I am sitting in my tent in the small town of Solitaire. Dinner has come and gone, a surprise desert of chocolate brownies providing a luxurious finish to the meal. The ride was long today, 135+ km on gravel roads, so the bakery located adjacent to the campground was a welcome treat upon arrival. Moose McGregor is the baker in charge and the flavors in his creations are equal in proportion to his large frame. Apple pie is the house specialty and after two large pieces I can confidently attest to its stature.
An incredible sunset was enhanced by the presence of a gigantic storm cell hovering on the eastern horizon. The sun set in its languid but determined fashion and illuminated this collection of cumulonimbus clouds with the last rays of daylight. Brilliant. The aspiring professional photographer amongst the group was there to capture it all. Dennis, myself, and Luke were there as well though our results were varied. I gave up early and instead became a model of sorts for the others as I posed in the tall grasses and attempted various acrobatic feats before the cameras. I’ve not seen the results myself but I am told the photos are noteworthy.
The next day was only a 30km race stage in the form of an individual time trial. After a 15km warm-up we started two minutes apart in reverse order. My body had been behaving rather unpredictably as of late, no doubt the side effects of too much effort and not enough rest. In short, there are some cracks forming in the armor. I started in the fifth position and was ready to ride it easy after a 5km uphill start into a sever headwind. However, this was to be my final race effort of the trip and honor forced my hand: I killed myself. I passed several riders who started before me and rolled across the finish line to surprised faces and raised eyebrows. I had posted the fastest time with just 4 riders remaining. Adam, Jorg, Dennis, and finally Paul Wolfe rolled across the finish line and my time held up. Not just another stage win, this one meant a bit more as the individual time trial is considered one of cycling’s more macho disciplines. I rode the rest of the day with a smile.
Sesriem was the location of our next rest day and serves as the gateway to the famous Sossosvlei dunes of the Namib Desert. I arrived there, of that there is no doubt. My body was far from whole and hurt in ways it had yet to do on this trip. For once I was happy that my father had chosen to ride the trucks directly to camp – this would mean that he could secure a room. The prospects of a bed and not having to deal with my tent were very appealing. Instead, I arrived at the campsite to learn that he had passed on the rooms. A little waiting, a lot of frustration, 3 beers, 3 hours, and 2 phone calls and we had a room at the Sossosvlei Dunes Lodge. It was paradise in the middle of absolute desolation.
The resort was something very special in its construction: a line of individual bungalows stretching nearly a mile end to end built into a rocky hillside and all connected by a raised wooden boardwalk. Views of the desert on the horizon, springbok feeding nearby, fields of wheat-colored grass shimmering in the fading light of the day, and a warm plunge pool embedded in the rocks added to the ambiance. I did not know it when I arrived, but this is exactly what my body and mind needed. We booked a sunrise trip to the dunes for the next day and were rewarded with one of the most exhilarating landscapes I have ever seen. This rest day was quite possibly perfect.
The five days riding out of Sesriem to our present location on the Orange River were a bit of a surprise. Mentally I simply was not prepared for the length and difficulty of these days. The region has received more rain this season than at any other point in its recorded history and the typically fast, smooth dirt roads were less so. Coupled with distances of 130+ km, a distinct absence of towns, shops, and people, this stretch would not be a swan song for the end of the tour. However, 70km into the first of five days riding I came to terms with what lay ahead and embraced the beauty of the amazing landscape and endless low hills and mountains. We cycled through a number of nature reserves and were rewarded with views of a landscape that due to record rainfalls may never look this way again in my lifetime.
I rode the first of these five days to the town of Betta with a small group consisting of Torrey and multi-bike Mike. We picked up Dennis at lunch and rode comfortably into camp. I would ride the remaining 4 days mostly alone – partly by plan, partly due to some mechanical misfortunes.
Day two saw us awake to the continuation of heavy rains that started shortly after midnight. As dawn arrived, it was clear that the rains were going nowhere on their own and our only hope was to ride out of them. We started the day on a nice dirt road. The day before we pedaled the final 20km at speeds of 38 km/h. Thanks to the rain, we would average only 16km/h over 31 kilometers. The hard packed surface had become a loose, sticky surface of mud approximately 2 inches deep. The mud, sticking to the drivetrain on the bikes caused a symptom known as chainsuck and required some tactical shifting and cleaning to keep things working somewhat properly. Midway through the ride I had what I thought was a shifting problem. At 25km while trying to power forward through a stretch of particularly deep mud I nearly came off of my bicycle when my pedaling efforts were met with no resistance. In short, the ratchet/pawl system in the rear hub had failed completely so the chain could not “bite” against the rear gear cluster to propel me forward. This was a very serious issue as it renders the bike completely useless and is not something that is repaired along the roadside under most circumstances. This could certainly be an EFI ending event. Fortunately, the shite weather and tough riding conditions had persuaded a few riders that a truck ride might be a little nicer. Young Canadian Steve was willing to power through the messy slop that had become our riding surface but did not hesitate to loan me his bike. Severe illness in northern Kenya had taken his EFI status but he was as determined as I was in the moment to keep mine. Tour Director Sharita happened upon us with the runabout vehicle and like that Steve gave me his cycling shoes (he uses a different pedal/cleat system) and his bicycle. Wet, very muddy, and wearing shoes three sizes too small I was underway again on a bicycle built for a someone considerably shorter than me. However, I was moving forward and that is all that mattered.
The mud gave way to pavement at 31km and the balance of the ride, apart from sore feet and smashed toes, was relatively pleasant. I rolled into camp at the Seeheim hotel to applause from fellow riders and was encouraged to see that master bike mechanic Martin was already making a plan to sort out my wheel. We replaced the spring and pawls inside the hub and it immediately sounded and behaved much better. In short, it looked like I was back in business! It appeared that careful planning around spare parts had paid off significantly.
Day 4 was a relatively short day – just 92km offroad – but offered a few challenges as we pedaled towards our camp near the Fish River Canyon. My bike seemed happy but my body acted as if it had been flogged severely. No matter, just get through the day. The road surface was in decent shape but broken up continuously with sections of deep sand, mud, and water where excess rainfall ran across the road surface. I got a reprieve at just 26km when the road approached what is likely a small stream. Today it was a rushing torrent of a river and was in no way crossable. The race day was canceled and tour director Sharita scouted a route across the river by making use of a railroad bridge. Once on the other side of the river, Dennis decided to undertake a naked mile and stripped off his clothes before jumping on the bike. Look at him go! Eeek, that was one large, white rear end. He enjoyed himself so much he carried on for 12km. I rode easy with UK Paul and Dutchman Peter (Pretty Pete) and arrived into camp at the Canyon Roadhouse feeling well thrashed. Apprehension was settling in at this point as well as camp was moved 12km closer meaning we faced a 171km day in the morning, 126 of which was dirt. Paul and I managed to abate many of my fears by eating like savage animals upon arrival. Lunch consisted of the following: 1 liter beer; 1 toasted ham/cheese sandwich with chips; 1 plate of pasta; 1 portion of mixed schnitzel with chips; 2 slices of Amarula cheesecake. OK, I admit it, sometimes I eat because it makes me feel better. The afternoon nap also helped.
Day 5 was upon me. We were fortunate in that the sunshine from the previous day held and the roads continued to dry and harden. My body actually felt pretty good at breakfast. That is to say that my legs no longer seemed to ache. Off I went, just a few minutes ahead of the lead race pack who, thanks to a gentleman’s agreement, had decided to make this the last contested stage of the tour. I rode easy until they caught me and decided to jump in amongst them. We rode steadily, everyone content to keep a moderate pace due to the length of the day and the relative uncertainty around the quality of the road surface. My rear wheel was showing some renewed signs of trouble and at the 71km mark as we climbed a slight rise, the hub gave out again. Good fortune was with me again as we had overtaken Bastiaan earlier in the ride and he was now offering me his bike. Another shoe change and off I went. We arrived at lunch, and though I was feeling very good and eager to participate in this race, I decided that would be selfish. I waited at lunch for him to arrive on my broken bike, the plan being to give him his bicycle while I waited for my father to arrive at which point I could use my father’s rear wheel to finish the day and maintain EFI. Bastiaan agreed to wait with me and we wasted no time in making ourselves comfortable at lunch which is tour-speak for gorging oneself to maximal capacity.
After about an hour, fellow rider James arrived and eager to contribute to my EFI effort, loaned me his bike. We made a few adjustments and were underway again. This time I was riding a Surly Long Haul Trucker touring bicycle with 26″ wheels and big knobby tires. It was the perfect bike for the day and all things considered was quite comfortable. Bastiaan and I rode together and our course soon led to a turnoff onto a “D” road which denotes a lesser or minor road in Namibian highway nomenclature.
The road wound through epic expanses of empty desert flanked by low, red hills and mountains. Stunning is not quite an adequate description, but it will have to do. If ever I was inspired by a landscape it was today. Borrowed bike or not, the landscape and the gentle rolling of the road exhilarated me such that I was inclined to ride this section really hard akin to a wild horse steaming through the open plains. Eventually the effort proved too much for Bastiaan and he urged me to slow down. I did.
The ride culminated with 45km of tarmac to our rest day camp just 13km from the South Africa border. Instead of a reprieve, this tarmac section would prove the most difficult on the day due to a steady, strong headwind. Bastiaan and I set off together, but he soon slowed to accompany Peter the Plumber. I caught another South African, Andre, and encouraged him to ride in my slipstream for the remainder of the ride. He was grateful, and thankful to be able to pay it forward so to speak, I set a steady pace for us as we cut through the wind. We reminisced about some of the tour’s more defining moments and for a few minutes let ourselves talk out loud about what it will mean to finish this adventure. We both agreed that it might prove challenging to fully describe the significance. But, that my friends, is putting the cart ahead of the horse. For now, dinner beckons as we have another 133km to ride tomorrow.