38 Days ago in Cairo, Egypt, five cyclists set out on an incredible endeavor to cross the length of the African continent in a world record time. Today 10600 km later, in Cape Town, they achieved it.
Mark Blewett, founder of SwiftCarbon, not only sponsored the SwiftCarbon Ultravox Ti road frames for the journey but also rode the entire way too. Englishman Nic Bourne, Zimbabwean David Martin, Kenyan David Kinjah and Egyptian Adham Mahmoud joined him.
No stranger to a bicycle, Blewett once captained the South African cycling team and raced at a professional level. But nothing could prepare him for the challenges that Africa would throw at the CAROCAP team.
“I can’t believe it’s over, I thought I had gone to hell and this was my punishment for eternity,” said Mark Blewett, after climbing off his bike.
It all began with an inordinate amount of bureaucratic tape at customs in Egypt, which delayed the start by a day and had the entire team building the bikes they would race, in the parking lot the night before.
Having finally departed Cairo, the team made their way through hot conditions and rough roads to the Sudan border and through the Nubian Desert. The inhospitable conditions here were a shock to the system: 45 C˚ air temperatures and 50 C˚ on the road surface. They could scarcely keep their bottles in the cages as the water practically began to boil.
Blewett had also fallen ill, having possibly picked up a bug from a filthy campsite they’d stopped at. Not wanting him to drop out, the team decided to take a rest day knowing full well that this would seriously impact their proposed 300 km per day average.
“I was almost going home on Day 6.” – Mark Blewett
But Sudan was simply a taste of the hardships that awaited the team in Ethiopia. As the temperatures dropped the climbing started into the highlands of Ethiopia and some of arguably the most treacherous roads in the world.
“Today was categorically the most dangerous, hectic descent of my life. Rutted roads, trucks, kids, donkeys, heat, huge potholes. And the climb out was 19km,” said Blewett.
And the roads simply got worse. Stages where they had hoped to cover 350km were cut down because at 285km the surfaces they encountered would have made it tough to pass even with a dual suspension mountain bike. To make matters worse, they had stones hurled at them, were sworn at and even had a punch or two thrown at them by people on the side of the road.
Morale was low and the task ahead seemed impossible.
The hostility continued as they headed into Kenya where they had to reroute and were accompanied by an armed escort as a result of heavy bandit activity. However, as if strengthened by the past challenges, the team smashed their way through Kenya in just 3 days.
But again, torturous road conditions, scorpion-infested campsites and the incredible difficulty of finding nutritious food continued into Tanzania making the going tough. This is when the team were dealt yet another blow: Kenyan David Kinjah was forced to retire due to injury and illness. With Adham already having left the team on the last day in Egypt for political reasons, the team was now down to 3.
“This is it guys! This is the ride that actually cracked me! It’s amazing how much the human body can endure, but the sores on my bum cannot be patched with just bandages anymore. The crash in the rain on the TanZam online casino highway left my knee and hip in too much pain… last night when arrived, I could not unclip my right foot off the pedal, so I removed my shoe instead.” – David Kinjah
Having their morale boosted by some fine hospitality and acts of kindness from the people in Zambia, the team had one of their best days crossing into Zimbabwe. With the smoothest road they’d travelled in over a month they rode a mammoth 402 km crossing Victoria Falls and making it well into Zimbabwe.
“That’s 70% of the African continent done. I can smell home now.” Blewett said.
The next few days were extremely emotional, due in part to the chronic fatigue each rider was experiencing. Elated, though, Mark Blewett passed through the border into South Africa, dismounting and kissing the tarmac. But it was short lived as the team was battered by headwind after brutal headwind as they headed for Kimberley and then through the Karoo.
They even tried to ride through the night to make up time but had to stop as they were just too tired:
“It is difficult to say really where the last day of riding started or finished. In the last 24 hours broken down over 2 sessions, we have covered another 420 kilometers. It”s madness. As great as this experience has been, I can”t wait to get this finished now.” – Mark Blewett
Disaster struck on Day 34 as Nick Bourne touched wheels with Blewett and went down hard. The chronic fatigue and heat exhaustion Bourne was experiencing had led to a momentary lapse in concentration. Bruised and scraped, he was patched up and set off again.
Day 36 then into 37, and it was David Martin’s turn to fall ill and Nick and Mark set the pace, nursing him through Beaufort West to Laingsburg where they spent the last night of CAROCAP. David rode at the back, hiding from the wind, as the other tow toiled against the relentless headwind, hour after hour. After rolling into the Laingsburg Country Hotel, he immediately lay down on the entrance floor. He perked up as a chunk of sirloin was placed in front of him at dinnertime though. The team cracked a bottle of sparkling wine to celebrate their last night together on the road, with members of the SwiftCarbon team driving out to meet them (including the company chairman, to congratulate and wish his business partner well).
3:45am Carocap alarm call rang for the last time on Sunday morning, much to the fatigued riders’ and stretched crew’s relief. This was the final push to Cape Town – a 295km home straight. Rolling out of Laingsburg, messages of goodwill and congratulations began pouring in from family, friends and followers on social media. No doubt with a whiff of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in their nostrils, the riders” pace was noticeably more enthusiastic.
However David Martin was still having a hard time. Nicolas and Mark took turns battling the vicious headwind that had plagued them much of the way, allowing David some shelter. Immediately after rolling to a halt in Touws River, David lay down on the bench of the roadside diner and was attended to by the concerned back up team. Almost delirious with fever he suggested that he climb in the car, so as to not hold the others up. To come this far and to give up seemed unthinkable, yet it was a very real possibility.
Nevertheless David Martin got back on his bike and continued in the others’ slipstream. Along the way he’d been asking regularly for the precise remaining mileage, and shortly after the 150km to go mark, with Cape Town getting closer, his morale was improving. With all of his coping mechanisms in full force, he hung on till Du Toit’s Kloof Pass, the final major climb before the finish. With Mark and Nicolas stretching their legs up ahead, David rode at his own pace to the top where the trio enjoyed a mini celebration, with home almost in sight.
“It’s been so hard. I have cried every day in the last week and now we’re here, and I have to say a massive thank you to these guys,” said Nicolas Bourne.
By the time they’d reached Paarl, a mobile welcoming party had formed, with friends joining the swelling group, trailing them into Cape Town. There was an emotional moment 50km to go, as Tom Blewett, reunited with his dad, joining him for the home stretch. On the dead straight road through Parow, they had a hazy view of one of Cape Town’s famous natural landmarks Lion’s Head up ahead. Soaking it up, the three riders grinned their way through the streets of Woodstock and into the Cape Town CBD, arriving to a heroes’ welcome at the Cullinan Hotel, next to the V&A Waterfront. Tears and champagne flowed as friends and family hugged and congratulated Mark, Nicolas and David on their monumental achievement – the fastest ever human-powered crossing of Africa.
“These last few weeks, I thought Cape Town was a figment of my imagination! At certain points I never thought we’d get here. But we did it one step at a time, didn’t think too far ahead because it can all change so quickly. It’s a good lesson for life – don’t take anything for granted. You might be on a smooth road, but it can to turn into gravel in five minutes time!”