Friday, April 25, 2014

Solitaire to Sossusvlei

The end of the tour is nigh. We left Windhoek and pavement yesterday to camp at a site which doubles as a spiritual retreat and a stud farm. It was stark, isolated and lonely. Today, we continued on the dirt: in turns, hard-packed and sandy. This surface is a boon to off-road cyclists. Indeed, it is their preference. It is fitting that our Aussie friend Helen embarked on the Jo'burg to Sea mountain bike venture as we roll south to the Namibia desert, after which this spacious country is named. 

If you have been following this commentary, you may notice gaps in posts. This is due to the inconsistent internet access throughout the continent. Each country has a different protocol and the riders with smart phones urgently acquire SIM cards upon arrival in a new jurisdiction. Given my IPad, I wait for wifi which is hit or miss, mostly miss on the long stretches of road in isolated regions. Here we are in the aptly titled hamlet of Solitaire.

The community consists of a petrol station, a bakery renowned for apple pie and a general dealer. The population is listed on the sign. One may conclude that all of them work here.

This last section culminates with the convoy into Cape Town. There is a lot of dirt to cover. Our road int town was marked by an epic descent that was thrilling. It gave way to piste that drew us to our camp. 

Tomorrow is the final time trial and rider meeting beckons. Our destination is Sesriem which exits as a transit point and accommodation venue for those who wish to take in the famous dunes at Sossusvlei. The TDA has awarded us a day of rest in this village in order to appreciate the red sand.

One last note regards the water management of this region. The basin is vulnerable to drought so the precious resource, the gold of this century, must be wisely managed. Take a look at this sign.


This day of leisure has afforded us access to western luxuries as the capital of Namibia has almost everything one needs in terms of amenities. Windhoek is set among the hills and has broad boulevards that cross the town. These roads, like many in African capitals, bear the names of their heroes. If your name is equated with the independence struggle, there is a street bearing your name. It matters not whether you have fallen into disrepute.

The affluence of the city is apparent with the well-appointed suburban communities such as the one where we have made our camp. It is within walking distance of malls that resemble what westerners are accustomed to at home.

Another reminder of the wealth here is the presence of sporting facilities. As I cycled into the city to run errands, there was a complex that offered many activities that I associate with my native land, Canada.

And, of course, what German city would be without a good brew. We celebrated at Joe's beer house with several pints of the local draught. 

Namibia Burn

Our cook, Yanez, is familiar with the Burning Man phenomenon. Indeed, there is one in South Africa that has a similar ethos to the Nevada tradition. The other night, a mini-burn was organized after dinner with our leader, Randy, playing percussion and our driver Noah encouraging folks to dance and send messages on paper into the fire. 

Everyone took part and the pyrotechnics were impressive for so,etching that was hastily brought together using local wood and kindling. 

Heads, Tails and the Trans-Kalahari

The road from Maun to Windhoek is more or less flat and straight. The scenery is scrubby and ordinary. It challenges one's imagination as the distances are daunting. In fact, we had six centuries during this past section. Unless you listen to tunes or podcasts, there is ample time for reflection. It helps to avoid thoughts of aching quadriceps and hamstrings. 

One diversion is the ubiquitous presence of a bug on the highway. It may indeed be a cricket. Whatever species it is, the insect moves slowly and is vulnerable to being crushed. When the tire runs over it, the guts, a yellowish colour, spray on one's legs. This irksome insect also inhabits our campsites, sometimes joining us in our tents.

The elephant highway section finished yesterday with a stiff headwind as we pulled into the Namibian capital of Windhoek, a modern city surrounded by some low-lying hills which we climbed from the east. Headwinds have been a recurring source of lament during this year's TDA. We struggled north of Khartoum and the trend has been for any wind to be in our face rather than at our back. The one notable and fortuitous exception was the epic 200 km. plus day when we copped a tail wind in western Botswana that was a blessing.

The campsites have been off the road in the "bush". We set up our tents and cots among acacia trees. Thorns are a nuisance to both the body and the bicycle. The vegetation in the deserts is prickly indeed.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Special Dutch

The latest section of the tour commenced on a foggy morning in Livingstone, Zambia. Nine new riders joined the escapade. Five of them are from the Netherlands, including one rider, Paul, who did the opening Sudanese section with us. Paul is an experienced TDA rider. He taught me a lot about simple approaches to gearing and to taking a wide path going up hills. Collectively, the Dutch are remarkable cyclists.

The other day, there was a team time trial on the flats of Botswana. Guess who won it? Yes, the Dutch rocked the fastest time. It was but a foregone conclusion. Another team comprised of folks from northern climates was led by a Dane, Klaus, who is back for his third TDA after breaking his leg one year and his pelvis another year. He is an exceptionally strong cyclist and obviously intrepid.

This was at the end of the time trial, bikes strewn around the lunch truck. Food!

Yesterday was the longest day of the tour. Almost all of us endured 208 kilometres across flat Botswanan terrain to the Nambian border. A new woman's record was set for this leg of the trip. Ina, a remarkably fit rider from the Netherlands, smashed the record (as she would say "with a little help from my friends"). She is a delightful person who has dominated the woman's field this year. Here she is relaxing after the victorious time trial. Well done Ina!

Saturday, April 19, 2014


Maun is the gateway to the delta, home to much wildlife and therefore a big draw for tourists. One can do a makoro tour in a canoe or take a flight over the vast area where the river spills across the landscape. A group of us did the latter as the sun set a few days ago. This scenic birds-eye view entails a trip to the local airstrip. Here is David at the entry before we hop on the seven-seat plane.

It is an Aussie aircraft that cruises above the delta at a low altitude. Below, Kim enters the co-pilot's seat.

The pilot follows a route north from the town of Maun, passing over shrubs, grassland and wetland. 

Within a few minutes, the delta view becomes clear. It extends as far as one can see. There are elephants, giraffes, lechwe, and many animals below. They appear microscopic and yet they are visible in their habitat.

The river's course shapes the land. As you can see, it meanders through the flat and fans out. From satellite images, it is impressive as it gives the scale of this natural wonder of the world.

After forty-five minutes of aerial surveying, we return to the settled area of Maun. It is a trading centre amid the vast, dry deserts and savannahs of Botswana, a sparsely populated country.


You may know that the TDA is a race as well as an expedition. When I embarked on the tour, my expectation and intent was to complete the total distance, the vaunted EFI (Every F#*kin Inch). As the tour rolled on and I lost EFI in the Sudanese sands, I was persuaded to pick up the pace and compete. 

The title of this post has the name of an iconic dog sled race in Alaska. As a cryptic crossword buff, I use this word to break down my feeling about the race. The ID stands for the premier racers this year: Ina, Dave & Dave & Dieteric. They often set out as a mini-peloton and invariably they win the day's race, referred to as a stage. Iter is the Latin word for way. OD is overdose.

Due to the sympathy of the best riders, ID, one stage was left open to the other cyclists. The clearly superior or faster cyclist opted to stop at an oasis called Planet Baobab for a dip in a pool and a cold beverage. There are other strong peddles who could have won the stage. One of my comrades, Michel, another Dutch rider, indeed beat me to the finish line. However, due to a flat that lengthened his overall time for the stage, I sneaked in with the best time. Luck. Karma. A stroke for the ego.

The ultimate winners are all of us. We have each accomplished our respective goals: to see Africa by bicycle and cooperate with our friends to make it to Cape Town with rich memories of landscape, pain, relief and experience. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maun Farewells

Two cyclists are leaving the TDA 2014 to pursue other adventures. Scott, our tech-savvy engineer, hopped on a flight to Cape Town this afternoon. Within a week, he will be back in Calgary to prepare for a triathlon this summer. Helen, an Aussie water engineer, is booked to do the Jo'burg to Sea mountain bike competition and needs to arrive in advance to embark on that excursion. They have been with us since Khartoum and they will be missed. 

Scott is primarily a runner so he presumably fulfilled his cycling saturation point earlier than many of us. Now, he can focus on his training regime from the comfort of home. A lover of snacks, access to burgers, fries and Coca-Cola will be convenient now. Thanks for his faithful help in finding the web wherever we were on this odyssey.

 All the best to him in Penticton and beyond. 

Helen has been a consistently upbeat supporter of all of us. Ever willing to engage with the locals in whatever dialect she could master, Helen always seems to have heaps of energy. That pep and her positive spirit is infectious. She is at a crossroads in terms of work or study as she has decisions to make regarding an overseas job or a doctorate. We will carry her attitude with us to Cape Town and hope for a reunion there. Rock that Jo'burg to sea race.


This expedition can only happen with good people supporting the riders. Ten people have enabled us to reach our current rest stop in the middle of Botswana. One of them had to leave us in Lalibela, Ethiopia in order to attend to other TDA business, including the leadership of the Silk Route, another epic ride. Our mechanic, Alex, and the race director, Gillian, are out of station so the remaining seven were the recipients of a sumptuous breakfast courtesy of the riders. Here they are. 

Left to right: Steve, Tanzanian driver, Yanez, chef, Noah, Zimbabwean driver, Justin and Bina, American logistical/communications, Hannah, British nurse and Randy, Canadian tour leader.

The catalyst for this lovely meal was David, our youngest cyclist and his riding buddy, Alessandro, our largest rider. They coordinated the purchase of the food, the collection of money and the meal preparation. They did a first-class job. It started out with a simple spread.

Sally Anne and Leah whipped up pancake batter. Maple syrup was brought in for the occasion by Robert who joined the tour with his mother Susan in Livingstone. 

The chef de mission brought us together and assigned tasks: brewing coffee, frying bacon, scrambling eggs. David is in the shade; Alessandro is in the sun. Robert, the syrup mule, is smiling on the right.

Mimosas were served. Dietie, a cook by training, contributed his expertise.

After every meal, cleanup duty is assigned to a rotating crew. Here, Michael does volunteer service at the bins.

It was an unqualified success. The effort personified the motto of Andover, David's alma mater: Non Sibi. This translates as "Not for self."

Monday, April 14, 2014

Long, Straight Road and farewell to Mosquitoes

We entered Botswana at the river ferry crossing. It was casual. A long queue of trucks were waiting on both sides of the watercourse, anticipating the opportunity to ford the Zambezi and carry on. Eventually, we were granted approval to pass to the Botswana side. The official dome were lax about our entry as they asked us what our duration was and stamped our passports and sent us on our way. Once in camp, we knew we were among the elephants by the dung around the famous baobab trees.

The road or roads here extend forever and one can see the horizon unfold. The riding is easy as the highway is paved but it is flat and tedious. The sky offers variety from the relentless terrain.

As we proceed westbound to the Namibian desert, the risk of malaria tapers off. As you can see, it is almost time to consume the last few malaria prophylaxis tablets and get on with the last section of African terrain. Here we go en route to Cape Town. The blue band is a mozzie repellent and the currency is the pula of Botswana. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Public Works

We have seen  many public servants on the roadsides cutting the tall grass. The tool of the trade is the aforementioned machete. Many young men, sometimes clad in fluorescent government issue uniforms, ride to work on bikes. One such fellow allowed me to photograph his accoutrement. 

And here is a grass cutter at work.

As in the western world, good sustainable jobs are in short supply. It seems as though the government here can make work for many youth who would otherwise be unemployed. We are told that these jobs are hard to get because one must know someone in the government in order to be considered for hiring. 

Livingstone is a town dominated by tourism. Witness the museum bearing the name of the Scottish doctor who explored these parts a long time ago. Notice the baobab tree behind the statue.

Even today, the influence of John Cleese can be seen on the Main Street of Livingstone.

The community caters to a lot of foreigners so the municipal authorities discourage the nuisance of beggars. This sign is indicative of the policy (and the poor writing skills of the sign maker).

Linda Basic Primary

This morning's lesson was facilitated by the deputy teacher, Ms. Phiri, who allowed me to present the mandate of the Tour D' Afrique to a group of sixty or so Zambian children who live in the villages south and east of Livingstone. I brought this device as a prop to show them the map of Africa and explain this year's version. Eventually, the blackboard became my easel and I fashioned a facsimile of the route with related ideas. 

There were a few pregnant pauses. I resorted to the Socratic method and tried to elicit responses from the group. Much to my delight, a few keeners raised their hands respectfully and offered correct answers. Most of the students stared and listened. It is anyone's guess how much "learning" there was. 

I feel for these young souls for there is great potential and yet such meagre resources. It is obvious that the school needs more rooms, desks, pens, pencils, paper, books,...water and electricity. Thinking about the plight of the educators here made my head spin. How does one begin to address the requirements of the curriculum? The objectives include literacy, numeracy, socialization, discipline. And my impression is that the tiny minority of kids who attend private schools have exceptional facilities in contrast to the brick boxes that house these pupils.

Suffice to say that the sacred public trusts of health care and education are not equitably distributed. One Zambian said that the ministers and politicians should be compelled to access government hospitals and schools rather than perpetuate the gap by using elite institutions. However, that is not the way it works. 

There are no simple solutions to this inequality phenomenon. It will take visionary Mandela-esque leadership for some African nations to deliver creditable services to the majority of ordinary citizens. Although the inequality exists in our world, the disparity here is stark and dispiriting.


Every TDA participant was gifted a safari treat at the bike donation here in the Victoria Falls area. My award was a "bridge slide". This amounted to a bungee jump off the Vic Falls bridge. Undaunted by the prospect of soiling myself in the process, I redeemed my voucher for a jump in the afternoon. 

Making my way among the vendors, artistes and hustlers, I arrived at the middle of the bridge. For those of you who have not experienced the thrill of tossing oneself into the abyss, it can be terrifying.

The cheerful attendants strapped me into a harness and gave me my jumping instructions. Linked to two ropes by a carabiner (spelling?), I was told to hold onto the rope while I plummeted toward the Zambezi below. Three, Two, One...jump!

I survived this adventure. I did not buy the video for replay as I know how terrified I looked. After walking to the end of the bridge, I was nominally in another country: Zimbabwe. I returned the harness, thanked my counsellors for saving my life and cycled back to Livingstone to attend a birthday party for one of our cyclists. As it happens, there has been a spate of birthday celebrations this month. 

Elephant Culture

 A local woman took me to her children's school yesterday. She is bright, conscientious and diligent. Her own education was cut short for want of a sponsor. After grade 9, she entered the workforce. While we walked to the school, she stressed the importance of education and her hopes for her three kids. She does not want her two sons and daughter to be limited to a life of poverty and hardship. 

As we neared the school on our dirt track, a procession of elephants came along. Each pachyderm had a passenger or two. These are working elephants, presumably trained by their owners to serve the throng of tourists. One cannot help but appreciate the grace of these enormous creatures as they amble on the designated path.

Knowing next to nothing about the beasts, I listen to the lore and the mythology. Rumour has it that the bulls can be rather stroppy and aggressive. The ones I have encountered appear to be well-trained.

Their numbers may be threatened by habitat loss or poaching. My hope is that the people and governments of African and Asian nations protect them in perpetuity. Whether in captivity or in the wild, they are beautiful creatures.

An aside: two cycling mates and I foolishly cycled home to our lodge in the dark last night after a feast of Indian food in town. We had some moonlight and a few reflecting torches on our bikes. A local cab driver rocked up beside us and cautioned us about running into elephants on the path. We did not encounter any elephants but my guess is that the animals would have been nonchalant about our presence.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Livingstone Luxury

The tour has come to the tourist mecca of Victoria Falls on the Zambezi river which flows between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Safari opportunities abound on either side of the border as the finely honed industry caters to foreigners of varying budgets. Given that the tour has wended its way down to this popular destination through some impoverished areas, the community of Livingstone presents as an outpost of commercial development. The place where some of us are calling home is a quaint retreat called Prana set in the bush about five kilometres from the city of Livingstone.

Thanks to one of our friends who cycled with Bike Zambia last summer in support of local charities, there are nine of us staying at this wonderful sanctuary, removed from the hustle of central Livingstone. We are housed in comfortable tents with en suite bathrooms and cozy beds. After months of tenting in our modest, grotty accommodations, this is a taste of luxury. For example, our cook, Edson, and our hosts served up a full-on braii (Afrikaans for barbecue) that was exceptional. Thanks Eddie.

The tents in which we are recovering are refuge from the relentless grind of camping on the roadside or in locations where the ants, mosquitoes and spiders threaten to invade your tent. The image below tells a story. Draw your own conclusions. 

Lastly, the craftwork on offer can be inspiring and overwhelming. My minimalist leanings prevent me from indulging in most markets. However, I could not resist the temptation to buy salad servers. These hardwood tongs should survive the journey and represent the craftsman's skill.