while until a huge bull elephant entered the frame and hastened them off rather aggressively. He gave us a proper show of showering himself before lumbering on.We didn’t have as much luck the following day over the course of 182 km (with the unique prospect of having to go off route and add on even more km for coke stops along the barren route). Later at camp, as we ate, barely 50 meters away 2 huge elephants towered over our tents against the setting sun. They had our full attention as they picked their way through the campsite and crossed the road.A small herd of cows grazing in their path didn’t so much as look up. For them, and increasingly for us, it was just another day in Africa.
Life on the road has continued to be fun. Days have been a little more social as new couples have joined and we have been riding with them as they work on getting up to speed with the seasoned veterans.We tell them our “war” stories from Sudan and Ethiopia as we hunt for spots to pitch a tent among piles of elephant dung.“In” jokes and pranks have kept things lively. Cold beer is flowing more than before as our confidence builds.
Today will see us rubbing shoulders with more conventional tourists in Maun, the jumping off point for tours of the Okavango. We’llbe the scruffy looking lot.
500 kilometers in 3 days made quick work of our journey from Lusaka to Livingstone, Zambia. Quick, but not easy. Heavy afternoon rain showers had some riders scurrying for cover and dealing with setting up camp in wet conditions. A few normally easy going people took to analyzing the schedule, checking the RideWithGPS app for elevation profiles, and even opting to hop on the bus for half days. Torrential rain fell the entire day after our arrival in Livingstone, the 1st of 3 days off. The designated TDA camping area ended up under 6 inches of water in spots.There were casualties.All of this served as a reminder of how fortunate we have been with regards to weather. In theory we can rest easy because the usual rainy season, expected since Tanzania as much as 6 weeks ago, should be coming to an end. Then again, it snowed in Montreal last week.
For the record, we are in full comfort in a hotel.
David Livingstone was a physician, Christian missionary, explorer and one of the most popular British heroes of the late 19th century. He was obsessed with finding the source of the Nile and leveraged the fame he acquired in uncovering the watershed of central Africa to speak out against the East African slave trade.While mapping the course of the Zambezi River between 1852 to 1856, he became the 1st European to see “Mosi-o-Tanya” (“the smoke that thunders”), which he named after his queen: Victoria Falls. What a moment that must have been.
The falls are the 7th Natural Wonder of the World, yet another Unesco World Heritage Site and are, without a doubt, unforgettable.The water falls 108 meters along a 1.7 km wide strip in the Zambezi Gorge.We had the good fortune of seeing them in ‘93 from the Zimbabwe (better view) side in the month of November. At that time of year the curtain of water is most visible because the volume is at its lowest, diminishing the mist which in June can be seen from 50 km away. This time around we were properly drenched on the Zambian side and shared the pathways of the localized rainforest with playful baboons. From any vantage point, it is hard to come up with enough superlatives to describe what it is like to stand there in a poncho watching this spectacle. The only aspect of Niagara Falls which even comes close also entails a poncho: a ride on the Maid of the Mist.
The group has a break to enjoy the many activities on offer in Victoria Falls which are largely of the adventure variety. We can vouch for the white water rafting on the Zambezi which is rated the best single day trip of its kind in the world. When we resume our quest we will be joined by 8 new sectional riders and 2 returning from injuries. The (hopefully) rested veterans and fresh faces will set out on what TDA labels TheElephantHighway,the first half of the classic Victoria Falls to Cape Town cycling route. Ahead are some of the longest and flatest cycling days on the tour, including six centuries (100 miles) in seven days of riding. Yikes! On the bright side, we will also be riding through one of the most impressive wildlife habitats on the planet. We have been warned about getting too close to elephants that stand in our way. We are hoping that they do just that.