In 2012, one of the clients on my books was an outdoor apparel brand that happened to be the sponsor of the African Otter Trail run. Through this alignment, I was offered an entry to the Otter; known at the time as the (I ignored the warning) “Grail of Trail”. It is South Africa’s premier marathon distance trail race, and it is relentlessly tough. At the time I hadn’t even run a marathon distance on road, but I found myself enthusiastically agreeing to this generous entry offer, and promptly purchased a clunky pair of trail shoes and badly fitted hydration pack. I ran a few long trails, none of which were appropriate to Otter training, and completed my first road marathon; a flat as a pancake course. Then I lined up for a giant reality check. A questionable choice. I completed the Otter that year, well within cut off but out of my depth the entire way. I fell, I cried a little, and briefly considered flinging myself in to the ocean. But, it changed me, and that race became the catalyst to a change in my perception of self. I was, as that tubby yellow bear likes to say, braver than I believed.
A few months ago my wonderful client, Coleman, offered me the opportunity to join their team for the 2017 Nedbank Tour de Tuli. This event isn’t just a bike tour. The Nedbank Tour de Tuli is the main fundraising event for Tour de Wilderness, an environmental and life skills programme for rural children living in and around conservation areas. It is, however, very much a tour on a bike, and I am very much a runner. I purchased a beautiful little second hand mountain bike, but it became a crime statistic after 3 or 4 rides, and I was not in a position to replace it. Training was therefore limited to a couple of spins on a gym bike and plenty of mountain running. Since that Otter in 2012 I’m annoyingly prone to “seize the moment” choices, and I felt that my endurance base would see me through the 250km in three different countries. It is a tour, after all, not a race.
And that is how I found myself in the showroom of the Ciovita head office in Cape Town, agreeing to become the proud new owner of sexy new things like cycling bibs (the very thing I had mocked on my husband and other cyclists numerous times). At the very least, I was not going in to this battle unarmed or at risk of damaging my nether regions. On recommendation, I added a large tube of Muc-Off chamois cream to my bag.
Before I knew it I was in a car with fellow Coleman team mates, heading to the border between South Africa and Botswana. My loan bike, a beautiful new Cannondale Scalpel, was waiting for me at the border crossing. A truck took my duffle bag, and I casually requested assistance in attaching my pedals, borrowed from my son, to this unfamiliar piece of equipment. The 3km ride in to the first camp, on an airfield in Botswana, was fairly uneventful. I patted my temporary best friend as I hung her on the bike rack and told her that we’d do just fine. I enjoyed a few beers and a good meal with my team and fellow participants. I met the leaders and sweeps allocated to our team. I’m pretty sure I saw them roll their eyes as I said stupid things like, “I’m strong… my running endurance will take me through” and then I tried to get some sleep.
Day 1 loomed. 28 July 2017 would include a 65km ride from the Limpopo Valley Airfield in Botswana to the Amphitheatre Bushcamp, also in Botswana. I’d written articles on this event in the past after working as crew in 2013, and used images supplied by their official photographers. The images I had seen and used included big open plains, lots of hard packed dirt, plenty of soft sand river crossings which were best tackled on foot. I felt I had a game plan. Plus, lots of game viewing was promised. I applied that chamois cream with wild abandon, and put on a cycling bib with slightly less enthusiasm. I added a pair of borrowed cleats. I looked the part! A chilly start after a picture perfect sunrise and great coffee, and we were off. Each team left with 10 minute intervals, and we were team 19, last to leave. One of our guides, Matt, called at the team ahead to “make good choices” which felt like an inside joke but it made sense later. The first 15km felt like a shedding of life and work stress. Phones were off, noise was limited to birdlife and the whirrrrr of tubeless tyres on dusty tracks. We found a rhythm, and I bonded with my bike. Adrian Saffy was our leader, I’d met him through the trail running world, and he promised us a few “going rogue” missions in pursuit of optimal game viewing. It was bliss out there, and the weather gods shone down on us. I might have had a certain song by Toto looping through my happy brain.
This sense of freedom was, however, short lived. Before long I realised I was probably… definitely… going to die, face down in a dry river bed with a bike attached to my body. There was a lot of soft sand. Not the stuff found on the Constantia Green Belt when too many families have walked their poodles with babies in prams… stuff that made my tyres take on their own personalities. And those personalities were like teenagers with middle fingers in the air. What the actual hell had I got myself in to? Head first down steep embankments in to dry river beds with sufficient speed to pop out on the opposite bank, and then hurtle straight in to thorny trees? You want me to do what?! My brain was saying NO very loudly, while I ate sand. Out loud, I was using every profanity I’d ever learned. Then we hit rocks. I swear my pedals smashed every available rock and hard packed elephant poo on the trail. I wobbled and fell. Smashed my right knee in to the handlebars. I got off and walked, I swallowed tears. I held my team back and felt like a giant fraud. I got told to harden up by our sweep, Matt, and I wallowed in self-pity and disappointment. Basically, I was deeply afraid. I quite like my teeth where they are, likewise my kneecaps. Matt might have wagged his finger at me, and I might have accused him of being a preachy teacher…
40km in, after I had shocked my wonderful team mates in to submission with a 180 degree shift in personality, I climbed in to a Landrover at one of the check points. Gutted, I was just not up for it. I was frustrating the team, as well as myself. I needed to stop. The volunteer and his Landrover took me to the lunch stop, then the next camp. It was that, or call the lions to eat me. And lions don’t come when called; I did bloody try.
After plenty of sundowners that went on long past sunset, and laughter that ricocheted off the surrounding rocky koppies long in to the night, I crashed in to my Coleman tent with my kit vaguely prepared for the next day. The Amphitheatre Bushcamp would be home for 2 nights, and it was exceptional in every way. Open air showers, a feast of food and the sound of wildlife all around. It would have been heaven, had I not been panicking quite so much about Day 2. I woke up and repeated the gear-up process. With legs and arms already covered in cuts and bruises, we set off in to the sunrise with a river crossing to warm up the legs. After crossing the Motloutse River we moved into open plains on well-used ellie tracks. We saw elephant on each day, but had one slightly unnerving experience during Day 2 where we had to backtrack swiftly and warn the other teams that we had passed. The total distance for Day 2 was just under 60km, and I did it. We were slow, but I was gaining in confidence. The lions came during our second night in the Amphiteatre Bushcamp; their low grunts filtering through to our cozy tents at about 2am, but I told them I wanted to live and would give Day 3 a go, so they moved on.
On Day 3 the official route description promised us around 70km of fun, but the race briefing outlined a course closer to 80km. I started Day 3 with big eyes and a determination to master some of the technical elements that lay ahead. I had such a great team, full of humour and passion. We had two Russians that thought it was the Olympics (great guys, I’m teasing, a little about the Olympics!) but the rest were fairly chilled about pace. I’m not sure what the Bush Telegraph had put out, but on Day 3 Jeremy, an equestrian vet from Zimbabwe, appointed himself my personal mentor. “Stay on my butt, watch my wheel, follow my lead.” He led me to the mid pack of our team, and things got real. I was actually riding a bike, at a fair pace, and it was both exhilarating and terrifying. The first section to the tea stop was 95% single track with a lot of mopane trees. Ever been slapped by a mopane branch? You’ve not really suffered a nipple sting until you have. They were never ending, I prayed for game sightings and a welcome stop to take photographs. My upper lip took a slap, and swelled impressively, Matt said it matched the bottom lip I was prone to dropping. I wobbled through sand as straight as an arrow, and even managed to stay on the bike for some of it. Matt and Greg, the sweeps that took care of our team from the back, smiled at me, and shook their heads. “Like a Lotus flower opening” said Greg, generously. But at the tea stop I was overwhelmed by exhaustion; the kind that I normally feel at the end of a race like PUFfeR or Comrades. I nervously told Saffy, our team leader, that I needed to stop. He organised another Landrover and in I piled for a very long roundtrip across the Zimbabwean border in to the delightful Maramani Community Camp on the banks of the beautiful Limpopo River. I was so tired that I slept through some rough 4x4ing, bouncing around on the back seat, oblivious to my surrounds. I arrived at camp at the same time as my team, and ran in with them; deep joy as I used my trail shoes for their intended purpose! We drank beer on the bank, beside a sign that said “beware of crocodiles” and ate like royalty before another solid tent sleep, surrounded by bush noise and a little bit of snoring.
When we woke, there were mixed feelings from the team. Glad that the end was in sight, sad that our time together was nearing an end. What an adventure. We had all disconnected with reality for a few days; no signal, no work, no admin or deadlines. Some of our team had come over from France for their first taste of African bush. My team mate, Ryan, was also a relative newbie on a mountain bike, and he’d really conquered it. Michael, my client from France, was out there celebrating his 50th birthday with a massive bucket list item. In many ways, we’d have liked to keep rolling. The final 60km lay ahead, and we were all pretty tired. Rachel, the only other woman on our team and a resident of France on her first trip to Africa, was administering Essential Oils to herself and the rest of us as we were all battered and bruised and covered in mopane welts. Dieter, our team member with the most impressive one-liners asked a medic how long it would take to die… and with that and much laughing, we piled our weary bodies back on the bikes for one last push. We’d been promised a sighting of 200 million year old fossils on Sentinel Ranch, among other highlights, and a border crossing back home across a sandy section of the Limpopo River. We all made it and our smiles at the finishline were stellar. I owe much of that survival to a combination of Jeremy the vet and Matt the Macadamia Nut farmer who simply would not let me quit. Handing the loan bike back was an emotional moment, and I realised then that mountain biking would become a permanent part of my adventures; a great way to improve my mountain running and another way to see the world. I’ve since purchased that loan bike and am waiting for it to arrive from Johannesburg.
As far as choices go, this was a good one. But next time, I’ll train.