"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
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."
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.
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.