To try and pick a single event or day is nearly impossible, even the seemingly mondain days can come alive, sparked by a song on my ipod, a conversation on Wana, or even the seemingly relentless thrill of not knowing where you will be sleeping as the sun plunges towards the horizon.
As we cycled across Tanzania toward Malawi we entered Mikumi National Park and began a 50km cycle traversing an unfenced wildlife reserve. Having witnessed O’Shea nearly being run over by a giraffe, and narrowly avoiding an angry bull elephant I found myself cycling on a slight downhill with a herd of Zebra galloping alongside me. For five magic minutes we kept pace with each other as we raced toward an unknown finish line.
My biggest low also came in Tanzania. As we ate breakfast on a rodaside I heard screams coming from down the road. As I ran toward the screams I saw a boy lying on the tarmac with half his body obscurred by the long grass bordering the road. Upon reaching the boy it became clear that the cause of the screams was a rabid dog. After what seemed like an eternity the dog released his bite following a number of kicks from me and blows from a shovel swung by a quick thinking roadside worker. Before the boy could be helped the dog had to be killed and so I watched as the dog was repeatedly battered over the head until his body finally slumped lifelessy into the grassy roadside. Having cleaned and dressed the boy’s wounds we implored the group of locals who had now gathered to ensure the boy see a doctor. As he was led off we again repeated the words rabies and doctor. We cycled off in hope rather than confidence that we were understood.
I passed the 48km sign to Nkhata bay as the sun was starting to go down and immediately got a second wind. After eleven days on the road without a bed or a shower a break was finally in sight. Up until then I hadn’t let myself think about it for fear that it may require another half days cycling but that sign meant that I was going to make it, and the feeling of exhileration it brought was as unforgettable as the cycle that followed. For two hours my speed rarely dipped below 30km/ph, as I raced down the mountainside towards Lake Malawi singing and laughing all the way.
Quietly I said a prayer and wheeled the bike onto the road as the other lads gathered their thoughts. Today was meant to be a day of celebration as we completeted our last 80km in Zimbabwe to the South African border but that mornings conversation really shook us up.
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t stop, they have machetes and guns now and wont hestitase to use them”.
The final strech of road between Zimbabwe and South Africa has grown notorious with bandits attacking cars driving towards ‘South’ to do there monthly shopping.
The danger zone was apparently 50 km long with the worst spot in an isolated spot right in the middle. We moved off cycling one behind another in absolute silence each of us scouring the bush for any sign of a potential ambush and trying to visualise our response if something happened. The only communication being the raising of a hand by whoever was in front indictating a lay – by or person up ahead, both meant the same thing…increase the speed.
After two hours cycling in this fashion we crossed a police checkpoint which marked the end of the most mentally tiring cycle we have yet experienced. Strangely we didn’t even talk about it or shake hands as we sometimes do after a particularly tough day. We just continued cycling.
Highs & Lows
I always believed that the first couple of weeks cycling were going to be the toughest. I figured that it was during this period that a lot of questions would be asked and hopefully answered of my own ability to continue the cycle. Our preparation in the form of time in the saddle before the cycle varied from little to none at all. My biggest concern was whether or not the accumulative effects of heat, blisters from the rock-hard Brooks saddle and fatigue whilst cycling on consecutive days would force me to quit. This decision would never be taken lightly because of the time and effort invested in merely getting to the point of beginning. Nontheless, the possibility of having to make this decision was very real.
The first three days were managable, just. Then, that fateful day arrived on day four. We cycled from Aje to Sodo on rough, stone-covered Ethiopian roads not intended for bicycles. There were many hills to climb on this stretch also. Perhaps it was the notion of yet another hill to climb or maybe it was simply that my legs ached as they did and weren’t up to the effort that forced me to walk and push my bicycle up these hills over the stones. One way or another, I remember this being the first day that I started talking to myself in any meaningful way. I considered the hows, wheres, whens and whys of returning home to Ireland with my new bicycle after only a few days but continued walking nevertheless. I tried to hitch a lift from any vehicle that might pass. I think I kissed the ground as my knees gave way when a mini-bus eventually stopped and transported my bike and I for the last six km to Sodo. We stayed in Sodo on this particular night and as we pitched our tents my legs wobbled like jelly. I decided to take the next day off and catch a bus ahead to Arbe Minch where we were taking a couple of days off anyway. We rested, my legs and I recovered, we continued on but I’m glad to say that I haven’t had to confront this same situation again. Occasionally perhaps but never to the same extent. Whatever about the legs, I remember the idea of having to stop the trip prematurely as being much worse than the physical endurance of this particular day. Thankfully, things have gradually improved.
I can safely say that I cannot easily remember any other low points of any significance. The high points are many and varied. One comes to mind in particular probably because it is in direct contrast to the above ‘low point’. On day thirty, the day before we reached Iringa in Tanzania, we climbed 1500 ft over approximately five kilometers. None of us were too aware beforehand of the extent of the climb which lay ahead. The road winded upwards to the village of Myuat. I peddeled like mad in the lowest gear and meandered uphill hoping that every upward turn in the road was the last. Only the last one was. All the others in between seemed more ridiculous and steep than the one before. You’d try to sing a song to take your mind off the burning legs. Articulated trucks struggled to climb as well as descend. We were all in this struggle together. It all seemed delerious. As darkness fell and as the lights of the trucks light our way, you’d listen and hope for the sound of the gear-change of the trucks up ahead as they’d hopefully speed downhill or increased their speed on the flat at least. At last, at last, the hill we were looking for came…the last one! The relief was a huge one and a bizzare one as the village of Myuat was in darkness but for the moonlight and a couple of flickering fires & candles. Reggae music sang ‘Don’t worry…about a thing’. Exhausted and over the same moon, we bargained for a place to pitch our tents as a curious small crowd gathered. This done, we had a few beers almost like we couldn’t believe our luck!
Another great end to another great day. The fact that I was able to make it to the top of this hill without pushing the bicycle was a huge turning point for myself. Had I pushed the bicycle up this hill I would be arriving in Myuat around now. I had begun to climb, by peddling, various lesser hills over the previous week or two but this partciular climb made me realise that I wouldn’t be going home just yet. The following days freewheeling downhill was almost as enjoyable!