It wasn't meant to be this long in between posts but it has been an exhausting few days. Seven days of hard riding wasn't going to be easy and it hasn't been. In fact, it's been the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I'm just exhausted, I have no energy reserves left. Every time I eat an energy bar whilst riding, my speed visibly increases. Some time later, it drops off again.
The first day off road was hard - bumpy and slow but not unreasonable. The second day was riding through Dinder National Park as I previously mentioned. The first 50 kilometres were similar to the prior day but the road inside the park was just a whole new level of pain. What was good (and bad) was that for our own safety, we were put into convoys. Luckily, I managed to catch the fastest group of riders, arriving just as their convoy was about to leave.
What followed was nothing short of (probable) hilarity. As we bundled down the path at a steady 10-15kmph, Marcel, one of the fastest riders in the tour and a pretty serious racer, had about a million punctures. In his race strong attitude he had bought some lightweight off road 'cross tyres - these seemed to puncture as soon as anyone gave them so much as a sharp look, let alone the thousands of thorns lining the side of the track. (My Marathon Extremes held up well, can't comment on their comfort yet though).
When we finally reached lunch just after noon (lunch at lunchtime, who would have thought), we shoved down a load of pitta bread and talked to Caroline, one of the nurses who was supervising lunch and explained that crossing the park was taking too long in convoys. Being in the middle of a national park, there was no mobile reception and she was unable to reach the tour leaders. Each time we tried to leave, we were stopped by the Sudanese park guards who wanted us to leave in a convoy with a vehicle leading the way. Before we could leave though, we had to take part in some strange ceremony where they awarded us each a laminated badge bearing the National Park logo and shook our hands while we were videotaped. After this, one of the officials gave a speech to a video and then interviewed each of us in turn to get our impressions of the park.
When we finally left, over an hour later, I was feeling the exhaustion and struggled to keep up with the group. As usually happens when I get tired, my balance disappeared and I fell over repeatedly on a sandy stretch of track (the tyre ruts were filled with sand enough to suck your wheels in, the side of the track was hard, dry earth). My legs are now marked with several scratches which make it painfully fun when I try to kneel inside my tent. The group eventually separated and we cycled at our own pace for the remainder of the distance (the day was 130 kilometres of off road approx).
The afternoon sun was beating down and we were running out of energy and water. Many of the riders behind us had given up at lunch, finding the morning terrain tough, and were riding in 'buckies' (or pick-up trucks, as I've always heard them called). Just after I had run out of water, one of these vehicles passed and I gladly took as much water and energy drink as they could provide. The terrain just wasn't easing up and the vibration was making it extremely painful to just hold the handlebars. Easing up on my grip wasn't an option either because that would mean more weight on my legs and my balance was precarious as it was.
I shuffled along at a steady 11-12 kmph and it soon got to the point where the sun was setting. Gisi, a German rider who is one of the fastest women on the tour, had a flat about 15km from the end of the park and I stopped to help her. Soon after, Stuart, one of the strong Australian riders, came back to check if we were ok and we realised that we'd need to pick our speed up to reach camp before it became dark. Stuart and Gisi left me behind (they both have suspension and my arms were pretty much destroyed) and I powered on through the last part of the park, the road eased up just before the park ended.
Leaving the park, thr roads improved considerably (much, much smoother) but I was too tired to appreciate it fully. There was a wonderful section through a village, a small single carriageway which looked just about wide enough for a car, weaving in an out of houses. Every now and then there would be a slightly raised drain crossing the path with a ramp on either side - I managed to get a small amount of air going over a couple of these but would have tried harder if I had a bit more energy). As I rode into the village, my eyes grew hungry for the finish flag since we'd been told at lunch that it'd be 118km. Instead, I pedalled on into the growing darkness for another 10km, looking out wearily every second for any sign of riders. When I finally reached to the sound of applause (customary for every rider who comes in late in the day), most of the riders were still missing, being held in transit from whereever they were picked up on the rough park roads.
Rod and Juliana, a husband and wife duo who are some of the most prepared riders I have met, made it in a short while after I did. As soon as they arrived, Rod curled up in a ball and just lay on the ground - both were extremely dehydrated. Michella, the other Tour nurse was kept busy dressing wounds (mine included). Everything that night ran late, by the time I had my tent set up it was pushing 8:30pm. It also happened that it was my turn on the washing up crew (we have an alphabetical rota) but this was postponed given the hard day.
A lot of riders didn't make it that day - I think less than 20 EFI riders remain. There were a lot of angry faces at lunch and the expection of how difficult the ride would be was much lower than it actually was. The National Park was also incredibly disappointing in terms of wildlife (on par with the terribad safari in Ranthambhore, India) - we saw a couple of warthog and baboons. Regardless, the Tour rolls on. The next day was more dirt and was equally hard. Fazed by the ride through Dinder, the trucks were packed with riders who had chosen only to ride half of the day (by getting a lift to lunch) or not at all. The terrain was a mixture of difficult and was at times almost unrideable.
One section of road consisted of broken earth but the cracks inbetween pieces were large enough to swallow a wheel. One of the Australian riders, Dan, caught a wheel and stacked it quite badly. Several other riders chose to walk that section. Adrian, another of the fastest riders, lost control further down the road and hit a sandy embankment to graze a lot of his right arm. The afternoon eased up slightly and at 110km we hit road again. The sun was burning down again at this point and a Coke stop at the intersection was kept busy by TDA riders.
By the time I reached Matema, the Sudan-Ethiopia border town, it was quite late in the evening, almost 6pm. There was a lot to do (change tyres back to road tyres, get the Sudanese exit stamp, eat, shower) although I ended up sleeping early from ehaustion, waking up early to change my tyres. Human error decided to step in when I was putting in the tube (must have done it wrong somehow) and despite pumping it up to 100psi (maximum for my tyres), it was flat by the time we reached the border (0.5km away). This was no real issue at first because we were standing around waiting for our passports to be stamped by the Ethiopian immigration office. After changing the tube, it turned out that my spare tube was also punctured (annoying) and I ended up trying to patch both. One of the patches failed and the valve on the other tube disintegrated. Just as this happened, they announced we could all go and most of the riders left. Jethro, a South African rider, stayed and helped me sort out my tyre - luckily Paul had a spare tube that fit and I was able to get my bike going again.
The landscape in Ethiopia is wonderful, green and mountainous. That's probably the most amazing thing about the trip so far that makes it so different to most other trips I've been on. The whole country is not very flat so I think I'm going to suffer (but this will probably help my piss-poor climbing ability (as anyone who has ever cycled uphill with me will know)). I've shed most of the excess weight off my bike (rack is in storage, as is the rackbag, may changed the suspension seatpost for a rigid one). Tomorrow is our first mando-day, 2500 metres of climbing. This will be painful.
The mood amongst the riders and staff has soured slightly. Many of the riders who couldn't handle the last few days have decided to go on ahead via private transport to our next rest day in Gonder (where we're heading tomorrow). It's obvious that the staff are being stretched and the Indaba crew (who operate our support vehicles) weren't happy with us today because of the mess on their trucks. The annoying thing (at least from my perspective) is that the mess was likely caused by the people who were riding the trucks - most of the riders still left at the meeting today were those who weren't riding the trucks. Erin, an American rider on the tour who has run a marathon on every continent, says that the last few days have been tougher than when she ran a marathon on Antarctica. Enough said.