24 seconds

When signing up to TDA you have the option of being a racer or expedition rider. Given speed is not my forte and i see myself as a cycle tourist – hence the requirement for regular photo stops etc -  I am most definately in the expedition category. I had hoped on joining the tour that I would qualify for EFI (every ….. inch) but despite pushing myself through tough off-roading in Sudan I eventually lost this due to exhaustion in Ethiopia. I have no regrets about this and infact losing one’s EFI brings a new level of relaxation to the tour.  In fact some have noted (and I quote no names)  that losing EFI is a bit like losing your virginity – when you lose it you wish you had done it sooner! Seeing people ride through illness seems crazy to me. I prefer staying well and to date have achieved this.

All the above being noted however there is still a side of me that would like to go home with a stage plate for being the quickest rider at least one day of the tour.  While there are some strong female riders in the overall race contingent, unlike the men of the tour, it is still possible to win a day. So, having taken both a 3rd and 2nd place I finally decided I would push myself for a full day with the yellow stage plate as my target.

It was a 107 km day going from Luviri to Kasunga here in Malawi.  The day would entail 496 metres of climbing with around 954 metres downhill. Lunch would be at 61km though if I wanted to take a win I knew I would have to ride straight through – 107km without stopping.

In addition to pushing yourself physically part of racing is of course also a game of tactics. Watching who leaves when, determining when to make others aware of your intentions and deciding when to leave and how to ride. I was ready to push but if I knew I was out of the running I could save my energy for another day.

So, I ate a leisurely breakfast and packed some marmite sarnies for my arrival into camp. I left late and immediately pushed hard on the pedals. I had told a few people I was going for it and they encouraged me as I passed. With my own odometer broken I checked distance and my watch with riding pal Irin and at thirty five minutes in and at 16km I felt on target. Maybe today would be my day.

Around 25km in I cycled past Bas. I had told him I was aiming to go hard today though as he had seen another rider, Suzanna riding speedily he decided to wait. While I don’t want to get a win by drafting on others hard work doing this entirely on my own may mean I am unsuccesful and besides, no-one else going for a win was taking this approach. I rode with Bas till lunch and as I passed at the 61km mark I noted some of my competitors were still eating sandwiches. I had a chance. Bas told me to keep pushing and off I went.

Unfortunately a climb after lunch slowed me down. With my bike weighing in at 18kg plus handlebar bag and contents and mixed with my slower hill riding ability this was terrain where my average speed falls pretty fast.Steffan and Dara overtook me calling in for a quick coke. I knew I had no time to stop. With the fastest tour  riders bike weighing half of mine and an average amung racers of around 10-12kg I was at a distinct disadvantage. While there is a lighter bike I can borrow (and may still do) I would prefer to get a win while riding The Captain.

I pushed on. I knew Suzanna was my key rival and I had seen her go ahead on the hills. I was not sure what time she had left camp though. While fast and nicknamed by us as the Duracell Bunny she was also not in the race group. It seemed however I was not the only one going for it today and last time this happened I came second. I was determined this would not be the case again. I pushed on.

Around 20km from the end I Dara and Steffan caught up with me. By now it was obvious I was trying for a stage and so they rode with me for the next 15km or so. Unfortunately they were not the only ones who had seen me. I had previously been overtaken by Kiwi Phil – his speed had increased significantly since borrowing the Cinelli racer (his own bike in need of serious repair). I knew Suzanne would jump behind him. I pushed on.

Just a few kilometres before the finish there was some debate regarding a left turn.According to odometers we were due to turn yet there was no flagging tape marking the road or indeed remants of it should it have been stolen by children or eaten by cows. I pushed on.

Soon a flagged turn appeared and I followed it to the end through the town and into the hotel complex that would be our camp for the night. I cycled in to applause from John knowing I had covered the distance in around 4 hours 10 mins. Not bad but Suzanna was also there and she couldn’t remember what time she left camp! I went over to the race director to record my time having lost my timing chip and so would begin a nail-biting few hours until the rider meeting and anouncement of the results. We both knew it was close.

I was so disapointed to hear I was second and gutted to know I was just 24 seconds behind first place. I would never know if losing my timing chip and being casual regarding start and finish times had cost me the race. While pleased for Suzanna – also collecting her first win – I made sure I had a new timing chip by the end of the evening. After all my efforts I never want to be in the position again of not knowing if I could have won had I timed properly. Next time the stage plate will be mine!!

Half way review

On leaving Arusha we passed the signpost set up to signify the half way point between Cairo and Capetown. While I’m not sure exactly how this translates to the TDA route from the section stats that TDA provide we have travelled around 8,000km so far (guess!) – around 600km of this being on a very bumpy bus transfer – the rest – we pedalled.

Egypt brought flat roads and tailwinds which continued into Sudan though it was also here the tough challenges set in – off road corregation at nearlky fifty degrees heat. Ethiopia brought the hills. Constantly.  In addition to the 1362m climb over 20km we did up the Blue Nile Gorge in sweltering sun we also had the most metres climbed in a single day in this first section of the tour – 2502m into Gondor, Ethiopia. However, it would be the stone throwing children that would be the greatest challenge. From here we entered a friendlier Kenya yet with the first election since 2007 we were unable to ride  much of the way and we would all be pleased to be back on our bikes proper in Tanzania.

Doing the trip with TDA was certainly the right decion. Water and calorie intake would be tough as an independent rider though it was the support through Kenya and more difficult political situations that proved critical. While I found it tough to adjust to the group at first and would still say I do not fit naturally into a very regimented way of life I’m sure going back to being a team of two will also feel very different again for future trips.

We’re up to 77 riders now – too many in my opinion – especially if you’re not a racer. Getting into camp late means you often get the worst pitches, cooler soup and lukewarm tea. While I understand it’s tough for TDA crew to do much about this, though the urn is reheated on asking, I do think a lottery/rota system could be operated when hotel rooms are limited. First come , first served is not a fair way. I think the whole experience would be much better if the group remained at 50 perhaps with two trips running a week or so apart. I guess that’s easy for me to say but with just one large truck and shade area with high sun or rain it makes for a very cramped camp.

In the grand scheme of things however this is my only key critique. The crew work so hard to make our ride a success. The food has definately been the highlight even if jam, peanut butter and honey make daily appearances (3 of my food hates!). Dinner has been tasty and plentiful with only a couple of meals that haven’t worked so well. A big thumbs up there. I have been fortunate not to need the medics at all and the bike mechanics little.

To date I have to be honest and say that my heart has not been caught by Africa – not in the same way that I love Asia. Our rest day towns, with the exception of Egypt, have had little to see and do in terms of history and buildings and I certainly prefer Asian cuisine. Where Africa does stand out is for scenery and wildlife. Vast deserts, open plains and of course the giraffe, elephants and lions. People said I would also notice the birds here and they were right. Such amazing colours.

All the above said I’m so happy to be experiencing Africa and I’m glad TDA has featured as part of my world trip. I’m looking forward to heading through the more Southern tips of Africa (Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa)  and with dinner booked at Quartier Francais (listed on world top 50 restaurants) at the end of this 5 month stage for us I’m certain we’ll make it. Here’s to the second half of our African adventure.

Emotionally tough

Any long distance, whether riding or running is as much a mental as physical exercise. In marathon running we talk of hitting the wall and I guess in riding 18,000km from Cairo to Capetown there was bound to be a tough week. For me however it was activity around me as opposed to my own mental block that would make for a hard time.

We had just passed half way. It was March 16th and John had now been unwell since February 27th on leaving Yabello. While some of this time we were all  being bused through Kenya due to elections it does not take away from how hard it is seeing fellow riders leave camp each day on their bikes while you have to take the truck. With much of the evening chat being about the days ride there is just no getting away from what you are missing. With this is mind some people have skipped weeks, joining us again at a later date but with a heat rash that you always hope will clear in the next day or so then making a decision to temporaily leave the group is much harder. john stayed with us but unfortuanatly his heat rash stayed with him.

Quite understandably this became more and more frustrating and unfortunately as the person closest to him on the trip I felt the brunt of this. While unintentional it became difficult for me to ask him how he was feeling. One night I noticed he was not eating dinner but on asking him about food and in later offering him a Snickers (not a bad thing here in Africa) it seemed my offers were not welcome. Given I was also watching him speak more amicably with others I found this even harder. The next day I avoiding him at breakfast and dinner. Enough was enough.

Doing this was, for me, just as difficult though. We were in this together and when I care about someone it’s hard to ignore them. Perhaps I fuss too much but that’s just who I am. I woke the next morning and tears were building. John noticed and came to ask me what was the matter. While initially a discussion regarding how I was feeling led to further upset I eventually left the camp having cleared the air and we both now had a better understanding of how we were both feeling. It’s not easy when individual experiences on the same trip are so different. I had struggled in the very early days and it was hard on John now. I just hoped he got better soon and we would be back to the more usual banter. It was also encouraging to see how kind and helpful others on the trip were at this point. It would be support I would also come to need later that week.

For those who have followed this trip from it’s early days you will be aware that the return of breast cancer for my mother put a second planned trip on the back burner and was the primary reason a year long tour developed into five month stages and trips back home. As it happened that has worked out really well and has been a fantastic way to travel -  no time for traveller complacency or lethergy yet, my ma has been better in her health than the initial diagnosis and I have enjoyed catching up with friends and family on visits home. I knew however, following a last appointment in December that the three month checkout in March could be a critical appointment.

While growth was not quick or aggressive it appeared initial hormone treatment was not making a significant difference and chemo was looking like the next likely option. Naturally we were both nervous and while there was still a chance to try a different hormone based option the doctor was clearly keeping expectations low regarding its possible success. March 22nd would be the check-up date.

I woke that morning upset and tearful. I was preparing for news I did not want to hear. It’s so hard being away from home at times like this. I felt I was not even able to call and wish her all the best. There was no cell phone reception at camp.

I started out on my bike but as I found myself biking alone and unable to concentrate (something much needed in off road Tanzania) I decided to ride the truck to lunch. As it passed I displayed a thumbs down and soon my bike was loaded. I turned my phone on – anxiously awaiting a signal. As we pulled into lunch three bars appeared and I was able to call home. It was around 8am in the morning and I was able to call home. With at least that done I felt able to ride again. Irin was now at lunch and once my puncture was fixed (3rd one – from thorn trees as truck drove past them!) we set off.

The appointment was late in the day and with time differences, the fact that we go to bed very early and I had so little phone battery I had to turn it off  it was the next morning before I found out the outcome. No need for chemo. I was overjoyed.

That day I set off for one of our mandatory ride days  – so called because they are so tough. We had 111km to cover, 2052 metres to climb and it was all off road with the exception of 6km downhill at the end of the day. I rode for 11 hours 58 minutues that day making it into the hotel just before dark.

A fantastic ride; an amazing achievement and the best news I could have received. John was also now back on his bike and despite hurting his shoulder and ribs falling in deep sand I was hopeful that the emotionally tough week was coming to an end.

Holiday in Africa

Cycling through Africa with TDA is brutal. We average around 120km a day and while more and more of Africa is getting paved we still do a fair bit of off road too. Camp becomes a regular routine  – soup, drinks, pitch, “shower”, dinner and bed. I don’t need to set an alarm anymore and have not yet overslept for 645am breakfast.

The section through Kenya is known as “Meltdown Madness”. It is renowned as one of the most difficult sections of the tour. Unfortuantaly we rode only a total of three days in Kenya.The  first day was off road,elections then led to a bus transfer to Nankuki from which we rode, passing the equator. Our final ride day took us over the border with Tanzania.

While we were then due to have three rest days in Arusha, predominently to allow for brief safari trips, the Kenyan election meant that we would spend an additional four days resting first in Nanyuki. We were shipped in to arrive the day before election day just in case tensions rose to the same levels as in 2007.

Passing through the vast open areas surrounded by lava rock with no shade and intense heat I have to say there was some sense of relief that I was not on my bike. However, as the landscape changed and became more agricultural there was a sense of disappointment on my face as I gazed from the bus window. As it was there was little we could change. John and I had booked to ride Africa with TDA to be sure of our safety. Bus transfers were not our choice but we were happy that others were looking at the situation and based on contacts and information making decisions with safety as key. As it happens the group looked tired and a rest was probably what we all needed, whether we would admit that or not. So, with four days in Nanuki we needed to fill our time.

Some folk went off from the hotel  – this seemed to go against advice to me so we stayed put. Instead we set about our mission to relax. The campground at the hotel was great -flat, green grass so unlike many of our other pitches – though we opted for a room. The hotel had a pool, beauty parlour and wi-fi so we were happy. In addition, Nanyuki has a large British Army base and as well as giving a safety net during the election period it all means a well stocked supermarket with Western treats and good coffee shops. We wanted cake.

Carrot cake, shortbread and chocolate cake pretty much covered our time here. Well, alongside a full body massage (I think I deserved one by now), manicure and pedicure. Given we were at the equator we also had an equator party which was great fun and a chance for us all to let our hair down. Fancy dress, a bit of dancing and a cheeky sambucca or two probably sums that up.

The election passed, all seemd calm and so we started riding. By now we were definately ready to get back on the bikes. We managed a day and were expecting to ride 50km towards Nairobi with a 50km bus transer to the centre. Unfortunately we woke to find out we were waiting for bus to take us all the way. The tourist police were not letting us ride at all.The result was now expected  at 11am that monring. So we bused to our next day off — ate more cake, visted a great shopping mall and yet again took it easy.

With all the indulgence we were now at a point where we needed to ride! Our bodies were used to so many calories on ride days and appetites didn’t seem to subside on resting. I wanted exercise. It would however be just two days biking till our three days scheduled stop in Arusha. The holiday contined and it was now safari time.

Most people had  arranged trips before we arrived. We waited till Masai camp and with  John still being unwell and riding on the truck by the time I arrived in on two wheels our trip was also sorted. John, Gus, Irin, myself and new rider Rob were heading away for two days. We left the next morning for Tarangire National Park -  a two hour drive from Arusha we had a comfy jeep and great driver vand tour guide in Wilson. Tarangire holds one of the largest concentrations of wildlife  of any Tanzanian Park and we would not be disapointed.

Not long into park we spotted mother and baby giraffe… such amazing creatures and not the only ones displaying young. We rode on to see lots of elephants including babies with one elephant just a metre or so away from our vehicle. You never know what you will see on safari. My expectations had been low yet as we then continued to see a pride of lions we left the park truely elated. What an amazing day. That night we would head to the Bougainvillia – the best hotel of our trip so far and share tales of our day with other riders.

For our second day we would head to the Ngorongoro Crater. Twenty kilometres wide and one of the most visted attractions in East Africa. It was cloudy as we rode up to the rim, we passed the viewpoint until our way out though as the sky cleared it became apparent just why Ngorangoro is held in such high acclaim. Blue skies and fluffy clouds looked over the  misty water in the centre of this huge crater – created by volcano activity many years past. Packed with hundreds of zebra, wildebeast, ostriches, flamingos, warthogs etc we we also fortunate to see hippo, black rhino, a number of lion prides and the highlight – a honeymoon couple. As Wilson explained the lion and lioness on coming together take time out from the pack. They both walked next to and infront of our jeep. It was amazing to see such beasts of the jungle so close up but again our expectations were way suppassed as we went on to see the lioness hunt down the zebra and wildebeast out grazing. What a phenomenal sight of nature.

We left Ngorongoro with big smiles and a final rest day before leaving Arusha – the half way point. Our” holiday” had been fantatsic but was now well and truely at an end. We would leave Arusha for an 8 day stretch on our bikes with almost 1000km to cover to Mbeya – including 5 days off road. Oh well…here goes. This is what we signed up for after all.

A vote for Kenya

We crossed the border on February 28th. Many were pleased to be leaving Ethiopia yet there were also mixed feelings about the next section of our trip. Sad to leave the scenery, overjoyed to escape the stone throwing yet apprehensive of entering Kenya too. The election takes place here on 4th March. Today.

After the last elections in 2007, 1000 people lost their lives and 600,000 people were made homeless. The effect on the Kenyan economy was significant however.Many dollars were lost from tourism alone and this is an episode no-one wants to see repeated. Not officials, residents, neighbouring countries or us as riders. Safety is of course paramount and the reason we signed up for a supported tour through Africa too.

We were informed at a riders meeting in Yabello that our bike days would be reduced. Over two days we would travel around 500km by bus before the election to Nanyuki and then sit tight, awaiting the results – not necessarily the who but the what that would follow. Arriving late afternoon yesterday we settled into our room and prepared for our period of rest.

Given this section of the trip is known as “meltdown madnesss” due to the difficulty of the off road terrain we would cover I think there was also a big sigh of relief as well as disapointment. Many people have been unwell and this could be good recouperation. I plan to blog, read and generally relax. Maybe a pedicure today.

I doubt I’ll ever be in an African country again during elections so I plan to go into town later. There are no reports of problems here. Voting takes place between 6am and 6pm. The annoucement of the new president is expected relatively quickly with final results for all local officials etc by March 11th. The winner needs to take 50% of the vote and as results are confirmed how the election has gone will likely depend on whether false play is called. That’s what sparked the problems last time.

It’s a shame we have missed some riding through Kenya – at least once we saw tarmac again but, as with other riders and TDA staff the most important thing is safety. I have resigned myself to the fact that we may not ride any part of this route – other than maybe an 18km trip to the equator from Nanyuki. This way any additional riding will be a bonus. The bus is still better than a fly over.

As for my vote for Kenya – it’s simply one for peace.

Ethiopia – spectacular but….

Click click. Pedal pedal. Rolling rolling rolling.Huff puff. Pedal pedal.

To date, Ethiopia  is the most beautiful country we have ridden through. The landscapes of rolling hills go beyond where the eye can see. Trees of numerous varieties, lilacs and pinks in the flora and rich, rust coloured earth. Our ride up the Blue Nile Gorge, a 1400m steep climb was truely stunning. S-bend after S-bend, blazing sun but with the most amazing views-  a real highlight.

The countryside is littered with numerous huts made of sticks and mud surrounded by herds of cows and goats and hundreds of people. This is also the busiest country I have visted after India.

You… you… you, you, you you, you.

As we approach each hut, field, village or town the kids all coming running towards the road. Announcing the arrival of the foreigners, waving and generally making a lot of noise. Many are harmless and watched over by parents. Their cheering can be very endearing. While the constant call of salem and waving back can be exhausting in contrast to the small, yet very significant, minority who are quite frankly the worst kids I have ever encountered, this is the easy bit. For almost all riders the vicsious children are the reason a return visit biking in Ethiopia would be no longer be a dream trip but a cycling nightmare. They would not come back. Some have not ridden. Some have discussed that they would never give aid to the country again if called on. This has had a serious effect.

You… you… you, you, you you, you..

Money…money….money, money, money

I’ve travelled in a number of poor countries. It’s challenging seeing the conditions others live in sometimes. Here the call for moneyis a uniform request from all children. In India it is the sick, the orphaned. It’s strange but it makes you wonder whether aid culture has led to this new custom. One riders response – to share out a one biere note amoung the five children asking…. obviously making it useless to all. It’s made us hard but it’s not the request for cash alone that has led to such bitterness towards the under 10′s. It’s the sticks, stones, whips and machettes that do that.

You… you… you, you, you you, you..

Money…money….money, money, money

CATCH!

While it doesn’t always follow the regular chant it’s not uncommon for sticks through spokes or stone throwing to be the follow on jesture. Often the missiles come without the regular chat – behind trees, from distant fields or those waiting at the top of hills. Hiding like cowards, laughing at their games and running at speed if chased. You can see where the marathon running expertise come from! To date riders have had spokes broken from stone throwing, been made to fall off and sprain an ankle as teenagers grabbed handlebars and have a rock hit their face so hard the cut requires stitches and a tooth was chipped. It feels like daily cycle warfare. A few stones each day has become normal for all. Some people have worse days.

We were warned. Alastair Humphreys wrote about kids in Ethiopia in his book, Moods of Future Joys, re his Cairo to Capetown ride back in 2001. TDA highlighted the issue and previous riders spoke of it in their blogs. Nothing however prepares you for kids aged 3 upwards to young adolescents hurtling such abuse.

The strange thing is that when you stop for drinks it’s friendly. Adults keep the children at bay though at these times they watch out of pure curiosity. Despite the bad ones being bad you have to remember the many who shout, cheer, clapoand have even helped me push my bike up steep climbs. One day I rode 50km with the feeling if running a half marathon – clapping and cheering all the way along the roadside. Amazing.

I try to ride each day and greet every person, adult or child positively, gIving out postive energy, hoping it is returned. In the most part this is the case. To those asking for cash I have taught them to say monsters instead or much to my own amusement sung various excerpts from Bohemiem Rhapsody to them – they really didn’t know what to make of that!

That said, arrival at camp, unharmed and bike undamaged always feels like a postive result. It’s all such a shame that such a beautiful country has left such a sour taste with so many. It’s hard to see an answer  – the adults throw stones at kids to stop them. I just hope that the situation improves for future riders. Seeing Ethiopia by bike is the best way to see the magnificent views, feel the landscape and meet those who do want to welcome you to their country. I had no expectations of Ethiopia and other than the stone throwing it is spectacular. Unfortunately it makes for a big but.

Take two

It would be day three of bush camp before I would use the shovel. Digging my own hole for ablutions had not been something I was looking forward to. Desperate, I had to wait till nightfall. I sat anxiously in my tent, thinking through each careful step.We had received an email before the trip started with toliet instructions and as I recalled the key points the need to get to it became more and more urgent. Eventually darkness set in, a shovel became free (it seems we all wait till dark if we can!) and off I went. Hi ho, hi ho… it’s off to poo I go!

I walked quite a distance from camp.I did not want to be caught with my pants down – literally! I dug as deep as the depth of the shovel and carefully sat down my loo roll, toliet wipes and lighter and with remarkable ease set about my business -well, it had been three days! Phew.

Eventually I became used to the ritual and came to find that going off to use the loo was perhaps the one real chance for quiet and own space.As I’ve mentioned before there are more than 50 riders plus staff and with little shade in many of our camps we are often all crammed together taking shelter behind the truck at the end of our rides. Personal space is not easy to find. Further, given the fact that many people are often sat infront of the shovel storage area it is hard to be discreet regarding ones bodily functions. There simply is no chance to be embarassed.

All was going well and then a few challenges set in.

Challenge one – the sandstorm. The wind was strong and the sand actually hurt as it hit your skin. Tonight I was waiting not just till nightfall but also until the gale had dropped slightly. Even going for a pee had been hard enough – one thing you don’t want is gritty sand in your cycle shorts! Predictably night-time came but unfortunately there was no let up in the wind. The storm had even meant planes had been forced to land elsewhere. Holding onto toliet paper would be tough. Needless to say. I failed. Fortunately I had crossed the road from camp so while dirty toilet paper had gone flying it would not head in the direction of the tents. What a relief. I quickly mastered the technique of wipe, ditch and cover with sand to avoid the paper escaping. It was too windy however to use the lighter. All I can do is my best I guess.

Challenge two – solid dry ground. As we came into Ethiopia the depth of sand reduced. We were camping on rock. Not only is this a problem for tent pags but digging a hole became virtually impossible. Using the shoval like a pick axe I managed two inches but as we moved on digging was not possible at all. You now knew where people had been to the loo by recognising small piles of dry matter/dirt topped off with a stone. “X” marks the spot.

Challenge three – hot, arid areas. To date (aside from the windy day) the disposal of toilet paper came through burning. This had been no problem at all. However, as holes were undiggable so too earth to douse the flames was no longer avaialble. Twice I feared setting the country and camp on fire. Embers still glowing, I covered things up, placed my stone on top and headed back to my tent. Could you imagine explaining that one!

We were told as we headed into Ethiopia that we would start using toliet tents. There were simply too many inquisitive locals. The toliet break would no longer provide personal space – apparently this was worth watching!! Given this would reduce the need for digging and provide a bin for waste paper, thereby meaning wind and fires had also now been mitigated, I was quite pleased. Infact, while embarassed about the return of the wind (mine this time not the weather!) I was proud to be able to add something solid the first evening they were available – most of the camp were suffering with upset stomachs! Unfortunately this would become all too apparent the following morning – some people had missed!

We’re in a hotel right now. Western style facilities. I guess we’ll all just have to become accustomed to the new camp ensuite facilities.

8 gruelling days

To date on the trip from Cairo rest days have come round fairly fast and given the pace at which we’ve been riding they have been more than welcome. The section from Kartoum to Addis (Sudan through to Ethiopia) are noted as some of the toughest days of the tour. Sections are rated 1 to 5 in various aspects (cultural interest/wildlife/difficulty) and the second section we began on February 1st is rated 5 for difficulty. With 8 days straight, 869.5 km to cover, 271 off road, a border to cross and hills to climb these were set to be challenging days.

Despite having another 160 km (100mile) day it was to be the off road days that would really test me to the hilt. We set out on the first of these days in our usual group – me, John, Gus and Irin. We were planning to stick together until we reached camp. It would be a long hot day, 45 degrees and we would get into camp much later than normal. While we had no punctures in our group on route John stopped to help 3 others. Thorns were the order of the day and while they were found in tyres we were lucky. Some folk had 10 punctures that day! I had a slow puncture 10km from camp and was able to get in without needing to do a repair on the road. Much easier.

The second day for me however pushed me hard. While the Annapurna circuit in Nepal has been, and at the moment, still remains the toughest test I have undertaken, this second day on off road would be the single hardest day of riding I have ever done. The tracks through corn fields were like solid corregated cardboard and I felt every single bump. While the rear faired okay it was the forearms that just hurt from constant tremoring.  OUCH. I was much slower off road. There were breaks from the bumping – gravel! The 18kg tourer, while having front suspension, just sunk in deep patches and keeping the wheels turing fast was key though even then getting off and walking were at times the only options. I wish had done that in the gravel patch just before lunch. As I fell sideways into the pit it was the final straw. A grazed knee, a shattered Miss J and I just burst into tears. We had another 10km to lunch and another 54km from there to camp. It was thanks to Irin and my own stubborness that  I made it in that evening. 515pm – just in time for dinner!

sudan to ethiopia 2 1389

The third day off road, while including sections of the dreaded corregation, was also more scenic and brought with it some glorious rides through small villages. An amazing welcome – children clapping and waving – I only had two of them smack my bum! Today would be my day to get Irin to camp. This really was group effort. We arrived a little earlier but it was clear on arrival that many people were suffering from heat exhaustion. The temperature for the past two days had been 49.5 degrees. Fortunately, while we had been out for long days in the sun, we stopped regularly, walked sections to cool down if needed (often in the corregation zones!) and drank, and drank and drank. We were pleased to arrive at the finish and as with the day before, John met us with cold drinks. He had pushed hard, arriving at 145pm. Amazing.

 

The first day back on tarmac felt fantastic and my legs were feeling strong. Despite a headwind I rode hard and did 60km in 2 hrs 22 minutes coming in second for the girls. That felt great and a good reward for a hard push. While not in as a racer (we could chose between being a racer expedition rider) it’s still good to have days of stretching yourself. That would continue over the next two days until we reached our rest days in Gondar.

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The scenery in Ethiopia would change dramatically. We were out of flat rides through deserts and out of rural Sudan – we were heading for the hills. I love the challenge of hill riding and the views always make it worthwhile. Perhaps the best comparision to make for a non cyclist is that long, flat roads feel like motorway driving – you make good ground but it can be long going. In addition to having more to see, riding in the hills means varying speeds, gear changes and the need to be much more alert. Gliding downwards, swooping through the scene, waving at children and the sense of accomplishment on reaching peaks – that’s riding.

The last day into Gondor would set the final challnge of the 8 days with a 2502m climb. With 102km from camp to the hotel it would be a long hot day. The morning was glorious and while there were some steep climbs I would reach lunch happy – despite there being only 2 cheese triangles left (the other option is nearly always tinned tuna, jam or peanut butter – three of my worst foods – yuck!). The afternoon would see the thermastat rising and the hills continuing. It would be a different challnge as in addition to many smiling kids there were also a fair few armed with sticks and stones. We were advised to ride in groups and it certainly put a different slant on Ethiopia. While aware this was likely, when kids as young as 5/6 seem to have it against you it can be incredibly disparaging, you just have to remember the many big brown eyes and smiles of the others. We stopped for cold drinks during the afternoon and as the crowd gathered, many children and adults smiled and made us welcome – much like the chai stops of India and Nepal. I had missed elements of that so far  – it’s not all bad!

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Anyhow, I finally arrived at the hotel after a long steep climb. Unfortunately I was met with bad news. John had been taken very ill at 77km. He arrived in the jeep and was put on a drip. This heat can be brutal. I went off to find my buddy to give him a big hug and see how he was doing. He still felt weak but I’m happy that today he is starting to get his energy and appetite back and on a final note, I got a cold beer. That felt well deserved. I may just have another….

From the deserts of Sudan….

We arrived into Wadi Halfa following a 24 hour boat journey from Aswan in Egypt on 22nd January. Having pulled into port around 1230pm we were finally able to cycle from customs at 445pm. With all bags checked and stickered, passports and immigration forms completed we were in Sudan. Wow. I would never have thought I would be here – on my blke. Amazing. We stayed in Wadi Halfa that night – a sandy football stadium on the edge of town providing our base, a small restaurant in town offering falafel and phool (beans) for dinner and the usual shoval was once again the regular ensuite facility.

Since then we have followed the same road for around 900 km to reach the capital – Kartoum. The landscape goes on for miles and miles, the road leads straight ahead, with sand and dunes going off on both sides of the road. There is so little else around to take from the view, just odd buildings and Sudanese cheerleaders to push us on. Breaks come at occasional coke stops – small metal shacks with freezers full of local refreshments. Perhaps the biggest beach I haver ever been to!

It’s hot and the reflection of the asfalt makes temperatures feel higher still. In the afternoons we reach around 36 degrees in this very dry climate. It’s not so sweaty until you stop but with factor 50 suncream on the skin, factor 70 on the lips and lots of water on the bike these are trying conditions. With little shade at camp and hot tents you have to wait till the middle of the night to finally cool down before starting the ride again at around 745am to get in as many miles as you can before the temperature rises. I pushed myself and covered 74km in two and a quarter hours. Chuffed.

Waking up in dead camel camp to another great sunrise as we headed out I felt great again on the bike and set off at quite a pace. I was able to get to the faster riders group and 12 of us rode, taking turns on the front with any wind. We arrived at the 75km mark at 1015am for lunch. A couple of quick sandwiches and we were all off again though this time my pace was a little slower – the group became my carrot for the rest of the afternoon until a coke stop at around 110km. I left the coke stop quickly and again found great speed on the wheels. I came in third of the girls that day – amazing when surrounded by really strong riders and with me on a touring bike. Five hours, 3 minutes to do 143km.Unfortunately it was not the day to arrive early – wind tossing sand everywhere we were not able to pitch a tent until many hours later and even then it was held down by large rocks on all pegs. Going to the toilet was interesting!

We woke the next morning with the wind still strong waiting until it was light to let down the tent – Irin sitting on it while we unpegged. Visibilty was poor and as vehicles passed the sand kicked up on legs and faces with a viscious sting. People are still getting through the wet wipes finding sand in their ears. However, while heading south the wind was behind us and I was able to reach 50.4km/hr. Great. Fortunately while still in an open space the wind had also dropped making for a slightly less frantic camp.

Today brought an individual time trial as we made our final journey into Kartoum before the police led convey into the city. My race will be for a personal best – I made 25km in 43 minutes. I was a bit disapointed but have to remember I have a heavy touring bike. I’m tired now but we have a great apartment now in Kartoum and it will be a good break before the next part of the challenge -off road!

It’s just different.

Firstly, thanks to all who’ve been in touch since my last blog. I was having a real tough time in those early days. I’ve read a blog by a previous participant who left the tour at a certain point (just used to cycling on his own) and spoken with a current rider who also joined a previous organised trip after months of sole riding. In essence the conclusion I’m coming too is that I just need to recognise it’s different.

Things have settled down a bit now, while still finding it hard at times I’m also also coming to recognise the good and least preferable aspects of a group trip. We have a great bunch of folk, the tour is well organised and in essence this is all about my reaction and adaptation.

Perhaps the biggest obvious difference would be that rather than there being just the two of us on the open road, on this tour, we are currently 57 riders and 13 in the support team. I’ve already spoken about how this in itself has impacted on John and me and our different riding speeds but perhaps the other really critical difference is in how local interactions do and don’t take place.

As two people in our previous trip we took regular stops and were easily approachable as we made progress on two wheels around various parts of the globe. Here, the larger group size means people, while inquisitive do not approach in the same way and even at tea/coke stops it’s much more us and them than we’ve experienced before now. I’m sure we certainly now won’t meet folk who pay for lunch before we get chance to say goodbye and say thank you! I miss the regular chai stops we had through India. It will be interesting to see if anything quite matches up to that. Let’s hope so!

On the more positive side, despite the lack of chai,  it’s great not having to worry about water and calorie intake, particularly given much of our riding so far has been in a desert landscape. Last time John and I were stuck without water in a tiger reserve in India we needed to load our bikes onto a bus. Here, as water ran out we were able to flag down the support vehicle soon after. When my lips got badly sunburnt early on (yes, it looked like lip surgery gone wrong) someone in the group gave me their factor 70 lip balm. (Thanks Vince!). It’s great having that support and meeting such friendliness.

John and I have often referred to the tour quite flippantly as a “travelling circus” and boy we are travelling. We now have covered around 1400 km in 11 days of riding. We are in our second country now, there is no chance to step off and I do value my independence very highly. The freedom of the road and the ability to go with the flow on a bike, with panniers and all I need is still so important to me. Here, we get up at the same time, queue for breakfast, cycle where we are told (often on one straight road), arrive at camp, pitch tent, eat dinner and repeat… for four months.

On the last part of our trip, I planned routes, sightseeing, trains, flights and between us we decided how far we would cycle, where we would stop and how long we would stay at certain places. It will be our two weeks after arrival  in Capetown before we do any of that decision making… and I’m already looking into that!

We’ll get to Capetown and it will be quite an experience. One things for sure – without the group we would not be in Sudan, either just through an element of fear or in difficulty with VISAs and this is a journey and continent I’m really looking forward to.