Not lost on the Tour d’Afrique

This article appeared in the Autumn 2009 edition of Traveller, and is reproduced with thanks.

Traveller magazine

Traveller magazine

Not lost on the Tour d’Afrique
Tom Hall

What started out as a regular day on a bicycle ride across a continent was suddenly not going according to plan. My speedo told me I was ten, maybe fifteen kilometres past where our bush camp was supposed to be that night. Something in my head told me to ignore my dwindling water and energy supplies, to not turn around and look for the tell-tale pink flagging tape and instead to press on for Maun, our destination the following day. You could call it a mad moment. Everybody else did.

This felt a long way from the water-cooler conversation at Lonely Planet HQ just under a year earlier. On a rainy London day three of us hatched a plan to join the Tour d’Afrique, the 8000 mile (12,000 kilometre) pedal-powered expedition which runs from Cairo to Cape Town every year. Around fifty riders cross nine borders and almost every conceivable terrain and climate (it doesn’t snow much) on the way. I was riding the penultimate stage, riding 1000 miles from Livingstone in Zambia to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital.

Reading the signs for once

Reading the signs for once

Riding I certainly was. Spurred on by a thrill of doing something probably quite stupid a long way from home, I went for it. It worked for a while. I was averaging 22mph (36kmh) which won’t give Lance Armstrong any headaches but was enough for me. But a double puncture when you’ve only got three spare tubes is no laughing matter. The next emergency was water. I needed a lot – it was 45c – and I didn’t have any. A roadside coke stop proved salvation and the man behind the cool-box got a hug and a sweaty handshake while I either drunk or bought his entire stock. He must’ve been pretty pleased as he took the next day off and no-one else saw him. Or perhaps he was a benevolent spirit sent to reward the intrepid and daft.

Twenty kilometres from the end of the ride and dreaming of a cold shower, the ‘pfft!’ of a third puncture left me with one option. After ten hours riding in the heat I was done in. I stuck my arm out and the first truck that passed stopped. How I loved that I was in Africa at that moment! Slightly confused, the driver gestured I should hop in, and phoned ahead to tell his mates he had a very soggy and hot white chap in his pickup. They formed a speechless welcoming party in Maun, silently shaking my hand before I wheeled my bike off towards the hotel.

Bike meets truck: sad end to gloriously silly day

Bike meets truck: sad end to gloriously silly day

The next day, reunited with my fellow cyclists, who found the whole thing hilarious, I was finally able to put some clean clothes on. My bags had done the sensible thing and stayed behind back at bush camp. I wasn’t allowed to forget that it was the travel hack who’d gone missing.* I now know three things: puncture repair kits are not optional, Botswana is a big, hot place and that if you turn a bike around it will still pedal.

*The only other rider who’d gone missing on the Tour was also from Lonely Planet.

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