Erin's Tour d'Afrique Bike of a Blog!
An 8,000 mile personal and philanthropic adventure across Africa…

Jun
13

As my flight home from Cape Town descended into Newark four months and 12,000 kilometers after departing for Cairo, my first thought was…I want to turn this plane around and go back! I was so excited to see my family and flushable toilets (priorities) after such a long absence, but my thoughts and emotions lingered on the friends, places and experiences I left in Africa. The Tour d’Afrique staff and former riders warned us that transitioning to “normal” life would be challenging, but I think we all underestimated just how much a simple bike ride transformed our lives in both the short term and hopefully long term.

I never thought I would describe riding my bike and camping across Africa as luxurious, but the experience provided elusive extravagances. I woke up every day with a schedule, a purpose and a team. I went to bed every night reflecting on the day’s challenges and conversations. Every day was difficult, but the difficulty yielded a sense of acute accomplishment at each day’s finish line. Now that I am home, administrative tasks and chores sometimes overwhelm my existence. I miss the luxury of challenge, purpose, accomplishment and camaraderie experienced by the minute on the Tour d’Afrique.

The other riders are in different places now (some are still in South Africa at home or watching the World Cup), but we all feel the absence of the daily TDA routine in our lives. We have of course all connected on facebook, skype, picasa and gmail, which have helped maintain our friendships. I have already visited Cat and Dave in New York and Dana in Washington DC, and have plans to reconnect with Georgie in the UK, Ruben in Switzerland and Steph on the west coast. With each passing day I think a little bit less about Africa and a little bit more about my life in New York and pending adventure moving to California. But when I wake up before sunrise, eat carrots, run up a hill, meet a new friend, fall asleep before midnight or pack a suitcase, I feel like I am right back in Cairo. New challenges arise and life goes on, but now that I am home, I am just so grateful for the time spent and lessons learned riding away.

This is going to be my last blog entry on riding from Cairo to Cape Town. Thank you for following, commenting, supporting and cheering, and I hope to see you on the next adventure! There is always a next adventure…

Jun
13

Because I know that a few of you reading this blog are committed to or are contemplating future rides across Africa, below please see my list of top ten tips. To provide further perspective, as one of this year’s riders stated: “This is a tour that I would recommend unreservedly to my best friend….and also my worst enemy.”

Have fun :-)

1. The Bike: Obviously your most important decision. You will love your bike; you will hate your bike; you will call it a “petulant child” on the backroads of Tanzania; you will consider putting it (instead of yourself) in your tent when it rains at night and there is only room for one. You basically have four options here: front suspension mountain bike, cyclocross, touring or hybrid. The Tour is 80% paved and there are some loooonnngg road days, but keep in mind that the majority of the offroad sections are advanced. You will face every conceivable terrain and condition on the TDA and no one bicycle can deal perfectly with changing elements. Your choice of bike should depend on your strengths, weaknesses and level of desired comfort as a rider. If your one and only goal is to ride EFI, you need a bike that will get you through the toughest off-road days. Mountain and touring bikes are clearly going to be heavier; hybrid bikes are frequently customized so more expensive. I rode a Specialized Tricross Sport cyclocross bike with replacement parts for the carbon seat post and fork. Other popular bikes were Surly and Kona varieties (hybrid/cyclocross), the Salsa Fargo (touring) and Specialized Stumpjumpers (mountain bike). Carbon is a bad idea, which two busted frames this year demonstrate. Get your bike fitted and mark all the fitting points before breaking it up to take on the plane.

2. The Tent: Do not skimp on what will be your one source of comfort, shelter and privacy for four months. I was amazed that some people brought bivouac tents for a long trip in variable weather with a lot of gear. I brought a two person (could have fit four) four season Eureka tent that could have gone to the top of Mt. Everest. It was probably a bit excessive, but it was really comfortable and dry. The trucks carry your gear, you just have a weight limit. Bring a tarp to fold up on the inside of your tent. Even of water seeps through, if you’re on top you’re dry. I’m digressing, but also bring a tarp to keep the rain and sand off your bike at night.

3. Spare Parts: TDA’s list is generally good. You will probably just hand it to a bike store owner like I did. Also bring spare jockey wheels, spare shifter and brake cables and 15-20 spare tubes. Some people had 10+ flats per day and patches only go so far. For tires, bring 25’s for the roads, 35’s for the nice dirt in Namibia, and then the biggest treaded offroad honkers that will fit on there for Sudan, Northern Kenya and Tanzania “dirt.” Cyclocross bikes will have less clearance for big tires- I had 42’s and could have used bigger. A triple chain ring with a “granny” gear is a lifesaver on the hills. Yes, there are hills. The entire way. Remember that there are no decent bike shops until Windhoek, so you are stuck with your spares, bartering with other riders or hoping an expensively shipped package arrives. A final tip on bikes, take a basic mechanics course before you depart. Yes, there will be a mechanic, but he has more bikes to work on than time. In addition to knowing how to change tires, it would be helpful to know how to clean and change brake and shifter cables, change and manage chains and cassettes, clean the bottom bracket , replace spokes, take pedals on and off and basic derailleur functionality.

4. Weather: Expect the unexpected and the key here is layers. The rainy season is supposed to start in Tanzania and end in Botswana. Our rain started in Northern Kenya, took a break and then deluged on us in Botswana. Have a breathable rain jacket for the bike and a more substantial rain jacket and pants for camp. In the desert, expect dry but stifling heat, mostly when sitting in camp after the day’s ride. In Malawi and Zambia, expect oppressive heat and humidity. In the highlands and in Namibia and South Africa, it is certifiably freezing. Bring arm warmers, leg warmers, cycling gloves and hats. A cycling vest is also a nice midweight layer. De Soto also makes arm and leg coolers which are nice to keep the sun from baking you in the heat. Sunscreen, baby wipes (your new best friends) and basic pharmaceutical needs are available enroute.

5. Preparation: Some riders start training a year in advance for this ride; for others, one hour into the first day represented the longest ride of their lives. You can’t truly prepare for the TDA if you are a normal person with a job. In my opinion, the TDA is harder mentally than physically. Make sure you are basically fit, that your bike works, that you sort of know what you have gotten yourself into, and I promise things start to feel a little better a few weeks in.

6. Health: Here you’re looking at a combination of luck, sanitation and luck. The truly nasty sicknesses start in Ethiopia. Make sure you bring a personal supply of antibiotics such as Cipro (tummy), Augmentin (generalist) and Z-pack (respiratory), but know that the staff also has a supply. On our trip riders tended to have persistent low grade maladies or one really nasty issue. I fell in the latter category with a week-long kidney and gall bladder infection. Two members of the TDA got malaria. For malaria medicine, Malarone is expensive but has the fewest side effects, Doxycycline is an antibiotic but increases sun exposure and Larium made a few riders dizzy this year. I took Doxy but recommend Malarone if you can afford it. You have to keep taking Doxy a month after leaving a malaria zone, which is weird when you’re back in New York City. Popular creams to prevent saddle sores were Assos and Sportique Century Cream. This isn’t exclusively a health issue, but I found the food on the TDA to be delicious- plenty of protein and accommodations for people with dietary restrictions. I couldn’t believe some of the meals that were prepared in remote Sudan, using just two burners and an assortment of pots. Rock on James.

7. The Race: The TDA is both an expedition and a race (the longest in the world), and you can sign up for either category. I “raced,” which for me meant that I took some days seriously and spent most of my time taking in the sights, sounds and Coke stops at a somewhat decent pace. Do not underestimate how difficult it is to truly race a four-month stage race across Africa. Almost every day was a race day, with lead pack pacelines on the roads and a survivor mentality on the dirt. Racing makes you more susceptible to illnesses and injuries, and you do miss a certain aspect of the Africa part of the experience. It is a race that is won by the most consistent riders, not necessarily the objectively fastest. You can also just race certain sections or time trials if you don’t want to commit to the whole thing.

8. Technology: On the Tour, riders ranged from having no connection to the outside world to several thousand dollar voice and data satellite connections. If you can afford it, a notebook laptop is nice to write blog entries, back up and sort pictures and connect to wireless via purchased sticks or in internet cafes along the way. A few laptops do break because of the sand, water and other harsh conditions. I personally brought a blackberry with unlimited data and unlocked SIM capability. I could write and upload block entries, BBM and write emails home from my tent at night, with a small, light and less expensive device. It received reception flawlessly in Egypt, half of Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and South Africa. Ethiopia, Malawi, Zambia and Botswana were rough. I found internet cafes plentiful, but sometimes challenging when 60 riders all wanted to use the computer on our one rest day per week.

9. Safety: In terms of staff and support, our team had two Tour Directors, two assistant Tour Directors, a cook, two nurses and a mechanic. Four outsourced staffers from a company called Indaba managed the trucks and helped with meals, and additional TDA staffers flew in from Canada to help with various sections. There were two large trucks for transporting gear and two smaller vehicles to provide additional support. Additionally, local “facilitators” accompany the group throughout various countries and segments. In terms of safety, I felt much safer than I anticipated. The group is large and looks out for each other. Local security is hired where necessary. Traffic accidents were a much more significant threat than random violence or crime. All this being said, while the TDA is a supported Tour, it is not a Tour that holds your hand. I felt a very large degree of independence and personal accountability, from my daily well being to keeping my bike functioning properly.

10. Attitude: Any issues with the above nine tips can be mitigated by mastering this one. Your attitude is the only element within your control on the TDA. Stay relentlessly positive and smile your way through every horrible fabulous inch. :-)

May
20

After a wet and wild second to last night of camping on the Western Cape, we woke up to another 146 kilometers of cold, wet rain the next morning. The morning was epic, with ocean vistas, foggy farmlands and the occasional ostrich crossing. Dana and I rode along happily, chatting about the last four months and contemplating the next hot chocolate stop. By the afternoon a colder and more persistent rain was falling, the road was undulating with hills and the crazy coastal view was replaced by a boring endless highway. Dana and I finally just laughed and screamed through our soaking wet rain jackets, “why is this tour miserable right up to the bitter end???!!!” For the record, we did feel much better following a second hot chocolate and scone stop.

When we arrived at our last campsite in Yzerfonteine, fate finally decided it had tortured us enough. The sun came out, the showers steamed with warmth and Norwegian Knut and I found a machine dryer, the likes of which I haven’t seen since Manhattan. There was an air of finality in the humid sea breeze at camp, as the Tour Directors explained protocol and procedures for our final day into Cape Town. We enjoyed wine, joke awards, a final fish dinner cooked by James and then continued the evening around a warm fireplace at a nearby bar.

When I woke up to the sound of the surf the next morning something felt off. I thought I must be emotional about the last day…but no…it was more that it was way too light in my tent for wake-up time. I checked my watch and screeched…the Captain had overslept for the first time on the final day of the tour!!!! Racing to take down my tent, shovel in some breakfast and stuff my locker for the last time I also managed to notice that it was sunny outside, if only 3 degrees. I jumped on my bike last out of camp, with a muffin in one gloved hand, a tube of sunscreen in the other and wearing a full on down jacket. I am truly going to miss the unique and hilarious moments of this Tour.

We rode 60 kilometers to a beach for lunch, staring directly at Cape Town’s Table Mountain the whole way. The lunch stop was spectacular- 56 intrepid individuals from around the globe, dressed in matching yellow finishers’ jerseys complementing the blue surf, on the precipice of completing 12,000 kilometers and a true lifetime achievement. As everyone raced around me taking pictures, giving congratulatory hugs and preparing for the final 30 kilometer convoy together, I realized that this adventure through Africa will never really end, and is now an integral and indisputable part of who I am.

Thirty kilometers of the usual group convoy shenanigans later (British Sunil wore a tuxedo; Dutch Franz got a flat; race director Kelsey tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to keep us on one side of the road), we followed the Atlantic Coast to Cape Town’s Waterfront and the Tour d’Afrique finish line banner. Under the blaze of a brilliant autumn sun, 56 finishers took to the stage in a procession by nationality. There was a lot of hoopla, including medals, speeches and recognition from Cape Town’s Deputy Mayor. I assume the actual Mayor was attending to the many miles of unfinished highways and infrastructure in Cape Town a mere 26 days before the World Cup.

After the exciting last pedal stroke and corresponding celebration at the Waterfront we had two hours to check into our hotel, collect all of our gear and somehow morph from dirty campers wearing four month old clothes into sophisticated urbanites for a final fancy dinner and banquet. Canadian Jenn and I ran into the nearest mall and dubbed ourselves “the desperate shoppers” as we tried on pairs of skinny jeans over our bike shorts. Even though I think I still looked somewhat like a dirty camper in the new skinny jeans, the final TDA dinner was fabulous. A slide show, funny speeches and more awards gave us a sense of satisfaction and closure after four months of expedition cycling.

Of course, the trip still wasn’t over at the end of the banquet. We continued celebrating that night until an early morning hour that we previously knew as wake up time. Most riders also planned to spend a few days to a few weeks climbing Table Mountain, sampling wine country, exploring the beaches, jumping out of planes, diving with sharks, and otherwise being normal tourists for the first time this year.

As we now start to travel in different directions, I am so grateful for the singular experience that brought us together. I plan to write just a few more blog entries once I digest both the enormity and simplicity of riding a bike across Africa. The changes I have experienced may best be reflected by the eyes of others, in my final days in Africa with my new friends and upon the pending sight of my friends and family back home. Until then though…exploration of Cape Town awaits!

May
13

If the day of the Stage Win represented one of my fastest on the Tour, the two days after certainly have been among the slowest. Dead and acidic quads can only push a girl so far up another 250k of hills. Somehow I forced myself to make it, because I knew today we would see an ocean for the second time in four months.

To get to the ocean, we all started the day with breakfast, a quick 25k and then a second breakfast at Wimpy’s, the South African food chain that is a sick highlight of our days. We “TDA’ed” the Wimpy’s, which as a verb can take on various meanings, in this case defined as totally overwhelming food consumption. After Wimpy’s we rode through charming vineyards and 70k or so of rough dirt roads. As we bumped and shook over the persistent corrugation, the sky darkened and a cold rain started falling. Between the raindrops, we could smell the salt of the approaching Atlantic Ocean.

Continuing on through a nice, nasty little headwind into Lambert’s Bay, we finally saw wild, raging surf in the distance! I was riding with Canadian Jenn who true to form, started crying. She’s all tough on the outside, but show her a baby elephant, Namibian landscape or symbolic ocean and the softie pours out! We rode for another 25k on a gnarly, seaside dirt road between a railroad track and hurricane strength surf to our destination and campsite in Eland’s Bay. We are camped right on the beach in a storm and the roar of the ocean is just fantastic. It feels like the damp cold of winter in Ireland or Maine. It also feels like we are at the end of the Earth…and I guess in reality, we are.

I can’t bear to miss any of the sights or sounds of this intense place in our final days, so I am pitching my tent in the wind and rain with other hardy souls, as the perhaps smarter souls scurry off to the nearest hotel rooms. I have already watched German Hardy relocate his tent to higher ground and an unnamed guilty party dig a drainage ditch around his tent that leads right into the TDA kitchen. The cook is going to be boiling puddle water tomorrow morning. By the sound of the surf right now, I’ll be happy if we aren’t hit with a ocean swell or tidal wave tonight.

At this point we are as far west as we can go (clearly) and will now proceed south for two days to Cape Town. The last day into the city is largely ceremonial, so tomorrow is the last real riding day and last day we will camp together. It has been interesting to observe group dynamics over the past week. Some people are over the riding and camping and just want to get out of Africa. Others could do this every day forever. I am just sitting here savoring every fabulous horrible moment of one of the most stirring and enriching journeys of my life (so far).

It has been absolutely “pissing rain” all afternoon to quote the British on this trip. Right now I am sitting in a tent that is unfortunately experiencing a somewhat disastrous flooding situation. I just discovered puddles and wetness on the inside of my bag which could make for an interesting and somewhat unpleasant morning tomorrow. It seems my tent and gear are done with this Tour. I however, have two days left to rock!

May
13

United in Felix Unite, the TDA riders enjoyed a beautiful and relaxing rest day along the shores of the Orange River. I relaxed my muscles, but I couldn’t fully relax my mind. I had made a decision to pursue a Stage Win in the final three race days of the Tour. As we entered South Africa, there would be no turning back from a new round of self-inflicted suffering.

The race is its own wild animal on the Tour d’Afrique. It is composed of 92 or so Stages (single day races of approximately 60-207 kilometers each), 8 or so Sections (groups of Stages) and one overall four month race. It takes place over flats, hills, mud, dirt, lava rocks, nice pavement, pothole-ridden pavement and favors not just the fast or the strong, but the consistent. Picture sleeping in a tent through heat, rain, cold, illness, injury, bugs and noise, and then picture getting up and racing everyday on a rapidly depreciating asset for four months…across Africa. That is the TDA bicycle race.

When I signed up for the TDA, I entered the race because I thought it would be fun and help me improve my riding. One of the risks of the race is riders become so focused on it that they miss out on the broader life-enhancing experience of biking across Africa. Not me…my overall time reflects stops at just about every coke shop and small village along the way! There’s a nice group of semi-serious racers on this trip, who like to ride at a good clip, but don’t think twice about stopping if something cool or tasty surfaces along the way.

The real racers are formidable talents. The overall female winner, German Gisi, has not only smoked the women, but she ranks among the top three guys as well. The overall male winner, Aussie Stuart, is probably the single most consistent rider on the trip. When I started the Tour, I spent most of Egypt and Sudan finishing exhausted but patiently near the middle or back of the pack. Just when I finally started to feel strong and fit in Ethiopia, a weird kidney infection set me back. I have been focused on self improvement, but it took until South Africa for me to even contemplate keeping pace with the fast chicks!

In order to have a chance against more talented riders I knew I had to execute a strategically perfect coup and be prepared to exceed my current pain threshold. German Ruben, Australians Rod and Juliana and Canadian Jenn were enthusiastic about my attempt and offered to serve as domestiques. American Tim and South African Jethro (two of the fastest guys) offered to help pull for a bit when they would inevitably pass us along the way. In a professional bike race, there’s one Lance Armstrong and the rest of the team works to break the wind and set the pace. I am so grateful to have friends like Ruben, Rod, Juliana and Jenn, who happily volunteer to suffer in the service of helping others excel. I love the chivalry, sportsmanship and unexpected team dynamic of cycling.

The morning of the attempt, I woke up and my stomach felt like I was back in college standing on the starting line of a big cross country race. I cursed myself for getting myself into this situation- why not enjoy another easy day on the road? Who would care if I won? What if I couldn’t do it? I spent a large part of my college and early professional career afraid to try something challenging for fear of failure. This trip has taught me that the only failure is not to try, and hard work always yields some permutation of reward. I resolved to give the race my all and be proud of not success or failure, but the mere instance of the attempt.

The first part of my race strategy was to leave camp early, and hopefully gain the mental advantage by getting to the half way point before Gisi and the fast racers could catch me. The day was 117 kilometers in total with almost three thousand meters of climbing and descending. Ruben and I set off and I was breathing like Cecil Rhodes’ tourist train across Africa on the first hill out of camp. My anxiety evaporated and was replaced by a cloud of total concentration. We caught up to Rod and Juliana, who executed epic pulls for the first half of the ride. Rod was just crazy, pedaling like a maniac down the hills. I loved it. Ruben is the strongest climber and as I killed myself to match his pace up a series of climbs, I looked back and realized we had inadvertently dropped Rod and Juliana. One of the support vehicles rolled up and told us our other pacers Jenn, Jethro and Tim were 10k back and couldn’t catch us! What was going on?!

Ruben and I had an understanding such that every time I asked him to slow the pace I owed him one beer. Everytime he dropped me on a hill I owed him two beers. I don’t think he expected me to scream at him to go faster as he exerted twice the effort breaking the wind, making sure I was eating and drinking enough and occasionally urging me on in German. We flew past lunch (the biggest sacrifice for the win in my book) and launched down a series of descents where we hit over 70k per hour. 30k left to go…20k left to go…10k left to go…and still noone in sight. A final breathless sprint took us to camp where we both collapsed from the happy exhaustion of a respectable effort.

A few time calculations by race director Kelsey yielded the results- I took the women’s stage and Ruben unexpectedly won the men’s stage. We averaged a speed of almost 36k per hour on hilly rolling terrain. I didn’t think I could even do this, and feel empowered by the upside of a “just go for it” approach to success and failure. It was a fair and valuable win or loss because I drove myself hard, with hope and heart. For the record, at the end of the day I technically owed Ruben zero beers, but probably bought him a few anyway. What a fabulous start to South Africa.

Stage wins aside, our first few days in South Africa have been oddly anticlimactic. I didn’t expect eight piece bands and angels descending from the high heavens to trumpet our arrival to our final country (okay fine maybe I did)…but there wasn’t even a “Welcome to South Africa” sign at the border! We have been riding along the hilly and not so scenic N7 highway, through the desolate mountains of Northern South Africa. In the words of South African Mark, “Noone ever goes here.” We have been staying in overland campsites in towns with tongue-twister Africaans names, which descend more into the depths of winter each night. We now huddle together at dinner in down jackets, hats and long underwear longing for another hot drink or even the mugginess of Malawi. As we ride into the Western Cape over the next few days, we will see the ocean for the first time since Egypt. The forecast is calling for rain, strong Southeasterly headwinds and cold temperatures. But like with my Stage Win, I am continually focused on attitude not outcome.

May
12

Our rest day in Sossusvlei arrived after only three days of Namib desert riding, which meant I faced five more tough days to the Tour’s final rest day in Felix Unite, on the Namibian/South African border. Tour Director Sharita told us we would face more loose sand and corrugation coming out of Sossusvlei, which would make for more challenging days. I always believe what Sharita says.

Despite the rough roads, I progressed smoothly and happily, and even raced an oryx one early morning. An oryx is like a deer but prettier, more exotic and with more ornate horns. It was friendly and galloped competitively alongside each of the riders, until stopping before a long climb into the NamibRand Nature Reserve. Smart oryx.

Post oryx race and long climb I was feeing confident, and took a curving sandy downhill in a weird crosswind a little too fast. Before I could react, BOOM I was down, experiencing my fourth or fifth fall (who’s counting) on this trip. This was a bad one, as I landed on both my wrist (important body part) and derailleur (important bike part). After checking my bike first (a true cyclist), I proceeded to perform my patented post-fall chicken dance. This is where I hop around favoring the side not affected by the fall, screaming “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay,” until I believe what I’m chanting. This must have been very entertaining for American Dan, who rode up behind me and found a six foot tall chanting chicken in the middle of the desert.

I was (relatively) okay, when I realized I could ride on my wrist so it wasn’t broken. It didn’t make the corrugation any less painful though. I could have easily used the wrist and unsettling nature of the fall as an excuse to get on the truck, but actively chose not to. This trip is about pushing through obstacles and overcoming hardship. Anyone who doesn’t get that and isn’t willing to feel uncomfortable sometimes is only cheating him or herself of personal growth. When you fall in life, you chicken dance for a bit, and then you get back up and keep going. Don’t stop and miss the next breathtaking horizon.

Speaking of uncomfortable, it is now very cold at night, in the mornings and sometimes throughout the day on this trip. I like the riding as it reminds me of autumn at home. I do not like my broken sleeping bag zipper at night though! Our final days in Namibia included two mando days, some surprise pavement, milkshakes, grilled cheese lunches, bonfires and of course, Fish River Canyon. Fish River Canyon is as spectacular as it sounds, definitely rivaling the Grand Canyon but significantly less frequented. Our ride out of the canyon and into Felix Unite delivered unreal views, tough climbs, huge descents and monster headwinds over an arduous 173k into our final rest day at Felix Unite, right on the border with our final country. It was one of the toughest days of the Tour for me, which in my mind was the perfect end to Namibia.

May
12

Before our ride through Namibia, I felt the usual trepidation preceding eight consecutive days of mountain biking over formidable desert terrain. I dealt with my fears by 1. Keeping them to myself; 2. Putting a positive spin on any negativity; and 3. Expecting nothing beyond the next pedal stroke. I believe that low expectations can ironically be an effective approach to life. Set the bar too high and you can end up disappointed and discouraged. Set the bar a little lower and you feel empowered when you exceed it.

What was the result of my low expectations and perpetual positivity? Eight days of riding that now count among my favorite on the entire trip. After the aforementioned thunderstorms at our horse farm campsite, we woke up to more thunderstorms. We rode over rolling gravel roads toward big distant hills, as lightening streaked and dark clouds guarded the threatening way forward. It was so cold that the staff started serving hot chocolate at lunch, which typically is in the middle of nowhere in Namibia. On thunderstorm day I left lunch absolutely freezing, at which point I faced a big climb and found myself in the middle of a torrential downpour and thundercloud. I rode with Race Director Kelsey, who assured me that rubber tires are a good thing in the middle of an apocalyptic storm.

We could have been negative about the cold, wet, scary and muddy conditions, but instead we had a blast. We pushed it up and bombed down the hills in a total mudfest, until climbing to the most beautiful lookout point I have ever seen in my life. At the top of the mountain the clouds and thunder claps cleared, and Namibia opened up in yellow, blue, green and purple in every direction. Canadian Jen cried and the rest of us were awestruck that such a place exists on this planet.

What goes up must go down (and vice versa in the world of cycling), and the descent from the lookout point was a bit harrowing. Kelsey, Canadian Rick and I very cautiously ripped it, and rode into a desert campsite in the appropriately named town of Solitaire, where renowned apple crumble and hot showers alleviated our hungry bellies and muddy bodies. Thank you Namibia, for teaching me the value in pushing through something that initially scared me.

The next morning American Dana and I took off for the town of Sossusvlei, enjoying the treat of a mere 80 kilometer day. Mileage has been hard core lately, and even on dirt less than 100k is a rare treat. Dana and I rode into and out of lunch clothed, unlike many other riders who decided to participate in the unofficial tradition of a “naked mile.”. It is tough getting passed by a faster rider on this Tour. It is even tougher when he or she is naked. It is then extremely funny when he or she stops to change a flat tire…still naked. There are truly some adventurous (and now oddly sunburned) individuals on this Tour.
Upon arriving to Sesriem/Sossusvlei by bike, Dana and I did what any dedicated Ironman triathlete would do…we went for a run at midday into the smokin hot desert. It was a beautiful run, topped only by the fish and chips and eight beverages consumed immediately post run.

The highlight of our rest day was by far the next morning, during our sunrise trip out to Namibia’s sand dunes. We woke up at 4am (not unusual for us), piled into an open air gas-powered vehicle (unusual for us) and froze for the 60k ride into the desert (not unusual for us). It was worth it, as we climbed up a huge sand dune just as the sun was peaking over the horizon. We watched the sunrise and then ran/jumped down the dune. It was so fun that American Sam and I ran back up vertical sand, just to enjoy the view from the top and run back down again. We enjoyed and sorely needed a rest day in a town that contained sand dunes, a gas station and just one lodge with a killer buffet. As our time is drawing to a close, I find myself wanting to spend as much time with fellow riders in stunning landscapes as possible.

Final disclaimer: the title of this blog entry must be properly attributed to Irish Paddy, who shared his inexhaustible wit with us at 4am on a freezing cold, open air ride out to the sand dunes. Thanks Paddy…good one.

May
01

I’m sitting in my tent right now 111 kilometers into the Namibian desert, hoping insane streaks of lightening find a taller object than my rain fly. By some unknown and shocking African technological breakthrough, my blackberry works for the first time in the middle of nowhere. For the eighth consecutive day in the middle of nowhere, the Tour d’Afrique is defying meteorology as yet another thunderstorm rages over our tents and heads. It has rained more in the desert than in the rainforest on this trip. TIA, unlike lightening, can certainly strike the same spot twice.

As I monitor a potential flooding situation in my rear vestibule, I can’t help but notice two other distinct issues affecting the happy space in my tent: 1. Thorns are poking through my groundsheet and are now embedded in both my socks and miscellaneous gear; and 2. It smells like horse, cow or elephant dung in here. I have made an executive decision not to investigate the source of number two (so to speak), so my shoes and any other potential offenders may just have to go for a swim in the rear vestibule.

Despite all smells, leaks and appearances to the contrary, my tent is indeed a happy space right now, following a stunning day of riding. Ten kilometers out of Windhoek we hit the infamous dirt roads that will carry us all the way to the South African border. I was of course dreading the dirt like usual but then an unusual thing happened…I flew through the dirt with a smile the whole way! It was spectacular and so much fun after the monotonous long mileage in Botswana. I felt strong and exhilarated picking my lines through the sand as I climbed and descended perfect rolling hills. The ride was hillier than expected but the scenery was the most breathtaking aspect. Mountains in the distance framed by rolling, sandy foothills of small scrubs scraping for survival reminded us we are entering hostile, unforgiving and ultimately rewarding territory.

We may be close to the finish, but the Tour is unrelenting. Two more days of dirty (rainy?!) riding will take us to Soussvlei, deep in the heart of the sand dunes of the Namib desert. But now its 7pm, which means its time to sleep and dream in my Namibian happy space.

Apr
29

The 207 kilometer ride was the third day of a five day stretch, and I gave it everything I had both physically and mentally. It was the longest distance I have ever ridden, over mind-numbing boring roads. I felt good about my effort, but realized I was in trouble the next day when I had nothing left in the tank and had to ride two more back-to-back hundred milers.

This has happened before on this trip, and I have found a way to persevere each time. On the first century following the 207k mando day, we found out at lunch that we would pass by a Wimpy’s in the afternoon. Wimpy’s is basically like McDonald’s, but the milkshakes are better and it’s frequently located in gas stations. A pack of wild dogs couldn’t have chased raw meat as voraciously as we hunted down that Wimpy’s. As French Girald said, “How sad is it that Wimpy’s is all we have to look forward to?”. Chocolate milkshakes were the fuel that powered the TDA to the finish line on this day.

On our final day of the section, we faced 160k into Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia. The race director started the day with a 20k team time trial. My team was composed of German Hardy, British Viv and Canadians Caroline and Kelsey. We called our mostly female team “Hardy’s Angels” and rocked it. It was so much fun, I didn’t notice the massive headwind and dead feeling in my legs.

By lunch I definitely noticed the headwind, and the afternoon turned into one of the longest and most painful days of the Tour. We were battered, salivating for a rest day, surrounded by boring, remote and congested roads and slowed significantly by the wind. We were also dehydrated, with few options for water along the way. It took the remaining mental strength I didn’t have to find a second wind (so to speak), to roll out of the Kalahari desert and into German-influenced Windhoek. When I finally arrived at the campsite, I decided to perpetuate my existing misery by spending two more hungry, unshowered hours on bike maintenance. I was so tired at a subsequent group dinner at Joe’s, I could barely chew my springbok (a deer-like local animal- quite tasty).

Today I am feeling rejuvenated and my tires, brakes and drive chain are in good working order, just in time for seven days of off-road riding (can you feel my excitement) into the dunes of the Namib desert. We have just over two weeks and 1600 kilometers to the final finish line in Cape Town. The challenge now is not letting thoughts of the future taint the still spectacular and ever challenging present.

Apr
29

Stirring to the sound of my alarm clock at 6am on our rest day in Maun, Botswana, the first thing I noticed was how heavy my eyelids felt. The second thing I noticed was the sound of the torrential rain and thunder raging outside my tent. The third thing I noticed (on the walk to the campsite bathroom) was that my raincoat is no longer waterproof. What a day to take a bush flight into the largest inland delta in the world!

Our pilot assured us that we would be taking off in a direction away from the lightening bolts and unlike some of my companions, I boarded the small prop plane with gusto. I love taking off and landing in remote places in those little death traps. We flew very low for about twenty minutes, which offered phenomenal first views of the Okavango Delta. From the sky, we saw elephants (finally!), giraffes, zebra, and a lush green waterworld extending toward every horizon. We are here during the rainy season, when water from Angola floods the delta across over 16,000 square kilometers. This just might rival the distance we are biking from Cairo to Cape Town.

After a bumpy landing on a small sand strip, we loaded into mokoros, which are traditional, dug-out wooden canoes. A guide powered us through the wildlife and weeds using a long wooden pole. It was so relaxing in the clean, endless waters, I fell asleep at one point. I woke up as we landed on an island, at which point the guides said we would commence the “nature walk.”. I looked at everyone’s cheap flip flops and shorts and said “What nature walk? We bike everyday and came here to sit in a canoe!”. Apparently the trip included a nature walk portion, which was basically like a safari except we walked through the bush without guns or cars. At one point, a black mamba crossed our path. This is one of the most poisonous snakes in the world. I’ll let you guess at whether our guides were carrying anti-venom. Hint…TIA.

Three hours of nature walking/bush-whacking through Africa in flip flops later, we returned to the canoes and airstrip. Boarding the plane, the pilot greeted us with the following statement: “Right, so here’s the deal. Runway’s a bit short for take-off. I’m going to gun it, pull her up, and hope we clear those trees over there. Hang on tight.”. We cleared the trees, and again enjoyed spectacular aerial scenery of the great Okavango flood plain.

I thought the flight would be the last view of a large swamp in Botswana. Our campsites the next few nights proved my assumption wrong. It is supposed to be dry and sunny in Botswana this time of year, but we experienced torrential rain and thunderstorms on each and every day and/or night here. Some of the thunderstorms were violent, and woke us up during a week where we rode an average of a century every single day.

This rainy week in Botswana included our longest single day on the Tour, 207 kilometers (or 130 miles). We woke up to a cold deluge. Packing up my tent at our wake-up time of 4:30am I wrapped myself in garbage bags to keep my core dry. I looked good in my hobo chic attire, but was in denial that I would be on my bike for over eight hours in cold rain.

Quite a few riders couldn’t handle the combination of bad weather and long mileage and got on the truck, but not Dr. Bill. Dr. Bill is a Canadian surgeon training nurses in Zambia, who is riding with us through Cape Town. The 207k day was his 71st birthday, and he was determined to ride the entire distance. How is that for inspirational? My friend Cat rode with him the entire way and said the pace would increase when he told one of his many stories! The ride finished at the Namibian border, which Dr. Bill reached before sunset, or rather before a few final rainshowers before bed.

Riding through Namibia immigration during a storm, several posters highlighted the country as one of eternal sunshine. We will find out over the next week!

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