“The terrain varied between sandy sections which were not nearly as bad as feared, to fast, flowing routes on hard-packed ground, weaving in and out of mopane trees with russet leaves or acacia trees with branches reaching out to snag the arm warmers of the unwary.”
Day 1 of the 2019 edition of the Nedbank Tour de Tuli was both reassuringly familiar, and refreshingly new. With the route being ridden in reverse this year, some of today’s sights would have formed part of the final day in previous years.
The first stage of today’s ride took everyone from Mapungubwe Camp to the border with Zimbabwe: itinerant cyclists arriving at a temporary immigration post. Surely Africa’s most scenic (and short-lived) border crossing!
The officials inked passports with customary good humour – and waiting at the top of the bank was the day’s first tea stop. It was a welcome sight after pushing bikes through the sandy river bed which currently forms the frontier between the two countries.
Kipling’s great grey-green greasy river has been seasonally reduced to a series of large pools patrolled by open-billed storks. Just as fascinating as the sight of this fabled river (or non-river) were the logistics of the en route refreshments. The numbers behind the tea stops are fascinating: across the four days of riding, the riders will consume some 800 hard-boiled eggs and 60 loaves of fruitcake, not to mention the biltong…
Today was a day of contrasting scenery, which in turn made for lots of different kinds of cycling challenges and rewards. Last night’s theoretical banter became more fact-based as riders occasionally took a tumble into soft river sand, had punctures or outrode their team mates down a steep rocky slope.
The terrain varied between sandy sections which were not nearly as bad as feared, to fast, flowing routes on hard-packed ground, weaving in and out of mopane trees with russet leaves or acacia trees with branches reaching out to snag the arm warmers of the unwary.
A ride across a sandstone plateau provided perhaps the most enjoyable moment of the day, while shady riverine forest sections contained welcome pools of shadow and relaxed herds of elephant.
With the weather perhaps a little warmer than anticipated, extra drinks stations had been set up, and the welcome was as sunny as the day on each occasion. The hospitality ranged from volunteers slicing cake to gun-toting game rangers keeping an eye out for elephants.
At the Bristow residence, it even extended to the family – who are huge supporters of the Tour – turning a blind eye to the sweaty feet being rinsed in their swimming pool. An introduction to the prehistory of the region was a reminder that this has been a dynamic ecosystem for millions years. It also – inevitably – led to the oldest rider in each group being categorised as a fossil…
Wary kudu watched from behind termite mounds, the odd chain was shed and the guides got to give the occasional masterclass in bush mechanics. All in all, it was a typical day on the Nedbank Tour de Tuli. Which is not to say that there was anything routine about it. Rather, it contained much of what makes the tour so special: the challenge of sandy sections, the sense of achievement after each successfully negotiated rock garden, spontaneous laughter and genuine camaraderie.
The jokes and the single track both flowed, and small puffs of dust telegraphed each change of direction. Almost too soon, the flat-topped mountain that marks Nyalaberry Camp appeared on the horizon, and a final quick section on a dirt road allowed riders – slightly tired though they may have been – to accelerate into the welcome cool shade of the towering nyalaberry trees. Again, the incredible tour logistics were on display: chilled chocolate milk on arrival in Camp (courtesy of Clover), hot showers and more great food.
As darkness fell, the lights strung beneath the trees came on, and recharged riders with charged glasses gathered to look forward to tomorrow’s ride which takes us into the Tuli Block – and Botswana – for the first time this year.
Images by Ali Kiani and Patrick Black