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by SS at 8:58 pm on Thursday 29th April

It's been an absolutely exhausting week and I apologise for not writing with my usual frequency. We've now left Botswana and entered Namibia - the second last country on our epic voyage across Africa. The riding has been tough, it's been long (we've covered approximately 827km (517 miles)) in five days. The longest day of the tour was this week - a 207km day which took us across the border.

NYC bike messenger Dave and I have been coordinating the first few events of the TDA decathlon. The first day this week was damp 160km day out of Maun, I rode slowly, riding the morning with Dave and the afternoon with Jacob. It was at our last bush camp that evening that we held our first event, in the midst of a perpetual thunderstorm that seemed to follow us all the way out of Botswana. Worried that decathlon spirits may be dampened (no pun intended) by the heavy rain, we pressed on regardless. The first event was to be the hole digging contest - a key skill for any aspiring bush camper.

I'll leave the full description of the event to the post I wrote for the TDA blog. In any case, our twelve teams put on a good show and a lot of clothes became fairly muddy. The ground behind the trucks which was just about walkable became a muddy mess full of puddles that would instantly soak you up to mid-shin. After dinner, I sheltered in my (thankfully) dry tent and treated myself to a cup full of custard. Not wanting to wash the cup in the pouring rain, I put it upright in my dish kit ziploc bag. Predictably, I forgot it was there and held my bag upside down, resulting in a yellow mess in the corners of the my once fairly clean ziploc bag.

The next morning, we were treated to a hot breakfast by the kitchen and not just warm oatmeal either. Scrambled eggs and baked beans went down a treat but the change in the consistency of breakfast interrupted my usual morning routine. I decided to go use the shovel whilst people were getting ready to leave - as I returned the fastest (and as a result, latest leaving) group of racers was leaving - I was pretty much last. I rode hard for the morning, caught up with Dave and we planned the afternoon's obstacle course.

On the way into camp, my attention drifted off the road and I managed to fall off my bike on a flat, slow road - hitting a cat eye in the road while holding my handlebars too softly. I managed to graze a fairly large area of my knee and it was swollen for a bit. At time of writing, it still hurts to bend it (although not an issue when cycling).

A lot depended on what the campsite had to offer but we managed to make a fairly reasonable course. I'll list the course below:
- Start at lunch truck
- Run through eight parallel tyres placed on the grond (penalty for missing a tyre)
- Take a picture of the whiteboard
- Roll tyre down the road to your bike
- Pick up your bike and follow the flagging tape to the bar
- Ride over the bridge and then walk your bike through the bar
- Turn left out of the bar compound and follow the flagging tape
- Pass through the Coke bottle slalom course
- Turn right and follow the road onto a dirt track
- Pick up any loose objects in the grass for extra points (including water bottles, track pumps and a camping stool).
- Follow the road through another slalom course.
- Sprint up to the ramp and jump your bike.
- Finish at the lunch truck.

The riders enjoyed it - we worried initially the lap might take too long (near ten minutes) but the quickest competitors were around it in just under three minutes. Mountain biker Simon won this event - the offroad, jumping on and off a bike and general bike handling skills necessary suited him perfectly.

The next morning we woke up to another thunderstorm. Aside from a handful of other occasions, the rain has usually stopped before the majority of camp wakes up. This didn't though and it was a case of packing up our tents while getting wet. This was also the longest day of the Tour - a 207km day that took us across the border to Namibia. If you're think you're having a bad day on the Tour, fate nearly always seems to do something to make it worse. As I went to load my bottles onto my bike, I noticed the rear tyre was flat. Changing the tube, I ended up leaving with Jethro, Marcel, Stuart and Gisi (the latter two are both race leaders).

At this point it was still pouring with rain and the road was saturated. I tried riding with Jethro and Marcel but Jethro's tyres kicked up a fair amount of grit into my eyes - seeing ahead (difficult in the rain as it was) became painful and I had to drop out. Sometime later Stuart and Gisi came by and I rode with them. Gisi, assuming Jen was ahead of her and not wanting to secede a mando-day, asked us to skip lunch. Pumping up my tyre in a rush (they stopped for a minute to grab a banana), we rode on until the refresh stop at 150km where I left them, feeling exhausted and unable to maintain that speed.

At this point the day had dried up and our clothes were pretty much dry. I rode on alone from the rest stop, taking it easy and enjoying the last of the Botswanian scenery. As mentioned before, fate dislikes us having too easy a ride and about ten kilometres from the border, I cycled into a thunderstorm parked on the highway. From a distance you could see it - the misty grey stretching from several kilometres above right down to the road. The road looked like it was turning away from the cloud but soon leaned back towards it. Anticipating some light rain, I wasn't surprised when it started drizzling lightly. As the drizzle got heavier, I pedalled on, eager to be free from the demoralising shower.

It was when the lightning struck that I was reminded of the wrath of Africa's weather. The thunder exploded at a decibel level which I'm sure caused me temporary tinnitus. It was absolutely splendiferous and as the rain plummeted down onto my bike, the wind stepped in and pushed me from side to side. I kept my head down, amazed that my MP3 player was still working in its not-entirely-waterproof fake Ziploc bag. The rain was coming down off my bike and creating miniature waterfalls and pseudo-streamers, coming off at an acute angle from my handlebars as it was bullied by the brute force of the wind.

Within a few kilometres, it was over. Rod, Juliana, Jen and Lynne caught up with me as I reached the border post, absolutely soaked and as incredulous as I was. We crossed the border and got our tents up in the mud long enough for them to dry slightly before the storm caught up with us again and undid the sun's efforts.

I started the next day with a low tyre, a probably slow puncture. Trying to pump it up using the worst of the two track pumps the Tour has, pressure was going in but when I removed the head of the pump, the valve came with it - ripped clean from the tube. By the time I had changed my tube and pumped up my tyre, the sweep rider had already left into the morning fog. This start was partially remediated by the two milkshakes I was able to consume at Wimpy, a South African fast food chain. This was probably one milkshake too many and the last fifty kilometres were painfully slow. In any case,we made it into camp at about 2pm and once Dave was in, we planned the next two events - the Coke chugging competition (postponed the previous day because of the long distance) and the PVM bar eating competition. These are both fairly explanatory - it was interesting to see the variety of methods riders had for consuming a PVM bar (which is essentially edible plastic) at speed. The photos I've uploaded tell more of the story.

There was no rain that night and the next day was dry but windy as we rolled towards Windhoek. We began with a team trial - the teams arbitrarily chosen by Race Director Kelsey. Our team was strong, including Jason (a non-racer but still EFI) and Jethro. Some of the slower riders on our team decided against participating and although we started as a team of six, we became a team of just three. The time trial went well but I could feel the previous four days in my legs. Jethro would pull us along at 35-36kmph, Jason would managed 34kmph and when I was in front we'd drop down to 32kmph. We were close to winning - about a minute off.

After lunch, the headwind picked up and it was a sluggish 80km as we climbed approximately 800 metres up into the city. As the rolling hills began, Ruben, who I was riding with, began swearing. He soon left me behind and I ploughed on alone, the headwind preventing me from breaching the 20kmph speed barrier. At some point a huge convoy came past, at least four motorcycles, a pickup truck filled with gun-toting military men, four police cars and three armoured Mercedes. I'm curious to find out who was in that convoy.

Stuart and Gisi caught up and I tagged on just as the downhills begans. Suddenly my speed doubled with the draft and the effects of gravity - a welcome relief. We stopped at a large bicycle shop, probably one of the biggest and best shops I've seen to date (including those at home!) and I stocked on accessories, buying yet another bottle cage (the sixth so far) and a pair of tubes. Riding into camp along Robert Mugabe Avenue (an unnecessary tribute to a terrible man), it almost took as long to reach the campsite from the reception building of the Arrebusch Travel Lodge where we are staying.

At the end of a week like this, when you are pretty much completely physically exhausted, it's hard to get your act together and set up your tent. I began the rest day by looking for my spare tyre bundle (containing my two sets of spare tyres, my spare rim and pannier rack). These are all kept together on the roof of the dinner truck and dropped down every rest day for riders to access. I couldn't find my bundle and none of the Indaba drivers had any idea about where it might be. I can only surmise that it was either forgotten at one of many rest days we've had since Iringa (when I last used it) or that someone walked off with it at some point on one of the rest days. Immensely frustrating - both for the financial cost and for the inconvenience of having to borrow tyres from another rider. Luckily Eric Dufour lent me a set of pretty neat looking Maxxis Cyclocross tyres which I hope will work well on the dirt.

Setting my tent, the week didn't seem like it could get any worse. It could though and my zip stopped working. Earlier I had fixed it with a pair of pliers - squeezing each side to help the zipper grip the zip better - a common camping trick. I tried the same today - the effect of doing this several times was that this time the zipper simply snapped in two. I had another zipper though, at the top and equally non functional. I tried the same trick and this time gave it too much force, causing it to jam and bind to the zip.

Feeling broken (saddle sores being the worst they've been on the entire trip and leg aching), exhausted (I've not felt this tired since I stayed up for 40 hours straight to finish my dissertation draft) and cheated (150 worth of cycling equipment, gone!), I was apprehensive about dinner at Joe's Beerhouse, a popular tourist destination in Windhoek. Most of the tour went along that night as a leaving party for sectional (but almost full tour) riders Jerry and Viv - fellow Britons. The gastropub is a fantastic assortment of German (I assume) memorabilia and general tat - the food was excellent and the atmosphere is lively. I struggled to finish my main course (unusual on this trip) but the cannelloni I did manage to eat was great.

Just two weeks left and the end is in clear sight. A lot of riders lost EFI at this stage last year but they've amended the route so that it is actually possible. Let's see what happens tomorrow.

3 comments posted so far
wrote at 8:12 pm on Sun 2nd May -
wow your faithful followers hang in there just two more weeks

Akshay Patel wrote at 7:14 pm on Tue 4th May -
Can I get a cup of tea please?
Ash wrote at 7:19 pm on Wed 5th May -
I take it your updates are not frequent due to comm issues. Just keep on taking pics. Those will last longer. What an accomplishment!! This is really big. Although you've the African blood, you now have come to know Africa from first hand experience. Africa is very complex. No two countries are alike. TDA has done very well in giving this opportunity. In 10 days all biking will came to halt. Time to transit. Time to reflect. Time to sit down and give it a final thought on what was acheived and what all this means for the future.Sunil - I am interested in these things not only because I plan to ride TDA (don't know when!!)but would like to hear a clear and concise assessment from an intelligent person such as you. keep in touch. Once again one of the many congrats!!

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by SS at 6:34 pm on Sunday 25th April

After one hundred and sixty kilometres, we set up our tents and waited for 3pm to roll around. Today, the first day of the riding week out of Maun in Botswana, was to be the first day of our rider organised TDA Decathlon. Consisting of ten events to do with our daily life on the tour, it was yet another way to fill the empty hours between drinking soup when we arrive and rider meeting just before dinner. The events range from eating a PVM (energy) bar as fast as possible to packing a locker to riding a bike around an obstacle course. Each team consists of three riders, except for the Indaba Crew and TDA Staff teams.

The first event today was a hole digging contest - an important skill for any bush camper (incidentally, today was also our last bush camp of the tour). Contestants were required to start at the dinner truck, grab the (yellow) shovel, and sprint to a location twenty metres away to dig a hole. Once the hole was dug, they'd sprint back, deposit the shovel and wash their hands before the clock stopped. The size of the hole was judged by using half of a yellow oil container borrowed from the truck.

The rain that has been following us since we left Cairo decided to strike again shortly after 1pm rolled around. Determined to continue regardless, we made plans to meet at 3pm. In the interim two hours a thunderstorm approached and settled above us, lighting up the clouds with marvelous luminosity, thundering like the footsteps of a giant and pouring dense, heavy droplets of rain into the earth below us.

The first team to try their hand was 'The Good, The Bad & The Ugly', selecting rider Jacob to undertake this task. After bashing the shovel into the ground in four or five different places, he finally settled on a location on the rim of the nearby pond. It became clear that we had possibly selected a difficult location - rocks in the mud made it difficult to dig quickly.

Next up was Gert, Indaba's contestant. With a vigour that is clearly the result of years of practice, he attacked the soil, forcing most observers to step back to prevent getting sprayed with dirt. Sprinting back, he slipped in the vortex of mud that the ground surface near the truck had become and collided with the bumper of the truck.

Dan, the next contestant, picked a location even closer to the pond and was rewarded by having beautifully soft mud to shovel and a nice quick time. Stuart contending for 'The Three Bears', current race leader, was a particularly quick shoveller and sprinted into the arena (literally). On his sprint back, he also slipped in the mud and was covered from head to toe. Sam, part of the team with the lowest average age 'Two And A Half Men', was a frantic shoveller, managing full 360 degree coverage of the ground around him with shovelled dirt - also managing to accidentally cover several observers. Racer Jethro, part of the 'Conflict Of Interest' team (which includes both Dave and I, competition organisers), managed the fastest time with a consistent shovelling motion and not wasting any time searching for ideal ground.

The women contestents, Jen, Viv, Andra and TDA nurse Michelle (for the staff team) also made excellent efforts whilst also exposing thei audiences to previously unheard (and amusing) levels of foul language. Andra's digging technique was unusual and whilst most other competitors dug holes that were rectangular shaped, her atttempt turned out somewhat elliptoid. Paddy was the last digger and ended the exciting afternoon with a valiant effort.

Covered in mud and soaked, it was an enjoyable afternoon dropping the plastic oil container into the holes and I look forward to tomorrow's event - a bicycle obstacle course.

4 comments posted so far
Ash wrote at 3:49 pm on Mon 26th Apr -
A very clever way to conquer the monotone. Getting closer to the finish line. In less than three weeks all will be over. Back to civilization and normal life as usual. Good job. Enjoy what is left and have fun.
Akshay Patel wrote at 4:08 pm on Wed 28th Apr -
Good to hear you like elliptoid holes!
Anish Chodmarino Acharya wrote at 4:12 pm on Wed 28th Apr -
Why was the shovel yellow?
Moosetafa wrote at 4:15 pm on Wed 28th Apr -
Isn't Botswana enough of a hole without you chaps adding to it?!

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African Airfield
African Airfield

9:17 pm on Friday 23rd April by SS
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by SS at 2:50 pm on Thursday 22nd April

We're at our second last bush camp of the trip. This is almost ground breaking (no shovel pun intended) and I am already nostalgic. I remember the first night we camped in Egypt at a desert camp on the side of the road - the excitement at finally being out in the wild, confined to just what we had brought with us and remote from any hint of civilisation. The sky in Africa is wonderful - endless and beautifully patterned, littered with clouds both soft and hard, colourful and stark against the varying terrain. It's usually in the bush camps that the sky is prettiest - unobstructed by buildings and fences. At night there are no lights to dampen the brightness of the stars.

As for this bush camp, it's hot and damp (it rained several times earlier - a storm was headed for us but the wind pushed it around). There are ants everywhere in the soft sandy ground - this makes it easy to dig a hole but harder to find a place suitable for digging (you don't want ants climbing up your trousers!). It is a genuine bush camp - there are many bushs - and amongst the bushes are many thorn bushes. Walking into camp earlier I had to stop to pull thorns out of my socks.

The last couple of days have been long (155km yesterday, 182km today) and I've taken it slowly. Yesterday I accidentally left camp late when a call of nature resulted in returning to the truck just after the rest of the riders had already left. Resigned to cycling solo, I got going with a new saddle (borrowed from fellow British rider Jerry) which wasn't correctly adjusted. I didn't realise this was sucking my speed down much until today when I raised it slightly and consequently found the whole day rather slow. This was probably helpful though - my saddle sores have resurfaced on the rougher tarmac to a painful degree - riding slower seems to stop them getting much worse.

After about forty painful kilometres on damp tarmac (it had rained heavily the night previously - unusual for Botswana and probably evidence for climate change), I caught up to Dave and rode with him until lunch. We discussed our plans for a competition between the riders - the Tour D'Afrique Decathlon. I'll describe the competition in more detail in another blog post but the basic idea is for 3-person teams of riders to complete tasks over the course of ten riding days - these include eating a PVM bar as fast as possible (these are the extremely chewy energy bars given to riders) and drinking a soft drink as fast as possible. That afternoon, I rode with Jacob into camp, nice and slowly.

Today was similar slow and I rode with the fast peloton for about 20km at some point in the morning. Riding in a group usually pushes you to go faster than you're comfortable and I was definitely uncomfortable. I dropped off and rode the remaining distance into lunch solo. After lunch (which was next to a GIANT baobab tree), I rode the afternoon with Ruben, Jason, Paddy and Erin and it was great fun. Riding with the right people seems to make these long, flat and straight days roll by easier.

We stopped a couple of times to take photos with a giant model of an aardvark next to the side of the road and to eat the most delicious Rolo icecream. The currency here is roughly 10 to 1 with the British pound which makes conversion amazingly easy. At the same time though, I've been astonished at how expensive the drinks are, nearly a pound for a can - comparable with our prices back home.

The Tour Cook is away on vacation this week and coincidentally the meals have been excellent - although this is more down to the increased availability of good food. A quick listing-
Sunday - Spaghetti Bolognaise WITH GENUINE CHEESE
Monday - Mushroom Stroganoff + Mash (Memories of the Fitzwilliam stroganoff came to mind)
Tuesday - Tofu + Veggie Burgers + Pumpkin filled with feta
Wednesday - Curry
Today we were extra lucky because they made dessert - a mix o biscuits, custard, caramel and dessicated coconut. Through some delightful turn of fate, I found myself in the kitchen twice (and armed with a spoon) when they were about to throw away cans or wash bowls used to make the dessert. Hopefully I made it slightly easier to clean their cooking apparatus :-).

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by SS at 2:49 pm on Thursday 22nd April

The first of the last stretch that will take us into Cape Town began today - a long day but this is going to be the normal distance from now, 162km. We were given an explicit warning this morning about how we should act if we encounter elephants. In the past, according to Tour Director Paul, riders have been chased or charged by elephants.

I rode fast with Paul, Lynne, and Tim (we also picked up a sectional rider, Andrew) across the flat Botswanian road. It is fairly straight and pretty monotonous, occasionally switching between smoother and rougher tarmac. It was advantageous having the draft but I suffered in the larger group, having fewew opportunities to stand up and relieve my discomfort.

There was a delicious smell coming into lunch and the staff had made burgers for us - a first for lunch! Wanting a burger, I stopped and ate. The others, racing the day, carried on and skipped what was one of the top three lunches so far (the other two were when French toast was served and when they fried eggs for us).

I rode the afternoon by myself but will probably reconsider riding in a group based on a conversation I had with a passing motorist. A white pick up truck pulled up next to me and the driver rolled down the window, 'You're crazy! You left your group way back there.'. I laughed and shrugged. He asked how much further I had to go today and where we were ultimately going, fairly standard questions. Then he continued, 'You're crazy! Everytime I've driven on this road I've seen lions. Last time there was a male on the left and two females on the right - I think he was chasing the females.' My plan is to ride with a group of slower riders so that if such an encounter happens, the lions will be occupied with the riders who are left behind whilst I can get away (just kidding).

We camped at another bush camp, when I arrived the camp air was full of butterflies, bees and general flying insects. Luckily there was no attack by the ants and my tent remained a safe zone. Certainly, when it started to rain lightly, I was happy for the dry refuge.

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by SS at 2:48 pm on Thursday 22nd April

It was meant to be a fairly short (82km) and hence a fairly fast day into Botswana but fate obviously had other intentions. As we raced out of camp on the dirt driveway for over a kilometre, we made our way towards town and looked out for the left turn that would take us to the border. Unfortunately there were many left turns and ours was not flagged (as they usually are). Four kilometres past where the turn should have been, we stopped and asked for directions and were send spinning back towards town - adding an extra eight to the day and voiding any purpose to riding fast.

Further down the road, I heard a strange noise and all of the sudden the road became very rough. Looking back, i noticed my back tyre was flat and dropped off the fast group of three we had. Normally the first step in fixing punctures is replacing the tube - were we at home, I would have had a nice new tube to swap out. Unluckily most of my new tubes have now been spent and my spare tube was patched. The valve on the patched tube was also bent and this was my undoing - when unscrewing the pump from the valve, the mangled core came out too. Moving back to my original tube, I spent some time patching then pumping it up. By this time, Michelle, the sweep rider for the day had caught up and I was probably delayed by about forty minutes (including time for the detour).

Pushing on, I blew straight through lunch, stopping only to fill my water bottle and pump up my tyre fully. At 72km (or 80km with the detour) I reached the border and scanned out. Spending my remaining kwacha, I bought lunch (two mandazi - the fried bread / donuts that are common in Africa) and two ice cold (literally frozen) Fantas. After this, it was a quick exit stamp at the border and then a short ferry ride into Botswana.

As soon as we entered Botswana there was a clear smell of elephants, none of which we could actually see. The smell was likely coming from the turgid piles of dung which are littered across the road. Our campsite, just a few kilometres from the border, was dusty - a complete change to the grassy Zambian and Malawian campsites. I wondered where the grass had gone and could only conclude it had something to do with Botswana's large elephant population.

Our first priority in any new country is to get some local currency - Dave, Dan, Jacob and I cycled down to the local town to use the ATM. After managing to withdraw some money (others weren't so lucky), Dan and I looked for local sim cards. After asking around at a few shops at the mall, the only place that actually stocked and sold sim cards was a clothing chain called CP (something similar to an African version of Gap) - bizarre but useful.

I swapped bikes with Dan on the way back to camp - his bike is heavier but SO MUCH more comfortable. The saddle was a sofa-like experience and I advise any future riders to seriously trial out as many saddles as possible.

That afternoon about half of the riders took a river safari cruise down the Chobe River. Scrambling for a 'window' seat (a misnomer because there were no windows - the entire boat was open), I picked the wrong side. Apparently boats here also drive on the left hand drive - don't sit on the right hand side! We were promised lots of game, mainly by other riders/staff who have been on the cruise before. We saw a fair few elephants, lion, some buffalo and a tonne of hippos. Something about the higher water level here meant that there were fewer animals on the waterfront because they're able to find water further inland. In any case, the river was beautiful and it was an enjoyable, if muggy, afternoon.

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Chobe River
Chobe River
Spot the wildlife.
3:00 am on Monday 19th April by SS
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