"All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there," Paul Theroux once wrote. I know exactly how he felt.
Contemplating my own journey into the dark heart of the dark continent - a two-week section of a legendary bicycle expedition called the Tour d'Afrique, which follows the same path as Theroux's famous overland journey from Cairo to Cape Town - I was filled with excitement and also trepidation, and for good reason.
The Tour d'Afrique is frightening, and not because it involves bare-bones travel and bush camping across some of the most remote, impoverished and historically unstable countries in the world (from the sphinxes of Egypt to the beaches of Cape Town through Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Botswana). The TDA is frightening because the entire length of this fascinating, frustrating, gorgeous and confounding continent is traversed, over four and half months, on the back of a two-wheeled, pedal-powered contraption known as a bicycle.
I'm going to ride my bike across Africa. Sounds pretty great, doesn't it? Rolls easily off the tongue. Gets a positive reaction at a cocktail party. But there's only one problem: You actually have to ride your bike across Africa. And like most things in life worth doing, that's a hell of a lot harder than it sounds.
Operated out of a small warehouse office in Toronto's Chinatown, the TDA started in 2003 when company founder Henry Gold had a notion to organize a one-time charity bike race expedition across Africa. At the time, 30-odd adventurous souls signed up and made the trip, camping and cooking their own freeze-dried food along the way. The Tour has since expanded (57 full tour and 46 sectional riders came along this year) and TDA Ltd. has moved farther afield, running similar trips in Asia and Europe.
Despite the company's expansion, the African expedition remains its most popular draw - as well as something of a milestone in the subculture of adventure-travelling, endurance athletes. Like summiting Everest, trekking to the South Pole or running the Grand Canyon Ultra Marathon, the Tour d'Afrique has become one of those mythical goals on which a small, but feverishly determined, portion of humanity chooses to fixate. Part race, part expedition, part social experiment, part madness, it is one of those things you have to go through to fully understand. As one participant said to me early on, "This is an experience I'd unreservedly recommend to my best friend - and my worst enemy."
RULE # 1: EVERY RIDER IS AN ISLAND
Arriving at the campsite on the outskirts of Nairobi, I felt as though I had walked into an improvised military hospital for a ragtag guerrilla army of aging white backpackers. Exhausted-looking cyclists sat around fiddling with bike parts and laptops, many of them bandaged, limping or both. My old friend Jenn, who is riding the whole tour and raising admirable amounts of money for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, greets me with a shout. "Dude!" she says, slapping me on the back and showing me around the camp. She introduces people by their injuries. "This is Gerry - his arm got sliced to the bone by some kids throwing rocks in Ethiopia. His girlfriend, Viv, just had surgery on her toe. This is Erin. How's the kidney infection, dude? The one with the big bandage on her head is Laura. Just came back from the hospital with her second concussion. Hit by a bus. First time it was a pothole. Poor kid."
Jenn shows me around the camp, and introduces me to the bike mechanic ("Make sure to buy him a beer"), then it's into town for lunch. Rick, a self-deprecating oil engineer from Calgary, tags along. Rick and Jenn order and consume a hamburger and fries, a chicken burrito with rice and beans, a plate of quesadillas, a chocolate sundae, apple cake and ice cream, and two Cokes. Rick informs me that he has lost 10 kilos on the trip so far.
Back at camp that evening, Jenn helps me set up my brand-new bike - a woman's hybrid mountain bike with front suspension. A few key parts have broken in transit, including my front suspension lock out, but the bike is still rideable. When I ask the mechanic for help, he shrugs and advises me to "let it go."
When I grumble about this to Jenn later over beer in the canteen that night, she laughs. "Look, dude," she tells me, "the first thing you have to understand is that you are pretty much on your own here. No one is going to help you. Everyone pretty much takes care of themselves."
RULE # 2: WHEN YOU FALL INTO A GORGE, GET RIGHT BACK ON THE BIKE