TDA Stage 81 – Something is Fishy

Today’s ride was only 93km. Danger Wil Robinson! Danger! Alarm bells are sounding, klaxon wailing, Arrrooogaa!! 

Ok, it wasn’t that bad. Well, the first 27km were bad, but at least half of it was avoidable by taking a secondary road that other vehicles had made on their own, because of how horrid the main road was. You can imagine how dismal the road conditions must be for other vehicles to say “screw this, I’m driving over there!” However, once past the abysmal part, the road became some really nice smooth, compacted gravel. I was riding on it as fast as I would on tarmac. Our lunch spot was at wonderful old German train bridge built in the late 1800’s. 

This bridge is still Germane…

History note: Namibia was once a German colony called German South West Africa. You can still see a lot of the German influence in the place names, churches, and languages spoken in the area. 

After lunch it was a quick ride to our camp spot, a nice facility called The Cañon Roadhouse. It is located a mere 27km from Fish River Canyon, the second largest canyon in the world (the Grand Canyon, being first). Well… I can’t let all those alarm bells ring for no reason, so I decided to ride the additional 55km (round trip) to the canyon and take a look-see. I was the only full day rider to cycle the entire day AND be crazy (stupid?) enough to add another 55km of voluntary gravel to my day. The others who did venture out to the canyon either hitchhiked, didn’t ride the day, or took a guide vehicle.

Don’t jump, we love you!

Well, the additional kilometres were totally worth it. The canyon is an impressive site (and sight). Thanks to the visit, I’ve now added another activity to my bucket list, the five day Fish River Canyon hike. It’s 80km of trail through the bottom of the canyon and, unlike the Grand Canyon, you don’t have to apply years in advance hoping you get a spot. 

Water did this!

Finally, I ended the excessive energy expending day by placing my tent on an even bigger hill than the previous day. I’ve earned a bit of reputation for extreme camp spots and I’ve got standards to uphold. I did kind of question my choice of locale after ascending the hill five or six times. Feel the burn!

That guy is nuts!

TDA Stage 80 – What IS This Stuff?

Today we had two special treats. 31km into our ride this odd black stuff appeared under our wheels. It had strange yellow and white markings written on it. Perhaps some alien artifact sent from the stars to communicate with us, or was it some natural phenomena? We may never know. The surface was a nice temporary departure from our usual gravel and sand, so I enjoyed it while it lasted. Our winding route over the last few days has taken us through some wonderful arid desert landscapes. The air is so dry that even my lips are cracking and dry (and my lips never do that, even during the harshest Canadian winters). The landscapes remind me a little of Arizona, minus the cacti. I’m not sure why I’m so drawn to the desert landscapes but they are some of my favourites. 

Our second treat of the day came at camp after dinner. The TDA crew treated us to a Canadian classic…Nanaimo bars! Perhaps one of the greatest desserts ever invented! They always bring back fond memories of my childhood, visiting my Grandparents out in Calgary, playing croquet and lawn darts (how ever did we survive!?!) in the backyard.

Ready to roost.

Tonight I’ve pitched my tent in a wonderfully secluded spot on top of a hill. I’m going to sleep outside (as opposed to outside IN my tent) and enjoy the the wonderfully clear night sky and all the stars.

TDA Stage 79 – The Final Countdown

We are down to our last ten days of riding. It’s hard to believe we’ve been cycleing for over three and a half months and that the end is near.  After yesterday’s 6000 calorie ride, today was both easy and hard. Finding the energy to get back on the bike was the hard part; riding on the gravel was the easy part. Despite the ride being 17km longer with more climbing the day was actually much easier than the day before. The first 25km were the same hemorrhoid-inducing, posterior-pounding rubbish we’d been riding for the last few days, but after that the gravel transitioned to a nice flat, well graded road for the rest of the day. I just put my head down and pedalled.

Bridge over troubled waters?

I even managed to miss the worlds largest Social Weaver nest. I’ve seen a bunch of them along our journey through Namibia so it’s wasn’t a big deal. They just look like giant bales of hay with holes poked in them, jammed in very undersized tree. Someone should really speak to the Social Weaver engineers, they really need to update their building codes for the 21st century. 

A small Social Weaver nest

TDA Stage 78 – The Forever Road

“Your worst nightmare”? That’s what the description of today’s ride was, and as I mentioned two days ago, I was going to stay positive and own it. Well, the positive thing was easy. The scenery along the ride was stunning! The early rays of the sun illuminated the dust as it hung in the still air. The keen tourists in their 4×4’s kicking it up as they rumbled by us on their way to a game drive or dunes excursion. After about an hour of riding the dust and 4×4’s slowly dissipated and we were left with a long dirt road and a massive expanse of beautiful scenery. The small foothills that surrounded us slowly retreated into the distance. The colours of the dirt began to change, going from a dark sandy brown to a Mars red; indeed the landscape started to look a lot like what you would expect to see from our “God of War” neighbour. Despite the huge day of riding ahead of me, I had to constantly stop and take photos of the awe-inspiring landscape; unfortunately none of the photos do it justice. 

All we are is dust in the wind, dude.

The road itself was very rough and corrugated, but nothing I wasn’t expecting or mentally prepared for. I was ready for whatever the day threw at me, and it threw a pile of crap! On top of the steaming dung pile of a road, the sun also beat down on us. Before lunch I’d already stopped the “refresh” truck twice and drank over three litres of water. On the second stop, Tallis pointed out where our lunch stop was. “That tree line on in the distance” was what he told me. I was at 50km into the ride, lunch was supposed to be at 70km. I couldn’t believe that the tree line was 20km away. Well, I rode, and rode and then peddled and rode, for another two hours, crawling along the slow dirty incline towards lunch, and it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Finally at about 1:15pm I arrived at lunch, very hungry and very tired. Normally I arrive at our lunch spots between 9:30-11:30 at the latest, so my tummy was complaining loudly about the lack of things for it to digest. 

I knew I shouldn’t have moved to the suburbs.

After appeasing the monster within, my attention shifted to the time. At the rate I was travelling I wouldn’t reach camp till almost 6pm, dangerously close to sunset; I had to get moving! Back on the bike, I pushed my weary legs to continue their cyclical routine. Only another 64km of crappy roads to go. Luckily for us a considerable tail wind had picked up over lunch and started pushing us all towards our temporary home for the evening. I told myself I’ll never curse a headwind again, if this wind stayed with us the rest of the day, and stay it did. Between the beneficial wind, and the slightly improving road conditions, I managed to get into camp just after 5pm. There hadn’t been a day since Sudan, in the oppressive 40C+ heat that I’d come in so late, and during those days I had taken many, many breaks. Today I only stopped for lunch and to hydrate (almost 8 litres worth!). The day was so tough that only about one third the group finished it and six riders had to be pulled off the road because of darkness and safety issues (no riding after dark); that’s a first for this tour. 

At the end of it all I was physically spent, but mentally and emotionally very excited. I’d stayed positive the entire ride, and done what I’d set out to do, own it, kill it, and enjoy it. 

TDA Rest Day – The Dunes!

After a really hard day of cycling the day before, what does one do? One gets up at 5am to get ready to climb the biggest dune in the world! Like all mornings on this trip, it started in the dark, but for a change we were not packing tents. A group of about 20 of us wandered, caffeine deprived and hungry over to our pickup point for the trip to the dunes. Lucky for us, the gas station on the way opened at 5:30am, so we could grab a few provisions and some much needed coffee. We then piled into several vehicles to make the 60km journey from the park gate to where the dunes glacially migrated around the hillsides. Lucky for our group, we hopped into an enclosed vehicle and were comfortable for the trip. The other groups weren’t so lucky and had to drive the entire 60km totally exposed to the crisp morning air, as they raced through the darkness at 100km/hr. 

As we got midway into the park, the pre-dawn glow started to silhouette the huge hulking figures of the dunes. Ragged mountain ranges began to soften their edges as the blowing sand smoothed and covered the jagged rock. 

If I were a grain of sand…

We arrived at our destination, the base of “Big Daddy”, a monstrous 390 meter dune, just before the sun peeked over the horizon. Even in the grey cast of pre-dawn light, the dune looked impressive. We all hurried toward the dune so we could be the first ones to make for the summit that lay several kilometres away. As we wandered up the pristine spine of the dunes’ lower edge, the sun crested the horizon, its golden rays highlighting the dunes’ peak. The previous evenings winds had swept away any traces of the hundreds of tourists who climb the dune on a daily basis. We all stood in awe at the sight before us. As the sun hit the sand, the dune sprang to life, its serpentine spine rising slowly before us, curving back and forth as the sand reached for the sky. The highlights and shadows wandered like an inebriated zebra over the subtle curves, in a stunning display of gold, brown and black. We slowly made our way to the top of the dune, a hike that lead us along its knife-like edge for several kilometres. Every few metres we would stop to gaze upon another stunning vista, to marvel at the near infinite patterns, and to be awed by how a few billion trillion gazillion pieces of microscopic rock could be moved by the air into huge shifting mass of incredible beauty. After many, many photo and viewing stops we finally reached the top of this enormous pile of sand. To the west we could just make out the Atlantic Ocean, and all around us we could see other lesser dunes slithering their way around the landscape.

Now with extra people, for scale!

Below us was a small dried up lake bed, dotted with long dead trees. After a lengthy snack break at the top of the dune, gazing out over the spectacle before us, we decided to take the short and fast way back down. This meant walking (or in my case charging full tilt) down the side of a 50-60 degree sandy slope. My dash down the hill took less than a minute and I only wiped out once, easily recovering and continuing my hasty sand covered descent. The others joined me at the bottom a few minutes later as I lay in the cool sand, making “sand angels”. 

I swear there was water here just a minute ago.

The “floor” of the dune was another impressive sight, the mud from the bottom of the former lake was baked into a rock hard clay and coated with white residue. Scattered around the lake were a few dozen dead trees, their gnarly grey sun bleached branches twisted and shrivelled, their desiccated remains a monument to a time when water was abundant here.

We finished our tour of the dunes by 11am and were all very happy to have done the early trip. The sun was now high in the sky and the heat of the day was in full force. All the lovely shadows were gone from the dunes; while they were still an impressive sight, they had lost their “magic”. Now it was time to head back to camp and do all the mundane work of a rest day, but with the fresh memories of one of the best sights on the tour so far. 

Only the wind will know I existed.

TDA Stage 77 – Strong Mind, Strong Body

(Sorry for the delays on posting, cell/internet coverage in central Namibia has been problematic. Expect several multi post days and other delays over the next few days)

I’ve started to be wary of “short” days; they are usually short for a reason. 83km and today was one of the hardest.  No one will debate that. We all knew starting the day, that there were going to be some difficult road conditions ahead, and the road didn’t disappoint. The early morning sunlight cast beautiful long shadows across the landscape highlighting, with infinite detail, the washboarding and gravel that would slowly wear us down over the course of the day. A few hours later, with the sun high in the sky, that detail was all but gone, and with it, any hope of avoiding the worst corrugation. With no contrasting shadows you felt the washboarding before you could see it. Gripping the handlebars tightly is usually the worst thing you can do when rolling over rough corrugation, but over some of the most extreme stuff it was all that would keep me on the bike. I had to keep reminding myself, “loose grip, let the bike find its path”. 

A “small” Social Weavers nest

In what seems like an ongoing theme, the hardest riding was just a few kilometres short of camp. Maybe it’s because we are tired from the days ride, maybe it IS frequently the hardest part, it really doesn’t matter. The fact is, the last ten kilometres today were tough! Massive corrugation from edge to edge and deep soft gravel that just swallowed your tires when you passed over it. Once into camp I heard a number of comments about how “that was the worst road I’ve ever ridden” and how horrible the road was, and they were all valid, however THIS is what I came to Africa for. I enjoyed riding on the hellish, maddening road. Sure, maybe that makes me a “sick and twisted” individual, but so be it. This  “sick and twisted” person is having fun. Dirt road riding is much more interesting than a flat paved road through some winding hills. Also, keeping a positive mental attitude towards the hardships ahead only makes you stronger. Focusing on the negative before you even start will just make it even harder. Our next riding day is labeled as a ten out of ten for difficulty and crappy road conditions. It’s description on the section whiteboard is “Your worst nightmare”! I’m going to own it, kill it, and enjoy it. Strong mind, strong body!

This was a “good” patch

TDA Stage 76 – Bloody Stumps

Today was a mix of pain and pleasure. My fears that Namibia would be bland and boring have now been totally quashed. The countryside has turned into a spectacular gem. The trees have given way to low rocky foothills and small bushes, the desert sand reaching out in all directions sending its fine fingers into every crack and crevis. The dirt road we are riding winds its way in and out of the age old hills, seeking the path of least resistance. That’s where the pain starts. As we cycle through the beautiful landscape, passing zebra, oryx (so tasty!) gazelle and other assorted wildlife, the gravel road slowly transitions from nice smooth, well graded dirt, to bum destroying, hand mutilating washboard. 

Wow factor 11!

Thankfully the stunning vistas at Spreetshoogte Pass took my mind off the crazy vibrations turning my hands into bloody stumps, as I plunged down the steep and winding switchbacks. Normally on the steep hills I hop into an aerodynamic tuck and try and go as fast as I can, but that wasn’t possible on this descent. The road was paved with interlocking brick and was incredibly steep (-20% grade at its steepest point). I had to ride my brakes hard just to stay under 65km/hr on some stretches and slow even more for the many very sharp hairpin turns that pitched back and forth down the pass. It was exhilarating and painful, and that was just the tenderizer for what was to come. The last 25km to camp was horrid sandy road with bone jarring washboarding all over it. Finding a smooth path through it was almost impossible, despite the road being over sixty feet wide in some places. Still, after it all, the views continued to be amazing and I really enjoyed almost every minute of it. 

We are camped in a tiny place called Solitaire, which is quite apt since there isn’t anything else even close. It’s maybe a dozen buildings, a gas station and a restaurant. There is a small lodge that caters to “overlanders” like us and the other tourists in their safari trucks. It only exists as a stopping spot on the way to the dunes. Great apple pie though!

Solitary sunset

Oh, I almost forgot. We crossed another imaginary line today, the Tropic of Capricorn. I’ve never been this far south.

TDA Stage 75 – It’s Getting Better!

I have to admit, I was starting to wonder why we were riding through Namibia. After the first two days of nasty headwinds, bland landscapes and narrow highways, I was starting to think this part of the tour might be a dud. I’m glad I’m being proven wrong. Today was another beautiful day, and another beautiful ride! After spending the first 20km getting out of town we were greeted by our preordained dirt road. As I’d mentioned previously, I’ve been looking forward to getting back on the dirt. It’s fun riding, and we have seven more days of it coming up. The landscape is starting to change back to desert. The trees and bushes are shrinking and the sand is creeping in. In a few days time we’ll be in “The Dunes” where some of the biggest sand dunes in the world reside. I can’t wait. 

Mothership passes

I neglected to mention in my rest day post that we’ve picked up another four riders in Windhoek. That brings our current total to almost fifty riders (we started in Cairo with 32). TDA has had to add another support vehicle to accommodate all the extra baggage. The new people, including the ones who joined us in Victoria Falls have it extra tough. They are dropping into some of the toughest sections and they don’t have the advantage we had of being able to train our way through the tour. There are a lot of sore body parts on the new guys. 

Uhh, No thanks!

On a side note, we passed the red monstrosity pictured above on our way out of camp. How would you like to do an overland tour of Africa seated in this thing, and spend your night sleeping in the little coffins they provide?

TDA Rest Days – Windhoek

Two full days of rest is wonderful after riding 830km. The muscles in my legs have almost stopped complaining whenever I ask them to do anything. Almost. Windhoek is a nice clean town with most modern conveniences. They even have a bike shop that sells fancy bikes and supplies (the kinds of bikes we ride, not the “work horse” bikes we saw locals in other countries using for transporting just about everything). The shop is kind of surprising since I haven’t seen a single person in Namibia riding a bike, which is kind of sad. In retrospect, it doesn’t surprise me that there aren’t cyclists here. The road network has been very unfriendly to bicycles. It’s I kind of chicken/egg situation. No shoulders on the roads discourages cyclists and no cyclists doesn’t motivate safer/wider roads.

The camp we are staying in is very nice and well equipped for our kind of group but space is very lacking. All the tents are crammed in some very tight spots which makes for some very close quarters. It’s a good thing our group gets along so well. There is a restaurant just around the corner called Joes Beerhouse that has some absolutely fabulous meats. I ordered a Oryx steak that was just amazing. The zebra and kudu steaks that the others in the group had were very good too. The meal was super cheap as well. At home I’d have expected to pay $50-$100 for the quantity and quality of meat that I got for about $25! Just don’t tell them that. 

Looking ahead to the next few days of riding is exciting. We are returning to dirt and gravel roads for the rest of our time here in Namibia. I really enjoyed the dirt in Tanzania, despite how hard it was and I’m hoping this section will be as interesting too. The next block is only three riding days, and on paper they are short distances. The reality will be something quite different, I’m sure. Either way, I’m feeling well rested and ready to tackle whatever comes next. 

TDA Stage 74 – WINDhoekey!

Last night I actually pulled out my sleeping bag. For the first time in over two months It got quite cold and the morning started very chilly. It was like we were back in Egypt. Nothing a few kilometres and some sunshine couldn’t fix though. After the cold start, the day was pretty much the same as yesterday.  The wind in the morning was calm, but as soon as I left lunch, blammo! The wind picked up and started trying to push me back to Cairo. I felt sorry for the slower riders, who had to struggle with it over a longer distance. The wind, however, wasn’t the biggest thing on my mind, the traffic was. The road we were cycling is the major artery to, and from Windhoek and Windhoek is the capital city of Namibia. Sure, we’ve cycled dozens of busy roads and highways, but this road has the distinction of being very narrow, zero shoulder and a speed limit of 120km/hr. The traffic wizzes by you VERY fast and very close. I can’t count how many times I thought to myself, “just one careless driver getting too close and I’m eating a mirror in the back of the head at 120km/hr”.  Not a pleasant thought, but it mostly kept my mind off the cruel wind that was hitting me in the face at maybe 20km/hr. 

Look! Bumps!

The other thing that kept me distracted was the slowly changing landscape. The trees are starting to disappear and things are getting much drier. I can’t count how many bridges I crossed over that had completely dry riverbeds under them. We are also heading into a more hilly area. Nothing major, but compared to the flatness of Botswana, the 5% grades were killers. The head winds didn’t help either. One nice surprise, the last 10km was almost all downhill. I managed to hit 50km/hr even with the strong winds. It’s too bad it wasn’t calm, I might have been able to break my land speed record. 

Now, after 830km, this five day section is done. We get a luxurious two days off here in Windhoek. Everyone is really tired, with the last three days having been really tough. I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record (a spinning black vinyl disk that used to hold music) when I say this but, the next two days will be a much needed regeneration.