Africa gives local cyclist ‘experience in real diversity’

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 1, 2009 

So, you’re out for a bike ride, but what is this? Pyramids on the horizon? Hippos, crocs and pelicans greeting you from countless tropical lakes? Tire-size potholes eager to swallow you up? Cultural curiosities around every bend in the road, all the way from Cairo, Egypt, to Cape Town, South Africa?

Such are the experiences of local coffee companion Ernest Enns, about three-fourths the way through his dream-of-a-lifetime cycling adventure with Tour d’Afrique, an 11,800 km (7,375 mile) journey that began in early January and stretches the entire length of this magical continent, up the Nile, past Mount Kilimanjaro and Victoria Falls, and along the Kalahari, completing the 10-country trek mid-May when he reaches Cape Town’s picturesque seashore at the foot of legendary Table Mountain.

The 68-year-old University of Calgary professor emeritus of mathematics and avid lover of nature describes himself as “just an ordinary retired guy living in the hills west of Cochrane.”

“Ordinary”? Yeah, right. Travelling with a group of cycling enthusiasts from many countries and averaging about 123 km (77 mi) a day, Ernest describes his daily routine as follows:

“My normal pattern is up at 5 a.m., which is when I am having my best sleep, packing my bag and tent and loading it on the supply truck, then breakfast at 5:45, leaving on my bike about 6:30. I enjoy the first two hours of biking the best; it is usually still cool, the traffic is minimal and the body feels strong. After five or six hours, I feel like quitting for the day, which is not always possible. So arrival in camp is a daily thrill. Then tent setup, a spicy soup, and a short interlude until the rider-meeting updating us for the next day, and then dinner. Usually by 7 p.m. it is dark, so some sit around the truck lights and others read in their tents, and others just sleep. Then at 5 a.m., it starts again.”

Tour d’Afrique is a Toronto-based company begun in 2003. It has as its mandate the creation of a unique athletic event for amateurs and professionals, the fostering of international goodwill, fundraising for worthy charities, and the promotion of bicycle use in Africa.

About bicycle use, the company quotes the Irish-born British writer/philosopher Iris Murdoch: “The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”

Well, the bicycle may remain “pure in heart,” but that doesn’t necessarily protect its riders from unhappy moments. According to Ernest, many of the roads on the tour are just wide enough for two vehicles to pass and have no shoulders. In one of his e-mails to me he wrote, “Another of our riders was sideswiped by a truck and had his elbow badly broken.”

Ernest has had his own share of scrapes, too. Back in February, as they were approaching the Blue Nile gorge, an elderly man unexpectedly ran across the road right in front of him on a downhill section.

“He saw me coming and I was probably doing about 30 km/h when I slammed on the brakes, but that was not enough. We collided and I flew over the handlebars.”

Ernest says he suffered a few cuts, some road rash, sprained ribs on his right side, and a lump on his head. “But I survived to bike again.” The elderly gentleman took his lumps, too, which gave rise to a few tense moments while one of the tour organizers “negotiated a price I had to pay before the developing crowd would let me continue.”

The rhythm of pedalling hour after hour has given Ernest much time for reflection, often quite poetic.

He was especially struck by cultural contrasts he encountered in Ethiopia, where “distant villages are linked only by footpaths. The road to Lalibela curves along a steep mountain ridge. Villages on opposite sides will never meet, as no footpaths cross the steep terrain.”

Vivid images dominate his words:

“People are beautiful, a wave brings a smile, donkeys and women carry heavy loads on long treks. Many children ask for money, or throw stones as we bike past scenic geography, mountains, rolling hills, fertile plains.”

Yet in spite of its grandeur, his observations on this overgrazed, overpopulated land have led him to envision “a humanitarian crisis” that no foreign aid can ever solve.

“We live in a world defined by our physical, mental and spiritual boundaries, our private cocoon on this journey,” he writes. “We meet fellow humans whose cocoon does not overlap ours in any dimension – an experience in real diversity.”

On this note, Ernest, we look forward to your soon return. We have much to learn from your “experience in real diversity.”

© 2009 Warren Harbeck

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