The Tour d’Afrique has reached the Namibian-South African border. After eight days on the road from Windhoek, Namibia, seven of them in the saddle, the rolling parade has covered just about 1000km of this final section, of which only 165km were not on gravel. Yes, that’s more than 850km of gravel.
It’s been very hard for me. I wasn’t in tiptop form to begin with, certainly not for the distances we have covered — the shortest day thus far was 108km, the longest 176km, an average of about 145km — but the added difficulty of epic stretches of poor road surface, which I’m neither very familiar with nor very good at, has really put me out of my element. There have of course been superb runs on unpaved roads that might as well be tarmac, but for the most part the corrugations, sand patches and vigilance required to choose a line that doesn’t run you into peril have been tough. In fact, on the two hardest days (also long ones), overall progress was at times slowed to as little as 12kph (especially when there was a head wind). And overall average speeds of 16-20kph meant that 150km took 7-9 nine hours to complete, not including rest stops.
All in all, the general consensus is that Xiaobiar and I were flung unceremoniously into the deep end, that we have been stuck with the hardest introduction to any new section of the tour. They’re not the hardest days — those honors apparently belong to the brutal roads of northern Kenya — but they certainly have left people smarting.
That being said, all seven days since Windhoek have been spectacular. Despite the relentlessness of the terrain, we’ve all been left awed by the landscape — remarkably similar to the Southwest of the US, complete with Fish River Canyon, second only to the Grand Canyon in size. We’ve also been stunned by the vast emptiness. Apparently Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries on the planet. We’ve certainly seen (or not seen, as it were) proof of that. Days and days of… nothing. Few people. Almost no towns. Bush as far as the eye can see. And that’s even when we weren’t right up against the edges of the Namib Desert, a tiny piece of which we enjoyed when on a visit to Sosuvlei.
Personally, it’s been balm for the soul: no email, no work pressure, no lurking deadlines, no late nights before the computer. I’m actually thrilled to have (temporarily) put that behind me. Then again, the physical and emotional pressures of the ride grind have been considerable. My body is exhausted, my mind desperate for a day of nothing but family and friends. Recurring cycling ailments have come back in full force: my fingers are numb from the jarring gravel roads, my Achilles is acting up, I am about as saddle sore as I’ve even been.
But, as the others who have been part of this trip since Cairo, covered almost 11,000km in 3.5 months, I’ll suck up the pain and discomfort and plod through the final 750km to Cape Town. After all, there’s something surpassingly noble about long bike rides. That’s why we’re all here.