By Miles Crisp

In Part 2 of Tour veteran Miles Crisp’s memoir documenting virtually the entire history of the Tour’s various iterations, a visit to the legendary Bristows of Sentinel Ranch is first order of business to recce the Zimbabwe – Tuli portion of a new route. We are sharing excerpts from Miles’s notes every week – and we hope you’re enjoying this rollicking ride down the dongas of his reminiscences as much as we are…

Rock Camp circa 2008 & 2009

January 2009 saw our small but intrepid team of Mike and Tracey White and myself setting off to meet Digby and Vanessa Bristow from Sentinel Ranch in Zimbabwe. We took with us especially acquired 1:50000 ordnance survey maps, which we could unfurl impressively on the bonnet of Mike’s Land Cruiser.

We took up residence at Rock Camp and went to meet the Bristows. Vanessa looked at us suspiciously – not at all sure what this cycling thing was all about. Digby was constructed out of pure biltong – tanned and sinewy. Both Vanessa and Digby talked at the same time, telling us stories and explaining the region. Our heads spun from side to side trying to decide whom to listen to. We knew that we needed to head further west to find a crossing point over the Shashe River and we had tentatively identified Fort Tuli itself for this crossing.

Digby agreed to lend us his old 500cc motor bike – and explained that it was difficult to ride. We didn’t take bicycles – we just wanted to understand the lie of the land. The roads were almost non-existent – they had been washed away and the surface was reduced to thick slippery clay.

We set off early, with Mike ahead on the old single cylinder thumper and Tracey behind the wheel of the Cruiser. I had the map spread out on my lap so that I looked the part. Tracey and I were watching Mike from behind – and then he disappeared.

One moment we saw him skillfully sliding from side to side on the remnants of the track and the next the bike simply vanished. We saw Mike’s two legs pointing skywards as he gracefully somersaulted into a chasm – and then he was gone and there was peaceful silence.

“Where did he go?” asked Tracey.

“I think he found a donga, or a cliff,” I explained helpfully.

We stopped the car, got out and approached cautiously. The bike lay on its side, one wheel still turning lazily and nearby Mike lay flat on his back, arms up in surrender. He had assumed the colour of his earthy surroundings and seemed to be regurgitating Mother Earth herself. He smiled sheepishly from behind muddy teeth. A small mud clod hung off his ear.

“I didn’t see that drop-off,” explained Mike.

“Yes, we saw that,” we concurred.

“So, I rode straight into fresh air and gravity must have taken over.” Mike was getting into some detail now.

“Yes, we saw that too.”

Miles and Mike after Mike’s donga encounter

We helped him to his feet and went over to Digby’s precious bike. It had naturally cut out, but otherwise looked no worse for wear. Mike straddled it and started to kick-start and kick-start. Digby had said that it took some real skill to kick-start it – and form a deep relationship with the ancient machine. It had clearly taken a sincere dislike to Mike the Incompetent and wasn’t planning on helping out.

We sat down on the side of the track, listened to the birds and the screeching cicadas and reflected on our predicament. I fetched the map and unfurled it, orientated it, and cleverly showed the other two just where on this random piece of paper we were stranded. It showed that we were quite a long way from anywhere.

“That is very helpful Miles,” said Mike – not wanting to express any doubt about the value of my contribution. “Don’t get any mud on that nice new map.”

Mike, Miles, Digby and Sarah ponder the new map

We agreed unanimously that the bike didn’t really add to the effectiveness of our mission, and given its obvious value to Digby alone, we should return it to him.

The bike had cooled down and the flooded carburetor had unflooded. Mike eventually managed to start the machine and we retraced our tracks, gratefully returning the bike to its special owner.

We managed to drive all the way up the Shashe River, carefully negotiating a dozen or so washed-away concrete bridges which had once-upon-a-time spanned the inlets into the Shashe itself. This entailed Tracey and me debusing, and with much gesticulation and shouting of perfectly clear instructions, guiding Mike the Incompetent as he nudged his vehicle through hair-raising gorges and gullies. I didn’t want to be inside the Cruiser when it rolled from the impossible angles at which it edged backwards and forwards.

Land Cruiser negotiating a washed away bridge

Path finding

We introduced ourselves to a pair of incredulous Nature Conservation officials at Fort Tuli. Surely they knew that we were on our way, and they knew about the future Tour de Tuli Cycle Tour? We had been assured that all permissions had been obtained. We explained that we would be cycling through the Tuli Circle itself in August – later that year.

They assured us that they knew nothing about us, had never heard of the Tour de Tuli, and that no bicycles could enter the Tuli Circle. It was a hunting concession and had been that for over one hundred years – and even longer if you didn’t confine your understanding of history to the fairly recent white hunters only. We promised to ensure that this minor misunderstanding was cleared up, besides which there were dangerous wild animals including the type that eat other animals.

Then they just looked at us.

We returned tortuously to Rock Camp to find Digby’s sister, Sarah with her family. She was a mine of information and also had a bicycle with her. I borrowed an old bike and the second day was spent happily following Sarah. We scouted around for several kilometres north of Rock Camp, and she showed me interesting spots like the perennial spring at the Sizi River and the two-hundred-year-old fossil of some extinct giant lizard. We now knew that Sentinel and the Maramani Trust Land had huge potential for the tour and promised the Bristows that we would be back with bicycles and a whole team.

Digby was still cleaning his bike.

Miles and Digby discussing route strategy in the river bed