Posted by: Dana | 2010/05/16

May 11 – Winding our Way to Cape Town

We saw our first road sign for Cape Town yesterday. 611 kilometers to go. It is surreal, exciting, and unsettling at the same time. The border crossing into South Africa yesterday morning was anti-climactic as there was no big “Welcome to South Africa” sign I think all riders expected to find at the border, a anticipated picture-taking opportunity. This is it—the final country, the final border crossing, the final stretch until we reach the end of the TDA.

For some reason, I think I expected the terrain and the scenery to change the minute we crossed into South Africa. Being in a first world country, I expected towns and strip malls and fast food joints. Instead, we are still in the desert, climbing and descending some pretty big hills, and surrounded by very little development—only a few tiny townships with an occasional herd of goats and lots of prickly scrub growing on the hills that stretch as far as they eye can see. Yesterday we encountered some tough headwinds; today was a bit easier with more downhill than uphill and a glorious final 10km descent into Garies, the small town where we are camping tonight.

Erin pulled off an exciting stage win today, setting out from camp with a pack of fast riders who helped to pull her up some hills, skipping lunch and any rest stops, and hammering her way up and down the hills to arrive in camp first of the women. She hasn’t been racing seriously; In fact, the women’s race is hardly a contest. One young German woman, Gisi, has dominated the entire race, including winning every Mando Day, and has a huge margin over the rest of the pack. Most people have lost interest in the race altogether, so I’m not sure how much a victory in this years’ TDA really means. But, in any event, it was fun to watch Erin slyly set out of camp to claim her first stage win.

I’m beginning to reflect upon this incredible journey and I become quickly overwhelmed when I let the memory track take me back to Cairo—or even to the months leading up to my departure. There is so much to digest, so many memories to recall, such intense emotion just beneath the surface. I find myself welling up with tears when I see the Cape Town mileage signs.

I learned about the TDA in 2006 and spent the next four years dreaming about and figuring out a way to get here. The deal-breakers were each overcome: I saved sufficient money; I got approved for a sabbatical from work; and, I found a sub-letter for my apartment. It helped that my dermatologist was supportive and validated the lengths to which I planned to protect myself from the sun. A couple of months before the start of the trip, I went to the travel clinic in Washington, D.C. to get the required immunizations. Seven shots later that resulted in a fierce fever which left me in bed for three days sealed the deal. I knew then that there was no turning back. I was going to Africa.

I spent four sleepless nights in Cairo before we departed. The nervous anticipation made me a complete insomniac which Dan, a fellow rider and my extremely patient roommate for those nights, reminded me of a few nights ago. I remember surveying his gear and wondering whether I had brought the “right” things, whether I had enough stuff. I have vivid memories of those first four days of introductions to fellow riders, orientation to the TDA, and packing and repacking, over and over again, to fit all of my belongings into the requisite three bags weighing less than 100kg.

While we established routines on the TDA, nothing about this experience has been routine. It has been a dynamic journey that has required adaptation and flexibility every step of the way. We have cycled through 10 distinct countries, multiple time zones, and from the northern into the southern hemisphere. We have exchanged currency ten times from the Egyptian pound, to the Sudanese pound, to the Ethiopian birr, to the Kenyan schilling, to the Tanzanian schilling, to the Malawian kwacha, to the Zambian kwacha, to the Botswana pula, to the Namibian dollar, and now to the South African rand. We have heard countless languages, including some heard in many countries around the world, such as Arabic, and other languages particular to small tribes in remote places in eastern Africa. We have used at least seven different electrical adapters to charge our electronics; we have adjusted to cycling on the opposite side of the road; we have been exposed to extreme heat, record-breaking amounts of rain, and most recently, the cold temperatures of the South African desert in fall. We have set our tents up nearly 120 times in desert camps, forest camps, lava camps, donkey-shit camps, and a dead camel camp; camps on hilltops, in valleys, and in dry river beds; camps in a zoo, school yards, and church grounds, hotel rooftops, and soccer fields; camps along the banks of the Nile, the Red Sea, Lake Malawi, the Orange River.

The TDA is a huge physical feat. To stay healthy and be physically strong, day after day, for four months straight is an enormous challenge. There were days that ended when I felt I had been hit by a truck–when I climbed off the bike and couldn’t stand up straight, or bend my knees without pain, or clench a fist because my fingers were too swollen. I suffered three bouts of illness, two of which rank as the sickest I’ve been in my life. I fell off my bike countless times, each one on unpaved and rocky terrain, from which I got bruised and swollen, but thankfully nothing broken. Despite all of this, I’d say I was relatively healthy, lucky, and pretty strong.

As difficult a physical challenge the TDA represents, without a doubt, it is a bigger mental challenge than it is a physical one. This was reinforced for me each and every time I cycled a day more than nine hours long, or fell off my bike and had to remount, or set out for a day of riding in the pouring rain.

p.s. I ran out of time to finish this blog entry!! More to come…


  1. I have a feeling those vivid memeories are in that brain of yours for ever;quickly retrieved with every photo you pull up, every conversation with another rider. May you find contentment in the upcoming “day to day” adventures of this other, less surreal world you will soon re-enter.

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