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by SS at 7:54 pm on Tuesday 1st June

When I first planned my year of travel (commonly colloquialised as a gap year), I tried as much as possible to stay clear of any clichéd travel experiences. You know the sort - backpacking in South East Asia, volunteering to build a toilet block whilst teaching English at a local school, travelling in an overland truck, etc. However, the subject of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro came up several times over the last year - we tried to compare it to the trek we had previously done to Everest Base Camp (a similar altitude but longer). When one of my good friends said it was the hardest thing his Dad had ever done, I knew I had to give it a go. Announcing my travel intentions to my father, he decided to come along to - Kilimanjaro being a long time goal of his.

Foolishly, despite travelling the previous four months heavily loaded with electronics, I thought this would be a good, brief, break from my gadget addiction before plunging headlong into a summer of connectivity back home. (In addition, several sources had mentioned that the cold temperature at altitude would rapidly deplete batteries.) I soon realised my error when on the first day of the trek we were sitting around with hours to kill while our guides and tour organiser (at Marangu Hotel in Tanzania) sorted their equipment out. After a painful wait in which we did nothing (my only book was packed deep inside my duffel bag), Desmond, owner and operator of Marangue Hotel, called us for our briefing.

To compound this excursion's cliché factor was our choice of route: the Marangu route. The most luxurious (pre-built huts with 'beds' instead of tents) and shortest way to climb Kilimanjaro, it's often derided as the most touristy of the routes. Both of these factors appealed to us when choosing a route - we lacked sufficient time to do the longer Machame route and were hiking at the end of the rainy season - staying in wet tents was not an appealing thought. Desmond assured us though that the popular attitude to the Marangu route is flawed - perpetrated by a group of tour operators who lack the capability to book the Marangu route (which entails a complicated system of deposits for each hut). The elevation graphs show that while the first few days aren't as steep as other routes, we climb more at higher altitude each day - the hike to the summit is over a kilometre vertically, versus less than half this on the Machame route.

We eventually were driven to the park gate and after a quick lunch, started our first hike up to the first hut: Mandara. It was drizzling lightly as we passed through the muggy rainforest. Ants of all sizes (the largest were over a centimetre in length) crawled the surface of the trail and on several occasions we stopped to slap at our gaiters - having been bitten by freeriding ants. The route was steeper already than most of what we had hiked on the Everest Base Camp trek. We quickly reached the first hut (just a three hour hike, we did this in two and a half hours) - Mandara Hut, at 2700m.

The huts are fairly based but having lived in a waist high tent for four months, I appreciated the option to stand up fully without ripping your domicile to pieces. The huts are 'A-frames', shaped like the letter A so the only place to stand up is in the middle. Throughout the night there was a steady stream of sound as we and the other hikers adjacent to us knocked into the slanted wooden walls of the hut. The lavatories were basic but positively luxurious to what we found at most places on the TDA - they flushed and were relatively clean.

The next day we hiked up to Horombo. This was supposedly a six hour hike but thanks to my father's blistering pace (a misnomer, this pace caused him almost no blisters), we reached in less than five hours. I struggled, walking behind him most of the way. Four months of cycling have not developed my hiking muscles well at all. In addition, compounded fatigue left me wanting more energy. I realised here that I was glad that the route is only five days. Almost certainly this contributes to the notion that the Marangu route is purely for tourists but lacking electronics and with a quickly diminishing amount of material to read - boredom was an everlooming spectre.

After eating dinner in the fine company of some stripey rodents (they made for an entertaining dinner, if adding little else to the atmosphere), we took the opportunity to rest well that night since the summit climb the next day wouldn't provide us with a good night's sleep. The next morning the cloud that we had been climbing in had lowered a few hundred metres and the view was of a gorgeous plateau that almost seemed walkable.

From Horombo to Kibo, another 1000 metre climb, there are two routes available - a lower route and an upper route. The upper route is a few kilometres longer than the lower route and takes you closer to Mawenzi before swinging back along the saddle to join the lower route. A bit steeper, we again machined up the route and overtook the cloud (which had overtaken us just as we left Horombo) to be the first trekking group to reach Kibo. My Dad, ignoring the advice to walk 'pole pole' (slowly), had walked at his usual London pace.

Kibo was COLD. The (single) hut there was as close to a concrete bunker as, I supposed, huts built for tourists could get. Inside the huts was cooler than outside - the sun didn't seem able to penetrate through the miniscule square single-glazed glass windows that lined the top of the wall on each side. Worse still was the schedule for the summit hike. Kibo is the last hut which you can sleep at (on the Marangu route) but is still a fair distance from the summit. This means that it is necessary to leave at midnight in order to reach the (official) summit at sunrise. Conditions as the day heats up usually worsen and the weather is best in the early morning. Once you reach the summit, you can either choose to hike on to Uhuru, the actual summit, or descend all the way back to Horombo via Kibo.

That afternoon we tried hard to rest before the summit climb and failed as expected. The complete disalignment of our attempt to sleep with our usual sleeping patterns and the cold (we were wearing all of our clothes for the summit hike inside our sleeping bags) made it difficult. Personally, I napped for about 45 minutes before dinner and slept for maybe 1.5 housr continuously before we were woken at 11pm.

Waking up, I felt bad from the outset. Sleep deprivation aside, my stomach felt like the scene from Star Wars where the Rebel Alliance is fighting the Death Star. This was most probably caused by the altitude and not sleeping properly. Regardless, we had to push on and we began trudging up the mildly loose scree that composed the majority of the climb up to Gilman's Point. We took our guide's pace - slow but steady and made it up to half way with only one toilet stop (Star Wars induced). As the midnight tea wore off, I found it harder and harder to stay awake and began to doze off each time we stopped.

As we entered the rocky section before the climb, my Camelbak froze solid and crunched everytime I shifted the weight of my backpack. The rocks blocked the light of the full moon from illuminating our path and soon we all switched on our headtorches. The rocks were larged and required, at some points, both hands and feet to climb over. I had to stop a few more times to use the toilet - at temperatures below freezing this became a miserable but necessary act.

After what seemed like eternity of being within a few minutes of the ridge at the top of the climb, we finally reached it at 5:15. Out of seemingly nowhere was a crooked wood sign 'Gilman's Point'. A relief but we stopped only for a few minutes to get a caffeine topup (the tea seemed to breath new life into the war in my stomach) and continued onto Uhuru.

It seemed that the trek to Uhuru took as long as it did to get to Gilman's - a false feeling induced by the sudden availability of daylight. We stopped several times, mainly to catch our breath and to take some photos. The view from the top of the crater was stunning and has made it into my list of favourite places in the world (now a total of 3). As we plodded onto Uhuru through snow and ice, we saw several trekkers leaping down towards us. This seemingly continued forever but an hour and a half from reaching Gilman's Point we reached Uhuru - a circle of clear earth amidst thick snow.

Mission accomplished and after the mandatory photos, we quickly began our descent - my Dad had begun to feel a little queasy from the altitude too (and unlike me, decided to say something about it)). The descent to Kibo was great fun - on the loose scree this was more akin to skiing than walking. The last time I did this down Mount Snowdon in Wales, I had no gaiters and my shoes quickly filled with rocks - this time though, it was smooth sailing.

From Kibo down, the descent was much harder work - my legs hurt more than the way up (different muscles again) and I could quickly feel the burn. The difference descending is that you are no longer limited by your cardiovascular performance - merely by your muscles. A few hours descending, another night at Horombo and then finally a 4.5 hour descent all the way to the gate - it was over.

What did I gain from this? It was hard climbing Kilimanjaro, no doubt, but our pace was set quite high. We could have taken it much slower and probably summited just the same. Is it the hardest thing I've ever done? No, but then I was subjected to the Dinder ordeal on the Tour D'Afrique (12 hours of pain versus the 9 hours from Kibo to the summit and back).

Finally, trekking isn't as fun as cycling (in my honest opinion), nor as exhausting. I can't wait to get back on my bike!

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by SS at 4:03 am on Friday 2nd April

A batch update because I've been busy planning April's Fools and going around the remaining riders to get their responses to our survey. After the first quick day into the Forest Camp (where results confirm Paul and I were ranked second and third with the same time), we rode the next 130km day together.

It was a long day but the tailwind and gentle descent (over several rolling hills) made it much easier. We were going hard, at the same pace as the previous day, but it appears everyone else decided to race the day too and soon after we reached lunch Jen arrived, red faced and looking as if she wasn't going to stay long. I learnt my lesson from the previous day's lunch and only took one sandwich (although managed to consume nearly five glucose sweets). The Indaba crew mentioned that Ruben had gone through quite some time earlier and hadn't even stopped for lunch - merely yelling out his rider number as he cycled past. We left pretty swiftly and rode at the same pace all afternoon.

About 5k before camp, Jen caught up with us, looking like she was about to explode. Not wanting any assistance (admirable) she powered on ahead and beeped in minutes before we did. Ruben was already sitting at camp with an air of fatigue, later we found out that both he and Jen had won the stage. Another new stage winner and for Ruben, another yellow plate to hang on his wall. This bush camp was pretty amusing, being situated near the grazing ground for local herds of cattle. While we were pitching our tents, one medium sized herd came out running. Several riders watched on in horror as cows weighing several hundred kilos came within milimetres of their bikes and tents.

We were at altitude and the weather was gorgeously cool. Compared to the heat of Tanzania, it was a welcome relief and made sleeping just a little bit easier. By the early hours of morning, it gave my sleeping bag reason for existence again and I found myself covering up. My Thermarest has been slowly leaking for several weeks now and it didn't help that the ground was rocky that night. My natural instinct is to roll over and sleep on my side, letting my arm take the strain of the uneven surface. This works well apart from causing my shoulders to ache for most of the next day.

The next day we rolled towards Mbeya, the closest large Tanzanian town to the Malawian border. The problem with being fast on a day with a headwind is that people soon pick up this fact and tag along. Within twenty kilometres of leaving camp, Paul and I had picked up a paceline seven riders long. One of the new additions to our riding group was Michael, another young British rider, who was surprisingly quick when leading at the front of the group. We rode quickly until lunch, being the second group to pass through.

It's a shame everyone was rushing that day because lunch was excellent - french toast and bacon - but not quite ready. We managed to grab a scrambled egg sandwich in time to see several other riders ride past lunch (Marcel, Stuart and Gisi and Rick!). Jumping back on our bikes, the paceline continued for another 15 kilometres until we hit the climb st 75 kilometres. A 1200 metre climb over the remaining twenty kilometres, it quickly broke up the group. Simon powered on ahead and the rest of us leapfrogged each other for a while.

Arriving into Mbeya, we camped out at Stockholm hotel, a pleasant African hotel about 9km from the centre of the town. It was nice and early, before noon, and in the afternoon, several of us took a matatu into town to find food, icecream and internet access. A pretty unremarkable town, aside from the odd fact that some how all the TDA riders managed to converge on the same internet cafe despite there being at least five or six internet cafes in the centre of town.

On our return to camp, we had our staple dinner of spaghetti bolognaise and the most genius-like icecream vendor I have ever seen pedalled up to the hotel courtyard just as people were finishing their plates. Although he only had two varieties of icecream (plain ol' ice lollies or some kind of fruit flavoured Magnum lookalike) riders went crazy. When I checked that night, Jason had only reached five icecreams, failing to beat his previous day best of six, set in Dodoma.

This was our last night in Tanzania and the day crossing the border was not a race day - a fact I am very thankful to the TDA staff about. It was a beautiful day of cycling, possibly the best day of cycling yet on the tour and just beautiful. It wasn't short, nor easy - the stage was 120km long (106km in Tanzania and the remainder in Malawi), starting off with a large climb, rolling down some and then climbing again. The last half of the day was pretty much a gradual descent. Overall the day was approximately 1,000 metres of climbing and 2,000 metres of descending - the largest descent yet (perhaps another reason why it wasn't a race day).

We woke up and it was cloudy - or foggy even. At that altitude we were pretty much inside a cloud and the first climb took us several hundred metres above the cloud layer, making for a beautiful view and some great photos (although not mine: this little Samsung camera sucks). The descent into lunch was smooth, rapid and only marred by the ridiculous mini speed bumps (grouped in fives) that are littered metres before big speed bumps and after them. The hills were rolling but the descent made it easy to roll over them, I don't remember my speed dropping below 25kmph on many of the inclines.

After lunch, I rode with Jason, Paddy and Ruben for some distance. We all have aero bars on our bike and on one of the descents we all put our heads down and tucked in, freewheeling for many kilometres. The only way to describe this would to be to aliken it to soaring, in the same way that birds seem to. We held perfect formation as we rolled around gradual corners, listening only to the hum of the road and the whoosh of the wind. Magical and one of my top moments of the trip so far.

The border crossing was easy, we passed a famous British television star, Paul , apparently the voice of Bob the Builder, who was also crossing into Malawi. Malawi is a pretty typical tropical country and apparently nearly every tropical disease you can imagine is alive and well in this country. It's also warm and humid, worse than many of the previous countries because of the increased humidity. We're also at a lower altitude which has upped the temperature. They don't speak Swahili here anymore, so my slight competitive advantage when ordering drinks (or perceived competitive advantage) has been whittled away to the mere sign language level.

Our first night we stayed at a bush camp next to a local village. Just like Ethiopia we were surrounded by lots of locals - Malawi is apparently one of the poorest countries in Africa, with a GNP per capita close to $800. Every so often we'd hear a wave of screams as the local children would run away from the stick-wielding guards we'd employed for the night. I had set up my tent with the rain fly on, anxious of the rain. As soon as I climbed into my tent though, I climbed out and removed the fly - it was unbearably hot inside. That night I slept without my sleeping bag, shirtless and skin damp with sweat.

At 11pm there was a huge crash. Lightning lit up the sticky night sky and a few seconds later there were loud bangs. Suddenly the camp became of flurry of activity as riders hurried to put their rain flies on. Sometime later (I'm unsure of the exact period since I was in a half state of slumber) the rain started and it was heavy. The drops were the size of grapes, making a loud hammering sound as they hit the roof of my tent in turn.

That morning I ventured out to find a well shielded and peaceful spot to use the toilet. I found the perfect place, undiscovered by any of the other riders and safely hidden from view. On the way back to camp, I stepped in a large, seemingly fresh, pile of cow dung. Returning after breakfast, with a new set of shoes, I was conscious of the perilous surface and had my eyes wide open. Obviously I wasn't properly aware because I managed to step into the same inviting pile, with the same foot but a different pair of shoes. On this trip I only have the two pairs of shoes and they are both now soiled. Superb.

That day we rode to Chitimba beach along the Malawian highway that runs parallel to the 800km Lake Malawi. We stopped in the morning to raid a supermarket - sixty riders each bought several days' supply of biscuits and snack food (apples, for the first time in a while, were readily available and hence popular). This easy thirty kilometres discounted, the remaining ninety kilometres into camp was a slog through a heavy headwind. It appeared that the local vegetation was immune to the wind since they barely moved.

I rode with Paul until 15 km after lunch when we caught Rod and Juliana. I rode with them until about 10 kilometres before the camp and then rode in alone. It was very helpful to have the draught available and luckily the headwind died down nearer to camp. The sandy track into camp was especially challenging, seeming to be populated with traps under the surface that would grab your front wheel and throw you from your bike. I fell off a couple of times, convinced that I'd be able to ride it and eventually giving up. Several other riders also went over their handlebars or were flung off sideways.

Reaching camp though, a protein shake, chocolate bar, cold Fanta and cold shower later, I was ready to begin planning the night's activities. April 1st is my favourite day of the year - my mother used to play pranks on my sister and I as a child and throughout university we engineered some pretty epic pranks on our corridor-mates. Brainstorming with Sam and Dave (American riders), we decided to wake up at 2:30am and mount some of the riders' bikes on trees. This worked almost flawlessly except for the fact that Sam, the experienced tree climber of our group, was not in a state to climb trees when we woke him up. He instead gave Dave and I moral support as we lifted Paddy's, Rick's, Steph's, Paul's and Steve's bike frames and wedged them in between branches.

The second part of my April's Fools onslaught was to play the call to prayer song (sung by all Mosques in Africa at 5am) over the truck's stereo system. When I woke up at 5am, it was raining heavily, and some line of logic decided to overpower the sense of humour in my brain - I stayed in bed and woke up two hours later when it was much too late. Next year I guess!

(Addendum, I was caught yesterday and forced to pay for the wi-fi after acquiring the password from someone else. Today they changed the password from 'chitemba1' to 'chitemba2'. Intuition saved me from having to pay the extortionate price twice.)

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by SS at 1:54 pm on Monday 29th March

James, our tour cook, does an excellent food profile of every country that we pass through. Two of the token East African dishes which I wanted to try but hadn't yet are ugali and chips mayai. On our last evening in Iringa, we went to a popular local bar, the Miami Bar, for dinner. The bar was in itself an advertisement for Kilimanjaro beer - the walls, table clothes, doors and bar stools were all massive logos. We ordered food with a mixture of Swahili straight out of the Lonely Planet African Phrase Book and English, coveting help from our seated local neighbour.

The ugali was as I expected, perhaps a little disappointing but only because of sheer familiarity. The chips mayai however was superb in the same way that peanut butter is. Imagine an omelette and a bowl of fries. Now imagine the chips inside the omelette. A fairly heavy meal but well received regardless. This brought my sum total of egg consumption over two days to fourteen eggs.(Digression: the best part of this trip is our ability to eat whatever we like without thought for the consequences. I will begin to detox a fortnight before Cape Town.)

Starting the next section on Saturday morning with a brisk helping of Weetabix, I soon found myself cycling with Paul Porter, a rider from last year's TDA. We ride at a similar pace and rapidly made our way to lunch and then to camp, being the third and fourth riders to arrive into camp. I'm not sure where we rank. It's amazing how much this helped - when I was riding in the front my heart rate would be pushing 160 BPM, and when I was riding in the back, my heart rate would drop down to 140 BPM - a good opportunity to rest. I've also noticed lately that my heart is recovering much quicker, dropping back to resting heart rate when we free wheel down hills within a matter of seconds and ramping up pretty quickly too.

At lunch, we rushed out as soon as some of the other riders started to arrive. Normally I average 2 sandwiches per day and Paul motioned that we should leave as I was just about to start eating my second sandwich. Not wanting to waste a good sandwich, I tried my best to eat it quickly but managed to destroy the pure structure of it whilst doing so. As I started pedalling on my bike, the sandwich fell apart completely and the bushes 50 metres from our lunch stop are now littered with sandwich crusts. A saddening reality of the tour.

The scenery in Tanzania is pretty stunning, we're at some altitude (approximately 2,000 metres) and for brief stretches of road, it looked like we were floating in the sky - clouds seemed to be at ground level. This road is filled with large trucks and similar so we've been banned from listening to iPods (I don't own an iPod but a Sandisk Fuze - took their warning to mean don't listen to music). This meant it wasn't possible to listen to any suitable soundtrack to the scenery.

That evening we camped in our second forest camp, in a forest that appeared to be heavily logged down a dirt track (and we thought we'd left it behind!). The grass was long, up to a metre in height, and several riders reported seeing snakes. As I was setting up my camp in the grass, I was bitten twice and observed another rider's tent being covered in crawling insects. Promptly I decided to move my tent to the dirt track which let off the main dirt track - slightly inconvenient and not as soft but you can't put a price on peace of mind.

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by SS 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.

3 comments posted so far
Ash wrote at 3:05 pm on Fri 26th Mar -
Sunil - How far have the Chinese gone in paving the road? It looks like they are every where in Africa. Don't be afraid of the bees. Although in Africa, they are not the Africanized Bees. ABs are bees from Africa mix bred with bees from Brazil in Brazil. If you get stung try to pull out what is in your skin without breaking it. Last advice do not run from bees as you will never out run'em.
Simon wrote at 6:13 pm on Fri 26th Mar -
Sorry to hear you're still having problems with saddle sores. Have you tried wearing two pairs of cycling shorts ?
SS wrote at 12:56 pm on Mon 29th Mar -
The Chinese haven't reached that road yet but supposedly a perfectly smooth alternative exists. In any case, the smoother the road becomes, the more the TDA will look for a dusty alternative!

I've been wearing two pairs of shorts nearly every day for quite some time now - it helps, definitely. Not sure the saddle sores will leave me until the tour is over now! In any case, it'll be much more manageable now on the paved roads.

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by SS 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.

2 comments posted so far
Leszek wrote at 3:32 am on Tue 30th Mar -
Does walking and stealing a bike still count as EFI?
SS wrote at 6:39 am on Thu 1st Apr -
Yes :-p

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by SS 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.)

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by SS 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!

1 comment posted so far
Ash wrote at 2:28 pm on Mon 22nd Mar -
I hope you're ok from your crash with the truck. Traffic rules are generally respected fully only in developed countries. I live in San Diego close to the US-Mexican border. Just after I cross in to Mex things chnage dramatically. I don't know why. I personally like the survey you are conducting. In epic journey such as this going through different countries and terrain, the question of what to bring is an acute issue for those of us who have yet to do it. I've looked at the current as well as previous blogs. All I see ispost "my bike" or "my equipment".I took a menthal not from your writting on front suspension from earlier journal. I also saw a fairly good description of Rick Wasfy's bike

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by SS at 8:18 pm on Thursday 18th March

The mosquitos are unusually fierce here in and around Arusha. Within the last three days, I've accumulated at least twenty mosquito bites. We've been off the bikes for three days, resting in the official half way stop of the TDA. Previously I've commented about how rest days seem to go annoyingly quickly, filled with chores and other menial errands. This time, although we had much more time, about half the group elected to go on safari - I was part of a smaller group of 11 that went on a three day camping safari (although three day is a stretch, it was more like two and a half day). We left at 9am on the first day rest day and returned today on the third rest day at about 3pm.

I'm not going to go into huge detail since it's late and the photos will say far more about the safari better than I can! We visited three separate areas over the three days-
Lake Manyara National Park
The safari here was great - unlike anywhere I've been before. We saw lots of elephants and most of the big game (no lions, rhinos or cheetahs). Vegetation is very dense here so it's harder to spot animals. The area isn't huge.

Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area
Unbelievable views. We camped on the rim of the crater and took a game drive through the crater itself. The park is pretty busy (I can imagine it getting a bit too crowded in high season) but there are plenty of animals to see. In our single game drive we saw:
- Flamingos
- Rhinos
- Hippos
- Elephants
- Giraffes
- Impalas
- Lions
- Hyenas
- Stalks
- Warthogs
- Baboons
- Meercats
- Mongoose
- Zebras
- Wildebeast
- Buffalo
In addition, I tried a new challenge - to rate limit myself to eating a biscuit every twelve minutes. This wasn't as easy as I thought and I had to stop after 18 biscuits because my stomach was uncomfortable. (Eating them in one go is very easy though - today I managed 20 biscuits without a pause.)
We spent most of the afternoon lying down in the shade under a big tree in our campsite. Awesome.

Tarangire National Park
A pretty big park but we didn't have time to explore it fully. Did almost get charged by an elephant and quite a few bites from the tsetse fly.

Overall the safari was excellent fun. The tents were hilariously old school and heavy but you could at least stand up fully in them. We didn't do much besides sitting around and getting bitten by insects so it was a good way to rest. Onwards now for the second half and the remaining 55% of the continent.

2 comments posted so far
Moose wrote at 6:03 pm on Sun 21st Mar -
Did you engage in some form of qualitative analysis of the meerkats present?
Did you JM yourself when you so the mongoose? wrote at 10:52 am on Mon 22nd Mar -

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Elephant Photo
Elephant Photo
It just happened, sorry.
8:02 pm on Thursday 18th March by SS
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by SS at 8:00 pm on Thursday 18th March

Sorry for the lack of updates, the days preceding Nairobi and the two days afterwards were just busy! The ride out of Nanyuki to Sagana was beautiful - no rain and it was mainly a descent all the way into camp - nice and fast. The campsite (the Mike Savage camp) was very lush, peaceful (save for the persistent lawnmower that we could hear but not see) and to top it off, was a base for white water rafting down the River Tana.

Having never rafted before, and eager to use the full coverage of my travel insurance policy, I signed up (paying possibly slightly too much) for the three hour afternoon trip. I spent about two hours prior to the trip trying and failing to fix a puncture that I managed to get on the way into the camp. At first I was certain the patch was not on properly, took the tube out and repatched it. As I was pumping that up, air appeared to be leaking from the valve. The pump was on the truck and it took several hard trips up the short but steep incline to get to it each time. Finally, Jerry (one of the new British riders) stepped in and we discovered a hole about half a centimetre across. Observing my frustration, Jerry went ahead and put a new rear tube in for me - legend.

The rafting wasn't as death defying as I had hoped, nor as controlled. It seemed like the raft pretty much was constantly spinning and we gave it little direction. Sure there were a few situations where we fell out of the raft and were washed into relatively sharp rocks, but nothing that would have made me fear for my life. There weren't too many rapids either (maybe two or three good sections) so we spent a few times riding the first big rapid. At first I didn't want to fall out but once the raft flipped for the first time and we all flew overboard, it wasn't so bad. There are a few seconds where you're disoriented under the water and are desperately trying to figure out which way is the surface. The buoyancy aid kicks in though and you quickly surface and are dragged out of the way by the fast underwater current. It got a bit cold later in the trip because the sun was on its way West, the only disadvantage of the late afternoon trip. All-in-all it was good fun and I'm just happy my shoulder stayed in.

The next day was complicated, made more complicated by the fact we had missed the rider meeting explaining the extent of the complication. Our trip into Nairobi was to take a partial convoy on the part of the road with the heaviest traffic. To avoid doing a convoy the entire way, the route was extended to take us around the central areas, making the day 137km in total. In addition to the distance, there was also a fair amount of climbing (total ascent was 1550m).

Our route into Nairobi took us down the main highway, passing Thika. 25km into the highway, we stopped for lunch and the convoy began. In order to keep the group moving, we had three smaller convoys - I was lucky to make it into the first convoy. It was mayhem, as expected. Matatus (unofficial public transport in the form of overloaded minibuses) would swerve across our lane, or even try and pull out into the middle of the convoy. Once a 4x4 driver pulled across the front of the convoy and then stopped - his window was open and he received his fair share of verbal abuse from the riders! Soon enough though, we made it into town and down some beautiful roads, one of which contained many embassies. We passed close to my aunt's house and then rode through the city to a suburb called Karen where the campsite was located, reaching just before 2pm.

After my uncle picked me up, we went in search of the much acclaimed proper bike shop. Surprisingly it was a proper bike shop - full of high end bicycle supplies. Their stock wasn't amazing (apparently there had recently been a big event) but I managed to pick up a new (narrower) saddle and a new bottle cage. After this we went to Diamond Plaza where I had intended to get a shave. One thing led to another and I ended up with a haircut, the style of which is known as a 'tucco' - courtesy of my uncle. That evening my uncle, aunt, cousin and I feasted at their home - genuine home cooked Indian food and about 8 scoops of icecream. Beautiful.

The next day I had a massage (wonderful) and sorted out everything - cleaning my tent, bags, clothes, and bike. We went shopping, picked up a bottle of Amarula for safari, and fixed my watch! I also got to open the bag full of spare parts and goodies sent from London with my parents, with the effect that I now have the following:
- 10 Dairy Milk Crunch
- 2 Twix
- 5 Snickers
- 27 Nine Bars
- 17 Protein Bars
- 1 pack of Chocolate Digestives
- TicTacs
- 5lbs of Whey Protein
That afternoon I packed all this away (worrying all the time that it wouldn't fit in my locker - surprisingly it fits very well), met with some friends and feasted again on egg chapatis. Courtesy of my relatives at Mjengo Ltd (Anuj and Raj), we also took delivery of about 6,000 biscuits which were donated to the tour. Feedback so far has been positive - people love the biscuits. The time in Nairobi was too short (or at least too busy). I'll be back in May though!

The next day was a long (157km) day to Namanga, the Kenyan border town with Tanzania. All was going well until sometime after lunch where the newly constructed road we were unofficially using suddenly became wet tar. In retrospect we should have stopped instantly and moved off the road but we kept going. Luckily we didn't fall (as quite a few riders did) but our bikes and limbs quickly became covered in sticky, wet, tar. I could barely hold my handlebars, drink water, or eat an energy bar since my hands were so sticky and it felt unpleasant. Crucially, the brand new drive train I had just installed was now covered in sticky, wet, tar. Mentally it felt like a bit like riding into a wall - having spent the entire day previously cleaning my bike and clothes, only to have that veneer of cleanliness destroyed within half a day.

This slowed me down a lot and I was glad to reach camp. The only way to remove tar from yourself and bike is to use some kind of fuel - there was a jerry can of petrol which people were using to wipe themselves down. Something, either the massive petrol exposure or perhaps the egg chapatis the night before, made me feel quite ill - exhausted, unable to move and nauseous. When dinner rolled round, I wasn't able to eat much at all, and as usually happens on the worst days of the tour, I had dish duty. I managed to clean some of the tar from my bike but they quickly ran out of petrol.

Waking up the next day, compounding the effects of my unpleasant day previous, I had a puncture. Taking the tube out, it had a puncture near the valve - irrepairable. I was the last rider out of camp but managed to catch the group up at the border post to Tanzania. Rolling out of the border post, I forgot to scan my iButton (our timing device) and 2 kilometres later, had to turn around and go back. Great!

The rest of the day was as dreary and I severely lacked speed - either as an effect of not eating enough or because of the layer of tar on my drive train. Reaching Arusha at 3pm was a relief (EFI for another day) requiring five energy bars throughout the day just to sustain me. Arusha is a pretty built up place and Tanzania is much like Kenya. The scenery is beautifully green and we were treated to a great view of Mount Kilomanjaro on the way. Now we stop in Arusha for 3 days before we reach the official half way point of the tour. By my own statistics, we've only covered 45% of the distance (this was, presumably, because of the harder climbing and offroad days in Ethiopia and Kenya) so there is a bit of catching up to do. (Sneak preview: one of the weeks later on is at least 160km *every* day.)

1 comment posted so far
Ducky wrote at 1:30 am on Tue 13th Jan -
Where was the proper bike shop? I've been all over Nairobi in search of one.

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