Tour d’Afrique 2013 by Laura Holms by Laura Holms: Sports & Adventure | Blurb Books.
On January 11, 2013, exactly 1 year ago today, the 2013 Tour d’Afrique began in Cairo.
A couple of weeks ago, my sister Laura surprised me by giving me a book for Christmas that compiles all of my blogs from the ride plus a collection of photos she gathered from other riders.
It looks great and brings back many good memories.
You can have a look at it and order it you wish by going to:http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/invited/00b0ee2f7acef00d2b7b2e686e5bd9690b8ec534
Yesterday the 2014 Tour d’Afrique riders left from Khartoum. I hope they enjoy their ride as much as the 2013 crew did.
Posted in bike discourse, bikes, EFI, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, planning, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, training, Zambia
Tagged alan knight, bike discourse, Botswana, Egypt, Ethiopia, genesis croix-de-fer, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, planning, sickle cell foundationof tanzania, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, tour d'afrique, Zambia
We spent a long time in Ethiopia, longer than we will spend in any other country on the Tour. It has not been an easy place to like – from a cyclists perspective. While the country is beautiful and the landscape spectacular, the people in the rural villages that we have cycled through have been a pain in the ass. There is an excellent book on the history of the countries and trade around the Indian Ocean called the Empire of the Monsoon (I think – read it a while ago). The book tells about the Portuguese trekking inland in the 17th century looking for the mythical Prestor John and being stoned as they tramped through the hills. Throwing rocks at strangers is nothing new in Ethiopia. It has always been a place apart in the hills that did not easily welcome strangers. For the 500 years before the Portuguese arrived East Africa was a major trading partner for the Middle East. And one of the commodities the Middle East traded most regularly was slaves. It is no wonder they weren’t in the habit of welcoming strangers easily. But this is 800 or a thousand years later. Why are they still throwing rocks?
The cities are different. There is a growing cosmopolitan feel and sense of progress. People are friendly and helpful. Bahir Dar is a lovely place. Addis is big, bustling and busy. But progress outside the cities is slow.
The bike is holding up but it is taking a beating. So far I have had to repack the headset, replace the front derailleur, replace the chain, replace the bottom bracket and unbend the rear derailleur (it needs replacing but I didn’t bring a spare – have ordered one and will pick it up when I am in Dar). I have had the wheels trued a couple of times. The bar tape is getting torn and ratty. I have used a lot of dry lube. The Schwalbe marathon tires continue to perform well. After almost 5000km I have not had a single puncture (touch wood). The Avid BB7 brakes have been excellent. The frame and set up continue to be good. I have had no aches and pains and strains caused by the bike. I think if I were to change anything on the Croix de Fer I would put on 105 components rather than Tiagra, I would have a front shock option, I would have more spread on the rear stays so that a larger tire could be fit, and I would possibly add a third chain ring on the front (I don’t really have a granny gear; the best ratio I have is 34 on the front and 32 on the back; many with a third chain ring go from 27 on the front to 34 on the back; good for those long, steep climbs).
I think the reason I have been able to keep going is that I have stayed healthy. Not many of us have. Although I went through a period when I was feeling run down and not recovering adequately, now that I have started using ORS regularly, I feel less run down and am recovering much better. My ass has taken a bit of a beating on the off road stages but it has also recovered well. No boils or open sores. Tough as leather. I brought two big tubes of chamois cream and haven’t used any yet. I have also now lost some weight. The hills in Ethiopia took a lot of effort. While I didn’t really lose much weight during the first 3 or 4 weeks, I have probably lost 5 or 6 kg in the last 3 or 4 weeks. This makes the hills a little easier. So far, so good.
I miss Liz and the girls but will see them soon. We are almost at the half way point. But there is also a very congenial group of riders that I am happy to ride and spend time with. And the group is large enough that there is lots of variety. In Nairobi we will pick up an additional 19 sectional riders. It will really be a big group then and the dynamic will undoubtedly change a bit. We have settled into an easy rhythm and some people are already wondering what it will be like to leave this self-contained and very focused world in a couple of months. For we have almost reached that point where we start counting the days left rather than the days completed.
Day 49, stage 38, 89km
Start, bush camp
Finish, Kenyan wildlife service, Moyale, Kenya
Since we cross the border into Kenya to day there is no race. I was up and away early. The first 15km were great, the wind was quiet, the road was ok and the land flat. Around 7:45 it all went bad. As the sun grew hot the wind picked up the road deteriorated into lumps and potholes. And the climbing began. But it was a relatively short day so not that punishing really. And now that I was taking ORS daily, I was recovering better and riding better.
After lunch we had just less than 40km to go, so not far. It was hilly but pleasant riding. I rode in a pelaton with Jan, Bridget and Rosie. It was a good group. We stopped for some ice cold cokes a couple of km before the border and then pressed on. Formalities were minimal. We were in Kenya before noon. Just as well, because we later heard that the Ethiopian immigration office closed from 12 – 2 and that those who had arrived there after 12 had to wait for two hours.
A new country means a new SIM card for my cell phone. Our first stop in Kenya was Moyale, a real border town, full of money changers and chancers, a bit of an armpit really. A few people had purchased SIM cards in local kiosks only to find that they didn’t work. I decided I would try my Tanzanian card. I was told it would roam in Kenya. It didn’t. but by the time I found this t we were travelling again and there was no place to buy a SIM so I was going to be out of communication for a few days. This was not ideal because the Kenyan elections were approaching and there were worries about security.
We stayed in the walled in compound of the Kenyan Wildlife Service. It was across the street fro the Moyale prison. The best bar in town was bar attached to the prison operated for the welfare of prisoners and staff. It was a great place. We could see the guys in striped pajamas just over the wall of the bar.
That evening we were briefed about changes to our itinerary due to the Kenyan elections. We were to miss five riding stages and we would be bussed from Sololo to Nanyuki. In 2007 over 1000 people died in riots after the presidential elections were disputed. This is the first presidential election since then and also since the passing of a new constitution. A lot is riding on this election. There are about 100,000 police and army personnel on duty. There are also thousands of neutral election observers involved. But there is still very real concern about what might happen. We have been advised by the Kenyan police among others, not to travel on election day, March 4, or for the days immediately following the election. We have also been advised not to stay in certain potentially volatile areas during the election period. We were due to have a rest day in Marsabet on election day. But Marsabet is one place we were advised not to stay. It was agreed that a safe place to stay was Nanyuki. Ordinarily we would have arrived in Nanyuki on the third riding day after our rest day in Marsabet. But in order to get there without travelling on election day we would have to arrive there on March 3rd, which meant travelling there on march 2nd nd 3rd – since it is a two day bus journey from Sololo. So we would miss the two riding days from Sololo to Marsabet, bus from Sololo to Nanyuki on March 2nd and 3rd, and then spend 4 days in Nanyuki waiting to see what happens during the election period. If all goes well we will cycle the last two of the section into Nairobi and be back on schedule. Let’s hope it works.
The decision to bus over 500km and miss 5 riding days was not taken easily and while we all recognize and accept the wisdom of the decision, we also regret it a bit. We came to ride. Even the tough bits we bitch about – and three of the five days we miss are tough off road days. Although it must also be admitted that there is some relief in missing a few tough days. At the end of the day having 6 days off the bike will also give those who need it a chance to recover more fully. And perhaps climb Mount Kenya.
Day 48, stage 37, 127km
Start, Yabello, Yabello motel
Finish, bush camp
Today was billed as a difficult off road day – but with some sections that might be better because the Chinese have been building a road to the border. We left the motel on the dirt road, ready for a tough day. Shortly after we headed out we saw the road bed the Chinese were working on – packed and graded dirt. It was not that much different than the dirt track we were on but it was much smoother. After about 3 1/2 km I asked myself what the hell I was doing riding on a rough track when there was a smooth track 20 metres to my left. So I carried my bike through the thorn bushes and set off on the Chinese road bed. I love the Chinese. John and Gus, who I had left Yabello with, soon joined me. It was a great ride. And after about 5 km the hard packed dirt turned to hard packed fine gravel – the next layer of the road bed. After anther 5km we rode up onto the next layer, rough tarmac. And yes, after another 5km we were on the finished road, new, smooth, hard and fast tarmac. The best thing about it was that there were no cars and trucks. The road was not yet one to traffic. Every 100 metres or s the road was blocked across its width with large boulders and dead thorn bushes – bad for cars and trucks, but not so bad for bikes. There was always enough space to sneak through.
It was great while it lasted but it ended well before lunch. We were then back on the pre-Chinese road surface – some dirt, some bad old lumpy and potholed tarmac. We rose steadily all day, culminating in a 6 or 7km climb to a high plateau that was spectacular. The head wind though was a killer. It had been with us throughout Ethiopia and wasn’t about to let us forget it as we were leaving. It swept across the plateau like a gale. But the views from the top were amazing. And at the summit were the ruins of an ancient mud brick prison. A bleak and lonely place.
What goes up must of course go down. I skated down steep 5km descent to a small town where I stopped for a coke. As I was leaving John Chevis joined me. We raced the last 25km of rolling hills into camp at a pretty good pace. We got into camp early and had a lazy afternoon. Tomorrow we would be in Kenya.
As advertised the kids had not been bad today. In fact they were hardly noticeable. There was a definite change in the feel of the place. It was more sparsely populated and less influenced by the outside world. It was peaceful.
Day 47, rest day, Yabello
Yabello is pretty much a two horse town along a strip of tarmac that stretches for 6 or 7 kilometres. The Yabello motel is at a T junction at the end of the tarmac. Turn right onto the dirt and you head towards the Kenyan border. We wandered up and down the strip looking to change money, to buy peanuts and cold drinks and to look for restaurants other than the one at the Yabello motel. Got some peanuts and a snickers bar (like coke you seem to be able to get them everywhere), changed some money and found but didn’t eat in any of the local restaurants. The bank was a crazy chaotic place. Lots of guards with big guns of course. And lots of people who just seemed to be hanging out like in an old fashioned barber shop – sitting on chairs in the shade. They could have been waiting for service. Or maybe not. They had one of those money counting machines behind the counter. You put the paper money in the top. It shuffl3s and counts them, gives you a number and returns them in a neat pile out the bottom. Not here. The guy behind the counter put a stack of money into the machine while we were waiting to get our money changed. If you have ever been to Africa you will know that some of the paper money is older than Methusela. It is worn almost beyond reading. It is dirty. It is often stapled or taped together. (The irony is that they won’t accept any but the crispest, newest $US bills in exchange.) So when the clerk loaded the machine with this stack of old bills and asked it to count them, the machine did what any self-respecting machine would do. It spit them out. All over the bank. A tornado of Ethiopian Burr flew everywhere. Maybe that’s why all those people were sitting patiently on chairs in the shade.
As with most rest days, it was a day to do chores. Get the laundry done. Clean the bike. And so on. It was almost five by the time I had been into town, come back and done all the chores. When bedtime is seven, that doesn’t leave much time in the day. And after waiting an hour and a half for yet another plate of spaghetti and meat sauce there was even less time.
We only had two more days in Ethiopia. Most people were glad of this. While it is a fascinating and I many ways a beautiful country, the kids had spoiled it for many. Off our bikes they were not that different than kids in most other African countries – curious, wanting to talk to you and often to touch you. But basically friendly. On our bikes they are a menace – aggressive and casually and unthinkingly violent. But we have been told that as we approach Kenya, they become less of an issue. We hope so.
Day 46, stage 36, 98km
Start, riverbed camp
Finish, Yabello, Yabello Motel
Today is a ‘mando’ day. Mando days are reserved for the tightest days of the tour. Today was a real test. We did over 1400 metres of climb off road, some of the climbs of 10% and more. That much climbing on good roads is a challenge. On boulder strewn dirt roads where it is tough to get traction it is more than tough. Today was unanimously voted the toughest day on tour so far. I was out there for more than 8 ½ hours – this includes several stops for coke and lunch. And once again I drank at least 10 litres on the day. Many people did not make it. May people did not try it and road the truck. But there was a real holiday atmosphere at the end. All the finishers were clapped and cheered as they made it into the courtyard of the motel. The last people arriving just as darkness fell. A long day indeed. And there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – a hotel, hot showers, cold beer.
Vince, the crazy Kiwi share a room with when there is a hotel available had won the stage the day before. He is a good off road rider, has a bike built for these conditions and is fearless. Vince’s strategy is to be last to leave camp every day. When he catches people up, as he always does, he has then gained time on them. He usually passes me some time before lunch and finishes well before me. Since he had won yesterday he insisted that there was no pressure on him today and he would take it easy. He had his stage win for this section. About 20 kilometres from the end of today’s ride there is a long and steep hill. I had been cycling since lunch with Italo, an Italian rider about my age. About half way up this hill I realized that Vince had not yet passed me today. My immediate thought was that the crazy idiot had completely forgotten what he said last night about ‘no pressure’ today and had come flying out of camp like a kamikaze and had crashed. Sure enough, at the top of the hill there was a TdA Hilux driven by the tour director. He filled my once again empty water bottles and then asked if I heard about Vince. Sure enough, he had crashed within 2km of camp going like a banshee down a steep dirt track. His bile went left. He went right. His right shoulder left its rightful place.
Italo was right behind him – Vince had passed him at full tilt a few seconds before – and found the poor bugger in a heap in the dust. Italo then spent the next half hour pulling Vince’s arm in a direction that would keep the muscles from seizing up. Half an hour later, when the m3dics had arrived, three additional people put their backs into trying to pull his arm back into the shoulder socket. When it finally popped back in Vince jumped to his feet and said: ‘right, where’s my bike? I’m off then.’ And after taking a couple of painkillers, he was off. And he finished. One tough son of a bitch! This will be the only time on the tour that I finish before Vince. But there will be an asterisk next to the results.
Day 45, stage 35, 96km
Start, Arba Minch, Swayne’s Hotel
Finish, riverbed camp
The day started with a couple of km climb and then a great downhill for several kilometres. We then hit the off road section again d everything ground to a near halt – at least for me. Some people seem to be able to ride the off road sections at good speed. They either have bikes made to specialize on off road or they have asses made of steel. I feel everything and the only way I can build up any speed is by getting out of the saddle and riding standing up. But I can’t do this for too long. And when I sit down again the speed goes down as well.
About fifteen kilometres into the off road section I came across a couple of Land Cruisers stopped at the side of the road and half a dozen white tourists standing in the middle of the roadway. I rung the bell on my bike but they didn’t seem to hear me and didn’t move. They were handing out something to a bunch of kids who had gathered round. Two minutes later they were back in the air-conditioned Land Cruiser with the cool box in the back and speeding off to their next authentic encounter 200km way. I was not best pleased. Closer to the road and the people we have to travel through, we are bombarded with the consequences of this type of tourism, the sense of expectations that all tourists are there simply to give things away, and the aggressive behavior that results when they don’t. A few weeks ago Claire had witn3ssed something even more egregious: a vehicle full of white tourists who didn’t even bother to stop and get out of their vehicle but just chucked candies out the windows and then watched as the poor village kids scrambled and fought for their bit of the bounty.
The final section of the day was a hair raising slide down 10km of steep dirt track to our camp in a dried riverbed at the bottom. It had been along and very tough day. I had taken in about 10mlitres f fluid today and still felt thirsty. People were knackered. But the toughest day was yet to come. Once again I took an ORS.
Day 44, stage 34, 104km
Start, bush camp
Finish, Arba Minch, Swayne’s Hotel
After yesterday’s ride I took an ORS sachet – oral rehydration salts. They usually give these to kids who have chronic diarrhea and are in bad shape. But athletes also use them. I had tried to take one the day I got lot on the last off road section. But it tasted so vile it almost made me gag and I never did force it down. This time I put half a sachet in a litre of water instead of a full sachet. And while it wasn’t the best tasting beverage in the world, I could get it down. I am glad I did. After feeling increasingly run down for several days, today I felt much better. While I can’t there was full spring in my legs they were much more responsive and I felt much better generally.
Today was not long but we were off road again. In the Sudan the off road section had been sand, sharp gravel, corrugation and cracked earth. Now we had really bad tracks made of fist sized rocks and larger boulders. Picking a route was tricky. Most of the time I was bouncing over sharp rocks and boulders sitting proud. The going was slow. The wind was also with us in force today. Throughout Ethiopia we have been riding into a headwind. Going uphill on a rocky track makes the headwind even more noticeable. But we also had some sections of tarmac today, which allowed us to ride more quickly. So we had a testing day with a taste of off road again but not a killer day.
We also had a bit of a bonus today. Our campsite was in the grounds of a hotel in Arba Minch so Vince and I got a room and had a good shower. We also decided that not only would we try to stay on track for EFI (every f**^ing inch) but that we would also try to stay on track for that other much coveted award, the EFH (every f**^ing hotel). Not sure there are any medals for this though. There was also a decent restaurant there so we had some beer and some French fries. We get no fried food from the camp kitchen. We get whatever you can cook in a big pot over a Gas ring as well as, from time to time, some meat grilled over a wood fire. So, as dreadful as it sounds, whenever we get the chance for some fried food we go for it.
The hotel and camp site were at the edge of town on top of a hill. We had tremendous views of two lakes we had cycled round today. It was an odd kind of place. We were in a kind of suburb. There were dozens of soviet style apartment blocks, arranged in regimented rows on the roads leading to the hotel. They were obviously fairly new and just as obviously in a poor state of repair. Street life was an odd mix of trying to be swank shops, pool halls, bars, and makeshift kiosks. It was good to get a sound sleep in a bed before the next two off road days.
Day 43, stage 33, 125km
Finish, bush camp
More hills. Ethiopia has been relentless. The hills just don’t stop. Another day of head down grinding. We went through one town, fairly large, just before lunch that was probably one of the worst we have been through. The sides of the road in town were as crowded as usual, but this time they were all carrying farm tools – hoes, diggers, pangas. It was like riding through an armed gauntlet. Towards the end of town a young teenage boy came towa4ds me with a long handled hoe with the sharp blade sticking straight out. I saw his pace quicken slightly as he got closer to me. About five metres from him I put on a slight spurt of speed. I was glad I did. Just as I passed he had thrust the hoe towards my back wheel. Had I been half a pedal slower it would have hit my back spokes. This is insane. My experience was not unique.
Camp was about a half kilometer off the road in the bush. It was a good camp but there was a lot of traffic on the dirt road that night. Big dump trucks picking up and dropping off farm workers it seemed.
As we came out of the highlands it had started to get warmer. My biggest problem of the day was deciding whether to put the fly on my tent. (our days are not exactly full of opportunities for complex decision making – do I pedal, do I not pedal; do I stop for a coke, do I keep riding). The fly is keeps you warmer and is a little more private. At the last minute I decided it wasn’t quite warm enough to sleep without the fly (weighty decision, I know). And in the end I was glad I did. Not because of the temperature but because it actually rained – the first rain I had had since leaving Tanzania almost two months ago. It wasn’t much of a rain and it didn’t last long, but it was wet. I could hear several others scrambling to put flies up in the middle of the night.
I also went to bed a bit anxious. The next three days would be off road. I am not good off road. It means long days in the sun and the body and bike take a beating. The mend to my rear derailleur – after it had been bent during the last off road section – was working out though. The mechanics had spent quite a bit of time on it. While changes gears was a bit clunky, the gears were holding and I still had the full range. I wondered if they would hold up with all the extra pounding off road.
Day 42, stage 32, 122km
Start, Gogetti camp
Finish, school for the deaf, Hosaina
Today was a much tougher day than yesterday, over 1650 metres of climb (only 1250 yesterday) with some long and steep sections. It was very much a head down, grinder, keep the pedals turning kind of day. It is also getting hotter. I am drinking lots of fluids and taking as many coke stops as I can – this usually means one before lunch and another one or two after lunch. And when I hit a coke stop I don’t just have one. The first one, warm or cold, it doesn’t matter, hardly touches my throat. The next one I sometimes taste. Increasingly I am having a third. All of this fluid doesn’t seem to make much of an impact. I am as thirsty when I leave as when I stop. I find I am drinking 6 or 7 sodas a day. The sugar boosts the energy for a bit but not for long.
Once again the camp was on cracked earth. Where ever we travel we are a bit of circus – big overland vehicles, more than 50 riders. At the school for the deaf camp we were theatre. In Ethiopia our camps are always surrounded by a red rope. It acts like magic. People always gather to watch us. The red rope is the barrier. We are inside. They are outside. Without any instructions, it works. People compete for ring side standing room only space outside the rope and stand and watch us for hours. It is truly bizarre. And the curious think is that they are completely docile. No aggression. No hysterical ‘money, money, money’ chants. No rocks and sticks. Just a silent audience for a reality tv like spectacle. The deaf kids were no different. We were camped in the middle of their school. They then surrounded us and stared.
Vince and I went into town. It was a couple of km away and up a bog hill so we took a tuk tuk. We were in search of cold drinks and chocolate. Found both. Most people stay in camp after we arrive. Vince and I usually go for a walk or loo for a nearby town or village. The drinks are usually cold not warm and half the price. And today we found some chocolate bars. I hadn’t had chocolate in quite a while and as many people know, chocolate is a staple part of my diet. I did four local chocolate bars I about 3 minutes. Couldn’t find any peanuts though. Have been craving peanuts lately.