Sunday, March 25, 2007
Game Safari, Mountain Biker's Dream Roads, Another Stage Win and hitting the 6000km Mark, oh my!
A leopard hanging out in a tree as per usual; this is a pretty rare sighting!
On the rim of the amazing Ngorongoro crater
Bikes can get through, but motor vehicles have a pretty tough time
Hanging out with some kids after eating some ugali while waiting for our support truck to get through the at times impassable roads.
Crossing over the 6000km mark on my way to my second stage win! A surge of over 50km/h down a gravel hill got me the distance I needed and held it for the remaining 70km of the 95km day.
...and they pile them even higher! (note that Rémy in the blue shirt is 6'4")
Where is my tent? At the end of the rainbow of course.
Broken record statement of "wow, such amazing things keep happening!" I left off while typing in a small pub in Arusha, Tanzania with jumping and flipping dancers performing in the background; too cool.
After lunch we drove around looking at more and more amazing animals, each time dropping my jaw as I couldn't believe I was laying my naked eyes on these unique creatures, then made our way back toward the Ngorongoro crater. We later laughed that at home none of us could picture ourselves standing in a Land Cruiser with our waist and up sticking out of the roof whilst screaming down a rough gravel road at 80km/h, but here we didn't really question it.
We camped on the rim of the crater and nature treated us to an amazing show of another colourful sunset as another thunderstorm rolled around the rim onto our site.
Early the next morning we descended into the crater that was then covered in a thin blanket of low-lying cloud. Even the guides said that they had never seen it like this. Once under the cloud the visibility plummeted, however the keen eye of our guide did not slow our game sightings. We were constantly surrounded by grazing gazelles, wildebeest, zebras, and buffalo. My highlight of the trip was seeing a male and female of my favourite species, the cheetah. They were lying in the grass watching the approach of some spotted hyenas slinking by to see if the cheetahs had any food. The hyenas kept their distance, then loped away disappointed by the lack of easy food.
We continued around the crater floor as the fog lifted and we saw a male lion, some elephants, some monkeys, some hippos both in and out of the water, and some rhinos among many others. Just amazing!
Our vehicle climbed out of the crater on the steep access road and we finally sat back down in our seats after having our heads out of the roof for the majority of the past three days.
Back on the bike the following morning was refreshing since I had been missing it while "on vacation from my vacation." During the day's race, I stopped for a long while and checked out the nearby Snake Park. I sauntered through the Masai Museum where a bunch of questions I had accrued over the previous week or so of travelling through Masai country. I then toured around the snakes where I got to come face-to-face (okay, through a pane of glass) with a cornucopia of Africa's famous venomous and non-venomous snakes. One of the cobras and the black mamba went into attack position as soon as they laid eyes on us. My fight or flight reaction was oblivious to the glass; what an experience!
The following day the pavement ended and the fun began for the trail riders of the crew. Now in the rainy season the roads had turned into a brown soupy mess and motorized vehicle became slower than bicycle. At one point a river had washed away a 100m section of road, but was easily passable to our cycling crew. The finish line was shortly after a section of extremely deep and sticky mud that had grabbed two trucks, blocking the road. We cycled back to that location and set up camp there since there was no way any vehicle was going to get through before morning.
The next day the fun continued and though the roads were drying we still passed a couple of trucks that blocked the way for our support trucks. I had my own share of mechanical trouble that day. My borrowed rear tire (without SpinSkins unfortunately) pinch flatted once again, then about 6km before our lunch stop the side wall blew with the sound of a gunshot. Needless to say that local that I was play racing with at the time got quite the shock. Instead of playing around trying to fix it, I ran the remaining distance to lunch. Instead of playing with my tire, a staff member lent me his bike for the remaining distance. Unfortunately, 100m into the afternoon's ride, the front derailleur cable housing frayed so I rigged it to stay in the middle ring. about 10km later I got a flat that I had to patch since he had already had a flat that morning. The valve failed so I patched the spare and was on my way. Another 15km later I flatted again and each patch opened up another hole in this faulty tube until the tube exploded with a 10cm hole. I then put my inappropriately sized tube in the tire and it seemed to hold. Fun stuff in the heat!
With all of that, the highlight of the day came about 5km later when about 10m in front of me I saw a ~2m long black snake sunning himself upon the narrow road. Once he felt I was too close, he raised his head to about 1m off of the ground, then decided that he didn't want to bother with me and darted off into the Tanzanian bush. Noting the markings in the seconds in which this all transpired as well as his behaviour, I am fairly certain it was a black mamba; one of Africa's most aggressive venomous snakes. Wow!
Our support trucks managed to make it through the slop and to the village where we stopped by 9:30pm which was an incredible feat! The African Routes staff performed some incredible work that day freeing the trucks from impossible fixes and avoiding other certain jams. Just amazing!
The next day was a non-race day and had some beautiful scenery along the road that lead us into the capital Dodoma. Unfortunately, due to a late arrival and the large amount of maintenance that had to be done I didn't get a chance to see the city that much except as we were cycling through.
The following days wound us through the now dry roads toward Iringa. I had realized that I had fallen into "two-speed mode" where my only two speeds are moving and stopped. I decided that to break out of this I needed to try for a stage win. On our second last day of dirt, I managed to stay with the lead group for the first 25km of the 95km stage until I noticed that I was more comfortable descending on these "adventure race style" roads. At 25km I broke away on a winding descent where I exceeded 50km/h. I managed to stay in front until our lunch break at 60km. We had a relaxed lunch, then left together, but the others decided that they weren't going to catch me and I rode to my second stage win!
That same day, we crossed the 6000km mark at lunch. It was a funny experience since we all feel like we are drawing toward the end even though half of the kilometres remain in front of us. This is a good feeling because it acted as a reminder to continue to enjoy and take advantage of this incredible opportunity of traversing this beautiful continent by bike.
The next day showed us some stunning scenery as we climbed up the mountain range bordering the rolling valley through which we had just travelled. Shortly before Iringa we hit the tarred roads again which was an odd sensation after a week of fun and rough roads. To complete the Snows of Kilimanjaro section, in a mock sprint for n-th place, I broke my chain. I was going to change my chain the next day anyway so I scootered the final 5km to camp.
The last couple of days have been back on the "black silk" (a.k.a. tarred roads). I was really enjoying the rough roads, but reaching road speeds with relatively little effort is a pretty strange experience!
Now in Mbeya, we cross the border into our 6th country Malawi; the poorest country in Africa. It is for this reason that I am very excited that through my donors, the Tour d'Afrique Foundation will be able to donate 24 bicycles in the capital Lilongwe! I am extremely excited for this presentation ceremony. I will certainly post more about this as the time approaches.
Bring on the higher mileage and green bushy scenery of Malawi!
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Rolled away from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, rattled throuh Marsabit, Kenya and dropped into Arusha, Tanzania
A beautiful sunrise over Lake Koka in Ethiopia
The beautiful green rolling landscape south of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia
Now THAT is a terminte mound; I'm not short!
We racers gather on the rough Northern Kenyan road where we will do our daily battle of ~85km or so.
Sandstorm! (it got much worse)
I was welcomed to the Southern Hemisphere by blowing a side wall about 300m south of this sign. Too funny!
I could have watched these drummers/dancers all day; amazing!
Surprise, surprise way too much has happened since my last update in Addis Ababa! Here goes an unbelievably long-winded update. My apologies, but it has to be done!
We travelled south along a major shipping route from Ethiopia's capital toward Somalia and Djibouti, but managed to keep out of harm's way. At one point we were travelling faster than the congested traffic and a European gentleman inquired out the window as we passed where we were headed. He laughed and started taking pictures of us when we replied "Cape Town." Too funny.
We had a couple of camps on some lakes where we saw a variety of wildlife including Cranes that stood nearly 1.5m tall and had the most amazing wing span! I also saw an ostrich and lots of other unique wildlife along the way. What a difference it was to be travelling and camping beside lakes after all of the arid conditions we have travelled through.
We moved into the lush hills where we were climbing again in amongst banana trees and broad leaved, very green bush. Days became hotter once again and evenings ceased to cool off with all of the humidity in the area holding the heat. Unfortunately, we had another rider-local accident where a little girl ran out in front of a particularly contentious rider of ours. Both were okay, but sustained some cuts and bruises. The bike's front wheel taco-ed and his helmet was...well
ceased to be useful. Our medic went quickly into action and our Ethiopian staff member was translating to tell the little girl what the medic was doing and telling the girl's father what was happening.
One day, our scenery began with the lush green that we had become accustomed to, then suddenly changed to coniferous forest that reminded me of Northern Ontario in Canada, then suddenly to dry, arid,
scrubby desert all within our 120km ride! As Ethiopia drew to a close, the condition of the road became worse and worse. In places, the area of the potholes exceeded that of the remaining pavement. The pavement quality was diminishing such that my 1.25" slicks at 100psi were no longer rolling efficiently over the rough surface. On our third-last day in Ethiopia, I decided to give up on the pavement and
tried the parallel dirt road that suddenly appeared. I had a blast rolling quickly over this rough yet far more entertaining surface where I was dodging sand pits, cattle, camels, rocks, locals, thorn patches and other obstacles. I was keeping up with some other riders that were sticking to the rough pavement dodging and jumping potholes. The other joy of this was that I knew that it was going to be my last
day on my Cannondale.
I decided that the crack was just getting too big on my frame, it tended to fish-tail a bit once I got over 60km/h and it was getting stupendously noisy! In Yabello, I moved all of my components over to the frame and fork of Henry Gold (tour founder; what an honour!) that we have been carrying with us as an extra. The advantage being that I could ride without fear of my frame breaking catastrophically, the disadvantage being that we were heading into 6 of the rougher days of the tour on a straight-tubed, thick-walled, rigid aluminum bike (i.e.
no suspension). It took some getting used to since it is a completely different geometry than I am used to (it is a touring frame and mine is a stretched out racing geometry), but I am still riding and it fits me reasonably well so I am pretty lucky and happy to have it!
Crossing the border into Kenya meant a number of things: moving over to the left side of the road where we will stay until Cape Town,
bidding farewell to pavement for a while, bidding farewell to crowds and rock-throwing, but also bidding farewell to a beautiful country with some very friendly people. The riding started fast, but slowed down once the corrugations became more violent, the winds turned against us, the heat increased and the sand-storms began; it was awesome! The day into Marsabit was particularly tough and took me
just shy of 7 hours to complete. What a rewarding day to complete! Needless to say, my wrists enjoyed the rest having rattled over the terrain without suspension.
My SpinSkins have been working out great and Northern Kenya was great proof. I was not able to fit my large rear tire in my borrowed frame so I was lent a smaller one that would fit. My front tire with the SpinSkins had no problems at all even though the volcanic rock was shredding the exterior of the tire. The back tire without the Kevlar strip in it did not bode as well and I pinch-flatted five times in
four days on the rough stuff (even at 80psi; lose some weight Andrew!). Two of those were in the >45°C heat of the day into Marsabit.
Camping in Marsabit National Park was great as we had baboons playing above our tents and elephants strolling through our site. I managed to avoid the falling primate feces until just as we were leaving; almost too lucky.
The next three days saw us along more rough corrugations, but the scenery was absolutely stunning! Mountainous terrain with light climbing, fun downhills and of course the beautifully decorated Samburu people along the way. The colours that these people wear is absolutely amazing and the effort that goes into their bead work and piercings is astounding!
Reading National Geographic articles about bare-breasted African tribes people seems like something that would be off the beaten track; however the rough road from Moyale to Isiolo seems to be off this track enough. The scenery, the wildlife and the decorations of the people made me feel like I was living in a magazine. Just amazing.
Though I am a mountain biker and enjoy being off the tarmac, I must say that it was a great feeling to hit tar in Isiolo. After averaging less than 20km/h over a day of pushing, cruising easily at 25km/h felt surreal. To top it off, we found some fridges and freezers stocked with yogurt and ice cream. The population also exploded once we left "bandit territory" that surrounds the rough roads so our quiet, starry bush camps had expired.
We had a luxurious few days of riding into Nairobi, with riding times dropping, average speeds sky-rocketing, camping becoming far more luxurious and most of all treated to some amazing views of Mt. Kenya, Africa's 2nd highest peak. I can't wait to come back and climb that one; it is beautiful!
In Nanyuki, we had our half-way and equator-crossing toga party. I am very proud to say that I was awarded "best toga" for my olive wreath, silk toga (good ol' sleep sheet) and of course Salomon tights. Crossing the equator early the next morning was a cool experience, however 300m into the southern hemisphere I blew a side wall in my
rear tire. Once I realized that I was not being shot at, a staff member lent me his tire for the rest of the day.
Riding into Nairobi on my birthday was a fun experience. I was stunned by how developed the city is! It was somewhat unfortunate to see some lavish infrastructure (beautifully tended lawns, intricate architecture, fountains centre piecing traffic circles, etc.) considering the condition of the road that lead us from the Ethiopian border. Apparently the three tribes of the northern area have never had a representative in parliament and have not had their voices heard. Not being a man of politics, I will leave the facts as I have heard them there.
Being the conclusion of the third section of the race, the awards were distributed and I received the "How many other ways can I think of to
destroy a bike" award. What an honour. I guess after three bent chain links, a cracked derailleur pulley, a jimmied seat post, a pile of pinch flats (none with SpinSkins), a cracked frame, a bent chain ring and two blown tire side walls, I had it coming to me.
Unfortunately, I was also bit by the birthday bug and like many others on this trip fell ill that night. To keep a gruesome story short, I was fine until about 9:00pm, then went to bed because I just wasn't feeling right. I was up more than ten times during the night (who really keeps count after that?) with both diarrhea and vomiting. I was amazed at how much liquid my body could contain! I was
disappointed that I was not healthy enough to look around Nairobi (and of course was not able to update this website), but was happy that I did not have to ride a bike.
Luckily, a press conference was held at our camp for a couple of reasons: Douglas Sidialo who is a blind Kenyan rider going from Cairo to Cape Town on a tandem spoke. His sponsor Nestle showed up and set up an impressive display of banners and samples. Many people gave speeches promoting Douglas' various causes ranging from the UN Safer cities program, promoting disabled athletes the power of sport in Africa.
I also got to witness the first presentation of bicycles from the Tour d'Afrique Foundation! This presentation was to two women's groups within Nairobi that will use the bikes to further their ability to provide health care to women in their area. There were thank-you speeches from the women as well as a thank-you song from some children who live in the area. Very precious!
Our exit from Nairobi was lead by a group of 25 or so inline skaters and roller skaters promoting a "Stop Malaria" movement sponsored by a new Belgian rider of ours. They were all over the street, hanging onto our support vehicles, doing tricks and making a lot of noise drowning out the din of Nairobi's morning traffic.
The two riding days away from Nairobi were beautiful and some highlights were some vigorous native dancing and drumming at our lunch stop (just awesome!), travelling through the famous Masai country, crossing into Tanzania and of course being treated to some clouded views of the stunningly massive Mt. Kilimanjaro! Though my health is taking its time returning making the 140km days in the heat difficult, the scenery and the smiling support of people along the road is enough to get me through.
Here I sit in Arusha which feels like the tourism capital of Africa right now. We have three rest days here so I am taking full advantage and am doing a three-day safari through Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater where I will see a world of wildlife only
familiar in magazines and on TV screens to me before. I can't explain my excitement to witness savage Africa!
Once back on the bike, bring on the rainy season mud of the Dodoma road!
Monday, March 05, 2007
Impressions of Ethiopia: 13 months of sunshine!
To explain the title; Ethiopia uses the Julian calendar which means that they have thirteen months in the year, it is currently 1999 (they are very excited for their upcoming millennium) and their time is offset by 6 hours. 0:00 happens when the sun rises: makes sense.
- In one word: "amazing!"
- Densely populated! From when we crossed the border in Metema to when we crossed out of Ethiopia in Moyale, I feel like there were people absolutely everywhere. No matter how rural of a place I felt I was in, if I stopped for whatever reason (including answering nature's call) there was nearly instantly a group around me. If I stopped in a town, it would not be a surprise to have a crowd of up to 100 (confirmed by rough count!) surrounding me just staring at what just breezed into town. I can't say I blame them, I would probably do the same. While travelling along the roads, there were constantly calls from both sides of the road yelling either "You, you, you...", "Where are you go?" or "Farangi!"
- Misunderstood?: I would make an estimate that 99% of the people here are super friendly and enjoy greeting the strange people on bikes as we crawl through their towns. They enjoy staring and touching our strange skin and trying their limited English on us even if they have no idea what they are asking. The remaining 1% (which considering the number of people by the roads leaves an apparently large number of people) which seemed to all fit into the male 5-18 age category have different ideas of greeting. For our suspected but not confirmed reasons of economic jealousy, our lack of effort to communicate in a language they understand, the fact that adults control children like their livestock (throw rocks at them, hit them with sticks and whips, etc.), the children in turn treat us foreign looking creatures the only way they know how. Whether they realize the pain an severity of injuries they are able to inflict by their actions remains a mystery to us. As a side note, I am surprised that the US doesn't send Major League baseball scouts to Ethiopia; the speed, distance and accuracy that these surprisingly small children can hurl large rocks is incredible!
- People tend to locally work together more. Though neighbouring communities compete and disagree, within a community seem to help each other. This was in contrast with Egypt where two salespeople would in tandem keep lowering their prices to make the sale.
- Begging: how different it was after crossing from the Sudan. People of all ages (though predominantly children) have no shame in begging. Though they take diverse approaches from the pouty face look, to the yelling in anger, to simply holding out the cupped hand, to the intellectual long story of how they are a student with little money, it is a very accepted practice. Unfortunately, it doesn't get many conversations off to a good start. After having a pack of kids pester me for pens, money, sweets and other goodies for a good half-hour of monkey watching, I turned around and started playing with a ball with them and the next thing you know I am playing soccer with a bunch of them. They taught me a little Amheric, I taught them a little English, all was well. It really is unfortunate how accepted agressive begging is.
- The people are as diverse as the rapidly changing landscape (see below)
- Beautiful and stunningly diverse! To summarize all of the landscapes that we travelled through to any degree of accuracy would take some time. Our path travelled through a dry and lightly forested area, then into jagged mountains, tree-less high-rolling hills, green lush bush around Lake Tana, swampy hippo-inhabited areas, greener mountains, flat lands dotted with lakes, very green and very lush banana areas, re-forested coniferous forests, back into dry desert with towering termite mounds and scrubby, thorny bushes that manage to suck enough water from the dry soil to survive, and more!
- Many are very hard working! I saw people (mostly women) hauling a huge amount of goods over large distances (often greater than an estimated 50 pounds (23 kilos) and over distances up to an estimated 10km. The donkeys here also haul huge loads on their backs and with carts. It was common to see a single donkey with an unfathomable load behind it huffing and puffing its way up a hill. It was also common to see a group of women hauling large loads with a single husband strolling beside them carrying a stick.
- Everyone carries sticks. Not much depth to this comment, but the "stick trade" here seems fairly extensive. They are used for scaffolding, mud-structure building and for carrying. As a rider keeping a close eye out for potential stick swings in my direction (or the direction of my spokes), it is easy to note how so many carry sticks. They use them for any combination of hitting their donkeys, help carry the load on their head, controlling children, "encouraging" their horse, or of course swinging at passing foreigners. Relative to the others, the latter is likely the least common.
- Do take this section with a grain of salt as I am nowhere near qualified to talk about things like this so I'll just state the facts. It was interesting to note that once we approached Ethiopia and the entire way through the country, a large portion of our group had some sort of stomach sickness to some degree. Our poor tour nurse with limited resources was treating bacterial and protozoal infections and watching potentially viral infections pass through. The water we drink is treated, but will bacteria etc. still get through? Is it from the quality of ingredients that is used to cook our food? Is it from contact with others? Is it because every surface around has donkey/goat/cattle/camel/human feces on it? We found it tough cycling the distances we do every day while the body is fighting off a multitude of infections even with our defence line of modern medicine, abundant water, quality foods, etc. Imagine having that same sickness with little food, no clean water and exerting yourself in a similar manner hauling goods around just to survive.
That is all I have for now. The incredible amount of experiences I have will likely add to more of these, but I am still mentally digesting them. Beautiful place Ethiopia; beautiful place. On to Kenya!
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