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

Apr
22

Empowered by our rest and rejuvenation in Victoria Falls, we began this week’s five-day stretch of big mileage with unusual enthusiasm. We were so enthusiastic in fact, that over half the TDA managed to miss the turn to the Botswanan border and ride an extra 12k before finding our way back to the proper course. Yes, this is entirely due to our excessive enthusiasm and nothing to do with the fact that the expedition leader overslept and didn’t flag a critical turn on our course properly…;-) TIA…some of the riders were mad; I could only laugh at the fact that we inadvertently rode extra kilometers at the start of a brutal 700k plus week. Expedition leadership and group social dynamics have truly been the most fascinating and unpredictable animals on this trip so far.

Once we finally found ourselves on the proper course, I chatted happily with Dutch Anka about her charitable work in Mozambique all the way to the Botswana border at Kasane. Anka is a courageous, wordly woman who inspires me to spend more time in new cultures testing innovative ideas. We crossed the Zambezi River via a short ferry ride (note we were nowhere near the waterfall at this point), which was but a shadow of our last epic ferry ride from Egypt to Sudan. Upon arriving in Botswana, we stashed our bikes at camp and set out on a stunning sunset cruise along the Chobe River in Chobe National Park. We saw elephants, crocodiles, lions hunting impalas, birds, huge weird lizards and according to one TDA rider, “the best riverside bars ever.” Every rider is here to see different things in Africa!

Our first day into Botswana was short, but the remaining days this week ranged from 136 to 182 kilometers each along Botwana’s famous “Elephant Highway.” We were assured 1. tailwinds, 2. numerous animal sightings and 3. flat, fast roads. I have experienced 1. headwinds, 2. no animal sightings, and 3. flat, endless roads. The roads feel like we are in some sort of Botswanan Twilight Zone. We have been riding hills since Ethiopia and now the endless flats and consistent scenery make me question whether I am making forward progress at all! I have been riding relatively well, but constantly in a paceline to get through the long days. We have also experienced rain, misty fog and light traffic which enhances the feeling that we are very remote. The sunsets and thunderstorms have been beautiful, even if the riding can get a bit tedious here.

The TDA staff has compensated for the flat, mentally challenging roads with the most delicious lunches of the trip so far. Hot dogs, hamburgers, grilled cheese and eggs were all on the menu this week. I would also like to personally thank Australian Juliana, who saved me when I started pitching my tent in the middle of an “elephant trail” in one of our recent bush camps. With the ants, water, frog, broken pole and myriad other issues, I’m frankly surprised that an elephant didn’t find its way into my tent.

Regardless of whether I see elephants in my tent or along the highway, tomorrow I’m venturing into the Okavango Delta, which is supposed to be one of the natural highlights of Botswana. Bring on the elephants! And maybe a riverside bar or two…

Apr
17

After three more days of big mileage and Zambian countryside, the Tour d’Afrique has arrived at Mosi-oa-Tunya “the smoke that thunders,” better known as Victoria Falls to the modern world. Victoria Falls is a (literally) huge landmark on this trip, as it offers weary riders the necessity of two full rest days and marks the beginning of the end of our trip in many ways. Upon arriving to the Zambian side of the falls and the Zambezi River, I immediately set off for the border to spend my rest days in Zimbabwe. I am fascinated by places like Zimbabwe, to understand what their culture and people are like beyond press reports that mistake the whole of a country for the limitations of its leaders.

A big crew of TDA riders stayed at the historic Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe, which was built in the early 1900s and offers a tremendous view of the Falls, bridge over the falls and corresponding gorge. The Vic Falls Hotel feels frozen in a more romantic time- zebra skins on the walls, portraits of the British aristocracy and soaring, elegant white facades impart a spirit of colonialist excitement and discovery. Cecil Rhodes believed that the elements of the British Empire were magnificently expressed at Victoria Falls and decreed that his Cape to Cairo railroad line should cross the Zambezi River at the Falls. “I should like,” he observed, “to have the spray of the water over the carriages.” I wonder what Cecil would have thought about biking across the Zambezi, let alone biking the path of his railroad. As a friend of mine likes to say, Vic Falls is a place intended for “the days when men were men.” Not that the boys on the TDA aren’t manly…sometimes. Exploring Victoria Falls I felt as if I might run into Rudyard Kipling or Dr. David Livingstone at any moment, and their legacies are certainly still vibrant tributaries to the Zambezi River and its stunning surroundings.

I spent most of our first morning visiting the falls with Australian Dan, Canadian Steph and Germans Katya and Ruben. Intrepid British explorer and missionary Dr. Livingstone characterized the falls as “scenes that are so lovely, they must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” One thing I love about Africa is as I overlooked a waterfall that is over a kilometer long and could swallow a person in a second, there is no guardrail, but rather a sign that says “enter at your own risk.” It is certainly a hilarious contrast to Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon and other natural attractions in the States. We opted not to spend $5 (or something like $100 trillion Zimbabwean notes) on the optional ponchos, and got soaked as we wandered around the Falls. It looked like it was torrentially downpouring in parts due to the Fall’s mist. We finished our tour of the Falls at the bridge and famous bungee jump sight, where several riders will jump out over the Falls this morning. Don’t worry Mom, I have no interest in doing that…on this trip at least.

We will get back on our bikes and enter Botswana tomorrow, revived and propelled by the landmark, beauty and history of Victoria Falls. Upon Dr. Livingstone’s death, his body was returned to Britain for a proper burial as one of the Empire’s greatest and most legendary explorers. However, many Zambians are quick and proud to point out that Dr. Livingstone’s heart was not returned to the Queen, and instead was buried in Africa. After four months on my own African adventure, my heart is also full of the sights, sounds and spirit of this still uncharted continent.

Apr
12

As I was enjoying a dip in the rare campsite with a swimming pool earlier this week, I thought for a split second that the more beaten paths of Southern Africa might finally offer TDA riders some creature comforts in between our long, hot rides. We have certainly seen more showers, supermarkets and Snickers bars south of the Equator, but as James the cook warned me, the Tour never really gets easier and we will continue to face both expected challenges and unexpected curveballs as we progress through each section. James’ infinite wisdom must be the secret ingredient in his perennially popular TDA dinner dish, Spaghetti Bolognese. The unexpected curveball arrived this week at our last bush camp before our rest day in Lusaka.

The day before the day before the rest day is always the toughest mentally for me, and we faced 148 HILLY kilometers along the Great East Road, with legs deadened by the dehydrating effects of the week’s mileage and heat. My bike is also succumbing to the kilometers, so I climbed the hills with partially functioning gears. This is really never a good idea. I finally rolled into camp around 3pm, and threw up my tent to allow time to enjoy James’ best Spaghetti Bolognese yet and a TDA Foundation bike donation ceremony. As I fell asleep with a full heart and fuller belly under the stars, I felt comfortable and peaceful in my tent, and thought about how much I enjoyed Zambia’s great outdoors.

A few hours later, I woke up to the unsettling sensation that something was crawling up my arm. This is never a pleasant realization in Africa, so I decided to give it a flick and keep my headlamp off. A few minutes later, it sounded like it was raining…under my tent, and I felt something crawling up my other arm. I reluctantly turned on my headlamp to investigate and gasped in utter horror at the sight of hundreds of ants crawling up, down and around every part of the inside of my tent. I jumped out of the tent and put on my shoes, only to find that they too were full of biting, stinging ants that started crawling up my legs and latched on harder as I tried to flick them off. I hopped around in my underwear yelping at 2am (a generally common occurrence unfortunately for various environmental reasons), flicking off fire ants for about ten minutes, before deciding what to do about the more serious tent situation.

Armed with a headlamp, DEET bugspray and a book, I waged World War Three on the Zambian ant army for the rest of the night. I vaguely noticed a few other lights on in tents and wondered at the status of other riders, but didn’t have time or the DEET weaponry to fight a multiple-front war. The next morning at breakfast, I saw several other riders with the same battle-weary bite-wounds covering their legs and bags under their eyes. Apparently our tents were stationed in some sort of migratory insect path, and ants invaded at least six rider tents. Australian Juliana and American Dana might have had it the worst…when they went out into the bush to use the facilities and came bag with ants in their pants. Literally.

Another antsy ant victim Canadian Steph (an outdoor guide in Alaska) described it as one of the most intense nights of camping in her life. American Paul cut his losses early and went to sleep in the truck. German Gisi said something about her night in heated German, but we all got the gist. Ants in our pants and tents certainly fall into the category of unexpected and in retrospect hilarious TDA curveballs. We will rest in Lusaka tomorrow, and then face more challenges, curveballs and comforts along the road to Victoria Falls.

Apr
12

For the past five days, the Tour d’Afrique has cycled from the Malawi/Zambia border town of Chipata deep into the heart of Zambia, following what Zambians call “the Great East Road.” We cycled westward on the Great East Road, and I’m pretty sure there’s a metaphor somewhere in there about going against the grain and taking the road less traveled by. My ipod and third bike computer broke, so I now spend my rides deriving profound metaphors from my surroundings. Not really- I spent four hours this morning contemplating whether there would be cheese at lunch. There wasn’t.

In just five days, Zambia’s sporadic thatched huts, football-loving children and lush, green horizons have left us more speechless than our longest distance yet, 197 kilometers, and consecutive days with 1-2,000 meters of ascent. The most noticeable quality has been silence as we bike along a peaceful road lined with tall green grasses, swaying in the (so far) gentle breeze. From a distance, Zambia’s mountains remind me of my home in the Adirondacks- old, round, green, deciduous and gorgeous. Up close, the African trees are more scraggly and I have run over darting snakes and lizards on the Great East Road. My favorite vistas are the periodic homemade signs that announce a village, including the name and cellphone number of the Chief or Headman. Old meets new and the unfamiliar meets the familiar in funny ways in Zambia.

Zambia is not the only character on this tour with a sense of humor. Three months into the tour, our 65-person band of cyclists has become a true dysfunctional family, complete with love/hate relationships and a propensity for hilarious and nefarious practical jokes. In Tanzania, American Jason and German Ruben bought a large pink stuffed bunny, which has a tendency to crawl into the sleeping bags of unsuspecting riders at night. In Malawi, Australians Wayne and Patrick convinced a gullible local that blonde, Australian Annalise was actually Madonna, and was in town to take another baby. The person bowed before Annalise, who quickly and properly apprised him of their prank. The award for the most aggressive practical joke goes to French Girald, who bought a pack of dead, dried fish and spread them out in Tony’s tent. After a long day and a few beers, Tony crawled into his tent and fell asleep, wondering what the god awful smell was. I believe he found out in the morning. Canadian Steph and German Ruben have their own war of the worlds going- which has alternatively involved putting bugs or locks in or on each others tents. Except for the time I convinced Cat that the Zambian visa fee was $150 (it’s much less) and that she should pay via me, I have so far played the role of Switzerland in the practical joke warfare.

These and other laughs have helped us survive the inflated mileage, temperature and currency in Zambia. At a school camp, we celebrated British Tony and Australian Juliana’s birthdays with cold beer, dessert and optional local homestays. Extra culinary treats and local or environmental encounters are usually reserved for rest days. At a very warm bush camp, we all took the best showers of the Tour (since the garden hose at the Dongola zoo that is) under a “mysterious, magical water pump.” In the middle of nowhere, we found a water pump in the forest and literally pumped a shower every hour or so to cool off. Annalise, Cat and I jumped around the pump throwing water at each other like five year olds, and even contemplated a makeshift slip n slide before retiring to our hot, sweaty tents. Lusaka’s air conditioned malls will be a welcome respite.

Apr
06

When I crawled into my tent last night to the sound of bad pop music at the hotel club and other TDA riders snoring in adjacent tents, it was hot but there was a cool breeze and excellent view of a cloudless sky. My last thought before going to bed was that I wouldn’t need to cover my tent with my stifling but effective rain fly on such a beautiful night. You all know where this story is going.

Three hours later, without even a droplet or two to harbinger the oncoming deluge, the skies opened up in a torrent that would have intimidated Noah in his Ark. I bolted out of my tent in my underwear like a banshee, screaming a few choice words, but it was already too late. Within seconds, my tent, my stuff and my entire body were drenched to the bone from the inside out. This Tour has been a good test of how we react under stress, and in this case I failed miserably. I couldn’t get the rain fly on properly, which resulted in the impossibility of even more water getting in my tent. When I crawled back inside, I looked like I had just swum in Lake Malawi. I toweled off, crawled into a toasty damp sleeping bag, and decided to deal with it in the morning. Just when I thought I had the whole camping thing figured out…I commit a rookie mistake!

I was a bit late and waterlogged at breakfast the next morning, when German Gisi came up to me with a smirk and asked how I liked my waterbed. Her tent was across from mine, and she said she has never laughed so hard watching someone run around frantically in her underwear in the rain. It is a credit to Gisi’s character that she contemplated coming out into the downpour to help me…but decided it was just raining to hard. Gisi and I had a good laugh at my expense, which is the only way to get through these moments on this Tour.

I dried out about 20k into the ride, which was a bit of a drag into Malawi’s capital city of Lilongwe. This always happens on days leading into rest days- we check out mentally before completing the task at hand. The afternoon once again resulted in an annoying headwind, and I pushed myself to stick to a paceline with Lynne, who is a very experienced and fast Canadian rider, and former racer at the junior nationals level. I think she was taking it easy, but it was fun for me to have a fast afternoon into Lilongwe. It is amazing how much a ride can change even within the course of a day, and I smiled as I arrived in Lilongwe to dry out my waterbed in the afternoon sun.

Our rest day in Lilongwe has been like every other- short on time and long on chores. Laundry, bike cleaning, supermarket, post office, feedings of ice cream, chips and half chickens every half hour or so and internet fill more than a day’s work. I was thinking how nice it would be to read a book on a rest day instead of feeling more tired!

A prominent South African diplomat took an interest in our expedition and Madonna is in town opening up a school, so we have shared the center of attention in town for once. The highlight of my day today was a Tour d’Afrique Foundation bike donation ceremony, one of several on the trip. In the Running’s donation helped purchase 30 bikes for aid workers in Malawi, and we enjoyed a heartfelt and significant ceremony at Mabuya Camp with the aid workers. I was interviewed for Malawi radio, so if anyone manages to catch the broadcast please let me know 🙂

I am finishing the long rest day now with a glass of South African wine, a homemade fruit salad and a still unpacked bag for tomorrow. Tomorrow we say goodbye to Malawi, cross the Zambia border and immediately encounter some heavily inflated currency and five big mileage days into our next “rest” day in Lusaka. Time to get tough again! No rest for the weary!

Apr
06

As the second starry twilight descended over the Tour d‘Afrique’s rest day at Chitimba Beach, I wizened up to the fact that we were surrounded by water in one direction and mountains in every other direction. I have not yet mastered biking across water (I’m saving this for Victoria Falls in a few weeks), so this could only mean one thing…more epic climbing across Africa!!!

I like the challenge of climbing, especially given that we will soon face long, flat and less varied days in Zambia and Botswana, so I put in two hard days in my easiest gears. The altitude brought some relief from the relentless humidity…especially when Dave pulled off the road half-way up a 10 kilometer climb, and jumped into a waterfall shrieking. Ahhh Dave. I managed to hang onto the “bros” into lunch on our first climbing day to the town of Mzuzu, and even dropped them during the afternoon. The bros have a propensity for lingering around lunch forever, and then stopping for three or four cokes before camp. Thus they get beat and publicly shamed in the blogosphere by girls who are slower, but significantly more disciplined at pacing. The tortoise strategy works on this Tour!

Our camp in the town of Mzuzu completely refreshed me. I had a hot shower, took a long nap, hung out with fun people, remembered it was Good Friday after I ate two bowls of meat, had an uninterrupted night’s sleep and even finagled fried eggs and cornflakes for breakfast instead of the usual porridge. The day following Mzuzu was a “mando” day with over 2,000 meters of climbing, our most to date. It was tough love. We rode through forests and former forests, so witnessed the devastating effects of deforestation in Malawi in the smell of freshly cut pine lining the roads. It rained and stayed cloudy all morning, which provided a generous respite from the heat. The afternoon resulted in a tricky crosswind, which at one point blew my bike and me clear across the road on a steep downhill as I shouted “wooooaa booyyyy” to the amused locals.

Canadian Lani counted the day’s uphills, which amounted to 41, including a final nasty one directly into camp. Camp was a delight- cooler temperatures and a bustling schoolyard full of curious children. The boys started an impromptu football (soccer) game, and I enjoyed the sight of intercultural competition and the Malawi team of children winning easily against the TDA boys. The mothers and older sisters of these children sang religious hymns in the background, well beyond sunset, to welcome the dawn of Easter the next day.

On Easter Sunday, we awoke at 4am to the sound of the same women singing. I thought it was a beautiful start to Easter in a very Christian country, but another rider was less amused and shouted “who’s ipod is that!?” from his tent. My rain fly was soaked with humidity, but breakfast included Nutella so all felt right in the world. We didn’t have any Easter eggs on Tour, but did have fried eggs for lunch so I guess this counts. We rode just over 100 kilometers of fun downhills into the town of Kasunga (such great nomenclature in this country), where an expedient search of the town yielded a few Snickers bars and a functioning ATM, but no internet or other conveniences.

I was able to call my family from a satellite phone, and had to temper my jealousy as they were sitting down to a delicious Easter brunch, after I missed our annual scavenger competition for the “Golden Egg.” Yes, my siblings and I are in or close to our twenties, and Easter is still a hyper-competitive sport. It was so wonderful to speak to them. Our campsite was at a hotel with a hopping nightlife scene, so I fell asleep on Easter to the sound of an old Backstreet Boys album pumping on the dance floor. What a memorable Easter Sunday in Kasunga.

Apr
06

Before I lived in Africa for four months, I used to invoke the phrase ‘It’s Africa-hot out here,’ to characterize New York’s hot and humid summers. New Yorkers- here’s a little comparative insight to get you through the upcoming sticky, dog days of summer- in truth, it’s actually only ‘Africa-hot’ in Africa. Or to be specific, in Malawi. So far, Malawi has presented the type of heavy, muggy heat that causes the uninitiated to drip with sweat at the slightest movement. You start sweating just contemplating getting up to go to the bathroom, and you need a shower by the time you expend the energy to unzip your tent.

To complicate matters further, Malawi represents one of the greatest danger zones on the trip for contracting Malaria and other weird tropical infections. The bugs here are mutants from another planet- twenty-legged stinging beetles with ten wings, horns, and purple googly eyes are kind of the norm. It is a particularly exciting evening when one of these prehistoric creatures finds its way into my tent. We have already had one rider on the Tour contract Malaria, and many riders are taking antibiotics due to small scratches or bug bites that became big infections overnight. I have been vigilant with the anti-malarials and wearing the outfits I wore in conservatively Muslim sections of Sudan to cover up. This is a big trade-off in the heat of course.

Following the border crossing day, our first full day in Malawi was 120 kilometers, a seemingly manageable distance for us turned brutal grind by the humidity and with our luck, headwind. At one point in the ride I just wanted to sit down and melt into a puddle. When am I going to grasp that there is never an easy day on this trip?! Fortunately I reconnected with my former (pre-dirt days) riding crew aka ‘the bros’ (German Ruben, Irish Paddy and American Jason), and they informed me that I would ‘not be accepted but maybe tolerated’ in the bro paceline for the remainder of the ride. They totally missed me 🙂

We rode through the heat, wind and two coke stops and finally arrived at a great reward, a rest day at Chitimba Beach on Lake Malawi. Lake Malawi is the country’s distinguishing natural and economic feature. It is a perfect, clean bright blue and reflects both the surrounding mountains and the carefree attitude of visiting overland tourists. I pitched my tent so that I woke up to a water view from every angle, and bathed in the relaxation of being at the beach. Due to the unlikely but possible presence of an organ-attacking parasite in the water, I avoided the temptation of an open water swim. I have had enough internal organ issues on this trip, so instead cooled off at the beachside bar with a locally brewed Carlsberg beer, viewed beautiful, star-filled skies after sunset and bargained for wooden handicrafts with a local named ‘Fantastic Steve.’ Chitimba Beach gave us a rest day without access to internet, sites to visit or a city to navigate…it was truly restful.

Apr
06

Our last day of riding in Tanzania and first day of riding in Malawi was certifiably, without a doubt, one-hundred ten percent one of the top three best riding days on the Tour d’Afrique. After a night at a local bar hosted by the latest German stage winner, we woke up in a fog (pun intended), to an early climb out of our campsite in the frenetic and distinctly African town of Mbeya. The morning fog reliquinshed its hold on the Mbeya valley to reveal breathtaking vistas of green mountain landscapes in every direction. Adorable, friendly children lined the road waving and cheering, greeting us with a pleasant ‘good morning madam’ or ‘good morning teacher.’

From Mbeya, the ride continued its gorgeous, 120 kilometer trajectory to the Malawi border. As is the case with most dazs involving border crossings, the race stage was cancelled and a relaxed attitude prevailed among all the riders. I rode with Dana all morning, and we must’ve pulled over ten times before lunch for cokes, to spend our last Shillings, to chat with locals and my personal favorite, to check out a banana market. We were in banana country, surrounded by banana trees and dodging women carrying the fruit of their labor in unbelievable loads on their heads. Most of them carried a branch of bananas on their heads, a child on their backs and walked barefoot in tightly wrapped, bright colorful skirts. I tried to balance such a load of bananas on my head and almost tipped over…with my bike helmet still on!

The ride included over 2,000 meters of descent, which was a treat after all the hills we have grinded out since Ethiopia. I felt as if we were being unleashed in a raging torrent from each Ethiopian, Kenzan and Tanyanian sentinal guarding Africaäs Great Rift Valley. I rode mz brakes on the downhills 1. because they were seriously intense and 2. to admire the banana trees and tea plantations to my right and left. The tropical fertility of Southern Tanzania is truly spectacular, and one of the highlights of seeing the continent by bike.

The border crossing proved to be a breeze, and like our previous crossings, the climate, people and landscape changed perceptibly and immediately. Abject poverty in Malawi is omnipresent, which was the case in Ethiopia but not comparatively in Kenya and Tanzania. As we rode just a few traffic-free kilometers into Malawi, our most morbid observation was the proliference of shops selling coffins. Death is a business in one of the world’s poorest and most HIV-ridden countries- the life expectancz in Malawi is about half that in the United States. I have felt terrible guilt riding by numerous children with bellies bloated from starvation as I consume extra calories to fuel endurance cycling. This conflict is difficult to resolve, but in my heart I believe that my life is following its intended path, with a renewed commitment to be continually guided by compassion.

I finally rode into our first bush camp in Malawi with Canadian riders Rick and Caroline, to a crowd of about a hundred locals hovering with curiosity around the edges of our tents and trucks. We must paint an extremely unusual picture- 60 sweaty, tired foreigners riding fancy bikes alongside two huge trucks, living under cloth domes every night. Malawi is a country full of bikes which inspires me- we have seen locals transporting sticks, pigs and entire families on the back of bikes. Bikes are cheap, green and effective in Africa, and In the Running is promoting this fact by donating $5,000 to the Tour’s bicycle donation foundation.

Back at the campsite, the more enterprising Malawians in the crowd quickly realized they could make a quick buck selling warm sodas and buckets of water for bush showers as we dripped with sweat from Malawi’s humidity. It was a tough camp- we were so hot we all just sad around torpidly until well after sunset, trying to decide whether heat, mosquitos, the loud crowd of locals or the potential for rain would keep us up all night. This is the point in the trip where we all sleep in our underwear every night chugging water to stay hydrated and spraying DEET bugspray to stay healthy. I am sure our sixth country in Africa will have many more sweaty and spectacular adventures to come!

Mar
26

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. 🙂 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 🙂

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.

Mar
26

Riding along a rocky, remote dirt “road” in Tanzania this afternoon I suddenly grasped the relevance of the old adage to “keep one’s friends close and one’s enemies closer.” From the windswept sand of Egypt to the lush savannah of Tanzania riders on the Tour d’Afrique have encountered and battled various “enemies” along the way. For Dutch Marcel, the enemy has been his thirty plus flat tires; for Canadian Jenn, the enemy has been a potent and recurring stomach bug; for American Adam, the enemy has been finding a decent haircut in Africa. For me, my most formidable African nemesis has been…THE DIRT.

Like a few other riders on the Tour I came to Africa with a road and triathlon background and have very little experience riding the rough stuff. I knew I would struggle on the Tour’s gnarly and legendary offroad sections, but I hoped the dirt and I could at least be friends. Our friendship got off to a rocky (so to speak) start on our first offroad day of the Tour in Southern Sudan. As I stared at cracked lava rocks, rutted corrugation and deep sand, and the dirt stared back at my skinny tires and lack of front suspension, I realized that opposites do not attract.

Through Southern Sudan and sections of Northern Kenya I cursed my nemesis…the dirt. The dirt threw me off my bike, drained my mental concentration and resulted in my longest and most tiring days. I realized I would rather ride Ethiopia’s hills or Botswana’s big mileage on repeat than ride ten kilometers on dirt but nevertheless faced six straight days of dirt this week, enroute to Iringa, Tanzania. My second day on the Tanzanian dirt took me over 11 hours to finish 99 kilometers and I rolled into camp exhausted, as the setting sun extinguished both the long day, and seemingly the endurance of my spirit.

Today, on a dirt path somewhere between Arusha and Dodoma, Tanzania, a small African miracle happened. As my cyclocross bike and I jumped and swerved over potholes, thick gravel and rocky sand…I realized I was…smiling. Was I actually having fun engaging with my enemy, the dirt? As we rode up, down and through some of the most beautifully remote and anonymous Tanzanian mountain passes, I realized that only dirt roads enable once in a lifetime encounters with curious local Maasai and breathtaking off the beaten track scenery. This past week has truly shown us the heart of Africa.

As we have ridden through Northern Kenya and Tanzania we have seen paving machines preparing to annihilate the remnants of dirt roads probably before next year’s tour. Normally a mortal blow to my enemy would indicate a victory but the extinction of dirt road in Africa makes me sad. The Tour d’Afrique challenges riders in profound ways and I have felt both the greatest exhaustion and greatest sense of satisfaction crawling into my tent at night after a “dirt day.” Pushing ourselves to the next level and overcoming difficulty are what this epic expedition is all about.

I must endure, hate and love three more days of dirt until our next rest day in Iringa. I will be smiling the whole way, and associating my former nemesis the dirt with the Swahili word “rafiki,” which means friend.