All dressed up for the Tour de Tuli

Dressed for the occasion

Dressed for the occasion

We won the prize of a lifetime, me and Tilla, by dressing up as flower-covered, butterfly-bedecked cyclists(the usual), lilac-breasted rollers (complete with feather boas on heads and shoulders and wings flapping as we flew downhill (veering a bit further from what would be called “normal’) and then as leopard-print-and-fishnet-stockings crazy women with very bad very pink hairdo’s. I think of the quote “all mothers are slightly insane”, but suspect some hide it better than others. Anyway. So we won the big entry to tour de Tuli. And then Tilla declined the opportunity to ride in wildest most beautiful Africa (what did I say about insane?) and Henry also said thanks but no thanks. Which left it to me and “cousin Jan” to start counting the sleeps (65 of them)

In the run-up to the Tour, we were invited by a colleague of Alta to join his team, the Amerifrikaners (traditionally made up of half Americans and half Afrikaners), as they thought we would fit right in with their high-spirited group. (Little did we know that “spirit” to them included, but was not limited to, 4 litres of mampoer…) Also, Jan started back-pedalling on all his initial promises to dress up in fishnets, wear flowers and talk as far as he rode. But no matter how hard he tried, he was no match for me, Alta and Chrisna, a big bag of flowers, some cable ties and the inevitable bottle of wine. As always happens, the flowers grew on him and I hear rumours that he has “forgotten” to remove all of them even to this day.

What a veiw

What a veiw

So off we were. Met the Amerifrikaners, who believe in travelling in style. Quite a number of them flew in to the start in private planes. Also, our group alone had a doctor to handle medical emergencies, a professional photographer and a “bike whisperer” to look after the noble steeds. The needed medical and mechanical supplies were divided into 20 and handed out to the team. Doc Kobus gallantly presented me as only woman on the team with a light-as-a-feather medical bag containing 2 tiny dressings and one plaster. Heaven forbid that the lady should slow them all down because of a heavy bag… Also, no bad words in front of the lady… That was then…

All this soon changed. But first, in the mad rush to the start-line, Jan, who’d been terrified that nobody would notice him with his inadequate amount of flower decorations, managed to steal the spotlight with the first medical emergency of the tour. Had he known how eager Kobus was to try out his new staple gun, he might have opted to walk that stretch of sand… but being the considerate man that he is, once he realised how much the doc loved the tools of his trade, he carried on bending staples, ripping out stitches and generally sacrificing the said knee for the good cause of using as much as possible of the medical supplies…

The good doc was also kept very busy by a pair of young pilots who decided that in lieu of any training they would have to depend on “chemical warfare” to get from the start of each day to the bar at the end of it… Yip, Kobus took his responsibilities very seriously. I must admit I got a bit suspicious when I had the tiniest of scrapes on my knee which attracted the doctor’s attention. I still maintain that the motive was either to touch my oh-so-toned leg, or to create a deep enough cut by viciously scrubbing the “wound” that he could get out his trusted staple-gun again…

Enjoying the bushveld

Enjoying the bushveld

Apart from the medical mishaps, another big obstacle was the sand sand sand. We quickly understood what the Amerifrikaners was on about when they mentioned “horizontal climbing”. Sitting back and spinning whilst keeping your line was one thing, but dodging the team-mates falling over behind, in front of and onto you was quite another. Just when we got the hang of it and were able to actually ride long stretches of it, of course, the Tour was over and who knows when we’ll have to navigate sand again. Off the sand the riding was also exciting.

Almost no roads, lots of single-track (actually game paths) and lots of “blind” riding where you choose your own line through the yellow-white long grass that hides a myriad of rocks, stumps and holes… Mopanie thickets with long lashing branches: you keep your distance but by the end of each day sport many bruises that make it look like you ran into an angry old man yielding a sjambok. Drop-offs into dry river-beds where the sand can stop you dead in your tracks and send you flying. A Kloof where the bicycles had to be carried while scrambling over big rocks.

Hundreds of meters of deep loose sand as you cross the Sashe and the Limpopo… but the best of all was quite a few places where we had huge playgrounds of sleek sandstone which we left only when the spasms from too much maniacal grinning got too much to bear. On the first day I got a bit frustrated with the slow pace, especially when on flowing single track, (clearly i was slightly overtrained!) but settled down soon. My mumbling also reached the right ears, and I was “punished” by sending me off to ride with the photographer and his allocated warden a few times – some of the highlights of my riding, as Steve rushed through bush and over rocks in mad haste, ostensibly to find good photo ops but honestly more out of zest for life and grabbing the opportunity to have more fun, faster.

Early mornings, following the silhouettes in the crimson dust of the rising sun, adrenaline rushes down the rocky descents, friendly banter and strangers turning into friends as the wheels creak and turn, the rocks turn to sand, the ups into downs, the morning into afternoons. And postcard beautiful cliché scenery: the yellow grass, huge sandstone boulders and outcrops, almost always topped with incredible wild ficus trees, roots snaking down down down the rough rock. And of course, the wise old giants of this ancient land: baobabs planted firmly in the sand, their silhouettes still burning behind my eyes…

Also, yes, we did see animals. Elephant sightings on the first day, near enough to be thrilled and far enough not to panic. Apparently elephant charges are not unheard of, and there were no guns, but only our ranger’s knowledge of animal behaviour to protect us. A zebra running amok almost took out a few riders, and otherwise we also saw some kudu, eland, giraffes.

The camps were all very special and unique. Once our tents were pitched on the thick sand of a hundreds of meters wide dry river bed, with the dining area under the low branches of huge trees on the river bank. At almost every camp there were rocky koppies to scramble up and watch the magnificent sunsets from. Fly-camp in Zimbabwe boasted a bar area on the top of a cliff, overlooking the elephants that are fed with truckloads of oranges to keep them from raiding the citrus farms. And at Mapungubwe we watched the sunset where the Sashe and the Limpopo meet, and thus Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe were tucked in tight together as the sounds of the night and the milky way took centre stage.

It was at Fly Camp that one of our own tried to photograph the pachyderms and tumbled about 9 meters down the rocks, setting in motion a chain of events, including a dramatic rescue from the incident team that had been hoping for a chance to use their skills… a helicopter trip for him, watching his team struggle through the bush way below and being dropped at every stop to join us for juice and biltong… and then on the last night being carried (all 100kg of him, as well as a small shebeen of liquid refreshments and ice, loaded on top) in a plastic stretcher up a koppie for sundowners. He ain’t heavy… uhm… scratch that! He is VERY heavy, but he’s our brother! During this mission-no-one-gets-left-behind it was once again proven that I had become “one of the boys”. While the stretcher is being loaded with more and more bottles of dead weight, I step forward and kindly offer to carry some glasses. “What?!”, the gentlemen exclaim, “jy’t ons in ons m$@ in gery, you are going to help us carry him!”

Riders at the Tour de Tuli

Riders at the Tour de Tuli

I packed the extra flowers just in case, but the group amazed me with their willingness to join in the madness. Every day, more of them asked for flowers, and by the evening of the 3rd, I sat at my tent for a very long time, decorating and then re-decorating 20 helmets. And they loved their special do’s: be it mohawks or plaits, technicolor halo’s or more sophisticated rose-and-ivy-meets-rudy-project, porcupine/alien invasion look or dangling tonic cans… or all of the above! I am currently undergoing therapy to cope with the trauma of being seriously outdone in outrageous headgear…I had better get over it soon because the money could be much better spent at my local bike shop.

The memory of Jan volunteering to wear his leopard-print tutu to match my outfit (yes, it was a pre-requisite that I had to ride in my leopard print dress on my birthday) cheers me up though, as well as the knowledge that we were the one team who never had to ask: now where did we park our bikes? And of course: at least I was the only cow clang-elang-ing this way and that, thanks to an authentic old and rusted cow-bell that our ranger begged from the locals and presented me with as a birthday gift. Which I then of course fastened to my back and carried for the next two days… wonder why there was no wildlife sightings from then on?…Speaking of gifts.

Anyone who has tried walking or riding with me where rocks or shells can be seen, will know that I get seriously OCD about it, and just HAVE to stop and choose the nicest ones, and carry it home with me. On this tour i have picked up quite a selection of glittering quartz crystals, green and pink rocks, as well as the ever-present heart-shaped one. But in addition to the ones I chose myself, I also brought home a huge, heavy, plain old rock, placed in my camelbak early one day in an effort to slow me down. So much for looking after the lady. The joke was on them, though, for it neither slowed me down nor made me grumpy, and in the end I had the guys all sign it and brought it home as a momento and a doorstop.

Yes I know. Once again I have exceeded the allotted word-count for a ride report… sorry. (not). Just trying to give glimpses of the amazing time we had on Tour de Tuli, honestly a bucket-list experience. ;”

Mostly, you just had to be there.