Words & Photos: Jacques Marais
Three hundred km of elephant trails. Five species (at the very least) of potentially dangerous wild beasts. Four days of undiluted riding through an uncharted African landscape. Three arid countries to crank through. Two Zambezi Lagers per day. And one bag full of superb Sony cameras. (Ok, so I lied about the two beers …).
The annual NEDBANK Tour de Tuli is not a race: it is a unique mountain biking adventure based on a dream ride traversing 300 km of near-pristine wilderness. Untouched elephant foot paths, game tracks, and gravel roads – networking through the region where Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa rub shoulders in a rough and tumble of rocky hills, sandy rivers and arid plains – make up an incredible route that tests riders every year as they face off against truly epic African conditions.
As one of the team of photographers tasked to shoot #nedbankTdT2013, I had to come up with a cunning strategy to (a) not become part of the food chain, and (b) to stay in touch with the whole field along a route mostly only accessible on mountain bike. That meant lots of time in the saddle, but on my Silverback Slider 275 that is but a pleasure.
The 650b wheels and full-sus frame proved perfect for the sandy conditions, and despite the heavy camera pack, it was relatively easy to navigate the trails up in the Tuli Block. This year, us shooters fortunately had back-up in the form of our own wilderness guides, so Wiam Haddad had my back to keep the ellies and roaming carnivores at bay. But it is still nice to know there’s some pedal power in the bank, just in case …
With individual groups – there were 19 bunches in total – setting off 10 minutes apart from around 6 a.m. every morning, our initial forays were very much a hit-and-miss affair into the murky predawn. And with the best time for photos just on half-an-hour later, we had to mission to get into a good spot to milk that magic hour.
Epic sunrises are part of the deal up in this neck of the woods, with the baobabs and flat-top acacias of Mashatu providing a spectacular backdrop upon which to position your subjects, and my new SONY set-up fired faultlessly. I was quite worried that the A99-SLT full-frames would not take the knock, but they handled beautifully despite the dust, grit, and heat (not to mention the occasional light thundershower).
On some of the sections where I wanted to lighten the load, the option of packing the NEX-7 bridge camera was an absolute bonus. This DX-Format baby kicks in with a super-sized sensor to guarantee quality, while the body plus two lenses (spanning a 10 mm to 300 mm equivalent) weighs in at just on a kilogramme. Unbelievable!
With around 60-80 km to cover per day, the individual days promised to be relatively tough once the sand and heat kicked in. That means there was the usual pain and suffering, with a general smattering of severe kakking off at the back of the field. Group 19 took eight-and-a-half hours to make it to Amphitheatre Bush Camp, and looked like they had just returned from a pitched battle in Iraq.
Faces covered in dust and grime, arms and legs raked by sickle thorn, sweat-soaked kit and on their last legs … in other words, nothing an ice-cold St Louis Lager could not sort out in 30 seconds flat. By the end of #nedbankTdT2013, they had become the group having the most fun by far on tour.
Highlights of the ride this year? Too many to even begin to count … Group 2 bumped into lion; an elephant just about ate off the tables at one of the tea stops; endless zigzag game tracks through bristling croton forest; superb sandstone riding in a region reminiscent of a Moab-ish Karoo ... In truth, you had to be there.
Because it is not a race, everyone taking part in the Nedbank Tour de Tuli ends up being a winner, but none more so than the beneficiaries of the official charity, CHILDREN IN THE WILDERNESS. Between the riders and sponsors, around R1.5-2 million is raised for the children of the region every year, which adds a huge bunch of feel-good to go with the endorphin rush of the ride itself.
For more information on #nedbankTdT2013, go check out www.childreninthewilderness.com