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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 ...

RULE # 3: THE FASTER YOU GO, THE FASTER IT'S OVER

There are, strictly speaking, three distinct types of riders on the Tour d'Afrique. The racers, the pleasure riders and the endurance athletes, known as "EFI-ers" - which stands for (there is no polite way to put it) "Every Fucking Inch."

The first two groups are pretty straightforward. The racers compete with each other, riding in pelotons, obsess over their times and generally seem to think and talk of little other than who's winning what stage and which internal gear hub system is superior (Rolhoff or Shimano?). The pleasure riders (like me) pedal along, enjoying the scenery, getting fit, stopping to check out local village life, and getting on the truck when they feel too tired or banged up to finish the day.

The EFI-ers, however, are a whole different breed. Stubborn, intense and possessed of an obsessive determination, EFI-ers are the sort of goal-oriented physical extremists that the Tour d'Afrique depends on for survival - of the economic, logistic and spiritual variety. These are the people who refuse to get on the truck, no matter what happens, every single inch of the way.

Many EFI-ers on this tour have cycled while sick and injured and most refuse to get off the bike unless physically forced to do so (riders are not allowed to ride after dark), in some cases at gunpoint by local police warning of lion attacks.

While the people on the tour come from an amazingly diverse array of backgrounds and nationalities, one thing most people here have is a deep-seated belief that in the misery there is magic. That, somehow, enduring the pain, moving through it and completing the journey from start to finish, will yield untold rewards - physical, mental and spiritual - in the long run.

Some have even dedicated their lives to this notion. Take Steph. A pretty, winningly sarcastic, 30-year-old Canadian wilderness guide, she is also a former military combat engineer who, by her own admission, has spent more time in the past 10 years sleeping on the ground than in a bed.

About halfway through Tanzania, on a particularly difficult off-road day, Steph creaked in last for lunch. She was covered in dirt and sweat and frustrated from having changed four flats that morning alone. Her cyclo-cross bike wasn't built for the treacherous off-road conditions and the descents were taking their toll. Under her eyes were big black circles from a case of what she described as "chronic, incurable insomnia."

It was another 80 km after lunch and, because she was going so slowly, it was getting late in the afternoon. At this rate, she wouldn't be getting into camp until 5 or 6 at night, having left camp at 7 a.m. I encouraged Steph to get on the truck, but she flatly refused.

"I'm afraid to," she said, which I found surprising. What could possibly frighten a brave and willful young woman?

"Myself," she explained. "I'm not afraid of anything but myself."

Rule #4: KEEP IN MIND: THIS IS AFRICA

One day of hard cycling blurred into the next, taking us through the lush green hills and sunflower fields of rural Tanzania. We travelled from Arusha south to the tiny capital city of Dodoma. A small group takes a couple of luxurious rest days to safari in the Masai Mara National Reserve and the Ngorongoro Crater. In a convertible Range Rover, we spent hours staring at lumbering elephants, families of baboons, giraffes, hyenas, gazelles, warthogs, wildebeests, hippos, rhinos and even a sleeping she-lion. Evenings were spent attacking the hotel buffet and drinking ice-cold beer at the bar. There was more laughter in two days than in the entire section combined. The rest was clearly a huge relief for the full tour riders, who have not had a moment to relax in two months of relentless riding, prepping, cleaning, camping and maintenance.

The cycle was broken, but not for long. Soon enough we were back on the road for the seven-day hard-riding stretch into Iringa, Tanzania.

We camped rough in farmer's fields, setting up tents as crowds of locals gather to gawk. Dozens - sometimes hundreds - watched as the strange mzungu (white people in Swahili) roll in on their bicycles and give themselves baby-wipe baths inside their tents. The more remote the location, the more attention we attract (in parts of rural Ethiopia and Sudan, the TDA requires armed guards and roped perimeters to keep the locals from entering tents). The feeling of being watched - not furtively, but openly and unashamedly stared at - reverses the notion of spectator and spectacle, tourist and attraction. It's interesting, but like most things on this trip, also uncomfortable. The people are desperately poor. They hold their hands out for food and money. Most are dressed in rags. Barefoot children carry infant siblings on their backs.

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