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Mike Sutherland - TDT 16 - Juliet Lemon-125
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Mike Sutherland - TDT 16 - Juliet Lemon-132

The 2016 Nedbank Tour de Tuli – Cycling in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana…

By julietlemon September 23 2016 - 11.45 AM

I was one of 330 riders participating in the annual Nedbank Tour de Tuli, a multi-stage mountain bike event organised by Tour de Wilderness. This four day cycle ride covered 275km across remote and challenging terrain in south-eastern Botswana, northern South Africa and south-western Zimbabwe.

During each of the four days we were in the saddle for about 8 hours, cycling as much as 80km through the varied and dramatic landscape.  Split into 19 teams of up to 20 riders, we navigated our bikes over winding elephant single-tracks and wildlife trails, deep sand, steep stone ridges, streams and flowing rivers, dry and sandy river beds, riverine scrub, indigenous forest and open plains.  But it wasn’t just the cycling challenges of the landscape with which we had to contend, there were wild animals around too…   So whilst surveying the terrain under our wheels our eyes were constantly flickering up to scan the treeline for elephant, lion, leopard and other wild animals.

The Nedbank Tour de Tuli, as we were informed during our pre-ride brief by our two team leaders Nathan and Guy, was not a race, it was a Tour.  Thankfully not quite on the same par as the Tour de France!  The Tour de Tuli was a ride to enjoy the epic scenery of this remote part of Africa and the creatures through whose habitat we were pedalling, and the main aim of the participants was to raise funds for the not-for-profit organisation, “Children in the Wilderness” (CITW).  This organisation works to promote the conservation and protection of Africa’s incomparable wilderness and wildlife by running sustainable educational programs for children in southern Africa.  CITW’s environmental and life skills educational programs teach children living in rural areas adjacent to wilderness areas the importance of conservation and instil a passion for the environment so they become future custodians of these areas.  In addition to innovative Eco-Clubs, children are also hosted on CITW camps at  Wilderness Safaris ecotourism camps, and aside from conservation, protection and life skills, the programs cover topics such as wildlife, health, HIV/AIDS awareness, nutrition, geography, geology, arts, crafts and  theatre.  Do look at their website to see all the incredible work they do:

The cycling adventure commenced as we drove from Johannesburg up to the Pont Drift border post, across into the dusty savannah of Botswana.  This is a part of the planet that people seldom frequent, let alone on two wheels, so it was an absolute honour to be exploring the remote, harsh, dusty terrain of the Tuli Block with its wealth of diverse wildlife.

I was in Group 18, comprising 15 participants and we rebranded ourselves as the ‘A Team’, which we thought  had a much nicer ring to it!  Most of the group were South African and included one person from Botswana, one Australian, two Americans and I was the ‘bubbly Brit’!  Thanks to Claire ‘number one’ for that fitting moniker!  When in extreme situations it is amazing how quickly bonds and friendships form; far greater and deeper than those back home, considering the short amount of time we knew each other.  The camaraderie flourished and before long there was a real team spirit with support, encouragement, banter and laughter flying left, right and centre.  As a safety measure we paired up with a cycle buddy and I ended up with two. Lucky me!   They were two really experienced MTB-ers, Donald and Rainer, who turned out to be absolute legends as they had the best ever sense of humour.  We bantered and laughed our way through the 4 days in the saddle, stayed up drinking until the early hours and without these two there is no way I would have completed the ride.  Their endless encouragement, guidance and support for this rather inexperienced mountain biker from London was incredible, especially how they helped and willed me up the challenging few hills on the last day’s final  stretch… Someone (of course not me!) may have necked two cheeky beers at the final water stop 20km from the finish line – seriously, I would never, ever do such a thing!!!

Each day, setting off at dawn, we rode through the remote wilderness protected conservation area of the Tuli Block and we were so fortunate to see many animals.  The two-wheeled safari was such a thrilling experience and we rode past big herds of elephant, giraffe, zebra, rock hyrax, kudu, eland, crocodiles and some feathered sightings of raptors soaring in the thermals up above, lilac- breasted rollers and crimson-breasted shrikes. One group spotted brown hyena, another had a brief sighting of a leopard.  Seeing packs of lycra clad cyclists whizzing by must have been a tad perplexing for the animals!  There were reports of a lion kill a few of kilometres from our camp one night.  We didn’t see the lions but they could be heard at night making their territorial roars in between the tumultuous snoring of the sleeping cyclists.

The areas we rode through were not fenced so the possibility of animal encounters were high.  Of course the organisers did as much as they could to alert us to this by having a helicopter scout out the routes to locate the elephant herds with the findings communicated to each groups’ tour leaders who had extensive bush experience, but out there encounters did happen…

Two such encounters spring to mind… our group had just traversed the steep banks and deep sandy stretch of a dried up river bed when one of the riders at the back stopped to fix a small mechanical glitch on their bike.  It gave the rest of us a chance to catch our breath, grab a quick drink and set up before getting back in the saddle to tackle the next section through dense Apple-leaf woodland.  Our team leader Nathan was the first to notice the movement ahead and signalled for us all to be quiet, which we immediately did.  Through the dappled leaf line, just 20 meters away, we could see a large itinerant herd of elephants; our group remained motionless whilst they stealthy and silently passed by.  They went on their way and we mounted our bikes  and went on ours.

Another very memorable encounter occurred whilst riding in Zimbabwe. We had stopped near a waterhole to watch a breeding herd of elephants drink.  Following the lead of our team leaders, we dismounted and walked slowly towards the waterhole.  Approaching from upwind, the elephants knew we were there, were not fussed by our presence and carried on drinking.  It really was spectacular to see the majestic giants at such close proximity and completely at ease in their natural habitat.

The riding was hard and tough going.  One experienced mountain biker in another group, fell 19 times on the first day and for the A Team, between us had 85 falls over four days.  I fell five times on the first morning and initially I struggled upon encountering changing terrain not knowing the right riding technique to adopt for the varying surfaces.  This was unlike any landscape I had encountered during my pre-tour training back in England.  However, I was quick to learn and fell just 4 more times in the subsequent days.  I did have one particularly spectacular crash where my bike and I got airborne.  Our group was riding single file at a quick pace through the mopane scrub, following a narrow and winding animal track.  It was towards the end of a long but great day in the saddle and the camp was just a few kilometres away with those ice cold beers beckoning us!  I only saw the obstacle once contact at full pelt had been made and yes it was too late! I had ridden straight into a large tree stump, my bike and I were flung up into the air, fortunately clearing the bushes and landing with one mighty thud on the hard, dusty ground.  I couldn’t move for a good few minutes and it took a little while to work out what had happened and what hurt.  Thankfully I was fine, nothing broken on me or my wheels and I walked away from that fall and the others with just cuts and huge bruises.  However others were not as lucky… a broken collar bone, a broken ankle, cracked ribs and heatstroke and a few broken bikes were amongst the more serious injuries.

Cycling for four consecutive days with daytime temperatures exceeding 33C, keeping hydrated was essential, especially when two of the four days had a hot and dry headwind of about 5-8 knots.  Much needed water stops were set up every 20-30ks and staffed by the constantly smiling and ever enthusiastic volunteers.  There, we riders welcomed and appreciated the opportunity to rehydrate and refuel our bodies.  Biltong, fruit and nuts, cheese, crackers, shortbread, hard boiled eggs and boiled potatoes were speedily wolfed down – an absolute winning snack combo were the Dairy lea and biltong crackers!  Ice cold drinks were guzzled down and our CamelBak bladders replenished.  Having ice cold drinks provided for us in the middle of nowhere on our ride was total heaven and because they’d thought of everything, the organisers even had cooler boxes of ice allowing us to shovel handfuls into our water bottles and hydration packs to keep us cool whilst riding.  Having that thirst-quenching elixir of ice cold water to sip on from my CamelBak was magically refreshing in the dry, dusty heat of the African bush.

The organisation and setup for the Tour was nothing short of phenomenal. Two fly camps in remote locations were set up; one in the beautiful Amphitheatre Bush Camp situated in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve in Botswana, followed by two nights in the Mapungubwe National Park in South Africa with the final day of riding taking us through Zimbabwe’s picturesque Maramani area.  At each camp, in advance of the cyclists’ arrival, the tents were erected, generators set up for hot showers,  and there was even a  camera and  phone  charging point – albeit with no phone or Internet reception, which was a welcome change from everyday life back home.  Each of the 330 cyclists and the 150 volunteers had their own tent and there were also tents for the other essentials … the bar, massages, bike workshop, food and first aid.  The 500 plus tent city at different locations was an impressive and highly organised temporary setup.

Without the tireless effort and hard work of the volunteers the Tour would not have been possible.  Setting up the bush camps, facilitating each day’s long ride and catering for the riders so that we would want for nothing was all delivered with smiles, even when, I’m sure behind the scenes, they were faced with many challenges from vehicles getting stuck and breaking down to dealing with logistical challenges.  The planning and the preparation by the organisers were incredible!  It was all so very much appreciated – from the smooth and quick passage through the border crossings, especially on the Zimbabwe side, to the sufficient suppliers of ice cold beers and G&Ts in the evenings.

An absolute treat and real highlight of the Tour were the complimentary massages!  An army of Balancing Touch massage therapists worked tirelessly under the canvas of the massage tent and administered more than 1,400 massages over the course of the 4 days providing much needed relief to lots of aching muscles!

Prior to the Tour, much of my focus had been on stamina and strength training with my personal trainer and getting my bicycle gear in order.  Back home in London, the brilliant Putney Cycles team got all the bike stuff covered and in Johannesburg The Bicycle Service Company helped with the final touches.  My staple lycra cycling gear was already sorted but I hadn’t really given anything else much thought.  Before departing I’d had a quick glance at the seasonal temperatures for the Tuli Block and clocked that the daytime highs were in excess of 30C but failed to register just how much the temperature dropped at night.  It was only in Johannesburg, the day before the Tour commenced, when the friend with whom I was staying asked what warm clothes I’d brought.  Warm clothes?  She proceeded to highlight the fact that I was going to be camping in the wilderness of sub-Saharan Africa in winter time!  Thankfully she was able to lend me woolly socks, thermals, a jumper, a sleeping bag, a hat and a much needed hot water bottle – thank you Eugenie, you were an absolute life saver!

My Tony the Tiger mountain bike was perfect in every way – looking ‘hot to trot’ with his tiger stripes thanks to a skilful vinyl wrap transformation by Calm & Ready, worked on in London by Putney Cycles and in Johannesburg by The Bicycle Service Company, he rode like an absolute dream throughout the Tour.  The tubeless tyres meant that didn’t have any punctures and fortunately I didn’t encounter any mechanical problems which was a big relief.  My bike was comfy to ride, much comfier than my road bike.  The technical riding utilised the suspension to its full capacity and I was absolutely amazed by how nimble and effortless he was at traversing the varying contours of the landscape; that was of course once I’d worked out how to handle him on each of the different terrains!  With hindsight, the mountain bike riding I’d done in the UK in preparation for the Tour de Tuli had not been technically challenging enough.  The deep sand and the rocks in the Tour de Tuli were like nothing I had ever encountered on a bicycle before; fortunately, I was a quick learner.  After my falls during the first morning I worked out what I should and shouldn’t be doing, had a fighting pep talk with myself, cracked on and it seemed to do the trick.  A friend back in London did point out that I probably should have spent as much energy on my mountain bike riding training as I had spent on turning my bike into a tiger – yes, that was a very valid point!

Clicking cleats, grinding gear changes, Bean There cappuccinos at sunrise (Rooibos tea for me!), hot showers, beeping GPS, my Marmite jersey (standard Lemon cycle attire), clean socks, Rainer’s torch which was more like a flood light, up hill moaning and groaning (apologies to the rest of the A Team for being subjected to that!), biltong, deep sand, rocks, muddy river crossing with Bertus’s hilarious face plant which I hope makes the cut for the 50/50 program, epic falls with Philip’s head plant on rocks being the winner, 32Gi recovery drink mixing action from the early hours, border controls in dried up river beds, ice cold water in our CamelBaks, devil thorns, helicopter search parties, drones, DC3 Dakota plane taking off, the heat and that headwind, drink tokens for the beers and G&Ts, watching the sunsets from the rocks, late night fun amongst the baobabs, the relentless banter, laughter and camaraderie, the Shashe River, elephant tracks and game trails, our incredible team leaders and everyone in the A Team – these are just a few of the things that made this Tour so memorable and truly epic.

In all honesty, if I had known beforehand just how tough and technically challenging the Tour de Tuli ride would be I would definitely not have signed up for it because (at the time) my mountain biking skills were not advanced enough!  However, I did enter and complete the Nedbank Tour de Tuli 2016  and coming away from this amazingly epic adventure in one piece, I am so incredibly chuffed that I did it.  It was by far the hardest physical challenge I have done so far!  Would I do it again?  Yes, in a heartbeat!

Africa, you have captured yet another piece of my heart and I am so proud to have impressive scars from my many Tour de Tuli war wounds.  I cannot wait to return to your incredible continent for my next adventure!

Oh – and you’re very welcome to donate to my CITW fundraising here xxx

A big CONGRATS to the fab adventure photographers that worked so hard to get such amazing shots and a big THANKS for letting me use them in this feature: Caroline Culbert, Mike Sutherland and Jacques Marais!


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