South Africa- The final leg (Tracy)

We are met with so many emotions crossing the boarder into South Africa. Relief that we only have 6 days left, and I am excited to be returning to the country I was born in after more than 15 years abroad. There is also excitement on completing our four month challenge, as well as sadness as you realise that the adventure is coming to an end and that all our TDA friends will part ways and head to opposite corners of the globe.

The last 6 days didn’t come easy and we were unable to check out. We were heading along the west coast of South Africa and strong head winds became a daily occurrence. But as always with every challenge our adventure delivered us beautiful riding and more wonderful memories.

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Our first day in South Africa we climbed through jagged, dry, rocky mountains, where almost nothing can grow. Slowly the hills became smaller as we headed into the Namaqua Region where we were met with endless rolling hills and beautiful scenery.

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At this stage all you want to do is pedal as hard as you can and get to camp to rest, to sleep, or just to get off the bike. But since we will never be cycling our bikes through this part of Africa again, we made a huge effort to take in ever last day and explore all the little towns on our rides.

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We stopped in little Afrikaans towns and had coffee at little coffee shops. The people you meet and the conversations you have along this journey are what make it so memorable. People everywhere are so warm and welcoming, happily taking time out of their day to chat to you and find out about your journey. This journey really restores your faith in human kind in every way.

As we headed to the coast we had a couple last days cycling along some dirt roads. As much as I love riding on dirt, at this point in the journey I was struggling with fatigue and motivation. The long straight roads with only a slow change in scenery as we crept back into the modern world didn’t help. Each kilometre dragging on and the last week felt like a month. I was convinced that we would never finish our journey and that this had become our reality.

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Slowly, slowly we got there. And 110km away from Cape Town, on the second last day we saw it…Table Mountain. We were lucky to have clear sky’s and no rain for this stage, and the sky was blue allowing us to see our destination so far out.  I was so happy I could have cried. We were almost there. We had nearly done it… cycled the entire length of the African continent!

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That night was one of the best on the trip. Everyone’s spirits were lifted and we were all excited about the following day. The staff gave funny awards to the riders and handed out our official TDA 2013 jerseys. We all had some early celebration drinks on the beach watching the last sunset on our African adventure. The guitar came out and we all sang out our little hearts out.

The next morning, we all got up extra early (some with sore heads), put on our matching TDA jersey’s and headed out for our last cycle. In true TDA style we were given a crazy cold morning with a low of 4 degrees as we cycled out. Even though we were all wearing as much as we could, the cold was so unbearable, and so we stopped for our first break only 9km up the road, for some hot coffee.

The rest of the day was an easy cycle heading into Cape Town. We stopped 30km out on a beach for  our finish photos with Table Mountain in the background. Some hugs, tears and smiles. We had all done it! Now for our police convoy into the city.

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The convoy to the finish was an amazing experience, with cars honking as we passed, people got out their cars at the lights and clapped. As we cycled up to the finish there was a crowd of people, family and friends of all the riders as well as strangers, they all stood and cheered as we rode through.

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We were all so shocked. We weren’t expecting people to be meeting us. After all, at this stage of the event what we had accomplished just seemed so ordinary. We all received our medals and great applause from the crowd, it really did make us feel proud and humble after what we had just completed. In a way it was great, as it gave us all a chance to reflect on what we had done, and given enough time, I’m sure we will all think it is pretty extraordinary too.

Namibia – the jewel in the crown of Africa’s south (Chris)

I thought Namibia was just going to be one last country for the TDA juggernaut to pass through on our way to South Africa, and the road to the finish flag. How wrong we were.

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After a restful day off the bikes in the super modern capital Windhoek, and our bellies full of Wimpy’s milkshakes (it’s the little pleasures in life at this stage…), we donned the nobbly tyres again for an epic and long off-road section of the tour. The first three days saw us head back out into the vast Namib dessert for some long and hot days of corrugation, but also pass through some spectacular scenery and skirting the Namib Nakluft Park. With steep mountain passes and breathtaking views, this was definitely one of the highlights of the tour. One particular descent dropped 800m in elevation in a mere 4km, with a maximum gradient of over 18 degrees it made for some hair raising riding! Tracy was happy to be back on the dirt roads and clocked in three good stages with a 2nd, 1st and 1st (off-road time trial win) heading into the rest day.

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We then arrived in Sesriem, an isolated camp site and gateway to Sossusvlei, where the oldest and highest sand dunes in the world stretch as far as the eye can see. Most riders used one of our last rest days to take a trip to Dead Vlei and Dune 45 to catch the sunrise over the iconic red sand dunes, and what a sight. But after tumbling down the dunes and walking through the eerie dead forest amongst the dunes, it was time to think about getting back on the bikes.

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The remainder of the Namibian off-road days really pushed and tested what was now a pretty fatigued riding group. Poor road conditions and tough head winds meant we were really earning our way down to the SA boarder! Many in the group felt these were some of the toughest days experienced on tour.

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Finally we approached the Orange River, the boarder between Namibia and South Africa, and we could see it, our last country! We were greeted by fields and fields of vineyards, after spending so long in the desert the sight of greenery and vegetation was surreal and very much appreciated! Great weather and a final rest day at the Felix Unite campsite gave us a chance to get out onto some tame whitewater and paddle down a portion of the river.

Our final Namibian morning needed only a short ride to the SA border, and with Cape Town in our sights, we were on our way! Incidentally, at the border crossing after finding out Tracy’s surname was Esterhuyzen, the custom’s officer told her that anyone travelling with her can come on straight through. Finally, the name that seems so hard to spell to Australian’s finally gave her a home ground advantage.

She finally made it home to the country where it all began.

Malawi – Rice paddies, Lake Malawi and thunder storms

After climbing out of Tanzania through rolling hills and misty tee plant plantations, we descended down into Malawi. In this area of Malawi, the landscape is dominated by Lake Malawi. Even after everything we had heard, the lake is more impressive than you imagine. Lake Malawi is so large you feel like you have reached the ocean. In the far distance, the landmass of Mozambique, and surrounding the waters edge are lush green mountains and water-logged rice paddies.

Bikes are used in this area by locals more than any other country we have been through in Africa, and the road is dotted with small fishing villages, friendly locals. Trace was invited into a local hair salon and asked if she needed to use their brush – in a not to subtle way I think they were trying to tell her something.

The drop in elevation from Tanzania had brought a vastly different climate. At this time of year, this area of Malawi receives thunderstorms every evening; a warm tropical rain that brings a refreshing cool change after a long day of riding. After a few days following the coast of Lake Malawi, we were rewarded with a rest day in Chitimba Beach at a local resort . We were able to put our feet up and enjoy the sun and sand while we stocked up on local treats; dried fish and local flour and meal. Most is found drying along the roadside and in bus lanes giving you plenty to look at as you ride along.

During our day off, Trace and I trekked through local villages along the mountainside and up to a local waterfall, and swam in the river. During the evening thunderstorms we swam in the lake – apparently the croc’s don’t bother you when it’s raining. Maybe they just realised there were plumper, more enticing bodies to snack on than a bunch of weirdly tanned skinny cyclists. During the warm evenings we lit bonfires and played guitar and drank, a welcome change to the schedule we are on throughout this journey.

From the lake, there were a number of beautiful climbs that led back up the mountains to the capital Lilongwe and out into Zambia. Throughout our stay, Malawi locals kept telling us they were the nicest people in Africa, and that they are s happy because their country is so beautiful. I think they might just be right.

Botswana- Elephants, saddle sores and crashes

So we have finally reached some flat terrain in Botswana. For most people this would excite them. Nice long days with pretty much no elevation; well not for myself. I couldn’t prefer anything less. The terrain during the day was slow changing and the road continued straight as far as the eye could see.

Our longest week on tour was here with 800km in 6 days and the longest single day on tour, 208km.

So what do you do when the rides get long, you form a peleton, help pull turns into the headwind and keep each other entertained. However, my first day in to Botswana the rider next to me and I hooked handle bars (I am on a cyclocross bike and she is on a mountain bike with climbing bars on the ends). In the moment I knew what had happened but she was unaware, so we were unable to unclip before it was too late. Both of us hit the tarmac at 30km an hour. She broke her helmet and had concussion. I took the weight of the fall on my hip, removing skin from my elbow and hip area. Both of us were lucky to walk away from the accident, my bike not so much with my front wheel quite badly buckled. But with some love from the TDA mechanics she was good to go again.

I wasn’t injured too badly all in all, but have had quite a sore back since. I was also quite shaken up by the experience, but after a few days decided to brave the peleton again.  On this day we had to ride 160km into strong head winds (I keep wishing for the head winds on Beach Rd!), so we formed a peleton of about 16 riders, sitting two wide, each rolling a turn for about 5mins. This meant we shared the load only rolling about one turn each hour. I was sitting about mid pack when the rider next to me touched wheels with the rider in front of him. As you can imagine at this point in the tour everyone is tired and concentration isn’t what it should be, especially with the wind gusting and creating a sagging effect further down the line. I watched in horror as the two riders next to me took each other down. I managed to swerve out of the way and as I turned back and watched rider after rider hit the ground piling up on the tarmac like a crash scene from the Tour d’ France. We all pulled over and ran back to pick riders up off the tarmac and to assess the damage. Amazingly everyone walked off the road and injuries weren’t too serious. We had one broken helmet, sliced open elbow and some skin off for the rest. Not too bad when you consider what the outcome could have been.

Since this was my second crash in a few days, I was shaking like a leaf in the wind. So, as everyone rode on I sat with the injured, helped dress their wounds, pulled myself together and then got back on my bike and faced the wind for another 130km.

The next couple of days were less eventful. In fact the slow change in scenery is mentally challenging. I would rather off-road riding or hills over flat straights. But with these boring roads came a nice surprise, elephants! Elephants would pop out of the bush unexpectedly every now and then to cross the road. Sometimes just two at a time, but every now and then if you were lucky you would get a whole family huddling around some calves as they crossed right in front of you. And as quickly as they appeared, they would disappear again into the bush.

I have seen elephants many times in my life before but have never been so in awe. The elephants here are so big and animated with expression, you can’t help but be amazed! We also had a local elephant guru, Darryl, join us for both safety and educational purposes. A few of us took advantage of this opportunity and we did some elephant tracking in the area and visited an elephant graveyard, learning so much about them and their behaviour. When you stand next to the femur (leg bone) of an elephant, you truly understand how large these animals really are.

Botswana is home to the world famous Okovango Delta, and is home to some of Africa’s most amazing wild life. But we only had one rest day and were three hours away from the Delta. So we took a day off riding and headed on an overnight camping trip into the national park with our expert Darryl. This has been one of my favourite experiences on the trip so far. We got to see the back country and dirt roads of Botswana and camp in the the real African bush. While we were preparing dinner around the fire we could hear lions roaring in the distance and elephants snapping branches only metres away. There isn’t anything more beautiful than camping beneath the African stars in the middle of the bush and we had great friends and wine to share the experience with as well.

One of the truly wonderful things about a trip like this is that you get to meet people who share the same zest and adventure for life as us! We are lucky to say that we have been lucky to share some of our wonderful experiences with people that we will call friends for a long time to come. Maybe even take on new adventures together in the future.

But the danger of camping in the bush is always there, and we were reminded in the morning with wild cat and hyena prints just outside our tent. As Darryl had said, “If you go to the toilet during the night, check for yellow eyes with your touch. If you see some, just stay in your tent”.  We loved how calm he was about this too.

Botswana is truly amazing and I am glad that we got off the main road and into the bush of the true Botswana. Sometimes the pace of TDA hasn’t allowed us to really see some of the areas we travel through to the extent that we would have liked, and it is really easy to focus on riding to each days destination and not take in the journey, especially at this stage of the tour. You can understand that riders are tired and that sometimes all you want to do on your afternoons or rest days is sleep. But we decided that a few days off the bike here and there are worth the amazing experiences we have had. After all we would hate to ride across Africa and not actually see Africa!

This approach has also been great for our health. With the long km’s in Botswana, saddle sores were very common amongst the group. I was in a lot of pain after the 208km day with my saddle sores breaking open and after 20km on the bike the day after decided to hitch a lift; some of the other riders chose to ride through the pain. Unfortunately, the only way to heal saddle sores is to not sit on a saddle. One rider ended up in hospital after their saddle sores became infected. A swollen thigh and two rounds of antibiotics later, they went back to hospital to have an absis surgically removed.

Every day on this trip you have to choose what is best for you and your health. Some riders have put their health last to ride as much as they can and I admire their determination. But Chris and I have chosen to put our health first and if that meant that we have taken some half or full days off riding then that is what we did. It is nice to know that we are near the end and that we are fitter and stronger than when we started our little African adventure

The toll of the tour… (Chris)

I thought at this stage of the tour, it would be interesting to list for you guys the toll the tour has taken on the group, some of the major incedences that have happened. I wanted to do this not for any scare tactic or anything, but just to fill you in on things that have happened that Tracy and I don’t really write about – mainly because we are very lucky and gratefull they have not happened to us!

It is important to note that these have all happened over the last three and a half months to a group that would include over 70 people (including those that have joined us for only short sections).

So bikes first:

  • 2 broken bikes – these bikes are unridable for the rest of the tour and have resulted in borrowing staff bikes of buying new bikes during the tour;
  • 2 bikes stolen – through great pressure from TDA and loca village elders, they were returned with no questions asked; and
  • Countless other tales of damage – that is why we all bring so many spare parts.

Now onto the people:

  • 2 broken hips (pelvis bones) – end of tour with flights home;
  • 3 seperate instances of broken ribs – end of tour for 2 people, one continues to ride;
  • 2 broken collar bones (clavical) – one flew home for recovery and has since rejouned the tour, the other was part of the above injurues and went home;
  • 1 broken wrist – continued riding;
  • 1 dislocated shoulder – continued riding once he popped it back in and had a paracetamol tablet;
  • 1 detached shouler – some bruising, back riding a few days later;
  • 1 case of septic arthritis of the knee – required hospitalisation and a week off from the tour for recovery;
  • 1 rider required stitches to the face after being hit in the face with a rock. Back riding after a week off for recovery;
  • 1 rider suffered bruises and cuts from an unfortunate mugging that occurred in one of the capital cities we passed through. He has rejoined the tour following a week off for recovery;
  • 2 or 3 cases of concussion and head damage following falls to the head when on the bike. Numerous cracked helmets had to be replaced proving how important it is to always wear them!;
  • 2 cases of blood infections caused by infected wounds throughout the tripical countries;
  • A few cases of giardia poisoning from consuming contaminated water (not provided by TDA); and
  • Lots of other viral issues along the way from food, the environment, and general African bugs! Many causing riders to have time off the bikes for either full or half days for recovery;

It is also important to note that TDA staff have acted in a professional manner in all cases and worked with medical authorities to ensure the riders are looked after.

This list is only a reflection of the toll that such a long and difficult bike tour can have on such a large group of riders. I encourage everyone to see the world from a bike, keep touring the world, but do it safely. Happy riding!

Zambia – the land of smoke and thunder (Chris)

So we entered Zambia, country number 7, and after a rainy time in Malawi, we were keen for some good riding, but most of all, there were a couple of stops on our journey that had the group excited. Although, not much more excited than Tracy when she found a chamelion.

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Like many of the wonderful countries we have riden through, Zambia is full of amazing people, many whom have very little, but produce what they can and are always happy to help out.

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Just to mix things up a bit while spending a night at Zambia’s Changa Changa Camp, a few of us thought it would be nice to sign up for a river cruise. A nice way to spend an evening once off the bike, and to top it off, drinks were included. How could we refuse!? I wondered if the grand vessel would be up to the standard of those found on the mighty Murray River in Victoria. So we paid our money and waited for instructions. When they handed out life jackets, I should have know things were going to get interesting.

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Not so much a river boat, but more 2 canoes with a platform strapped between them is what we got. The included drinks package? That lovely blue esky (or chilly bin) filled with a few local beers is sort of the same thing I guess. On jumped our two guides, each had a wooden stick with an ice-cream container lid strapped to it, and we were off. Lets just say the trip downstream was relaxing, followed by an all-hands-on-deck session to get us back to where we started. We actually had an awesome time, lots of laughs, and even a little adventure ashore into Mozambique (illegally – with no visa’s).

The main attraction in this part of the world is Victoria Falls, and once we made it to Livingstone, we finally got to see her. The local name for the falls translates to “smoke and thunder”, and it is sasy to see why. Dr. Livingston was the first explorer to discover the falls, and named them after his queen.

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It is really hard to describe how spectacular the falls are. At this time of year (end if the wet season), the world record heights mixed with the sheer volume of water cascading over the falls every second mean you can barely get anywhere near them without felling like you are in a perminant torrential rainstorm. Due to the high water level, the water sport activities were not running, so we resorted to running around and getting wet.

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That was before we were lucky enough to win a lucky draw that gave the two of us a chopper flight over the falls and the surrounding area! Thank you very much to the Zambia Waterfront Resort! So, it was up into the air for Tracy’s first flight, and she was not dissapointed – front seat on a private flight for the two of us!

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The road our of Livingstone saw the start of the next Section of TDA - The Elephant Highway, and yes, there are elephants everyphere in that place.

Tansania, let the safari continue… (Chris)

After a wonderful taste of Kenya leaving Tracy and I wanting to see so much more, we were off to Tansania, a country that seemed destined to not let us just pass through without leaving it’s mark on the TDA group. I have looked forward to coming to Tansania for such a long time, the Serengeti National Park and Mt. Kilimanjaro are near the top of my list. Unfortunately neither of these would be on the agenda for this fly-by. Instead, we became millionaires, hung out with warriors, and made it through many other adventures.

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The riding through northern Tansania was spectacular. A few long road stages took us through rolling hills and around the base of Mt. Mauru (3rd highest mountain in Africa) and towards Kilimanjaro. Through a few of the valleys into the town of Arusha we were surrounded by small tornado’s or dust devils; at one stage we could count up to 13. A harmless but spectacular sight as we arrived into the town that was to be our base for 3 rest days, giving us a chance to explore the area.

If you had 5 days in Arusha climbing Kilimanjaro would be on the cards, 4 days and you could make it up to the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti, but with our 3 rest days it was off to the world heritage listed Ngorongoro Crater which is known for it’s wildlife and scenery. But with Trace and I being who we are we were keen to get off the tourist roller coaster and see the crater and animals at our own pace. Surely we could drive ourselves there! Right? How little we knew.

Tour companies want you to take a tour. Drivers, meals, guides, the whole show. They don’t really like the idea of you upsetting the apple cart. But why don’t you want to be stuck in a pop-top safari car for 2 days with a group of excited Europeans kitted out with telephoto lenses much larger than their photographic knowledge? With a little determination we ended up chatting with a friendly hotel receptionist who smiled at us, made a call, and asked if a Toyota Landcruiser Prado would do the job? I smiled back and said it sure would. So we hooked up a deal, handed over about a million Tansanian shillings (the Tansanian shilling is not the strongest currency in Africa, so when you pay for something largish you walk away from the ATM’s with a stack of $5,000 notes that make you feel like a king and nervous at the same time…), and the next morning had the keys to a 4×4. So we were off to the crater, all we had to do was learn how to buy petrol, buy a crater entry permit with either a bank note or safari drivers card (neither of which we had) and book a spot at the Simba camp site (that you can’t book without a safari guide). Piece of cake, another large wad of shillings and we were sipping ciders at sunset on the craters edge looking down at Jurassic Park.

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While wandering around our zebra filled camp site we met some of the local Masai. The chief’s son took us through the forest, showed us what herbs and medicine they gather, taught us about their culture (including a stick that when you hold it everyone has to shut up and listen to you – would also be useful in western culture) and invited us to live with the Masai, maybe one day. The next morning as we were about to enter the crater for our safari we were thrown one last curve ball; if you are going to drive yourself around the crater you must have a local guide in the car so you don’t get lost. Of course you do. Thanks for letting us know now. The word guide is a loose term, and can be anyone that says they know their way around. So not to be defeated, we drove back, grabbed one of our Masai warrior friends and told him he was our guide. We gave him a pack of Pringles and some banana’s and he bounced around in the back of our Landcruiser for over 5 hours while we explored the crater. At the end of the day we dropped him back at his village, everyone was happy.

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Ngorongoro Crater is the largest unbroken caldera (crater) in the world (25km x 25km). It used to be a volcano bigger thank Kilimanjaro, until it erupted. It is unique because the animals in the crater are not going anywhere. Crater walls are steep, leaving a smorgasboard of wildlife to view.

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After leaving Arusha, we rode through some of the most scenic road riding days of the tour. Very mountainous, endless fields of sunflowers and lovely people. This got our legs ready for what was to come – the Tansanian off-road section and a night of tyre changing. The next four off-road days were over 110km’s mixed with torrential rain, clay roads, and more carnage than we have seen on tour for a while. The first stage saw a heap of damaged bikes; derailiers, hangers and chains. The clay clogs everything up, and eventually something gives way, about 15km into the stage I broke all three and had to ride one of the staff bikes into camp that day. But what a fun day. Tracy was on a roll and loving the dirty and tough conditions and fought hard to win the stage in the women’s race. The next day the conditions were even worse, breaks were no longer working, changing gears not an option. The rain was relentless and weary riders were injuring themselves and more bikes taking a beating. In a show of good TDA spirit, numerous bikes were donated to riders trying to retain EFI and get them to the end of the days stage. The final off-road stage can only be described as epic, and saw riders travel over 115km and climb over 2,100m into the town of Mbeya. This stage really had everything. I could easily say it was one of the most challenging days I have ever had on a bike, but also the most beautiful and rewarding. By the end, I could barely squeeze the breaks. The fatigue from riding cyclocross bikes through such tough terrain had taken it’s toll. What I would have given for a front suspension fork or thicker tyres.

After a rest day in Mbeya (a town with no internet and intermittent electricity), it was a few last road stages descending down to the tropical beauty of Malawi, the land of the Lake, tabacco, and the kwacha