Since leaving Balule we have cycled our way through mountains, rainforest, desert and African savannah to find ourselves 40 km away from the Botswana border. It has been some of the toughest cycling of the trip so far. Cancel that. It has been some of the toughest cycling of my life so far.
Our typical day starts with Johnno bounding round the camp / room / grass or wherever we have managed to locate an area to sleep the night before. He tends to do this around 6am. Normally full of life and expectations for how promptly he wants us out and on the road. Theo is next up and is usually tinkering with his bike or someone else's before long. Charlie and I are usually next to rise both likely to compare how puffy our eyes are followed by a grunt about how much or little sleep we got / an update on bowel movements throughout the night. The nights spent in the tent, which so far has been most, usually feature on the lower end of the scale for the amount of sleep achieved. So far this week we've had a group of 16 blokes stumble passed our tent, there's been 4am cockerels reminding us in Africa its time to get up and one special night we had a nervous hippo scratching round in the bushes next to us. As you can imagine it makes for a relaxing post cycle recovery.
Before long Johnno has the cooker up and running to varying degrees of success depending on the choice of fuel. So far diesal has created more of a flamethrower effect. Unlike petrol, which although creates a small bomb when used, tends to cook our baked beans pretty well in the morning. Once breakfast is inhaled the others seem to pack up their kit instantaneously. I'm not sure quite how and perhaps my water filtering system is the root cause behind my lack of haste, but I'm always last to be packed every morning. I'm convinced they've implemented a forfeit system to catch me out. It's odd because I'm the only one who knows exactly where each item of my kit is stored. I have even tried removing only the absolute bare minimum from my packed bag in the evenings so I'm ready to go first thing, but to no avail. It remains a mystery.. for now.
This week we've had rain, wind, sun and even fog greeting us as we set off in morning. We usually start off by cursing and blinding about our aches and pains from the day before. The fog was particularly memorable as it was accompanied by a 6km climb, meaning not only could we not feel our legs but we couldn’t see 20 metres in front of us, so had no idea when it would end!
Normally the first hour of the cycle is the hardest. The stiffness in our legs has at times made getting out the sleeping bags a challenge in itself let alone cycling up a mountain. Somehow the human mind forgets the pain it went through days / even hours before and allows you to convince yourself that despite not being a professional athlete you are still able to lug 55kg of weight on two wheels over some of Africa's most intense mountain climbs. God knows how.
Brunch usually starts at around 9am. It consists of one of the finest meals. The 'lunch bar'. To those of you that are unfamiliar with said lunch bar.. you've missed out. The crispy inner peanut butter flavoured comb is delicately wrapped in cadburys finest milk chocolate and extends for at least 6 big mouthfuls. No matter the time, altitude, weather or dietary requirements (which are quite specific for this trip) lunch bars are unrivavled and essential. Theo has become the resident king of the lunch bar. Piling on at least 3 before lunch.
Actual Lunch is a tricky one. Unfortunately we've worked out the roads and subsequently the roadside cafes were designed with cars in mind. The distance’s between food stops are vast. There isn't therefore always an option to eat lunch at lunch time. We therefore have to have our wits about us from 11am to 4pm. KFC is a regular, Nando’s is a highlight. Anything else is a risk. Theo often settles for another lunchbar.
The next daily challenge we have is finding somewhere to stay. As we are carrying our tents we have the capacity to pretty much sleep anywhere.. In theory. But when your half way up a mountain and there is no side of the road that becomes slightly more of a challenge. Instead so far we have used a mixture of cunning, charm and St Christopher's luck! We normally arrive in the place we are aiming for between 4.30-6pm. Seeing as it gets dark at 6.30pm on the dot, cutting it fine can be a dangerous game. Especially as our main rule is no cycling at night. Usually on arriving at the location Charlie turns on the charm offensive and attempts to convince the owner of the smartest guest house in the area that we would love to camp on their premisis. When this doesn't work we send in the reinforcements. Johnno steps up the haggling process. Theo whips out his phone with usually less than 15 rand of credit which equates to roughly 85 pence and starts to madly research the nearest guest house or hostel. This process usually lasts as long as it takes for him to run out of credit or for the light to fade.
So far this has been a tremendous success. One memorable night, after being told the local guesthouse was full and we would have to cycle another 15km ontop of the 75km we had already completed that day, we went round the corner and found the rival hotel which kindly said we could sleep on their lawn for free. This seemed great until we saw the proximity to the river. 20 metres away there were signs saying no swimming or fishing, beware of Hippos and crocodiles! At that point we realised perhaps it wasn’t the most generous offer.. Bikepackers can’t be choosers, as they say, and luckily we survived albeit with noisey rustling in the bushes throughout the night..!
It's an amusing process to go through watching 3 guys you thought you knew exceptionally well go through a full life cycle from near starvation to overloading with food on a daily basis. It provides a fascinating insight into the different characters. This is one of the areas where our teamwork has really started to pay off. Everyone is very generous with their supplies, and nobody judges a man who has a second or even third course at dinner. Or in my case a full steak and chips followed by a burger and chips for pudding, followed by pudding, followed by some more chips, which actually happened on two consecutive nights… That is one thing we have noticed, being out on the bike for an average of 9 hours a day, means we can literally eat whatever we want!
What's great though is although we are perfectly capable of tucking into a menu, we can also fend for ourselves. Our culinary dishes have stretched from pasta and pasta sauce to noodles and tinned fish and on one elaborate night we even cooked ourselves our very own Braai. We had sausages and pork chops with some avocado thrown on for good measure!
Now we are stepping out into Botswana where there are less people than elephants, I'm looking forward to seeing what culinary expertise Johnno has in store for us.. and if Charlie will try his hand at cooking for the first time in 20days!
What we have learnt:
Africa can be cold.. Really cold.
Always think you have another 10km to go even when your days about to end!
Theo loves chocolate.
Brakes are no longer in our control.
Flat land is much faster than mountains.
Charlie shouldn’t go into insurance.
Local advice is not synonymous with accurate directions. Always gain a second and third opinion.
Beware of Sargent Major Johnston in the morning.
Brookes leather saddles are actually the one.
My bottom hurts. A lot. But not as much as Charlie’s.