The Elephant Highway

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Sunset over the Zambezi

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 Ride With GPS 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.

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Victoria Falls

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.

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Next order of business: Victoria Falls to Windhoek, Namibia

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 The Elephant Highway,  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.

Thanks for reading.

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Zambia rising

Things We Have Learned In Africa

Today we bring you a random list of observations and lessons we have learned in our African travels to date.  Enjoy.

1. In Africa, it is not unusual to see 3 or more people on a bicycle.

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Family outing with valuable cargo securely fastened

2. Bicycles are the pick-up trucks of Africa (Malawi and Zambia at least).  3 riders have developed slight cracks in their light weight wheel rims on tour even though we have a sag wagon to carry our kit.   Bicycles need to be a little more rugged  in these parts.

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These bags of coal weigh 50 kgs each! These guys push their single speed bikes uphill, but they ride on the flats.  It’s no wonder so many of them have challenged us to “races” for kilometres at a time.

 

3. The rule of the road here is “right of weight” rather than “right of way”.  Busses in Sudan are the worst.  A donkey cart with passengers did not get out of the way of an oil tanker in time in Ethiopia – we will spare you the outcome.

4. Stronger is better.  This may well apply to everything, but as far as biking goes it means less hours in the saddle and more energy for other activities. We’ve been rolling out of camp around 6:30 AM lately on longer mileage days.   This sets up a 9:15 ish lunch and flexibility with “coke” stops to arrive in camp around 2:30PM.  That’s about 6 1/2 hours in the saddle.  The speedsters can arrive around noon, and laggards sometimes struggle to make the 5:30 rider meeting. 

What we have learned is to pace ourselves to build in enough time for  photography and interaction with fellow riders and natives, while arriving in ”camp” with ample time to set up our tent, clean up and unwind.  The 25 km stop on previous tours has turned into 40.  We can peel and eat a banana on the go.  When facing headwinds we sometimes ride in a pace line and take a less relaxed approach to get the job done.  

Stronger would be better, but luckily we are fit enough to enjoy almost every day.

5. A bucket of water is a lot of water! On many occasions there has been no water for washing up.  We have learned to make do with wet wipes, which  come in more varieties than you may be aware of.  In comparison, a single bucket of water is a godsend. A bucket of water can be hard earned over here, so this is not an exaggeration.

Here’s the drill: 

  • Secure bucket of water from local entrepreneur for about 50 cents and follow him/her to a designated private area – often a stall with a squat toilet which must be straddled with extreme caution
  • Using a bike water bottle or equivalent as a scoop,  wet hair
  • Wash hair with bar of soap (for G. “soap is soap”, but L. uses “products”)
  • Rinse hair and soap body with runoff.
  • Soap, rinse and repeat as necessary. 

Believe it or not, an average sized person in an advanced stage of ripeness will have enough water left over to wash a garment or two – set a water bottle with clean water aside for rinsing before using what’s left in the bucket as a wash tub.

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Lenore crosses another item off her “bucket” list

6. As bathroom facilities go, the desert is a good option. Shovels and an endless suppository of sand are better than 2 conventional installations for a group of 35. On the down side, darkness may offer the only privacy. When camping on the property of hotels/lodges etc., TDA rents 2 rooms for their shower and toilets.  We are a feral group of sweat laden, eating and drinking machines – African plumbing is usually not up to the task.

7. A tent is a safer and more controlled environment than a cheap African hotel room with no AC, air circulation and inadequate screening. Mosquitoes and heat cannot be taken lightly here.

8. The ground stays warm under a tent in the desert long after sundown, but it is wise to have a sleeping bag handy when falling asleep before the temperature drops.

9. The Tour d’Afrique version of “don’t judge a book by its’ cover” is to not to size up the ride ahead by statistics on paper alone.  Kilometres and elevation gain are absolutes, but the wind, weather, road surface and traffic are big factors. The tour itinerary is set up with empirical data, but occasionally a 150 km day classified in the log book as “moderate” because of usual prevailing tail winds turns into a monster when that wind shifts.

10. “EFI” (every f**ing) inch) is more about luck than ability.  Completing the Tour d’Afrique without missing a single inch is definitely a “thing” for some.  The chance of being thwarted by illness (a bout of gastro on bike is not pleasant), extreme heat, a split second of inattention leading to injury, or mechanical issues over 88 moving days is high.  Again, stronger is better, but grit is the more important requirement here.  For the record, we have each had to take 2 half days off.  Together, we have “couples”  EFI – we can be proud of that record.

11. 4 months is a long time. So much has happened since those 1st apprehensive days in Cairo that the experience in totality is almost surreal. Our lives here are driven by routine and we are so focused on the present that we rarely have time to reflect on events of the past 3 months. In any case, it is not an undertaking that can be easily summarized. When well spoken tour participant Romi flew back to Amsterdam to sign a document (timing her trip so as not to miss a single km of riding!) was asked by someone what it’s like to bicycle the length of Africa all she was able to muster was “it’s good”. 

Clearly it is a long tour when 2 riders are about to rejoin us here in Victoria Falls after flying home for periods long enough to mend broken bones! Many clothing items and equipment will not be making the trip home because they are literally worn out. Most of all, we miss family and friends. And the dog.

12. 4 months is not long enough. Now that we are accustomed to the simple daily routine of life on a TDA tour, time is passing quickly. The aggressive agenda means that we are not seeing many points of interest which are close by in relative terms.  There are also times when have to curtail our activities to preserve energy for the main objective (see “stronger is better” above). Alas, when has there ever been enough time for anything?

13. Beer is better cold, showers are better when warm, but we’ll take what we can get.  What we can get is more often than not a local pulling a “cold one” out of a pail of lukewarm water.  A cold shower trumps baby wipes and even a bucket of water any day. We’ve learned to appreciate the little things.

14. Africa is beautiful, diverse, conflicted, complicated, everything we expected, not what we expected and more than we expected. The experience is a privilege

Thanks for reading.

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Morning sky over Zambia

The Zambezi Zone

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Sucking on sugarcane. The population densities are diminishing – from 140/sq km in Malawi to 3 in upcoming Botswana and Namibia. We are going to miss the kids.

Our 1st trip to Africa was in 1993. We toured the capital city of Harare, the Eastern Highlands, Victoria Falls and several game parks in what was then one of the continent’s bright spots: Zimbabwe. Among the highlights of that trip was a canoe safari from the dam on manmade Lake Kariba to Chirundu on the Lower Zambezi River, which marks the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.  It was a memorable 3 days floating downstream toward Mozambique, drinking beer while keeping an eye on the crocodiles and hippos on the shoreline or waddling in the shallows. We were instructed not to navigate between a hippo and its escape route to the river’s banks. It is well known that they are responsible for more human fatalities than any other African animal, mosquitoes excluded.

In the 1950’s Zambia and Zimbabwe, along with Nyasaland (now Malawi) were part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, a self governing British colony.  Independance came in the early 60’s. When we visited in ‘93 Zambia was Zimbabwe’s poor cousin.  As of 2017, thanks to the ruinous policies of Robert Mugabe, the country’s respective fortunes have been reversed. On the surface it seems incredible that so many of these African nations fall victim to despotic leaders and corruption.  An honest look at human nature and the political systems in place is a step towards an explanation.  What is infinitely more incredible is that we can look GNP numbers up on the Google machine while sitting in a tent near a village where getting a cold soft drink is a challenge!

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“Zambezi Zone”

 

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A tough slog – mission accomplished

The tour is heading southwest now as we head to Namibia on the Atlantic side of Africa. TDA calls this 7th section of the Tour the Zambezi Zone. 

This segment began with a ride out of the Malawian capital of Lilongwe into Zambia: 158 km, yet another border, SIM cards, $ exchange, 2 milkshakes each, a flat tire repair and a swim in the pool (!!!) at camp all before dinner. Continuing along the Great Eastern Road, the major artery to Lusaka, 2 demanding days brought us alongside the Luangwa River.  From our camp we could see Mozambique across the river, which flows south into the Zambezi at a point where Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet.  

Over beers with Nick, an Irishman here riding with us who has knowledge of local geography and has gone “rogue” on this tour before, noted that we could paddle the 75 km downstream to the Zambezi and relive the memory of yesteryear’s canoe safari.  By the look of the villages of huts we have been cycling past, simple roadside vegetable stands and endless sacks of labour intensive charcoal for sale indicating the subsistence farming existence of the local people, it is hard to imagine that much would have changed along the remote shores of the Zambezi in the 26 years since we were there. Indeed, with the troubles in Zimbabwe keeping tourists away, it is quite possible that things may have moved in the wrong direction. 

Alas, even if this was a legitimate opportunity for us to go back in time, we are clearly past our “best before date” and have our hands full with the agenda at hand. A couple of days later Nick did find some other takers for an extra curricular route to Lake Kariba, from where they intend to take a ferry and eventually catch up with us at Victoria Falls.  We love the initiative.

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Zambia’s relative fortune became apparent as we neared Lusaka with signs for a future hospital and a Chinese operated “department store”  that didn’t look anything like the primitive villages we had just emerged from. The city itself is clean and modern with outsized shopping malls and a casino all financed by the Chinese.  An outspoken taxi driver ranted that the country is being “given away”.  Western powers seem to be alarmed at the Chinese influence in the region.  Here is a quote from Lubinda Haabazoka, president of the Economics Association of Zambia:

“The Government’s goal is to improve the lives and standard of living for Zambian citizens, to provide them with industry, jobs, hospitals, roads, and build the foundations of an economy that will thrive for a generation. China builds projects on time and offers up the capital to achieve this. It really is that simple. If Europe and America seek to have more skin in the game when it comes to their future geopolitical influence in Africa, then invest, lower trade tariffs, and help us build infrastructure by encouraging your businesses to invest. The ball, as they say, is firmly in their court.”

It is really that simple. Walls? Tariffs? We’ll leave it at that.

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The old and the new on the Great Eastern Road to Lusaka

The landscape in this country is reminiscent of the Adirondacks in terms of greenery and mountains.  The days have been demanding: high mileage, vertical and heat.  On the last ride into Pioneer Camp, on the outskirts of Lusaka where we are enjoying a day off,  a wrong turn on to a dirt road had us grinding through deep sand for some “bonus” kilometres, suffering in silence. Suddenly, a herd of 20 or so impala sprung across our path, gone as fast as they appeared.  Smiling, we pedalled on.

Thanks for reading.

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Young witness to a soccer game at Jehovah School Camp
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Stay tuned for future evidence of Lenore trying this trick

 

Malawi: “The Warm Heart of Africa”

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But is he to the left or the right?

The 5th section of the Tour d’Afrique began after a rest day in Mbeya, Tanzania. The scenery was breath-taking as we descended into the Rift Valley with Lake Malawi visible in the distance between sprawling  banana and tea plantations. We did not let the rising temperature and humidity interfere with our enjoyment of one of the most scenic stretches on our Capetown quest to date.

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5th section of the Tour d’Afrique
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Tea plantations in Tanzania’s breadbasket south of Mbeya

We checked out of Tanzania and cleared Malawi customs without any surprises – country, currency (kwachas), SIM card and Lonely Planet download number 6. Still, the combination of bureaucracy and steamy temps finally got to us and likely tempered our 1st impressions of this new country.  Vast rice paddies and usipa (a small sardine-like fish) laden drying platforms lined the shoreline of Lake Malawi. Enthusiastic children running carelessly onto the road ahead of us were, this time only, an irritant as we peddled to the village of Karonga on the shores of Lake Malawi.  

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Fisherman on Lake Malawi

We don’t often associate fresh water with this continent but the African Great Lakes actually contain more water by volume than our own Great Lakes.  The largest by surface area (3rd in the world) is Lake Victoria, followed by Lake Tanjanyika (2nd largest by volume and depth). Lake Malawi ranks 3rd in Africa by surface area and accounts for almost a 1/3 of the surface area of the country. It has more fish species than any other inland body of water in the world. Sadly, the risk of bilharzia kept us from swimming in it. A few among our ranks took the plunge, but they will need to take preventative medicines upon their return home and undergo blood tests for parasitic flatworms that can cause liver failure.  We’ve reserved that role for alcohol.

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This haunting image was taken in an unventilated former school classroom repurposed for cooking over open fires.

Malawi is a poor country. We could see it in the houses with roofs of straw and walls of roughly hewn bricks set among the rice paddies as soon as we entered the country.  Because english is widely spoken here, we could understand when told as much by just about everyone we talked to: an idle young man  in Karonga  lamented that there are no jobs to be had, an elementary school teacher we engaged in conversation while cycling who pointed to his bicycle as evidence of his lack of means, an entrepreneurial sort on the beach at Chitimba who was counting on jobs promised by candidates in upcoming elections, and most disturbingly from young women cooking nsima (the staple of the Malawi diet – a thick paste made from ground white maize flour) over open fires in an unventilated, repurposed classroom at the Liviri School where our TDA travelling show set up camp for a night.  

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Somehow, people find a way to get what they need.

Despite all this everyone is friendly. The jobless young man in Karonga  considered himself fortunate to have recently married and is looking forward to god blessing him with a child.  The biking teacher was accurate in linking his means of transportation to economic hardship insofar as fuel shortages have beset Malawi, but he considers himself fortunate to have work at all.  The hustler on the beach in Chitimba offered to take us fishing, weaved a “Malawi” bracelet right in front of us as we spoke, and tempted us with his teak wood carvings (which, unfortunately, we had no hope of carrying home).  Somehow, people find contentment and a way to get what they need. This must be why Malawi has a reputation as being “The Warm Heart of Africa”.

What is easy enough to see in real life is confirmed in Lonely Planet download number 6: this is a country grappling with political corruption, unsustainable population growth, and one of the world’s highest HIV/ AIDS rates. Sadly, more than one person we spoke to said they would not be voting in upcoming elections, including the well spoken owner of a cafe and art gallery we happened upon in Lilongwe.  She seemed resigned to the fact that  corruption on all levels is an incorrigible way of life in the country.  As an aside, we asked her if the modern, completely out of sync parliament buildings we had come across were a misappropriation of government funds.  Nope.  They were a “gift” from China.

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No worries

We had a day off the bikes at Chitimba Beach on Lake Malawi. A kindred spirit (and Dutchman to boot) and his wife have built up an impressive compound with a camping area, comfortable cabins and a restaurant.  The place is a real find for TDA.  Liquor flows freely and we are responsible for our own meals on off days, so business was good. He is doing well with overland tours originating in Nairobi or coming up from Victoria Falls, but he is dismayed by the fact that this can bring in 60 young people laying about,  staring at their phones and complaining when amenities don’t meet 1st world standards.  The place is for sale. If you are looking for a lifestyle change we can hook you up with a motivated seller.

Leaving the lake the route headed south and west, climbing up the escarpment into the Rumphi Valley, part of the central plateau of Malawi.  We had our 1st real rain and a welcome dip in temperature with the elevation gain. The 4 day stretch on the bikes started out on the challenging side with 2 of the biggest climbing days of the entire tour, then eased.up as we reached the capital city of Lilongwe. The scenery was lush, but Malawi has issues with deforestation,  so it was good to see plantings of large tracts of fast growing, non endemic eucalyptus and pine trees . We wondered out loud if the high percentage of cropped land is the reason for the comparatively few numbers of  cattle and goat herds which we have been dodging in every other country on this trip, but apparently it comes down to cost and unsuitable grasses for grazing.  

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Riding the “train” into headwinds on the way to Lilongwe. We are at the rear.

We are over the 6000 km mark.  Jen, the tour doc, says it is normal to be feeling fatigued at this stage, but the drivetrains, mechanical and flesh, are hanging in there. The desert seems like a lifetime ago.  Every day, clipping  in to the pedals and making those 1st rotations of the legs is a reset, the beginning of another adventure, a fresh canvas and a 1000 faces to discover. The roughly cut video below captures a single day’s ride and a little bit of fun recently in Tanzania.

Thanks for your donations to Suitcases For Africa for the  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:

https://www.canadahelps.org/en/dn/13271

Thanks for reading.

 

 

Tested in Tanzania

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Headed out early AM on the dirt

Thanks for your contributions to the  Suitcases For Africa well project which we have committed to Fund with your help.  If you missed the last post it is available in the archives.  If you have not yet had a chance to donate you may do so here:

https://www.canadahelps.org/en/dn/13271

 

Now, back to our little bike trip.

We have mentioned previously in this space that there is no “hand holding” for participants on the part of staff here on tour, so we ought to have been suspicious when tour leader Tallis gave us a pep talk after the group returned from various safaris near Arusha – allegedly to ward off what he called the “mid tour blues”.  We suspect that his timing had more to do with the fact that we were about to embark on a 7 day run with some impressive stats: 934 kilometres, 439 of them on dirt/gravel/sand, 8180 meters of vertical, 3 nights with only a bucket shower and 1 with no water for bathing at all.  We were warned that we are now in a malaria zone, that tsetse flies are an issue (they were -think horse flies in appearance and bite – not as painful but with potentially greater consequences), and to be very cautious of street food because of typhoid and dengue fever outbreaks.  On the penultimate night, the one preceding 2150 meters of climbing before the end point in Mbeya, the bars adjacent to our camping area would blast music until 3:00 AM, exactly 1 hr and 50 minutes before the local Imam was to join the roosters in announcing that it was “go” time once again.  Tallis was doubtlessly anticipating issues.

We are pleased to report that we both completed EFI (every f#*king inch of this section – a goal which is important to a handful of riders for the entire Cairo to Capetown route), but it wasn’t easy. We certainly have been tested in Tanzania. 

Oh . . . and it was magnificent!

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At least once a year we cycle to the family retreat “Mountain-View”, in the Adirondacks. A recently introduced weekend ferry service between Les Cedres and the Valleyfield Islands has made this into a pleasant ride of 128 km, all but a short section of it paved.  We always make sure to have someone available to take us to our dock across the lake when we arrive to avoid the last 8 km to the cottage.  The specific reason for this is that the road surface is gravel.

The 4th day of this stretch was also a 128 km ride, 100% of it sand and gravel. As in the case of the cottage ride ferry-to-dock service, a lot of forethought went into making sure we would be able to handle this section of the tour (along with a longer stretch of dirt upcoming in Namibia).  It began with acquiring Trek 920 bicycles, which are quick enough on good surfaces, but also rugged and built to fit 2.2 inch mountain bike tires for traction when conditions demand it. Inflated to a low 35 psi, they allowed us to plow through sand and absorb bumps at speed on the downhills. This full immersion on gravel has taught us to trust our equipment in the same way that we trust the edges of our skis and snowboard on icy surfaces, surely making us better all around cyclists.  At least that’s what we would have us believe.

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Off to school

The 7 challenging days began in Arusha with 2 century rides.  The  terrain consisted of lush rolling hills with stands of corn, sunflowers, bananas, and endless processions of school bound children in electric blue uniforms.  On day 2 we chased down the distant volcanic Mt Hanang, Tanzania’s fourth-highest mountain. We came up even with it by lunch, then watched it fall off behind as we pedalled on to Singada.  We pinpoint these landmarks on maps ahead of time, then take satisfaction in conquering them – obstacles between us and Capetown.  

On day 3, a right turn precluded us from sticking to the tarmac and riding through the Tanzanian capital of Dodoma (great trivia question).  The longer paved option would have meant an extra day of riding.  Instead, we met with gravel and proceeded alongside the Rungwa and Usungu Game Reserves over the next 3 days. Once again lucky riders had giraffes cross the road in front of them. A reliable spot to see hippos was a bust, but we did see baboons and vervet monkeys. As for the natives, other than subsistence farming, wood (for fuel) collecting and child rearing there seemed to be a lot of hanging about in the small villages. As usual, there was no shortage of children.  At times it seems that every eligible woman has a baby hanging off her back or front wrapped in a blanket with its head bobbing about. 

At our campsite on the grounds of Biti Mayanga School, we watched children in their uniforms tilling the land with hoes as an after school activity.  A supervising teacher explained that this is part of their practical education.  He told us that there are 10 teachers for the 1200 students, and that there is a shortage of books and sporting equipment.  We did our best to compensate by bringing out the frisbee.  It works every time – a hundred or more squealing kids swarming like black flies until darkness falls and the strange white biking people retreat to their tents with their toy.  

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Future tarmac
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Richard- happy to see the end of 439 km of gravel

 

The best was saved for last: an epic day of riding into Mbeya. 

In his book Kapp to Cape, author/cyclist Reza Pakravan sets out to bicycle from the northern tip of Norway to Cape Town in 100 days (in pursuit of a Guinness Book record).  He followed the same route as the Tour d’Afrique through northern Kenya, but describes the picture perfect highway we were met with from the Kenyan border at Moyale to Isiolo (north of Nairobi) as “the worst road in the world”.  He takes more time to describe the hardships encountered on that stretch than any other in the entire 18K km journey.  We had a first hand view of the conditions he was talking about. It is still there for all to see, right next to the pristine strip of tarmac we were lucky enough to ride on.  

That was only a few years ago.   Had there been rain, our 439 km of gravel here in Tanzania would have just as trying as Pakravan’s ordeal in Kenya. Still, it was difficult enough to make the comparison fair.  

The final 35 km of gravel was on rough and steep surfaces.  Right next to this goat path a new road was being built. We cycled on the dirt surface beside the construction in progress to Chunya Town, the point from which the southbound route to Mbeya is already paved.  Rumor has it that the paving will eventually lead all the way back to that right turn we made on day 3.  An  impressive array of equipment, African workers and a handful of Chinese foremen are hard at work as you read this, taming the Tour d’Afrique route for future editions. 

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Climbing north of Mbeya
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East African Rift Valley
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Taking a moment

 

Back on pavement, day 7 culminated in an epic climb to Loleza Peak overlooking the Rift Valley at 2656 meters.  The views from the summit of a region which has been described as the “Scotland of Africa” were the best of our trip to date.  On full display are the ridge of the East African Rift and the valley floor below, which eventually will become a sea and split the African continent.  We took plenty of time to savour it, then raced 20 km downhill into Mbeya for a well deserved (at least that’s what we would have us believe) rest day. 

Check out TDA’s wonderful video below featuring Lenore.  Thanks for reading.

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Familiar sight
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Peek-a-boo
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Giving mom a break
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Family outing
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Looks like the cover of a rock album
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Lenore & Fred on the road out of Arusha