Five favourite climbs

It’s been around ten years since I last came to Vietnam, on a trip in fact that would ignite my interest in longer distance cycling. I was in my late twenties then and it’s fair to say my body was not a temple at the time…….unless Dionysus was involved that is. I still remember riding over the Hai Van Pass on that tour. It was baking hot, sweat bubbles collected between my skin and sun cream and on arrival at the top I was ready to collapse. Two cycle tourists past us that day and I remember commenting that they were absolutely mad. Today I rode the pass again and this time I too was a cycle tourist. While riding up, what for me would be a real pinnacle of our South East Asia tour got me thinking about my favourite climbs of the trip so far. While there were other notable climbs, including riding in Japan and the 36 hairpins up to Ooty, here then is my top five, in reverse order of course.

5. Hai Van Pass. Central coast, Vietnam

It was fifteen kilometres from our hotel in Lang Co to the peak of our climb today though we would be almost 5km in before the hill really started.  The road is itself a continuation of Highway 1 and the key road link from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Since my last Hai Van cycle attempt a new tunnel has been built (2005) and so while ten years ago the route was busy with scooters, coaches, lorries and cars today it is only scooters, oil tankers and bicycles that have to go over the top.  There are also still some tourist buses choosing this route though at least a warm welcome and cold drinks at the top are then guaranteed.


With a gradient of up to 8% this was actually okay and as we passed the 10k mark I called to John that we were a third of the way – not bad maths – I thought it was a 15 km climb! In the end it took 1 hour 37 minutes riding time from hotel to peak though there were also a number of photo stops. By 21km we were at the bottom and the route down the other side was even more picturesque. Beachy enclaves, winding roads and the city of Danang far into the distance.

My altimeter showed a total ascent of just 476 metres so it was certainly not one of our longer hill rides. The ride will however always be remembered with a sense of progression, of improvement and therefore with a particular fondness. I’m not sure I’ll ever do it again ….but I have said that before.

4.      USA

I will always remember this as one of my favourite ride days on a trip down from Seattle to San Francisco. Following the rugged, rocky outcrops along the Western coastline this day saw us climb        . While we had seen other long climbs on our tour south the roads were often penned in by trees. One of our biggest ascents – thd climb up from Standish Hickey- had no views at the top though there was a fabulous downhill. This road however hugged the ocean. Despite being narrow  and at times without a barrier between us and the long drop down the cliffs to the choppy waves below I loved this ride. The clouds below us creating a dreamy landscape and a real sense of being on top of the world. Despite obscuring the view at times it was amazing to ride high above the white mist, glimpses of the water poking through. Simply glorious.



3. Alpe d’huez, riding to watch the Tour de France

We had some tough, long days as we cycled down from Epernay on our tour down to Southern Italy but we were determined to make it to watch the tdf. Having calculated distances and matched routes and dates of perhaps the world’s most famous bike races I wanted to soak up the atmosphere for real and we had decided that Alps d’huez was the best location to do this from. We would just have time to ride there and this year, for the tdf centenary racers would pass twice over this famous cycle challenge.

It’s around 18km to the top and my Garmin recorded an ascent of 1123m, average speed 5.8m km pr hour. While the route through France had seen a lot of undulating ( ie it was hilly) we had stayed to the West of the real mountainous area. While it would have been beautiful we would certainly have arrived too late to watch the pros. Our climb would start from Grenoble, staying first in Bourg d’Osian before heading off for Alps d’huez the following morning.

The town was packed. There were bikes everywhere. Most people were in lycra. I had never seen anything like it. The buzz was incredible and this is the reason this day makes it into my top five. The reality of this from a riding perspective was that it was incredibly busy, tough to restart riding on a steep part given finding a gap to traverse across the road to get going was nigh on impossible and, on heading downhill the following morning you could not let go off the brakes enough to enjoy any speed or ride wide enough to sweep the corners. However, who cares. I will always remember the shouts of ” chapeau”, “respect” and “I’m not sure I could do that” as I climbed, very slowly, with full pannier’s and camping gear to the top. Great memories.


2. The Blue Nile Gorge

Unlike other rides this journey started with the downhill. After around 50km of steep undulations we would finally descend into the Blue Nile Gorge. This was the biggest climb day in a trip from Cairo to Capetown. By the time I left lunch to head into the gorge it was blistering hot. I set off with Irin but she was quicker uphill than me and while we would stop together for a cold drink on the ride up she was always just ahead.

I huffed, puffed, splashed my face with cold water from a little stream and genuinely, at times was not sure I would make it. While part of a supported trip so this was the only climb listed here where I had no bags to carry it was steep, scorching and followed an already hilly 50km ride. The heat had, early on, already meant other riders had decided this was a challenge too far. I have always been a bit strong willed though. I did not want to be defeated.




The winning time from one of the Tour D’Afrique riders on this climb was 1 hour 23 minutes. I took 4 hours 7 minutes but at least I made it!

1. Throng-la, Annapurna circuit, Nepal

Where all the climbs listed above were completed in just a few hours this pass at 5416m was the epic ride of our tour. This climb would take days.

I’m not sure, in fact, I know, we had no idea what we were really letting ourselves in for. Crossing rivers, landslides, wobbly bridges, tree trunk bridges, waterfalls and cliff edges this was the toughest physical challenge we had both ever undertaken. They say ignorance is bliss – it certainly means you start and then want to complete something you may never have begun had you known what was coming.

The route followed a well known trekking route and after 5 days in was inaccessible by vehicle. It was very steep, muddy and rocky. Towards the end we would travel just 10km in a day, rising 800/900 metres. Pushing, carrying and riding our bikes. Determined to reach the top by all means necessary. For the eqivalent of two days this meant using porters due to illness (dodgy tum), difficulty (narrow, steep and carrying only) or altitude (the final day when breathing was a struggle).

I wI’ll probably never do this ride again, at least not on a touring bike with panniers but it will remain my proudest moment and my most favourite climb. I doubt this position in my favourite climbs will ever be topped…… but you never know.








Usually the reward of a big climb is the long descent. Rolling round bends, hands ready on the brakes and feet resting on the pedals. However, despite my best climbs listed above only the USA ride and the Hai Van pass offered this reward. Alpe d’huez was too busy, the gorge downhill was on a very poor road preceeding the climb and the descent from Thorong-la was almost as tough as going up.

The top position for best downhill then so far has to be the hairpins we hit after our climb through the Alps as we crossed the border into Italy.




We left the Protea hotel in Capetown on the 13th May. Just two days after our arrival and we were back on our bikes. We weren’t going far the first day. – just 1.6 kilometres – but it’s amazing how significant such a small journey can be.

Having been on the road for four months with lots of other riders and a support crew (over 90 people at the peak) we were about to be independent once again. Goodbyes said, contacts exchanged and a gradual succession of taxis and bicycles making their way home. We were doing our own 10 day bike tour – one I had thrived off thinking about and planning since arriving in Cairo.

While I have no regrets and, despite struggles, many happy memories of TDA and good friends as a result, it was surprising even to me to be so conscious of the large smile I felt just as we turned from the hotel carpark. I was free.
The feeling was overwhelming. A sense of an emotion that had been contained. We had two weeks left in South Africa and could go where we wanted, when we wanted…..or so we thought.

So, heading off on our own route plan we soon found we were not on quite the road we had anticipated and instead we pedalled furiously for around 15km. We were on one of the main national highways out of Capetown and while legal (we were indeed overtaken by a number of police cars) we were in effect on a motorway!

So, we were going where we wanted, when we wanted but right now we wanted to be going somewhere else. Welcome to the long distance bike tour! Carrying detailed maps for all areas you plan to ride through is impossible. Reliant on directions, general area maps or free maps from the tourist office it’s not always easy to find the best roads. Still. This method had been fine in India so I’m sure it would be okay here too?

Having finally found a local road we were off again, heading towards Paarl, Franschoek and Stellenbosch. We were meeting friends and partaking in a little wine tasling. Happy days and a very happy welcome to a self planned ride. It felt good again and while weight gain now seemed inevitable (I would not be leaving Africa any slimmer!) we were back on our own and riding.

From the wine region we were heading south – to the coast, down to the point and into to Capetown again before returning home for a short break.Back to going where we wanted, when we wanted .. yet a slight hiccup was about to occur.
Unknown to us we were about to cycle past what is reputed to be one of the largest growing townships in South Africa and it seemed not everyone felt this was safe thing to do. We were heading down the N2, passing Khayelitsha, out on the Cape Flats. Housing around two million people (so we were told) the site would spread out over to our right in just a few kilometres. We were blissfully unaware yet someone was trying to grab our attention.

Having ignored the man trying to flag us down on two occasions he now noted from the truck window that the road ahead was not safe on our bicycles. Catching up to John and sharing this news we decided to stop and he explained about the township and recent bad events. That said, not wanting to be vunerable, we remained ready to push off at any time. I still hold that travelling like this is about avoiding the very small percentage of “baddies” . We just needed to be clearer on this and the driver, sensing our hestitation, pulled over someone else to confirm what he was saying.

Ten minutes later we were sat in the back of his truck with bikes and kit loaded as he drove us past the “danger zone”. It seemed we could go where we wanted, when we wanted but not how we wanted. I really struggled with this and while wanting to be safe I felt saddened and awkward as we were driven past this essentially black area.

I was still at school when Mandela was released. Aware of South African apartheid yet growing up in Birmingham – a very mixed community. I just don’t get this sense of the “Ubermensch” – a superman . I look back with a sense of nostaligia to the absence of treats in Sudan. It levelled things out. While this is a little rose-tinted I will always hold to a view of creating opportunities for all as a critical part of a thriving community. That’s why I enjoyed work in social enterprise start-up before embarking on this trip and right now I wanted to know and understand more about how life was here.

As we continued our bike tour back to Capetown this day passing Khayelitsha played on my mind. I asked many people whether we did the right thing taking a lift and it seemed it perhaps was a good decision despite the unease it caused. Khayelitsha was a part of the movement of black people to the Cape Flats that began in 1966 as areas, such as district 6, in Capetown, were cleared out for whites only. I loved South Africa. The Western Cape had stunning scenery, amazing food and friendly folk yet I felt uncomfortable about its history. Looking back, as we celebrated the world cup people were losing their homes just because of their skin colour.

It’s funny how my overwhelming sense of freedom came in a country where for many the fight for this had been such a recent struggle and knowing how great my 1.6 mile journey had made me feel I can only imagine what the end of apartheid had meant for so many.

There’s still some way to go but there is a sense of opportunity and I like that. I’ve bought a book written about the township to understand more and having thoroughly enjoyed my final two weeks in South Africa I would love to return. I hope that when I do those people from district six currently making claims for their land will be successful. I hope they get to be where they want, when they want.

Capetown. We made it!

It would take four months to ride between Cairo and Capetown according to the TDA schedule and 11th of May 2013 was the big arrival day. Though we were driven through much of Kenya and I had taken a few days off the total distance between points A and B would remain the same (11, 793km) and the length of time the journey would take was also fixed. While TDA was a a significant physical achievement, the mental challenge of the trip can itself prove to be even more testing at times. The ups and downs weren’t simply about road gradients.

For our last week we would be on tarmac and dirt roads for around 750 km – the TDA tour still proving itself to be gruelling and one of the toughest bike races/expeditions you could ever be crazy enough to take part in. Given this, it was strange to think we were almost there. A tough four months – I was so looking forward to the end now. We had a fantastic group of riders but being part of a large travelling circus for this time was enough for me. In fact, it was probably too long.

The last night would be spent in Yzerfontein, next to the coast – the smell of the sea bringing on that holiday feeling. Sadly the weather that night at camp felt less like a holiday – it was so cold. Despite sleeping in three layers of clothes, in a fleece liner, in a sleeping bag, in a duvet cover, under a blanket and with a hot water bottle I was freezing. The next morning and our last ride would be no different. Fingers and toes were slow to warm and I rode the 60km to lunch with John in fleece and windproof.

As we turned onto R27, our main route into Capetown, all eyes were focused on Table Mountain – our destination was in sight and I was starting to get excited. We were nearly there. Lunch would be at the beach and from there we would wait for a police escort, riding as a group to the waterfront area. The police were delayed and while it was frustrating to have to wait being just 30km away, once the convoy started so too did the buzz.

We arrived at the waterfront, congratulated fellow riders and made our way to the medal ceremony. I was so proud all all riders but of course given my first few days and John being ill I was pretty chuffed that we had seen this through. We had made it.

The auditorium was packed as we walked in and the welcome was amazing. The band played “celebrate” by Kool and the Gang and we would. That’s for sure. Medals were awarded to all full tour riders, called up in turn while standing next to their country flag. It was a bit like our own olympics! Additional recognition was given to those who had acheived their EFI (every … inch) and of course the winners of the race. It was gobsmacking to hear that Pascal (winner of the mens race) had an average speed through Africa of 32km pr hr. I was perhaps a little slower!

With the ceremony over there was just enough time for a complete new outfit shop before we would be collected for the evening party. I was pleased that after so long in cleats and crocs I could still dance the night away in my new heels – surely that’s an alternate EFI?

The next morning would be slow for me and the goodbyes would begin. John and I would leave the hotel the following day though some were already starting to make tracks. Confident I would see some of the group again for many it would be the last time. While sad in part very quickly a sense of relief was also coming – just simply as less people were around. I was able to pack away things I didn’t need and finalise arrangements for our last two weeks in South Africa.

We rode out of the hotel with our panniers for the first time since arriving In Africa. On our own with route planning, no rider meetings, no chef and of course we were now carrying our own luggage. The bike felt heavier yet I somehow felt much lighter. Freedom.

I won!

Some of you may remember my 24 seconds blog….for those who don’t you just need to know this – I came second in teh ladies race by 24 seconds. I was gutted and still determined to get a stage plate. Just the one.
Since then I’ve tried a couple of times and yet again I even made the board (ie the top three). However, the stage win was remaining elusive. to be honest I wasn’t sure I would ever get one and had pretty much resolved myself to this.

As the details were annouced for the last week of riding I looked to see if there was still a chance. I was looking for a day that was not too long (so I didn’t need to do the lunch stop), not too hilly (I simply can’t climb at race pace on my heavy bike…and I’m not as good at that) and a day that was on a paved road. Of the six days we had left there were only four included as part of the race and two of these would be off road. With two days ruled out immediately it left a 133km day which would be a race starting from the South African border and a 117km day from Springbok to Garies. With 1431 metres of climbing in day one and only 741m descending I knew that was not my day. I would have to see what the 117km day had to offer.

At the rider meeting the night before we received further information on the route and terrain. That day would include 1021m ascending though there would be 1648m downhill. I have to be honest I thought that was it. I had no chance. In fact, one of my riding pals Gus pretty much said so. Oh well.

I woke the next morning and prepared to set off as normal. On other days when I have been aiming for a win I removed my handle bar bag, loaded my cycle jersey pockets with food and ensured I have all the water I need. Today, all the weight was on my bike, I left in my cycle jacket and even timed out then went to my bike to put on gloves, helmet etc. It was only as I started riding that I thought I could just go for it. As I went down one of the early downhills at 55km pr hr I thought I may just have a chance.

One of the other riders, Ali, caught me at 35km and said he would ride with me. It’s great to have a pacer and the moral support. Unfortunately drafting pooved tricky with the up and down terrain – I was too slow on uphills and too fast heading downwards. As we came closer to lunch the climbs were long and I started to think that I would just get another third. I was dripping with sweat. I really didn’t need my jacket on but having lost another attempt by just 24 seconds I was stopping for nothing. Despite this I kept going. Well, you never know.

It was downhill as we came to lunch. Ali had gone ahead on the previous climb and as I passed he gave me the thumbs up. I noticed one of my key competitors, regular racer Rosie, was still grabbing a sandwich and I had done 700m of the climbing. My determination increased. I was still in with a chance. People cheered as I went by. It was obvious now that I was going for it.

As some of the guys overtook me they shouted their support – “Just keep pedalling hard”; “Go for it”. So I did. I knew on the downhills i needed to hit 55 to 65 km pr hr and maintain a good speed on the flat. I had to make up for my slower climbing.

It didn’t take long and I caught up with John. i think he was surprised. “Is Bridget infront of you”? I shouted. He couldn’t hear but on repeating the question the answer came back no. Game on. John cheered me on becoming my new supporter. I looked behind. I could not see anyone following. Gee. This race stuff is stressful. I don’t know how people do this everyday. I was physically and mentally tiring. “Come on Nay” John shouted.

We hit a 6km downhill. I wanted to keep my speed above 60km but my legs also needed a rest. I stopped pedalling momentarily to hear John shout “keep pedalling. The others will be. You don’t want to lose this by 24 seconds”. He was right. We only had 10km to go now. I still saw no-one behind and I knew more than half the route were descending. I really could do this.

The last few kilometres involved a few turns from the main highway. John cycled ahead – looking out for a clear road and signalling directions. i just had to pedal and as we turned the corner there was the final flag. I had not been overtaken and unless there were any wild cards the stage plate was mine. The final annoucement would be at the rider meeting later that evening though I did buy a large beer just in case!

In the end I came in at 4 hrs and 19 minutes exactly and ended up with an 11 minute lead. While stopping for lunch would have cost me it was only now I realised I could have taken my jacket off afterall! Not bad on my 18kg Koga plus handlebar bag!

TDA vs our ride schedules

As we move in to our last week with TDA and John and I will be about to start being back out there on our own I thought it may make an interesting blog of the comparison.

At the start of each week, following the rest day TDA run through the weeks ride and expectations. Given this tradiytion from our Africa leg I thought I would continue to do the same.

TDA Final week

May 6th, race Felix Unite to Springbok 133km , off road Camp
May 7th, race Springbok to Garies 117km, off road Camp
May 8th, mando Garies to Strandfontein 162km, mixed Camp
May 9th, race Starndfontein to Elands Bay 73km Camp
May 10th, no race Elands Bay to Yzerfontein 158km Camp
May 11th, no race Yzerfontein to Capetown 105km END, Hotel

Naomi and John
May 13th, ride am Capetown to Paarl c65km, paved Hotel
May 14th, ride am Local ride c25km, off-road Hotel
May 15th, ride am Paarl to Franschoek c21km, paved Fancy hotel
May 16th, Eat World renowned restaurant 0km Fancy hotel
May 17th Franshoek to Stellenboshe c25km, paved Hotel
May 18th, Eat Boschendal vineyards 0km Yumm.
May 19th, ride pm Stellenboshe to Gordons Bay 20km + 20km, paved Hotel
May 20th Gordons Bay to Simons Town c50km, paved Hotel
May 21st Simons Town to Hout Bay c45km, paved Hotel
May 22nd Hout Bay to Capetown c20km, paved Hotel

To be fair, with TDA it’s a real push on the bikes but they carry our gear, provide lunch and give detailed directions. For us, this is our last two weeks in Africa and we always like to finish with more of a holiday. We will at this time have panniers and given it is winter in South Africa we are opting not to camp. We will also be joined by my good friend in Franschoek. She is not cycling and so we need easy distances so John and I are not always on our bike. Besides, having cycled from Cairo to Capetown we figure a rest is in order..not to mention a treat.

We booked a stay and “foodie package” at Quartier Francais at the start of our trip. With three dinners included (one in world renowned resturant with wine pairing) and our own pool this will certainly be a real treat. All this said I have to say my only food disapointments on tour have been in most restaurants and hotels along the way. TDA food has been excellent.

It will be strange when the TDA tour ends and we are once again just two people on our bikes. Further, the comparison above does not imply a better or worse, I could not do such a relaxed cycle tour for more than a couple of weeks. As I said in an earlier blog – independent touring and a group trip are just different. Right now however I am definately ready to take a break from such a gruelling schedule.

Roll on Capetown. Just six days to go.

Naked in Namibia

We crossed the border to Namibia on April 22nd and boy we were glad to. Not only did the border crosssing into Namibia also mark the 1km to go point at the end of a 207km day but Botswana was boring. Simple. Flat roads with just a few short bushes and grass on either side going on for miles…and miles…and miles. We were riding the elephant highway though I was to see just ostrich and impala. Boring.

I arrived at camp to a big cheer just as the rider meeting was taking place. Climbing would increase daily over the next few days and we would eventually drop down into Windhoek – before the inevitable uphill out of the valley. While many would assume flat is a cyclists friend, I definately prefer to climb – not only is it more interesting but your legs can rest on the downhill – little chance for that on a continual flat.

In three days we would be in Sesriem. The route would go through dusty roads and we would not see tarmac for some time. Surrounded by stoney peaks , walls of sedimentary rock, short scrubs and again vast open landscapes this would be challenging yet glorious ride. We would be camping in the national park from where it is customary to head to the famous sand dunes for sunrise. For TDA riders it was not the only custom many of us would observe.

Unlike some of the riders I had read about “the naked mile” from previous participants blogs. I knew it was while we were in Namibia but on stage 83 of the riding schedule the whilte board at the riders meeting also pointed out the now auspicious day had arrived. Immediately the chat began. By the end of the evening the girls were forming a plan. We would head out after lunch for a group shot….way after the boys had left of course! Only James the photographer was given a green card….well, it would be foolish not to engage the man with airbrushing skills!! I too announced i had a costume….for the naked mile….unusual yet all would “not” be revealed until the following day!

I left camp with John having placed my costume in the handlebar bag..ready if needed..and it was. We were soon overtaken by one of the male riders. While cycle helmets are always an essential, he was otherwise completely starkers with just his race number covering critical zones. It was time to join in the fun. I told John I would stop around 5km from the lunch truck for a quick change and to my surprise he said he would do the same. We were riding the naked mile together and would stop just past the food stop having given a wave before covering up for lunch.

We pulled over and as we did 3 giraffe ran out infront of us crossing the road just ahead. While it delayed us “getting dressed” it was fabulous to be ready with the camera at this exact moment. Amazing to see and while meaning a short delay we were soon heading up the road.

John left first so I could get photo proof of his ride and I followed…in my costume. While my leaves were fake and attached to my underwear it was reminiscent of pictures of Eve in the Garden of Eden. I felt fabulous and we certainly raised a giggle as we passed by other riders eating their sandwiches. What a laugh.
Covering up again we ate lunch and the boys gradually departed – some revealing all just as they rode away! The girls left together ready for a photoshot….

The times would come around 1km down the road and while initially nervous it did not take long before everyone had entered into the spirit of the occasion. The photo would be taken from behind as we continued our journey. Tour D’Afrique 2013 displayed on our backs. The girls carried on for a further 11km apparently. I was staying behind for a photograph as was another rider Anne.

It was a very hot day and many of us had commented that it felt much cooler riding so you could feel the breeze pass over your skin so with that in mind and perhaps the fact that we were complete exhibitionists Anne and I rode all the way to camp. While a very quiet rode the few drivers around seemed amused as we proudly waved when they passed by. Just as we drew close to the finish line I put the costume back on while Anne used flagging tape – usually used to mark our route – to cover up a little. Heading straight to the bar (by then in a sarong!) we rewarded ourselves with a nice cold beer for a job well done.

In total I did around 45km that day in my birthday suit. It was a day I’ll never forget yet may also never repeat but you have to try most things once eh?

(photo to follow…just waiting on good wifi!)

Just another day

I decided not to ride today. I wasn’t ill, a little tired but certainly not exhausted. I just didn’t fancy it.
Unlike our last trip the ride through Africa is a supported tour. Tour leaders, medics, chefs and bike mechanics all accompany us as we ride from Cairo to Capetown. We simply ride our bikes. Rising early for breakfast we head out for the day, aware of “coke” stops, lunch stops and of course camp at the end of the day. Easy…

However, in comparison to other more holiday geared bike trips (smart hotels, stop offs at key monuments, distances more ameniable to leisure) the TDA ride is described as both a race and expedition. It is listed as one of the top ten toughest global bike challenges.

We average 121km each ride day which sounds ok until you consider that the journey through Africa is both on and off-road. Last week it was flat (apparently easier)as we came out of Botswana so in 5 days we cycled 825km, with 207km in just one day. Supported it may be. Easy it is not.

Today was the start of the next off-road section – packed dirt roads,expected to get deeper with sand as we head towards the famous dune landscapes of Namibia. While the 114km of today was meant to be one of the easier days and seemed to offer some amazing views as the route climbed out of Windhoek I was not in the mood to ride my bike and perhaps that’s one of the hardest parts of being on a supported tour. It just doesn’t stop and wait. Whether you’re tired, ill or just not feeling it the circus moves ever onward. I would be riding the truck.

We have just 15 more ride days left now till we hit Capetown. While feeling I should be doing them all there is more off road ahead and the fact that for me TDA is not the end of my cycle tour I will just continue to see how I feel. Tomorrow is just another day.

Local news

Maybe it’s just me but I always like to read local newspapers as I travel. While often really removed from day to day life the local rag gives a sense of issues and debates that are going on. I thought therefore it may be interesting to write a wee blog on just that subject.

We’re currently in Maun, Botswana. (well, we were when I wrote this). Overall Botwana has a small population compared to many other African countries (1.8M people) and it’s correspnding GDP is also much higher apparently. It’s certainly more expensive! To date we have seen very few people as we cycle through. Travelling on long, staright, flat roads with little changing scenery. I’m afraid to say that so far for me it has been boring Botswana. I find this terrain tedious, especially with some of the headwinds we have encountred.

Last week we were predominantly travelling on the elephant highway through national parks so given this and the fact that the population size is low it’s of no surprise that the wildlife here are big news. Other than a story about more robberies hitting Maun these were the two other key headlines in The Ngami Times on 12th April.

“Farmers shoot problem lioness”
“Poachers kill rhino near Maun”

The key selling point of Africa really is the wildlife – it’s certainly not food or accomodation (maybe more on that in another blog!). While we, as tourists, go on expensive safari trips and love to see all the wild animals in their natural habit, for the inhabitants there is perhaps a different story.

Here in Botwana, hunting, in designated areas (national parks and private game reserves) is a legal activity. Apparently it will be banned other than on private reserves from 2014. The first story regarding the lioness tells of a farmers plight where their livestock was being devastated and a local wildlife officer belived it was also a threat to communities and human life. For these reasons the lioness was shot and its death then reported, as required by law, to the relevant authorities. I get this.

The poacher story (more of which I will write on shortly) also includes a note that “relations between humans and elephants have taken a nose dive”. This comes apparently after incidents in Kazungula and Kasane in the past week. These are both areas we cycled through though I would add that we had an elephant expert, Darryl (and his 40/50 calibre gun) , with us for this time. Apparently Botswana is over populated with elephants and we certainly saw some while out on our bikes. Darryl had been involved with needing to shoot an elephant last week that was attacking humans. I get this and would certainly be happy to have a rescue at hand were it needed.

However, the trophy hunting of elephants (a later story reminds readers of the King of Spain on a hunt last year and the consequent outrage it caused back home)- I don’t get at all. It may be the case that the local village then benefits for food (lots of boiling or drying apparently) and the tusks go to the Government (sold at auction) but why be proud of this on returning home? Run a marathon – cycle across Africa. These are my preferred proud moments.

However, it is the poaching story that I find most difficult. Killing for pure cash. In this case a rhino – endangered!. Government is working hard to catch all poachers and in this story had caught some of the perpetrators. Sadly the fifth man, said to be in possession of the missing horn, was also yet to be found. Maybe rhino horn or shooting an elephant does make you more virile. I guess perception can sometimes be more powerful than the truth. For me, I’d fall for the wildlife officer everytime!

In closure, another thing I enjoy about travel can be a disconnect from global news and that from my own country. However, when shocking events hit – news travels too. The local newspaper reports on efforts and conservation work and thank goodness it doesn’t have to report bombing and shooting at sporting events. That – i definately don’t get at all.

(written as Boston marathon reports bombing…updated a week later when finally reached wi-fi)

Facing fear?

So, having struggled with wobbly bridges in Nepal and having my hand held on part-formed (aka broken) bridges in Sudan I somehow decided I could take on adrenlin fuelled activities here in Victoria Falls. There’s lots on offer here, from bungee jumps to zip-lines, helicopter flights, lion encounters and white water rafting. While the water was too high for the latter and for now I’m happy with the lions I had seen in Tanzania, I opted for a microlite flight. One pilot, one passenger, two “cloth” wings, a small engine and bars to steer.

Reports from previous takers were that this was one of the most amazing things they had ever done. How could I possibly say no? How could I let my fear of heights – or indeed broken bridges at just 6 metres high – stop me from taking on this trip of a lifetime? I decided, very rationally, that with a qualified pilot and a gradual ascent and descent that this would be absolutely fine. WRONG!

There were four of us who signed up for this experience together and at 720am we set off for the aerodrome. On arrival we completed forms, were given a ticket and waited our turn. There were around a dozen people in front of us and as each person returned they were overwhelmed with the experience. It was the best thing they had ever done…they nearly cried it was so beautiful etc etc. No-one used the word scared.

Mike was first from our group, shortly followed by Irin and John. I was last in line. I hinted that I would have liked someone to have been here when I went up though it fell on deaf ears. Oh well. I was feeling OK.
Mike came back though as he did his pilot took a different turn. He was taking no more passengers. The wind had increased and so too had the corresponding turbulence. Microlites are particularly susceptable. Well – there’s not much too them afterall.

I felt so disappointed. John had done a bungee yesterday and I had been in line but he didn’t realise and so had booked in first. Fine at the time but now it looked like this may stop my opportunity. He could now be the last passenger to travel and that could have been me. I felt so frustarted and asked the ground crew if I would be able to go. It would depend on the pilot. They made the final decision.

Irin came back. She was beeming. Her pilot came in for the next passenger. That was me. Fantastic. I was so pleased and quickly took a seat. Ground crew fastened the seat belt and put on my goggles and helmet. We set off back up the runway ready for take off. The pilot checked I was safe, tightening the helmet straps (they were not tight enough for his liking) and then we were off.

We were soon airbourne. Eek. Pretty much as soon as we left land I could feel fear rising and my heart rate was increasing. By now John had returned and as we went past I tried to wave. My hands were gripping hard. My legs pushing against the footrest. I was pretty scared but hoped my anxiety would ease. I seriously considered asking if we could land again immediately but I had paid 160 dollars and was determined to see this throgh. We continued. “Smile at the camera” he said…. I turn nervously to my left. Till now I had mostly been looking at the pilots back.

We passed over the water at the top of the falls. While we weren’t too high the fear was increasing. Winds caught. Up higher we went. We turned. My stomach turned. Would this seat belt really hold me in? Really? I was petrified. “Can you see the rainbow?” Well, not really I thought… I’m still just looking at your back… but I couldn’t say that. I glimpsed down. Oh my.

Winds caught. Up higher went. We turned. My stomach turned. Not just petrified. Utterly petrified. We were heading over the falls and gorge. This is the single most terrifying thing I had ever done. The scenery was phenomenal and I was sure the experience could be but I just wanted it to end. I told him I was scared. A religious guy – he quoted scripture… it was soothing but I was still terrified.

We started to head back and as we followed the water he pointed out hippo a number of times. I never looked down. While I could summon up just enough courage to look at the falls and overall landscape I had seen hippo… from a nice calm safari trip. I just wanted to land.

The pilot frequently communicated with the landcrew. Most of the time I was convinced he was just telling them in code that it was too windy and we shoud never have gone up…then I heard we were going in to start the descent. My 15 minutes in the air were nearly over. Yet even this news did not bring immediate relief. I was still feeling absolute fear.

I looked down. We were closer to the ground now and I could see the landing strip. We came in just over the trees. I was ready for a bumpy landing . Thankfully it was not and soon we were on solid ground. You couldn’t get me out of there quick enough. He asked me what I thought. ” I was utterley petrified” I replied. “I’m afarid of heights”. Perhaps I should have told him that sooner!

I think my face told the others that this experience had been very different for me. They were all elated. My expression told a very different story. I felt white.

I don’t exactly remember what happened next. I was just trying to calm down. Eventually I found John in the queue for the photo CD. Despite my experience I wanted a copy of my pics. i would never do this again! However, my legs were all jelly. i jolted. Shaking I held John and tears were welling up but I felt unable to cry. A minute or so later I went back to my order. Our driver was waiting to take us back to the hotel and photos done, we set off. Mike asked me how it was. i just indicated it had been hard and I needed to not talk about it.

We arrived back at the hotel. It was still early and breakfast was still available. I grabbed fruit and yoghurt and sat down, away from the others. I needed space. John came to join me but on saying I needed space he took that to mean him. I said no. He murmoured and sat down – I ran off leaving the table. I was seriously struggling post flight and as I quickly walked around the corner the tears began to flow and I started to hyperventilate. I was on the bridge, out of view. Gasping for breath, tears flowing and my whole body shaking. It felt much like somekind of delated panic attack. This was very scary.

It was not long before one of the others rides came over – apparently the hotel were concerned. I was so pleased someone had come to find me. I hadn’t known what to do. After ten minutes or so Trish walked me back into the resturant and fetched me a cup of tea. As I tried to pour the water over the tea bag I was unable to do so. I was shaking so much and still intermittantly struggling with my breath. Inga sat with me and poured my tea. Surely that should fix me?

It was nearing 10am and breakfast would shortly finish so I went up for more fruit and tea. Again, I was shaking so much another rider carried it back to the table were I now joined John and others. After a few more tears and a bit more hyperventilating I eventually started to calm down. John fetched me baked beans and eggs and I slowly ate away.

I’m glad I did the trip and have philosophy of no regrets I generally like to live by. Only two more people had gone on a flight after me that day then all rides were suspended. It really was too windy. Only my pilot was still taking people and I later found out that despite flying over 4000 times that the pilot whio had taken John had had also stopped just after him!

It seems we are always told to confront our fears. Well I did and I won’t do it again. Just as we have to accept we have positive and negative traits I am happy to accept that heights are not my thing.

Microlite Vic Falls gif

You have to admit the photo is pretty awesome though. That wil definately be on display when my trip is over. I’m pretty proud I stayed airbourne for the whole ride but perhaps the photo is best kept simply as a reminder to never ever try this ever again!

Nearly there yet?

So, from a time perspective we are 75% done. Following two rest days at Vic Falls we have just one month of our four month trip from Cairo to Capetown left to go. Just one month! Gee.

When a new rider, Rob, joined us in Arusha he noted that we were just getting to the point where many full time riders would start to find the trip hard going. I still felt good and took the comment in a fairly “yeah, yeah” kind of way.

So, last week I felt physically exhausted and this week – I’m just finding the group thing kind of tough. In some ways the physical exhaustion was pretty easy to deal with. Quite simply- I rode the truck on a few days – riding either only to or from lunch. We had some long days last week so when a half day is still 90km then it’s still a fair old ride.

The group stuff is of course much harder. I should start by saying we actually have a fantatsic group on our trip. Of course there are some people you spend more time with than others and there will inevitably be others that you find frustrating but overall (in fact more than overall) our group mixes well, is not too full of cliques and we all pretty much keep an eye out for each other. However, that’s not to say I’m now not finding being surrounded by 70 plus folk pretty full on.

While used to being surrounded by many friends I also live on my own. For our last cycle tour it was pretty much John and me. There are few situations in life when we live with so many people. At risk of sounding a little moany, I’m struggling with food queues and tight camping spots though I’m aware that some of this is due to being a slower rider, eater and not wanting to be on the edge of camp given the odd steals from tent vesibules on some of our sites.

I sat on my own to eat the other night. Exhausted from a 182km ride i arrived at camp with time for just a 15 minute beer and an opportunity to start setting up my tent before the dinner line started. My tent fly was still wet from the night before, sun was fading as I tried to dry it out before putting over the inner and  I ended up with a wet wipe shower behind a tree before I quickly grabbed my plate. While the dinner queue served as good distraction while I got changed I find it particularly anoying to see a seconds queue already there when I am still waiting for an initial portion. Does all of TDA need to be  a race or give a sense of the quickest wins?

While in my first tour (USA, Japan, Nepal and India) I felt my bikemind slogan “The world at 15mph” has been pitched much too ambitiously, for TDA/Africa it may need to be increased!

John and I said all along we were aiming for EFH (every flipping hotel) and we have certainly tried to stick to this when possible. While the comfy bed and private bathroom were initially the main advantages as the tour progresses it is the personal space a locked room enables you that has become the best part of a hotel stay. I sit writing this in a peaceful hotel garden. Two wooden chairs, overlooking a pond, the sound of running water and a kettle boiling ready for a quiet cup of tea. Bliss.

We cross the border to Botswana tomorrow and at present I feel like I’m on countdown. We’re so close yet still…. so far away.

Still glad I’m here. Still appreciating how fortunate I am. Still loving the riding. Still looking forward to the end.