“What could have been quite a surreal scene – with men and women in strange outfits with tubes leading to mysterious backpacks descending on gleaming machines to meet children and elderly men in ties reading the newspaper – soon dissolved into a riotously joyful celebration of cycling and friendship.”
Day 3 of the Nedbank Tour de Tuli involved the least number of kilometres of riding, but no-one was complaining of being short-changed. Today was the day that the wilderness really made its presence felt, with a slightly tetchy herd of elephant obliging a minor change of route.
The brief diversion took riders onto what passes for a main road in the Tuli Block: a strip of gravel that was just smooth enough to give themselves an excuse for a spontaneous time trial. The prize wasn’t a yellow jersey but a warm welcome from the pupils of Lentswe-le-Moriti primary school.
What could have been quite a surreal scene – with men and women in strange outfits with tubes leading to mysterious backpacks descending on gleaming machines to meet children and elderly men in ties reading the newspaper – soon dissolved into a riotously joyful celebration of cycling and friendship.
This was in large part thanks to the incredible energy of the teachers and eco-monitors, led by Izzy. Each group was greeted by a cheerful rendition of the ‘100% song’, which eulogises the effort the riders have made to reach this neat yet remote Mashatu village.
Freewheeling through the gates of the school was undoubtedly the moment that the Tour became ‘real’ for many of the riders. They’d not only exerted themselves physically, but by flexing their fundraising muscles in the run-up to the Tour they had made a difference far beyond the impact their entertainment value undoubtedly had.
For many of these children – whose parents are obliged to work in far-off towns and only see them periodically – joining a Children in the Wilderness (CITW) Eco Club is a window into a world they may never have been exposed to.
This could include everything from new ideas about sustainability to unfamiliar accents to new possibilities for future careers in tourism or conservation. The clubs are designed to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible, with some of the children then being chosen to attend CITW camps at Wilderness Safaris’ camps – a very vivid example of journeys that change people’s lives.
Today’s ride could well qualify as such a journey for many of the riders. From (near-encounters with elephants to shepherding a shy but eager student through their first ever bike ride, this was a day of contrasts and of breaking down barriers.
There were glimpses into daily life in Botswana, from the veterinary control post where cyclists had to dip their bikes for ‘tyre and mouth disease’ to the signs urging people to pick up litter.
The school was still a point on the route map earlier in the day as riders took on the hugely enjoyable challenge of a second ‘Skate Park’ – smooth descents across sheets of stone, seemingly put in place for downhill riding.
Radio chatter between the earlier and later groups established the legendary status of the hot dogs at today’s brunch stop. Between brunch and the school, the trails flowed in between and around feverberry bushes, while the delightful breeze carried the invigorating scent of wild sage.
Rocks loomed large in today’s ride – but in an inspiring rather than a menacing way. The route wove between the tall sandstone cliffs of a gorge, before flowing into a sandy riverbed. Climbing back up the bank bought views of an escarpment with rainbow colours, and the opportunity to zip along trails that darted between trees (often seeking the shade beneath them).
The final stretch – which, despite the promise of imminent cold drinks and another delicious lunch, many riders doubtless didn’t want to end – had the koppies of Amphitheatre Bush Camp as a signpost.
With today being a shorter route, all the riders arrived at ABC in time to enjoy the Grohe showers (which have been giving the Bean There cappucinos a run for their money as everyone’s favourite hot liquid on Tour).
The final rock of the day offered spectacular views to the west, and right on cue, a small family group of elephants strolled across the dry river bed. Tired in that contented way you only get when both your body and mind have had new experiences, everyone descended for dinner.
This year’s Tour participants had spent their Friday rocking the Tuli Block, having sausage-filled rolls for lunch, and earning the right to wear the red badge of courage as more arms and legs were daubed with mercurochrome to treat minor scratches and scrapes. In other words, it was a great day. The third in a row, and certainly to be proved the third of four!
Written by Nick Galpine
Images by Ali Kiani, Caroline Culbert and Patrick Black