From the daily white board for May 1st:
Stage 78, Sesriem to Betta, Namibia
Elevation gain: 880 meters
Road condition: your worst nightmare!
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 Sossusvlei in 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 jarring corrugation, 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 a very 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 make the 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 flux depending 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.
Thanks for reading.