There’s something about watching elephants while I’m dressed in Lycra that makes me feel particularly vulnerable. There we were, eight of us, in our tight pants and hairy legs, admiring a breeding herd drinking from a waterhole in south-eastern Botswana.
Seven middle-aged white men, and a long-suffering young woman (without hairy legs), standing in the middle of a dry, dusty African wilderness, a hundred metres away from about twenty of Earth’s largest land animals.
But of course, we didn’t care what we looked like. This was a moment where everything else seemed irrelevant. It’s not every day that you can dress up in Lycra, and ride up close to a herd of elephants, without anyone else around for miles.
Besides, we were lost in the moment, just us and the elephants. They seemed calm and relaxed, although the youngsters stayed close to their moms and aunties. (Whoever said Africa may be better off with female leaders deserves a cold beer. They could have been referring to elephants, whose peaceful society is led by matriarchs).
We were near the end of the Nedbank Tour de Tuli, a mountain bike event that traverses the wildlife areas of south-eastern Botswana, northern South Africa and south-western Zimbabwe.
This is the land of giants, with hundreds of baobabs and elephants. You’ll hear lions roaring at night, and those stars…wow! For many of the cyclists, who live in cities like Johannesburg or Durban, this is just the antidote they need for the mad rush of their corporate jobs.
While most visitors to Africa will jump in the back of a comfy Land-Rover to view animals, cyclists on the Nedbank Tour de Tuli are assured a more visceral experience: cycling up to 80km per day for four days on ancient animal pathways, dodging thorn bushes (but often not), sucking in dust (through most orifices), trudging through dry river beds (insert swear words here) and falling off their bikes regularly on tricky, rocky technical sections (only amusing the first time).
Sound like fun? Ha, it is! And that’s because of so many things, all of which makes the Nedbank Tour de Tuli a must-do for anyone who owns a mountain bike.
As can be imagined, the camaraderie of the cyclists is legendary. 19 teams of up to twenty cyclists spend four days together, sweating a lot and swearing a little (or a lot), sharing stories of near-death elephant experiences (“that elephant was the biggest in Africa!”) and drinking ice-cold beers at the end of the hot days.
Wait, ice-cold beers?! Yes, the beers are ice-cold, and they never seem to run out. This brings me to the food, which is better than most five-star game lodges I’ve been fortunate to visit.
Grumpy, hungry ogres like myself are instantly transformed into friendly angels when presented with succulent chicken espatadas, rare beef fillet (with Dijon mustard), crispy potato bake, fresh Caesar salad and malva pudding and ice-cream for desert.
And the coffee…local African coffee supplied by Bean There, which was freshly brewed every morning at 4am. Need a double-shot espresso? Cappucino? Sure thing, signore! (Hey, I thought we were in the bush in Botswana, not on a sidewalk café in Milan, Italy?!)
The Nedbank Tour de Tuli’s food and coffee is one of the best things about the event. Breakfast and dinners are buffet spreads that are simply epic. Lunches are served out in the middle of nowhere, in a suitably civilised and shady spot underneath huge trees, and usually include freshly made chicken or steak wraps, chips and cold drinks.
And every day, in the morning and afternoon, cyclists stop at refreshment points along the routes, met by a group of volunteers serving tea, coffee, biltong (yowsers, it tastes good), fruit cake, cheese and crackers and shortbread. You won’t go hungry on the Nedbank Tour de Tuli, trust me.
I’ve got huge respect for the logistical teams. The night camps are mini villages, set up and taken down each day by the huge team of helpers and volunteers.
Cyclists sleep in their own tents (already set up for you). The toilets and hot showers are kept clean and tidy, and never seem too busy. In my five days on the Tour, not once did I feel like something was missing.
The organisers have thought of everything, including a charging station for cell phones and cameras. (One thing that’s out of their control – the tents are set up so close together that if you don’t like snoring, you’re in trouble. I moved my tent away from the main camp, which was easy to do).
So while, from the outside, the Nedbank Tour de Tuli may seem like being on some sort of army training regime, the ride is anything but. The tour is not a race. It’s a tour. You’re not supposed to race, you’re encouraged to stop and admire the baobabs, the koppies, the elephants and other wildlife.
Each cycling team is led by an experienced wildlife pro. In our case, Dave Notten, who manages a lodge near Kruger Park, and goes mountain biking on his own there, bumping regularly into lions and elephants.
Dave’s not the kind of man to follow the organizer’s instructions too closely, and while most groups duly cycled along the designated route like obedient school children, Dave ensured that we spent all of the days exploring off track, and getting lost now and again. (Helicopter search? What helicopter search? Don’t worry Dave, your secret is safe with me.)
But getting lost is what it’s all about.
This is not about egos, or racing others, or personal best records. The Nedbank Tour de Tuli is ALL about getting lost, about reminding yourself that we’re part of a much larger picture, that there ARE elephants still out there, that we’re not the only species on the planet, that there is more to life than the office, the traffic jams and the relentless pace of modern, predictable society.
I’m glad that I was allocated to Dave’s group, because we made the most of this very special wilderness area, which is particularly sacred to the ancient families in these regions of Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. (Botswana’s President Ian Khama’s ancestors come from this region, and are buried on top of a sacred koppie).
And the best part of the Nedbank Tour de Tuli is that you know your donation (R24 900 per cyclist) is going to a worthwhile cause; Children in the Wilderness. To me, there is no more important priority than educating Africa’s children about the importance of conservation, nature and wilderness.
This non-profit organisation – managed by Wilderness Safaris, Africa’s largest luxury safari company – ensures that thousands of kids across Africa are able to experience some of the most beautiful, wildest places on the continent. A variety of eco-clubs have also been established at local schools where Children in the Wilderness operate, where kids and their communities follow a structured environmental education curriculum. Currently, there are more than 50 eco-clubs across Southern Africa, where kids are taught leadership, teamwork and environmental skills. Children in the Wilderness also provides secondary school scholarships to kids who show particular interest or aptitude while on the eco-camps.
Africa’s wildlife areas shouldn’t just be for wealthy visitors from overseas. Everyone who cares should be entitled to experience the remarkable wildlife sanctuaries of the continent. And the children of Africa have an unalienable right to experience the thrill of seeing a leopard, elephant or rhino in the wild. These are seminal, powerful experiences for anyone, especially kids. The more they interact with their natural heritage, the greater the chance they will one day become ambassadors for Africa’s wilderness.
So, yes, the Nedbank Tour de Tuli is about having fun, admiring wildlife, cycling hard, and enjoying awesome food in the company of friends and colleagues. But ultimately, we’re only able to enjoy it because of the foresight of communities, conservationists and companies like Wilderness Safaris and Nedbank, all of which have helped created thriving, sustainable economies from ethical wildlife tourism.
We are all working towards the same goal: the conservation and protection of Africa’s incomparable wilderness and wildlife. For me, that’s why you sign up to ride the Nedbank Tour de Tuli.
Our camp on the first night… tents galore!
Our team, standing under a huge Mashatu tree… there are plenty of them around.
TK Khama, Botswana minister of environment and tourism, addressing all the cyclists on the first evening…
Cycling through the bushveld of Mashatu during the dry winters, the mopane trees turn gold.
It’s not all about cycling. Well, at least in our group it wasn’t. We stopped to explore the various landmarks and admire the epic views.
Our leader Dave, asking the locals if they’ve seen any lions lately…
A major feature of the Tuli are the various sandstone koppies that dot the landscape. They make for great exploring.
Riding through forests of apple-leaf trees. There’s something magical about these forests.
Another monster Mashatu tree. I love them.
Cyclists cross from South Africa, into Botswana and Zimbabwe on the Tour. I reckon these border officials from Botswana were the friendliest I have ever encountered on my travels through the continent!
Our camp on the second and third nights in the beautiful Tuli block.
Climbing up to Rhodes’ baobab on a koppie in the Tuli Block. Cecil Rhodes was rumoured to have inscribed his initials on this particular baobab.
Checking out the views… the koppie in the distance is sacred to the local people, and no-one is permitted to climb it.
The breeding herd of elephants we saw. They were about 50 metres from us…
Land of Giants. Baobab trees are dime a dozen here. There’s something really reassuring about their presence on the landscape.
Another successful summit. The island koppie at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers. This koppie belongs to Botswana, and the country’s flag flies from its summit.
Written and Photographed by Scott Ramsay of Love Wild Africa
Find Scott on his Facebook page – click here.
Source: WS Blog Posts