The final day of this year’s Nedbank Tour de Tuli was in many ways a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of all that had gone before: more elephants, more game (according to Tour veterans, there were more sightings this year than ever before), more dust and more superb, flowing riding.
The climb out of Amphitheatre Bush Camp (ABC) alternated smooth rock riding and digging deep through sand troughs, but the compensation for this early exertion was a glorious vista towards Botswana’s own Mapungubwe (a sacred, flat-topped mountain that cannot be climbed without a chief) and out across the mopane plateau.
Rocky koppies provided useful vantage points for spotting elephants – and the ‘contrails’ of dust that hung in the air as they sauntered through the woodland. Trumpets echoed through the still morning air, and a herd of wildebeest got caught up in the dynamic of the morning as they galloped across the plain.
The route to South Africa was downhill all the way – but only in a topographical sense. As an experience, it was a remarkable sequence of highlights. Slaloming between trees gave way to some wonderfully fast downhill rides, the best of which descended from a plateau to the tea stop.
As on every other day, the refreshment stations were situated so perfectly that just as you started thinking, I could do with a cold Coke or a slice of cake, a white 4×4 and the familiar Nedbank banners would materialise on the horizon. It was just more evidence of the superb organisation that underpins every aspect of the Tour.
The rays of sunlight piercing the early morning clouds – the first of this year’s Tour – summed up the bittersweet nature of the final day. For many of the riders, pedalling towards South Africa meant heading closer to home. At the same time, it’s impossible to spend two days in the Botswana wilderness without falling in love with that wonderful country.
Saying ‘goodbye’ to Botswana is never easy, but that farewell was still in the future as riders negotiated pebble-dashed plateaux. The riding wasn’t difficult, unless of course you became distracted by the forever views. Or the passing giraffe. Or the steady patter of banter between team mates.
Clusters of riders formed as rapidly around each puncture or fallen comrade as around the chicken wraps at the brunch stop. It was a day of bounding impala, incandescent dust trails curling out from behind rear tyres, and scattered shepherd’s trees giving way to riverine clusters of feverberry.
There were a few surprises along the way: delicious breezes springing up suddenly, rocks popping up out of nowhere, and waking warthogs dashing between equally startled riders.
The pace of each group seemed to quicken as they neared the frontier – but that could just have been the prospect of showers and beers. However, like all the best experiences in life, this year’s event wasn’t over until it was over.
After being stamped out of Botswana, the route wound through no man’s land: the thick sandy bed of the Shashe River and an island that – despite its beauty – had never been seriously claimed by either country.
From there the homeward-bound riders climbed back to the Mapungubwe Camp. There was relief for sore ‘tails’ and a twinge of regret that the glorious sensation of riding free in the company of friends (old or new) had come to an end – for this year at least.
As newly clean riders assembled on the decks looking out over the confluence of the two rivers – one of sand and one of water – the reminiscing began and the sun was serenaded to sleep by a lone piper.
The roof of the marquee swelled with pride and comradely goodwill as Tour legends were trotted out and promises were made to meet here again next year. Same time, same place – except that of course it won’t be quite the same.
Next year we’ll be all be a year older (although that won’t impress the implacable cliffs and baobab trees). The 2020 Nedbank Tour de Tuli is already being planned, and it won’t be the same as the edition that has just ended. But it will have many things in common: the thrills, the spills and the fact that it will also be the most enjoyable and purposeful four days anyone ever spent on a mountain bike. We’ll see you all then!.
Written by Nick Galpine
Images by Caroline Culbert and Patrick Black