Whistle through the wilderness

[Image] Taking a break with a herd of elephants.

[Image] Tent town in the dry Shashe river bed.

[Image] Awesome views across rivers and bushveld are plentiful.

[Image] Children in the Wilderness learn about their environment.
(Images: Tour de Tuli)

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Some 350 cyclists are getting ready for the ride of their lives – riding with elephants through game reserves in Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

The eighth Tour de Tuli ride, a magical four-day, 300km mountain bike ride, takes place from 3 August, starting in Botswana and ending in the spectacular Mapungubwe Game Reserve in South Africa’s Limpopo Province. Cyclists cross the dry Shashe River bed, wade through the Limpopo River, and ride through elephant and lion country.

Two days are spent riding through Botswana, before the crossing into Zimbabwe, where another two days are spent riding through bushveld. Then the route crosses to South Africa for the last night where riders have sundowners overlooking the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, gazing into Zimbabwe and Botswana.

The big five roam its diverse wilderness of savannah, riverine forests, marshland, open plains and sandstone outcrops. Mopani bush, fever trees and ancient baobabs dominate the flora. This vast area, some 175 000 acres of pristine game land, is home to Africa’s giant – the elephant. Their silent presence, grazing quietly on large swathes of Mopani bushes, is an awe-inspiring feature of the ride. There are some 900 of these giants in the area, so riders are bound to bump into a few along the way.

The Tour de Tuli is run by luxury ecotourism company Wilderness Safaris, and is its annual effort to raise funds for Children in the Wilderness. The last is a non-profit organisation that provides an environmental and life skills educational programme for children, with the goal of inspiring them to care for their natural heritage, and take charge of their heritage in the future. It operates in seven countries – Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Tuli Block

Large areas of the famed Tuli Block are covered on the ride. The block is a huge, shared game reserve between the three countries. Riders spend two days in Botswana’s Northern Tuli Game Reserve, starting in the Mashatu Game Reserve, or the Land of Giants. A further two days are spent in the Tuli Circle, after crossing the once-mighty, 800m-wide Shashe River into Zimbabwe, now largely a dry, sandy river bed, and finally crossing the Limpopo River into South Africa.

“It’s not a race; this cannot be emphasised enough,” says Russel Friedman, one of the founders of Wilderness Safaris and a board member of Children in the Wilderness. “We spend five to six hours a day in the saddle, traversing pristine wilderness. The route does not include manicured single tracks; we follow animal tracks through areas that are normally only accessible to animals, elephants and now mountain bikes.

“Many new friendships are created on the tour. The days are long, and tough, but well worthwhile being able to appreciate the biodiversity of these incredible areas,” Friedman adds.

Tented camps

For those four days, 150 staff will move into the area with 2 500 tents, setting up five camps – two in Botswana, two in Zimbabwe and one in South Africa. They will ship in 100 000 litres of water for showers, over 15 000 litres of drinking water, 618 cases of soft drinks, 489 cases of beer, 177 cases of wine and spirits, 100kg of biltong, and 67 bottles of sunblock. Three 18-wheel trucks will load up the provisions, ready for tired cyclists when they wheel their bikes into each camp.

And that’s not even the food, which will be brought in by 13 eight-ton trucks. All meals are provided, with support stations along the route making sure cyclists keep up their energy levels. Riders gather the night before the start at the Limpopo Valley Airfield in Botswana, across the Limpopo from Pontdrif in South Africa, to prepare to leave in batches the next morning.

Children in the Wilderness

The prime task of Children in the Wilderness, established in 2004, is to host children’s camps, eco-clubs and sponsor staff training. Wilderness Safaris hosts 16 to 30 children aged between 10 and 17 each year. During the year, eco-clubs are run at the schools, which foster in the children a love of wildlife. Other programmes include school feeding, water supply, school buildings and eco-mentoring training.

“Children in the Wilderness increases children’s awareness, bridges cultural divides, broadens horizons, builds confidence, provides opportunities for new friendships and choices, and reveals career opportunities,” says the company.

Eco-clubs, which take place at rural schools, follow a curriculum and take place weekly, monthly or every three months. They give schoolchildren who are interested in the environment a chance to meet, learn, discuss and expand their knowledge of environmental issues. They also look at health, HIV/Aids awareness, nutrition, life skills, geography, geology, arts and craft, and theatre.

“In turn, Wilderness Safaris camp staff are allowed to be mentors and leaders, connecting them to their jobs, instilling them with pride for their culture and their community, and offering an enriching experience exposing new skills and talents.”

Some 4 500 children have been hosted in Wilderness Safaris camps in the seven countries since 2001.

The route

On day one, riders take a 60km route which includes sightings of elephant or even big cat encounters within the Croton forests, zipping over slick rock formations, and lots of undulating single tracks. Riders overnight at the Amphitheatre Bush Camp in Botswana.

On day two they head towards the Maramani Camp in Zimbabwe, a 72km ride, once again riding along single tracks on ancient elephant trails. An informal border crossing on the other side of the Shashe River is established, where an official at a wooden table on the river bank stamps riders’ passports.

Day three consists of 58km of riding with spectacular sandstone features where herds of game feed all night. Riders cycle past eland, impala, and elephant, with baboons in the trees overhead. There are two options on day four: the longer and more challenging 84km route, or a shorter 47km route along jeep track.

Crossing the Limpopo

Riders have to cross the Limpopo River, which flooded earlier this year. During the floods, 17 000 juvenile crocodiles were swept down the river from a submerged croc farm. The organisers say that most of the crocodiles have been recaptured, but the river is low this year, and crocs prefer to spend their time in deep pools, so there is no risk of riders being taken by one lurking in the water, says Nicola Taylor, logistics manager of the tour.

“There have never been any incidents with crocodiles,” she adds. In recent years, the event has attracted more overseas riders, she says, with an estimated 20 percent of the field flying in for the ride.

The major sponsor is Nedbank, and the Andy Scott, the head of Nedbank Group Sponsorships, says: “The route for this year’s Nedbank Tour de Tuli, with its breathtaking fauna and flora, will be both challenging and rewarding for the riders and will go a long way to ensuring that the tour remains one of South Africa’s premier multi-stage mountain biking events.”

Once you have paid your R20 000 entry fee, you might find yourself uncontrollably humming or whistling or bursting into song while cycling the Tour de Tuli – lots of people do.