The Tour de Tuli is fast becoming a favourite ride for SA corporates. Max Gebhardt went along to find out why it is so popular.
Russel Friedman is a legend. A couple of weeks before the start of the Tour de Tuli, he dislocated his shoulder and separated his AC joint in a freak accident. To repair the damage he underwent surgery and had a metal plate inserted into his shoulder just two weeks before the start of what has to be one of Southern Africa's premier four-day mountain bike tours.
An accident like this would have laid low a man half his age, yet on day one at the Limpopo Valley Camp in Botswana, there was Friedman. He was not only planning to complete the Tour de Tuli, covering 280km through three countries, he was planning to lead our group.
"It would have been really difficult for me not to ride, seeing I had convinced my family and friends to participate. I had also raised a lot of extra sponsorship from our US agents and this was a major factor for me to at least try to ride," says Friedman, who is a founder and director of Wilderness Safaris.
He was instrumental in starting the Tour de Tuli. "I have been a passionate cyclist for the past 26 years. We did the first ride on road bikes from Johannesburg to Durban. We realised after that we could offer something special to cyclists by putting on a tour in protected park areas. It was also a way of raising quite a lot of money while getting enjoyment from the activity."
The money raised by the 320-odd cyclists who participate in the tour is used for Wilderness Safaris' Children in the Wilderness (CITW) programme. This initiative hosts children who live alongside the areas where Wilderness Safaris operates and teaches them the importance of conservation and tourism.
It is this element, of riding through some of the most beautiful parts of Botswana and Zimbabwe while making a contribution to conservation, that attracts so many corporates and their clients.
Livingstones Supply Co director Peter Anderson says as a sponsor of and participant in the Tour de Tuli he cannot think of a better way to make a difference while doing something healthy and fun.
"I have visited a number of Wilderness Safaris' camps throughout Southern Africa while CITW programmes have been under way. Through this I was able to see at first hand just how children in areas adjacent to protected reserves benefit from the programme."
Friedman says the tour is about the chance to enjoy the beauty and silence of mountain biking while connecting with clients and nature.
"It is a way to reward customers and staff. It also provides an opportunity to bond with clients while giving back to society and helping with the long-term understanding of why we need to preserve these wild places."
Each year the Tour de Tuli route changes slightly to give the regulars a different experience.
On day two of this year's tour, the route included a loop allowing us to spend two nights at the Maramani Camp. Maramani offers the best camping site on the tour. The tent camp is placed in the Limpopo river bed, with the various facilities such as showers, canteen and bar on the river bank under the fever trees made famous by Rudyard Kipling.
The loop had two options, 45km or 72km. Group seven, under the leadership of Friedman, decided to do the longer loop. This allowed us to fully appreciate how rural communities in Zimbabwe are struggling. The cattle we passed were emaciated; the countryside in many places was devoid of even a blade of grass.
"One wonders how one can eke out an existence in such a barren, stark landscape," reflected Manny Friedman, Russel's brother. "It reinforces the need to support this organisation."
Our ride through Zimbabwe on days one, two and three brought home how bad the drought is in that country, apparently the worst it has experienced since 1984. There was hardly a drop of water in sight during our four days of riding. Even the Limpopo river has dried up into a series of stagnant pools.
The UN World Food Programme said at the end of last month that it expects 1,6m Zimbabweans will need food aid next year, up from the 1m who received aid this year.
Despite this, the tour was once again superbly organised. Day one had its usual challenge of getting from Botswana into Zimbabwe via the mighty Shashe river - a 1km walk across a very sandy river bed. The only relief from the trudge across is the knowledge that you have only a couple of kilometres to the finish and there awaits a cool beer and a massage on the banks of the Limpopo in the cool shade of the fever trees. Day one is perhaps some of the easiest riding, with wonderful sweeping single tracks following old elephant paths through the mopane trees. But it remains a long 72km day in the saddle, plus the time it takes to cross the borders.
The dry conditions also meant that we had fantastic game sightings whenever we were near water. On the first evening at the Maramani camp a herd of five elephants wandered down to the SA bank, providing the perfect setting to the end of the day.
Day two's loop started cold and the ascent at the start up a rocky narrow single track did not perk up anyone's spirits. But this all dissipated as we headed out on the smooth donkey tracks into the Zimbabwe countryside.
Our day finished slightly earlier after we decided as a group to avoid the "gauntlet of hell" as we nicknamed it - the last sandy stretch back into camp.
"Today you will be tested," warned the route handbook about day three. "It is a long and tough day of cycling." What it forgot to say was that it was hot dog Sunday. The best brunch stop on the tour and a chance to taste the freshly squeezed orange juice from Nottingham Estate. And tea at the majestic Sentinel Ranch, a lodge literally built into the rocks.
One of the stand-out features of the tour is its catering, and of course the sand, the camaraderie and Jonathan Robinson's Bean There Coffee Company. This year proved to be no different.
Each day your group, which consists of between 10 and 16 riders, stops for tea after about 20km of riding. This is followed by brunch at the roughly 45km-50km mark. Both stops are always perfectly situated. But day three's were by far the best on the tour.
The route up to the brunch stop is challenging. There is a hard push through sandy roads of the Nottingham Estate, which splits the group into a series of individual riders seeking out the best route. This is followed by a short sharp rocky climb to Fly Camp, the brunch stop, with its views all the way to the Limpopo and SA.
Day three can't be left without mention of how we got lost and landed up climbing a dam wall in our search for the route to the Kuduland camp, the venue for our last night's stay in Zimbabwe.
The final day's riding turned out to be our best game viewing day as we entered the forest bordering the Limpopo with the wildlife congregated on the banks seeking water and shade. It was a beautiful ride which was supposed to bring us to the informal border post to cross into SA. But just when we thought we had it in sight, we managed to take a wrong turn. After we reached the top of a ridge we realised we were lost. Luckily we didn't have too far to go to find our way back to the correct route and across the border into the Mapungubwe National Park in SA, our last camp site of the tour.
It is a relief climbing that last hill into the camp but it is also with a tinge of sadness that you realise you have to say goodbye to people who just days ago were strangers but are now firm friends.
Article by: Max Gebhardt
Image by: Grant Roddan