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.