It is that time of the year again. Have I trained enough? Is my bike going to get me through the 280 km’s of harsh African bushveld? What are my group members like? Do I have enough spare parts in my riding pack?
After the butterflies had settled, I realised, like every other year- this is a tour and not a race and it is for a good cause with a great bunch of people in the most amazing areas for mountain biking. Suddenly the constraints of an office job and city living become evident and I couldn’t wait to get back into the bush on the saddle and riding along elephant pathways carved through the landscape by countless generations of the magnificent pachyderms.
Finally the morning of the fourth of August had arrived. I woke up at a dark and cold hour in Johannesburg making sure I had packed everything which I could possibly need – making sure for the tenth time I had my passport as we would be zigzagging across three border crossings: South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Everything looked good, and we began the 550km drive to Pont Drift border post. It was almost as if my car new exactly where it was going and arrived at the parking area 12 km’s away from the border on its own accord. Along the way I drove past a number of familiar faces who were returning to do the tour again, some for the sixth time in a row.
Once I arrived at the parking area at Halcyon (a De Beers property at Venetia), I was enthusiastically greeted by a bunch of guys who I rode with last year… immediately the jokes and chirps started flowing about a certain leader that got his group ‘ temporarily misplaced’ the previous year. From here, we rode along the tar road to the border post as a group once again, reliving our amazing 2010 tour.
When we arrived at Pont Drift, the border formalities went very smoothly until we had to cross the Limpopo River, which was flowing strongly, very unusual for this time of year. A number of crocodiles were spotted lurking in the murky waters, so if you were not driving through the river in a Land Rover, the next option would be to catch the cable cart across, an exciting experience on its own. Once across the river in one piece and after another smooth border formality greeted by smiles from the officials, we were off towards our first night’s camp which was a 3 km cycle away.
Immediately everyone went into ‘guide mode’, scanning the bush for any movement or unusual shades of colour and the ground for any fresh tracks, and peddling all at the same time. Once the novelty had worn off, we arrived at the Limpopo Valley Airfield (LVA), our first camp. I know the scale of the event, but every year, upon arriving at the first camp, the sheer size and magnitudet, from an infra-structure and logistical point of view, hits me like a Botswana heat wave.
Once I set my bike to rest on the bike rack, the rest of the afternoon was spent preparing my ride bag, making sure my satellite phone was charged, my GPS settings were correct, I had the basics in my first aid kit and the myriad of other bike components were in my bag. After putting on my ‘group leader’ t-shirt which read ‘group 11 cyclist leader’, I set out to try and meet some of my group by the mess tent. It is amazing how many familiar faces there were, everyone very happy to catch up and share a laugh. After meeting most of my team members and trying to perform a quick analysis of their cycling ability based on physical appearance, we sat down as a group at the dinner table and ate like a team. Dinner was followed by the opening ceremony and safety briefing, reminding everyone that we were in a wilderness area amongst large concentrations of wild animals, Tuli being home to around 1200 elephant.
It was now time to get a good nights sleep, or try to, amongst the nocturnal calls of the many snorers.
Day 1 – LVA to Kgotla Camp (approx. 68 km)
5 AM arrived quickly, and we rose to a very crisp morning and the busy hustle of cyclists running around, performing last minute preparations, filling their bottles with all kinds of energy potions, pumping up their tires, eating breakfast, drinking coffee, and applying layers of sunscreen to any exposed areas of skin. The first group set off as the sun was breaking the eastern horizon. My group was due to depart into the wilderness at 07.20 as there was a 10 minute gap between each group. It was time for me and my back-up guide to break the ice and give a safety briefing. After this serious matter was done and everyone was convinced they were ready, we set off into the cold morning chill. By this stage it was easy to follow the fresh tracks of the groups in front of us set in Botswana’s sandy soils. Occasionally there would be an orange marker in a tree to confirm that we were following the correct trail, and not those of rogue cyclists laying confusing trails for us. Our group was 19 people in total, consisting of a couple of small groups of friends. By maintaining constant radio contact with my back-up guide, we quickly set the correct pace, ensuring our group was kept in a neat single file line on the single track.
We quickly encountered large numbers of general game, all gazing at us, confused without a doubt about these strange objects moving around the bush. Within the first 30 minutes we had encountered impala, giraffe, blue wildebeest, black-backed jackal , zebra and a herd of eland at close quarters running right across our path about 40 metres in front. Charged up by our luck and by the whole experience of riding in such a pristine area we covered some distance quickly. By the tea stop, it had warmed up rapidly and the layers of brightly coloured cycling apparel had been shed. A number of fines had been issued by the group for those who decided to have a roll or two while trying to cycle across the dry river crossings.
The rest of the day was characterised by a flowing single track, short sandy river crossings and an amazing rocky section at the end of the day, about 3 km’s from Kgotla Camp. We arrived in camp at around 13.30 which allowed us the luxury of time to enjoy this scenic camp.
Day 2 – Kgotla to Maramani Camp, Zimbabwe (approx. 83 km)
For those of us who have returned this year, we were mentally prepared for a long day. As on previous years, the second day was the toughest and longest day of the tour. This year, cut-off times were put into place to ensure all cyclist groups were in camp before nightfall. The plan was to head off in a north-easterly direction and cross through an informal border crossing into some communal lands in Zimbabwe, so passports were essential!
Only about 5 km’s into the ride, we came across a group that had stopped. One of their cyclists had a very bad fall. In my group, there were two surgeons, so we stopped to have a look and unfortunately for the fallen cyclist, he had shattered and dislocated both of his elbows. The medical team was on it and the battered cyclist was promptly flown out back into South Africa.
This was a stark reminder to us all of the potential hazards of mountain biking. Some technical riding followed and we got through with only minor falls. By midday it was very hot under the blazing sun and some of the riders were working very hard on the pedals and gulping down lots of water. All of a sudden, I picked up some movement in the bush in front of us. We stopped to have a closer look, and to our enjoyment, it was a breeding herd of elephant making their way to a small puddle of surface water nearby. The wind was swirling, so we decided to wait a few minutes, enjoy the sighting from a safe distance and let the herd move off. As the sun was directly overhead, it was getting tough to follow the bike tracks, and we did encounter the rogue tracks mentioned earlier, so we had to follow the GPS track closely. We arrived at the brunch stop, which was along the Shashe River as well as the natural border between Botswana and Zimbabwe. After brunch, we had to cross the dry river bed and head towards a small table, which was the informal border. Most people pushed their bikes for the 800 metre stint of thick sand while the insane few tried to ride across.
After we got our passports stamped and completed an arrival form, we were off again, with roughly 30 km’s of communal land riding left for the day. We picked up the pace as the riding was all on dirt roads. The route took us right past a shabeen, and no encouragement was needed for the cyclists to wash their dusty throats with a cold beer. From here the ride went through some scenic sandstone formations and led us straight to camp, which was an incredibly scenic camp on the Limpopo River bed. Our group had done very well, considering we had experienced few technical issues and did not get lost…much! We were the fifth group to arrive. It was clear that some groups had fallen victim to the heat, distance and technical issues, as there was one group who hadn’t even arrived at the brunch stop when we had arrived at camp.
Day 3 – Maramani Camp to Kuduland Camp (approx. 70 km)
A curve ball was thrown at the cyclists this year, as for the tour veterans, we were used to having a short easy day after the tough second day. This was not the case, but I really enjoyed the route, which included some amazingly scenic areas that were dotted with beautiful sandstone outcrops and formations. It was great to ride some totally new areas, and I am sure that most of the returning cyclists would agree. Once again, our group did well and had luck on the technical side of things, allowing us to arrive at camp by around 15.00 and enjoy the lovely camp. My personal highlight for the day, was riding along the confines of the Mutshilashokwe Dam – a truly beautiful piece of Zimbabwe.
Day 4 – Kuduland Camp to Mapungubwe Camp, South Africa (approx. 65 km)
At this stage, some were feeling the aches and pains of riding over 200 km’s upon waking up. It was a very cold morning, and all were keen to get going in an attempt to warm the tight muscles. The first few km’s took us past the Mutshilashokwe Dam again for a second look at the beauty. Shortly after passing the dam, we suffered our first real flat tire, which is quite impressive in my books, considering the abundance of thorns we had ridden through. It became very hot once again and the thought of arriving at the end began to excite many.
After covering some painfully sandy terrain along the Limpopo River, we arrived at another informal border, leading us across the river and back into South Africa. Some took this opportunity to cool off in the shallows of the river. Once we regrouped on the other side in Mapangubwe, we had around 12km to go to the end, and what a fantastic 12 km’s it was. We had our second elephant encounter, as six bulls crossed the road in front of us. From here, we had to tackle two short, but cheeky climbs until we crossed into camp, thus ending another magic and successful Tour de Tuli!
This was another great tour, which had some really special moments and riding experiences that have become expected of the tour. This was the biggest single departure in the history of the event, which no doubt raised much needed funding for the Children in the Wilderness program.