Posted by: Dana | 2010/06/27

May 25 – The Week After

I’m sitting in an outdoor garden as the sun is rising in Nature’s Valley, a tiny and quaint little town on the Garden Route along the coast in South Africa. Eythan and I are staying in a guest house, just outside of Tstitsikamma National Park, where we plan to explore today. We got here yesterday evening, after spending the past two days on a hut-to-hut hike along the Harkerville Coast Trail near Plettenberg Bay. I can’t say it’s been a particularly restful past few days, but South Africa is an amazingly beautiful country and we are enjoying our time here immensely.

It’s unbelievable that it’s been over a week since the ride ended. We had horrendous weather for our final few days of the ride, as we cycled along the western coast in South Africa, through Lambert’s Bay and Elan’s Bay. But, those last few days were complete fun. Huddled under tarps eating dinner, cycling with friends on the final stretches, and gathering at night, rain-soaked and chilled, in tiny bars along the coast that would be otherwise empty if not for our group converging there to celebrate our final nights together.

The last few riding days were also fabulously gorgeous. We came out of the desert and into wineries on the Western Cape, and then made our way to the coast. My first view of the ocean, at Lambert’s Bay, was obscured by fog and rain, but I could smell the sea as I approached and then feel the intensity of the waves as I cycled past, and it was refreshing and invigorating to be by the ocean. I rode the stretch from Lambert’s Bay to Elan’s Bay, along a dirt road that revealed a largely undeveloped coast line. It was a quiet and gorgeous stretch of coast that gave me a few brief minutes to savor the moment and ready myself for what I knew would be a whirlwind couple of days into Cape Town.

On the final riding day, I was going to set out with Cat, Annalise, and Caroline in a girl-pack. We had 60km to cover before meeting up with the rest of the group at our lunch spot, where we would gather for our final convoy, a 30km ride into Cape Town. As I mounted the bike, I realized I had a flat tire. What a way to start the final day! Arrrrgg! With help from Jethro’s brother, who had joined us for the final day, I got my tube replaced and got on the road. The morning ride with the ladies was so much fun—a little surreal at times, especially when Table Mountain appeared in the distance.

The gathering spot for lunch was a spectacular setting—and felt, in many ways, like the finish. We celebrated on the beach, uncorked champagne, and rose our bikes over our heads for those essential I-just-crossed-a-continent-by-bike pictures. The sun shone on us for the first time in days and finally gave us a chance to dry out, warm up, and simply enjoy.

As I wrote previously, the scene down on Cape Town’s Waterfront was jubilant. We cycled under a giant “finish” flag and into the crowds of loved ones anxiously waiting there for our arrival. I quickly found Eythan, and for the first time that day, I let the emotions get to me. It was truly a moment of excitement and exhilaration—but I’m not sure, even then, that I was fully wrapping my head around the fact that we were at the end of the ride.

The several hours following our arrival were filled with a frenzy of activity—first the arrival ceremony, then the retrieval of our bags from the trucks, the check in to the hotel, the dash to the mall to buy some clothes, and the banquet. And, then, POOF! It was over.

I joined many other riders the next day in the court yard of the hotel, with Eythan’s help, to disassemble my bike and jam it into a large cardboard box that I plan to take with me on the plane ride home. My bike, in dire need of a thorough cleaning and a serious mechanical overhaul, looked kind of sad as it was taken apart, screw by screw, and pedal by pedal. Eythan and I then left the hotel to check-in to a nearby guest house where we stayed for the next few days.

So…Cape Town! It is a magical city and leaves no question why South African’s take such great pride in it. There is so much to do here. Eythan and I have covered a lot of ground over the past week or more…we took a boat to Robben Island, where we toured the prison where Nelson Mandela and many others were incarcerated; we climbed Table Mountain; we walked the streets of the City Bowl, Green Market Square, and Bo-Kaap neighborhood. Along with many other TDA riders, we also caught a viewing of “Where Are We Go?,” a documentary made in 2008 about the Tour d’Afrique, which brought back floods of images from our own ride, but also a very hard to describe feeling of disbelief that I had actually just done it, myself. Yes, it already has started to feel a little like a dream.

Then we headed off to Franschhoek, in South Africa’s wine country, where we enjoyed a couple of days of incredibly beautiful scenery, a hike in the mountains, time with my friends, Erin, Ruben, and Cat, and amazing meals. From there, we headed eastward to the Garden Route where we traveled through the beautiful towns and beaches at Knysna, Wilderness, and Plettenburg Bay; ran through the Knysna forests; visited a bird habitat and monkey sanctuary, amazing educational and preservation facilities; and then embarked on the two-day hike on the Harkerville Coast Trail which took us to rocky and rugged sections of coast where we saw no other people for two days. We spotted a school of dolphins breaching the surface of the water as they swam.

We have another few days here in South Africa. Our plan is to explore Tsitsikamma National Park today, and then head west to go diving with the Great White Sharks in Gansbaai. Then we have one more full day when we’ll drive to Cape Point and explore the towns and beaches along the route. I depart Cape Town on May 28th and will land in Boston the next day. Arriving in Boston, although I don’t live there, will feel like my homecoming, because that is where I will see my mom, my Aunt Margie, Loren, Brad, my nieces, Maya and Claire, and my dog, Jackson. I just heard from my dad via email yesterday, that we will cross paths, coincidentally, at Heathrow Airport on May 29, as he leaves for a golf vacation in Scotland, so I am very much looking forward to that serendipitous reunion.

I’ll write more soon…

Posted by: Dana | 2010/06/04

Homecoming Happy Hour in DC

If you’re around, please come out for a happy hour next Thursday, June 10, starting at 5:30PM at Busboys and Poets at the 5th and K Street, NW, location–NOT the 14th and V location.

http://www.busboysandpoets.com/about_5th.php

I’m planning to show some slides/pictures for those who are interested. Hope to see you there!!

Posted by: Dana | 2010/05/16

May 16 – Kicking Back in Cape Town

This is going to be a short posting, mostly just to let family and friends know I made it to CAPE TOWN!!!!!!

We cycled 60km yesterday morning to the most gorgeous beach in the world, outside of Cape Town, with a view of the city and Table Mountain. There we met the whole group, were greeted by media, took lots of pictures, and feasted on a fabulous lunch. Our final 30km were ridden together, in a convoy, into the city. And what a fabulously beautiful city Cape Town is!! The sun greeted us for the first time in days, the rain clouds went away, and we had a glorious finale at the Waterfront in Cape Town. Truly epic, unbelievable, surreal.

Eythan was there to greet me at the finish, which was awesome. We had a banquet last night. All of the men arrived with clean-shaven faces and the women had brushed hair. We were practically unrecognizable. In the 1 hour we had between the arrival ceremony and the banquet, we all ran to the mall. I bought a shirt, jeans, shoes, and a hair brush for the occasion–all within minutes.

Anyhow, I’m writing only a quick blog entry because, quite frankly, I’m truly at a loss for words. I’m exhausted, probably more mentally than physically, and I need some time to process all that I have seen and experienced over these past few days…and weeks…and months.

I will blog more, and promise to post some photos very soon, so if you are interested, please stay tuned. I will write more as I make sense of this all and come down from what feels like total euphoria and relief mixed with a little sadness. Honestly, I’m at a total loss of words, not really sure how I feel at the moment, other than pretty tired and emotional. I’m excited to have the next week and a half to relax and enjoy Cape Town with E before heading home.

I’ll write more soon.

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…

Posted by: Dana | 2010/05/09

May 9 – One Final Border to Cross

I’m sitting on the edge of the Orange River, on the Namibian side, overlooking South Africa. It’s the first body of water I can remember seeing in a very long time. We’re staying at Felix Unite, a campground/lodge near the border for our final rest day. Tomorrow we cross into South Africa, our tenth and final country, for the last stretch–six days of riding―before we convoy into Cape Town’s waterfront.

Everyone is on a complete high and we’ve started to celebrate already. Maybe it’s a wee bit premature, as we have another entire country to cycle through, but with less than one week to go, the mood of the group is jubilant, anxious, and excited. Last night, we had an unplanned and impromptu party at the lodge bar, which was pure joy and fun. I’m sure each one of us has very mixed feelings about the ride coming to an end, but now it’s beginning to feel time to celebrate.

Namibia is incredible. We’ve cycled for more than one week through the deserts and mountains of Namibia, each day waking up to a chilly and crisp morning. By mid-morning it gets hot, but then turns cool again as the sun sets. We’re getting into winter here, so the days are short. It’s fleece jacket weather and I’ve even had to put on a winter hat a few nights this past week.

I last posted from Sossusvlei where I visited the sand dunes for sunrise. A group of us woke up and set out in jeeps at 4:30AM for the one hour drive to the national park. We approached a giant dune and began a hike up its’ ridge which rose from ground level some 300+ meters. As we hiked this thin little ridge line, the sun rose up from the horizon, coloring the dunes and all of its contours amazing tinges of brown, red, orange, and yellow. We plopped down in the sand and sat there, on the ridge, as the sun came up. It was so peaceful and quiet. To get down, we each bombed down the side of the dune―running and skipping and leaping―breaking the silence of the dunes with giddy laughter as we tumbled down the steep slopes. The sand sea stretched as far as we could see in every direction and barely a sign of life was visible. At the bottom of the dune, we walked through Dead Vlei which I can only describe as a bunch of eery-looking petrified trees that look like they have been there for millions of years.

Next to the campground at Sossusvlei is a fancy traveler’s lodge where an out-of-this-world buffet is served each night. As you can imagine, this was a huge draw for all of the riders who don’t miss any opportunity to stuff our faces. The grill at the buffet offered fillets of nine different game meats―and, yes, I tried a bunch of them: ostrich, kudu, oryx, springbok, warthog, zebra. This was not the place for vegetarians. We cycled out of town the next day, and I saw each and every animal I ate the night before galloping and grazing off the desert scrub. I felt a little icky about the feast I had so enjoyed.

The cycling across Namibia has been absolutely stunning. The landscapes at every turn take my breath away. Truly, this is a gorgeous country. The riding has been difficult, as we’ve traveled unpaved roads since leaving Windhoek. The road is deeply corrugated, which means there are long stretches where it is so bumpy that my brain literally feels shaken and my fingers go numb. This is where a bike with suspension would help immensely. Those without suspension take the beating with our butts and legs and arms. But, honestly, I can’t complain. The scenery makes the rough roads worth traveling.

The day before yesterday we had our shortest ride of the week―110km–to the Fish River Canyon, Africa’s largest canyon and second in the world to the Grand Canyon. The Canyon itself was actually 10km from our campground, which meant that we had extra cycling to do if we wanted to see it. You can’t count on hitch-hiking around here, because there are practically no vehicles on these roads. So, off we set from the camp, a group of about seven riders with cold cokes and snacks strapped to our backs. The Canyon was certainly worth the extra effort―hard to capture in words and also in pictures, but so, too, is almost everything else I have seen on this journey! The Canyon measures 160km in length and up to 27km in width and drops down 550 meters to its base. It was a gorgeous site. There were no visitor centers or tourist buses. It seemed as if no one knows about the Fish River Canyon or if they do, perhaps it is too difficult to access for most travelers. We enjoyed the views, took some pictures, and rode back to camp.

Tomorrow we will leave Felix Unite and cross the border into South Africa. I don’t know much about what the next six days have in store, in terms of route, or distances we’ll cover, or sites we will see along the way. For now, I’m concentrating on enjoying these last few days, soaking in this experience as best I can, and enjoying the company of this rag-tag group of riders who have become family―a big, dysfunctional; and grubby family―but I suppose there isn’t anything else I could have expected or hoped for.

Posted by: Dana | 2010/05/03

May 2 – Sweet Payoffs in Namibia

We are now enjoying the sweet payback from the many monotonous miles of last week with the most gorgeous, breath-taking, absolutely awe-inspiring sites of the Namib Desert in Namibia. Today was one of those rare days when I got to the end of the ride and didn’t want it to end. Our ride today reminded me of why I’m here and why I love traveling by bicycle. The sun finally came out and we rode under blue skies with a bright sun and a full moon both visible in the sky.

Our journey from Windhoek has taken us southwest to the small town of Solitaire, an aptly named settlement of a few buildings, where we spent last night. The ride yesterday, just as spectacular as today, took us up and over Spreetshoogle Pass in the Naukluft Mountains. Before the pass, the ride was scenic―beautiful desert landscapes with scrubby bushes and dry grasses lining the roads and mountains in the distance. But, once we crested the Pass, we had our first view of a giant expanse of mountainous desert, and quite honestly, it took my breath away. We had climbed for 15 or so kilometers to get up to the Pass and then, in an instant, you turn a corner and climb the final few meters, and suddenly it feels like you are on top of the world.

It had rained intermittently all morning. As I began the steep descent down the rocky and sandy roads, the gray clouds swirled and darkened and bolts of lightening fired all around me. One one-thousand, two-one thousand, I counted the seconds between the lightening from the sounds of the thunder and knew the storm was quickly approaching. So I continued my descent to get off the peak before the worst of the rains came. The roads were so steep that our TDA trucks had to travel an alternate route. I even had to walk my bike, for short sections, because the gradient was so steep, it was scary to go down on the bike. It was a white knuckle and wet ride to the bottom, but it was so much fun!

There are no villages along this road and no development, with the exception of an occasional traveler’s lodge. These lands are to arid and too dry for cultivation―though, with our arrival, we have ushered in rains to the likes that this region hasn’t seen in decades (literally)! On the ride today, I spotted six giraffes and a bunch of springbok, gazelle-like animals (also similar to the gemsbok I ate at Joe’s restaurant a few nights ago!) but didn’t see the roaming ostriches that other riders spotted.

Today was also memorable for being the Naked Mile. The name says it all, really. It’s a TDA tradition. When I arrived at the lunch stop, three guys were disrobing, jumping on their bikes, and heading down the road. Others followed. I didn’t feel particularly inspired to participate, given that the lunch spot was dominated with men while I was there. But, I did laugh hysterically when the the most unsuspecting and unassuming Norweigan woman, Hilde, stripped down and joined the nude caravan. Later, I learned that three female friends took their own turn on the Naked Mile, only to be derailed with a flat tire!! Yes, they changed the flat while totally naked on the side of the desert road (and there are pictures to prove it).

Now we are in Sossusvlei, Namibia’s most famous attraction, for its magnificent sand dunes, part of the 32,000 square kilometers sand desert that covers much of western Namibia. I plan to watch the sun rise over the dunes tomorrow morning, which means we’ll be leaving the camp site at 4:30AM. The dunes are part of the oldest and driest ecosystem on earth (which makes all of this rain we’ve experienced even more baffling). It should be an exciting morning in the dunes and one of the great highlights of southern Africa. For now, I’m going to grab dinner and head to bed as early as possible to be ready for our 4AM wake-up.

We are back on dirt roads in Namibia, inching closer to the magnificent sand dunes of the Namib Desert, where will we have our next rest day, two days from now. The terrain changed as soon as we crossed over the Botswana border and into Namibia―with rolling hills that seem to grow in size as we pedal along. The ride today was relatively short in distance (111km) but it took me a good eight and a half hours from start to finish (including lunch, but with no other stops) because of deep sand, in sections, and headwinds. We will be on dirt for the next six riding days.

Last week was the big week. We cycled five consecutive centuries (100+ miles per day) with the longest day being the middle day when we covered the longest distance of the tour in one day―207 km or 129 miles. The roads were completely flat and straight which made this section not only a huge physical challenge but a mental one as well. I had heard about this killer week at the start of the tour and I was determined to pedal every mile. I did it, but I was challenged like never before.

After the first two big mileage days, with legs already feeling the strain, the third day started off in the most inhospitable way. Through the night we had horrendous rains, thunder, and lightening which subsided in the early hours of the morning. But, two minutes before my alarm sounded, at 4:58AM the skies opened up again with the loudest crashes of thunder and bolts of lightening striking all around. Over the roar of the storm, I shouted to my friend, Cat, camped close to me. “Cat, are you awake? What should we do?” She responded that she was going to sit tight and see if the rains passed. With no luck, a few minutes later, we continued to shout back and forth to one another, and other riders chimed in from their tents. A new sectional rider who had just joined the group a few days earlier was looking for guidance. “Haven’t you guys dealt with this kind of weather before?” she shouted. Annalise, my friend camped on the other side of me, responded from her tent, “We have, but it never gets easier.” With that, I laughed to myself and at myself at this most ridiculous scene. I reluctantly stepped out of my tent, got soaked the minute I did, packed up my dripping wet tent and my saturated duffel bags, loaded the trucks, ate breakfast in the most horrendous storm, and set out on the roads for the longest ride of my life.

The day didn’t get any easier from there. We dealt with intermittent storms throughout the day, cold spells, hot spells, hail, headwinds, and just as I approached the Namibian border with only one kilometer left to go, the lightening cracked ferociously all around me. I took my time at the immigration office hoping that the lightening would pass and when it didn’t, I got back on the bike, and rode the final kilometer through puddles up to my ankles in the heart of the storm.

Camp was completely flooded and the tents already set up were swimming. I was lucky to get a room at the campsite which was a stand-alone prison-like room covered with a canopy. Anything was better than setting up my wet tent in another storm, until I realized that the canopy roof leaked and the room was infested with bugs. But as I lay there in bed with my head on a damp pillow being sprayed with fresh rain, I was grateful for being even partially sheltered from the storm.

These are the conditions that completely test us. As if the riding isn’t hard enough, we dealt with rains almost every day in Botswana which were so frequent we didn’t have an opportunity to dry out our tents and our clothes for days at a time. I have to say, I’m happy with the attitude I adopted which is different from how I reacted earlier in the trip. I remember the rains in Kenya stressing me out, causing endless worry about the riding conditions and when and how I would dry out my belongings. Now, with a giggle and a shrug, I realize that there is no sense in worrying about what I can not control, that there are worse things than stinky clothes and a moldy tent, and this is all part of the experience. The sun will come out again, and indeed, after several days of rain, it did.

I felt better on the fourth day of the five day stretch than I would have expected, and was distracted by interesting conversation with a Canadian sectional rider who lives in Addis and works for Canada’s government aid agency. But, I bonked in the afternoon, with about 40km left to ride. I had nothing left to give. When I finally arrived at camp, more than a few people commented that they had never seen me so wrecked. In my memory of the past few months, I don’t remember feeling quite that bad. With less than twelve hours to recover before we started the fifth and final day of the stretch, I knew it was going to kick my butt.

TDA staff decided to start the fifth day off with a team time trial. We were grouped in teams of 4 or 5 or 6 riders and basically sprinted the first 20km of the 160+ km ride. Groups had to cross the finish line (at the 20km mark) together as a team. This was meant to be good fun, and if we hadn’t cycled over 400 miles the previous four days, perhaps it would have been. I was the only woman on my team and the only one who had cycled from Cairo (my teammates all happened to be sectional riders). I pushed as hard as I could so not as to slow the guys down too much, but I knew that at the end of the 20km time trial, I would be cooked.

With my nose pressed into the wind, I did what I could to keep my legs moving through the rest of the day. Headwinds made a bad situation worse. I can not really describe how shitty I felt without sounding like a whiny complainer. My leg muscles felt like they were ripped to shreds, my crotch burned, my back hurt and my shoulders collapsed. I rolled into camp after another nine plus hour day on the bike, shed a few quick tears, and lay on my bed (I got a room for the rest day!) until I regained my composure. The big consolation was knowing that I had just completed the longest stretch of the tour and that I had a rest day in Windhoek, the capitol of Namibia, to recover.

Somehow I got a second wind that evening, and joined about 30 other riders and TDA staff for a fabulous dinner at a very well-known Windhoek restaurant called Joe’s, to send off two sectional riders who had been with us since Addis. Joe’s is a place that specializes in game meats, and I ate an animal I had never heard of called a gemsbok, an antelope-like animal that tastes delicious and is pictured on the Namibian currency!

The ride into Windhoek finally took us up and over hills, breaking up the monotony from the straight, flat, and excruciatingly boring roads of Botswana. And our ride today out of Windhoek got even more beautiful. We could see mountains in the distance, as we rolled up and down hills along the gravely dirt road.

Striking is the number of Caucasian people here in Windhoek. It has a large and vibrant community of people with German roots, as this was not so long ago a colony of Germany and an important German post in WWII. Many of the roads have German names and restaurants serve German fare. There is also a very strong South African influence here with many South African chain restaurants and stores around. So, Windhoek feels very different than places we’ve been. White people generally travel one or two people to a vehicle (as opposed to the packed cars, trucks, and vans we have seen everywhere else we’ve been) and homes are secured with barbed wire and security systems once you get into the city center. In Windhoek we found our first real bike shop―equipped with all of the gear and clothing that riders needed to replace things lost and broken―and a modern mall with every type of store one could want. In anticipation of our arrival in Cape Town and meeting friends and loved ones, a few of the women on tour got their hair cut and dyed and bought new outfits for our final banquet. As lovely as they looked after their primping, I have to say that I am happy to reject the beauty regime for as long as I can but also have to admit that their prettiness made me feel really scrubby. I have worn the same four riding jerseys every day for four months and when I’m not on the bike, I rotate between two different t-shirts. While minimalist is the way to go on this tour, I look forward to brushing my hair and putting on new and fresh clothes once I get to South Africa.

I guess that’s all of the bitching and moaning I can do for one night! Thanks to those who are still reading and indulged my need to vent a little about the past week. In just a few days time, we’ll be playing in the beautiful sand dunes and will hopefully get there in time to see the sun rise (no rest for the weary!). I’ll write more when I can and will post when I get to internet.

Some friends have asked what I have planned once I get to Cape Town on May 15th. First and foremost, we have a huge celebration at the waterfront. We ride, en convoy, into Cape Town, where we will be greeted by hundreds, if not thousands, of friends, family, and other curious and supportive folks. Apparently, there is a lot of pomp and circumstance (and alcohol!) surrounding our arrival―the Tour d’Afrique is well-known in South Africa and, I think, our second largest contingent of riders is from there. We will have a banquet that night with an awards ceremony and slide-show.

Eythan is meeting me in Cape Town on the 15th and will be amongst the family and friends there greeting us. We’ll spend nearly two weeks together in South Africa, mostly staying in and around the Cape Town area, with a jaunt to wine country and possibly a ride (by car!!!) through the Garden Route along the coast. I plan to fly to Boston on May 28th, the day after my 35th birthday (holy crap!!!) where I will spend a few days with my sister and her family. My mom will be there, too. Over the next week or so, I will make my way to Rhode Island and Connecticut to see friends and family, including my dad who, by then, will be back in the country. Eventually I will make my way back to Washington, D.C. where I am scheduled to begin working again on June 14th.

I’ll write more about my feelings about the tour coming to an end and returning to the States in my next blog entry. At the moment, it’s just too overwhelming to attempt to articulate how I feel. For now, I’ll just say that I will certainly be ready to get off the bike, to spend time with Eythan in South Africa, and then to be back home with my loved ones. As the cliché goes, all good things must come to an end, and in just two weeks time, my Tour d’Afrique will be history. Amazing. For once in my life, I am speechless.

Sending lots of love to friends and family at home and a big dog-kiss for Jackson!! I will write again soon. xoxo

Posted by: Dana | 2010/04/25

April 24 – Puddles in My Tent

Thunder and lightening are striking all around, and I’m tucked in my tent and ready for bed. It is 7:22PM. I was on “dish duty” tonight and was accused of being part of the worst dish washing group on tour because there was risotto caked onto the dishes after we washed them, and we were too focused on scrounging up leftovers for a mangy but lovable dog that found our camp in the middle of no where in Botswana! We are in our final bush camp on tour, camped alongside the road, between Maun and the Namibian border.

I have mixed feelings about our last bush camp―one on hand, I rejoice, because this will be the final night of having absolutely no facilities, digging our own holes to poop in, and taking wet wipe baths to clean ourselves at the end of the ride. Gone are the days of rationing wet wipes, wearing cycling clothes multiple times before washing, and laying under the trucks for shade in the afternoons. On the other hand, bush camps have become a way of life here on tour―a temporary home that we erect in one day and take down the next, sometimes close enough to villages so we can interact with locals and at other times, so remote that we have only the stars keeping us company. There is something wonderful about going to bed at sunset and waking before the sun rises. And, in a bush camp, this is generally what we do. The rest of the camps, I assume, will be established camp grounds with facilities, or hotel properties that allow our group to set up tents on their premises. The end of bush camps seems like a significant marker of having reached parts of Africa with much more established infrastructure and more amenities than we have found elsewhere.

On the rest day, yesterday, I took a day trip to the Okavenga Delta in Botswana, an enormous wet land area which is home to incredible wildlife and birds. With a group of ten other riders, we took two small planes from the airport in Maun to the Delta. From the air, we could spot giraffes, zebras, gazelles, etc and had an amazing vantage point to soak in the vastness and the wetness of the Delta. The planes landed on a dirt landing strip, which had turned to mud from the night time and early morning storms, which made landing feel a bit like slip-and-slide. In any event, we landed safely and were greeted by men from a local village who would be our guides for the day. The men used long poles (think of the gondolas in Venice) to push dug-out canoes through the marshy wetlands of the Delta. We traveled through the tall sea grasses and observed tons of wildlife, both on the water, and on the small, dry, islands from the canoes and also from a three-hour walking safari we took on one of the islands. If I had known a hike was planned on this much needed rest day, you can be assured I would not have signed up! But, it turned out to be an interesting adventure during which we spotted gazelles, coudus, baboons, African monarch butterflies, and even a black mamba snake.

The flight back to Maun was a bit bumpy, as the pilot warned it might be. This was my first-ever flight in a tiny airplane and I have to admit to being a bit nervous. Also, the hike with the locals in the Delta struck me as a potentially dangerous one―as we were totally unprepared (wearing flip-flops and shorts!)–navigating our way through marshy wetlands which are home to deadly snakes and other predators. As we approached our landing in the plane, I remember thinking that I’m done with the scary stuff (the bungee jump still replays in my head!) and I just want to make my way safely to Cape Town.

We are so close now. In two days time, we cross out of Botswana and into Namibia, our last country before South Africa. Three weeks from today, we will roll into Cape Town in our final convoy. I promised myself not to wish away time, and not to get ahead of myself by thinking too much about the end before it comes, but it is difficult not to imagine the moment we will arrive in Cape Town and the feelings that will accompany it.

We are one day into a very long mileage week, ticking off the final miles in Botswana. This week consists of five riding days before our next rest day in Windhoek, averaging more than 100 miles per day. The day after tomorrow (Monday, Stage 79) is a Mando Day (aka as a killer day)–207km from Ghanzi, Botswana to Buitenpas, Namibia―our longest mileage day of the tour. At the pace I’m riding now, I don’t expect this will be the longest day of the tour for me in terms of hours on the bike since the terrain is flat and I can move along at a decent clip. But covering more than 125 miles in a day is no easy feat, even after three plus months of cycling. In fact, it’s damn hard! The legs are tired and crampy and this long day falls in the middle of an otherwise incredibly huge week.

So the rain is still falling and, for some reason, my tent seems to be failing me for the first time. I have puddles forming on the inside of my tent. Ugh!!! Everything else seems to be in good working order―my bike, my body, and my camera―the three most essential things. I hope to post this tomorrow (April 25) from Ghanzi and will update again in a few days from Namibia. Until then, happy spring! I am thinking a lot of loved ones at home and was glad to get the assurance from my niece, Maya, on her birthday, that she and her sister, Claire, have not forgotten about me. I hope the same is true about Jackson.

One more thing…We saw our first road signs for South Africa today. Nevermind we still have another entire country to cross before we get there, but the sign was the most concrete reminder that we are inching closer every day! Very exciting!!!!!

Posted by: Dana | 2010/04/22

April 22 – One Elephant on Elephant Highway

This is a super quick posting just to provide an update that I’m feeling much, much better!!! I don’t know what I had, but mystery African illnesses stink! I rebounded yesterday and completed the 180+km ride and then again today, I rode into Maun which was approx 138km. The nurse thinks the meds I took when they thought I might have malaria continued to make me ill. Now that I’m off everything (except finishing the anti-biotics), I’m doing much better.

Botswana has been B-O-R-I-N-G so far, on one long, straight, and flat road all day, with nothing much to look at. It is a grassy plain–sometimes a little marshy, sometimes very dry. I saw one elephant, so far, and hope to encounter others–because other than that–there has been nothing on the road of interest. No people, no villages, no coke stops!! Actually, the one memorable thing I did see (in addition to the elephant) was a scene of total carnage–a post-accident scene of a truck that barrelled into a herd (a flock? a school? a possee?) of cows and killed three of them. It was tragic and bloody and really bad.

Tomorrow is our rest day in Maun and I’m going on a little excursion–a plane ride to the Okavango Delta and a boat ride while there to see the wildlife. I’m completely exhausted so I hope this isn’t a bad idea. Part of me would like to simply curl up under a tree and sleep.

Next week is a toughy–HUGE miles on extremely boring stretches of road. We have our longest day of the tour–207km, which is over 120 miles. I’ve had so much time to think, reflect, ponder EVERYTHING, that now I just cycle through (pun intended!) the same thoughts over and over again. Maybe I’m going a wee bit crazy.

Anyhow, I’ll write more soon when I have more time. Tonight we are having a bday party for our eldest rider who turns 69 today!!! Isn’t that nuts!?!? He is hosting an open bar at the campsite. Sweet!

Meanwhile, love and hugs to everyone back home. Thanks for the well wishes and concern while I was sick. I’m back on track now and will write more from Botswana, or Namibia, as soon as I can. Ciao!!

So my tummy hasn’t been happy lately. A few days before arriving in Livingstone (site of Victoria Falls), it started acting up with cramps, pain, and diarrhea. While in Livingstone, I started with a fever, headaches, and sweats. And on the ride out of town, dizziness and nausea set in. Ugh!! This totally sucks. I made it through the day of riding because, thankfully, it was probably our shortest day of the tour―80km―which took us over a short ferry (you could see the other side of the small river, but there was no bridge) and through another border crossing (Botswana!).

The border itself was uneventful―it just had the typical crowd of aggressive young men looking to exchange money and scam us out of our dough. As part of the Botswana disease prevention program, to prevent Food and Mouth Disease, all visitors are asked to dip their feet (and bike wheels!) into a muddy puddle. Seriously, I have no idea what was in the puddle or what the puddle is supposed to do, but of course, we obliged. Just as we get accustomed to one currency and the exchange rate, we have to adjust to another! We went from $1 US exchanging for 4600 Zambian kwachas to $1 US exchanging for 6 point something Botswana pulas. Now, it’s tricky enough to calculate the conversion of the US dollar to the local currency, but then try to change kwachas into pulas! After three plus months of bike riding, I think my math skills are a little rusty and I’m confident the money exchangers got the better end of the deal.

In any event, once arriving in our first camp in Botswana, I knew I was in trouble. I completely sweated through my shirt and felt awful. The nurses tested my urine, took my temperature, and loaded me into the truck for a visit to the local hospital. The local hospital experience was interesting. We sat and waited in an open-air waiting room (as I continued to sweat profusely and disgustingly) while the children of the nurses checked me out up and down. The nurse administered a pin-prick malaria test, which gave a negative reading, but she and the TDA nurse agreed that my symptoms were consistent with malaria and I should start the appropriate course of treatment. (Subsequently, the lab work has now come back confirming that I am negative for malaria.) There was no check of my identification, no inquiry about insurance, and no payment made! The TDA staff told the nurse we would swing by in the morning on our way out of town to pay the bill (I’m still not sure why―I had my local pulas with me) and off we went back to camp. The next day, the TDA ride leader, Sharita, paid the tab, as promised, which came to 30 pulas, or approximately five US dollars!

In any event, I rode the truck yesterday which was a bummer to miss our first full day in Botswana, but it was a long (159km) and hot one which took us to the middle of nowhere bush camp. Once we arrived to the side-of-the-road-no-shade-no-privacy-this-looks-like-hell-camp, German-born but now South African rider, Katja, suggested we bolt out of there. My stomach was still in knots and I knew having facilities was critical. I shouldn’t tell you we hitched a ride, because folks seem to get up in arms about hitch-hiking in Africa (I know it’s just because you care!), but we hitched. With only one car passing every 10 minutes or so, I thought it could be a while before we got a lift, but we had a very lucky day! We got picked up by a lovely man who wouldn’t accept money, transported us in the air-conditioned cabin of his truck, stopped for snacks along the way, and dropped us off at the door of the lodge where the rest of the group would meet us today. Seriously, this was a dream come true. I booked into a lovely stand-alone cabin, which cost more than I would have normally spent (about one hundred bucks per night), but I needed a quiet retreat AND private bathroom where I could recover.

The group arrived, as expected, this afternoon, and the quiet retreat is now buzzing with cyclists. Thankfully, I am starting to feel better. The body aches and cold sweats have subsided, but the ‘rhea hasn’t, which is now going on one week. I’m on metronidizol, the same antibiotic I give my dog, Jackson, when he has the runs, but it doesn’t seem to be working for me. I’ll get this cleared up, and hope to be back on the saddle tomorrow. Too bad it will be a very long day (187km). I’ll see what I can do. If things go well and I can ride tomorrow, this bout of the African blues will have knocked me out for only two riding days, which is more than I’ve missed up until now, but thankfully, it won’t knock me out for entire week.

We are on the section of the tour called the Elephant Highway. The road is long, straight, and flat―literally, you can see at least ten kilometers of road in front of you―so it will get a bit tedious over this next week. But, if I’m lucky as riders have been today and yesterday, I will have some encounters with wild elephants on the side of the road. We’ve been told to keep our distance, because these giant animals have charged riders in the past, and if one is obstructing the road, it should get the right-of-way. Fine by me. I’m not about to go head-to-head with one of these big guys.

I’ll try to write again in a few days from Maun, where we’ll have our next rest day, and where I hope to be able to share more impressions of Botswana. Right now, it’s so new and I’ve been totally out of it, so that’s really all I’ve got to say!

Posted by: Dana | 2010/04/17

April 17 – Head first on the Zambezi

Here I am in Livingstone, Zambia on the Zambezi River–and I took the plunge today, head-first off a bridge on the 3rd biggest bungee jump in the world. I’m not so sure I enjoyed it, but I did it! Strapped by my ankles and lead out onto a plank overlooking the river, the guy working the bungee counted down from five and off I dove. To call it crazy is an absolute understatement, but I figured I’ll probably only be here once in my life…So I took the plunge.

Vic Falls is incredible. You can feel the intensity in your heart and in your veins when you get up close to the Falls. The spray completely soaked me–as if I had taken a swim–while walking on the paths along the banks of the river.

We head out of Livingstone tomorrow and into Botswana, our eighth country. We’re starting to feel the end in sight–less than one month to go until Cape Town. The ink on the map marking our progress is astonishing.

On another note, I haven’t been feeling well–not horrible, but not quite right, with stomach problems (again!) for the past five or six days, and more recently stomach cramps and fever. I hope I can sleep tonight and will this bug away.

I know this is a short post, I’m getting chomped by mosquitos and need some rest! I’ll post more from Botswana–probably from Maun on our next rest day. Lots of love to family and friends at home and happy birthday wishes to my niece, Maya, who turns seven today and who I miss very much.

Today was another nine and a half hour day on the bike, including a brief lunch stop (more peanut butter and jelly), a coke stop in the morning (yes, I have become addicted), and a snack stop in the afternoon. I rolled into camp around 4PM after a 185km ride through Southern Zambia, which I think marks our second longest day of the tour, in terms of mileage. I had only enough time before dinner to grab a quick bowl of soup and then attend the nightly rider meeting to discuss the route for tomorrow. Still wearing my cycling clothes and shoes at dinner, I joked with nurse Caro that I might as well sleep in my riding gear, as it’s only a few hours until I’ll be back on the bike! Seriously, this is how the past week or so has felt…really long hours on the bike with very little time to recover before we start it over again.

Three days ago we spent our rest day in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city. The few days into Lusaka were long―mostly big hills with occasional villages, nicely paved roads, and very little traffic. The past couple of days since leaving Lusaka have been slightly less hilly (mostly nice rollers) with even fewer villages (like, almost none!) and hardly anything to look at for hours on end. This is really the first stretch of the ride when I have felt bored while riding. The sides of the streets are lined with really tall grasses, which is really all we can see from the road. So, it’s pretty and it’s green, but it doesn’t change for hundreds of miles at a time. I cruised yesterday (158km, approx 100 miles), feeling strong after the rest day, psyched to be rolling on a new (borrowed) pair of skinnier tires, and benefiting from the nice tailwind. Today was completely different―I had tire problems (the rear tire repeatedly unseated from the rim), the winds were swirly but didn’t give us a push from behind, and my legs just felt heavy and tired.

The experience changes dramatically day-to-day, even if the scenery doesn’t. I think this is more a reflection of my frame of mind, more so than my riding. And while I think I’m fairly consistently upbeat and positive, there are so many things that can affect how the day unfolds: mechanical troubles, body aches and functions, weather, group dynamics, reception by the locals, traffic, etc. It’s easy to get discouraged for example, when you have multiple flat tires on a really hot and long day, as I did last week on the 197km day. Does it sound ridiculous for me to say that it takes mental fortitude to get through these kinds of challenges without letting them frustrate you to the point you can barely ride?

Zambia has the lowest population density of any country in Africa which is absolutely noticeable as we pass on the streets. It means we have less interaction with locals, and as a result, I don’t feel as if I’m getting as rich a sense of this country as I have the others. When I meet and interact with Zambians, as I did during the donation ceremony (which I will explain in a minute), they are extremely warm and gracious. But, interaction along the route is fairly limited, at least in this part of the country, simply because it is so sparsely populated.

The Tour d’Afrique Foundation is the charitable arm of the TDA which raises money to provide bicycles to community-based organizations in countries through which we travel. Most of the donated bikes are given directly to health care workers who travel to the homes of sick and infirmed patients and use the bikes as their sole (and best) method of transportation. On several occasions throughout the four month journey, the TDA Foundation arranges donation ceremonies where locals celebrate the arrival of the new bicycles. Last week we had two such ceremonies, the first of which was held at a bush camp where we were joined by dozens of local villagers and children who danced and sang with joy at the arrival of the bicycles. In Lusaka, we had doctors and nurses and home health workers speak directly to the importance of the bikes as a tool for the delivery of health care to remote villages. Donated last week in addition to the bicycles were zambulances―bicycles with beds attached for transporting patients that need to be moved to receive health care, in instances where regular ambulances are unavailable and impractical.

As with all of the countries through which we have traveled, Zambia is extremely poor, and these realities have been brought to light more in Zambia since were were joined by a Canadian doctor and two nurses who spend part of the year working in Zambia. I have learned from them some of the stark facts of life here―that the life expectancy for women is 35 years, which probably isn’t far off for that of men. HIV/AIDS, complications of child birth, and cervical cancer (which is often undetected and spreads quickly here because of womens’ suppressed immune systems) are leading causes of death of women. I haven’t seen anyone who remotely resembles someone of middle-age (our standard for what we think of middle-aged). It’s mind-boggling to think that “middle-age” here in Zambia is about 17 years old. Women of my age are typically nearing the end of their lives―and will have had children and grandchildren by the ripe old age of 35. This is a very sobering reality.

Posted by: Dana | 2010/04/11

April 9 – Madame, Do You Have Medicine?

Cruising along on our final day in Malawi, which was now several days ago, I cycled past two local riders on one bicycle―one man pedaled and a second man sat on the back. They closely hugged the edge of the road, so I cycled on the side closest to traffic (starting in Kenya, we ride on the opposite side of the road since traffic runs in the opposite direction), As I pulled up alongside the men, one asked, “Madame, where are you going” I responded, “to the Zambian border,” which was only about 30 kilometers away. “No,” he said. “What is your final destination?” I responded, “Cape Town,” which elicited gasps from both men. “And where did you start?” one man asked. At this point, I was pulling slightly ahead of their rickety bike. “Cairo!” I shouted as I continued to pedal. And then, a massive crash!! The men lost their concentration and literally fell off the road. I heard a mash of metal and a crunch of body parts hitting the dirt on the side of the road. Jeez, was it something I said?!?!? I stopped and got off my bike. “Madame, do you have some medicine?” they wanted to know.

I opened my first aid kit and looked at the contents that remained―bandages, antiseptic spray, ibuprofen, etc. The two men were banged up―not horribly, but they had bloody knuckles and elbows and each man rolled up his pants to reveal bloody knees. They were in a bit of shock, as was I, but they were as kind and curious as could be. I sprayed their wounds with the antiseptic spray and handed over my band-aids and bandages so that they could cover their wounds. I told them that I was sympathetic because I had taken my own spills―and I showed them what bruises and scabs remain from my last falls. We laughed and they asked if they could ride alongside me until they could no longer keep up. Before we parted ways, I took the obligatory bloody post-crash photo―how novel that I wasn’t the subject!―the men showed off their wounds to the camera, they thanked me profusely for assisting them after their fall, and they wished me “a good journey”. For the rest of the day, I was tickled thinking of how the men just completely dropped off the road when I told them where I was headed and from where I came. It was a very odd and surprisingly affecting interaction.

So we crossed into Zambia, after what felt like a very short stint in Malawi, though we had been there for more than one week. Our last rest day was spent in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, where―as it just so happens―Madonna was visiting on the same night we were there. While it would have been fun to hang out with Madonna―I was too busy with my typical rest day chores: cleaning my bike, searching the market for guavas, and using the internet. I spent the entire morning trying to figure out how to mail a giant parcel containing the wooden chair I bought at Chitimba Beach at Lake Malawi a few days earlier. I guess Madonna was probably busy, anyhow.

Zambia is very beautiful and the roads we’ve traveled have been relatively quiet and well-paved. The surroundings are lush and vibrant―long rolling hills, thatched huts in small clusters, and a population density that seems pretty low, at least in the provinces where we have traveled. As with Malawi, the poverty is stark but I haven’t seen the kind of begging we saw there and elsewhere. I have seen a few memorable citings of local Zambians riding bikes with all sorts of crap strapped to the bikes―other bikes, huge bales of hay, piles of logs and sticks that rise well over the heads of the cyclists, enormous sacks of charcoal, families of four all on one bike, and most memorably, one very large pig (live!) tied up and thrashing about on the back of the bike. Thankfully, I’m not loaded down with any of this stuff when I ride!

The official language of the government here in Zambia is English, so it seems that people speak more English here than in some of the other countries we’ve traveled. The kids generally know a few words, but their lack of knowledge is easily exposed when they ask, “how are you?” and we respond, “fine, thank you, and how are you?” and then they stand there, dumbfounded and without any vocabulary with which to reply. There are similarities I notice of culture, dress, topography, and food between Malawi and here―neither country seems to have much traffic (probably because very few can afford to drive) and, at least in the province we are in currently, the Chichewan language is also shared. I’ve picked up a few expressions and greetings to use as I meet people along the road, but it’s been tough to retain hard-to-pronounce words in yet another language!

The riding has been tough and hot. We’ve covered some great distance, including yesterday’s record day of 197km―the longest ride of the tour, by far. For those with metric conversion difficulty (like me), it’s something like 125 miles. Tomorrow is another rough day at nearly 160km―more uphill than down and in very hot and humid weather. Tonight is probably the most uncomfortable I’ve been with the heat. I’m not exactly sure how hot it is but I would safely guess we’re well over 100 degrees with no wind, black flies, and tall grass (which is now freaking me out a little bit since I learned the second biggest killer to HIV/AIDS in Zambia is snakes…and we’re in “snake season”). The flies are nasty because they like to feed off of any tasty scab or infection that they can get their little fly-paws on, so I’ve been wearing socks with my flip-flops to cover up the infections on my feet, which are now on the mend.

There is a water pump just down a dirt path from where I set up my tent and riders took turns stripping down and dousing ourselves repeatedly to try to cool off. On one occasion when I was totally naked with three other female riders, we laughed when one woman said it felt like we were in a scene from the 1800s. It was so very true.

Yesterday was a big day in camp―one rider celebrated his 50th birthday and another rider celebrated her 39th. Tony, the fifty year-old, thew a party for himself. With the help of the staff, who picked up tons of beer, liquor, and soft drinks (and ice!!!!!!), Tony treated the group to a celebration. Juliana, the birthday girl, made a dessert, which we never have (except for snacks we buy ourselves), making it a real treat. Sadly, though, the mood was overshadowed because of a very serious accident suffered by one of our youngest riders earlier in the day.

TDA staff don’t want us going in to a ton of detail about crashes for fear that families will learn from blogs what they ought to hear from riders, themselves. However, in this case, I know the family has already been contacted. I won’t go into detail here, but as they emerge, they shake me to my core. This young rider apparently collided with another cyclist (a local) and took a very bad fall. Yesterday, all we knew was that he sustained major facial injuries, including a lip that was completely torn open, a damaged nose, and lost teeth. The staff frantically assessed the various options―but came up against dead-ends for getting his wounds closed in the vicinity. They were really racing against time for fear that infection would quickly take hold. When all local options failed (local hospitals and clinics were completely unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with such an emergency) and a flight to Johannesburg would not be possible until the following day, the staff turned to our own resources. Together, a brand new sectional rider, who had joined us not more than 48 hours earlier, who happens to be a prominent thoracic surgeon in Canada and our very capable lead nurse, performed surgery on this rider using the facilities of a local mission hospital and equipment and supplies provided by the TDA. Even before the birthday party had concluded, the brave injured rider accompanied by the doc and the nurse returned to camp. I think we were all astounded that he returned to camp―and for a little while, it even seemed that he had been patched up well enough that he might not have to leave the tour. His status on the trip is uncertain at this point.

This kind of occurrence is so extremely sobering. For one, I realize that the dream that this one rider had to ride across Africa may now come to a quick end. Without a doubt, it also reminds each of the other riders, myself included, about the dangers we face each day. It sounds like our group has had more than our share of bad crashes (and head injuries). Let’s just hope that we’ve seen the last one.

On a lighter note, as I sit and sweat in my tent while writing this blog entry, I realize I made an error of judgment regarding tent placement tonight. I’m near the farters and the snorers!!! Aaaaah. I need to be more careful tomorrow night. Goodnight, for now, and I will post again from our next rest day in Lusaka.

Posted by: Dana | 2010/04/06

April 5 – On Generosity and Gratitude

I want to take a moment and depart from the typical blog entry to express―and I hope this comes across as sincerely as I feel it―my profound gratitude and amazement at the support I have received on this journey. When I made the plunge and decided to register for the TDA, I knew I wanted to link my participation with my concern about and experience with melanoma (skin cancer). The donations that came in just blew me away.

Every time I log into the computer and read messages on email, this blog, or on Facebook, I am reminded how lucky I am to have such a loving and caring team on my side. As a result of this ride, and my associated fund-raising, I have reconnected with long-lost friends and relatives I never knew I had; I have been extraordinarily supported by friends from all areas of my life; and the extended network of support of friends of friends and friends of family has truly astonished and inspired me. I don’t think I needed to come and ride my bicycle across Africa to know how lucky I am, but this ride has certainly reinforced what I knew to be true―that I have an amazingly rich network of friends and a family that loves me unconditionally. The demonstration of support I have received buoys me during the tough times and I will carry this love and care with me far beyond Cape Town. I feel very, very fortunate.

If you have donated since my trip began, you will not yet find your name on the donors list on this blog, nor will you have received a personal thank you. Please understand that because of internet challenges, I can’t thank each of you as quickly as I would like to–but trust that your support and generosity is greatly appreciated.

Posted by: Dana | 2010/04/06

April 5 – A Slug in My Mug

I woke up this morning and found a giant slug in my mug! It was the size of a Snickers bar with a big, thick body, and tentacles, or whatever it is that stick out of a slugs head. Aaaah!

We’ve now cycled into Lilongwe and I’m sitting in a camp site where overland tours stop, so it has a pretty cool vibe, if you’re into drinking and smoking with other international travelers (which I’m not―what a party-pooper!). Starting in Nairobi, we started to occasionally encounter other travelers and now that we’re in southern Africa (I still can not believe we are in SOUTHERN Africa!), we are seeing more and more tourists when we stay at established camp grounds.

As I wrote the other day, I was feeling less than perfect after my violent sickness and the after-effects stuck with me. The infections on my feet got worse―every bug bit or tiny little scratch became inflamed, pussy, and swollen. I think exhaustion is taking its toll. Until now, I don’t think I wanted to acknowledge the fatigue for fear that it would then get the best of me. It is so important on this trip to stay physically healthy and mentally focused. I started a new course of antibiotics last night, and in less than twenty-four hours, I’m already feeling much better. Antibiotics are amazing! I also got calls last night from my mom, dad, and Aunt Margie, which helped.

Other than the immediate things I observed after crossing the border, I’ve been struck by the music in Malawi. We hear singing in the distance at each camp site often accompanied by drumming. We awoke on Easter morning to a group of women who danced and sang their way through our camp site (starting before 4AM!!). Today I passed a bus while cycling into Lilongwe and every person on the bus was singing their hearts out and the man in the back seat was standing, bare-chested, leading the chorus. The children along the road often greet us with well-choreographed rhythms and chants and they are just so freaking cute.

Communication infrastructure here in Malawi seems pretty awful, as it was in Ethiopia. I carry a cell phone on me that I’m borrowing from another rider who doesn’t want it. Most of the time, I have no cell service, and when I do, I usually don’t have any charge left in my phone. If I have cell service and enough charge on the phone, then the credits I buy to load up my SIM card don’t work! Internet has been hard to find and when I find it, it can take over an hour to load my Yahoo inbox and that is before I read a single message. So, for those friends to whom I have been slow to respond, please forgive me!

Total exhaustion has set in. I feel completely fatigued and am feeling the toll of the past two and a half months of daily exertion. Two nights ago, I was the sickest I have ever been in my life, and I think it took a toll, physically and mentally. Having passed the half-way mark both for time and distance, there is a feeling of astonishment of how far we’ve come, but the reality of how far we have left to go is also setting in. There is no question, I am still as happy as can be that I’m here, and psyched to continue. I’m just feeling the drain and hope I wake up tomorrow feeling better.

We arrived in Malawi after a final few days of spectacular riding through Tanzania. We went up and over some big-ass mountains en route to Mbeya, a regional hub and important transit point for travelers heading to Malawi. We had one day of nearly all uphill climbing to get to Mbeya, pampered ourselves by staying in a cheap hotel there, and then enjoyed the next day of a giant descent. Along with two other riders, I took a mutatu (public transit van) into town as our hotel was approximately 9km outside of the town center, ate lunch, struggled to get the internet to work, and then hitch-hiked back to the hotel and was lucky to get picked up by local policemen who dropped us off right at the doorstep.

On the final day in Tanzania we cycled past enormous tea and banana plantations and hundreds if not thousands of men, women, and children carrying enormous loads of bananas on their heads and/or bicycles heading towards or away from the market. We also passed many tiny shops that sell beautiful and colorful cloths that the women wear. Nearly every woman I saw in Tanzania wore these cloths―sometimes they had them tailored into fitted dresses, but more often than not, women simply wrap themselves and their heads, and very frequently have a baby strapped to their back with another cloth. Babies here, as they do almost everywhere in Africa, spend their days strapped to their mothers’ backs and seem relatively content and don’t cry much.

The border crossing at the northern most entry point of Malawi was uneventful. We passed through a typical and sketchy border town loaded with men offering to exchange money and then onto the roads of Malawi where I took special care to observe immediate differences between Malawi and Tanzania. Throughout the trip, I have been amazed by the incredible observable differences between countries the minute we cross each border. In the case of Malawi, the two things I immediately noticed were both of a disconcerting nature. Childrens’ bellies are swollen and protruded, a sign of their hunger and consistent with the image most of us have of children starving in Africa―dirty kids wearing shreds of raggedy clothing or none at all with stomachs disproportionately large for their little bodies. The second thing that struck me the minute we crossed the border was that the children along the roadside in Malawi shouted “give me money” as we cycled past. Children who are too young to understand what money is and can’t speak another word of English know how to beg for money. We haven’t really seen this since Ethiopia. The other thing that marked our arrival to Malawi was extreme heat and humidity―probably the most uncomfortable weather we have encountered to date. Having descended from the mountains of Tanzania, we are now at much lower altitudes and we are feeling the African heat.

Our camp that first night in Malawi was surrounded by local kids who made off with some of our belongings, including several bicycle computers, sunglasses, etc. The staff put up the rope perimeter to contain us and our tents and our belongings, and to keep the children out. As you can imagine, this creates a very uncomfortable dynamic, one which we also have not experienced since Ethiopia, where locals gather and sit just outside of the rope and sit and stare at us for hours. To make things even more uncomfortable, they watched us eat three meals―the soup, dinner that evening, and then they returned to watch us eat breakfast the next morning.

We crossed into another time zone in Malawi and the sun rises early and to avoid the late afternoon heat, we wake up extremely early (4:30AM!) and begin our rides by 6:15AM. On that first morning at the camp I described, I awoke to incredibly beautiful singing, even before my watch alarm sounded. Local women, with children strapped to their backs, had gathered in the darkness in a shack of a building which was their church. It was a very neat experience to be awoken by their beautiful voices.

The following day was a sort of miserable slog. At the lower altitudes with extreme heat and facing headwinds for over 120km, we cycled to Chitimba Beach on Lake Malawi. While the ride was pretty rough going, the Lake was scrumptious and refreshing. It is a huge fresh water lake that stretches some 500km along Malawi’s eastern border and represents Malawi’s greatest treasure and draw for tourists. I jumped right in, still in my cycling shorts and bra top, and it was my first swim since the ill-advised dunks I took in the Nile back in Sudan. It was lovely!

Unfortunately, however, the night in Chitimba Beach did not end well for me. Around midnight, while tucked away in my tent, I started to get the sweats. Immediate pangs of nausea overwhelmed me and within minutes I was disoriented, dripping in sweat, and sick as a dog. I crawled out of my tent and found another rider still awake (but drunk!) who offered to help me but didn’t know what to do. Of course, no one knew where the nurse had set up her tent, so there was no help on that front, either! My condition rapidly deteriorated and within minutes I had to lay down (in the dirt, wearing only a tank top and underpants) and of course―as if perfectly scripted to make this the worst night of my life―the skies opened up and it started to pour. A friend at this point was helping me and wrapped me in a sleeping bag, but I was wet and covered with mud, and was vomiting consistently and pretty uncontrollably for the next five hours. I was in such rough shape it took hours before I could move to a sheltered place, so I simply laid there in a puddle of dirt and mud puking my guts out covered with a wet sleeping bag.

So I think this sick episode (most likely caused by something I ate) really knocked me out. I spent most of the rest day at Chitimba Beach laying around on my thermarest in the shade. Now, more than 48 hours later, I’m still feeling the effects and just feel sort of horrified by the whole experience. It took a lot out of me, my esophagus may never be the same, and I’m embarrassed at having been spotted by several other riders who woke up as a result of my rather unpleasant noises! In any event, I’m also conscious of the fact that exhaustion is catching up to me. Riding in Malawi over the past two days since we left Chitimba has been extremely difficult. Because of a washed out bridge alongside the Lake, we took an alternate route which took us westward and into the Malawi highlands. It is gorgeous out here, somewhat cooler because of the increase in elevation, but tough riding in the hills. Tonight my plan is to go straight to bed after dinner, which should mean I will be asleep by 6PM! I hope another good night of rest will get back back to 100%.

Lots of other riders are also feeling the effects of fatigue, and also suffering a host of other ailments, including one rider who contracted malaria. I have four infected spots on my feet, where I have bug bites that got infected, which apparently is unavoidable here due to the bacteria and humidity. Other riders who had injuries which had nearly healed are dealing with re-opened sores and infections since arriving in Malawi. It’s a weird thing but something that comes with the territory of traveling in one of the world’s poorest countries.

We have a relatively short stretch of riding (4 days between Chitimba Beach and our next rest day, in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, and we are half way through it as I write this. I plan to get a hotel room in Lilongwe, if I can, and will probably just try to catch up on more rest. I also hope to find a post office to send home a super cool hand-carved chair I bought at Chitimba beach, which was a big and odd purchase, but one I couldn’t pass up. Thankfully, TDA staff made room in one of the trucks for it and I hope the cost and hassle of shipping it home won’t overwhelm me!

Seriously, I am not sure it gets any better than this. 128 glorious kilometers from forest camp to bush camp on a route lined by sunflowers at least fifty meters deep. We woke up in a forest covered with dew on an unseasonably cool morning and cycled on rolling hills all day, passing the village of Makambako on our way to Mbeya in Tanzania. I maintained a pretty peppy pace today, still relishing the paved roads we will now enjoy for the next few weeks. Tanzania continues to amaze and impress me with its natural beauty, its simple way of life, its magnificent sunrises and sunsets, and its calm, polite, and friendly people.

Sitting here in camp this evening, I’m watching riders relax and read, some are drinking beer and soda that a local entrepreneur brought to camp and sold. Most are hudled under tarps that hang from the roof of the trucks because a rain cloud just passed a dumped about two minutes worth of rain. Staff are in the “kitchen” preparing an gargantuan amount of food—some 50 kilos of potatos for mashing (including buckets and buckets of butter!) and a pork stew (I’ll eat the veggie option tonight.) The number of riders swelled as new sectionals joined us in Iringa—11 in total, which makes the group too large, in my opinion. I see how the numbers are burdening staff who are pretty short-handed to begin with, especially the mechanic and nurses. In any event, we have some nice new riders with us for a couple of weeks and most of our riders who took extended trips to Zanizibar and Kili back with us, too.

This country is gorgeous and for anyone who travels here for safari or to climb Kili, do yourself a favor and travel the countryside. As I ride past, children stand in clusters along the roadside and often say, “Good morning, teacher.” It cracks me up. Clearly they haven’t learned to differentiate the greeting from the salutation, but in any event, they are eager to practice the English they learn in school, and I respond, “Good morning, students!”

Our time in Tanzania has been so varied. First was the incredible safari and few days of rest and amazement in Tanzania’s incredible national parks. Then we spent the week on unpaved roads traveling from Arusha to Iringa, which took us through Tanzania’s capital, Dodoma. And now, through the sunflower-lined paved roads in the southern part of the country. Each day is more beautiful than the next.

Because my last blog entry was cut short because of a power outage in the internet shop where I was writing it, I feel like I short-changed the week riding on dirt in Tanzania, but now that it is over, it’s almost like I want to move on and forget about it. But, that isn’t exactly true, because those horrendous roads took us to magnificent places, which could never have been experienced from the comfort of a vehicle traveling on paved roads. It was a tough week, second to the stretch in nothern Kenya. It was hot and humid, and days were long and punishing.

The day after the 120 km Mando Day described in my previous posting, I was completely exhausted when I woke up in the morning. There simply isn’t enough time to recover sometimes when the riding is tough and long and you go to bed only a couple of hours after the ride ends only to wake up and have to get on the bike again. In any event, I got on the bike and suffered through the first 30km, taking a pretty big fall very early on, around 7km. Erin, riding directly behind me, saw the mess unfold in slow motion. We were riding on loose and rocky terrain and I hit a patch of deep sand. Erin says I flipped upwards and backwards and I jammed my right knee on the fall. Covered in dirt and sand, I pathetically shouted “self-pity, self-pity, self-pity” because saying it versus just feeling it can somehow make the whole situation seem absurdly funny. Once Erin made sure nothing was broken, she did what a good friend would do which is to continue to ride and leave me in the dirt with an opportunity to regain my composure and dignity. “Take a moment,” she said and she rode off.

So I did, with some help from another rider who helped disinfect and bandage me. I continued on for approximately another 25km. I was totally miserable and saw a way out—a passing pick-up truck which was about the only car on that road all day. The vehicle stopped when I raised my hand, looking to hitch. Four people jumped out of the cab and quickly lifted my bike up and into the bed of the truck. (The benefit of losing my EFI status, I suppose, is that bailing is an option when I absolutely feel like I’m going to die.) As I lifted myself to hop in, I saw that the flatbad was already full with a chain-link fence which was rolled up, but my bike was already laying on top, and I crouched on the fence and the truck sped off before I could contemplate how wise or unwise this move was. As we passed the first few riders, also struggling on the currogation and loose and chunky rocks, I smiled broadly and waved and they looked at me with dispair and jealousy on their faces. One rider raised her arm in hopes to jump aboard, but when she saw the fence and, by then, the uncomfortable look on my face, she passed and continued to cycle.

I bounced around on the fence and on the barbs sticking out of it. The vehicle bumped and sped and nearly launched me and my bike over-board. I held on tight but was being squashed by the bike in between the barbs and just when things couldn’t get worse, I heard the release of air from the front tire—a giant puncture caused by the barb that ripped the tire and the tube. Finally, we crossed paths with a TDA vehicle and I gave the thumbs down signal that I was in need of help (from the back of the pick-up truck!). I signaled to my driver that I wanted out, and finally got aboard a much safer and more sane vehicle, with my bike and my ruined tire. But this wasn’t even my tire! It was a tire that another rider generously loaned me because my fat nobby tires were inadvertantly thrown away by a TDA staffer—long, boring story for another day. So, I made it out alive, my bike wasn’t as lucky…and now I’m relying on the kindness of yet another rider whose girlfriend is bringing me a new pair when she meets up to join the ride in Victoria Falls. We learn that good riding kharma is returned so it pays to be generous with our limited resources and be kind on the road. I am grateful for the loaners and the new tires coming to meet me in a few weeks and learned a tough lesson not to hitch a ride in a pick-up truck that is already carrying a full load of sharp, barbed fencing.

Food has become a little more varied lately and the most noticeable change is the increased availability of fruit. We are now eating fresh mangos, pineapple, guavas, passion fruit, and the biggest, most scruptious avocados in the world. I had never been a huge fan of mangos or avocados before now, but here, these are such treats—maybe because they really are better, or maybe it is because there have been long stretches in the desert with precious little fresh stuff. In any event, the fruit is more varied and abundant.

The food you find along the streets is cheap and often fried. In Tanzania, a tasty local favorite is chips mayai, which is basically an omelette filled with french fries. Yum! With approximately 10km to go on today’s ride, a bunch of us found a roadside chips mayai shack and enjoyed the tasty and salty snack.

Before I forget, I had another incredibly memorable experience early last week in Tanzania just before we hit the unpaved part. After a ride which was relatively short, Erin and I decided to go for a very short run—just long enough to shake out our legs and use different muscles. That night, our camp was located a couple of kilometers off from the main road, along a dirt path, in the heart of Masai country. The Masai are semi-nomadic tribespeople, who look similar to the Samburu, encountered a few weeks back in Kenya. Like the Samburu, the Masai live off the land with their herds of animals, they erect short-term housing consisting of sticks for the walls and a thatched roof, and they are lavishly decorated with beaded jewelry. They typically have droopy ear-lobes with big holes in them from which long dangly beaded jewelry hangs.

Anyhow, on this short run, Erin and I ran past dozens of tiny Masai shacks and within moments, we were accompanied by about one dozen Masai children, running after us. They were excited and friendly and fast! Some were wearing barely any clothing, others were wrapped in fabric, and a few were ornately decorated with the Masai beads. Young children carried even younger children in slings on their backs. And, they all joined us for a run through Masai territory—babies and all. With absolutely no way to communicate with these children, other than through facial expressions, body movements, and crazy sounds, Erin and I led the kids on a 30 minute run, hop, skip, jump, They mimicked our every move and every sound. We would throw our arms in the air and make loud whooping sounds, and they did the same. We stopped and did jumping jacks, and the kids followed along laughing. When Erin ran in the front, I ran in the back of the pack to watch the kids from behind. We all laughed and laughed.

One quick rider update–we’ve lost several riders due to injury. One broke his collarbone in Ethiopia; another suffered multiple concussions (one from a cycling accident in Sudan, which I described earlier in the trip and a second from being hit by a bus along the road while walking in Nairobi); the oldest rider in the group suffered a fall on the wet tar I described in Kenya and was covered with it from head to toe, but also unfortunately injured his hip; and a fourth rider left the tour, somewhat mysteriously, but obviously this trip wasn’t what he expected. The rest of us seem to be rolling along in fairly good health. There are still some bugs and parasites that make their way around, plenty of bumps and bruises, and a few infected injuries, but on the whole, riders seem to be in good shape and spirits. One crazy reality, that has proven itself year after year on the TDA, is that men drop weight at alarming rates while the women do not. How unfair is this! There are men who have already lost nearly 40 pounds without trying, and most of the women are exactly the same weight as when they started (like me) or have gained! It goes to show you just how tough it is for women to lose weight. If exercising eight to ten hours a day doesn’t take the weight off, what does? I guess the french-fry omelette doesn’t help. Obviously, we eat huge amounts but we are ravenous and need the energy.

As we begin the second leg of the tour, I’m conscious of how quickly time is passing, how much ground we’ve covered, and how fast the remainder of the trip will go. We’ve adjusted to some of the most extraordinary conditions—hundreds of kilometers of biking each week, the daily routine of setting up and then dismantling our tents and our camp, the challenges of keeping clean, safe, and healthy while traveling through some of the most remote parts of some of the poorest countries in the world. It is truly amazing that the extraordinary has become somewhat ordinary—this is our daily life. I examine my shoes for scorpians and other bugs in the morning before putting them on and I watch out for snakes when I walk into the bush to go to the bathroom. The absurd things we see no longer startle and surprise me the way they did in the beginning. Yesterday, I saw a woman riding her bike down the road with three live chickens squeezed under her arms. At a coke stop, a bunch of men congregated at the side of the road to slaughter a cow and hang its body parts from the limbs of a tree while they fired up a grill and prepared to eat. The women knelt along the road and boiled the cows’ feet in a pot of water. I didn’t even take pictures because these scenes have become the stuff of everday life. TIA: This is
Africa, and I am loving it.

My bike is holding up well, and so is my gear for the most part. For the bikers among you, I changed my cassette, chain, and brake pads the other day, and probably could use some additional maintenance on the bike. I am still happy with my choice of the Salsa Fargo, but certainly would have benefited from some suspension on the rough roads. The folks with pure mountain bikes certainly fared better than those of us on other types of bikes. Mine is more an adventure touring bike, able to accommdate fat tires and carry heavy loads (if I do self-supported bike touring in the future), but it doesn’t have built-in suspension.

One final word about our half-way status: It must have been a couple of weeks ago already that I reported that we were “half-way”. What I didn’t realize then was that while we were half-way in terms of the time spent on this trip (120 days total on the TDA), we were far less than half-way in terms of distance. So, if you do the math, it means we will cover longer distances, on average, for the second part of the ride than the first. While we are in better shape and can generally ride faster than before, I’m also hoping that this means road conditions will improve which will allow us to cover more ground faster. We also have one week later in the ride, in Botswana, when we will do six back-to-back century rides (over 100 miles each day) which includes the longest day of the tour, a 207km ride (which is over 120 miles). The roads are generally flat in Botswana but headwinds could make those days very interesting! I’ll worry about that when the time comes.

For now, I look forward to the next few days, including our next rest day at Chitinga Beach in Malawi. I’m excited to jump into Lake Malawi for a swim and will cross my fingers that some weird parasite doesn’t swim into my body and get me! If it is as hot there as it is here tonight, there is no way I’ll be able to forgo a swim. Until my next posting, you can trust that I am still very happy and safe, loving the biking and the discovery, and I am thinking of friends and family back home and missing you. Keep up with the emails because I love hearing stories and updates (and of course, gossip) from home.

Posted by: Dana | 2010/03/26

March 26 – Technical Problems!!

Grrrrr!! My last blog update from March 23 was cut short b/c power in my computer ran out…and then I wrote a big and juicy entry today in an internet cafe, during our rest day in Iringa, Tanzania. As I tried to publish it, the power went out and I lost everything. So, just a quick note to say, we made it out of the dirt and into Iringa and in a few days we’ll be in Malawi. I love Tanzania, I hate dirt, and all is well! More bumps and bruises and a few good stories from the week to report. I’ll write more from the road over the next few days and will try to update again from our next rest day in Malawi. Happy Pesach to friends and family who celebrate, and to my own family, I will miss being there with you. Jambo, Jambo!!!

We are five days into a seven day stretch of riding on rough roads in Tanzania, from Arusha to Iringa, where we will have our next rest day. We are currently camped in another bush camp beside the road, being observed by hundreds of locals who have gathered to watch us erect our tents, clean our bikes, cook our food, and do the normal TDA routine. The rain is coming in Tanzania but we have been really lucky with beautiful blue skies, puffy white clouds, and some of the most spectacular scenery of the tour. We had a short, quick downpour just before I arrived in camp, but I dried off quickly in this heat.

The first day on dirt in Tanzania shattered my wishful thinking that we had encountered the worst of the hills in Ethiopia and the crappiest of roads in Kenya. This 120 km stage combined the two—never-ending, steep hills that climb upwards forever with horrendous roads—loose rock, gravel, corrugation, total shit. The stage was considered mandatory, or a Mando Day, which means that it was one of about a dozen of the toughest days on the tour. It seriously takes mental toughness to get through a Mando Day—generally I prepare myself for at least ten hours in the saddle and lots of pain. This day lived up to the hype.

When the gravel is loose and I am careening out of control on my bike, I am pretty miserable, but try to remind myself that this road is taking me to see places I could never see by any other means. The road wound through verdant woodlands, grassy hills, incredible patches of sunflowers standing literally twenty feet high, beautiful and unique baobab trees, farm lands with corn, bananas, mangos, etc. growing abundantly. This part of Tanzania is sparsely populated. There are small villages along the route but they are very small—a congregation of a few simple homes, most made of bricks and tin roofs, and possibly a few stalls selling sodas, biscuits, and basic necessities. There are hardly any cars or buses. The few we see each day churn up the sand and dirt from the roads leaving each rider in a cloud of dirt. Since I am always covered with a fresh layer of sunscreen, the dirt clouds cover me with dirt from head to toe; my teeth even get a layer of grit to chew on.

So I pedaled and pedaled but no matter how hard I pushed, I found myself at the back of the pack, the position to which I have grown accustomed on days when we are on unpaved terrain. All day, as I passed through the small villages, the locals walked to the roadside and offered a smile and a greeting, and over and over again, they looked at me and seemingly sympathetically, they said the words “pole, pole” in Swahili. I heard these words throughout the day; the locals clapped and waved, and said “pole, pole”. It wasn’t until I rolled into camp and asked a local driver working for the TDA what this means, and he laughed, spun his hands in cycle-like motion and said, “slowly, slowly”. That was me…white girl riding her bike through remote parts of Tanzania, coated in dirt and grime, moving ahead one cautious pedal stroke at a time. Slowly, slowly! I had to laugh!

One of the TDA staffers commented that no matter how tough the day, I always come in with a big smile. I was glad to hear this that exhaustion and sometimes downright misery wasn’t apparent to others. On this ride in particular, the end got a little sketchy. It was well over 100 degrees outside and very humid, yet I started to get the chills. I had two very bizarre moments just before the ride finished. I swear I saw a panda bear in the woods along the road until I got up really close and saw it was a cow (one of about a million that we have seen). Then, I spotted my dad on a golf course swinging a club, until I got close enough to see that it was a local guy in the bush swinging a machete. Clearly, I had been on the bike for too long. On this occasion, as with so many others, it is either laughter or tears! I was glad to be able to laugh this one off.

After that memorable ride, I walked to a nearby house next to a water pump where other riders had purchased a bucket of water for the closest thing to a shower we can find out here. A young girl named Fatuma, probably about eight years old, pumped the water for me, handed over the bucket, and before I knew what was happening, she jumped up with her arms wrapped around my neck and started kissing me. I was startled, but she was delightful, and we became fast friends. She stood look out for me as I stripped down naked in the corn field to wash myself. I laughed at myself as I scrubbed the grime from the day off of my body in a field of corn. Modesty has gone out the window. It is much more important to be clean—or at least as clean as can be. I got more kisses when I was finished and she walked me to my tent.

I need to write more frequently because I seriously feel like I’ve packed weeks worth of activity and experience into each day, and will hardly do justice in the description. I’m at the point now where I need to look at my watch now to remind me not of which day it is, but which month, and it’s difficult to recall where we camped the previous few nights. Each day is so full and so amazing.

I’m currently sitting in a beautiful lodge on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, a 20km wide volcanic crater which essentially holds captive tens of thousands of animals, including the “big five”: panthers, lions, black rhinos, elephants, and buffaloes. While the animals are not technically locked in, the steep sidewalls of the crater make it impossible for most of the animals to leave, which makes Ngorongoro an incredible place to view the wildlife (aka predators) up-close and personal.

We hit the half-way point of the ride, in Arusha, Tanzania, two riding days from Nairobi. In Arusha, we have a three-day mid-way break, a vacation from the vacation of sorts. Many riders took extended leaves—some to rest on the beaches in Zanzibar, others to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, and some even took the opportunity to go home for a week or so. I opted for a three-day safari, with accommodations, along with eleven other riders.

Today was our second day on the safari and we have been blown away by the number and variety of animals we have seen, and how close we can get to some of the world’s most dangerous and magnificent creatures. We have seen four of the big five—all but the panther—and hundreds, if not thousands, of other species. In the crater, animals typically travel in herds but mix and mingle peacefully with others species (except when they are hungry, apparently!). Literally, at any time while in the crater, we could see hundreds of animals in every direction and I couldn’t imagine anywhere else in the world closer to the Garden of Eden. Lush green and vibrant, we benefited from being at the tail end of the tourist season here. Rains have started in Tanzania (but we have lucked out with perfect weather here) which has turned the brown prairie green and the number of tourists have diminished to a small trickle compared to high season. We travel six to a vehicle plus the driver/guide. The vehicles are four wheel drive with a pop-up roof and big open windows, so we sit or stand with our heads above the roof of the vehicle for a perfect view of whatever it is that is galloping or grazing or grooming in front of us. It was a truly breath-taking descent into the crater and with every twist and turn of the vehicle, we were awe-struck by magnificent sitings of elephants, lions, buffaloes, flamingos, ostriches, zebras, warthogs, hippos, antelopes, wildebeests, hartebeests, gazelles, and so many others. Yesterday, in the denser and even more lush Lake Manyara National Park, we saw giraffes and baboons, among many others of the animals already mentioned.

Last night and again tonight we are staying in absolutely incredible accommodations. Last night, the lodge overlooked the Rift Valley, with unbelievable views, baboons that frolicked all over the grounds, and delicious food. Tonight, the lodge is as stunningly beautiful with the views of the crater. I had the thought before the safari started, that perhaps I should have stayed close to camp in Arusha and simply rested and worked on my bike. I wasn’t sure I had the energy for this type of excursion, but this experience simply could not be beat and we are seeing some of Tanzania’s most incredible places that are not accessible by bike. I’m glad I’m here. For our final safari day tomorrow, we will be touring the Tarangire National Park, which is known for its baobab trees and high concentrations of animals, including enormous herds of elephants.
Between these few days off, and the extended rest day I took last week in Nairobi, I am definitely feeling like I have had a break from riding. Less than 48 hours before I was to arrive in Nairobi, Eythan confirmed his plans to travel there for work for a perfectly-timed visit on my rest day. I skipped the day of cycling into Nairobi and hopped a ride along with five other riders who were anxious to get to Nairobi in order to spend extra time with him there. It was a fabulous visit, filled with lots of things that didn’t feel particularly Kenyan (such as swimming in a pool at the UN sports complex, playing frisbee, grocery shopping in a huge supermarket, and eating out in a couple of great restaurants). We also spent a few hours at the Masai Market, a big open-air market where local Masai tribes people and artisans sell their wares after they’ve haggled you and once you’ve spent the obligatory thirty minutes negotiating the price. We had a great visit.

I arrived at the hotel before Eythan did and I walked across the street to the Village Market, a high-end retail area. Just as I was experiencing complete culture shock, Loren (my sister) called me and thankfully talked me through one of the most bizarre experiences I have felt in a very long time. Still scabby and bruised, dirty and probably a little smelly, and wearing the same clothes I have worn for two months, I walked around the mall and could not have felt more out-of-place. Even though the mall was closer to “home” than any other place I have been with its shops, restaurants, food court, movie theater, etc., I was so overwhelmed by the options (Greek, Thai, Indian food!), the wealth, and the white people I saw in front of me and honestly felt as if I had just crawled out from under a rock, or out of the desert, which indeed was the case! For the first time, I was without my band of fellow riders. I had stepped outside of the uniquely bizarre cycling clique where going to the bathroom in self-dug hole in the ground is the norm to a place that was beautifully landscaped and had every amenity one would expect from a high-end shopping area in the States. I definitely felt out of place. I was reprimanded twice in the hotel for trying to line-dry my hand-washed laundry (mostly cycling shorts). First, while hanging clothing on the roof-top lounge of the hotel, the Director of Hospitality promptly corrected me (and offered to have the clothing dried). For the few items I didn’t hand over to him, I hung them out the room window, but was quickly asked by the front desk receptionist to remove them.

By jumping ahead one day to Nairobi, I missed the efforts of my D.C. neighbor at meeting up with me in Nairobi. Somehow he found the campsite where our group stayed in Nairobi, but unfortunately and unbelievably, it was the one night of the entire ride when I wasn’t with the group. I so sincerely appreciated his effort and for offering me accommodations in Nairobi, and regret that we didn’t connect.  Thank you, Leigh!  Meanwhile, I want to give a shout-out to his daughter, Olivia, and her friends at the Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., who I understand are following my blog. Thanks for your interest and give me a shout out in the comments section or email me directly (dfarrell75@yahoo.com)!

It seems like Kenya came and went so fast, even though we were in the country for two weeks. I wasn’t quite ready, when we reached the border crossing to leave. Kenya left strong impressions on me though the experience seemed to consist of two entirely distinct parts. The first part was the northern stretch of unpaved roads and torrential rains which I have written a lot about and which will forever represent some of the biggest challenges of this trip (at least so far!) and my first encounters with Kenyan tribal communities which just blew me away. During the latter part of our time in Kenya, we cycled past Mt. Kenya, beautiful highlands, into the Nairobi outskirts, and then into the city. I was struck by how lush and vibrant the countryside is and how flowers are blooming everywhere, both wild and planted. Towns seemed to have thriving local economies and contain essential stores/businesses (ie., butcher, grocery, etc) in each commercial center. We saw street signage that we almost never saw in other countries marking distances and contemporary advertisements along the roadside. The Kenyan people, almost universally, were kind, friendly, welcoming, and warm. Children were well-dressed (typically in brightly colored school uniforms) and well-behaved. Very rarely did we encounter people asking for money or food. There seemed to be a pride in the physical appearance not only of the individuals, themselves, but also of their small homes and town centers. Kenya felt like a relatively prosperous country (especially coming from Ethiopia) and remarkably livable.

The border crossing into Tanzania marked the first one in which we weren’t confronted with immediate and striking changes from one country to the next. Tanzanians speak Swahili, as do their Kenyan neighbors, and the beautiful countryside scenery (cultivated farmlands, lush forests, alpine meadows, etc.) we enjoyed in Kenya continues here. I haven’t gotten the real flavor of Tanzania yet, but during the first couple of days cycling, we’ve ridden past Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak, at nearly 6000 meters. We had incredible views of Mt. Meru, Kili’s neighbor and Tanzania’s second tallest peak. Road conditions were spotty—sometimes we cruised on beautiful pavement but were then sadly confronted with gravel and corrugated stretches in between paved parts. One big regret was listening to a paving crew that waved us on to a newly paved section of road only to find our tires and bike frames coated with tar and our bodies completely splattered with it from head to toe. (Yes, for those who read along on my cross-America ride, the EXACT same thing happened. Note to self and others: Don’t ride a bike on wet pavement. It creates an absolute mess and it is impossible to get tar off of the bike and the body!) The TDA staff picked up jugs of petrol gasoline that night so we could bathe our bikes and ourselves in it, as it was the only thing we could find to get the tar off. This did not make for a fun evening—trust me!

My bike is kind of a wreck right now. It hasn’t been the same since the battering it took in northern Kenya. The brakes are still iffy, the shifting is screwy, and the chain falls off the cassette when I shift into my large cog. (I actually managed to put the chain back on while riding the other day, which was a first!) When I went to replace my slick tires with my fat, nobby ones after Nairobi (we’re going to be on unpaved roads from now until our next rest day, a week from now, in Iringa), I noticed my fat tire had a gash in the sidewall, rendering it completely useless. This was really bad news for me, as I only have one pair of fat nobbies, and I really need them. I may be able to borrow someone else’s. Anyhow, this all means that I need to spend some serious time on the bike (with the help of the mechanic, I hope) this week replacing the brake pads, cables, chain, etc. There is never enough time in the day, after the ride, to get everything I need to get done, but I will try to fix one thing on the bike each night until it is back to 100%. I’m still very happy with my bike—it just needs a little TLC after covering the distance we (my bike and me) have traveled.

So, off to bed I go, with images of panthers swirling in my head (wouldn’t it be fun to see all of the big five??), excited for our third and final safari day, and then we meet up again with the group (minus all of those taking extended vacations) and get ready to ride south of Arusha heading towards Tanzania’s capital city of Dodoma. I feel energized and ready for the second half of this ride—amazed that we’ve already come so far and that we have less than half left to go. Please send updates from home, because I miss my wonderful family and friends. xoxo

One more thing–this blog is totally incomplete without pictures!  I will do my best over the next few days to find internet and upload and post a few.  We’re heading out for a seven day riding stretch on unpaved roads, so it’s probably likely that I’ll be out of touch for a week or so.  I promise that for whomever is interested in seeing my pictures when I get back, I will gladly show the best of them.  I just find it impossible to upload the photos with these crappy internet connections and hate to spend hours of our very limited time on rest days searching out internet connections that can handle the task!  Ok, I’m off!!!

Older Posts »

Categories