re-sized MB Derek

Mountain Biking in Zimbabwe

I have already posted a photograph from Derek of a typical ride in the bush for him – remember that wonderful photo of his bike leaning up against a fallen tree and a large elephant enjoying the peace of a waterhole? Well, here’s a fantastic follow-up to that which I am sure will give all you keen mountain bikers something to think about this weekend!

After I moved to the lowveld, I spent a few years with no cycling. But the arrival of an extra six kgs on my waist rang some alarm bells and I realised I had to do something. The closest tar road was 30 minutes’ drive away and so I had to settle for an MTB. Initially, I stuck to the main roads on the ranch. But, having bored with that I soon started off-road excursions (elephant and rhino make GREAT MTB trails) and, having gained in confidence, eventually was going all over the place. There were of course some challenges:

  • Deep sand, the bane of any mountain biker. But this pretty much goes with the territory and you just learn to avoid those parts;
  • Thorns. These really drove me nuts until tubeless tyres were invented. Slime helped, but the thorns down there were so bad that I still had quite serious problems. But tubeless tyres, well slimed, solved the problem. My bike shop couldn’t believe how much slime I went through and were convinced I was using it the wrong way. Until they came and cycled with me and experienced this first hand. You learn to recognise certain plants and to avoid them. If you see a Shangaan carrying a bicycle down a dirt road, you can bet that the Tribulis creeper (pretty little yellow flowers) has scattered devilish thorns everywhere;
  • Basalt soils. When wet, these are impossible and I couldn’t believe it the first time I tried to ride down a slightly damp path. The mud builds up on your tyres until you can’t turn the wheels and you have to carry the bike. And, while you are doing that, the mud also builds up on your shoes until your feet weigh a couple of kgs each. And you will NEVER clip into your pedal cleats with that stuff on your feet!
  • Heat. I cycled mostly at lunch (no game drives are out at that time of day and the dangerous animals are all—hopefully—sleeping in the shade somewhere). I was often out when the temperature was more than 45oC, and quite often cycled on days when the temperature in the sun exceeded 50oC. There were lots of comments about ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ but I never had any problems, so long as I drank lots of water and kept moving. I did have to call for help a couple of times having over-heated but that was always when I stopped to handle a puncture and lost the airflow that kept me cool. In fact, this became my strategy for coping with the heat down there: whenever I was feeling uncomfortable from the heat, at home or at work, I would go out for a ride. After that, it never seemed so da1!
  • The animals. This, in the end, was my biggest worry. But I never had any problems, unlike on the horses on which we had a few hairy moments. I think the animals see you moving strangely and run away. And, as I mentioned above, I mostly cycled at lunch when any sensible being is having a siesta in the shade. We tried various methods of carrying a weapon, especially when I had people with me. It is, believe it or not, possible to carry a heavy calibre (.458 ) rifle on a bike: I used the rifle boot from my (horse) saddle and strapped it to the frame (picture attached). But it was heavy and screwed up the suspension and I tried to avoid doing that. Most of the time, I carried a .44 magnum revolver and two ‘bear bangers’ (thunder flashes which are fired off a miniflare launcher). But, never had to use any of these, in spite of having bumped into elephant, buffalo and rhino many times, and lion a couple of times. I even saw the Big 5 once on my bike, which was quite something!

After all of that, the sugar cane fields around Ballito are more than a little boring and I do have some difficulty keeping motivated unless there is a race looming. Harare is much better fun: the land invasions have been a disaster for the farmers and for the country, but they have created a mountain bike heaven around Harare. All the fences have gone and footpaths abound: and there are no landowners to chase us away, so we wander basically wherever we want. And the Chinamora Communal Land is a short ride away with all the whalebacks (more photos: and such incredibly friendly people!

It is a fun way to keep fit. It is inconceivable to me that people can keep motivated going to a gym!

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