Thursday, June 28, 2007


Impressions of Africa

I just noticed that one month ago this evening I set foot back on Canadian soil for the first time since the beginning of 2007. I thought that this was great motivation to finally finish my “Impressions of…” section of my website. Here are the final few sections below.

I have also added pictures to some of the posts that did not previously have pictures due to difficulties with African internet connections.

For those of you that are new to this site, you can step your way from bottom to top (the way web logs usually work) through the archives. The links are found on the side bar, but also here for your convenience. I hope you enjoy!

September 2006 - Registraion
November 2006 - Pre-tour media
December 2006 - Pre-tour media
January 2007 - Start! Egypt, Sudan
February 2007 - Sudan, Ethiopia
March 2007 - Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania
April 2007 - Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia
May 2007 - South Africa
June 2007 - South Africa and wrap up

Here is my final “Impressions” post on the whole trip. It is interesting how when we hear about anything that happens on this continent, we always hear about it as “Africa” rather than concerning one of the 56 countries that make up the continent. As with any continent, each country has a very distinct identity and an independent set of issues to deal with. Though generalizations are also easy to make about places like “Europe,” “North America,” “South-East Asia,” etc., I feel that generalizations about this vast continent run far deeper than others. I tried to point out some of these superficial differences throughout this web site. To start, here are some of the common threads that do tie some of the nations through which I travelled together.

The people:
• Great! Generally very embracing of us foreigners and with some exceptions welcomed us into their lands.
• Good social sense. Now back on North American soil, I feel that we have much to learn from social structures found across Africa. The sense of family and community is very strong down there and has been all but lost in many parts of Canada. Though we live in populated areas, we talk face-to-face much less and rely very strongly on impersonal electronic communication. I am very guilty of this and will try to incorporate more of this into my lifestyle.
• Happy. It is very humbling to pass someone on the side of a road and note the stark contrast between us. I am flying by at 30km/h on a bicycle made from aircraft-grade aluminum, into which thousands of hours of design has gone into optimal flow of the brake fluid through my hydraulic callipers and other minutiae, wearing similarly intricate clothing, special creams rubbed into my skin to protect me from the sun, an expensive piece of foam on my head to protect me in the unlikely event of an accident, a specialized powder in my clean drinking water to more efficiently replenish my body fluids and a small repair shop on my back collectively weighing less than a small bucket full of water. Who am I passing? I am passing by someone with a massive load of goods be it produce, textiles or other goods that they have somehow acquired, carrying them for kilometres on end along with their village mates, family members or whomever else is helping that day to town where they will try to sell their goods, bring the remainder back the large distance to repeat the process the next day.

Who is happier? This begs the question of how happiness is defined. My western upbringing has instilled a sense of necessity for progress. We seem to not be happy unless we are somehow moving forward. Aspirations for the future drive us to work harder and without that potential for a brighter future our motivation fades and we become unhappy. What about a more static definition of happiness? I have food within me, shelter over me, good people around me, a body healthy enough to be able to live and enjoy another day, what else do I really NEED? Since my return, I have swung more toward this definition and have tried to adopt a hybrid definition between the two extremes. Whenever we feel unhappy, we can ask ourselves how much in the grand scheme of life this issue really matters. Does it really matter whether what colour the bathroom is painted? Does it really matter if the grocery store is out of our favourite product? Does it really matter if we do not have hydro for another couple of hours? Does it really matter if I cannot partake in an event because I already have other commitments? In the famous words of Meher Baba: “Don’t worry, be happy.”

The landscape:
• Amazing, beautiful, stunning, diverse, addictive, mountainous, flat, lush, arid, green, brown, blue, purple, yellow, red, an endless list of descriptors.
• Considering I traversed an entire continent, it is not surprising that a great deal of diversity was encountered. With that said, I think this statement dispels a great deal of misconceptions that I have come across. What a beautiful place.
• A fellow rider pointed out toward the end of the tour that scenery is that much more beautiful from a bike. I thought she was romanticising the idea until I stepped into a car again. I constantly had the window down and was struggling with the desire to get out of the car which is clearly a dangerous thing to do whilst in motion. She was right. While on a bike, you can look left, right, up, down, forward and back without bound. The labour of independently powering your way up a hill makes the vista at the top that much sweeter!

• This is an extremely heavy topic so I will keep this short. The next time you donate to a charity ask yourself the questions: “What caused me to give this money here and will this organization/person be able to perform that?” “Will this donation help the people I am trying to help?” “What portion of this donation will help and what portion will go into the glossy, perfectly worded pamphlet I am holding?” “What is the social effect of my donation?” This will hopefully guide you to donate your hard-earned funds to small and efficient charities rather than large ones that have large overhead costs.

Thanks so much to the countries that made my African journey as special as it was. Don’t worry, I’ll be back!


Impressions of South Africa (Western Cape)

The people:
• Firstly the Northern Cape (province we entered the country in) was a little like Namibia and Botswana in that there were not that many people around. Once we approached Cape Town in the Western Cape the population density shot up. On my travels after the tour along the Garden Route and into the Eastern Cape it was largely a tourist population, but many western style towns and farming communities existed.
• South Africa is often referred to as “The Rainbow Nation” referring to their diversity in heritage between the variety of tribes native to the area and the diversity of settlers in the country. With eleven official languages this country does celebrate its diversity which being from another diverse nation like Canada is really inspiring to feel their national pride toward this identity.
• What an interesting collision of worlds. Up until this point in the trip, the terms “locals” and “natives” felt synonymous. Now in South Africa it feels much more like so many other nations in the world where the native population is confined to certain areas while the settlers take up most of the space. It is interesting to see a nation in this state as it makes me question my own presence in Canada. It is strange to think of this place that I call home as land that was once frequented by natives and was not “owned” at all.
• I am particularly conservative with issues that involve racism to the effect that I will never use skin colour as a descriptor for people and tend not to notice proportions of ethnicity within groups. South Africa with apartheid so recent in their history is much more progressive to this effect. I was often asked when speaking of someone whether they were “white, black or coloured” and often I had no idea. For some – I hope many - there is no implied racism at all but rather similar to referring to the heighth or length of hair of someone. However, for others this opens the door to form opinions of others before even meeting the person.
• Thank goodness that apartheid is dead and it is apparent everyone having equal opportunity by the rules. It is interesting to note the divide that still exists between backgrounds. This is of course a generalization and does not apply across the board, but it did seem that by and large, people of European descent live a lifestyle that westerners are familiar with. People of African descent continue to live a lifestyle more in line with what I observed throughout the rest of the continent. People live in “informal settlements” that on the outside look like inhabitable place, but as I have heard from numerous sources on the inside offer a desirable lifestyle.

The landscape:
• The Northern Cape was beautifully mountainous. I thoroughly enjoyed cycling between, up and down mountainsides and traversing the areas valleys. Once into Western Cape, the mountains became rolling hills and gently sloped into the sea. There were occasionally sea cliffs, but generally the land went gently into the sea offering nice beaches, albeit cold due to Antarctic currents. Around Cape Town is stunning with Table Mountain and the chain of mountains that run down the Cape Peninsula and finally dive into the ocean not far west of the confluence of the Indian and Atlantic oceans at the Cape of Good Hope. Along the Garden Route the scenery is also stunning with mountains, beautiful coastlines, deep river gorges, lots of wildlife and a variety of green landscapes. Farther inland of course are the large and small Karoo deserts.

What a great, yet strange way to end a tour such as this. I started my integration back into western society in South Africa. After four months of sleeping in a tent every night, very simple pleasures felt extremely lavish and completely ridiculous at times. The beautiful scenery was a great distraction from that though! I can definitely see myself coming back to ZA!


Impressions of Namiba

The people:
• Namibia has the lowest population density of all countries in Africa; once again very few people here. The German influence is very strong here.

The landscape:
• Finally, a hill! Though the flat landscape of Botswana was beautiful, it was a little tiresome after a thousand kilometres of zero geographic relief. There were some beautiful mountainous areas farther west and of course out on the west coast are the famous dunes of the Namib Desert.
• We unfortunately skimmed through the country with only a sampling of diverse Namibian scenery, but the rest of the country houses an unbelievable diversity of scenery!

• The Namibians apparently take pride in the state of their roads. The paved roads are in good condition.
• Of note is that Namibia has apparently the largest network of gravel roads in the world. It was decided that due to the low population density (and hence low traffic) on the roads outside of the main artery, these roads would be kept gravel, but well maintained. I can attest to the good condition of these gravel roads since I hit 77km/h heading down a hill in my aerobars on gravel. I couldn’t have said that before this trip!
• Extremely westernized. The “typical African village” is nearly lost through the areas that we travelled.

Namibia is certainly another country that I would like to come back to. There is a huge amount to see and we really did skim through it very quickly.


Impressions of Bostwana

The people:
• People? What people?
• The countryside did not contain people like every other country up until now. It was easy to cycle a whole day and see no one except our group, truck drivers and wildlife. The villages that we did go through had very friendly people in them, but these villages were very few and very far between. We actually had one guy drive way out of town chasing after us in his car because he thought we had turned the wrong way on our bikes.

The landscape:
• Flat, flat, flat!
• My maximum speeds for the day were not often all that much larger than my average speed. The roads were also super straight where at times I would travel for over 40km without even a bend in the road.
• There was however diversity in the vegetation. Flora is not a forté of mine, but what I can comment on is at times there were large open plains, other times, the grasses were taller and trees dotted the plain and other times it seemed to be a tall scrub that covered the land (by tall I mean over 3m).
• I was curious as to what the Kalahari desert looked like, but remembered that a desert is defined by the amount of annual rainfall that it receives. The Kalahari is not a desert like we think or like I saw farther north in the Sahara or Nubian deserts. It is covered in scrubby vegetation about 1-2m tall.

• The towns that are around are once again even more westernized. Electricity is now commonplace.
• Trucks as well as cars are generally in very good repair and cities though small are well developed.

The wildlife:
• Though I had seen a good deal of wildlife on the trip up to this point, it seemed very abundant in Botswana. I surmise that this is due to the low population density. In other countries it seemed that wildlife was contained to parks where it was visited by humans whereas in Botswana it seemed that the people were contained to the villages where they were visited by wildlife. I saw a huge warthog running through the streets of Kasane, our campsite was surrounded by hippos, elephants and apparently crocodiles (luckily separated by a tall electric fence, we saw giraffes, elephants and other large animals while riding along public highways, saw tonnes of wildlife in the Okavango Delta that were kept out of the city of Maun by a game fence, the list goes on.

Like Canada’s prairies, Botswana is a pretty flat place (even more flat I think) but contains a lot of surprising jewels. Fun place!


Impressions of Zambia

The people:
• Once again, very friendly. Similar to Malawi in that people would stare out of curiosity, but would quickly lose interest and continue doing what they were doing.
• Hard working. Though the population density seemed quite a bit lower through Zambia the people we did see were working away in the fields, doing their urban occupation in urban areas or cutting the roadside grass by hand. Most of the roads we travelled were lined by grass which was 2-3m tall at the highest points, but was constantly cut by hand!

The landscape:
• Very green, very rolling, perfect for cycling! We were doing some bigger distance days in Zambia which were made a little tougher by constantly rising and falling, but it was very welcome as it offered beautiful scenery. Once farther west in the country, things started to flatten out a bit, but always slightly rolling which was nice.
• Of course Zambia shares with Zimbabwe the amazing Victoria Falls. I already babbled on about my amazing experience around the falls so I’ll let you read that post. Wow, exhilarating!

The countryside:
• It seemed that the way things are organized in the country is that there are many small settlements (smaller than villages) scattered over the countryside. The villages that we had become used to were fewer and farther between. These settlements appeared to be family-based as they were typically a collection of thatch huts with a small dirt courtyard between them and farmland behind them. It is a good reminder that us humans don’t need a whole lot to be happy; roof over us, enough food and good company all available in these little settlements.
• Once we did hit major centres (Chipata, Lusaka, Livingstone) they were extremely westernized. Arriving in Lusaka in particular was a shock to the system in that there was all of a sudden massive factories to start along with a great deal of traffic, the traffic seemed to be of vehicles that appeared to actually be road worthy (as opposed to up until now city streets were littered with vehicles perpetually on their last legs, but keep going), and a few air conditioned shopping malls. What a contrast to the simple country life we witnessed outside of these major centres.

Education system:
• I can’t compare since I only became familiar with the system here. It seems that schools have to get to a certain state of repair before they are taken on by the government. It is supposed to motivate communities to care of the maintenance of their schools, however this is very difficult for communities to do on their own. Once schools drop below a certain level, they are dropped by the government and you end up with kids sitting on benches beneath trees trying to get some sort of shade while they learn. This is an ideal non-funded situation since usually once the funding stops, the teacher’s funding reduces and their residence is not maintained (normally only one teacher per school). It is very difficult to woo teachers toward schools.

I thoroughly enjoyed Zambia; what a haven for cycling! Okay, at times the roads were pretty rough, but one doesn’t travel to Africa looking for pristine pavement.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


The last few hundred thousand pedal revolutions...

We crossed the Tropic of Cancer in Egypt, the equator in Kenya and now just south of Windhoek, we hit the southern tropic!

These quiver trees give an eery look to the starry sunset.

No tour is complete without the coveted naked kilometre. Fortunately, this is the best picture I have!

The 2nd largest canyon in the world, the 500m deep Fish River Canyon

A warm welcome to South Africa; a beautiful sunset over the Orange River!

The Atlantic Ocean! The first salt water we hit since the Red Sea in Egypt.

Arrived 2nd place on the last race day and 5th overall.

Showing my Canadian pride on our final convoy into Cape Town. Congrats fellow TDA riders!

Though this is finally the update into Cape Town, it will not be my last post here. I last left off as we were leaving Windhoek. Since Windhoek sits in a valley, it was certain that we were going to climb to get out of the city, and of course climbing means that there are some great views as well. Right off the line I went my own pace which meant that the racers stuck on my wheel for a while, then sped off as I slowed to take more pictures. This actually became typical of the next few days where I would quickly drop off the back and ride on my own for the majority of the day.

Unfortunately, the descent into Windhoek complete with traffic lights (I'm not used to those now!) must have lowered my brake pads just about to the end, then pulling into lunch the first day out, the remaining pad gave way and the metal-on-metal screech sternly let me know that something was wrong. Later that night I dug through my spare parts bag to grab some brand new brake pads.

The first three days away from Windhoek were all paved, all above 150km generally pretty straight and with the exception of the first 30km out of Windhoek pretty flat. With that said, I felt extremely encumbered upon being stuck in a peleton concentrating on the wheels and hips of the riders in front. I thoroughly enjoyed traveling at my own pace concentrating mostly on the scenery making its way by me and getting lost in my thoughts; mostly reflecting on what I have seen and experienced over the last couple of months. We camped at some odd locations along the way including what we referred to as the "haunted sight" since we were beside a World War One grave yard, many active snake nest sites, a rickety old house and a decommissioned railway station. We were corrected at 10pm we discovered the train station is still in use by a throng of disembarking passengers strolling curiously through our camp.

The fourth day we cruised down the hill into Keetmanshoop where we had our first problem with a police check point in months. Once resolved, we continued for 30km down the road and turned off of the pavement once again. We climbed into the hills on some beautifully maintained gravel roads, past the Naute Dam and in what has become typical Namibian fashion, no people in sight.

It was here that I decided that no bike tour would be complete without the coveted "naked kilometre." Never having streaked before, it sure felt strange stripping down and jumping on a bicycle in the middle of the scrubby landscape. I rode 3km and then passed by our lunch truck. Many who were standing there first wondered "I didn't think that Andy had white bike shorts" due to my sharp bike shorts tan.

We continued down the road toward the coveted Fish River Canyon and the landscape was getting more and more hilly. I caught up to one of the expedition riders who has become incredibly fast over the course of the tour, so decided to challenge him to a sprint. He bit so I stood up to crank my pace up, but felt and heard something snap under my right foot. A quick inspection revealed that I was still attached so I carried out the sprint from a sitting position and managed to pull it off. I quickly discovered that my pedal spindle had snapped half way down which meant that once I dismounted I still had my pedal attached to the bottom of my foot and half of a spindle was sticking out of my crank. Good luck that it happened right at the finish flag!

The following morning we had a non-race day so I took the ~35km detour to the Fish River Canyon lookout point. For those that don't know, it is the second largest canyon in the world, second only to the Grand Canyon in the US. I went to a couple of lookout points over the massive trench that the Fish river has dug over millions of years. The sight was quite spectacular. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride back out and along the edge of the canyon as we continued south. I caught up to another rider that was pedaling along well, but seemed to be bleeding in multiple locations. I stayed with him for the rest of the day for moral support. Okay, to tell the truth, I tried to stay with him but had to go ahead on the downhills then wait since my brakes were acting up again forcing me to have some pretty quick descents. The final 10km was a twisty drop to the bottom of the southern extreme of the Fish River Canyon which of course was quite exciting with the demise of my brakes. I made it just fine and didn't completely abandon my friend.

We had a rest day at the bottom of the canyon in a place called Ai-Ais which means "boiling hot" for the hot springs there. Unfortunately, the water comes out of the ground at an untouchable 65°C and the pump that circulates the water to the pool was broken, but the place was still very special being on the shore of the mysteriously dry Fish River. I also discovered that I had damaged my brake rotor leaving Windhoek since it had eaten through my brand new brake pads in four days of light braking. I added those to my bag o' broken parts and bribed another rider for some spares since mine were of a different type (remembering that I broke my wheel in Malawi).

The day leaving Ai-Ais, we had our final individual time trial. After fixing my new set of mechanical problems, I made my way up to the start just on time. The course was about 22km total with the first 4km being a good climb, then we turned with the wind and had a gradual descent with a massive tail wind. I didn't push quite hard enough up the climb so had ample energy to really hammer the pace down the hill and managed to stay in my aerobars despite pedaling at 78km/h on a gravel road; very fun! My time was good enough to earn me 3rd place.

We plodded along back to the pavement once again and descended our final 20 Namibian kilometres into the Orange River valley and did our final border crossing on our bikes into South Africa.

The first 3 days in the country we stayed along the major highway which was extremely pretty as it dove in and out of some mountain ranges offering fast climbs, speedy curving descents and beautiful vistas. Once we made it to Vanrhynsdorp, we left the main highway again and had some more gravel roads that lead us toward the Atlantic. We first came to the salt water at Lambert's Bay, then camped down the coast at Eland's bay. It was surprisingly touching to swim in salt water again knowing that the last time I had come near it was over 100 days ago on the Red Sea in Egypt where it can be safely said that things were very different.

We had the first annual "Granny Gear Race" and to increase the challenge I borrowed a 13" full-suspension bike from another rider for the race. The 1km course was quite grueling, but I managed to once again come away with 3rd place.

Leaving Eland's Bay was our final race day which is historically hotly contested. We had about 10km of dirt out of the town where we got some beautiful views of the sun rising behind thick sea mist: stunning! This was the only time on the tour where without one word the ENTIRE group of racers stopped to enjoy and take pictures; even the sneaky riders stayed with us! To keep a long and curious story short, we ended up with a group of five bikes leading from about 30km into our 150km ride. The course ended with a 7km very light descent back down to the sea and our tour leader beat me to the opportunity to attack. I came within about 10m of him, but then he opened up the gap to about 50m where it stayed no matter what my effort over the final 7km. A well deserved stage win for the now official 2007 TDA victor from the Netherlands; I couldn't let him get it easily though!

We had a fun soirée that night since it was our last night camping together and the following morning came far too early for many. I rode the first half of the last morning mostly on my own, briefly sharing stories of sadness of the end with another rider. As I came over one rise on the rolling ride the infamous Table Mountain rose into view. It towered majestically above the sea mist shrouding its lower flanks. This was yet another sight on the trip that I had never before seen, but instantly knew what I was looking at.

I reluctantly rolled into lunch as I was trying to draw out the day. Somehow feeling like if I slowed the pace down, the end of the tour would be significantly extended. Lunch was busy for me as I was in a flurry of preparations, fixated on the important details like taping a flapping Canadian flag to the top of my helmet, putting Canadian tattoos on fellow countrymen/countrywomen and the like.

We started our final convoy toward the city blocking busy Cape Town traffic, but were being greeted and cheered on from onlookers. I heard that we had made our presence felt in recent Cape Town media so the encouragement gave me an extremely warm feeling. Once in the city we were joined by many riders from "BEN" the Bicycle Empowerment Network which promotes the bicycle across the continent. We were then later joined by the mayor of Cape Town who rode the last kilometre with us on the back of a tandem bicycle.

The final corner into the V&A waterfront area revealed the massive finish banner above the cobbled road. I made it. Every F***in' Inch of the way, I made it! Our group was swallowed up by eager friends and family, some of which had travelled from far corners of the globe to see their loved ones cross the line. Much to my surprise, I was actually greeted by a reporter from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for those non-Canucks) who asked me a bunch of questions and quoted my website. My responses were a little disjointed since my head was in too many places, but apparently the interview went well and appeared on "The World This Weekend".

The rest of the day was a blur of celebrations, presentations and a surprising amount of support from locals. I was emotional that things were drawing to a close, sad that I wasn't going have over three dozen people to say "good morning" to anymore, however I was not overcome by it because I knew it wasn't completely over. I had one ride remaining.

The following day I spent packing things, moving things to a nearby hostel and hiking around Table Mountain on the beautiful day it was. I considered this my "rest day" because the following morning I donned my cycle kit for one last time. I had to disassemble my conglomeration of communal parts that I called "my" bike, so a staff member very kindly lent me his bike. I was supposed to meet a handful of riders to cycle with, but the rain, reduced temperature and gailforce winds made me the only one to saddle up that morning. The tour's website claims that the entire tour is 11 884 kilometres leaving me 116km short of my goal. The Argus Cycle Tour is a 120km cycle race that has become the largest timed cycling event in the world and its route follows the beautiful Cape Peninsula almost to its end. To make the long story short, I saw a penguin colony, my fair share of baboons, an ostrich farm and some stunning coast line. I find it quite funny that I did not once on the tour wear my new Salomon rain jacket on the bike due to rain as I was only rained on twice when it was sufficiently warm. I was treated to four months worth of adverse weather on this one day of cycling. It was awesome in every sense of the word. On numerous occasions the wind was so strong against me that I had to drop down to my granny gear on a flat just to get upwind! Though it didn't hail, the rain was falling at such a rate and speed that it felt not far off. Amazing! I was certainly happy to have my jacket with me.

Once I arrived back in Cape Town after covering about 125km I then dismounted for the final time. My last ride in Africa...for now of course. I cannot say that this journey began in Cairo and finished in Cape Town; that was merely a highlight of it. This journey began in my childhood with my first set of training wheels and will end when I am cremated along with my bike however many years from now.

In the words of James E. Starrs, "Melancholy is incompatible with bicycling." Join me and so many others in this journey of happiness and incorporate a bicycle into your weekly routine!

Read More - Archives

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?