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Tour d'Afrique cyclists in northern Sudan. (Gergo Szanyi)
Tour d'Afrique cyclists in northern Sudan. (Gergo Szanyi)

Adventure travel

Across Africa ... by bike Add to ...

Riding out of Nairobi the following day, dodging potholes, donkey carts, careening buses and families of aggressive baboons, it occurs to me that, basically, I'm screwed.

My cavalier fitness training program, which consisted of the odd jog in the park, a couple of yoga sessions and one (cancelled) spin class, is not going to wash. Neither is my complete lack of mechanical knowledge, dearth of necessary gear, inability to change a flat or pitch a tent - if I had a tent. Ridiculous as it sounds, I figured I'd bunk with Jenn. It's only two weeks right? (I end up borrowing a tent - a lucky break.)

Two weeks is a long time when you're expected to cycle up to 170 kilometres a day, most of it off-road in gravel through the mountains of Tanzania in blistering heat and sleeping in bush camps with no running water or electricity. Struggling through the rolling hills of southern Kenya, with Jenn zipping up every peak and cooling her heels at the top, my trepidation begins to thicken into something harder: resolve. I promise myself one thing: I'm going to get through this in one piece, no matter what.

Somehow, I make it 60 kilometres to lunch and ride the truck the rest of the way. This is a lazy move by TDA standards, but for me, a matter of pure survival.

This will be how I get through most of the rest of the trip - by riding half-days on the days when I can't make the entire distance.

Out on the open road with Jenn, the scenery is astonishing - arid savannah gives way to the verdant hills and valleys once we cross the border into Tanzania. We cycle by tribal villages that look completely untouched by modern civilization. Round mud huts with thatched roofs and villagers in traditional robes tending to their subsistence crops. On the side of the road, a barefoot Masai warrior tends a herd of goats with a spear. As we come closer, I see he is talking on a cellphone.

Heading into Arusha, I get on the truck and meet Jeff and Diane, a soft-spoken American couple in their 50s from Aspen. They are experienced adventure cyclists, having biked across Asia, Europe and the U.S. Like almost everyone on this tour, they have a story. A year ago, their adult son died in a mountaineering accident. They will pass the anniversary of his death while riding their bikes in Africa. Like everyone else on the tour, they are just two people trying to get through the day.

The afternoon has turned humid and more riders get on the truck. Dana, a twentysomething government employee from Washington, D.C., climbs on board covered with sweat and clay road dust. When she catches me staring at her arms and legs, which are covered in more scabs than skin, she laughs and tells me how just the day before she was riding along and her brakes suddenly gave out causing her to hit a pile of rocks and fall five metres down a gorge.

How did she get out? I wanted to know. Did anyone come to help her?

"I waited for a while, but no one came," she said. "I had a good long cry. I even thought about throwing my helmet up and hoping someone would take it as a sign I was down there. Then I figured there was only one way out."

Bleeding and aching, she dragged herself and her banged-up bike five metres up to the road and then got back in the saddle and road the last 20 kilometres into camp.

By TDA standards, Dana's story is unremarkable. People roll into camp bloodied and banged up almost every day, with some war story or other about a wipeout, collision or "adventure" as these horror stories are affectionately called.By the time I join the tour, a handful of people have already flown home because of broken bones, gut-wrenching parasites and other injuries. Most of these are serious racers, who push themselves the hardest and are by extension exposed to the most risk. But the truth is, out here, an accident can happen to anyone at any time.

One night in camp over a delicious supper of fragrant fish curry and rice (I eat three helpings), Erin, an Upper East Side blond MBA student who wears pearl earrings under her helmet, tells me her theory. "I've done the math and basically there are about 10 major issues that can happen to you on this tour - things like flat tires, broken bones, collision with a car or pedestrian, concussion, cuts, saddle sores, nerve damage, foot problems, cramping, heat exhaustion, dehydration, sickness, whatever," she says brightly. "And you are pretty much guaranteed that six of them will. It just depends on which six."

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