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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 ...

The other riders are completely used to it. The tour is sufficiently physically taxing that constant interaction with hordes of strangers who gather becomes a dangerous energy drain. Once in camp, riders get on with the business of eating dinner, cleaning their bikes, with minimal interaction, while some of the staff play a bit of ball with the children or give away leftovers. The situation is strange, but seemingly unavoidable.

"It's terrible," Jenn says. "We eat these enormous dinners in front of all these hungry children. But what are you going to do?"

According to Erin, undergoing the self-inflicted discomfort of the tour in a place where people's lives are full of physical hardship is "the most difficult thing by far." But she is adamant that "suffering forges bonds."

We might be dirty, hungry, hot and tired, but all of us will eventually fly home to running water, cold drinks and soft beds - luxuries the vast majority of Tanzanians will never know.

That's the madness about this particular brand of misery: It's a choice. And a luxurious one at that. For many endurance athletes, pushing themselves to the limit seems to stave off a deeper psychic anxiety. For others, it seems almost like a spiritual practice - a form of nouveau asceticism designed to teach one very specific and life-affirming lesson: If you just try hard enough, anything is possible.

Which sounds great. Until you apply it to the hungry children of Tanzania.

RULE # 5: YOU CAN PEDAL, BUT YOU CAN'T HIDE

In talking to riders on the full tour, it becomes clear the most challenging thing about spending four months on the road in Africa under extreme physical duress, with little to no privacy, is the group dynamic.

Put a bunch of intense, competitive, goal-oriented endurance riders in the African bush for a couple of months and what do you get? A whole lot of conflict, gossip and drama - and some fantastic dirty jokes.

By the end of my section, I was amazed at how connected I felt to many of the people I had just met two weeks before. This is because, on the dirt mountain roads of Tanzania (or the desert of Sudan or the plains of Botswana), the smallest favour - a changed flat, a lent bike, a fetched sports drink - can be a great kindness.

As Tony, a 50-year-old Englishman and father of three, explains it, "At home, you can retreat into your routines, into your job title, into your comfort zone. Basically you can persistently be an asshole. Out here, that's not going to fly. Someone's going to call you on it."

Waking up on my final morning of the tour, I'm sad to be getting on the truck instead of riding the bumpy mountain descent into Iringa. But my legs are aching and, more important, I've got a chicken bus to catch.

The riders are gathered around the truck, shovelling porridge into their hungry mouths before setting off on another long day of riding the gravel back roads of Tanzania.

I say goodbye to all my new friends, and ask Jenn - without whom I'd be unconscious in a ditch somewhere between Arusha and Dodoma - to please, please be careful over the next two months of TDA madness.

"Dude," she grins, "we don't say that around here."

PACK YOUR BIKE:

The Tour d'Afrique Ltd. runs short and long expedition riding tours on five continents in more than 30 countries. There are even new plans for an Indian Route for 2011. Established Epic Tours include:

The Tour d'Afrique, the flagship expedition;

Orient Express, from the vineyards of France to the bazaars of Turkey;

The Silk Route, across the continent of Asia;

Vuelta Sudamericana, exploring the breadth of South America from Buenos Aires to Lima;

Amber Route, from St. Petersburg to northern Italy.

For more information on the Tour d'Afrique or how to register, go to www.tourdafrique.com.

L.M.

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