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

Digging Deep in the Dirt

I am currently writing this blog face down in my tent, unable to move anything but my fingers across my blackberry’s keyboard. I know I was all optimistic and positive about the merits of riding on rough dirt roads in my last blog entry, but seven straight relentless days of dirt and climbing have yielded one of the toughest weeks of the Tour for me. That is the insidious side of this bicycle expedition- difficulty strikes the body hard, just when the scenery is easiest on the eyes.

Every pedal stroke across Tanzania has been intensely beautiful. Biking around a bend yields endless blue sky with fluffy white clouds and lush, green mountains overlooking lakes and meandering dirt roads. Locals carrying loads of goods on bikes, children squealing in school uniforms and stoic, traditionally adorned Maasai line our paths. As Dana has described our surroundings, it feels like we are biking through a painting. Tanzania possesses incredible environmental wealth, from the hills of Kilimanjaro to the plains of the Serengeti, and unlike some other African countries, has capitalized on its natural blessings instead of squandering them away to political strife.

How can it be so difficult to bike through such peace and beauty? The week started with a 120k “mando” day on the tough stuff. It took me 9 hours to get from start to finish and included several tough but breathtaking climbs where I basically willed my bike up over each steep, intimidating rock. There were a few close calls, but unlike Paddy I at least managed to avoid falling gracelessly into a ditch. πŸ™‚ The mando day presented a pleasant bush camp at the end, where I paid a local woman fifty cents for a bucket of water and a shy smile. In bush camp, a bucket shower is indeed a luxury.

The next day I felt empowered as I pedaled out of our campsite, until I hit some heavy sand less than five meters out of camp and SPLAT hit the deck. Fortunately, the only bruise was to my ego but it was not a propitious start to the day. Heavy sand transitioned to gnarly downhills, one of which had a dramatic turn with a big sand pit around the blind spot. I saw one of the trucks and thought, oh good, the Tour Director Sharita is there warning us to slow down. When I got closer, I realized Sharita was standing there with a video camera taking footage of people biting it in the sand. This is why we love Sharita- she is significantly more hard core and hard working than any of us, and takes the right amount of pleasure in our pain.

After failing to provide any exciting video footage for Sharita, I soon found myself proceeding cautiously at the back of the pack with Canadian Steph. She is one of my favorite riding partners because come wind, sand or rock, the girl never ever ever gives up. At lunch we realized many of the other riders were throwing in the towel on what turned out to be the toughest day of the week. Watching other riders get on the truck when it is over 100 degrees outside, I’m tired and I know that I have another five hours of challenging riding ahead of me has been a true test of my conviction and willpower. It has forced me to confront the question of why I keep riding through mental and physical hardship on the tough days. I am no longer technically “EFI” due to the long day in Dinder Park in Sudan and my kidney infection in Kenya, and I have been surprised to feel grateful for this. I am not here biking for any certificate or award for merit. I am here biking to look deep inside myself and question what I am made of each and every day. Some days I can dig deeper than others, but it has been illustrative to look inside myself and consistently find something there.

Steph and I talked, laughed, yelled, counted kilometers, waved to locals, drank coke and motivated each other through a hilariously exhausting afternoon. We finally rolled into camp 11 hours later as the sun was setting, and were given a hero’s welcome by the handful of riders who understood that we had pushed ourselves to the bitter end, and come out on the other side of a tough day. I will forever remember getting through this when I face future challenges.

Having a long, tedious day on the second day of a seven day stretch puts your mind and body at a significant disadvantage for the rest of the stretch. You just don’t have time to rehydrate and recover before its time to put the bike shorts on again the next morning and the effect is cumulative. The next two days offered more manageable riding (something like seven or eight hour days), which took us through Tanzania’s capital city of Dodoma. Dar and Arusha are bigger and more well-known cities in Tanzania, but I found Dodoma to have a very relaxed and pleasant atmosphere. The dirt roads around Dodoma yielded new enemies for riders…thorns and flat tires! The Captain doesn’t leave a soldier behind in the field, so although my tires held up, I stopped frequently to help other riders. My friend Dave got six flats, and managed to get lost on a single-track lining the road, until biking through a cornfield and yelling “JAMBO” (Swahili for hello) at the top of his lungs until a local found him amidst the corn and put him back on course. I think Dave was one of the few to arrive at camp later than me that day, but with a significantly better story πŸ™‚

On the penultimate day of the section, I hit my absolute mental low point. The terrain was even more unforgiving and every horrible bump shook my swollen and exhausted body as I continued tentatively at a snail’s pace. I couldn’t get water in fast enough and took a few more confidence-shaking falls. I was ready to scream and cry and decided I was going to just give up and get on the truck at lunch. But when I got to lunch, we crossed the half-way point of the Tour (the Directors marked a line on the road with red electrolyte mix) and felt a renewed sense of inner strength. I had come this far and I knew I had it in me to finish the day. “Pick ’em off one at a time,” as my Poppy used to say. I even tried to enjoy every horrible, fabulous grinding moment, because this is my one chance for this kind of character-revealing experience.

The last day of the section brought several rewards for the weary: 1. an epic but short uphill time trial on the dirt, made more epic and muddy by the morning arrival of the rainy season in Tanzania; 2. A beautiful ride through the misty green mountains and endless fields of yellow sunflowers; and 3. The return of pavement toward the end of the ride. The last day on the dirt I was smiling again, loving life and looking forward to clean clothes and bodies during our rest day in Iringa. My tough week in Tanzania is over now, but I am taking my newfound sense of inner strength with me to Malawi and beyond.


9 Responses to “Digging Deep in the Dirt”

  1. What an experience!! You write very well too. Remember your own words ‘you’re not for a reward or a certificate”. You’re there to enjoy your bike ride through Africa. This should be seen as a previlidge. When the bike ride gets tough, don’t hesitate to take a truck ride. It will only give energy for the next ride!! Don’t over do what you need is the right do. Have fun and stay hydrated.

  2. You write so eloquently, Erin. It is always a joy to read your blog postings. Your can-do attitude is inspiring. Even when your body is exhausted, your positive disposition shines through. Glad you realize you do not have to ‘prove’ anything to anyone! Enjoy the experience.

  3. Er,
    Wow! I am so proud of you! Please remember the importance of rest. I don’t want you to get sick again – you are so close to the finish line. Your writing is beautiful. Keep up your positive attitude I am sure it helps everyone get through a difficult ride. Thinking of you every minute of every day. Be safe.
    Love you and miss you,

  4. Er
    This blog post has been a very enjoyable and necessary distraction from my gov paper in Widener; your writing style seems to just put ideas into my head. Enjoy Tanzania, your colorful writing brings back a lot of good memories of our first trip. Keep up the hard work, you’re going to be one tough SOB to train with this summer.

    Also I thought you would like to know that there is a legitimate field this year for the golden egg as Cara and I will be returning home for Easter. Col thought she had a free one..


  5. Poppy was a wise man…reading your blog you are doing just that. Keep the faith, ride in the truck when you need to so you can continue “picking”! Love and thoughts! Debbie Meier

  6. Love the shout out to Poppy. Keep making him proud, Er. Miss you!!!!

  7. I totally agree with your post and Ash’s comment, great points! This trip is such an amazing privilege, and a great opp to learn about yourself. Not just how hard or how far you can push yourself, but about how to feel happiest and most fulfilled and how to find the balance that makes you smile and laugh as much as possible. Which could mean pushing yourself to new heights by finishing an insanely challenging dirt ride one day, and hopping in the truck for one of many good reasons on another day – to bank some extra energy for upcoming spectacular rides, to get to know another rider better, to avoid illness, to do something spontaneous, etc. Finding the right balance in life is so hard, for me at least it only sometimes means pushing to extreme limits. Seems like now is a really great opportunity to reflect on it some more.

    As for dirt, you’re gonna get a good deal on ebay on a front suspension, big fat tire mountain bike when you get back to the u.s. and we’re gonna go dirt riding together (don’t worry, i suck much worse at it than you possibly could). I picked you up a really cool comic book by William Nealy about how to balance the bike called “Mountain Bike: A manual of beginning to advanced techniques.” Amazing book, but dirt will be much more your friend once you are able to be on a mountain bike.

    I agree that all the paving is depressing. When we were in Mongolia, where there is hardly a paved road at the moment, they were in the middle of paving part of our ultra-marathon course so that rich Chinese tourists could see the scenery more comfortably. I’m sure the entire country will look like an LA freeway in 50 years, sigh…

    Keep up the amazing fun!


  8. You are one tough cookie Erin!!! I love this blog! Keep ’em coming πŸ™‚


  9. You are an inspiration to a lot of people, even those who only know you through your blog. Thanks for the updates and your positive outlook to the tough mental and physical experiences you are going through! Keep it up.

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