at 4:48 pm on Saturday 8th May
Riding out of Betta was a mando-day, a 153 kilometre day that was just brutally long. After the first thirty kilometres the terrain improved considerably, was generally much smoother and was better packed. I struggled though, for reasons that I'm not sure about. Perhaps it was a night of bad sleep (there was a rooster that decided to wake us up multiple times from 4am onwards) or overconsumption of PVM bars (three before lunch alone) - I started feeling sleepy at my handlebars at 8am.
I reached lunch at 10:30am and decided to take a nap, eventually leaving at about 11:30am. The nap helped considerably and my speed returned that afternoon. About 9 kilometres out from lunch I had another puncture in my rear wheel and resigned myself to a slow day. A bit further on the dirt road suddenly turned into smooth, new tarmac. Just after this was a Coke stop marked on our riding directions for the day - the Coke stop was actually a supermarket stocking all sorts of delights from biscuits (already a winner) to Cornettos to ice cold soft drinks to a whole variety of European chocolates. Amazing.
The dream had to end though and less than a hundred metres down the road there was another new road side that showed two roads meeting - a paved road and a dirt road. Sigh. Still, the tailwind from the previous day prevailed and it was easy rolling until camp at Konkiep Lapa. Dave and I held the Mystery Event that afternoon since everybody was tired from the day (for me it was a nine hour day at least). The Mystery Event was one suggested by Race Director Kelsey - each team selected one competitor and they were told that from the word 'Go' they'd have to fetch both their headlamp and their malaria medication. TDA Tour Director Sharita won this with her mobile phone (also her headlamp) and no malaria medicine (she doesn't take any!).
For a short while at the beginning of the tour riders experimented with the notion of eating PVM bars as dessert. James, our cook, doesn't prepare dessert for us and besides the generally insatiable cyclist's appetite, we also have an innate need for something sweet from time to time (where this time to time period may range from minutes for a rider like myself to days for other riders). Throughout the trip we've had different strategies for coping - some riders stock up heavily on sweets and other goodies at rest day supermarkets and there has usually been a shortage of Snickers bars in most towns after we've passed through. As we get further south though, it's become easier and at the Konkiep Lapa campsite the matron of the establishment had prepared a beautiful milk tart dessert.
I'm told by sectional rider and South African Nicola that this is a true South African dessert and that the version they prepared was one of the best she's ever tasted. The dessert itself consists of a biscuit base (like that of a cheese cake) and is topped with something similar to custard but not as thick or as yellow. The topping is lightly sweetened and similar to lightly whipped cream that seemingly disappears when it hits your tongue. The whole dish resembles a pie and I was in dessert heaven after devouring my slice of paradise.
The next day was a shorter 126 kilometres to Seeheim Hotel which consisted of roughly 90 kilometres of pavement. I haven't looked at a map yet but it seems odd that there would be only 90 kilometres of tarmac (the next day was also dirt). This was a fairly rapid day and after the previous day my legs had returned to their usual form. I raced to the tarmac, keeping my speed above 30kmph on the smooth dirt, but was caught by Adam and Paul soon after I reached the tarmac. After the smooth dirt, the tarmac definitely seemed more uncomfortable despite being much faster to ride on. We rode as a group until lunch where Adam, trying to win the stage, went ahead, swapping his empty water bottles for my filled bottle to save time.
I took the afternoon slowly after a beautiful lunch (french toast!) and enjoyed the scenery. The paved road passed through some windy roads that cut through some huge rock outcrops - some fantastic climbing and descending which eventually took us over Fish River (what a terribly unoriginal name for a river) and to Seeheim Hotel. The hotel clearly had some heritage to it, looking more like a castle than any other hotel I've ever had the privilege to visit. Their camping space was fairly mediocre and we were faced with the challenge of accommodating forty tents on two tiny areas of grass. Trying to navigate a path to the bathrooms was a challenge that involved dodging tent guylines, shrubbery and avoiding falling off the edge of the ledge that the 'lawn' was upon.
We held the eighth event of the decathlon that night, a foot down competition. This ia a competition that is apparently popular at most messenger meets and appropriately suggested by Dave. The basic goal is to be the last competitor riding your bike. Each competitor rides their bike around a circle fenced by spectators that is constantly shrinking. As soon as you place a foot on the ground, you're out of the competition and have to clear the ring. Obvious dangers aside, it was a fun event for all spectating and was won by Indaba's Gert, a consistently high ranking team in the decathlon and also a non cyclist.
Today's ride to the Fish River Canyon Lodge was another shorter day of only 108 kilometres on dirt. There was a wonderful roadhouse on the way that served an excellent cheesecake. I had another puncture shortly before lunch bringing my total up to three within the last four riding days. Hopefully it'll be better once we hit pavement again and my Schwalbe Marathon Racers go back on. Tomorrow is going to be a harder day as we cycle into our last rest day of the trip - a campsite called Felix Unite near the border with South Africa. Time has flown past.
To finish, here is my revised country ranking with one country left to go:
1) Namibia, Sudan, Kenya
2) Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana
4) Malawi, Ethiopia
at 4:46 pm on Saturday 8th May
Everyday I struggle to place myself within the riding group. I'm something of an inconsistent racer - on days I'll be far ahead of the pack, at lunch first and at camp early. Other days I'll be right near the back, riding slowly and being one of the last third of riders to make it to camp. This riding week and day previous to the rest day (since the last post) has been much like that.
On our way to Sesriem for our rest day near the dunes of Sossusvlei I managed to ride pretty quickly, feeling fairly fast and comfortable in the knowledge that it was a short day. Having two working earphones does wonders for your motivation too - before Windhoek I'd been riding with just one working earphone (which sounded terrible too). Looking around would have been beneficial in hindsight since most other riders saw a lot of wildlife that day - oryxes, giraffe, springbok. Arriving to lunch early, I left early and reached our campsite in Sesriem with plenty of time for the rest of the day. Racer Dan S. won the day's race, completing the list of stage winners so that now all top twelve racers have won stage plates.
In Sesriem, we signed up to a tour departing to Sossuvlei the next day at 4:30am and sat around doing nothing much. Sesriem consists of a few lodges, a well stocked gas station and our campsite. There was a series of dunes near to camp which a lady at the tourist desk of the lodge next door suggested we climb for a good view of the sunset. From the campsite, it didn't seem like the dune was too far away but having left a little too close to sunset, we decided to cycle there through the bush.
Unfortunately, the skinny tyres I borrowed from Eric were no good in the thick sand and coupled with tired legs, it was hard work keeping up with Dave, Sam and Jacob (Jacob was also trying to drink cider as he pedalled - he quickly relinquished that notion). We left the campsite just after 4:15pm and it was nearly 5 by the time we finally reached the base of the dune. Sam and Dave had run on up ahead, eager not to miss the sunset - Jacob and I tried to catch up, struggling to keep them in sight. The top of the dune seemed like it was constantly moving - as soon as we reached what outwardly appeared to be a summit, we saw another ridge down the line, rising up higher.
Eventually we reached the sunset and not a moment too soon. The sun was going down and the view from that dune was probably one of the best sunsets I've witnessed in Africa (African sunsets are generally superb too). Going down was good fun and involved sliding down using a similar motion to skiing. At the bottom I took my cycling cleats off and removed a good few hundred grams of sand from each shoe. We discovered a road that was far smoother and much better packed than the offroad route we had taken - following this back in the dark, we made it back to the gas station to buy a chocolate bar or two to temporarily silence our rumbling stomachs.
That evening eating at our campsite was a harrowing ordeal - their restaurant is unable to cater for vegetarians other than to provide a soggy and much delayed plate of french fries. Luckily I had some instant noodles in my bag to prevent total hunger that evening.
The next morning we woke up at 4:30 and foolishly I decided against taking a jumper, reasoning that we'd be in a warm enclosed vehicle. Unfortunately, the 4x4 we were loaded on was an open air safari vehicle. Our hosts were kind enough to equip us with fleece lined ponchos but the lack of total coverage and the giant breeze coming in through the windows made it a chilly experience.
We got to Dead Vlai (another site of interest near to Sossuvlai) just before sunset and hiked up one of the dunes to catch the sunrise. Other, more energetic riders hiked up a much larger dune but didn't managed to summit in time to catch sunrise. From there we slid down into a dead forest - a collection of trees that had dried out. As the sun came up it quickly warmed up - our guide said that by lunch time it'd be too hot to walk on the sand.
From there, stomachs rumbling (as the stereotypical touring cyclists that we are), we were treated to a fairly substantial breakfast. I'm not sure if the guys in charge were expecting us to clear them out of food but we finished *everything*. Returning to camp it was an extremely relaxed rest day - I ate a bowl of cereal for lunch and sorted out my bags and had time to watch The Pianist.
That evening we went to have a buffet dinner at the fancy lodge next door ($300 for a room per night!). This was the most expensive salad buffet I have ever attended - the dinner cost nearly $30 and was based around an impressive selection of game meat (springbok and various other Namibian wildlife). Still, the dessert was good and I had to stumble back to my tent via a shortcut that ran through a precarious wire fence and several thorn bushes.
When I reached my tent it took me a few seconds of shock to realise that it had been visited by a wild creature of some sort, most probably a jackal (judging by the dog like footprints). The broken zipper on my tent door means that the only thing keeping my tent sealed is a mosquito net which is flimsily clothes pegged to the edges of the doorway. The jackal had managed to break in via the side of the net and had ravaged an entire bag of protein powder, one of my protein bars and a bag of dried fruit (which I had been saving for four days!). This is the second time that an animal has stolen my food - the first being the dog that ran off with my loaf of bread in Maun, Botswana.
Leaving Sossuvlei the next morning (and enjoying the extra thirty minutes we were able to sleep in), it was a slow start but I soon sped up once I realised that my seat was a bit too low. That was a hard stage, the usually well packed dirt roads were loose and sandy. There was a lot of wildlife on the road and the roads had some amusing 'Caution' signs - silhouettes of zebra, springbok and giraffes were all present. At one point a herd of about thirty zebra crossed the road in front of me, speeding up as they sensed me speeding towards them.
Shortly after I passed Tim, a springbok ran up alongside and almost made contact. I didn't realise this at first (wondering what that strange metallic sound nearby was) but Tim explained what had happened at lunch. Second into lunch after Marcel, I left fairly quickly but sprung a puncture not more than 4 kilometres out. All the racers passed me and I elected then to take the remaining sixty kilometres slower. The tailwind made it a faster day and the hamlet of Betta came fairly quickly.
That afternoon Dave and I held the locker packing event of the decathlon and gathered enough bags that we were sure not everything would fit inside the locker. Our perception of volume is presumably flawed because the first competitor, American Sam, maanaged to fit it all in the locker and packed everything within three minutes. Most passers by had to double take at the pile of bags, amazed that all of it could fit in a locker. Besides several large duffel bags, there was also a pannier rack, hard shelled laptop case, tin of Milo and backpack. We thought we had picked an unused locker but one of the riders, Jeff, went to access his locker and was quite shocked to find it jammed full of assorted bags!
It was a cold night - the prevailing wind that had been at our tails for the entire day kept blowing late into the night (and also powered the electricity at the campsite via several miniature turbines). I camped inside a brick floored and walled picnic area so didn't put my outer fly on the tent. When I woke up in the morning, it was the coldest I have been in the entire trip and even with arm warmers and a gilet on, I was shivering.
at 4:45 pm on Saturday 8th May
I just realised that we've reached May - astounding how fast time has flown. Like a friend mentioned, time is passing far too quickly nowadays. The last two days have been the first two out of seven on the Namibian dirt road which takes us to Sossusvlei - a touristy town on the edge of a desert.
This dirt is remarkably smooth - often more comfortable than some of the pavement we've ridden. Occasionally there are deep, sandy patches (not fun on skinny tyres) and some corrugation. On the whole though, not nearly as bad as the Sudanese/Kenyan/Tanzanian dirt we've ridden so far. Today, there were a few giant puddles crossing the road and I took the opportunity to ensure my clothes became suitably filthy by rolling through all of them at speed. (The knobbly tyres I'm using are great for kicking up muck.)
The rain cloud that has followed us since we left Cairo is seemingly intent on accompanying us all the way to Cape Town. It's rained the last two days - yesterday we were saved from damp cycling but the thunderstorm started making noise shortly before dinner. Today we rode towards grey clouds for much of the stretch before lunch - not being rained upon but battling against a solid headwind. At lunch it started raining and after we climbed the Spreadshootge Pass (odd place names are all the rage in this Afrikaans speaking part of the world) the rain started. Apparently it hasn't rained in this part of Namibia for three months making us both unlucky and lucky(?). As Tour Director Paul commented, 'Someone up there must really hate these people.' We've had more rainy days than any other TDA past (I think).
I'm running out of ways to describe the rain so I'll just mention that it was heavy and lasted for what seemed like an hour. Shockingly my cycle computer continued working throughout the entire experience. When the rain decided to leave me alone, my speed had halved - an effect of the headwind which was thrown in free with the rain. A strange thing happened to me around 100km in and 20km from the end. I felt extremely dozy on the bike - almost as if I was about to fall asleep. I checked my heart rate monitor and I was only at about 130BPM, 65% of my maximum. For a short while I put some effort down to try and wake myself up by travelling at a faster speed - these seemed to work temporarily but my tired legs soon brought me back down to a slow speed.
Yesterday we ran event number five of the Decathlon, the rock throwing contest. This event stems from the practice riders have had at returning missiles thrown at them in Ethiopia. Besides a cardboard cutout (carefully prepared by Jacob) of a child hoisted on a pole, we also had a map of Africa which Dave staked out using a rope and some tent pegs. I marked the countries out using flagging tape and competitors were given points for every country (that we visited) in which they managed to land a stone. The cardboard cutout was amusing and rider Dan S. managed to rip off the cutout's arm with a rock half the size of my helmet. By the end of it, we had to tape its head up because it had lost all rigidity from being pelted with such force.
Another miscellaneous facts - my locker door has broken off for the third time this trip. This is due to a combination of my poor upper body strength (trying to load my heavy permanent bag containing spares and less often used clothing usually results in a fair amount of weight on the door+hinge) and some lack of care. It is annoying though because my packing system relies on being able to fit loose items at the front of my locker - I've found some of my possessions floating loosely about the truck twice in two days now.
Tomorrow we ride into another rest day although apparently there is no internet access until we hit South Africa which is not for another eight days at least. I'll try using my mobile internet connection but seeing as there hasn't been any cellular coverage for a couple of days, this is not too promising.
at 10:30 am on Friday 26th March
The rain came in patches. It usually came just when I pulled over to deal with my consistent tyre inflation issues. As the afternoon sun beat down and the rain drizzled, I'd be fighting off a swarm of flies whilst sweating furiously trying to pump up my wheel. I had a new tube this time, so I just swapped it over pretty quickly. Assuming it was just a slow leak, I failed to notice the various thorns in the tyre and within a kilometre, the brand new tube was also flat. Pulling over, I patched it twice, not able to find any other obvious holes and removed all the thorns (about 6). Another kilometre and it was flat again. With no other choice, I grabbed an energy bar and looked for another hole, finding one and patching it.
Luckily this patch held up and I made it to the final climb into our hilltop camp, where we were treated to tall grass, plenty of bees (probably dangerous too, since they're African) and a great view across the countryside. It was at this point that the generously donated biscuits were finished - 6,000 biscuits consumed by the entire tour in approximately 11 days. My time for the day was terrible, I took it slow and stopped a few times at various soda stops - total moving time 5:46, total time 8:00! Sinfully wasteful.
The next day was our last day on dirt, our last day of the riding week and our ride into our next rest day at Iringa. In typical TDA race fashion, we were treated to our third time trial, another hill climb. This time though, it had rained heavily for nearly three hours from 4am to 7am. The dusty roads became muddy roads and the lack of an obvious line made it difficult to climb up the hill. I struggled for the first half an hour, barely riding at a pace slightly faster than the slower riders to leave camp. I pulled over and realised that my saddle adjustments of the previous night (moving it back to hopefully reduce chafing) had in effect lowered my riding position. Putting the seat higher and I was up to my usual pace, grinding slowly up the hill.
Once the twenty kilometre time trial ended, the race for the day was over and it was only fifty kilometres to our rest day, and out of that fifty, twenty were paved. We reached lunch, ate many many sandwiches and then continued on. I tried standing as often as possible, to give my saddle sores some temporary relief but on the juddering dirt, this was difficult. When we eventually reached the pavement, we stopped, took photos and celebrated the end of this stretch of pain (this pain was mainly located in those load bearing parts of our body which interface with the bike - hands and backside).
Getting to Iringa nice and early, I barely managed to set up my tent again when it started raining again. Our campsite is at a secondary school, on one of their fields and was until yesterday, tall grass. A quick pass over by three gardeners wielding machetes on sticks and the grass was cut. There are some curious creatures roaming around in the remains of the tall grass, and several people found frogs invading their territory as they tried to pitch their tents. This morning when I woke up, I looked up to see a frog crawling over the roof of my tent, amazed that it had made its way under the rain fly and onto the inner part of the tent. Likewise, there is a spiders web on the roof of my tent and strange stick insects that look like twigs roam the grass.
In the afternoon, hungry (as we usually are), we searched hard for a taxi but had to settle on a matatu to take us to town. The matatu was empty when we got in, but quickly became crowded, straining up most hills. In town, we attempted to eat at the restaurant of the M&R Hotel, a foolish choice. They were overwhelmed by 7 of us ordering in quick succession and in the two hours it took to get our food, three of us went for haircuts, some people went to the bank, others went shopping and explored the local market. Jason even found it necessary to go buy snacks to contain his hunger and the look on Paddy's face when he finally received his miniscule portion of beef would have been amusing if he wasn't so dejected.
After lunch-cum-dinner, we walked to Shooters bar to meet the rest of the tour. On the way we ate half a litre of icecream each (sickeningly good) and tried to browse the internet. We passed a bike shop and I managed to buy a plastic bottle cage, apparently the only one they stocked. At Shooters bar, we struggled to place drinks orders (two barmen were also the only waiters) and at one point, Tim stepped in to help them serve us. When the owners of the bar showed up later, order was partially restored - an Indian man with a stressed expression and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth flouting an air of efficiency. We met some new volunteers for the Peace Corps, a charitable project I had never heard of before (apparently limited to US citizens) - they had been here for six months and had signed up for three years - an unimaginable commitment for me personally, especially to go live in rural Africa.
This morning we went for breakfast at an awesome cafe called Hasty Tasty Too, run by an extremely friendly Ismaeli man who reminds me a lot of my grandfather, the same build (a large stomach) and round bald head. I arrived a bit late and most of the Tour appeared to have visited already - their kitchen was struggling to fulfill our orders. Anyway, I'm about to return for a hearty lunch before heading back to camp to finish off my rest day chores and duct tape my broken bottle cage to the frame.
at 2:57 pm on Thursday 25th March
(Or The Day Everybody Got Flats)
After a fast stretch to Dodoma yesterday, the capital city of Tanzania, and a brief taste of beautiful pavement, I vowed to take today's stage slowly in order to let my body recover. My saddle sores have resurged with a vengeance, not that painful but if they get any worse, I may be back to a situation similar to Egypt.
Having been passed by most of the fast people and sweating heavily in the swampy morning humidity, I was already irritable when I hit a piece of corrugation that gave the final blow necessary to snap my bottle cage damaged in the truck collision. It's held on with two (red) allen bolts and snapped just below the top bolt. Hopefully this means it should be repairable with Duck tape but an annoyance until then anyhow. At the same time, my camera flipped around and pulled down on the earphone cable, yanking the left earphone down and out. Consequently, I'm now back to mono (probably better for road safety).
The day got better though, I caught up with Dave and Adam and rode with Adam down some singletrack running alongside the road. (For non cyclists - singletrack is the holy grail of mountain biking, a smooth, flowing path wide enough for just a single bike.) I've been dreaming of singletrack since we started cycling in January and increasingly as both the road sections bored me slightly and as the dirt sections seemed to lack genuine enjoyment. This singletrack was sublime, flowing, sandy and lacking corrugation like the road. On my fat but skinny tyres, I struggled a bit to avoid washing out around corners (where either wheel loses traction and the bike slides sideways).
At one point there was a rock in the way, up which it was necessary to ride in order to continue down the singletrack. From one angle the rock was rideable, from another it was a sheer vertical face. The rock was hidden behind shrubbery and although I noticed Adam suddenly climb up nearly a metre, it still came as a shock to me and there was a sickening creak as my front wheel hit the part of the rock inbetween the rideable part and the vertical wall. Somehow, my bike made it up the rock and once again I wished for front suspension.
We got to lunch at 10:30, earlier than the last few days. Carrying on from lunch, we passed Steve, the youngest rider on the tour, dealing with a flat tyre. As we continued down the road, we pulled over to let a tractor pass and as it came nearer, it was clear that there was a bike skewered on the front of its fork. It all made sense when we could see Steve inside the cabin, squashed in with another five Tanzanians.
After a lengthy (warm) sode stop, a pleasant descent began, not too technical and not too steep either. Unfortunately, it was here where I got my first flat while riding on dirt (all previous have happened at camp) - I hit a sharp rock and it gouged my front tyre and tube. The front tube was my one surviving Slime filled tube and started spraying out green liquid all over my right shin. Slime is a brand of sealant that is meant to seal punctures once they happen. In this case though, either because of the location (Gerald reported a similar issue) or because of the size of the puncture, the tube didn't seal and I had to swap the tube.
By this time, I thought Adam would have continued on but when I reached the bottom, he was patching up a tube. Apparently he had a flat too and in the process of pumping up his patched tube, the valve fell apart. His spare tube had three punctures in it which he was busy patching. As further riders came past, they mentioned that quite a few others had punctures. Once we had sorted it all out, we headed down the road and managed to get to a beautiful section of singletrack.
Unfortunately, Adam's tube went flat again on this section. He repaired the fourth hole on the tube but the valve self destructed as he pumped it up. I left him behind here and went ahead. Unfortunately the singletrack didn't appear to rejoin the road and at one point when it was clearly going in the wrong direction, I cut right across several fields.
It worked and the road was under my tyres. However, both my tyres were covered in circular seeds with sharp 'teeth'. Pulling these out, I heard a hissing sound from the front tube but it seemed to be holding its air. I went on a few kilometres to find about ten riders sitting drinking soft drinks. Joining them, I was about to leave when I realised my rear tyre was completely flat. Pulling it out, I searched for a hole but couldn't find one. Putting it back in, I pumped it up and hoped that the pressure would last until camp, only 13 km away (apparently).
It didn't last. Every kilometre, I'd have to stop and pump it up and with 5 km (apparently) left to go, I decided to patch the tube since it was taking so long to pump it up each time. Once I'd dealt with the tyre, I checked the front and found that it was now also flat. Removing the tube, I patched it too and put it back together.
My patch job on the rear tyre wasn't great and it was losing its air. I managed to cycle another couple of kilometres before it was flat again. Giving up on patching it again (riding on tube with insufficient pressure had stressed the valve to the point of failure) I started walking the remaining three kilometres to camp. Shortly afterwards, the green Land Cruiser that has been supporting us came past with Adam inside, his bike was also irrepairably punctured. I gave them my bike and continued walking, although they mentioned that the distance was actually approximately eight kilometres.
By this time it was pushing 4pm and so I was already resigned to a ridiculously long stage time. Walking in the mid afternoon Tanzanian heat, it was refreshing not too attract too much attention from the locals (apparently they ignore pedestrians). A while later, I saw a local cyclist who I managed to convince (with a few Swahili words and lots of gesturing) to let me ride his bicycle. He sat on the back of the bike and I pedalled the remaining few kilometres to camp on his single speed bike with 20" wheels.
When I finally reached camp, after a ten hour day, the soup was cold and the light slowly fading. After Martin (our awesome Kenyan bike mechanic) trued my wheel, and dinner was served, I set about patching my tubes. The rear tube was wrecked but the front tube was salvageable with five more patches. I think these singletrack dreams will have to wait until my return home.
at 12:35 pm on Monday 22nd March
Today was more of the same unpaved roads as yesterday and overall more descent than ascent. For the manyth time on this trip, I caught myself desiring those brake levers which lie inline with the normal drop brake levers but are placed on the top of the handlebar. It is quite tiring to have to use the drop position for prolonged periods and my advice to future riders on a cyclocross bike would be to definitely bring those. (Paul, a returning rider who wasn't able to complete the tour last year, has added such levers to his bike in the interim year.)
There were a few moments going down the descent where I lost control. This was usually when my speed picked up over terrain rough enough to mean I couldn't process the road ahead fast enough and I realise that the road is approaching faster than I can react to it. In all of these cases I was able to gain control quickly, mainly by braking. A couple of times while in this mode my hands flew off the bars as my bike hit protruding rocks and I had to struggle to regain my grip. This is a recipe for danger and my brakes are usually partially enabled whilst descending most hills on dirt.
My once pristine bottle, new in Nairobi, is now a mess - scraped and blackened, having been ejected from its home in my bike's bottle cage as my bike and I ride over rough terrain. These ejections are quite an exciting sight, the bottle usually bounces just once before settling with a resounding THWACK. As it settles, the lid usually pops off, flying several metres off across the road. The contents of the bottle, usually red energy drink, empty themselves onto the road in the shape of a flame from the mouth of the bottle. Normally I notice fairly quickly but when this happened for the third time today, I noticed after a 50 metre (vertical) descent and was preparing to walk back up the hill when another rider, Paul, appeared at the top. Pausing to pick up my bottle, he delivered it to me at the bottom = much appreciated!
It was cloudy this morning which meant breaking out the yellow sunglass lenses (increased definition of the road in lower light). The clouds usually mean increased humidity and I was definitely sweating intensely, drinking 7.5 litres of water the entire day (similar to our days in Sudan). There was nearly as much climbing as yesterday - another sweat inducing way to spend the day.
The northern Kenyan road is meant to be the toughest unpaved road of the trip but I'd like to contend that observation. Whilst most of the last couple of days have been relatively straightforward rocky double track, the Tanzanian road today had several severely sandy sections. The road in Kenya was tough but rideable and occasionally fun. This road was not fun, did not cause any adrenalin release and it was extremely hard work. At times, the sand was multiple inches thick, swallowing your tyre. At some points, forward motion was almost impossible and most riders had to dismount (having been forced to by the sand stopping their bikes) and walk for a few metres to find somewhere more steady to push off on.
The worst part of it was that it was at the end of the day. Usually you can push through sand but it requires a lot of energy. At the end of the third day, the day after a mando-day (which was actually easier than today's ride), there was no energy left. Camp was a welcome relief today and I genuinely fear for my EFI status if the road tomorrow is similarly sandy.
(You should note that the road hasn't always been so sandy, it was merely corrugated in the past and had sand dumped on it to make it smoother for vehicles. Hmph.)
at 12:33 pm on Monday 22nd March
When we were on school ski trips, our teachers used to always say in our safety briefing that most accidents happen on either the first or last day of a trip because people are overconfident. Certainly this truth seemed to exhibit itself yesterday when on our first day of the second half I was hit by a truck.
The journey out of Arusha was at the peak of the Tanzanian rush hour on a Friday morning. For under ten kilometres we were riding through heavy traffic and riding the wave of adrenalin, I filtered through lines of cars, jeeps, buses and trucks with several other riders. As we approached a junction where a sideroad was joining our road, a truck was emerging slowly. It stopped, edged forwards a bit and then stopped again. Foolishly, assuming the truck had now stopped, I continued forward on our road, with right of way. The truck edged forwards again, pushing me+bike sideways onto the ground. Luckily it didn't advance any further and there was no real damage apart from a couple of bent (possibly fractured) bottle cages.
The driver of the truck came out and apologised profusely. I assume he simply didn't take notice of me. Lesson learnt and I'll yield more often to the African traffic. I took the rest of the day slowly, riding with Erin and Ruben. The paved road was to end at 80 kilometres but the TDA notes must be out of date since we happily rolled all the way to camp (105km) on some variety of pavement.
That afternoon I fixed the remaining issues with my bike, replacing the rear brake cable (oh does it feel good to have full control over the bike again) and redid my handlebar tape which has failed to cover about 20% of my handlebar since our first section of dirt in Sudan. Realising that we would have a significant amount of free time, with the help of some of the other riders, I devised a survey which we're going to ask every rider on the tour. Questions range from useful information for future riders to plain ol' information which is probably not so useful. Keep your eyes peeled for the results.
I slept for nearly 9 hours which seems to have helped my legs regain their speed. Today was a fast day and we hit the dirt road at 4.4km from camp. Thankfully it wasn't as hardcore as the Northern Kenya 'road' and my bike liked it. My body too was relatively happy with the amount of jarring through the handlebars (although I may be swapping gloves tomorrow to prevent a hole being worn into my palms). I started off early and was overtaken about 30km in by Frans (today's stage winner), Simon and Jethro. Just before lunch Gisi and Stuart overtook me.
After lunch, I was overtaken by noone, which was a welcome relief. Maintaining my pace to camp, the only annoyances of the day was the enormous dust clouds that the lorries and buses kicked up as they overtook us. Normally the clouds fade quickly but the sand or dust here is much finer than that we've seen previously. As a result, the air stays a sort of cloudy emulsion for tens of seconds, making it impossible to see (and irritating your eyes) and hard to breath. This is worsened on uneven downhills which require eyesight to navigate safely at any speed.
The second annoyance was being called a 'mzungu', Swahili for white person. I understand that the children here may not be well educated but surely they're able to distinguish between skin colour. (Perhaps mzungu is a general byword for foreigner but I'm a pedant for accuracy.)
The day was quite hilly, involving a fair climb on dirt - this counted as a mando-day, our fouth of the Tour so far. At on point the climb reached a 15% gradient and on that ascent I stood up to try and get enough power to move forwards. I slipped into a sandy rut at this point and my rear wheel lost traction. It wouldn't stop spinning enough for me to roll out of the rut and I had to unclip from my pedals quickly in order to avoid falling.
Looking at the actual ascent, it was under 1200 metres. Supposedly the ascent combined with the dirt made this stage difficult enough to be considered a mando-day. Personally, I don't find there is much difference between ascending on tarmac and on dirt - the speed difference might be a single kmph or so but proportionally this is much less. E.g., on a flat road on tarmac you could be travelling at 30kmph, versus 20kmph on dirt, a 50% speed difference. Climbing a hill, you (or I, because I suck at hills) could be doing 12kmph, versus 10kmph on dirt, a 20% speed difference.
Faith by Limp Bizkit shuffled around as I was grinding up the biggest single climb of 600 metres today, inadvertantly gifting me with a new climbing motto - 'get the f*** up'.
P.S. Happy Belated Birthday to Chirag, sorry for not sending a message sooner!
at 4:14 pm on Wednesday 10th March
Originally posted on the TDA Blog.
Greetings from your African dirt correspondant, exactly a month on from our first taste of dirt in Sudan. I'm writing from a small settlement called Laisamis, 95 kilometres from a dusty town called Marsabit, en route to Nairobi.
As we left Ethiopia, the heavy rain that had plagued the tour eased up and we were generously treated to several days of dryness. The weather changes quickly though and at 4:30 am on our rest day in Marsabit riders were busily putting their rain flies on their tents. The roads in Marsabit quickly turned to mushy mud and vehicles (including our own bucky, the 'Drama Queen') were getting stuck every few hundred metres. We've not had to ride over any serious mud so far on this tour so this was shaping up to be an interesting riding challenge.
There was no real rain overnight and as the riding week began, we were told of the muddy sections that awaited us on the road. After a pretty serious downhill, I settled down for a morning of gradual descent to lunch. Soon enough the first mud arrived, vehicle tracks were carved half a foot in and any clear cut path soon vanished.
Riding over the mud was slippery and I was very glad of my previously ill-thought out decision to use fairly skinny dirt tyres. The mud attaches to your wheels quickly and within minutes it's rubbing against the inner edges of your frame and fork and collecting on top of your brake callipers, making no sound but slowing you down noticeably.
For one of the early sections, there were a hardened section on the sides of the road which was much quicker to ride along. I was riding along merily at somewhere between 15 and 20 kmph when I caught sight of a local. He shouted and pointed straight across the road to something just metres in front of me. Slamming on my brakes and almost vaulting over my handlebars, the object he was pointing to was immediately apparent - a deep and wide crack in the earth.
Saved from this possible end to my riding day, I continued on to lunch, passing through water logged section after water logged section. The clear rain water turns brown as soon as it touches the soil and the standing water covering the depressed sections of road leaves a layer of fine grit on your skin, clothes and bicycle as you pedal through it. Bicycles were creaking for much of the day as the water washed off lube.
Visible from lunch was another water logged section of road where a truck had got stuck in a seemingly deep pothole. The cab of the truck was arched at 20 degrees to the surface of the water and it seemed that it was submerged about a metre. Normally the puddles aren't that deep, or at the very least, their surface maintains the same consistency as the road immediate before and immediately after it. Another rider Jason was standing on the other side of the puddle scraping his shoes but I took little notice of this. Feeling confident at my ability to ride such puddles, I cycled straight into this puddle, picking a line that followed the ruts on the road leading to it.
The first small puddle was fine but less than two metres into the second puddle I felt my front wheel disappear into some mysterious underwater chasm and I actually went over my handlebars this time. Luckily there was no hard impact, unluckily I was now soaked from neck down. The crew and passengers of the stuck truck broke into laughter and Jason, who hadn't see me cycle in, was shocked to see just my head floating above the water. We stood and watched as three more riders crossed, somehow picking a line where they stayed relatively dry. One of the TDA trucks tried the same and was wedged underwater within seconds.
The afternoon featured the much promised 'extreme corrugation' and arriving to camp was a timely relief. As riders came into camp, it was pleasant to see some of the chronic complainers extoling their enjoyment of the day.