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.
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.
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 6:44 pm on Friday 12th March
When it rains in Africa, it RAINS. There is no messing about, it'll be heavy but short. Frequent but never prolonged. When we reached Laisamis, the TDA staffer on site mentioned that the dried up river bed looked like a nice place to pitch our tents, soft and dry (it looked like it hadn't rained in a while) so about half the tour set up there.
People started packing up unusually early the next morning. Awakened by the flurry of activity, I was up and in action earlier than normal. Having packed up my tent and carried it to the truck, the heavens broke open. Lightning and thunder which was previously seen and heard respectively far in the distance came closer and closer until it became a murderous symphony directly above our heads.
The rain was already there but at the flick of a supernatural conductor's wrist, it doubled, or even tripled in volume. The drops were fat and heavy, bursting and soaking all in their path.
There was no shelter. It had been a dry and relatively clear evening and the tarps on top of the trucks were not put out. Riders stood with their backs flat against the truck. Those filling their lockers did so slowly in an attempt to avoid the rain. Breakfast was a meagre attempt at catering against adversity - a pot of baked beans slowly became more and more diluted as it filled with rain water. The ground around the truck was littered with the discarded shells of boiled eggs.
The river bed which had housed many tents quickly became a gushing river.
Riding onwards, the rain didn't stop. The sandy, gravelly, corrugated roads had turned into mush. The corrugations were still there but masked under their wet surface. Tyre tracks were several inches deep - there was no good line today. You'd be slightly quicker if you rode down the rocky ruts that had now become fast moving shallow channels for water and really, everything was wet anyway.
The rain died down though, to a pale shadow of its former self. We continued to crank our pedals and about 10 kilometres before lunch the beginnings of a nicer road began. A construction project that is supposed to create a paved road between Isiolo and Marsabit had just about reached that far - beginning by first creating a smooth dirt road and then adding a tar surface. At this point, they had only created the smooth dirt road.
The run off from the storm covered the low sections of the dirt road and created huge puddles. These were great fun to cycle through and luckily there were no unexpected potholes which could necessitate a swim! As my bike travelled through the puddle, every now and then a small green frog would jump across the front wheel.
For a while, this dirt road disappeared. In my state of mild exhaustion, I neglected to observe this road beginning again until just before camp. I kept waiting for the riders who were definitely close behind to overtake but they never did. Arriving at camp, they were all already there - and had apparently cycled past on the smoother road under construction.
As I wheeled my bike into camp, I caught my first offroad puncture of the tour, a thorn about an inch and a half long which required a pair of pliers to remove from my tyre.
The next morning I woke up and as I was about to leave, realised my attempt at patching my tube had failed. Thinking that the pre-glued patch had failed, I stuck another patch on the edge and put the wheel back together. Within a few kilometres, my tyre was down to low pressure again.
Giving up on the pre-glued patches, I elected to use a genuine patch. Unfortunately, my pump was with Jason (I had lent it to him the previous day) - fortunately the sweep rider (and Tour Director) Paul caught up and with an audience of construction workers, I patched the tube and pumped it up with his pump.
Air was still leaking out of the tyre though and I could feel myself getting slower and slower. Paul was riding along at a pretty brisk pace and after a while was a good way in front of me. It took a lot of effort to catch him up (only possible when he slowed to take an energy bar) - it could have been a painful day if my bike had punctured behind the sweep rider, especially without a pump!
The road soon turned to proper tarmac which was a welcome relief. At lunch I caught up with the main pack of the tour, took a brief lunch (just two sandwiches!) and continued on after pumping up my wheel again. I made it to camp but it took an unsurprising amount of effort.
The afternoon was a busy afternoon and I was pretty much busy from when I arrived (about noon) until sometime after dinner. To save on prose, I shall bullet point:
- Showered, nice and warm but tap gave an electric shock when turning water on and off.
- Changed dirt tyres to road tyres.
- Paddy arrived with my new crankset. Chris and I changed over the crankset but the old bottom bracket wouldn't fit the new crankset because of the adaptor that was installed previously. Removing this adaptor caused the bearings to come out of the bottom bracket and we ended up just borrowing a spare Shimano Hollowtech BB from another rider. In addition, replaced the chain and the cassette.
- Changed the seatpost from suspension to rigid. Dropped the nut from the suspension seatpost into the muddy ground and spent 10 minutes trying to find it.
- Drank my first 500ml soft drink (normally they are 300ml).
- Reinstalled my aerobars.
- Found the cause of the slow puncture - the thorn had gone through both sides of the tube and I had only patched one side.
Meanwhile, quite a few other riders drank a lot of alcohol in the dry warmth of the bar. Out under the truckside tarp we were subjected to the heasvy African rain several times each hour and the ground softened to a muddy mess. By the end of the day, all the conmfort food my parents had sent with the spare parts had been consumed.
Today was lovely and short. It started raining just as I woke up and in my fear of the outside, I lay in for about 25 minutes (not a good idea when the morning is so busy as it is). Luckily the rain stopped as we began the day's ride and within an hour it was dry. About twenty minutes in I had to pull over and remove my waterproof jacket because I was overheating.
The first 30 kilometres was a 1,200 metre climb and we had a view of Mount Kenya as we neared lunch. A pleasant tailwind and smooth roads made for easy cycling - although it was still hard on my fatigued legs. The only noticeable difference (apart from massively increased smoothness) of the new drivetrain was that there was no twisting motion as I pedalled which made my right leg ache less.
Lunch today was possibly *the* *best* *lunch* *yet* - French toast, made freshly by the Indaba crew. It was phenomenal and I managed to eat 7 slices of bread (and probably could have eaten more). The afternoon was ridiculously insignificant, and it took less than two hours to reach home for the night, the Sportsman Arms Hotel in Nanyuki.
at 2:46 pm on Friday 5th March
We're in Kenya. A dreary 80 kilometres of questionable quality pavement and a fairly unremarkable border crossing and we're in the motherland, or at least my motherland. Crossing the border, the fact that we're in a country is unmistakeable. Aside from driving (or riding) on the left hand side of the road, the people are friendlier here and more of them speak English. The kids don't hassle you, they merely stare (which is still not ideal but always better than a barrage of rocks).
I've spent about £20 worth of mobile phone credit already just catching up with family and friends. I've managed to organise via my father a new crankset, rim, set of pedals and a helmet - with any luck these will make it to Kenya with Paddy, another rider who is in London for an interview.
Talking to my aunt in Nairobi about what I'd like to do there, I mentioned the hierarchy of desirable snack food. That is, biscuits are at the bottom - easy to buy in every city, these are a staple snack item for every rider. Chocolate bars fall above biscuits - these are considerably harder to find in less well trafficked areas of Africa and are usually expensive (not an option on my post-student budget). At the top of the hierarchy is ice cream. When I used to weigh a metric ton, I used to eat a bowl of ice cream everyday. So far in the trip I've not had a single scoop of ice cream (although some riders found some at the (amazing) Sheraton in Addis) Ice cream is on the agenda for certain.
The rough terrain is worrying me, which is annoying because I usually love riding offroad. The next few days will be concerned mainly with preserving my bicycle in its now delicate state.
I'm not sure what else to say really. I was so stoked (and hence distracted) to be entering Kenya that I cycled into a pedestrian on the almost euphoric ride out of Ethiopia through the border town Moyale. Luckily it didn't break me or my bicycle further than it has already been damanged.
Oh, and the bugs are getting bigger and uglier. Every night I battle against some dastardly insect which has had the misfortune to find its way into my tent. Some of them can fly or jump pretty high, and in a small two person tent, this is a recipe for disaster.
The rain is heavy, it's been raining every night (and often during the day too) and *everything* is wet. Luckily it was dry enough this afternoon to let my sopping wet (but clean) clothes dry. We also have the dinner truck back which means there is one less bag to find space for inside the tent.
at 2:39 pm on Friday 5th March
So we finally had our first experience of rain whilst riding. Not only was it there while we were riding, it was there while we packed up ou tents. Dan doesn't consider it 'rain' but 'spitting', but then again he's Australian. In England it would be considered rain - much like what we get about 60% of the year. Just about everything is now unclean - my tent has splodges of dirt on the side (the inner part of the tent is white, the rain fly is green - it shows up very clearly on the inside). My Thermarest, bags, bike, cycling clothes, casual clothes are all splashed with muddy water.
Today was our second mando-day, and we didn't receive much description in advance. They're trying to maintain the number of mando-days
year to year, except we're taking a different, slightly shorter route to Kenya to make up for the extra rest day. It was pretty difficult, similar to the previous mando-day (about 2,000 metres of climbing this time) and I definitely suffered. In addition, my legs are tired from the three days I've ridden hard and the stomach issues of that last couple of days have made it hard to eat enough. So it was a slow day snd my race position will be pretty poor.
The roads weren't too bad but coupled with the rain, quite an adventure to cycle down - reminding me of some of the mountain biking trips we've had to Wales and the Peak District. A couple of guys crashed on the downhills and I suspect rain was a factor in one out of the two. The rain cleared after lunch and it became more pleasant as everything dried off. My logic behind buying a cheap cycle computer was that it would be more reliable. This logic was thwarted by the rain and for the first 71 kilometres (confirmed by my GPS unit which sits in my Camelbak), the cycle computer didn't work.
Once it started working again, and I had managed to find one of the few spots over 100km that are private and hence suitable for taking a 'comfort break' the ride started feeling a lot better. The children were out in force today, there were houses pretty much constantly along the road. No rocks were thrown but lacking my MP3 player (for fear of water damage), I was forced to listen to approximately 2,000 'YouYouYouYou's along the way. There were a few interesting variations though, including one man who asked if I spoke Hindi, and a few 'Good Marning's. I also figured out that a good way to get a few moments of peace and quiet was to tell the kids to 'shh' and put your finger to your lips - it appears this transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries.
Finally, before my laptop battery runs out, the timing Gods have spoken and I did win yesterday's stage. Superb.
at 2:32 am on Friday 4th December
Arrival in Chennai was uninteresting as I found the city itself, although soon after I landed it began to rain. Supposedly this month is the monsoon month and dusty roads became muddy.
I was very grateful to Ruby and Rukku, two colleagues of my mother who both teach and help run the Montessori training institute in Chennai, who let me stay with them as I passed through. It was nice to see familiar faces and learn a fair amount more about the work they do in India. Although there are a plethora of Montessori style schools, they are inundated with applications for their associated nursery school which takes in just 8 students per year and receives 1,000 applications for these places! This is a reflection on the quality of school since it charges fees that are considerable at least. They run applications on a first come first serve basis and it seems parents need to register their child pretty much as soon as he or she is born!
The next day, I spent the morning cruising around the damp roads of Chennai. Relatively lacking tourist sights, the Fort St. George museum and the Government Museum were both formidable attractions. I particularly enjoyed the zoology section of the latter museum, filled with skeletal remains of a horse and an elephant (huge!) and models of fish that are frightening in appearance.
As I wandered the museum I found that I had accidentally caught up with a large school group. This was the second time this had happened; a similar group was present when I went to visit the National Museum in Delhi. I struggled to see what utility the hundred or so young children received as they were herded through the museum in a loosely formed single column. The noise echoing through the exhibition halls reached a mighty clamor as they indifferently failed to observe any rules of museum etiqutte. Luckily I managed to overtake them and sanity of mind was within grasp again.
The luxury airconditioned bus that took me to Pondicherry was less than enjoyable - having paid five times the cost of a government bus, and twice the cost of a normal non-airconditioned private bus, it was not long before a short, overweight south Indian man came and sat in the empty seat next to me. Ordinarily not so much of an issue but it irked me since there were at least five empty rows behind me. Furthermore, as the conductor came to ask for his ticket, he made up an excuse and simply bribed the conductor 50 Rupees. Unfair!
Being a private bus, it was not in their interest to lose time by actually going to the stated destination, instead dropping me off at an intersection several kilometres from the main town. An auto ride later, I decided to attempt looking for accommodation in true backpacker fashion. What I quickly realised though, was that the weather in Pondicherry was too hot to walk around with a 20 kg backpack on, and all the hotels or guesthouses were located annoyingly far from each other.
Having tried several ashrams and being turned away, I turned to two reasonable looking hotels near the sea front. My 'sea-view' room was actually facing away from the beach front but from the grotty balcony, if you stood in the right corner on your tip-toes, you could see a small amount of blue water. Regardless, the airconditioning was a much appreciated luxury.
Having visited some amount of Indian cities and town, I thought I had experienced most of what they had to offer. It was surprising then that Pondicherry is one of the worst smelling Indian towns that I visited yet! The Moosra surmises this to be a combination of the French heritage and the modern south Indian population. I think the clue might be in a covered canal which runs through the town, which appeared to be mainly sewage run-off. Either way, the Lonely Planet recommends walking as the best way to get around - if you choose to do this, breath through your mouth!
The restaurant scene in Pondicherry caters to the European ex-pat and tourist, so I was pleased to be able to avoid Indian food for a short period, consuming pizza for dinner, and museli and a crepe for breakfast. Staying by the sea has further benefit in the relatively close location of an ice cream parlour.
As for actual sightseeing, my propensity to avoid places of worship embedded itself firmly here and there were only a few other places to visit. The botanical gardens were a astonishingly lush and vast collection of exotic plants in the middle of the city, although retaining their Indian heritage through badly placed signs with poor grammar.
Auroville, a township some distance away from Pondicherry, was a pleasant commune of spiritually minded residents who collectively worked together to grow the settlement. It was set up by a visionary known as 'Mother' who was an avid follower of Sri Aurobindo, a reknowned spiritual leader. The most spectacular part built so far is the Matri Mandir, a temple associated with no faith built in the geographic centre of the town. It looks like a giant golden golf ball from the outside - we weren't allowed inside to look.
The rain soon came to Pondicherry and I decided to go shelter in an internet cafe and treat myself to actual broadband, versus the 128 kbps I was getting through my phone's EDGE connection. This was a strange place, ordering food was self service - you placed your order at the counter and went to pick it up. It struck me as odd because the cafe was tiny - 3 metres by 3 metres - and that the lady nearly came to my table to tell me that my sandwich was ready anyway. It was my luck that this was a festival day and they shut early - cutting me loose from my high speed tether to the online world.
I return to Chennai via Mamallapuram, a wonderful town where there are several temples carved entirely out of stone. Sometimes these have been carved entirely out of just a single piece of stone. These are well presented and a pleasure to see in real life. The only bus that would take me back was a state run bus which was brimming with passengers, and I stood all the way back to Chennai.
On the way to the airport, my auto rickshaw was stopped from entering the domestic termal about a kilometre from the entrance and I had to walk with my luggage to the entrance. The monsoon rains were in full swing and my bags remain wet a day later.