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.
Thanks for your contributions to theSuitcases 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:
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!
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 thecottage.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.
The 7 challenging days began in Arusha with 2 century rides.Theterrain 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 the1200 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.
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.Animpressive 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.
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.
As we make our way to Ethiopia here is one last image from Sudan.Sadly the line up of vehicles is the result of a long standing gas shortage (relatively recently independent South Sudan has the oil). The line up of young typically smiling gentlemen was spontaneous as the camera made an appearance.
We just were told at this evenings’ rider meeting that we will be bussed to Gondar from the Ethiopian border due to political unrest. Whereas this is disappointing for the participants, it is a logistical nightmare for the organizers. Clearly the safety of all concerned is the chief concern.
The www has been hard to access in Sudan. The lack of distractions has given the group every chance to grow together. It has been a pleasure.
30 riders began the 2019 edition of the Tour d’Afrique. We lost 3 “sectional riders” in Khartoum and gained 5. We now have 7 women, 3 of whom are travelling with their husbands. One of the couples have kids in their 40’s and are on their. 5th tour with TDA, including the even longer South American Epic. Bicycle touring royalty.
The sweet spot in terms of age is around 60 – post “retirement”.It does, after all, take time anda chunk of change to do this.There are about 10 riders in the 30- 35 bracket.Canada is the best represented country, but we also have a few Brits, a couple of Dutchmen, a Swede, a German, an Irishman and a smattering , of Aussies and Kiwis. We have one woman who is of Chinese descent and a gentleman of Indian descent, but the rest of us here in Africa are slapping sunscreen on our exposed bits like it’s a matter of life or death.Perhaps it is.
Among the recently retired we have the former head of the paediatrics ICU at Sick Kids, a former federal court judge from Montreal and a NFB documentary maker turned novelist.We have a welder. Phil kept a heard of 3200 ewes on the South Island of New Zealand. We have a British geologist on leave from a contract in Rwanda who rallied the group to visit the ancient Nubian temples at Jebel Barkel. We have an architect, retired military, real estate movers and a former corporate lawyer who lasted 3 weeks at home with his wife before signing on as a bike mechanic at MEC!
Everyone here has his or her own variation on the dream of crossing Africa on a bike.For us, this trip is the culmination of many years of increasingly challenging and exotic bicycle touring. We like journeys that don’t double back on themselves. Crossing a continent qualifies. After 10 years of circling back to the TDA webpage, it was time. Others have lived or worked in Africa and see the trip as “coming home”. Some like to cycle fast and are here to exert themselves on new terrain with new challenges to overcome. Speed bumps and wayward donkeys are unwanted distractions. Others are comfortable enough on their bikes, but are more interested in the sites and the people of Africa, getting to the day’s destination a little later. For them, distractiions make the miles go by quickly. And then there is Mats, who on a given day will head out of camp at the back of the pack with the sweep rider to enjoy a more social riding experience, and the next day might be the first to wash his porridge bowl as he prepares to blaze a trail to camp hours ahead of the last arrivals.
We’re not being dramatic in saying that participants have to be accepting of some “difficult” living conditions on this tour. The leaders are champs at giving us every advantage to realize our dream, but they are unsympathetic when it comes to mitigating hardships – “there is no water for washing up” is not preceded by “sorry, but . . .” .Many of us have been sick. A gastro case in the group needed hospitalization. Orthopedic support tape provides support for knees,ankles and achilles tendons. A bad flu and chest infections requiring antibiotics hit many, including both of us.Jennifer, our amenable tour medic, keeps stressing that it is better to rest and keep the long game in mind. She is the voice of reason, but everyone here is stubborn.Every one of us would rather ride a bike than the bus.
To a certain extent self preservation is tantamount. There is jostling for the “shady” tent spot. The line forms quickly when “open kitchen” is called for second helpings.The sound of tent zippers could be heard earlier and earlier over the last days as the realization hit that cool mornings trump afternoon heat. We’ve seen this before. It will change once everyone figures out that minutes don’t make a big difference over the course of a day, and certainly not over 4 months.
At the same time there is a blossoming collective effort which we all recognize works to everyone’s advantage. On the road casual pace lines form when the wind is not in our favour. We help each other with flats tires, putting up tent flys that won’t cooperate in the wind and reminders to hydrate for the weary looking.Riders have been rolling into camp to applause on the hard days, lead by the strongest among us who know that the additional hours on the road mean less time for other tasks and rest, compounding the deficit. Stronger is better, period. There is mutual respect. Lasting relationships are being formed.
The cast and crew of the Tour d’Afrique area travelling sideshow of vehicles and cyclists playing leapfrog across a continent, a tribe unto themselves. Our back stories served as ice breakers in Cairo. Now we are all the same, dreamers with one purpose, to ride our bicycles and get the most out of each day until we reach Capetown.
Here is a promotional video called “I Seek” from TDA which might help to explain this, and maybe even spark a dream of your own.
We have now surpassed the 2000 km mark and completed Pharoah’sDelight, the 1st of 8 sections of the tour ending just outside of Khartoum. We were bussed through that city for safety.Looking at the mayhem and sprawl through the windows we reflected on the words of the travel writer Paul Theroux, who wrote in DarkstarSafari, his chronicles of an overland Cairo to Capetownjourney in 2002:
“Even at their best, African cities seemed to me miserable improvised anthills, attracting the poor and the desperate from the bush and turning them into thieves and devisors of cruel scams.Scamming is the survival mode in a city where tribal niceties do not apply and there are no sanctions except those of the police, a class of people who in Africa generally are little more than licensed thieves.”
Harsh words, which we would not hazard to comment upon. We certainly hope for a good outcome for the people of this country who have struggled under economic sanctions since 1997.
We are excited about the next phase of this year’s Tour d’Afrique: TheGorge. This 1250 km section comes with a TDA “far out” rating of 5 on 5.We will head south from Khartoum and pass through the Gezira region – the “bread basket” of Sudan. Approaching Ethiopia, the mosques we have seen in every town will give way to the more tribal and traditional nature of the Horn of Africa. We will have to set the alarm clocks in the absence of the 5:00 AM call to prayer.
Ethiopia offers some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world, as well as one of its most unique and ancient cultures. Our work will be cut out for us as soon as we cross the border, with two days of climbing up to Gondar (2500 meters worth on arrival day – the most of any stage on the tour).
We will be encouraged to sample the spicy local cuisine and somehow avoid the well documented “problems” it may give us. From a cycling standpoint, the highlight of this section will be the Blue Nile Gorge, a 1360 meter precipitous descent and ascent that will test our nerve. After that, the beautiful terrain of the central Ethiopian plateau will see us through to capital city of Addis Ababa.
We have a rest day today. Time to do laundry, bike maintenance and charge up devices. We will be entertained by traditional Sudanese musicians later this afternoon. The next 6 days will bring a change of scenery and new challenges.
Tallis (tour leader): “Tomorrow’s instructions are very simple: turn rightout of camp, travel 145km, turn right into camp.”
Rider #1: “Will there be any water for a bottle shower or laundry?”
Tallis: “I don’t know yet. But thereis the Nile.”
Rider #2: “Is there bilharzia in the Nile?”
Tallis: “The risk is low.But you have to make your own decisions.”
Rider # 3:“Are there any crocodiles in that section of the river?”
Tallis: “Stick to the areas where there is a current.”
We entered Sudan with the expected fuss: a 2 hour wait to exit Egypt, then another hour to clear Sudanese customs.An earlier ferry ride from Abu Simbel and a quick 35 km from the opposite bank of LakeNassarto the border brought us to lunch time, which the crew served up in the “no man’s zone” between borders, effectively turning the buffer area into a buffet area.Great use of down time. We experienced a similar scenario a few years ago between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, except that in that buffer zone all manner of opportunists, including money changing cowboys waving “bricks” of cash at panicky tourists, were permitted to conduct their business with machine gun toting police from 2 countries turning a blind eye.Beyond comprehension.The activity here was much lower key, the border mosque blasting the usual prayers being the exception.
The 1st miles in Sudan looked like a video feed from a surface rover on Mars. We made good time through the unscathed desert to allow time for “housekeeping” duties at camp. The first order of affairs was to swap $200 US through the window of a pick-up truck for 12K (or a 2 inch high stack) of Sudanese pounds. The rate was roughly 3X the “official” rate. The next acquisition was a couple of SIM cards from another African entrepreneur who showed up at the local municipal sandlot (our home for the night) to feed our internet habit.We’ll see if the downloaded VPN workarounds for social media get us anywhere. If you are reading this you have the answer! Like in Myanmar and other countries, WhatsApp and the like have been used to fuel escalating protests against the government, so they shut them down. Short term for a regime under duress. We’ll have to repeat this new country “reset” 8 more times before we’re done.
Commerce Africa style
“Out of Arabia and into Africa” is how Stevie from Tanzania, one of our drivers, described crossing the border. The faces are darker, bodies longer and thinner.Islam has a tighter hold. There will be no beer or alcohol of any kind to smooth out the kinks of days on the bike. In Abusara, a small gold mining town where it seemed that every man in the world with a metal detector had gathered, we – I should say Lenore – quickly garnered a crowd of about 30 wide eyed men at the Coke stop. Few tourists make it to Abusara. We have no souvenir of this, however. Photography is by permission only. Women (when we see them)seem never to give permission.Pity, they are shrouded in bright ad colourful dresses. Giggling teenaged girls did engage us in “conversation” as we ate in Dongola, where it had been difficult to communicate to anyone the simple need for a restaurant.We stand out here.
Children surround us at camp. We have seen pictures from previous tours where onlookers have had to be roped off, with galleries several bodies deep. So far that has not been necessary. The kids seem to have some savvy when it comes to putting up tents. They work for cokes – or at least the money we give them for that purpose because coke is the obvious currency.We are not sad to see it pocketed for other uses.
Breakfast has been moved up 15 minutes for the early birds to rack up some miles before the heat. The sun did not get the memo, so we’re pulling up tent pegs under the moonlight. For us lunch is usually before 10:AM and we are into camp by 2:00 easily.
145 km. Check. We bathed in the Nile (surprisingly cool) and are here to tell you about it.Another great , uncomplicated day in our March across the continent.
We are leaving Egypt: the land of a million Police Check Points. The hope of the Arab Spring is all but forgotten. General Sisi’shold over the country seems to be persevering since the removal by the military of the Muslim Brotherhood from power.“This country needs strong leadership to counter the natural state of corruption”, is the opinion expressed to us by more than one national we have spoken to.Lesser evils.
Ahmed from Cairo has been cycling with us for the last week, as he has done at the invitation of TDA for 6 years now. He has recently moved to Germany for work, but even now maintains the position that the rest of the world would be better off with security checks in every town and public area. He talks candidly about this after a “warm up” session. Catch our conversation here:
Ahmed is intelligent and content like most of the people we have encountered in Egypt (although in many cases with more than a hint of resignation). Clearly we have different outlooks on the outward appearances of a “civilized” society, but listening to his conviction it is also obvious that we need to have understanding. South of our Canadian border there are calls to arm school teachers.Ahmed might agree, but only on the basis of what he knows from his upbringing here. He was raised in a country which has gone far beyond those measures.
Tomorrow we cross our 1st border into Sudan. Social media sights have been shut down in that country due to political unrest. We just learned at our rider meeting that a planned rest day in Dongola has been cancelled to give us time to circumnavigate the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. TDA has deemed that city too dangerous at the present time.
Safety on Tour
The legal system in Sudan is based on Islamic sharia law.Stoning and crucifixion (!) remain judicial punishments in Sudan. Flogging is legal. Sudan’s public order law allows police officers to publicly whip women who are accused of public indecency.
Sudan is currently ranked 174th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. The country’s economy has deteriorated over the years, with soaring inflation of 70 percent and regular bread and fuel shortages hitting several cities. In the last months, with his political allies defecting, economic turmoil worsening and street protests erupting across the country almost every day, President al-Bashir is seeing his power slowly ebb away.
TDA Cycling sent us a series of bulletins in the weeks prior to our arrival in Cairo.The “racier” ones came after they had our payment (or so it seemed). Here is an excerpt from the bulletin entitled “Safety”:
“Prior to the running of each tour, we conduct an internal review of the risks involved. This review often results in logistical changes in advance of the tour or even during the tour when the situation requires it. These changes are often minor but sometimes major changes are needed. Here are two examples of major changes that have occured on previous editions of this tour:
Deciding before the tour began not to cycle in Ethiopia on the 2017 edition of the tour due to civil unrest and protests
Deciding while the tour was in progress not to cycle through Kenya on the 2008 edition of the tour due to post-election violence”
The reality is there are risks in any and all countries, any outdoor activity, and any physical pursuit. We do our utmost to mitigate risk and create a safe environment for all clients, but risks do exist. Most of the risks are not easy to categorize, and cannot be predicted far in advance, but the items below are some of the most likely risk areas that you should be aware of:
Conservative clothing (especially for women) in Muslim Egypt and Sudan. Women should also not ride alone in these countries.
Beware of rock throwing children and young adults in Ethiopia.
Beware of bandits along the East Africa Highway in northern Kenya.
Beware of elephants and lions along the Elephant Highway in Botswana.
We have had a wonderful day touring Ramses II’s monuments dedicated to his queen Nefertari: tombs actually disassembled and rebuilt further up the banks of Lake Nasser which was created by the construction of the Aswan dam in the early 1960’s. The temples would otherwise been lost.
It was a comfort to see that an in international effort of archaeologists and engineers could work with the Egyptian government and Unesco for this cause – safe keepers of antiquity and the chance for others to experience what we have in Egypt.
Now our journey’s 1st wrinkle – nothing to worry about, but a possibility that we will not be blogging any time soon.
Our desert camp last night could not even provide a “bottle shower”.Enter The Body Wipe – an oversized moist towelette created as a shower replacement. Our homework before we embarked on this journey promised good results.We had doubts.Mercifully, it did the job!We are being thrown new challenges every day and are taking them on one at a time, going with the flow.
In ancient times, the predictability and fertile soil of the Nileallowed the Egyptians to build an empire based on agricultural wealth.As we rode our bicycles south from Luxor, against the flow of the Nile,we passed through villages with teeming populations whose farming activity form a large part of the economic backbone of the country.
The Nile is the longest in the world at 6,650 km. It’s drainage basin covers10% of the African continent over 11 countries, 4 of which we will be traversing on this tour: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. By comparison, geography buffs might be interested to know that the 3760 km Mississippi drains 40% of the continental United States.
The farm country was a welcome change from the 1st few days in the open desert.As we rolled into villages children ran at us hoping to get a “high five” as they tested their english – “Hello!”, “ What is you name?”, “ I love you!” And the occasional “Money! Money!” Donkey driven carts laden with the alfalfa that is currently being harvested join tuk tuks and assorted other vehicles on the imperfect roads, forcing us to be vigilant.Farmers tending to sugar cane, bananas, onions, cauliflower, cabbage and even rice crops respond with big grins to our easily offered waves.Most of them are thrilled to pose for a photo.Any group of cyclists pulling over for a coke stop (critical tour d’Afrique term for cold drink and snack opportunities) brings about a flurry of attention. We are undeserved rock stars.
A Day in the Life
TDA runs a tight ship to everyone’s benefit.Just over 30 is a large group. Schedules must be respected.“Going with the flow” is a requirement.Here is the agenda for a day on tour:
Before breakfast each person’s 90 litre bag must be deposited outside the overlander transport vehicle for transfer to that night’s campsite ( FYI we have another 90 litre “permanent bag” to which we only have access on rest days). This means a 5:00 AM alarm in our case, allowing enough time to deflate sleeping pads and pillows, dress, pack clothes,camp gear, electronics, tear down tent, load bikes with necessities for the day’s ride, initiate navigation “toys”, and take care of personal hygiene.
Breakfast – 6:30 AM, preceded by coffee at 6:15.Hygiene is critical in this closed society. A visit to the handwashing station before every meal is obligatory.Dishes and cutlery undergo a traditional wash/rinse/bleach washing process before and after meals with each participant washing their own. Finally, an industrial sized ladel’s worth of porridge is served up cafeteria style, into which riders introduce a myriad of sweet or fruity enhancements. Yogurt is also available.
Departure – riders leave camp any time after the leader’s vehicle has has a chance to go out and hang biodegradable orange flagging tape at route junctures. The “rabbits” are the 1st to go.Yours truly are middle of the pack types. On some days we are advisedto cycle in groups, but we are left to our own discretion.Over time the group’s will sort themselves out, either along lines of friendship or survival.Watching this is part of the fun.
Lunch – usually just past the half way point of the day’s distance (average 130 km).So far – always in the middle of nowhere.There is a check in with a TDA staffer–stories of riders who have gotten lost are in the vault for now.The group will have to prove itself before the leaders start “sharing” more.We are still rookies.A sweep rider ( back of the pack) from TDA is there to pick up the pieces should any difficulties arise. Same sanitation rules apply at a pull-off in the desert. Food buffet style.“Dine and dash” at one’s own leisure. This is often a good time for a walk into the sandy beyond with a shovel in hand.
Camp – check in. A restorative soup (a signature feature of all TDA tours) is available every riding day as we pull in. Set up camp, conduct any required bicycle maintenance, laundry as necessary, shower/“bottle” shower/giant wet-nap clean up. The tour mechanic and medic are available for consults according to posted hours.The rest of the afternoon, which may be hours for fast riders or nonexistent for those who have spent more time cycling or site seeing on the road, is unstructured. We try to hustle when there are things to see and do.At Aswan we hired an old style a felluca with its skipper Abdullah for a sail on the Nile which provided us with a view of the Temples of the Nobles high above the river banks.
Rider Meeting – precedes dinner,5:30.A white board outlines the upcoming day’s route which we copy “old school” onto paper for mounting on our front panniers (most reliable way to get to camp). A photo also does the trick (until a battery runs out). Our leader Tallis tells us what to expect and briefs us on any issues of concern.Today our doc, Jennifer reviewed our malaria regimes and informed us about symptoms which may befall us once we hit the danger zones despite the (imperfect) protection.
Dinner – 6:00. Riders get 1st crack – served buffet style.Staff are next, then “open kitchen” is called for any leftovers. Chef Mark works summers at a Relais and Chateaux property in Anchorage.His “bulk food” capabilities are very good as well.3 riders are selected in rotation to clean pots and other kitchen items.
Lights out – whenever, but shockingly early by our home life standards!
We are headed for Sudan. Life is good. Thanks for tagging along.