On 20 May 2010 I received at my Sydney Australia home an email from a Johannesburg based cousin with a link to the August 2010 Tour de Tuli (TdeT) website. It provided extensive information about an extraordinary 4-day mountain bike cycle event covering close to 300km and traversing rugged wildlife country in Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Angus’ email said “No excuses! Lots of time to train and plan.”
I am not going to repeat here copious info about the TdeT. It is on the internet at www.tourdewilderness.com/TourDeTuli.To summarise:
• 4 days of mountain biking along mainly elephants paths in the African bush, covering 50-80km per day;
• Its traverses Botswana’s Tuli game reserve, Zimbabwe’s Sentinel and Nottingham game ranches and South Africa’s Mapungubwe National Park, all areas part of the Greater Mapungubwe TransFrontier Conservation Area ( Mapungubwe TFCA)
• Stay at 4 magnificent temporary bush camps, 3 of which are on the Limpopo river;
• Lack for nothing, I mean nothing, logistics wise – food, drink, cappuccino’s medical, massages, bike mechanic support;
• Extraordinary and varied African landscape – mopane, acacia, floodplain riverine forest, iconic baobab, Leadwood acacias nyala berry trees and a chance of seeing a few of the many animals which see you (elephants, giraffe, impala, eland);
• 300 cyclists with 100 plus support staff for whom nothing seem too much trouble; and
• All the while and most importantly, supporting Children in the Wilderness (CITW) charity.
For more info on CITW go to http://www.childreninthewilderness.com. In essence, CITW’s objective is to bridge the divide between communities and wildlife. It hosts rural children that live alongside the TFCA and teaches them about conservation. It exposes children to their wildlife heritage, which through force of circumstance they have been deprived, and aims to develop environmental leaders to care for their natural heritage and thereby become its custodians in due course.
The 2010 event was not an option. It required significant preparation and I had never ridden a mountain bike before. So we set our sights on the TdeT 2011.
Through indirect family connections I had contact with Tanya McKenzie, a four-time TdeT veteran. a prime mover and shaker behind the event.
Her partner Dave Evans is only marginally less a mover and shaker than Tanya, and also provided very valuable pre trail advice.
The final decision was do we go for the shorter, safer and less technical Explorer Route or go for the longer harder Original Route. My cousin’s wife’s response brooked no argument – “stupid question, obviously the original route”.
The preparation was all part of the fun. I discovered a new language, MTB speak, and splashed out on a 29er soft tail. My first ride – the pedal broke at the halfway point somewhere in Ku-ring-gai Park so ended up with a good cross training session comprising freewheeling downhill and running/walking uphill. A New Zealnd friend who also signed up for the Tour De Tuli and I instituted regular afternoon squash games. Our plans to step up MTB training in May/June/July 2011 were scuppered by unprecedented heavy rains so we were limited a few exploratory rides in the Royal National Park, spins classes and the static bike at home watching recorded S15 rugby matches.
Our cycling group comprised a wonderful mix of people. About 20, a majority were South Africans but we had 6 from Australia, a father and son form England and my New Zealand friend Paul. Come Thursday 4 August we were reunited at the Limpopo Valley Airfield, Tuli block in Botswana.
Thursday 4 August – Arrival Day
The TdeT official arrival time was Limpopo Valley airfield 3.30pm Thursday 4 August. My cousin Angus Paul and I with customary punctuality arrived at the airfield 28 hours ahead of schedule on Wednesday 3 August. We had left Johannesburg at 4am, crossed the border between South Africa and Botswana via the Limpopo River cable car crossing (an adventure in itself) at Ponte Drift and then cycled the 3 kilometres to the airfield where we left our bikes and headed via open Land Cruiser for pre-cycle acclimatisation at the luxurious Mashatu main camp (www.mashatu.co.za).
For any foreign visitor doing the TdeT (or indeed for anyone wishing to undertake a Southern African safari), Mashatu has my highest recommendation. Apart from great landscape and the sighting of a wide range of mammals in our short time there – including impala, kudu, giraffe, zebra, plenty of eland, wildebeest, baboons, monkeys and jackals to name but some – we had adrenalin encounters with major game. These included three lions very close up to our open vehicle at that magical dusk time when the African night descends so swiftly, and an even closer encounter with a den of 18 hyenas where one pup was keen for a nibble of Angus’ shoe protruding from the vehicle. During our morning drive we also had sightings of the famed Tuli elephant herds, numbering about 30-40 and 60 elephant respectively.
Mashatu has some unique advantages; apart from the landscape, animal viewings and hugely experienced rangers which are arguable available elsewhere, it also has predator and ivory drives with specialised predator and elephant researchers, walking trips and, what may be unique, cycling safaris and horse riding safaris.
Tanya Mackenzie and her school friend Pam Ness and her husband Brain (also now Aussies) joined us for sundowners and campfire dinner at Mashatu. Tanya handed out the superb Italian made Marriott sponsored cycling gear and doubled lined jacket kindly organised by one of our group although in Jenny’s case her package had been stolen from Tanya by marauding baboons. When eventually recovered from nearby bush these were a few scratches and tears to prove primate use.
That afternoon we met our fellow Group 6 (aka Meals on Wheels or Group Sex) members. They had arrived in disparate ways; some via official TdeT bus from Johannesburg, others in private cars and some in their own helicopters and aeroplanes. Johan had already incurred the first injury; upon mounting his hired bike the pedal snapped causing him to gash his leg. Whereas others in our group did not seem to incur any injury throughout the 4 days and some, for whom I have unlimited admiration (Pam and Nic you know who you are), did not fall even once.
The Group 6 members I had not previously met were obviously close knit and mostly hardened TdeT veterans. Although we were newcomers, we were immediately made to feel very much welcome. They were a great bunch of people with whom to spend 4 days.
The Limpopo Valley airfield camp was surreal – helicopters and planes buzzing around, a village of 450 tents, a huge circus like big top tent to accommodate 450 people sitting at tables and chairs, separate shower and toilet facilities for men and women, bike repair tent, coffee shops, full bars with cold beers, g & t and wine selection etc. It was a cross between ‘MASH’ meets ‘Apocalypse Now’ with the African bush thrown in. We had our pre cycle briefings, which included a passionate exhortation from Dave Evans to all 300 cyclists “Make sure you remove your handlebars!” (hello??), an excellent dinner and headed for our tents under brilliant African starlight more than ready to set out on the next day’s adventure.
Friday 5 August – Day One – 75 plus kilometres
The groups departed at 15 minute intervals. Our Group 6 departure time was 6.45am – an ideal time (not entirely fortuitous I suspect) as we had the benefit of daylight but an early start which meant (hopefully) an early finish thereby avoiding the full heat of the day.
Prior to departure we gathered for a team photo. Dave Evans shouted last minute instructions to our group “Yannick [clad in head to toe thermals] you will be boiling in a few hours!” and then left us to join a more leisurely Group 17 – something to do with a bad back cause of which not disclosed.
The initial cycling was easy going through open bush with firm track and good visibility thanks to sparse winter grass covering. Helicopters flew overhead filming us. We progressed off road and followed orange tags strategically placed on bushes which was the system used throughout to mark the route. Jean-Jacques Cornish, a radio personality from South Africa’s 702 radio station and part of our group, had an unfortunate fall and cracked a rib causing his withdrawal from the tour by the tea break.
Our first stop was on a hill overlooking a Limpopo flood plain/ vlei and the location of a British military outpost during the 1988-1902 Boer War. We were lucky with us as leader of our group was Pete Le Roux, the head ranger of the Tuli Block for the 25 or so years and an authority on the history of the area as well as everything else environmental (fauna, flora ecology) wise. He was also extremely useful and spent all four days ‘sweeping’ at the back of our group.
After sighting a few warthogs on the vlei, we headed to the tea stop via a riverine thicket in which we had been warned elephants would likely be lurking. True to form, the group ahead of us had sighted a herd and our strung out group closed up for protection with Pete le Roux taking over in front. Exiting the riverine we cycled up a nearby incline and caught sight of the herd disappearing into the bush.
The tea time stop about 33km from the airfield was under a huge mashatu tree. Pre departure advice from those in the know had been do not worry about taking snacks as there will be more than enough. Too right. Tea comprised tea, coffee, hot chocolate, coke, appletisers, other soft drinks, nuts, biscuits, muffins, biltong, banana bread, crackers and numerous other items and more than enough for about 300 cyclists arriving at staggered times throughout the morning. Each day’s tea had similar consumable offerings, plus medical supplies, wet wipes, lubricant for bikes, mechanics and washing facilities and was typical of the logistics throughout.
After tea we proceeded westerly on single elephant path tracks along the ridge line with panoramic views of the Tuli block on our left hand southern side. The going was fairly level with some undulations and the odd koppie to test uphill skills. With camera men waiting at the top of one of these hills, Beacon Hill, I tested my evolving MTB prowess and almost succeeded, finishing up falling into a bush – luckily scrub mopane not acacia thorn – a few metres from the summit. No harm done except to pride. Other falls were more spectacular, the day’s prize going to Leon de Wit who descending a donga completed a graceful a 360 tumble over the handlebars, but landing in soft river sand was none the worse for wear.
As we descended gently towards brunch I was in a rear posse detached from the group’s front riders. We were about to turn west until that expert navigator, Brian Ness with his GPS, informed us that the trail was 150 metres east. Luckily we had Brian with us as when we rejoined the trail and looked back down the valley we saw a small herd of about eight elephants which we probably have gone into had we cycled had we turned right.
The brunch stop was at about 60 kilometres and the fare was in keeping with the rest of the event. There was tuna salad, chilli chicken, and a range of salads and rolls, numerous drinks and so on. By this stage the temperature on my GPS showed slightly in excess of 30°C. I took this as a signal to remove my thermal vest I had on since departing earlier in the morning, a good idea at the time as the early morning temperature was less than 5°C.
Post lunch the front runners in Dave Evans’ absence, continued to set a brisk pace. We passed through the Lentswe Le Moriti village and experienced the Pied Piper of Mashatu scene; the children from the village had attended the previous CITW camp with Tanya handed out photos to them. They were thrilled and ran along with Tanya as she cycled through the road of their village. If only time permitted, or the TdeT school otherwise allowed, for more interaction of that type with the local villagers and CITW beneficiaries.
After the village we descended some granite koppies which presented a more technical challenge and required us to walk all the way up (except for Paul Jensen who made it three quarters of the way up one of the koppies). We had stupendous views on all sides and eventually upon achieving the neck of a ridge knew that we had only an easy 5km downhill left to the camp. Away to our left was the hill where archaeologists have found the remains of Mmamagwa, one of the satellite cities of Mapungubwe civilisation from about AD 900 to 1200. And on the top was the baobab tree with the initial of Cecil John Rhodes carved into it, apparently by the man himself on his travels in the 1890s.
Some 75km after departing the airfield we arrived at the Kgotla Camp. After securing my tent with my bag which during our cycle had been transported from the airfield – I liked to be near the end of the tent row for easy access for nocturnal territorial markings – I headed for a quick hot shower, although with an outside temperature at 30°C plus a cold shower would have done, before punctually appearing at my 3.00pm massage appointment. The TdeT provided a travelling group of about 15 masseuses and I had made advanced bookings for 3.00pm each day. My masseuse was a bikram yoga devotee and provided much appreciated rejuvenation of tired leg muscles accompanied by some gentle soothing banter. I watched with pity the guy next to me being treated by a ferocious young masseuse who seemed to enjoy inflicting pain and thanked my lucky stars that I had been allocated the compassionate Ms Bikram Yoga. Little did I know…
Next stop post massage was the medical triage centre where the orderly removed a few thorns and applied antiseptic to various parts most particularly a sizable gash on my knee. After that I enjoyed a reviving cappuccino and grabbed a beer before heading off with some of our group to inspect Solomon’s wall adjoining the Motloutse River.
By this stage Angus and Paul had done enough walking and were inflicted by cramp. So they stayed on the river bank where, as the first arrivals, we watched a troupe of baboons, some warthog and some impala before they were scared off by more cyclists arriving. Jo, Jenny and I crossed the river and ascended the cliffs of Solomon’s Wall on the other side to enjoy the wonderful view from there.
Looking out to the northern west over our camp and in Mmamagwa the distance and the bush, the only thing I needed for ultimate contentment was another beer. Sure enough, up popped Nic Adams who most generously gave me one of the two Miller draft beers. Never has a beer tasted better.
The post cycle briefing at dinner that evening included the TdeT dispute resolution mechanism. Apparently two cyclists in another group had been at loggerheads on numerous occasions during the day and almost come to blows. As MC Dave Evans explained “Road cyclists fight, mountain bikers drink” and after a hotly contested “down down” the feuding pair were reconciled. And most importantly it was Yannick’s 18th birthday and that Yannick had his own down down test which Yannick passed with aplomb.
Saturday 6 August – 80 plus Kilometres
Normal service, in the form of Dave Evans’ and his piercing whistle as our tour leader, commenced as we set off on a very crisp clear winter morning. The initial cycling was easy going along graded roads and I recall this section, where we could go 2 abreast, as one where I had one of my many enjoyable conversations with fellow riders. After about 10 kilometres we turned onto a single elephant track heading the general direction of the Shashe River. Wed not been proceeding long before the “mechanicals” (a euphemism for any type of breakdown) which were to plague us throughout the day commenced.
The first of these occurred when Paul in characteristic daredevil fashion abandoned the designated elephant path and went through a mopane scrub bush in which a poacher’s wire snare was hidden. The immediate result was a broken gear system and a lengthy delay, about 45 minutes, as the tech gurus effected repairs. Eventually we recommenced with Paul now only having one back gear which we was presumed could be fixed at the first tea stop about 15 kilometres away. We then had our second technical when Yannick’s hired bike incurred a puncture which was repaired, albeit temporarily as later transpired.
The net result of the above was that our very slow moving group took nearly 3 hours to cover the 25 kilometres to the tea stop. This was located at Cocktail Point Lookout overlooking dry riverbed with a view south all the way to the Limpopo River over 20 kilometres away. The panoramic view of reminded me so much of Tanzania’s Tarangire Park. Nic Adams kindly cautioned the group not to travel in front of Yannick on the way down from the tea stop as, in addition to lubricating his chain, Yannick decided to lubricate his brakes – maybe in an effort to make up lost time through the earlier mechanical?
Shortly after tea we encountered the tail end of what was probably a large breeding herd of elephants. The last few were resting under a tree directly on our path. At this stage Dave Evans handed over to Pete La Roux who manoeuvred us uphill with elephants on our right about 200 metres away and between another group of elephants further away, maybe 300 – 400 metres, on our left hand side. Pete was not required to repeat his heroics from the 2010 TdeT when he saved his group from a very nerve wracking elephant charge.
Our misfortune with mechanicals continued. Yannick’s tyre now gave up the ghost completely. By this stage the group had split into two and the lead group waited in shade alongside a donga while the remaining group tried to repair Yannick’s tyre. It took not much short of an hour to complete the repairs during which time the temperature had climbed to about 34°C. I took a short stroll from my resting companions and, cresting a small ridge, counted 29 elephants who were purposefully traversing the plain about 400 metres away – presumably heading off for a late morning drink.
When the bike repairs were finally completed it was around noon and we had only completed 40 kilometres in the 5 plus hours since departure. The long time in the bush, combined with the heat and reasonably challenging conditions, meant some if not most of us were a little subdued until the brunch stop at around 60 kilometres (but not “Single Gear Paul” who seemed to relish the challenge). Descending from the ridges, we cycled along a reed covered tributary of the Shashe and before entering riverine forest for the last 3 kilometres to the long awaited brunch stop. There was apparently a remarkable rescue effected here. Angus informed me that Jenny fell from the causeway crossing the river and would have fallen in but for an overhanging branch which she grabbed on the way down. Although Jenny is extremely svelte the branch itself was very flimsy and would certainly have broken with Jenny hanging onto it had not Phillip leapt off his bike and hauled Jenny to safety.
Lunch in a magnificent grove of trees and hugely welcomed by everyone. It also doubled as the Botswana border post, specially arranged for TdeT, and before lunch we hauled our passports out of our backpacks. They were quickly stamped by the smiling Botswana officials before we headed off to yet another delicious lunch.
But time was moving on it and was now around 2.30pm and we still had a long way home. Any chance of my 3.00pm massage from Ms Bikram Yoga was gone. Dave Evans blew his whistle before he had much of a break and we all grabbed our bikes and trudged the 800 metres across the Shashe sand to the other bank and Zimbabwe.
At this stage Jo, understandably enough as she had done extraordinary well already especially bearing in my her comparative biking inexperience, informed us that she was not inclined to ride the remaining 20-25 kilometres to camp. Simon Pearce in typical compassionate fashion took over, pushed her bike across the Shashe and said that, however long it took to cycle to camp, we would stay together and Jo would cycle with us.
Zimbabwe passport formalities comprised a trestle table, 4 or -5 Zimbabwean officials located specifically for the task and a warm welcome from local Zimbabwean people. We pushed our bikes for another 1 to 2 km before hitting well maintained roads for our remaining journey through the Maramani community lands. On the way we cycled into Shashe village where we had planned to have a few beers with the awaiting locals. Unfortunately our time delays meant that this was not possible. After a short rendezvous in the village, we wheeled our bikes around, wild west fashion as if the bikes were horses, and headed out of town.
We were now cycling through villages with people and livestock and irrigation. In one of her many capacities, in this case as a representative on the TFCA, Tanya informed me that the Maramani community had agreed to their land being incorporated into the park with certain conditions, including that they would be provided with irrigation for their fields and appropriate fencing and other protection from the wild animals which would now be in areas where they have hitherto been pasturing livestock. This ride was easy going and made more enjoyable by numerous villages and children who watched and cheered us on the way. One particularly memorable group comprised small children with the leader perched cheekily on top of a small tree and providing an excellent photo for Martin and Jo.
We eventually descended to the Limpopo flood plain, had time for one more final wrong turning and then, shortly before 5.00pm and over 10 hours since we had departed the Kogtla camp, our group arrived as one at the Limpopo River camp. The previous evening Angus was doing it tough having been carrying a lingering back injury exacerbated by bad cramps. Those who do not know him might have bet against him on this long tough day. I know Angus and had no doubt. They would have lost their money.
Words cannot do this camp justice. My only regret is that with our late arrival we did not have more time to enjoy it. This is a short summary of my experience:
• arrive at camp and hand bicycle to support staff who would wash it and have it available for collection first thing the following morning; (in Paul’s case, having cycled approximately 70 kilometres on a single gear, hand bike to qualified bike mechanics who would redo his gear system ready for action the next morning,);
• grab a cappuccino and descend river bank’s specially constructed pathway onto Limpopo river bed along designated paths to Group 6 tent location;
• grab bag left at Kgotla camp that morning, place in tent at end of line and quickly change into swimming trunks;
• ignoring the “beware of crocodiles” signs, have a quick splash in the Limpopo, all the while ensuring that surrounded by other cyclists in a more potentially precarious position;
• after a refreshing swim, grab toiletries and evening clothes and head for a hot shower located in the main camp, pausing briefly for a pre shower beer;
• join rest of group 6 for drinks and cheer the back groups as they arrive after dark into camp;
• enjoy another most enjoyable dinner, including dorado fish and a selection of excellent meat and vegetables plus a delicious chocolate dessert, and enjoy with several (but not too many) glasses of red wine; and
• in bed listening to the sound of myriad frogs (and some snoring it must be admitted) before falling asleep by about 9pm.
Sunday 7 August – Day 3
We accelerated our departure to 6.30am, in response to an admonishment by Mike the route planner that “unless you depart the Nottingham Fly Camp brunch stop by 3.00pm, you will not be allowed to continue cycling as finishing in the dark tomorrow is not an option”. Forebodingly, Mike also admitted that he did not know how long the route would be although he expected it to be similar to the Day 2 distance of 80 kilometres plus.
Initially the going was easy and we made good time until we hit serious sand. “Serious sand” meant that we trudged through about 3km of heavily sanded mopane scrub with not much to break the relative monotony except a brief sighting of elephants evidenced by a waving trunk grabbing some food from a tall tree. Some of our group were unhappy with the route planner, some mutterings about the reason the tour had been switched from the Kruger to Tuli was too much sand in the Kruger, but in defence of Mike unexpected weather in terms of rain and heat had made the ground more friable than might reasonably have been expected.
In any event, as the spin class instructor at the Sydney Cricket Ground tells me “tough times don’t last; only tough people” and eventually we exited the sand and hit a well graded road. We then made excellent time and at one point had the exhilaration of cycling at 30-35 kilometres per hour with a herd of impala running and leaping over the road in front of us.
The tea stop was the Bristow’s Camp beautifully located on the side of a granite koppie. As usual, we had more than enough to eat and drink and the whole proceedings, of feeding 300 plus cyclists, were conducted under the watchful gaze of Mrs Bristow who so kindly had made available the land and camp facilities of their Sentinel Ranch.
To counter the serous sand, we enjoyed some wonderful cycling up, across and down rock koppies. The colours of the rocks were truly amazing and I do not now which view was better – the rocks or the surrounding bush.
Our next stop was a side journey on foot to inspect a very well preserved fossil of a dinosaur – specifically Massospondylus carinatus owen which is a prosauropod from the early Jurassic period about 210 million years old. It was preserved in rock surrounded by a short protective wall. As our group 6 Irish comedian Martin commented “how lucky it is that it chose to die within these walls”. The dinosaur sighting obviously bought out Martin’s sense of humour, as shortly thereafter his wife Jo asked to have her photograph taken next to the dinosaur fossil; “certainly dear, I agree it is worth having a photo of the two old birds together’.
Mindful of Mike’s time deadline, we made good progress on a combination of jeep track and elephant trails interspersed with sandy road. At this stage we realised that often a good way to avoid the worst of the sandy road was to venture off track and make our own paths through adjoining bush.
Commenting on sand in general, special mentioned must be made of Tanya who from previous endeavours had deservedly acquired the nickname ”Sand Fairy”. I tried to imitate her technique and her line through the bush, although the inexorable result was that eventually my wheels stopped turning and I would hit the sand and from a prone position watched her continue to cycle at a zillion rpms towards the safety of firm ground.
After a short ascent of a hard rock hill we hit the superb Nottingham Fly Camp for lunch. We were met with freshly squeezed orange juice, a Boerewors braai and extraordinary views down the river canyon and away into the bush.
During lunch we saw a herd of eland traversing the canyon floor below but did not see any elephants which are apparently often spotted. One incongruous sight, however, was that on the valley floor about 400 metres below us was a field of discarded oranges, located there for the purposes of attracting elephants and we had been informed that as many as 200 might be there during the course of that afternoon. Whether attracting elephants with oranges is ecologically sound is very debateable; apart from potentially adverse health consequences for young elephants from the oranges acidity, it sends a mixed message to elephants who are allowed to eat these oranges but if they were to stray onto adjoining farmers land in pursuit of other oranges run the risk of being shot.
Shortly after descending from Nottingham Fly Camp was decision time – continue on the Original Route or opt for the Explorer Route? Dave Evans paid lip service to democracy and allowed us a vote, although his own pre vote explanation of the relative pros and cons allowed no rational decision other than vote for the shorter Explorer Route. The vote was 10-9 for the Explorer Route with our cunning leader abstaining, because he could. So down the Explorer Route we went, only to find that one of the yes voters was now following us in a land rover. The defeated Original Route proponents demanded a new vote, which was denied by the leadership. Oh well, we were after all in Zimbabwe.
So we headed cross country towards the western bank of the Mutshilashokwe Dam. Once we hit the dam the cycling was very easy on a jeep road with significant undulations made very pleasant by the wonderful dam vista on our left hand side. Upon exiting the dam, we had only one major obstacle left – a predominately dry riverbed with steep banks on both sides and a few pools of water. This proved an irresistible challenge for some of us, but in my case had an inconvenient end as having traversed the river bed failed to ascend the other bank and toppled bike over head into a pool of stagnant water. Having travelled about 80 kilometres across dry and dusty bush, it was ironic to arrive shortly thereafter at the Kuduland Camp with slime dripping from my bike me.
The Kuduland Camp on the Nottingham Ranch was an old fashioned safari camp with bungalows and rondavels set back from the Limpopo fronted by a verdant lawn dotted with fever trees. The river at the bank’s edge was quite deep and, unlike the previous camp, did not entertain any possibility of a quick swim. Particularly when not far off the bank were sandbars on which crocodiles could be seen basking in the late afternoon sun.
As always the camp had full on logistics. I used the medical facilities to have a thorn removed from the palm of my hand. This happened when I fell into a thorn bush and was exacerbated when Leon in an admirable and much appreciated rescue attempt stood in the thorn bush pushing the thorn deeper into my hand. It was not his fault but he insisted on getting me a beer which I was happy to receive in friendship rather than restitution.
The shower system worked by pumping water from the Limpopo and passing it through an instant heating system. The pipes were getting clogged resulting in a very long queue at the men’s shower facilities. While standing near the back of the queue expecting a long wait (yes I am known for my infinite patience), Jenny rescued me by announcing, upon exiting the adjoining women’s shower block, that one of the women’s shower taps was stuck in the full on mode and please could I try to fix it. After about 6 minutes enjoying a luxurious hot shower in the women’s block, trying of course all the while to turn the tap off, I exited the women’s shower block avoiding eye contact with the still lengthy men’s shower queue and informed the shower attendant of my failure to fix the running tap.
The decision to take the Explorer Route was, I must concede, vindicated by the enjoyable late afternoon group get together we had under the fever trees enjoying several drinks and watching the bird and animal life over the Limpopo River. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the trip was to making new friendships and renewing old ones, and what better way to do this than in the shade of fever trees alongside Kipling great green greasy Limpopo?
Monday 8 August – Day 4
Group 6 was now working like a well oiled machine and we departed promptly at 6.30am. However, we were not quite as well oiled as we thought and within the first few kilometres had to backtrack as we missed the turn off from the road. Happily, other than for Johan this was about the only mishap of the day.
We retraced our previous day’s route to Mutshilashokwe Dam and then turned eastwards descending to a plain with striking basalt cliffs on our left hand side. We were making very good time and were only slowed when we needed to dismount and walk a few hundred metres between some of the cliffs and before long we were at our final tea stop under one of the many enormous and impressive baobab trees dotting the landscape.
By this stage the inexperienced mountain bike riders among us had improved our basic skills to the extent that we did not feel we were unduly delaying the advanced “racing snakes” who usually occupied the front positions. Apart from a brief porterage section we proceeded at very good pace and before we knew it were at the final lunch stop in a beautiful pocket of forest. There seemed to be some latent competition among the various group leaders, and before long we had the dreaded commandant whistle telling us we needed to be on our way or Group 7 could be overtaking us. So after wolfing down a prego steak sandwich and some chilli chicken we headed out towards the Limpopo. As one of our group wryly commented, “it is only 11.30am and we have already had three full meals today”.
Nobody seemed quite sure on the distance to the Limpopo border crossing – estimates varied between 4 and 14 kilometres. At any rate, we soon hit the Limpopo River bank and proceeded on a shady and sandy route towards the border crossing. Day 4 sandy path – no problem! We all made very good time along this beautiful section and before long were having our passport stamped by the specially created Zimbabwe border post, once again comprising one single trestle table and three smiling officials.
The border crossing was another adventure in itself. One of our group, Mike Harker, accepted the challenge the try to cycle across the Limpopo and made a good fist of getting nearly halfway across before deep water proved his final undoing. The rest of us took our time, and a few of us – Paul, Jo, Martin and myself – could not resist the chance for a last quick splash in the Limpopo on the way over.
We rendezvoused on the South African side for our last cycle which we were informed was anywhere between 8 and 15 kilometres and included some major hills. By now we were cycle hardened and the hills provided no untoward challenge. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for a seemingly innocuous cattle grid which we crossed as we peddled west on the southern Limpopo bank. Johan decided to circumvent the cattle grid and headed off through the bush. He did not see a reasonably predictable wire fence – Johan, what is the point of a cattle grid unless there are contiguous fences to funnel the cattle through the grid? – and narrowly avoiding garrotting himself swerved back towards the cattle grid and tumbled to the ground injuring his wrist. Nice bookend Johan – first injury on Day 1 and the last injury on Day 4.
The Mapungubwe Camp is situated on a cliff top overlooking the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe River and borders three countries. A truly magnificent spot. Having made such great progress, we arrived in very good time and had showers and were able to explore some of the surrounding areas and enjoy the vistas from our mountain top perch. Apart from the Shashe/Limpopo platform lookout, on the other side of the camp there was another platform looking south and from where we spotted in the distance zebra, impala and eland.
That evening was the big end of TdeT party. Many trophies were handed out and even more thanks given to all of the organisers and the tour leaders. The rest of group partied hard into the night. I think I took an early mark and sat outside soaking up the atmosphere. I claim that I decided that the sunrise view would be too good to miss and so before daybreak took my sleeping bag up to the viewing point so I could watch the sunrise over Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. “Lying back against these ancient rock of Africa I am content. The great stillness of these landscapes. seeps into me day by day, and with it the unreasonable feeling that I have found what I was searching for without ever having discovered what it was.” A fitting end to an extraordinary trip.
I grew up in South Africa and relocated physically from Africa 30 years ago. One of the great joys of my life in the past 15 or so years has been to return to Africa for a range of unforgettable trips– canoeing down the Zambezi, mobile walking safaris in Zambia’s Luangwa valley, Kilimanjaro and Tanzanian safaris taking in the usual (Serengeti and Ngorongoro) as well as the unusual (Katavi and the Mahal mountains).
None have been more enjoyable that the TdeT.