As I lay in the dust under an acacia bush with the rear wheel whirring three inches from my left ear I wondered once again why mountain-biking in Africa should be presenting such a challenge. This was no iron-man conquest of the Dark Continent. We weren’t pedaling grim-faced into the forbidden quarters of what the colonial’s once knew - with carefully concealed respect - as MMBA: ‘miles and miles of bloody Africa.’ We were simply a group of thirty-somethings who were more interested getting to meet the locals than in breaking bones or records.
Fair enough, we were in a remote corner of Botswana and the main difference between this and the usual potter around the local park was that the locals here included the lion and leopard that I’d spent the last week alternately searching for (in vehicles) and avoiding (on horseback). Still, at this time of day I knew that the lions would be lazing in the shade and would be unlikely to bestir themselves unless I actually fell under the acacia that was provided that shade.
Lying in historically un-tamed land on the northern bank of Kipling’s ‘great gray-green, greasy Limpopo River,’ Mashatu Game Reserve also boasts some of the largest elephant herds anywhere in Africa; and I was soon to realize that this could apply equally to either ‘largest herds’ or ‘herds of the largest elephants.’ I’d already been lucky enough to count 95 animals from a Landcruiser parked on the - to my mind - inappropriately named Disappointment Kopje, but herds of up to 400 have been reported.
When you view game from a vehicle, you are essentially a passive witness. When you travel through ‘predator territory’ on something as insubstantial as a bicycle you are entering their world…and would like to think that you do so only as a temporary guest. As I plucked the second set of acacia thorns out of the seat of my safari shorts I remembered a cartoon that I’d seen in the ‘discovery room’ at main camp: two hyena are chewing on the twisted frame of a bicycle and one says to the other, “the pink meat was delicious, but I just can’t seem to get any marrow out of these bones.”
But, aside from the wide-eyed surprise of a herd of impala, the grunts of bewildered wildebeest and a herd of zebra that kicked their heels up in undisguised glee, the local fauna had nothing whatsoever to do with my current bedraggled state. The sad truth was simply that I kept falling off my bike! Tentatively - and tenderly - I re-joined our little cycle-mounted pioneer column (commonly referred to as a ‘crank of cyclists’) as it pedaled onward into the bushveld, keeping eyes peeled for both game and the veritable mountains of elephant dung that are just another exotic obstacle to a mountain bike safari.
“Treat them as roundabouts,” shouted Jou Mazebedi, our guide, “- but don’t worry too much. They make a soft landing.” Jou has been a ranger for 12 years and, though a leading member of Mashatu’s ‘Meals on Wheels’ racing team, he was happy to make allowances for what he obviously considered clumsiness of near legendary proportions. (Although I had an idea who might be the star of the next discovery room cartoon). Not even Jou would claim that cycling is the best way to see animals: vehicles can get you closest to the big cats and what better way to see the plains herds than to gallop with them on horseback? But a mountain bike safari is an experience in itself: you have the close-up interest of a walking safari yet can cover greater distances and there’s the occasional thrill of a ‘gnarly downhill riverbed section.’
Not being famed for my mechanical diagnostic skills it took one such section to make me realize that the brakes were on the opposite sides to where they are on European bikes. Even a light touch to (what I thought was) the back brake in a bowl of bull-dust was enough to send me sailing off into the vegetation. Having made this reassuring discovery I kept as close as possible to Jou; he was invariably the first to spot the wildlife and was always ready with an informative angle on the smaller things, from industrious dung beetles to edible mopane worms. And also he carried a big gun.
Mashatu’s bike safaris take advantage of an extensive network of natural ‘cycle lanes’ that are kept open by the passage of the area’s estimated 1,200 elephants. Suddenly Jou stopped to calmly inform us that - despite having free-range in a playground that is close to the size of Belgium - we were apparently traveling up the wrong lane on a major pachyderm highway!
Unbeknown to us support vehicles had been shadowing us from out of earshot and just as we raced into a small clearing to meet them the bushes began to crumple behind us and the herd rumbled past. First were the big matriarchs, then a group of younger cows, some with calves keeping close to their tree-trunk legs. Next came a gang of young bulls, but apart from a bit of ear-flapping and some boisterous trumpeting they all hurried on their way…until a huge bull decided to make his presence felt in a ‘rearguard action.’
I’m no expert on pachyderms and I’m not saying that he was the missing link between the prehistoric mammoth and the African ellie but he was certainly the biggest tusker that I’d ever seen. And he was definitely the most bad-tempered. I had seen young bulls put in mock charges several times already but this looked like the real thing and, following Jou’s orders, we dropped our bikes and retreated behind the vehicles.
The bull flapped his massive battle-torn ears and flailed his trunk from side to side, destroying a sizeable mopane tree in the process. He trumpeted loudly and pawed at the dust. Then he charged. The drivers revved their engines noisily and, as I snapped off a few photos, I wondered if a couple of tonnes of Japanese metalwork would be able to stand up to this much elephant! Just as it seemed that he was going to plough straight into us he skidded to a dramatic stop, swung from side-to-side as if trying to make up his mind and then crashed away after the herd, roaring furiously, and doing a wonderful job of widening the ‘cycle lane’ as he went.
As we turned our own backs on the ‘battleground’ I realized that I’d be taking something home from this safari that would stay with me far longer than even the most deeply imbedded acacia thorns.
By Mark Eveleigh