Today was a mando day (mandatory race day). According to Max, our race director, “this will be your hardest day so far. For all the racers, your time will start at 7.40am.”
“Can I make a suggestion,” I dared ask during yesterday’s riders’ meeting, “not only for the racers but for everyone. Because it’s already light much earlier [way before 7am], couldn’t we have breakfast earlier so we could get out by sunrise?” like we did in Egypt. Believe me: Half an hour more or less in 40+° Celsius makes a huge difference. It not only increases the suffering exponentially, but the distance we can cycle in comfortable temperatures takes us at least twice as long once the sun is up high.
“This might sound really stupid to you now,” Tallis answered, “but changing the times within a section messes everything up. We’ll have to stick with it until Nairobi.” Well, I wouldn’t dare disagree with the boss, nor did anyone else. But I would have thought we’re all smart enough to adjust our schedules, so, indeed, his initial statement is spot on. However, I trust they’ve tried it in the past and have their reasons. Tallis usually knows what he’s doing.
Fortunately, the temperature had cooled down overnight. I had gone to bed at 8pm and got up at 4am to write my blog. Those quiet me-time hours in the morning are my favorite. (NB: You will have noticed that my blogs are getting delayed more and more. That’s not only due to bad Internet connection. I’m no longer able to think in the evening, not sure whether due to the heat or exhaustion, or most likely a combination of both. So I’ve rescheduled to writing in the morning, then reviewing and posting the following evening, subject to Internet connection).
While having breakfast, most of us were feeling strong again. Right out of camp, however, the road bore an unpleasant surprise: non-stop corrugation. I was suffering less than 15 minutes into my ride, no morning grace period this time round. Even though I had planned to give my best in the morning, our racers Muzz, Charles and Mark were soon out of sight. There was no way I could keep up with them.
US-Canadian cycling team Mark and Nelson were nearby. “Bloody corrugation!” I commented.—“Yes, I prefer the sand to corrugation,” Mark replied.—“Oh, I can’t do the sandy patches, would fall over there.”—“Have you released your tire pressure?”—“I only pumped them up to 30 to start with, perhaps should release some more. Are you saying that helps with the sand?”—“Yes, that’s what they were talking about last night.”
Then, after about 10km, Max was waiting for us. “There’s a change in the route,” he advised. “Follow the flagging tape, and then it’s just straight to lunch.” As we would learn later, they had taken down a railway line, so we could cycle where that railway used to run. That path was much less corrugated and felt relatively easy to cycle on—good news for us!
Racing against the heat, and with strengthened confidence on dirt roads, I felt sufficiently stable to use my cleats again (which I hadn’t done at all yesterday). I was pushing relatively hard. Nevertheless, Mark overtook me seemingly without effort—new mountain biking talents coming afore! A village with typical African round straw huts appeared on the horizon. I saw Mark slowing down, but didn’t know why. Then I reached the village.
All of a sudden, a dog was barking and running at me from about five meters away. I slowed down, which usually does the trick. Not this time. The dog was only two meters away, fleshing his teeth, ready to jump. All of this taking place in slow motion, perhaps no more than two seconds in real time. My instinct remembered to get off the bike and use the bike as a shield between me and the dog. However, my instinct didn’t remember that I had used my cleats! Before I knew it, I found myself on the ground on all fours—my first crash on this tour. Shocked by the fall, I knew the dog would catch me before I had any chance of defence. While still processing what just happened and assessing potential injuries from the fall, I mentally prepared for impact number two.
It was my lucky day: The dog seemed to have lost interest as so0n as I had fallen off my bike, and my gloves and long sleeves protected my skin—zero damage! From then onwards, however, I took it a bit easier again, reminding myself that safety always comes first.
Gurpaul from Canada, who has developed a reputation for consistently being amongst the last riders out of and in to camp, sped past me as if on tarmac. Yet another mountain biking talent uncovered! “Hey, so this is your terrain, huh?” I congratulated him in passing.—“I don’t care,” he replied. Yes, indeed! The reason he’s usually amongst the slowest in our group is not that he couldn’t cycle any faster, he just can’t be bothered. Not today. “I just wanted to get there before it gets too hot,” he would shrug off my congratulations at camp.
The day started to get hot, but still manageable (mid 30° C, I assume). Unable to focus on my Swahili audio lessons in this terrain, I would have wished for some music to keep entertained. Unfortunately, my ipod, that I had made sure to charge yesterday, froze precisely this morning, when I would have needed it most. (It had done so previously, and I had just used my phone instead to listen to my Swahili files. However, I don’t have any music on my phone.) So I kept singing and whistling to myself.
For whatever reasons, Whitney Houston’s “One moment in time” stuck in my head:
“. . . Give me one moment in time
When I’m more than I thought I could be
When all of my dreams are a heartbeat away
And the answers are all up to me
Give me one moment in time
When I’m racing with destiny
Then in that one moment of time
I will be
I will be
I will be free . . .”
Oh yes—in this very moment, I was so much more than I ever thought I could be. Her lyrics were so spot on that they brought tears to my eyes. Rather than suffering, I felt grateful again, grateful that I was so fortunate to go through this experience. The riding had become tougher in the heat, but my mind I was on top of it.
Before I knew it, I spotted the lunch truck. It was once again 6km sooner than expected. What a pleasant surprise!
Re-energized by lunch and a break in the shade, I felt ready for the second half of the day. So did everyone else. All the riders seemed in a great mood, especially because our cycling day had just shortened by 6km due to the route change. Following Mark’s advise, I also remembered to reduce my tire pressure.
Not far after lunch, we passed through a village. The road was very sandy at times, but reducing the tire pressure indeed made a huge difference. I felt a lot more stable. However, there were other obstacles to be navigated. A boy was about to throw a stone at me. I looked and smiled at him, and said a few words in Arabic. He dropped his arm, and I kept cycling in peace. “I love you,” he shouted after me. What an instant transformation! By the way, I get to hear I love you quite frequently—few of the English words that they all seem to know.
Then girls greeted me with nihao (Mandarin Chinese for hello), confirming what Allam had told us when entering Sudan: They all think we’re Chinese because, other than the Chinese, no one comes here.
So far, so good. Exiting the village was confusing, but the locals helped point me into the right direction. A vast open field extended in front of me, underneath the glaring sun. The next flagging tape indicated a turn that seemed different from our directions, but still plausible. L (left), I had noted down. The road went straight and right, and there was a small path to the left. The flagging tape indicated straight, and I followed along.
“Just follow the flagging tapes,” Tallis had advised over lunch, “Sharita is out there right now flagging the route.” I trusted that the kids wouldn’t have come out that far from the village (as they often misplace the tapes to confuse us). After half an hour alone in the middle of nowhere, however, I started to worry nevertheless.
A tractor with three friendly locals came down the dirt road. “Excuse me, are my friends over there?” I asked them in broken Arabic and pointed further down the path.” I always ask for my friends, simply because that’s what I’ve learnt in my Egyptian Arabic course, and because all of us are such a curiosity wherever we go that it’s obvious who I mean.—”Aywa, aywa,” (yes, yes), they replied and gave me their thumbs up, as usual. While the boys are unpredictable, the adults are always helpful and reliable.
Not much further, more flagging tape confirmed that I indeed was on the right track. It got hotter and hotter, and I was calculating how much water I could allow myself to drink at what intervals in order to make it to our so-called refresh station half-way between lunch and our next camp. There were hardly any trees, but whenever one came along—no matter how dry and thorny—I took the opportunity of whatever little bit of shade I could get for a break.
The race had long become irrelevant to me. Julian had pushed himself too hard yesterday in order to keep up with Charles and ended up with a bit of a heat stroke. “Been vomiting,” he commented at camp, “it’s the heat.” He got back onto the bike this morning, but was obviously taking it a lot easier. At least he hadn’t overtaken me yet. On my end, all I knew was that I wouldn’t be able to get back onto the bike after vomiting. And because, I admit, I’m not ready to lose my virginity yet (bloody EFI!), reaching camp without a heat stroke had become my priority number one.
I was playing the 5km/tree game. The plan was to stop every 5km or at every tree, whatever came later. In reality, I stopped at whatever came sooner, and even that became a stretch. Neither me nor my miraculous cooling materials are made for temperatures above 40° Celsius! My body was suffering, no matter how much I was controlling my thoughts. My toes also started to fell painful again, and there were still 30km to go!
By miracle, I pushed myself through to our refresh station, underneath the biggest tree near and far. Our medic Helen welcomed me cheerfully and caringly. “How are you feeling? Good progress! You’re doing good. Come, have a seat.” Ed was there as well, still resting in the shade. “Make sure to fill your bottles,” Helen reminded us several times, “there’s no more water until camp.”
I took it easy and rested quite a while in the shade, chatting to Helen and Ed, stuffing myself with three bananas, drinking heaps of water, and—for the first time—making use of my rehydration salts (as Ed reminded me of). Helen kindly also gave me two tablets of paracetamol against my burning toe issue, advising me against taking Aspirin or Ibuprofen that I had brought along.
Refreshed and re-energized once more, Ed and I set out for our last 25km of the day. I felt strong for a minute, but that would change instantly again under the scorching sun. Within five minutes, Ed was out of sight, and I was suffering beyond words.
I had no idea how hot it actually was. One rider would record a maximum temperature of 47.5° C, another rider’s thermostat would reach 50.5° C at one point during the day. It doesn’t really matter. Anything above 45° C (or even just 40° C) feels the same to me—bloody hot!
My 5km/tree game no longer worked. It had reduced to 2km or every tree, whichever came sooner. However, even that become too much. I was no longer able to cycle to the next tree!
“Well, worst case I’ll just walk to camp,” I assessed my options, “that would take me three hours.” Luckily, Helen’s paracetamol worked and my toes weren’t giving me any troubles. My EFI was not at risk, so it seemed.
And indeed, walk I did, pushing my bike, for a few hundred meters. But even that I couldn’t keep up—it just was too bloody hot! I rested again in the miserable shade of a dry thorn bush that was so thin it probably only covered 10% of my body. But hey, you take what you can get.
Tallis’ land cruiser appeared out of nowhere. He was out putting up more flagging tape. “You’re OK?” he asked.—“Yes,” I gave him my thumbs up, “just a bit warm. Walking is allowed, right?” I jokingly reconfirmed with him.—“It sure is.”
That short conversation, and knowing that they were out there taking care of us, gave me an instant energy boost. I got back onto my bike and kept cycling. Not much further down the road, I caught up with Tallis again as he had stopped to put some flagging tape. “Do you have any water?” I thought I might as well take the opportunity.—“Sure,” he opened his supplies, and I quickly emptied a bottle for a full refill.
That kept me going for a few more kilometers, until I spotted a big tree. A guy on a motor bike was resting in the shade. “Hello, I also need some shade,” I smiled at him. Turns out he spoke some English. “I’m a teacher,” he explained. “Where are you from?” he asked.—“Austria.”—“Oh, beautiful. I also want to live there, or in America. I want to get married there,” he smiled back at me.—“Oh, very difficult, visa very difficult. And you said you are a teacher. The children need you here.” Meanwhile, the children were all running up to us and forming a curious circle around us.—“Photo?” I asked, and—as usual—they eagerly gathered close-up to feature in the shot.
A hundred meters further down the path, teenage girls ran up to me. They spoke some English, and were once again very keen to take a photo with me. “Thank you, thank you,” they kept repeating many times.
That short interaction with the locals and their friendly welcome gave me the final energy boost that I needed for the day. I was having fun again.
As I was about to leave that village, four teenage boys were waiting for me. As usual, I greeted them from afar. However, these naughty boys didn’t move out of the way. I kept cycling slowly. All of a sudden, hands were touching my chest and elsewhere. Four against one, that left me only one alternative: speed up. I heard the boys giggling behind my back. Well, what to do—harden the f..k up! The children and girls had left such a positive flavor that those four brats couldn’t tilt my mood.
As I would learn later, Deb faced the same grabbing offence, even though she was cycling with her husband Peter. However, Deb jumped off her bike and taught these boys a lesson, slapping whoever dared not run away. Well done Deb! You make us women proud!
Next up, barely half a mile later, I came past a herd of wild camels. Different from all camels I had seen before, half of them were dark brown, and the other half almost white. What beauties! Of course, I took this once again as an opportunity to jump off my bike and take photos. “Camels might bite if they feel threatened,” I would comment at camp. In reality, I was just looking for yet another excuse to take a break.
Pedalling from tree to photo opportunity to tree, I eventually managed to get my miles done. My progress was slow, but my mood was high. I could do this! Then came the last tree in the vast field, thorny and meagre, 10 meters off the road in the acre. Never mind. I grabbed my water bottle, dragged my feet across dry meter-high sorghum plants and rested in the shade once again.
Sharita’s 4×4 pulled up. “Are you OK?”—“All good.”—“See those houses? That’s camp.”—“How far is it? 3–5km?”—“I’d say at most 2km.”
Only two more kilometers, less than I had thought! However, there was no need to rush. I couldn’t have cared less about my race time. The only time that mattered was my recovery time in the thin shade—the longer, the better. Only once I had emptied my water bottle, stretched my sore muscles, reapplied sunscreen and ran out of other things to do, I set out for my last push underneath the burning sun.
Ten minutes later, a round of applause welcomed me to camp. Many had already arrived ahead of me, half of them in the truck.
Two of our strongest riders would suffer severe heat stroke consequences later that afternoon that would keep them off the bike for the coming days. They had equally completed the entire route, but pushed themselves too hard along the way. It’s difficult to know one’s limits under the extreme heat conditions that we’re facing these days, that we’ve never experienced before. The line between hardening up to reach a goal and pushing oneself too hard is a thin one indeed.
“Congrats to everyone who has cycled to camp today,” Tallis would start tonight’s riders’ meeting, “and congrats to those of you who knew your limits and were smart enough to get on the truck.”
On my end, my immune system is definitely starting to feel the strain. Other than a heat rash all over my legs that, however, doesn’t bother me much, I’ve developed an annoying cough. I also feel more tired than ever, as would be expected after such a long day in the sun. However, sleep doesn’t come easy in these temperatures. Only after midnight, I would awake shivering and scramble for my sleeping bag.
At least I’m not bothered by coughing tent neighbors, like everyone else around me 😉
Stage 22: Canal Camp – Abeda Village (Sudan), 90km
Road & traffic condition:
Roads—bloody (lots of corrugation).
Traffic—mostly agricultural slow-moving vehicles only, few motorcyclists, local buses and pick-up trucks.
Hot before lunch, hotter by lunch, and f..king hot after lunch.
Different devices would record different maximum temperatures—the debate ranges between 47 and 50.5° Celsius. I don’t think my body can even tell the difference of anything above 45° (or even just 40° which seems to me more or less the threshold where my cooling gear becomes absolutely useless)—it’s bloody hot!
Beef stew, potatoes, eggplant. In addition to my five energy bars and three bananas while cycling.
Our female donkey bucket shower cleaning session was fun.
All afternoon, dozens of children remained lined up neatly behind our camp. As soon as one of us even just made a hint of approaching them with a bucket, two or three of them would sprint towards us, armed with water canisters. It seems they’ve made a game or competition out of who would reach us first. Five pounds (about USD0.3) was the reward for the winner.
On our end, the challenge was of a different nature: How to wash ourselves and all our clothes with one bucket of water, and how to change into fresh clothes when surrounded by a circle of incessant onlookers shamelessly staring at us? We figured it out! Anmei even managed to wash her hair. Only one question remained subject to debate: What comes first—butt or feet? . . .
By the way, brining a long skirt should be on every female riders’ gear list. It not only helps to aerate your most sensitive body parts. Given the lack of privacy and hiding places in some of our camps, it also helps to quickly get out of sweaty cycling shorts and—as I’ve discovered today—to go for a pee when there’s nothing but knee-high grass to hide behind (squat all the way down, lift skirt, pee, cover up, stand up). More than one lesson a day for me 😉
Oh, and in case you wondered—no, that topless beauty on the photo is not a female rider exposing her chest, but our sunny boy racing super star. Male cyclists take note—you might also want to bring a skirt and/or sarong on your next bike touring trip!