Monday, November 26, 2007

Tour d'Accra

So I overestimated the distance of the race by 266%. Nobody is perfect, and I'm a prime example.
Yesterday, with a fair bit of arm twisting by one of the Ghanaian cycling superstars, Randolph Mensah, I started the Tour d'Accra road race. When he showed up at our house on Saturday afternoon he didn't have all the details on the tip of his tongue. In fact, all he knew was the starting location (Teshie-Nungua police barrier) and approximate time - 8am Sunday morning. I thought I had him convinced that I was in no condition to race unknown distances. No, my target heart rate lately has been set on "recreation" not "decimation." Cleverly, he upped the ante by presenting two bright green sponsor t-shirts for me and the missus. Everyone asks about the missus - SJD. I had to accept.
Really, I did not want to race. The bike wasn't prepared. I didn't feel like waking up early.
Later that evening I was feeling a bit guilty. Here I am in Accra with a small fleet of bikes, parts and gear to spare. These guys bust their bee-hinds every race in the same duds, on beat up bikes, on terrible roads in scorching heat. No classes based on weight, age, ability or gender. Just show up and ride what you have. It is rough on the edges with just a hint of rules, but is pure racing in some sense. This time though we actually had to pin on numbers. The big time!
SJD, who has much better sense than I much of the time, told me that I really should race. She didn't go so far as to say that she would wake up at 6am to make coffee for me. Just nudged me out of bed. A free t-shirt and a nudge got me going. In fairness to SJD, she did drag herself out of bed by 10am to cheer us on passing Burma Camp.
I had just enough time to lube the chain, pump the tires up to pressure, and get all gussied up in City-Bikes/Metro Gutter wear before riding to the Teshie-Nungua - about 10 miles. It would be a perfect warm up...if the race were to begin on time.
Geez, that road between La and Teshie is in horrible condition. Potholes, dips, sand, crumbling edge rumble strips. I'm trying to think of a road in DC that might compare to it. Hmmm...
Things are running late again. About 90 minutes late. Given that many of the racers arrive by tro-tro, taxi or riding (like me) a little extra time is okay. After several introductions, a prayer and display of the prizes, the promoter goes over the course - in one of the local languages. I heard three laps, and mention of a few landmarks - Burma Camp, Achimota, Kaneshie, La. No doubt it seemed like a long race to me. I didn't really have any high expectations of finishing with the leaders. As these races go, once you're spit out the back from the pack, you tend to lose ground quickly.
Finally around 9:30am we're set loose behind a rolling enclosure police escort. Police, bikes, team cars. Add Sunday church traffic, goats, chickens, pedestrians, tro-tros and everything else Ghana into the mix. There is a lot to pay attention to. Early on I was content to sit mid-pack. The pace was pretty high at first, and the police were having a tough time clearing traffic. At one point we bunched up and instead of simply slowing, the lead riders overtook the police and weaved through a sandy shoulder between waiting tro-tros. Everyone followed including the team motorcycles. Talk about hairy.
The course eventually made its way onto roads with less congestion with the pace hovering at around 25mph. Seemed comfortable enough. I recognized the landmarks, but noted that we were headed farther and farther northwest of town before finally turning left on the Tema Motorway. The pack was split in two by a mid-pack crash. Two riders seemed to run out of road, or simply squeezed into a stopped car. Meanwhile the front of the pack seemed to accelerate, creating a gap. I was in the chase group now trying to bridge up to the lead. The police escort abandoned us and zoomed ahead. Traffic took over the roads, but a few volunteers were able to keep a few intersections clear while we passed. The 15 second gap steadily increased until we reached Kaneshie Market - notorious for traffic jams. We more or less had to give up the chase at that point.
At this point we had clocked 30 miles and were just now pointing back eastward towards Teshie. Two more laps of this? That is absurd! I rode out the lap with two other riders, eventually dropping one with a flat and the other to fatigue. Back at Teshie, I completed the first lap logging 47 miles. Do the math. Three times 47 equals 141 miles. I did this while stopping to purchase a water sachet. I have never ridden 141 miles, let alone raced that distance. The officials checked my number and I began the second lap. A few miles in, I decided I really could not face another 94 miles of Accra traffic and smog. I phoned SJD and told her my sob story and that I was coming home. She promised an ice cold smoothie would be waiting for me.
In the end I logged a decent 72 miles at 19.5mph average. Not bad, all things considered.
Today, I had to laugh reading the newspaper coverage of the race. In the end, Samuel Anim, of Accra won a TV and about $300 for first place. Randolph did not place, but was glad to see me out there. Total distance was stated as 53 miles. Apparently the course was one 47 mile lap, plus two 3 mile laps. Not 141 miles. Oops. Guess I mis-understood the pre-race instructions and didn't notice the course marshall telling me to turn right instead of left.
Oh well... Like I said, I'm not perfect.
The Ghanaians, for whatever reason, like to see me fizzle out and will likely invite me to the next race. The silly thing is is that I'll probably do it.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Tug of War - Ghana style

Happy Thanksgiving! Stay away from those nasty malls and read our blog instead. It doesn't cost a dime.

Friends Rebecca and Joe from DC were visiting Ghana this week.

As you can see, they came prepared...definitely prepared for Ghana. REI is great!

They spent their time between Accra, Cape Coast and Volta Region walking in the canopy, taking in slave forts, stamping batik fabric, observing monkeys and buying beads. To wrap up their visit, we drove (we didn't make them to bike) past the small coastal fishing villages that dot the sandy road west of Ada on our way to the Songaw Lagoon Bird Santuary. A group of men, women and children were pulling a fishing net to shore, so we decided to stop long enough to watch and perhaps snap a photo or two if they didn't mind.

Well let me tell you they didn't even pause long enough to greet us, but asked us to get in line and start pulling. Perhaps he said, "Don't just stand there, fetch us some drinks." I guess it is that mid-western instinct kicking in that tells me hold open doors or push cars free from snow banks. Or perhaps we're just crazy. Whatever the case, we grabbed hold of the net, dug in our heels, and leaned backwards. Figured we'd have the net up on shore in no time with four extra bodies. Wrong!

See the other group beyond the beached fishing boat in the distance. That is the other end of the net. Twenty of us on each end. Out in the water, all sorts of fish...hopefully.

When enough of the net was far enough up onto shore, one of the older boys would anchor it to the nearest palm tree with a rope while the pullers headed down to the front of the line to repeat the process over, and over, and over.... We pulled for a good thirty minutes.

Small children waited patiently with baskets and aluminum bowls for the catch to be revealed.

The smallest of the children simply added ballast to the mamas who were tugging in unison. That is SJD in the center background.

Nobody seemed to notice or really mind that we jumped in. After thirty minutes we were soaked with sticky salt water, coated with sand and begining to sun burn.

The other mid-western instict - well timed rest breaks - seemed to be ignored here in Ghana.

Our hands and arms were so fatigued that we could barely thank them for letting us have the fun of lending a hand, before we had to let them finish what they started. We hadn't seen a single fish tangled in the net at that point. SJD was assured by one man that the catch today would be a good one though. If not they would try again.
Back in the lovely AC of the car, we gulped down a few cold drinks and continued west past more villages with people wrestling nets against a stubborn tide. At the end of the road we reached the lagoon but were too exhausted to set out for more exploring. Turned around and headed back to Ada - this time without stopping to take photos.

So we may not have actually caught any fish, but at least we worked off a few of those extra Thanksgiving dinner calories trying.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Tanzania to Kenya by bike - part two

Part two of two (thank goodness, right). I'll try to wrap this sucker up shortly. Any of the included photos can be viewed in larger format by simply double-clicking on it.

Day 9
The Land Cruiser and driver met us at camp at 6am to whisk us up and over the 8000' rim that creates the Ngorongoro Crater. 2300' below the crater rim is teeming with all sorts of critter life.

Wildebeest sparring

Hippos staying cool -- occasionally one would roll over to get the top side wet but that was as animated as they got .

Hippo tracks - when they decide to move, stay out of the way...

King and Queen of the crater (these were taken just after they mated - we captured that moment as well but thought it might not be an appropriate image for a G-rated (so far) blog)

Thompsons gazelle

Hyenas - it was fascinating to watch the other wildlife quietly move away as these guys approached. Earlier we had seen some hyenas finishing off the bloody remains of a zebra that obviously hadn't moved away in time.

The black dot in the center is (honest) the highly endangered black rhino. There are only 25 of them in Ngorongoro. We got a good view through the binocs...

Safari dorks

Day 10
We headed north to the land border crossing into Kenya at Namanga. Along the way, Sabrina's fuel supply line sprang a leak - no doubt a victim of rattling down washboard roads. Come to think of it, Sabrina did seem a bit sluggish up some of the hills. As SJD, Trevor and I pondered our fate, ate some popcorn and looked for shade, Scott and Fish scurried under and inside Sabrina taking it all in stride. Hakuna matata... Matters were under control before we could panic and grab the bikes to attempt a self rescue.

Under here? Hmm...maybe up here?

Onward up the road to the border crossing. Entry visas were obtained easily enough and we were allowed to proceed to the start of the day's ride.

The ride, a relatively flat 30km meander, started as a washboard road but soon deteriorated into a sandy 4wd track winding through the scrub paralleling the international border by 1/2Km. Very likely we could have simply ridden the bikes across the border, but then we would have had some explainin' to do with immigration officials in Nairobi later in the week. Interestingly enough though, my GPS indicated that we had crossed the border a few times during the ride - wonder whether it is accurate.

(Bike set-up:
We decided to take our own bikes on this trip. We had the option of renting bikes, but reasoned that 550Km on an unfamiliar bike would be a bit of a drag. So we have well traveled bikes.

The only modifications we made before the trip were to the tires. Actually, we replaced the tubes with Slime tubes - self-sealing ooze limits the number of thorm punctures. Also, we installed tire liners between the tire and tube. Same effect.

The rest of the bike remained in normal XC mode – rather Africa proof and simple.)

Riding off the gravel road instantly exposes your tires to all sorts of thorny grasses, bushes and trees. The sandy 4wd track eventually narrows down to a few Km of flat single track before reaching a rock outcropping named Solomon's Rock. At first I thought this was just a rest break before pushing on to the next village, so I goofed around a bit on the rock itself. It wasn't until the bus pulled up that I realized we were actually going to camp at the foot of the rock. This place is remote and exposed but incredibly beautiful as well. It is hard to imagine how it supports life and it seemed empty as we rode in but soon enough signs of life and appeared (including while SJD was taking her sun shower out in the open behind the bus...she thinks she covered up before the view got too racy). Winds kicked up as the sun sank towards the horizon making setting up tents a bit of an adventure. We thought we might inadvertently go paragliding.

Me riding up Solomon's Rock; Scott taking in the scene

Fish and Scott made a simple but delicious picnic up on top of Solomon's Rock as we watched the stars take over the night sky.

Two local Maasai were hired to watch the camp as we slept, keeping hyenas at bay. They made a small fire and chit chatted softly until the morning. I assume the spears were for real.

Day 11
Word had spread quickly that we were passing through the area and morning brought several Maasai men and women jewelry vendors out of the distant villages to visit our camp. They unrolled their blankets to display their handiwork for us to peruse, bargain and purchase. It is a shame that I'm not necessarily a big fan of the colorful bead bracelets and dangly earrings. What looks completely appropriate on the Maasai, seems a bit ludicrous on me. I made up my mind to buy something from every third person.

We met a Maasai man named Solomon who gave us a tour of his family compound on the opposite side of Solomon's rock. (Oh, now I get it.) He was very open and honest about the Maasai culture and practices. We asked whether they continued the practice of female circumcision and Solomon matter-of-factly said the government tries to stop it but they are not ready to give it up. Easier to understand customs such as how the males become warriors were explained as well.

Solomon's two wives and eight children live in the compound with two other family groups. I asked if they get along - the wives- and he replied, "yes" but was quick to move onto the next subject. He said his mother wants him to take a third wife but he's not so sure he's up for it.

This house that SJD is posed beside to provide some scale seemed to be fairly typical construction - branches tied together for structure; dung to cement things together; low, thatch roof. Solomon indicated that much of the family had relocated 5-10Km south (probably into Tanzania) to be closer to more reliable water sources. Once the rainy season resumes, the family and livestock will likely move back.

This is the local school. How did we miss it right there under the acacia tree when rode in the previous afternoon? Solomon introduced us to the teachers and students who were all on perfect behaviour. SJD and I were handed chalk and asked to teach the class for few minutes. We froze for a moment wondering just what we might say. Economics? I'm still juggling currency conversion rates. Construction? I could learn a lot here. Geography? I'm not even sure where I am let alone which other countries border Kenya besides Tanzania. Then it clicked.

SJD taught arithmetic; I taught art

The little boy drawing the giraffe was such a picture of concentration. He took several minutes to carefully draw a long neck and a box-like body and little ears. His classmates watched with delight and rewarded him with a big round of applause.

Of course more singing broke out. The children entertained us with several verses of "one little, two little, three little elephants" accompanied by clapping and percussion on the benches. Very cute.

After all this excitement we geared up for a short ride across the dry Lake Amboseli into a stiff head wind. But first we had to take turns riding each other's bikes.

A Fish on a bicycle!

Maasai guy on Fish's K2.

Midway across the lake bed, herds of wildebeest grazed nearby. Generally they seem pretty skittish around vehicles, but on bikes we gave them plenty of room and rolled past as a group. I was the only meat eater of the bunch.

We jumped back into the bus before entering Amboseli NP since carnivores and other tramplers and head butters were present in the area. Camp for the night was inside the confines of a rather flimsy electrified fence. There was plenty of evidence that elephants passed through regularly. Trampled fence poles and piles of dung here and there.

Another windy sunset, then dinner at the base on the north side of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Day 12
Wildlife viewing is best in the morning hours before the heat of the day - although I would argue that the sun is pretty intense even at 9am. We packed up camp and headed out on a two hour self-driven loop through Amboseli NP. As required, we drove very slowly and stayed on the established track but apparently no one told a large male elephant that was SOP. He made some unhappy sounding noises as he approached the bus and seemed on the verge of poking a tusk through the window. We had no desire to upset so sneaked off as quietly as a bus can.

Once again we were lucky to have Kilimanjaro as a backdrop and soaked up the iconic scenes of wildlife seeming to pose for us in front of the mountain.

We exited Amboseli on the north side 4wd track leaving most animals behind and continuing on the bikes. This was grind of a ride. Slightly uphill, dusty, sandy and into a wind during the hottest part of the day. We did spot a few giraffe at close distance, but were too slow to grab the camera before they trotted off.

At our deserted lunch stop, we quickly attracted a crowd of children who seemed to materialize out of nowhere on their way home from school. They watched our every move ... before we left, we gave many a turn on the bike.

By the time we rolled into camp for the night the winds had picked up once again and SJD and I resorted to strategically placed tethers to keep the tent from folding in the wind. Our host for the night was Robert, a 73 year old Maasai who was quite a character. With his limited english and lots of body language he regaled us with talks of being tossed into a tree by a rhino and attacked by a lion (he had the tooth mark on his leg to prove it) as a young man. His second wife, Beatrice, and several children also stopped by for greetings. In contrast to Robert, they exuded calmness. It made for a nice mix in that family.

As we prepared to turn in for the night, we looked a bit anxiously at the gray clouds and wondered if we might need to put the rain fly over the tent. Robert assured us that it would not rain until November 14. A few hours later we were all scrambling in the moonlight and wind to get the rain flies over our tents before we were soaked by the rain....

Day 13
We hit the road early knowing that a 77Km ride with 2000' of climbing awaited. Scott mentioned that this was a trucking route, although we saw maybe eight vehicles the entire day -- one of which came roaring and sliding down a hill at us; we wisely got off the road for a moment to let it pass. The term “highway” in these parts takes on a different meaning. More cattle, donkey and ostrich and zebra used the road than vehicles.

For whatever reason we made good time since finally, we we're able to take advantage of a tail wind. My rear tire developed a slow leak that didn't seem to seal properly until later in the ride. Considering how far we'd come already without any major mishaps, I was pretty pleased.

Camp seemed pretty posh after the last few nights in the remote and dusty plain -- it even had hot showers.

Day 14
The home stretch and into Nairobi. We were not in any hurry to eat breakfast or break down camp, and in doing so got dumped on by a brief rain storm. It was just enough rain to make packing a mess, and cause us to rethink the final bike route. Scott thought the tracks might be a bit of a quagmire for the bikes and bus. I didn't really feel like dragging a filthy bike through a Nairobi hotel lobby either. The decision was made to stick to the paved road. Not the most exciting option in the end, although the Kenyan rural roads are in even worse condition than some of the roads in the remote corners of Ghana - and this is just 30Km outside of Nairobi -- so we had ample opportunity to practice bunny hopping potholes.

We loaded the bikes into Sabrina and drove the final few Km into the center of Nairobi to our final destination, the Heron Hotel. After all those nights sleeping on the ground, a real bed felt downright odd.

Day 15
Following a farewell breakfast with our group, SJD and I headed into the city center on foot to wander, window shop, snack and relax. Nairobi is a big city with busy public parks, crowded sidewalks, proper storefronts, cafes and action - so much larger feeling than Accra and in some ways Washington, DC. During the daylight hours, it was pleasant and inviting. The National Museum was closed for renovation so no serious educating took place, but we visited the memorial at the site of the US Embassy bombing back in 1998 before heading back to the hotel for a quiet dinner.

We're back in Accra now with two dusty bikes to reassemble sitting in the middle of the foyer.
Many thanks go out to Escape Adventures guides Scott and Fish for always providing tasty meals, safe driving and a relaxed camp atmosphere. As well, asante sana to all the amazing Tanzanian and Kenyans we met along the way for showing us your country.
So...where to next?