Friday, December 3, 2010

Southern Hemisphere

I just arrived back in Cape Town, just as winter was shooting a warning shot across the bow of the U.S. Northeast. Being in the other hemisphere, means being in the other season, so shorts and flip flops have been dug out from their brief hibernation.

I left this country a few months, where it and I were enjoying a post World Cup high. My return however, has been under a cloud of consternation over a South Africa that has reverted to its old reputed ways. I have asked my self how can this be, since I am not even there to know. The very simple answer I think is that stories in the news or reflections of people who are there or have been there, have all painted a negative picture.

Here is the list:
- my Aunt and Uncle were burgled twice in 1 week, not only do they live in one of the more secure neighborhoods I have seen, but at least one of intrusions was in the early morning daylight while everyone was still in the house... the audacity is disturbing
-I met someone 2 weeks ago who is hesitant to come to South Africa because their South African friend says its very dangerous.
- I met someone else who recently returned from vacation in Cape Town and Zimbabwe. She said that she didn't really enjoy Cape Town, because they were advised not to leave their hotel after dark - which is understandably constricting - especially on vacation! She loved Vic Falls.
- I just finished reading Peter Godwin's new book which details some horrific stories of government brutality in Zimbabwe over the last couple of years. Yes that's not South Africa and thats a different story - but thats next door and has prompted a mass attempted exodus to South Africa...but thats not the end of the story. Stories a few month ago told of anti-immigrant violence by South Africans - specifically against Zimbabweans (because they are taking jobs).

And list sort of goes on.

As I sit in the safety of a coffee shop in a ritzy Cape Town neighborhood, sipping a macchiato, I have decided that for the next 2 months I'm going to search for that Ubuntu that was the source of that world cup high from a few months ago. I know its here somewhere, its has to be...right?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Africa United

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Its Holland vs. Brazil, kick-off is minutes away, and a random bar at Cape Town's Waterfront is oozing intensity. The Brazil fans are singing and chanting, cheering and clapping - this is their world cup to win!! Not long after the starting whistle is blown Brazil is running circles around the Dutch defense, and soon rewards themselves with the first goal - making it look like a possible bloodbath is at hand. The fans in the bar are beside themselves. Brazil fans are professional - their cheering and celebration is almost choreographed - and their excitement comes from deep within their hearts.

Well, as we all know by now, the tide changed and the Dutch buckled down and went back to the basics. Their first goal found hundreds of Dutch fans who must have been sitting silent in the bar - almost as if they were knowingly biding their time. The Dutch roar, and the shock of the goal, silenced the Brazilians...but only for a second. They were not to be denied and soon enough were back on their feet cheering and chanting, almost as if the second goal had been scored by their beloved team. Now that the Dutch had made their presence known, the war was on - a fan war...not like the wars that we all expect of the hooligan fans from the likes of the English and Russian leagues, but a war of celebration!! Holland struck again - which was another knock down blow for the Brazilian fans, but again, a little stunned, they stood back up and in utter defiance, continued the chanting and cheering with even greater intensity.

The final blow was in the form of a red card which the Brazilian fans just couldnt recover from. The Dutch were now on their feet - cheering, screaming, taunting - and the Brazilians just sat in their own silence - stunned. The final whistle ended the battle and what happened next defines this years World Cup.

In the face of taunts and cheers which pointed out the obvious - every Brazilian in the bar stood up, and gave the Dutch fans a congratulatory round of applause, backed-up with a few handshakes and pats on the back. After which they were back on their feet chanting and cheering...they were not going to let their disappointment turn to anger, nor were they going to hate their team for the loss or hate the Dutch for their win. Does this reaction ring a bell??

I looked on in awe

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Proud Nation

Although Bafana Bafana failed to score enough goals to qualify them for the next round, beating the French in their final game was cause for countrywide celebration. The absence of the host team will certainly tone down the noise level, but most South African’s have a backup favourite to route for, and will provide willing cheering partners for the visiting fans. The tournament has started to take form, as a few teams have shown their expected dominance, while a few others have struggled to meet expectations. As this is being written, England is hanging on by a thread, while the French have probably just landed at De Gaulle. In a couple days the stage will be set for the knock-out portion of this World Cup.

South Africa is certainly proud of their soccer team, but should also be proud of their hospitality. Thus far, this event has gone off without a hitch. “I’m in love with South Africa” as one tourist was heard saying, seems to be a popular feeling had by the hundreds of thousands of soccer fans who have made the pilgrimage. The critics predicted a crime spree and a transportation nightmare, in addition to other infrastructure failures and unreasonably high prices. Subsequently local business’s prepared for a slump in the numbers of attendees.

According to the newspaper, brothel business is way down, and a couple of doctors have commented on the emptiness of the emergency rooms. But hotels are sold out, bars are packed and not too many people can be found who aren’t sporting some sort of purchased World Cup gear. Draw your own conclusions, but my conclusion is that this is shaping up to be one of the most successful world cups yet.

And the poor USA. One person suggested that the call retracting the possible winning goal in their last game was payback for 8 years of Bush/Cheney. Another suggested that ref was paid by Bush /Cheney. Either way it just happened again. Clint Dempsey just blasted a shot into the back of the net, and he was called offside for no apparent reason. Could these conspiracy theorists be right???

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bafana Bafana!

The world cup opening champagne pop was in the form of South Africa putting the ball in the back of the net. As if scripted, the host team scored the first goal of the tournament, which was like throwing petrol on a wildfire of football mania.

Amazingly, in the weeks leading up to this match, South African fans didn’t once seem to think that their Bafana Bafana(Boys Boys) would loose this match, even though the bookmakers thought otherwise…goes to show you the power of positive thinking. Mexico did score and the game ended in a tie, but the disappointment was fleeting, and the celebration was taken to the next level.

The next evening and a few matches later, the soccer world’s attention was on the town of Rustenburg, which is renowned around the world not for its platinum mines, but for its neighbour – Sun City, which is South Africa’s Vegas. Many years ago a handful of mostly American and English pop stars sang the song – “I’m not going to play Sun City” in protest of apartheid. But times have changed, and just outside of Sun City was the venue for the next chapter in the sordid history of the American/England rivalry – summed up best by the poster in this picture.

The streets on the south side of the stadium were teaming with England’s red and white. Alas, there wasn’t much blue on the north side either and much to my dismay most of the locals seemed to be gunning for England as well – maybe they didn’t like the fact the O sent in his Veep.

The Americans were few and the English were confident, until that slippery little ball snuck through the keeper’s hands tying the game and the “U…S…A” chant even overpowered the Vuvusela’s. The final score was decided and no self respecting Englishman would ever be satisfied with a tie in football against a country like the U.S.

“They played like bloody rubbish” …sums up what the English thought of the game.

The tournament is now in full swing and South Africa’s way of life seems to have been altered…at least for now. Emergency rooms are emptier then ever, road rage has subsided and there seems to be a general harmony and unity not felt since Nelson Mandela’s Springboks won the 1995 Rugby World cup. That’s the good news.

The bad news, is that life does go on and there are the reported incidents that remind you of life’s cruelty and the reality of the world we live in. This past weekend a family of four were enjoying their trip to SA to watch the world cup, until the teenage son fell to his death as the family were hiking down Table Mountain.

That story is sad. Then there are disappointing stories like the ANC’s youth party ripping down brand new toilets installed for poor people who have to use a ditch or bush in plain view every time they need to go. The youth party believed that the toilet structure was insufficient, overlooking the fact that a lot of people now had a private hygienic place to poop. I understand the power of political protest, but I’m pretty sure the privacy of a toilet is sacred.

And then there is a touch of comedy in the fact that a lot of the reported petty crime thus far appears to be conducted by foreigners. Not a bad move for a foreign pickpocket to pick up their trade in a country where crime is so bad that a local will be sure to be the first blamed.

Enough of that…this world cup month. The Germans look like a force to be reconned with and the Aruzzi look washed up. But then again, its still early and there are still many games to be played.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Vuvusela Nation

Traditionally, I look forward to being woken by the screams of the Hadeda Ibis (a big grey, loud bird) at about 5.30am on my first morning after arrival in Johannesburg. Not this time.

I arrived in Joburg 3 days ago, and at 5.30am, both I and probably the Hadeda's were surprised to be woken up by the vuvusela cry. For those who haven't heard of this new early morning animal, its the horn that is used by SA soccer fans, and now by soccer fans the world over. It is plastic, about 3 feet long, it is LOUD and it is leading the charge of the humongous vibe that is building in South Africa. And true to the motto of the 2010 World Cup - You can feel it, it is here!!

The excitement is as intense as the vuvusela is loud. Today, it looks as though this country has put aside its challenges, and are going launch this tournament like never before...African style.

I'm off to Soweto. More soon...

Monday, May 24, 2010

Thank you!!

When you think of Africa, what comes to mind?

The 2010 Tour d'Afrique is complete and I would like to thank you all for your contributions to SELF, for helping to spread the word, and for following my progress. Your involvement has touched me deeply.

I would like to say that in the past four months, I experienced an intimate discovery of African culture. I did experience an intimate view of some African roads, traffic and majestic landscapes; but the tour dynamic was my focal point, which seemed to leave little time to immerse myself in the African cultures. However, I did get a lot closer to Africa's vibe than my usual perch which can usually only see the likes of the New York Times or the BBC.

So what does the word "Africa" bring to mind? I'm guessing - poverty/war/corrupt dictators/lions and elephants. While I saw some lion and elephant, I saw no poverty I haven't seen in New York City, I didn't see any fighting, and I didn't meet any dictators(that I know of). This doesn't mean Africa does not have any of the above, it's just that those images should not define this large complex continent.

I chose to raise money for SELF - an NGO whose mission is to help developing countries improve their infrastructure. After my journey, I am even more optimistic that SELF's model will be more productive - then simply giving money - for Africa's future. As I experienced first hand, if you give a person some cash, they spend it to satiate an immediate desire, which is soon forgotten, but yet the expectation for a handout is even stronger. However, if you give someone the opportunity to make something for you, they might drive a hard bargain, but they take pride in the work they have done. Instead of exploiting Africa's resources, what if the developed world helped Africa learn how capitalize its own natural and intellectual resources?

Africa is the 2nd largest continent (bigger then North America and Europe) and it has 54 countries, where 2000 different languages are spoken by a billion people - this is what I found on wikipedia. What I found on our bike ride, is the people are proud, friendly, hospitable and willing to work for their future....IF left to their own devices.

Thank you again for your support.

P.S. I will close down the SELF fundraising at the end of this week, but will continue to update my blog with my observations of Southern Africa during the World Cup.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Cape Town, South Africa

What a long strange trip it's been, as Robert Hunter once wrote.

This past Saturday morning we started our final day in nice calm crisp, but bitter cold weather. Soon enough the sun made an appearance and warmed us just in time for our arrival at our last lunch stop which was on the beach across the bay from Table Mountain. What an amazing backdrop for us to enjoy a gourmet spread and hold our bikes high in the air for the camera!!

From lunch we had a 30km convoy along the bay, and through downtown Cape Town, for an arrival at the V&A Waterfront. The expected elation I described previously, which had been building over the past few days, speeded the convoy up as we neared the finish. The finish line came quickly and so did the smiles, hugs, handshakes, jumping up and down, more smiling. Behind all of that, you could sense everyone experiencing a very calming satisfaction....we did it!

The rest of the day and night allowed us to roll in our accomplishment as awards were given, speeches made, beards and hair shaved, families and friends received, bikes donated, champagne bottles popped.

During the evening we had an awards and celebratory dinner, at which a slide show was shown - 500 pictures documenting the last 4 months. We had just crossed Africa, and yet most of the pictures were of us...the TDA riders and staff. That's what this journey was Yes we rode our bikes, and we saw a lot of 10 African countries, and we met and talked to a few African people, but this trip was defined by the interaction between the TDA people.

One day in January, 70 strangers all met at a hotel in Cairo, and for the next 4 months, lived within a few feet of each other 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Our privacy was revealed. Alliances and friendships were formed...even a little love. Enemies made. Love and hate was displayed as was good and bad moods. And the only thing we all seemed to have in common was that our interaction for 4 months happened in Africa...oh, we also each brought a bike with us. And as quickly as we came together, we all went our separate ways. A lot of friendships will endure, but many of us will never hear from each other again, and yet I believe that the essence of our nostalgia for this safari will be the TDA riders and staff.

At the end, our race winner summed up his experience as "These were some of the simplest days of my life, riding from one camp to another, enjoying the day. Now it's back to the reality, back to the real world". All we had to do was wake up, put our tent in the truck, ride our bike to the next camp, eat and go back to sleep, while enjoying each moment of the experience. If riding on any given day was unappealing we hopped on the truck. All one had to do to get the most out of this trip was to accept Africa for what it was and accept TDA for how it operated. My experience left me with 2 disappointments. I was disappointed in myself for not being able to leave out my western expectations when dealing with vendors of all sorts in Africa. I was also disappointed in the TDAers who were unable to embrace the expected inconveniences of this trip and chose to display their perceived victimization through regular complaining.

The latter was fortunately overshadowed by an ongoing feeling of satisfaction and fulfilment that this trip provided...each ride, each starry night sky, each photographic view, each taste of a new cuisine, each healing, each challenge, each welcome, each laugh(lots of those) and the list goes on. I believe all of these individual experiences will slowly blend together and be remembered as one giant TDA moment...a memory that will be jogged by the most expecting occurrence.

And now what? As our chef pointed out the day after our arrival - once the celebrations have subsided, our feelings can turn to confusion. Waking up and realizing we don't have to put our bag in the truck and get on the bike, but rather deal with the choices and complications presented to us back in the "real world", can be confusing.

Once the confusion subsides, I will play back the slide show and enjoy the rich memories I have of the time I spent with 70 strangers riding bikes across Africa.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Out of Africa... the feeling I had soon after crossing the border into South Africa. The roads, traffic pattens, cars were the first clue, and as we have moved further south it has become more and more apparent...South Africa provides a stark contrast to the rest of Africa as I experienced it.

With that being said, the beauty was not left at the border. South Africa's west coasts weather and ruggedness provides a wildness that makes you feel like you are at a frontier. And as frontiers can be inhospitable to newcomers, so can this area, if the cold wind is coming at you, and there is 100 miles of hilly road between you and a warm shower. But that is behind us now...and so is the wind. The last 2 days the wind has come around and has joined forces with us, pushing us away from the rain and towards the finish line.

Tomorrow is our Champs the form of a convoy into Cape Town

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Felix Unite

Odometer - 11,000 km

I can see country #10

Looking across the Orange river, past all the bird life and the unidentified mammal that keeps surfacing, I am staring at South Africa. We have just enjoyed our last rest day at a river camp called Felix Unite, which is on the Namibia side of the river. In a few hours, we will pass through immigration and begin our run down South Africa's west coast.

Our arrival here completed a week of long days on friendly dirt roads, with back-drops which were a continuation of the beauty I described in my previous blog...southern Namibia will always be remembered as a place that is almost fantastical in its beauty, and even after seeing it first hand, I already sometimes wonder if it truly did exist.

Our last day of riding in Namibia made us earn the cold drinks waiting for us in Felix Unite. 174km, most of which was on dirt, with some nice long gradual uphills to keep the speedometer in check, but it was the last 30km or so that defined the day...headwind on tired legs, knowing that we are so close. The end of last week's riding for a lot of people seemed to come with an exhale of breath...knowing that we have had an amazing journey, and the end is just so close.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sesriem, Namibia

There is a scene in the movie, "Caddyshack", where all of the caddys have one day where they are allowed to use the country club's pool. The caddies converge on the pool, violating the peace, quiet and routine enjoyed by the club members. After the regulars have been horrified, the scene ends with an empty pool area...and pool, and a person in a hazmat suite cleaning up the "mess".

That scene is a good metaphor for what happens when the TDA converges on some sort of establishment. With very little consideration for its capacity or service standards, we eat it up, spit it out and then leave the horrified patrons in our dust. We can bring a small town to its knees, and can even leave our mark on a small city. But typically we like to prey on lodge and campground infrastructures. Sorry for the late notice but anyone who might be lying in our path, I recommend the following:
- overstock your fridges with cold cokes and beers
- fill your kitchen with comfort food
- install a speedy Wifi connection
- service and upgrade your sewer system
- make sure you take credit cards or currency from your neighboring countries
- fumigate - targeting mosquitoes and ants
- arrange a free shuttle service
- install 10 washers and dryers
- most importantly - double your staff and put them through the Ritz Carlton's service training program.

If you take these precautions, and are prepared to be at our bec and call 24 hours a day, it will be a pleasure doing business with us.

Our latest victim, is the town of Sesriem, which is the gateway to the red dunes of Sossusvlei. Our ride here from Windhoek took us through some of the most sensational countryside, that have struck an array of reactions. Some vista's are coffee table book material and hold your gaze, while others invite you like the Ulysses's Sirens. Even coming across the a very common antelope like the Springbok, for some reason makes you stop and stare.

Homestretch is definitely the vibe in the TDA camp. Realization has set in that we are less then 2 weeks from the finish line and people have been reneregized by this notion. And what a pleasure to ride out this tour in this landscape.

But, we must beware, there is some hard riding between here and Cape Town. High winds, dirt roads, a canyon, who knows what else, coupled with long distances will make us earn our finish line elation.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Windhoek, Namibia

Odometer - 10,100km

24 hours of sensory overload:

11.30pm - The blinding flash is what woke me, just in time for the following thunderclap to scare the crap out of me
11.31 - 12.30am - The driving rain starts, as does my heart everytime I see a flash of lightning, prompting me to wonder about the effects of being in a battle zone.
12.30am-4.30am - Sleep comes but the rain does not go
4.30am - Wake up, get dressed, take down tent - all the while attempting to stay dry.
5.30am - Eat a lot!!
6am - Still a bit dark, rain still going, and a bit cold - start the TDA's longest day.
6-8a.m. - Rain, wind, cold - riding along trying to subdue all non-functional thoughts.
8-10 - Weather clears, and a full lunch is a nice way to celebrate the reprieve.
10-12.30 - A mad dash to the Botswana/Namibia border. Some Wildebeest are spotted along the side of the road
12.30 - 207km ride complete - elation, satisfaction.
12.30 - 1pm. Pulling into the Customs building just as the sky opens again.
1.15. Arrive at camp/lodge.
1.30 - Order 2 chocolate milkshakes, 2 cokes, an egg/bacon/cheeseburger with fries and enjoy - most satifying meal of my life
2.30 - Holster the tent, for a chalet room.
3.00 - A rare hot shower, with even rarer, heavy water pressure. One of those showers one doesnt want to leave.
3.30 - The rain is back - as I curl up into a bed - siesta time
5.30 - Steak for dinner, followed by another milkshake
8.00 - Back to bed for the night

As I write this 2 things come to mind. Firstly, although I have outlined just one specific day, there have been many days like this and for that matter this trip might be described as sensory overload. Secondly, the milkshakes, steak and bed make it clear we are getting closer and closer to a first world country...SA.

As we made our way into Windhoek yesterday, for the last 40km, I started to notice random armed soldiers along the side of the road, either guarding the entrance to an abode or simply standing in the bush. Either way, they were clearly making themselves present. Perhaps I've been reading too much Wilbur Smith or Frederick Forsyth, but I started to think that there was revolution in the air...come to find out that the President of Burundi was on his way from the airport.

Our arrival in Namibia's capital, marked the end of century week - over 800 km, which averages out to 100 miles per day for 5 days. Since there was lots of time to think - or listen to Bill Hicks on the iPod - I came up with why Botswana might feel so mysterious as mentioned before...there doesn't seem to be much stress. It appears to be a very relaxed society. If that is the case, my very uneducated guess as to why, is because the population density is low. Is it possible that the higher the density of people, the higher the anxiety levels?? My only other experience which might validate that theory is my time in Iceland - once again, low stress and coincidently not a lot of people.

Tommorrow we head south again, on to some dirt roads which will take us to Namibia's interior

Friday, April 23, 2010

Maun, Botswana

Odometer - 9250 km

If you are able to see the horizon without obstruction, you will be able to see a clear thin line that seperates the earth from the sky, where everything seems to be invisible. The best place to see this apparition is standing on a beach on a nice clear day...or riding a bike through Botswana. The roads, have been long, flat and straight, to the point where every now and again, there are no slight curves or hills in the distance to block infinity.

The peleton is back!!!

Gone are the days of dirt and hills where the benefit of drafting was minimal. The distances are now long and steady, and getting into a paceline of cyclists increases your efficiency and speed incrementally. Staring at someone's back tire gets old pretty quickly (think of sitting in a spin class for half the day), but the appeal of a lower heart rate and less time in the saddle can be a welcome alternative on these long flat days. Then again, if you're feeling strong, the wind is at your back, the iPod is charged and your mind is ready to roam free...then let the peleton go and roam free like the animals you may see along the way. The inventory thus far of animal spottings by TDAers while cycling are: elephant, giraffe, buffalo, jackal, ostrich and the best sighting of all is a pack of wild dogs(an endnagered species).

Botswana is about 5 times the size of Pennsylvania, yet has the same amount of people has Philadelphia, not the Greater Philadelphia Area, just the City of Philadelphia. Its place in our journey is still a bit of a mystery to me as it seems so different to the places we have been. The people and landscape are similiar to that of its neighbors, but the vibe is different. I can't quite put my finger on why...yet.

A few days ago, about 80 km out of Livingtsone, we boarded a ferry to cross the Chobe river into Botswana. After setting up our tents, and stuffing our faces, we enjoyed a game drive in Chobe National Park. In lieu of the traditional Landrover, we boarded a boat and cruised up the river whose banks and depths were rich with animals...a welcome adventure for a post ride afternoon!!!

A long week looms - not a day under 160km, and inclusive of our longest day - 207km, with Namibia's Capital, Windhoek, as the carrot!!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Nata, Botswana

Although I did not see this first hand, the highlight of the week, was hearing the story of how one of the TDAer's stopped on the side of the road and was approaching a wild elephant, arm outstrecthed, holding a pealed banana.

He backed off after a passing vehicle screamed the to him the possible implications.

We are in the middle of Botswana, where big game roams free. Last night our usual ritual of finding an ant free spot for our tents was replaced by finding a spot between elephant tracks.

Friday, April 16, 2010


As our skiff drifted down the Zimbabwe bank of the Zambezi river, I knowingly pointed out the we were hearing the distant grunting of hippos...but was quickly corrected by our guide who told us the noise was simply cars driving over speed bumps on the nearby road. After the laughter subsided we did hear the real thing and a few minutes later I got a small taste of why the hippo is such a fearsome animal. Our boat passed close to a herd of partially submerged hippos, and apparently we were a bit too close for mom's liking. She turned to face us and, with no hesitation, lunged forward and disappeared below the surface. I turned to the guide and asked how fast hippos can move underwater - 40kph(about 28mph) was his response. Since we were about 30 feet away, my quick calculation induced a nice shot of adrenaline into my system...i.e. panic attack. Seconds later the hippo surfaced about 20 feet from us and as it went under again, our guide moved the boat to a safe distance, and soon we resumed our quest to catch the mighty Tiger Fish. Now that is a healthy fear, although I doubt we were ever in any major danger.

An equally healthy fear is what one feels while sitting on a grated platform, 100 meters(over 300 feet) above the Zambezi River Gorge, while a stranger ties a rubber band to your ankles. "Toes over the edge, arms out, head up and on my count...5,4,3,2,1, jump". A few seconds later, after the chaos has subsided a bit, you are hanging upside down staring at a very angry river and contemplating the latest chain of events.

All in a days work in Livingstone, the small town on the Zambian side of Mosi-oa-Tunya which is the Kololo or Lozi language term for 'The Smoke which Thunders' and is the name given to the waterfall more commonly known throughout the world as Victoria Falls.

This town should be renamed the Kololo term for "sensory overload". Steep cliffs, high bridges, dangerous rapids, scary wild animals, luxurious hotels, river side camp sites is as much of a haven for creative entrepreneurs as it is for thrill seekers and those who want to settle into a spa retreat with the comfort of knowing that there is pure African beauty outside!

As I was sipping my post bungee Mosi Lager, I overheard someone saying that local Zambians are paid to make the jumps when new equipment is installed. It reminded me of a driving range I once went to in South Africa where the method of collecting the golf balls are people who are supplied with a scoop and construction hat! Although the bungee-tester story is unconfirmed, it still brought me back to the reality of the fear people must experience having to provide for a family when food, shelter and basic hygiene are a luxury. This fear is not healthy.

I have mentioned before that Africa has a draw, one that I have experienced my entire life. But the reality is that the real Africa is dirt poor, beyond poor. It's easy to fall in love with Africa, without taking into account the people who struggle to stay alive each day. My intention is not to imply that tourists should stop enjoying Africa's pleasures, I just think equal consideration and thought should be given to Africa's problems. That awareness in itself I think would go a long way to a bright future for this continent.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Lusaka, Zambia

Odometer - 8000km
Country #7

There is nothing better then being the first out of camp and riding through the African bush as the sun comes up. This feeling has been particularly true this past week as we have made our way along the Great East Road through the Zambian countryside.

The early morning seems to cover the full color spectrum particularly when the sun is lighting it up like a spotlight from the rear horizon. The fresh smells get carried through your body by a cool morning air. And the sounds of the bush waking up is almost silent, as it is still has not been polluted by the bustle of human activity. The latter is true unless you have the likes of Motley Crue/ACDC pumping through your iPod...As cliche as I probably sound, there is no other way to explain it, and it is energizing.

But the sun comes up quickly and soon, its hot, humid and traffic is on the warpath. The challenge then is not to have non-functional thoughts override that early morning energy, since there are usually many more hours left in the saddle.

We had some long hilly days this week. 195km one day, which was probably the longest that many of us had ever ridden in one shot. We had a 150km day that included 2000m of climbing. These 2 days were flanked on either side another 370km or so of total distance. This week was probably good mental preparation into the long days to come which will take us across Botswana and Namibia.

Early in the week, we had a fairly seemless border crossing into Zambia. Interestingly, in the past US and Brits have been charged USD $135/150 for entry-visa's. Now its only USD $ leads one to only conspire as to why that is?

As I have previously hinted the group dynamic plays a major role in the TDA. The best metaphor I can come up with is its like a group of people starting a new office job. At the beginning, everyone is eager to find their niche in the group, and generally tries to keep an open mind, and maybe even a bitten tongue. But as the weeks progress and people find their place, groups are formed as are opinions, and people start to let down their guards and carry on with the day to day. Whether you have worked in an office or watched "The Office" - you know what the result might be after a couple months on the job. It appears to be very similiar on the TDA. The TDA has defined groups now, for sure, based on everything from age to interests; and individuals have also developed their own distintive daily/weekly routines. But at the end of the day, after the tensions or the celebrations have subsided, we are all still on the same quest - arriving in Cape Town, by bike, on May 15 - the conditions under which we plan on accomplishing that quest are probably different for every individual.

Currently, we are settled close to the Arcade Mall in Lusaka - which is a kaleidascope of western luxuries - movies, nice restaurants and cafes, fast internet, well stock supermarkets and assorted specialty shops - a haven for our rest day indulgences'. But back in the bush, what can be as satisfying, is finding a comfortable "coke stop", our term for a small shop. A couple of days ago, a few of us were settled at one such coke stop, drinking semi cold(a small luxury) drinks and eating fritters that had just been made out back. Our seat was a thin wooden bench, where we were half protected from the sun. All I could see was a group of comfortable, happy Mzungu's (local lingo for white person)telling tales from the day and enjoying the semi-cold Castle Lager/Coca Cola. We seemed to even laugh off being heckled by one of town elders for some money...he had had too much drink according to a couple of the youngsters who were embarresingly trying to whisk him away.

Africa is starting to remind me of the richness that can be found in such simplicity.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Lilongwe, Malawi

I just polished off a Steer's double cheeseburger and fries with a side of coke...for those in the U.S. that is as close as you can get in these parts to a Stupidesized Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese Meal.

I digress(but it was so good).

Today as we spun through the Malawian countryside, I was paying particular attention to the the little houses along the side of the road. Some were made from some sort of mud, some from brick, but what stood out to me, was how clean the outside of the houses were kept. The dirt yards were swept perfectly clean, with no signs of clutter of any sort. This moment of serenity as I admired to myself the care these people had for their suroundings was suddenly shattered by "GIVE ME YOUR MONEY!".

No I was'nt being held up, this demand was coming from a group of small children along the side of road - sound familiar?? Yes, Malawi is a bit reminiscent of our days in Ethiopia, but the Malawian children are rookies and hopefully they will at least stay that way. No stone throwing, no cursing but there seems to be a bit of an edge to their voice/body language, especially when they demand money. Theft is also a bit of an issue when we are camped in the bush. At our first camp, a couple of bike computers and a few other ancillary items went missing at the hands of the 100's of children sourrounding our camp. That, and the fact that a few people were ripped off by the currency exchange artist's at the border prompted a South African TDA rider to mutter - "I just don't understand it, in South Africa, Malawian immigrants are considered to be particularly honest and reliable".

With that being said, our second stop in Malawi was a rest day at Chitimba beach, which is a small town on Lake Malawi. Tents were pitched and if they didn't have a view of the lake, they were certainly within earshot of the mini waves crashing on the shore. The beach bar and lounge was then the place to be for the next 36 hours, whether it was to grab some wifi, read, nap, or self destrucitvely run up the bar tab. A couple of heated beach volley ball games, seemed to be the only obvoius diversion from the thatched bar. All in all, it was more like a scene out of a Jimmy Buffet song then what would be expected from camping in the African bush. And this scene could not have come at a better time as tension within the TDA camp seemed to have been running a bit high, for no other reason then strains of some newly found heat and humidity, long days in the saddle, and 3 months on the road!!!

Lake Malawi makes up 20% of Malawi's total area and is wedged into the bottom of the great Rift Valley, making for some beautiful views. It also made for a nice steep 10km, 8% grade, climb away from Chitimba beach, before we settled in for another 100km through the surrounding valleys, as we started our ride away from the morning sun for the first time since Cairo. Since then its been a few hundred km's of rolling hills, to the capital, Lilongwe.

Malawi is so lush, and beautiful. But yet it is dirt poor, and has a very low life expectancy. It's easy to wonder how can this be so, but a very dense population and a high prevalance of HIV/AIDS, is probably a huge drain on its resources. And like so many times on this trip, I wonder how this problem can be fixed. Ubuntu is global - yes? By the way, Madonna happens to be in Lilongwe this Easter Monday(a public holiday in Malawi).

Odometer - 7200 km.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Mbeya, Tanzania

"Deep in the Tanzanian bush, David Robinson, the 53-year-old son of
baseball legend and civil-rights hero Jackie Robinson, has exchanged
his uneasy compromise with U.S. culture for a tribal adoption, an
arranged marriage, and an economic crusade. Through the farmers'
cooperative he founded, he is using the world's second-most-valuable
natural resource—coffee—to spur social change" - Brett Martin, May 2005.

I first came to know of David Robinson and his work through my friend Brian Hyland who produced a short documentary about him. Since we are only in Mbeya for a brief moment, I will not be able to make the quick trip into Mbeya's surounding countryside to visit Mr. Robinson's farm. But my thoughts have been with his story, which for me has accentuated the beautiful countryside we have had the pleasure of riding through the past few days.

The rolling hills have been smooth and fast the last 3 days as we near the end of our safari through Tanzania. Tomorrow we cross the Malawi border.

Riding the pavement can be fairly mindless compared to the tricky dirt roads - so there is a lot of time for the mind to wander.

Earlier today I was thinking about the overland trucks which are our lifeline, and realized that I haven't really described their role in this crazy journey. Firstly we each have a locker on one of the trucks - that locker is essentially our castle. Yes we either sleep outside or in a hotel room, but at the beginning of the day our possessions go into the lockers for safe keeping, and are there waiting for us at the end of our ride. Second, the trucks are our kitchen, which comes with a chef. After serving us a a hearty breakfast one of the trucks speeds to the designated lunch spot to set out the day's spread. At the same time the other truck rushes to the next night's camp to start preparing the camp area and get ready for the dinner rush. The pressure is on for these trucks, because as the riders are experiencing their own challenges during the day - sometimes the same challenge is even greater for the trucks ... Northern Kenya for example. Those roads were sometimes barely walkable, never mind drivable even for the most resilient of trucks. The trucks are also responsible for finding and storing our very thirsty water supply. And when it's all said and done the trucks are also the last line of defense for riders who need a bail out from the day's ride.

These trucks are not robots, so the people who operate them are really the ones who are our lifeline. Although there have been a couple of times when one of the trucks has not been at its expected rendezvous, there has always been an effective back-up plan.

So as I gave my daily thumbs-up to the passing TDA truck earlier today, I reflected on how much easier its existence makes a bike tour of this magnitude - and I am grateful. I am also even more in awe of those individuals around the world who embark on adventures like this - solo!!!

Lake Malawi - here we come!!!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Iringa, Tanzania

Odometer - just over 6000 km.

This past week was all about the bike. It was us and our bikes against the forces of corrugation, deep sand, loose rocks, technical climbs, hairy descents and armor-piercing thorns. And yet we all rode safely into Iringa yesterday, to celebrate a well-deserved rest day.

Towards the end of our ride into town we rode onto the first paved road we've seen in 600 km. I couldn't help but stop for a moment of reflection in the quiet of the Tanzanian bush. Secretly I will miss the dirt roads. They try your patience, they abuse your bike and they hurt your bum, wrist, arms and shoulders; but there is never a dull moment - unlike the long stretches of flat pavement expected in the weeks to come.

Everyone seems to develop their own strategy on how to deal with the terrain. A popular strategy is avoidance, which can be accomplished by looking for single tracks that run parallel to the road and used by the pedestrians of the bush. These paths are usually smooth and packed and are a welcome relief from the roads. They also can be fun - like a carnival ride is fun - as you wind and roll through the bush as fast your nerves will permit. The trick, however, is not to follow a trail that runs away from the road. As a few riders can attest, instead of having to backtrack (which would be the smart thing to do) - trying to cut through the bush back to the road can be a little prickly, while keeping the fear of being lost at bay.

The day's end this past week looked like a tire-patching class, as most of the riders sat around fixing flats and exchanging war stories from the day's ride. The bush is hot so activity is kept to a minimum once riders get to camp. A seat, a spot in the shade, and something to munch on is all that is needed after the bikes are prepped for the following day. And then off to bed after a big supper and a quick prayer to the puncture gods.

Watching your surroundings is usually not the best idea while riding these roads. Your priority is pedalling and keeping your eyes peeled for the right line to follow, as well as all available bail-out options, in the event that you choose poorly. But it was hard to avert your eyes for too long from the landscape we encountered on our ride from Arusha. Picture the plain's bush you might see on a show about African animals, and then suddenly you are climbing through dense jungle you might expect in Central America. We have also started to see our first of the mighty Baobab trees(sometimes described as a tree that is planted upside down), just one of many 1000's of tree types making up the canopy of southern Tanzania. The rolling hills, or long flat stretches of bush were speckled with little villages inhabited by people who enjoyed exchanging their traditional greeting "Jambo" as we sped past and they went about their lives.

Life in Africa tends to move a little slower then we are used to in the West. It is a comfortable and satisfying pace for those who live here and yet can be frustrating for us TDAers, who want our service to be quick and efficient. As I finished the last paragraph, I realized that we are all here to experience life on this continent, but yet we are on a fairly tight schedule, and very often do not have the time to reset our internal urgency to African levels - maybe we are missing out part of the Africa experience.

The TDAers converged on "Shooters Pub and Cuisine" last night. Between us, a contingent from the local Peace Corps and a handful of Iringa residents - the crowd proved overwhelming for the bartenders and kitchen. Nevertheless as the pub's stocks and servers' patience dwindled, the party kicked into gear. Dancing, bar games and good old-fashioned party banter made for a fun end to a not-soon-to-be-forgotten week.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Half-time Synopsis

A few years ago I started to read "Dark Star Safari" by Paul Theroux. I put the book down right about when he got to Nairobi because I was bored by how unfairly negative I thought he was being about Africa. My ignorance formed my unrealistic opinion. I stand corrected and look forward to re-reading his book.

So the tricky question is: is Africa really in dire straits? Are African people living unhappy lives?

From my point of view, Africa is an amazingly beautiful place, but the lives of its people look grim as does the future of its beautiful land. But am I making that assesment based probably on the sense of civility, order and hygiene expected in the West? Maybe it's not fair to make judgement based on my experience as a fleeting bike-through tourist.

One Kenyan travel book I read recently suggested not giving anything to the people I meet along the way. This prompted a discussion on whether hand-outs by past travellers may be the reason why some people along the road, especially in Ethiopia, have been so aggressive. It certainly makes sense. If someone receives some money, or a pen, or a book, or some food or anything from a random tourist, I would imagine that their expectations would be set accordingly. If this might be true on this scale, is it the case on a much bigger scale such as international aid in all its different forms and sizes?

Yesterday I met someone who had flown in to visit a TDAer for a couple of days. He had a black eye around which were set of teeth marks, compliments of one of 4 people who mugged him soon after his arrival in Nairobbery.

An hour later another TDAer told me how earlier that day he and a few others were in a taxi van when the driver stopped, ushered out all of the locals, and aggressively demanded more money from the TDAers, while holding the to door to the taxi closed. They managed to get out, with a bit of force and not getting back the fare they had already paid.

These 2 stories left a bitter taste in my mouth yesterday and added to my negativity, and also reminded me to keep up my guard, which I think I had begun to let down as I have become more comfortable in Africa.

I suspect that my blog has refected my negativity towards the people of Africa, but in the same way that one good shot in my usual poor golf game keeps me coming back, I have met a few people along the way who remind me that life might be good in Africa, and that the future may be bright after all. Africa is a very beautiful place; it emits a mysterious magnetism that is hard to resist even after being stoned - that's with rocks not drugs.

Since I suggest that aid may not be helpful for Africa, you may question the money I am raising for SELF. SELF is an organization that doesnt simply give solar energy to those in need. SELF requires that those who receive their help play a part in the design and installation. In some cases SELF may even ask that the recipients pay for the solar panels through micro-financing. I still beleive as I did before I started this tour that aid is more constructive when it is earned, or the recipient is accepts it with good intention and a sense of accountability. I believe that SELF offers that kind of aid, and is model of how others should help.

The rest of the world should help by letting the Africans define their own lives and shape their own future's. Aid is good, but countries that give should be careful the reason for giving is not primarily self-interest. Ubuntu is global.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Jurassic Park

Actually, the Ngorongoro Crater.

After eating some well marinated Warthog for supper last night I decided to forgo today's steam and check out the Crater.

There are 2 types of "Wow". Wow when you are with a group of people and want to emphasize something and the Wow, that you say to youself when something really bowls you over. Well, after driving through some fairly thick forest up the outside of the crater, seeing the inside of the Crater for the first time is the latter "Wow" for sure.

Also, the whole experience was creepily a little like Jurassic Park - starting with the front gate , where the road all of a sudden turns to a dirt road dissappearing into thick green jungle, and then there is this 280 square kilometer bowl of wild animals. The bottom of the crater is just a flat green grassland, so the animals are all just right there - nowhere to hide - its amazing. Within 30 minutes, I'd seen 4 of the big 5 - as usual, the elusive Leopard was nowhere to be seen.

The pics posted above should help paint a better picture.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Arusha, Tanzania

"How's Obama??"

A question I got quite often from the very proud Kenyans. Some were asking how he's doing as President, while others seemed to be asking as if the prez and I might hang out every now and again.

The ride into Nairobi was like playing a video game, where the wrong turn of the control could over!! The rules of the road (or lack there of), and the huge volume of fast moving traffic made for a dicey day on the road. Vehicles have no problem deciding to pass even if they can see the whites of the eyes of the oncoming a bike doesn't even count, but in their defense they sometimes have the common decency to blow their horn before they run you off the road. Scary day, but thankfully no casualties on the bike. That's the good news. The bad news is that later that day a TDAer got hit by a bus when walking across the road - I suspect probably because of looking the wrong way, expecting traffic to be on the right side of the road(you drive on the left side of the road once you cross into Kenya). Once again scary, but after spending the night in the hospital they are a little beaten up, but on the mend.

Nairobi was a good day to relax, treat ourselves to some greasy food, and do some shopping, after our north Kenya stint. One rider did have his laptop and cell phone lifted while he was eating in a restaurant in what looked like a secure shopping mall...I guess that's why some call the city - Nairobbery. And making it more understandable for the sudden increase in the presence of security - big walls, electric fences, security guards - a vibe I know well from South Africa, and perhaps will see more of for the rest of the trip. Why was this not the case in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia? - less to steal, or scarier punishments for criminals, or maybe a little of both?

The day after Nairobi was a fun 160km ride of rolling hills to the Tanzanian border, but was not free of a little unexpected excitement. In our never ending search for smoother riding surface's - a habit that probably started in the Dinder days and which we perfected in North Kenya - freshly paved road is hard to resist. When I say fresh, I mean, wet, juicy tar. It made for a smooth alternative to the gravel service road we should have been on, but a lot of petrol was needed to get the tar off the bikes and bods. And wet tar is slippery. There were a few falls, and one trip to the hospital.

The events of the that day prompted an evening discussion on the various forms of casualties of the TDA - (injuries, sickness, theft etc.) and how many riders would actually have signed up for the TDA knowing how big the risk it is of becomming a statistic. Hard to say, but I think we all agreed that you can significantly reduce the probability of something bad happening to you by taking extra precautions - but what fun would that be and certainly easier said sitting around drinking bottles of Tusker.

We crossed the Tanzania border early yesterday, where the Americans and Irish were charged $100 for their entrance visa's, as opposed to the $50 everyone else were charged - which prompted the question by one person..."what did the Irish do?". I guess it must go without saying that/what the Americans did to deserve the inflated rate...

We enjoyed a 120km ride from the border over the foothills of Mount Meru into the town of Arusha which is considered the halfway point for anyone making the Cairo to Capetown trek. Also lurking is Kilimanjaro. I say lurking because her presence is massive and close, but I have yet so see her distinctive snow covered peak which has been hiding in the clouds for the last few days. A small group of TDAers left the tour for a couple of days to go and see Kili's receeding glaciers - I look forward to comparing notes with them from my Kili ascent a couple of years ago. Still one of the most amazing experiences I have had!

Since we are halfway we have 3 rest days. Many have continued the adventure, by going on safari in the Serengeti and Ngorogoro crater or climbing Kili, while a few others like myself have chosen to stay in Arusha with our feet up. Its a great time to take care of administrative stuff(laundry, internet, bike service, shopping etc). Personally, I have shamelessly checked into a nice hotel, where I plan on sitting in the steamroom, when I'm not watching crappy TV.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Nanyuki, Kenya

Odometer is just over 5000 km

We just had a 1300m climb into the foothills of Mount Kenya. What a great ride and yes we are back on the was hard to resist hopping of the bike and kissing the pavement yesterday morning.

Mudfest lived up to expectations and Northern Kenya certainly lived up to its reputation as being the toughest part of the TDA - at least thus far. Many a time I wondered if my trusty Nissan Pathfinder would have been able to make this journey and I concluded that if she had, I would probably be selling her for parts in Nanyuki right about now... she is much better off cruising the highways of North America.

Since my last post the rain has been relentless, making the corrugated, muddy roads that much more exciting to navigate. For the record...corrugation sucks!! Think of riding or driving on a road built of horizontal ditches about 3 inches deep and a foot wide...recipe for some spinal realignment no matter what vehicle you are in. Add some rain, a couple of drainage rivers and some pond-size puddles and you have an adventure on your hands.(I did find myself waist deep in one puddle while still sitting on the bike)

One night a few of us pitched our tents in a very dry river bed knowing that it hadn't rained in that area for 3 weeks, and once again disobeying Murphy's Law or just commong sense. We were lucky that the regional drought lasted through the night, but the sky opened up first thing in the morning and, amazingly, only minutes after the tents were taken down, the river was running strong. Easy lesson learned!

We have been lucky to experience Northern Kenya in its rawest form. The tar road is creeping quickly towards Ethiopia thanks to the Chinese who are not only funding the road but supervising its construction. I don't think many more future TDA riders will need to consider bringing mountain bikes because of this section.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Marsabit, Kenya

The drops of rain started at around 3.30 am ... the dilemma is always: do I get up and put the fly on my tent, or will this small shower just pass. One thing that this trip is reminding me is to always obey Murphy's Law, so I dutifully got up and took care of it, and remembered to take my laundry off the line - saving myself a week's worth of moldy riding clothes. It's 9 hours later and the steady rain has just subsided. This is important because we are in northern Kenya, where there is no pavement. The 4x4 pickup was not able to make it 200 meters from camp this morning - the rich, red African mud mixed with a bit of water makes for a juicy porridge that could make riding conditions after this rest day quite adventurous ... we shall see.

Getting to this rest day has been a test of patience, bike skills and bum calluses. Day 1 from the border was a nice tune up - fairly smooth dirt road with a little corrugation to keep us on our toes. Day 2 started with a continuation of prior day's road, but each rider knew that the lava fields were coming. The last 25km of loose rock lining tracks created by years of use by trucks and 4x4s, was sort of like skiing a mogul run ... you have a couple choices. One option is to put your head down and power straight through. But like a mogul run, not a wise choice. Or you can pick your line, and then navigate through the rocks down the chosen path. I continue to be amazed by human resilience, as the body takes an amazing beating going through this terrain, but I am now even more amazed that the bikes are up to the challenge as well ... knock on wood. Day 3, yesterday, is considered the hardest day of the TDA and it did not disappoint. Hot weather, lava rock, corrugation and some climbing for 85 km. I think that this year's TDAers had the advantage of the Dinder experience(reference previous blogs), which prepared us mentally for yesterday's conditions. Although it was a bit grueling at times, the last 3 days were quite an experience - fun, as I joke with some others. I have to admit that there were plenty of times when it was far from fun, but whenever non-productive thoughts started to take over, all I had to think is - wow, I'm riding a bike across Africa!!!!!...or throw on my iPod and listen to some Bruce. And when it's all said and done, no matter how fast I rode or how hard the day was, rolling into camp, getting off the bike and sitting in an almost meditative state absorbing the day's experience and feeling the body relax makes it all worthwhile.

A new country, and a rest day,there is only one thing to do ... eat drink and be merry. Lots of new foods and drinks to try - Tusker beer, samoosa, meat, Ugali and Irio for starters.

Time to go and give the Fuji (my bike) some TLC and get her ready for the possible mudfest to come. I hope to be able to post pictures when I get to Nairobi, next weekend.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Cease the Stonings!!!

Reporting from Moyale, having just crossed the border into Kenya.

Odometer reads 4400 km.

As we have approached the Kenya border, the roadside antics have started to subside. I say this knowing that just today a TDAer stopped to fix her chain and was approached by a young Ethiopian man who professed his love for her. Her failure to respond to him, earned her black eye after he punched her in the face.

A few days ago, a TDAer hit a person who randomly ran into the street. After the TDAer was thrown from his bike he was surrounded by the town's people, who threw his bike to the side and tried to kick and hit what end, we will never 2 other TDAers arrived and between the 3 of them, they forced themselves out of the crowd to safety...scary.

Although there were only a handful of physical injuries at the hands of the crowds of children who "cheered us on" as we worked our way through the country, our group is glad to be free of hearing:
"you, you, you, you..."
"Where are you go?"
"Ferengie(sp?)" Amharick for foreigner
"Give me your money"
A lack of response to the any of these sometimes resulted in one of the expletives that George Carlin said should not be said on TV...where they learned these choice words - who knows?
If you have ever seen Homer Simpson grab Bart by the neck...then you know what I felt like doing to the kids who demanded money and then threw stones, when no money was presented...but instead I'm sure that I may have taught them a new swear word or 2 for next years riders.

Since Addis, we have had a couple of fairly hectic mountain stages, as well as the start of the rainy season we expect to see a lot more of in the weeks to come. Riding in the rain seems to be a lot more fun then camping in the rain, at least thus far....that may change as we start the dirt/lava rock roads of northern Kenya. Our descent out of the mountains, has taken us from a lush(almost rain forest feel in some places) to a semi-arid bush I know well from Southern Africa.

My blogs have probably painted the picture Ethiopia as a giant laxative inhabited by unfriendly people. Yes, however, of the 3 countries we have crossed thus far, Ethiopia has provided the richest experience. If you look past the illness and give the people the benefit of doubt(Perhaps I would expect money, if I had nothing, and some blinged up foreigner passed through my village) - the food and drink has been amazing, the landscape has been pretty, the riding has been a lot of fun (I am partial to hills), we have enjoyed a diversity of campsites and hotels.

This is an unexpected opportunity for an update. The next update may not come for a couple of weeks when we get to Nairobi. Northern Kenya, by reputation, is the most hostile of all the places we will pass through...hostile because the road is worst we will experience, it can get very hot, it is very remote and there is always talk of bandits(I suspect, this is just, fireside, whiskey fueled talk).

Monday, February 22, 2010

Addis Ababa

Odometer reading - 3600 km.

I sit by the roof top pool of the Intercontinental Hotel as I write this blog on my iPhone using the hotel Wifi connection...having just ordered a St. George beer, and a cheeseburger and chips. Such a contrast to our past week and the world outside of this hotel.    

A week ago, after sleeping off the Mardi Gras party, we headed for  Addis. Our run to Addis was a climber's paradise which included 600 km of riding up and down between 1800 metres (600 feet) and 3100 meters (10,000 feet). 

The highlight of the riding week was a time trial up the side of the Blue Nile Gorge. After a 45 km warmup of rolling hills, a 20km descent took us to the bottom of the gorge...some of the most daring riders were able to get to speeds of close to 80 kph. And of course, what goes down must go back up.  The time trial started at the bottom of the gorge - 20km to the top with an average of an 8% grade...essentially think of 20 km of the steepest road close to your house. Yes...a hard day for sure. But certainly rewarding,  even for the couple of riders who held on to the back of passing trucks as relief...or the person who paid some local kids to walk his bike to the top as he followed close behind.

Sickness continues to plague the TDA camp, and I'm in awe of those who power through the these long rides while under the search of the elusive EFI award, which is given out to those riders who pedal Every Flippin Inch of the way!!

On arrival in the bigger cities we typically gather at the city limits and ride into town in convoy. Yesterday's convoy included only about 70 per cent of the riders who started the TDA, which reminded me of the toll that this adventure has taken on the group. Beside those stricken with some degree of stomach bacteria, there have been a full array of ailments and injuries which have kept people off the bike or even landed people in the hospital - infected wisdom teeth, concussions, a broken bone - just to name a few. Long days of peddling in sometimes hostile conditions, new foods, and outdoor living in Africa, is taking its toll.

On a positive note, our chef continues to keep our appetites happy even when food availability can be scarce. It's fasting time in Ethiopia which means that the Ethiopian Orthodox are are not allowed to eat meat.  The TDA chef has therefore had to be creative in getting meat for our dinners. His latest ventured in involved buying 9 sheep from a local farmer and then finding a Muslim butcher to slaughter and cut the meat. Mutton stew, grilled mutton, mutton and pasta are some of dishes that have filled our bellies this past week.

We leave Addis in the morning and I suspect that we have plenty more climbing in our future as we make our way to the Kenya border.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Based on the experiences of previous TDA's, it was expected that we would have a lot of stomach issues once we got to this country, and like clockwork, a few days into Ethiopia, a stomach bug has the TDA under seige. Some have it a lot worse then others, but I don't think I've talked to one person, who hasnt felt at least little off over the last few days. For those that have had it the worse, it has been a trying 3 or 4 days.

But the Tour must go on and, with a constant eye for a possible toilet, we have had a rich few days since my last update. Because of problems with one of the support vehicles we enjoyed an extra rest day in Gondor, where we spent most of our time in the Hotel Goha high above the city...just sitting around enjoying cold drinks and the view, while licking our wounds from the week before.

The ride out of Gondor was probably the most enjoyable yet. About 120 km, which included 2 climbs that were very "Col d'ish", in the way they reminded me of the French Alps - about 5-10km each, of switch backs, fanastic fews and the reward, of a summit, followed by a 20 minute charge down the other side of the mountain.

A quick 60km sprint (for some) the following day has landed us in Bahir Dar, which is a vibrant little town on lake Tana. On arrival, we all outfitted ourselves with outfits(Mardi Gras theme) found in the local market, and held our first TDA party. We highjacked the Hotel bar, to get the night started. Tej, an Ethiopian honey wine, was the drink of choice for many, while others drank the Ethiopian beer, or just stuck to the basics with Johnny Walker Red. After everyone had time to get a bit lubed up we took to the streets and continued the celebration in a bar hosting live Ethiopian music, watched by a full house of people jammed together sitting on crates and passing around Tej.

Although the unknown(like some days of our Epic week) may upset the "day in the life of the TDA", the TDA has become lifestyle, as described by someone in the dinner line a few nights ago. I find it interesting that rest days, have more then a few times, been described as the weekend. In fact as a rest day comes to an end, it feels eerily like a Sunday night, as you, mentally prepare yourself for an early wakeup and a week of work. And of course we wake up finding ourselves in the lucky predicament of having to hop on a bike to earn the reward of putting our feet up at the end of the day,eating a warm dinner,and watching the primetime show of the sun dropping over the horizon.

The stone throwing continues and is expected to through the rest of the country. After a couple of days you learn little tricks on how to anticipate and maybe even avoid the stone throwing. The sideline hecklers can get creative, and this past weeks winners were: the boy who somehow just missed a rider with a bail of hay; and in a seperate incident, 2 boys who tried to block the way of a couple of riders by spreading out the wingspan of a live captive goose.

We continue to indulge in the local cuisine(probably at the displeasure of our stomachs) - but it's too curious and delicious to resist. One such pleasure to which I have not give any written credit are the fruit juices which we have had since arriving in Egypt, but seem to have gotten better as we have headed south. As an example, my latest order was a "mixed", which is served in a large mug and each flavor has its own layer - in this case freshly squeezed/extracted avocado, mango, guava and pineapple. I tend to wonder if the mass production requirements of the west have not put the taste of a freshly made glass of fruit juice on the endangered list.

Sorry again for no new pics, but I'm hoping to have them posted in 5 or 6 days when we arrive in Addis Ababba.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Epic Week!

1000 km in 7 days has landed us in Gondor, Ethiopia.

We started the week with back-to-back centuries(160km per day). The distance itself seemed daunting until we realized that playing chicken with oncoming tour buses, and dodging potholes was part of the agenda. Losing the games of chicken always seemed to be the best option but usually resulted in a fairly hectic bailout off the pavement onto a variety of stones and dirt, often with pedestrians to dodge as well. Stress levels were high these 2 evenings...but we looked forward to a few peaceful days of dirt roads.

Little did we know, the carnage had just begun.

Day 3 - 50km on the tar, and then dirt roads for 90km. A handful of people embraced this transition and beat the big overland trucks to camp. For others, it made for a long day, even longer for a few who got lost and added 60km to their day.

Day 4 - Dinder Day. Dinder National Park will be long remembered by this year's TDA's riders. It was the first time the TDA had ridden through this area, so the roads to come were little known from a cyclist perspective. Dinder is a game park and home to lion, buffalo, buck, warthog, and large variety of bird is also home to some treacherous road. Needless to say with our eyes pinned to ground in front of us, there was not a lot of game viewing to be done. By mid-afternoon, water was low, saddle sores were flaring, injuries accumulating and the arms were jelly...and there was still a long way to go. Just before sundown the first riders arrived at camp...looking like whipped dogs. Since night was aproaching, the TDA staff scrambled to find and pick up the many riders who had lost the race against the sun. Once again the stress levels were high as people nursed their injuries, exhaustion, frustration, bikes and variety of injuries.

Day 5 - a 140km hop to the Ethiopian border.

In my opinion the hardest day of the week. The roads were so bad that even the big overland trucks had a hard time passing through some places, and once again the front riders beat the trucks to camp, but not without a good amount of suffering. Other riders wised up earlier in the day as the outcome was becoming more apparent, and pulled up to wait for a lift.

Day 6 - After spending the night at the border and getting our first taste of Ethiopia, we slowly climbed our way to mountain camp on some freshly paved roads. Everyone treated today as a recovery day so the going was slow, which allowed us to adjust our senses to to huge cultural and landscape change we were experiencing now that we had left the Sudan. The mountains replaced the desert, Christianity replaced Islam, and stone throwing replaced smiling and waving....and the booze is back. At mountain camp a few of us invited ourselves to hut of one of the villagers, who served us some warm (but welcome) beer for a small fee. The head of the household made sure we were comfortable and taken care of, and then he, his family and his friends sat there and watched us indulge.

Day 7 - Climbing day - 100 km to Gondor. On paper, this was meant to be the hardest day of the week. It was a tough day for sure which included about 2500m(8000ft) of climbing, but I think since it was expected, and knowing that we had a rest day and a hotel waiting for us, it was just another day in this epic week. It also was our first real contact with Ethiopia's stone throwing children. I would say that the average TDA rider, by the end of yesterday, would say they were hit with a stick at least once, and had stones thrown at them at least 3 times.

I dont believe I have been overly dramatic in describing the week, in fact, I think if I were to tell each person's story individually, it may even appear worse then described above. My personal woe's included a stomach bug, which earned me a ride on the truck one day after getting dehydrated, urinating blood after 10 hours in the saddle, my first saddle sores, muscle cramps in my legs for the first time in my life, and a perpetual state of exhaustion...but after one night in the Goha Hotel, and a few beers, I am already on the mend, and hopefully even stronger for the weeks to come. However, as challenging it was, it was an amazing week!!

To elaborate on the cultural change from Sudan to is like a different world. First appearances are that is a bit rogue here, perhaps a bit bohemic. The effects of Islamic law have dissappeared, and enterprise is high on everyone's agenda. But I've only been here for 2 days - so more on that later. One thing to keep in mind is that although there is a heavy Italian influence in Ethiopia, it brags of being the only African state not to have been colonized.

Internet access in Gondor, makes the old telelphone dialup feel like lighting, so I will not be able to post pictures until I get to Addis in about 10 days

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Yesterday's tailwind blasted us for 60km into the outskirts of Khartoum, but was no match for the chaos of the inner city. The last 30 km was done slowly in a police convey.

My discovery of Khartoum was enhanced by my taxi breaking down. After the driver opened the the trunk and refueled, he popped the hood to make a few more adjustments. No dice - the car was dead. He gave the me the 2 hands in the air sign(which I interpreted as "I dont know") and then the 2 fingers back and forth(which I interpreted as "Start walking"). So off I went - no questions asked.

Even though Khartoum is a big city, and has the chaos and vigor of any other big city, the people are still the friendly Sudanese that I have come to know.

Tomorrow we start a new phase of the TDA as we make our way toward our first dirt roads, and then the Ethiopian border.


is the best way to describe the last few days. The temperature has been edging into the 40s (thats getting close to 110F) by the end of each days ride.

Now that we are almost 3 weeks into the tour and routines have been established, it seems like a good time to walk through a day in the life of the TDA.

Wake up an hour or 2 before sunrise...usually grabbing a shovel and the baby wipes and heading for the dunes. Since we have crossed one time zone already, this could be 5 or 6 am.

Social interaction at this point usually consists of blinding someone with your headlamp, saying "good morning" and moving along - still not knowing who you've just welcomed to the new day.

Its then time to put on the bike clothes, pack the bag and take down the tent. And for no apparent reason it seems to be a coin toss as to whether all the stuff will be the same size as it was when it was pulled out of the truck the day before. It's right around this time that the official wake up is sounded by music from one of the Overland trucks you've seen in the pictures. The music can be anything from Afrikaans folk to the Foo Fighters. By the way, the unofficial wake up so far comes an hour earlier with a mic check the local Mosque's Muezzin, followed by his call to prayer which has reached us even in the far corners of the desert. Mornings spent in the bigger towns and citys, comes with a full chorus.

Breakfast of Hot cereal (sometimes we are treated to muesli), pita bread, fruit, tea and coffee is served just before sun-up as everyone scrambles to get their stuff into their assigned lockers which are on the big trucks.

After some last-minute maintenance to yourself and your bike, you clock in and are off to work (riding the bike to the next camp) I have been posting pictures of white boards - these are our source of information, and map out the day ahead.

The lunch truck is usually a welcome sight which is set up a little after halfway through the day's ride. At the lunch truck we are treated to an all-you-can-eat buffet of sandwiches and fruit, as well as water and energy drink (Gatorade type drink as opposed to Red Bull).

The rest of the ride is gravy - either ride like the wind to camp, or spin along enjoying the sights and occasional coke stops, which come in the form of street-vendor-type huts that pop up randomly in the desert.

Getting to camp is rewarded with a big pot of freshly made hot soup, which is craved even in the temps of past few days. The rest of afternoon consists of setting up your tent, taking a baby wipe bath, and hunting for some shade, under which to read, write or talk about the day's gossip. If we are not in the middle of nowwhere, there are usually plenty of things to explore, or local foods and drink to taste.

At the cry of "Rider Meeting!" we all gather around one of the trucks, where one of the TDA staff updates us with the next days route and itinerary as well as any miscellaneous suggestions or rule changes. A weekly highlight at the rider meeting is the auctioning of the lost and found pil. The fun starts when someone in need of an item tries to outbid the original owner. The TDA staff benefit from the auction proceeds - beverages of choice.

Dinner is then served - time to replenish for the day to come with freshly cooked food made from local ingredients. James - the man with this enormous task - continues to outdo himself!!

After dinner, people slowly disappear into the night...and oh what nights they are. Clear sky in the desert is certainly something at which to marvel!!!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Dongola, Sudan

After 30 hours on the ferry and 400 km of riding through the Nubian Desert we have set up camp in the Dongola Zoo.

The ferry was quite a described by this picture and the fact that I watched 3 people trying to wedge a full refrigerator onto the back deck, to no avail - however they did manage to jam it into the last bit of empty space in the engine room. I shamelessly will admit that I enjoyed a cabin bed(after a quick bed bug test), but many other TDA riders had to jockey for sleeping space on the deck. We had the luxury of boarding 7 hours early, and were therefore probably not very popular with the 100s of others who then packed the lower and upper decks with their TVs, juicers, suitcases and other supplies they were taking with them to Sudan.

On arrival, we had a short bike ride to the soccer stadium in Wadi Halfa - our campsite for the night. We were apparently a bit early, since we arrived to the automatic gunfire of a military exhibition and celebration being held in the stadium.

It was at this point that I felt like I had really arrived in Africa, not just because uniformed men were holding their AK-47s in the air, but also because the terrain and people seemed drastically different then in Egypt. The 100s watching the exhibition were dressed in an array of amazing colors, and were friendly and excited to greet us as we made our way through the crowd.

There was not much food left in the 2 Wadi Halfa restaurants, after we stuffed our faces with fresh pita, chicken and beef kabob, beans, pepsis, tea, more pita...but I'm sure they were happy to have us.

Back on the saddle and back in the desert. Two 150km days followed by amazing campsites on the Nile, under a big moon. Soaking in the river was an unexpected pleasure, especially since the temperature during the day has gotten well into the 30s(90sF).

Yesterday was a quick 100km day into Dongola. I beleive I speak for most if not all of the TDAers, that 3 weeks ago, 100km being considered an easy day?? - laughable.

I have been energized by being in Sudan. The people are so friendly and very hospitable...Ubuntu is strong in here.

P.S. we are the only animals at the Dongola Zoo

Sunday, January 24, 2010


I almost expected OB1 to step out of this little green structure.

We crossed the 1000 km mark at some point today on our way to Aswan. Our ride for the last 2 days has been down the very lush eastern shore of the Nile - lots of sugar cane, banana's and various other crops(see the egg plant truck in the pic). The ride was green but the desert still managed to show its face every now and again. Like the picture above, there were times when I felt a little like I was in George Lucas's brain.

The riding has been rich with activity as we have passed through a lot of little towns and enjoyed the cheering and screaming of 1000's of kids. Its a pleasure to see pure non-materialistic excitement being shown by children, brought on by our group of colorful cyclists cruising through their town. That's the positive experience - on the other hand some riders had to endure some rock throwing, a spit or two, and a few attempts to put sugar cane stalks through the spokes( one such attempt earned the culprit a fat lip).

Tonight will be our last in Egypt. Tomorrow we board a ferry which will take us down Lake Nasser to the Sudanese boarder. There seem to be 2 trains of thought as to what our Sudanese experience will be. The Lonely Planet version is beautiful, friendly, unspoiled, amazing. The WikiTravel's conclusion is dont go - due to strict islamic law(no pictures, no booze, etc.), military rule, and a series of uprisings/rebellions/wars. We shall see.

Egypt in summary - good food, lots of desert(Sahara not mousse), vibrant and busy souks and shopping streets and Ancient Egypt. Unfortunately, the former will all be overshadowed by the fact that it was rare to be able to have a conversation with an Egyptian without them trying or succeeding, in having me give them money(for some sort of service of just a handout). Perhaps this is my first experience of many to come which might highlight the negative effect of developed countries' influence in Africa...or maybe just TIA!!

We shall see...

Friday, January 22, 2010

My observation of the day which seems to be pretty consistent throughout Egypt is that a lot of men dont pratice much discretion when it comes to gawking at, groping and/or being suggestive to women - at least to foreign women. A couple of people reading this post may think they have a couple of friends who fall into this category...much worse here, I can assure you.

Its also interesting to notice piles of garbage that has built up in some of the citys - some say because all of Egypt's pigs were slaughtered due to the Swine Flu.

With that being said, I did have a good day in Luxor - visiting the Karnak Temple - but mostly just walking the streets and eating!

Tomorrow, we are back in the saddle...details to follow.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


We arrived in Luxor today and prepare to cherish tomorrow - our first rest day.

Safaga was an oasis. If I were anywhere else at another time I'd just say it was a "happy place" for sure - beach(bathe), hotel(wash some clothes and bathe), beer, restaurants - not a rest day but it sure felt like it.

This first week seems to have been more of an initiation, as we learn to focus on keeping ourselves and our bikes healthy. Yesterday, included a 65km westerly climb out of Safaga, where we were able to enjoy an amazing backdrop of desert mountains being lit up by the morning sun - the first time I feel like I have taken my eyes off the road to enjoy the scenery.

Last night's camp was at a police check point, where guards armed with automatics faced away from the camp, as if waiting for an frontal attack from over the dunes. I asked one of them who they were expecting, and the response was not english, some laughing and the point of the AK-47 swinging back and forth haphazardly in front of him as he spoke.

The sand gave way to green this morning as we came into the Nile delta, and headed for Luxor.

Time to check into a hotel, reorg and re-evaluate. More from Luxor tomorrow...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

My greatest fear at this point is that my oil pan is going to fall out(cartalk for stomach issues). Yes, toilet talk already, but potential stomach bacteria, long days of biking and the fact that toilets do not exist make toilet talk sort of necessary!

Nevertheless...I am in the town of Safaga, Egypt after 4 days of riding and about 500km(just over 300 miles). Most of our ride thus far has been down the west coast of the Red Sea. Two days ago we had a 160km ride which is normally helped along by a nice tailwind - this year a solid 30 knot headwind waited for us at the halfway point, which made for a day that I hope will end up being the hardest day in the next four months. That wind did reward us with a spectacular lighting storm that night, which made for a nice waterproof test for tents.

We will be in Luxor in 2 days - our first rest day - where I will have some time to send more detail and post some pics.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Cairo's vibrance thus far has come in the form of the Pyramids of Giza and their masses of "guides" trying to make a quick buck; hookah lounges on every corner; Kebab, Baba Ghannoug, Khubz and traffic/driving that makes Manhattan look like Homeville, PA.

Early yesterday, I hailed a taxi to help me find my Grandfather's grave, who died over the Mediteranean as a pilot for the South African Air Force in WWII. After a two hour drive east of Cairo, and then another hour of searching through the small town of Fayid on the Suez Canal - we found it!!! We being Said, my taxi driver, and I. Amazing - A small, green, well kept very tranquil place - home to a few hundred young soldiers. Also amazing was to look at the gravestone I have wanted to see for as long as I can remember.

Said then treated me to some tea and food at the local cafe where we sat and watched the cars go by - not much to talk about since my Arabic is non-existent.

All of the TDA particpants, are present and ready to go. This morning We went for leisurely 20 mile ride, amongst the drivers referenced above, to shake out the cobwebs and look for any last minute adjustments that needed to be made.

One last day of meetings and prep and then we are off. We have our starting ceremony under the Pyramids, and 100 miles of desert road ahead of us. Showtime!!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Greetings from Cairo

I haven’t even pedaled a foot on the road from Cairo to Cape Town and already you’ve helped raise a big chunk (10 percent) of my campaign to bring solar electrical power to a clinic in Lesotho. I’m awed and inspired by your response. Thank you so much for your generosity and your faith in me.
As you know, I’m embarking on the Tour d’Afrique, the 7,375-mile bike race down the length of Africa. I’m in Cairo now doing my final preparation and exploring "The City of 1000 Minarets" before we leave on Saturday, 16 January.