The top tier challenges of the Tour d’Afrique have presented themselves one at a time.
The 1st one came before even setting foot in Africa: preparing for a trip of this length and magnitude – fear of the unknown. Once underway, our customary way of life required some retooling in order to deal with certain realities/inevitabilities of the Tour d’Afrique: desert camping (farewell water & electricity), extreme heat (mid 40’s) followed by stiff head winds piled on top of the heat which made for a trying 3 day stretch in the Nubian Desert.
Then came Ethiopia.
During our 17 days there (the longest we will spend in any country) we reached the highest elevation we will see on the tour (3122 meters) and climbed the mountains to get there. Lots of mountains. We experienced the intensity of villages swarming with natives, not all of them well mannered. We were scrutinized at lunch stops and camp sites by large gatherings, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, restricted by perimeter ropes. We had one of our riders return home (hopefully temporarily) with a bone fracture after a serious fall. We took the plunge and sampled the unique Ethiopian cuisine and drunk the coffee of the nation where it was invented, paying the price with gastro issues requiring antibiotics we are loath to take. We washed them down with ubiquitous bottles of coke and 2nd rate sugar snacks (no Miss Vickies Salt & Vinegar chips on the shelves here) that we would normally avoid but are mandatory fuel here. It’s all good. We’re more than happy to have died just a wee bit for the stunning beauty of this complicated and enchanting place.
We entered Kenya at the cross border town of Moyale with the usual drama. This time our “money exchange man” had been vetted beforehand and outfitted, for identification purposes, with the orange tagging tape wrapped around his forehead (our crew uses it everyday at intersections to mark our route) – another frenetic scene with wads of cash being exchanged in a throng of humanity and African style mayhem – this within view of evidence of a tribal uprising which the military had put a violent end to recently, although any chalk outlines related to the “investigation” of the dozen or more fatalities had long since dissolved into the red earth.
The British were in charge here once upon a time, and as a result we’ll have to get used to riding on the left side of the road. We have a long straight shot down the Addis-Nairobi Highway, so we have an easy adjustment period. There are more top tier challenges ahead, however. In Tanzania – if not before – we will have to deal with the rainy season. Finally, the outstanding road conditions we have had (for the most part) on our journey will hit some speed bumps.
Northern Kenya is a lava rock desert that had terrible rutted roads in earlier versions of this tour. We rode into the market city of Marsabit yesterday on smooth surfaces. We can expect good conditions on our route throughout Kenya. In Tanzania we will encounter 500 km of dirt through the middle of the country. It will be muddy if it rains. We will switch to wider mountain biking tires for this section. As our route takes a turn westward we can expect good tarmac until we reach Namibia. In that country most of the 1400 km are a mix of sand, hard-packed clay, dirt, loose gravel, and corrugation. The TDA literature we signed off on warns us to “be prepared at this late stage in the tour to be challenged once again”.
The 1st riders of this route back in the early 2000’s had to deal with much tougher road conditions – mostly gravel (and worse). We have foreign governments to thank for the improvements, with China at the head of the list. That country’s remarkable growth has fueled a steadily rising demand for oil, minerals and other primary commodities, many of which are abundant in sub-Saharan Africa. It has become a major development partner for countries throughout the continent, and its trade, investment, diplomatic, and political relationships continue to strengthen.
Some accuse China of behaving like former colonizers as it acquires raw materials like oil, iron, copper and zinc to fuel its own economy. Its supporters, on the other hand, say that initiatives to build and improve infrastructure such as roads, railways and telecom systems have been a boon to Africa’s manufacturing sector, freed up domestic resources for other critical needs such as health care and education, and aided everyone doing business on the continent. The colossal ($3 trillion eventually!) “One Belt, One Road” project – a “Silk Road” type network of land and sea links connecting Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa is expected to benefit the African countries along the route. China has already financed and built a $4 billion railway between Djibouti to Addis Ababa, the continent’s first transnational electric railway. In Kenya, a Chinese firm has built a new railway connecting Nairobi to the country’s port city of Mombasa.
We are not going to comment on what this means for this continent or the world at large (but we can’t resist pointing out that while this is going on the Americans are spending their $ and energies on building a wall). We saw many Chinese factories south of Addis Ababa taking advantage of the cheap labour that “made in China” once implied. Some might call this progress. On the other hand, a Chinese built soccer stadium we saw erected in Costa Rica “over night” involved an exchange for fishing rights – this seems a little short sighted, at least.
Within our sights is the road ahead, and we are happy that it will be on excellent pavement. We may be just 1st world tourists passing through, but as we ride through an endless string of villages on our way to Capetown, the impact on air quality and commerce that a paved main artery entails is blatantly obvious. The natives here are not questioning where the money for this is coming from. Stressing over world domination is not among their day to day concerns. We are happy for them.
Thanks for reading.