Botswana is a boring place to cycle – at least the parts where we cycled. It is flat (the Okavanga delta). There are very few towns and villages – one every 100km or so – so few places to get a coke. The bush is a monotonous sameness. There is no wildlife in evidence. Of the narrow ribbon of tarmac that we followed I am sure there is more happening. While we were in Maun Bob took a 1-hour flight in a small plane over the bush. He saw lots of game. We saw little from the road – even though the road we were on is called the elephant highway. The towns have a middle-America suburban feel to them. There is middle class affluence – shopping malls, civic buildings, functioning utilities. But there are also street kids sniffing bags of petrol and petty crime – not what you typically think of when you think of Africa poverty.
During the rest day in Maun I left my bike with the mechanics. There was nothing really wrong with it but we had put on a lot of miles recently and I thought I would take the opportunity for a quick tweak and tune. When I got it back the front derailleur didn’t work. I took it back again. They said my crank was also loose so they had tightened it. The next morning when we started riding again my crank sounded like an eggbeater. I rode with it all day. It was a pain. It appears the crank had been tightened too much and had crunched the bearings in the bottom bracket. So the bottom bracket that had been fine when I first took the bike in, as far as I know, had to be replaced that evening (by a different mechanic), who also repacked the headset once again – it was starting to grind a bit – and readjusted the front and back gears. After that it ran well again. But I was pretty pissed off for a day.
Towards the end of Zambia I started to develop a saddle sore that wouldn’t go away. The days were getting longer, we were spending more time in the saddle, it was hot during the day and I sweated a lot. This is the first persistent saddle sore that I have had. It is not a killer. No skin has broken. But it is sore and I do ride with a low level of butt pain for most of the day. The long days have also made my legs a little tighter. I have a knot of muscle in my left thigh that doesn’t warm up for 20km in the mornings. I think I need a good massage to get the knots out. Other than that I am feeling great, sleeping well – and of course eating sensibly (coke, snickers bars, half litre tubs of blueberry cheesecake ice cream, crisps, mango cream biscuits and lots of oranges)
With just less than three weeks left everybody is wondering what ‘reentry’ will be like. Many are anticipating change of some sort. A few say claim that within a couple of days they will be back in the old flow and it will seem as if they have never been away. I think some change will be inevitable, some rebalancing, some refocusing. The Tour has been a great way to clean the mind. The forced routine of our days and the obsessive focus has cleared away the clutter. It has almost been like going away to a retreat and meditating for a week or a month. When I mentioned this to a few other riders it was amazing how many of them said that over the years they had practiced some form of meditation but that on the Tour they had discontinued it. The whole Tour was a step sideways or outside that de-stressed and sort of calmed – calmed is not the right word, but sort of steadied the heart beat, got rid of big swings, ups and downs.
Day 102, stage 78, 207km
Start, something lodge ganzi
Finish, east gate rest camp, Namibia
Today was the day we had all been waiting for. If the wind was favourable it would be as close to a doddle as a 207km ride could be. If the wind was not favourable it could be any flavor or dire from punishing to suicide inducing. It was also very, very cold. When Bob and I set off at around 6:45 it was still only 3C. We could not feel our fingers or toes. But we didn’t want to delay out start.
Apart from being cold the wind was not out to kill this morning. It was a cross wind slightly on the nose, hard work but low spectrum pain threshold stuff. By forty kilometres it was starting to warm up and we took a right hand turn onto the road to Namibia. This was marvelous. It meant that a cross wind was now almost a tail wind. We felt the assist immediately and picked up the pace. We made goodtime to lunch at the 85km mark. But were disappointed at the news there. In Botswana there are very few towns and very few places to stop for a cold beverage of choice. We had not passed anything but repetitive and anonymous bush in the first 85k. But we had been told at the briefing the evening before that there was a Station at km 114 where cold drinks could be had. At lunch this mirage evaporated. We were told that the Shell station was no more. It had closed. Cold drinks were not to be had. The next opportunity for a pit stop would be at km 150 where the TdA Land Cruiser would have refreshments. So another 65 empty kilometres. Bob and I left together and set a still pace. But just about where the Shell station should have been I started to tire. So we stopped under a tree for ten minutes, ate an energy bar and drank from our bottles. It’s amazing what a few of the right kind of calories can do. When we set off again I felt immediately better. We picked up the pace by 3 or 4 kmh and reached the Land Cruiser in no time. From there it was more of the same until about km197 where we came across a petrol station with cold drinks. We stopped and filled up. When we hit the road again we knew we only had about 8km to go to the border. Bob, with his new sugar hit, picked up the pace yet again. He just about tore my legs off. I stayed on his wheel for about 6km and then fell off. We had done over 200km. I cruised into the border, went through formalities and entered Namibia. We camped in a lovely place a kilometer or two after the border. They had green grass you could walk on with bare feet that we could camp on, warm showers and shop with cold beer and all the wrong kinds of junk food calories next door. A good day.
Day 101, stage 77, 142km
Start, bush camp
Finish, something lodge Ganzi
The five days from Maun to Windhoek would see us ride more kilometres than any other five days on the Tour. We would do a total of 825km in those five days. Tomorrow will be the longest day on tour at 207km. So to give us a bit of a break today we would not race the whole day, instead we would only do a 40km team time trial. What this means is that we cycled about 30km to the start of the time trial in a more or less causal way because we were not on the clock. We would then do the time trial, have some lunch and then cycle the final 72km to camp also in a casual way. That’s the theory anyway.
We put together a team of five called the KNIGHT RIDERS. It consisted of Bob and I and the three top women riders: Bridget, Lizzie and Rosie. This time trial was not a pure contest against the clock where the fastest team wins. It was a time trial with a twist. Each team had to set a target time for the 40km ride. They then had to hand over all watches and cycle computers and, without the aid of any data, set and ride at a pace to arrive at their target time. This gives teams who are note necessarily the fastest the incentive to compete. Otherwise we all know, after three and a half months, who the fastest people are and who will win.
We set a target time of 1h36m or 25kmh. there was still some headwind and we didn’t want to push too hard. We wanted to be steady. At the end of the day we didn’t do too badly. We came in at just over 1h32m and came in third. We would have done worse but we had to stop once for a Lizzie wee break. We figured that if we had stopped for one more wee break we could have won.
As we left camp that morning we still did not know where the camp would be that night. The lodge they had used in years past had shut and they needed to sort something new out quickly. They had identified a couple of options and left early in the morning to sort things out. By lunch we had instruction about where to go. We were told to turn left a couple of km after Ghanzi and follow a dirt road for about 3km to a nice camp. After battling a fair bit of a head wind after lunch we rolled through Ghanzi and found the dirt road. Only it wasn’t a dirt road. It was deep sand. Easily manageable in a 4-wheel drive Hilux but not rideable on a bike – especially one with road, not off-road, tires on. We could do nothing but walk our bikes in. Needless to some very pissed off people arrived in camp after their 45 min walk. Getting to camp was one thing. Waling a bike through 3km of calf-aching, heel blistering, 6 inch deep sand before getting on your bike to ride 207km was not a prospect many appreciated. After several people talked to staff it was agreed that they would shuttle people and bikes to the tarmac in the morning and that the race would start from there. So we went to bed mollified if still anxious about the long day tomorrow. What would the wind do?
Day 100, stage 76, 160km
Start, Sedia Hotel, Maun
Finish, Bush camp
I rarely set out in the morning with a fixed plan of whom I will ride with. I usually leave fairly early and set off with whoever is starting around the same time. We will often ride at different paces and separate fairly soon. After ten or twenty km I often find myself with one or two others or a small group riding at a compatible pace and work with them until lunch. After lunch I repeat a similar process. Other people set off in the same or similar bunch every day – the racers do this, and the second peloton that clusters around Ali and Lizzie also do this. I have cycled with this group a few times but after a while I usually their pace is just that bit too quick for me and I drop off. This patter has changed a little since Bob arrived. We typically set off together, often riding together for quite a while, usually until Bob decides to stretch his legs a bit more and he takes off. Today we set off at a fairly good pace and at about 20km came up to the Ali and Lizzie bunch. We tagged on the end and joined the growing peloton. There were about 12 or 14 people in the peloton. The leads pulled for 5km and then peeled off. This was great. It meant you could work hard and pull for 5 and then draft for 30 or 35km. You can save a lot of energy that way and travel at a much faster pace.
Unfortunately, as sometimes happens in a large peloton, people lose concentration and wheels touch. Italo touched Bob’s back wheel and went down. A half dozen riders behind him also went down. It was a bit of a mess. Italo landed on his head, cracked his helmet and then skidded and lost a lot of skin. Alex B landed on top and got a deep wound above his left elbow. Stig, who had just returned to the Tour after breaking his collar bone ended up in the pile as well. Fortunately everybody was more or less ok. We cleaned and bandaged Italo and Alex at the roadside. Neither had concussion. Others had landed on top of people and had not broken skin. Alex did have to go back to the hospital in Maun however. His wound required internal as well as external stiches. He met us at camp that night though and was back on his bike the next day. Good powers of recovery for a 65 year old. Italo kept cycling after we patched him up. He is only 64 so didn’t need any time off.
After the crash we put the peloton back together and started off again. Bob and I stayed with to lunch and then, very much against patter, left with it after lunch and stayed with it to the end of the day. With the wind, it was a good day to ride in a bunch.
The only downside to the day is that my crank sounded and felt like an eggbeater all day. When I gave it to the mechanics for a tune on the rest day they had over cranked the bottom bracket and ruined it. So the first thing I did when I got into camp was give my bike to the other mechanic and get him to sort things out, which included putting on yet another new bottom bracket. This was my third on this trip so far. I hope it holds out.
Day 99, rest day, Sedia Hotel, Maun
I didn’t sleep much last night. Alex B, Bob and I had rented a two-bedroom chalet at the Hotel. Alex took the smaller bedroom on the main floor. Bob and I took the larger one on the first floor. It was a nice enough place. It also had a large sitting room, a kitchenette and a large veranda outside. But nothing much worked. There was no remote for the AC so we could turn it on. There was a big screen tv and a satellite dish but the tv didn’t seem to work. The toilet almost flushed but if you are eating 6000 or 7000 calories a day you need a toilet that really flushes. No bricks in the cistern please. And I don’t think the chalet had been rented in a while. All the windows were shut and curtains closed. There were no towels in the bathroom. But the power was on and the fridge worked.
I didn’t get much sleep because the day before we had simply chucked our stuff in the room and gone off shopping and eating. When we got back we simply went to bed. The main floor was ok but the first floor was full of mosquitos – no mosquito nets either. If the AC had worked we could have turned it on and frozen the buggers out and pulled on the duvets. Instead I tossed and turned until about two in the morning and then pulled the sheet off the bed and went down and slept on the sofa in the lounge. The sofa of course was about three and a half feet long. So I could either curl up like a pretzel or dangle my legs over an arm, in which case all the blood would leave my feet so that at least they would go to sleep. But I did eventually fall asleep for about three hours.
We finally got some towels and were able to clean ourselves up. They brought us three different AC remotes. None of them worked so the cryogenic strategy was not going to work. And they sent over somebody to fix the tv. And he was successful. I turned it on and began to flick through the channels. Our tv was programmed for no less than 71 stations – and every single one of them was a god bothering station. It was unbelievable. We could not get anything else. We had every flavor of American, African and Middle Eastern evangelical and fundamental nonsense – all of them asking for donations. Who would do such a thing? Another rider found that his tv was programmed to receive only 3 stations, all of them showing football. This was obviously a themed hotel, like asking for the Elvis Presley room or the pickup truck room. I guess the upstairs bedroom was where they played out the plague years.
Since I didn’t sleep very much I spent the day doing very little but my chores. I cleaned my bike and gave it to the mechanics to tune. I did my laundry. I read for a while. I had a nap. I wrote my blog. But then of course the wifi – advertised prominently at the entrance of the hotel – did not work so I could not upload anything. Maybe the god bothering stations were sucking up all of the bandwidth.
Bob on the other hand went on an hour-long flight in a small plane over the Okavanga with Darragh and a few others and saw some great wildlife. He did get home a bit late though. They had to thoroughly clean the plane before Bob and crew could get on. A couple of people on the flight before theirs had lost their lunch.
Day 98, stage 75, 135km
Start, Bush Camp
Finish, Sedia Hotel, Maun
Today was the shortest day since we arrived in Botswana. At dinner the previous night we were all confidently telling each other it would be a doddle. The wind would sort itself out and be behind us. It was flat. And we would arrive in the big town of Maun at the end of it all.
What a load of old socks. It was the toughest bitch of a day yet. The wind started in our faces and got stronger and stronger all day. We passed through no towns. There were no coke stops to relieve the slog. There were elephants, as promised, to relieve the boring monotony of the landscape. All I saw was a few cows and a dead donkey on the side of the road. I think he was the lucky one. At least he knew he was dead. I just felt like it.
Once again I had a thankful ride with a good peloton before lunch but after lunch it fragmented as people went off individually and it pairs I went off with Bob. But he soon went ahead on his own. Getting to the outskirts of Maun was possibly the toughest 60 km I have don on this tour. I slogged my guts out to maintain a speed of 19 or 20kmh. I drank every drop of liquid I had with after only 50 km – it was 40C. Nobody passed me. So everybody was feeling it. It was relentless. I don’t think I free wheeled once in the last 4 days. I was knackered – ready for the glue factory, legs still pumping but with about as much power as a 1962 Lada.
I finally reached the edge of town and saw Rosie and Italo at a gas station. They had been in the same peloton in the morning but had left before me after lunch. So we were on a similar trajectory. I went into the shop and downed a litre of coke in about two minutes and was back on the road. 2km later I came to Bob who was waiting for me at the next gas station. There was also a supermarket next to it. I went in a bought a 2 litre bottle of orange Fanta. I filled one of Bob’s water bottles with it and then chugged the rest in record time. And then we drank some more.
Bob and I rode the last 8 or 10km to camp with Alex B who had joined us by this time. We took it easy. We knew we would make it. We were done.
As people continued to come in through the afternoon it was clear that the headwind had taken a lot out of a lot of people. We were all beat up. Ali, who is a young and strong rider, admitted that today’s ride had shaken his confidence a bit. What would happen in a couple of days when we had to do 207km if the head wind was till against us? Best not to think about it – yet.
We took a cab into town – no more cycling today – had a bite to eat and I bought a nice bottle of wine. Bob and I took a chalet with Alex. We sipped wine and read books on soft sofas. And tomorrow is a rest day.
Day 97, stage 74, 185km
Start, Nata Lodge
Finish, Bush Camp
Life didn’t get better. The wind switched form southeast to northwest. What the F…? Who is in charge? We had been living with the southeast wind since the Sudan. The day we turn the corner the wind decides to turn as well? Not possible. Well yes it was. And today we had to do 185 to a camp in the middle of the bush – so no Whimpy’s, no Botswana bonus.
So we fought the wind until lunch. But it was still morning so it wasn’t full strength. But after lunch we got lucky. The wind started to help us. It became flukey. It wasn’t a steady, prevailing southeast wind, but it wasn’t a steady, prevailing northwest wind either. We started to get thermal winds. It would be behind us for 10km then across us, then into for 15km. It played up but it wasn’t a total disaster. In the end I think we had slightly more favourable winds than unfavourable. This was good for the legs and good for the morale.
What wasn’t so good for the morale was that we had another accident this morning. Claus, who is in his sixties and did the Tour last year, until he crashed in Kenya and broke his hip, had another accident. About 8 or 10 km out of camp this morning a big truck pulling a trailer brushed Claus and he hit the deck. It appears the truck’s trailer had swayed a bit in the wind and that is what brushed Claus. Unfortunately the driver ran. He didn’t stop. But a woman in a nearby petrol station saw what happened and went to the police station that was conveniently just across the road. The driver was caught and is probably still in jail. Claus was taken to the hospital in Maun for Xrays. The fear was that he had broken his hip again. But fortunately he didn’t. He was still in a lot of pain, with a fair bit of soft tissue damage. He is still in a wheel chair but mending well. We hope he will be able to rejoin us in Windhoek. Some people have all the luck.
Camp was in what looked like a gravel pit in the middle of nowhere. ‘nough said. There was a small collection of houses a couple of km down the road however so many of us cycled there in search of a cold drink. We found one small shop and raided it. We no longer have one or two cokes at a coke stop. After days like today we now have 4 or 5. The poor girl in the shop had to write down the details of every individual sale in a school exercise book – item code, item description, price paid. When you sell a dozen items a day that is probably manageable. When TdA descends and clears your shelves, it becomes a bit shambolic.