Took a Wrong Turn in the Pool!

Today was a great day.

I got up at 5am and jogged to the pool up the hill, expecting to do a swim and then get to the office, but somewhere towards the end of it, I must have taken a wrong turn, because eight hours later, I finished a half-ironman (of sorts). I realized that I didn’t have any meetings, that the weather was perfect in its cloudiness, and so I could defer all emails and other work until later in the day.

So I did an hour in the pool, slowly, as I’m recovering from a shoulder injury, and that was 2.5km. Then I jogged for an hour (10km), before getting my bike ready to use for the first time since I finished cycling across America on Easter Sunday.

I slapped some sun-cream on, just in case, got three bottles of water lined up, and began peddling up into the mountains that surround Bujumbura. Basically the first three hours were very tough, as it was all uphill and an incline of 4,000ft. I should think thousands of people today shouted ‘Muzungo!’ at me as it is such a strange sight to see a white man on a bike, let alone one going painfully slowly uphill (cyclists who careen down the hill around the bends at literally breakneck speed with heavy loads of potatoes or coal go back up the hill by paying the truck drivers to allow them to hold the back of the truck all the way up!).

I felt largely safe, as there wasn’t much traffic. I reminisced of using this road when forty people were killed on it in four ambushes whilst we got through on my motorbike about a decade ago; and the time we broke down in a truck at dusk when the rebels were all around us and due to take over the roads (the military guarded them during the day, and left them at night).

I’ve flown over Burundi in small planes, I’ve driven around Burundi in trucks and on motorbikes, but when you cycle anywhere, it gives you another perspective altogether. The first thing I noticed is how beautifully eerily serene it is after the constant dim of the capital. As I hacked away through one of several downpours, a sluggish truck pulled passed me, and I had the joyous sensation of hot air from its exhaust pipe belches warming me for a few seconds, followed by struggles to breathe because of its noxious fumes. I stopped off at a small gathering of houses to buy some bottled water, and the whole village gathered around me to check out my extraordinary bike, so very different from their standard heavy-duty Chinese imports.

I was truly washed out by the time I made it to Ijenda, but I knew the return leg would be a piece of cake – and how exhilarating it was! I blasted around bend after bend, whooped with delight as I sped past people, and generally felt incredibly alive. I hit one pothole too hard so had to stop off and check the real tyre which had lost a lot of air – could it make it back to Buj? I gave it a go, but further down the road stopped at another village. I called for a pump. A crowd gathered. The pump arrived but wouldn’t fit my strangely-shaped tube, so I took my chances again. A few minutes later, I noticed one of my bottles missing, so somebody back there was chuckling at my expense – I’ll return some time and seek him out!

And then came a split second of almost numinous joy. It was a moment of literally awe-full awesome ecstasy as I came around a bend. Before and before me like a picture postcard was the capital, followed by the lake, followed by the Congolese mountains, all crystal clear to see because the rains had removed the dusty haze. I felt I could reach out and touch them (except I’d fall off as I juddered along with white knuckles!), and the climactic cliff scene from Thelma and Louise came to my mind as there was no barrier to the cliff. I could just take off and fly! Wow, it was beautiful. I screamed. I worshipped. Can you relate to any of that or do you think I’m crazy…

Back in Buj, I jumped off the bike having covered 85km and onto the running machine, rather begrudgingly, to complete another hour and another 11km to take me to the half-marathon distance of 21km. All in all, an unusual day, but a memorable one, and a daunting reminder that in seven months time I’ll be attempting to go twice as far as I did today. Bring it on!

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