Cycle Across Africa
The Elephant & The Biggest Risk of All
Riding a bicycle in Africa through a National park known for dangerous animals such as Lion and Leopard was not included on most people’s to-do list for 2013 but it popped up on mine in late December. I’d like to confirm my “to do” list looks very different than my “wishlist” and the matter of cycling through the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans was less a part of the trip I wished for and more something I had to do.
Three Reasons Against: Naive, Stupid and Unnecessary
Amidst all the great support and well wishes, there has also been a fair bit of abuse online for setting out alone on a bicycle cycle tour through Africa. The main three reasons against why I should be doing this were naivety, stupidity and unnecessary. This was in the forefront of my mind cycling into the park – it can be difficult deciding what advice is constructive or best ignored. Usually I conclude to just seeing things differently but by doing this I once again leave myself open to being referred to as naive, stupid and unnecessary – sometimes you can’t win.
DON’T LOOK NOW
Reaching the pan was a little surreal – I had only ever been in a place like this with safari vehicle and now here I was on a bicycle. The landscape opened up more than usual which allowed for a clearer view into the bush and while trying to spot some movement, there was an internal argument as to why I wanted to spot anything in the first place. The truth was I didn’t but it was impossible NOT to look, the dare was far too great to ignore. My usual paranoia kicked in and had I actually spotted a lion there probably would have been a lot of whimpering….from me of course, not the lion.
AVOIDING (BEING) LUNCH
Immediately I saw Kudu prancing across the road and thought “there’s no fences – how do they know to stay in the park?” but for sometime after this sighting, there was nothing except rolling pans, huge landscapes and more scorching sun. thought it would be worth mentioning on my adventure travel blog how I debated what to do for lunch, it rolled on all morning whether to eat pre-cooked lunch on the go or stop for a few minutes. Sitting under a tree at the edge of the bush, no encouragement was needed to let my imagination have a field day and I stuffed my face as fast as possible just hoping no lion, leopard or hyena took a fancy to the smell of my pot noodle.
Halfway through the park was the Nxai Pan, the height of the bush was much lower so from here you could see for miles around, although it still gave zero indication what was out there aside from knowing there were no tall animals such as the elephants. The words of a guide I met from Maun, echoed as I cycled along “I don’t say this to worry you but two lions, female were by the roadside near that Nxai pan recently”. Despite this it was still mostly uneventful and by now, mid afternoon it was like being trapped in a furnace, the only amusing part being the expressions in oncoming safari’s “WTF is he doing, is that a ….bicycle?”
THE BIG ONE
Toward the end of the pan a truly memorable moment was about to take place. I’ve seen them before, in the wild, up close, even on foot but never had I stood with just a bicycle looking at a Bull Elephant like this. Although it was inevitable, I still could not believe it was happening and needed to remind myself several times not to be naive of the danger involved. At the very edge of the road he chewed up plants and rocked from side to side, a lone bull like this can be very aggressive if threatened or startled – I happily waited for him to move away some distance.
But after half an hour waiting, the elephant was not moving from the side of the road (I found out later he was eating a type of delicacy he found in that exact spot) and I really started wondering what the options were. To try going around would be impossible, the bike would get stuck in the mud and even if I tried, should the elephant decide to charge – it would be trouble for sure. There was still around 7km to go until the end of the park and while the thought of cycling past this giant was still alarming, I was now even more concerned about having to cycle after dark if I waited much longer.
Many thoughts ran through my mind:
“People will call me even more stupid, reckless, disrespectful”
“nobody will understand that I could not wait any longer, they’ll think I did this just for the thrill”,
“If he charges – how can I possibly expect to outrun him with so much weight on the bike”
“What would Ace Ventura do?”
“this is not worth the risk – I’m not a wildlife behavioral specialist”
“this is going to be epic, I should record it”.
I pressed record and started cycling slowly on the opposite side of the road, at that moment he looked far enough away to be able to coast on by without upsetting him. The moment of truth was just about to unfold when a young guy overtook me to go past the elephant at the same time, I was still in disbelief at this when astonishingly he pulled in, right in front of me and stopped – I waved frantically at his friends in the backseat “GO, GO, GO, DONT STOP YOU IDIOTS, YOU’LL GET ME KILLED”….now committed, there was no option but to go around the car and this meant having to move even closer to the Bull. As I moved out to overtake, crossing the middle of the road, now within 15 feet of the elephant he swung his whole head, tusks, trunk toward me, his ears were up, he was pissed – time froze and so did my heart. I’m sure I even stopped cycling waiting to see what he would do, certain he would charge, I just stared completely in awe….the bike kept moving and soon I was rolling away from him with my mouth still open.
ANOTHER SIGHT TO REMEMBER
The slow motion at which the elephant turned to face the bike was epic, almost as if to say “is it YOU that has disturbed me…?” Despite the passing car, it was too good to be true, the realization I had just cycled past a bull elephant in Africa was brilliant and the trip would never have been complete without something like this happening – but it just had. There have been several moments so far that remain fixed in my memory and as I looked back afterward the gathering storms in the backround of this elephant completed yet another iconic, almost “cliche” African sight.
The last 35km to camp went quickly with the entire time spent thinking about what had just happened. Along the way a Landrover did a u-turn after passing and running alongside, a lovely lady held an ice cold can of coke out the window – this sort of gesture has been quite common on the trip, people often seem to feel sorry for my ragged state or maybe just want to be part of the cycle tour by helping in some way. Regardless, it topped off the most incredible day spent in Botswana, making the hard slog on these mind bending roads completely worthwhile in the end – overjoyed would begin to describe how I was starting to feel about everything.
WHY TAKE THE RISK?
Amongst everything else, there are said to be more than 50 lions in the Madgadikgadi pan area but it was unlikely I would happen across one – although this “unlikeliness” made little difference to how I felt, it made me reasonably comfortable about this side of the risk. The other reason for doing it was although I am not set against hitching on a cycle tour, to do so here in my first “lion” populated region would seem like cheating and not really constitute cycling across Africa.
Naive, Stupid & Unnecessary?
You could debate all day long about how cycling across Africa is dangerous, unnecessary or naive and I accept all of these opinions in their own right but I also believe it’s pretty easy to conclude this about any type of real adventure, the definition of which revolves around risk, uncertainty and danger of some sort. Maybe some people are angered because they confuse my writing about “adventure” as the reason behind seeking it or possibly they feel this travel blog is some sort of gloat fest….the reality is, these articles are an afterthought, something to share.
The Biggest One Of All
The reason I feel so positive about the trip is because I genuinely just see it for what it is – adventure. I’m also aware of my own personal draw toward some of the more extreme experiences but not reckless and deeply care how family, friends and people feel about my well being. After that, I believe you need to come to your own conclusions/decisions and not let other peoples fears stop you from following your own dreams. There’s a lot to be said about trusting your gut feeling and throwing caution to the wind, it’s never an easy thing to do, like deciding to buy a house, quit a job or ask someone out and the reason we take these risks is not for the danger or uncertainty – it’s for the reward and changes they bring about in our lives.
It’s easy to think up three reasons against doing anything or even a thousand for that matter but sometimes it’s best to focus on the one good reason we should – this reason is? I’m aware of all the risks involved but for me, the risk of living a life without adventure is the biggest risk of all.