By Fiona Semper
Early August is a beautiful time in Zimbabwe.
With a hint of spring in the air, it is ideal for an African adventure with a difference. The annual Blue Cross Challenge is held in August and entails travelling from the lowest point in Zimbabwe (162 metres above sea level), which is the Save‑Runde River confluence at Mahenya, in southeastern Zimbabwe, to the highest point, Mt. Nyangani, which is 2,592 metres above sea level in the Eastern Highlands. The event, founded 21 years ago by Colin Andersen, was initially a competitive endurance race undertaken by runners, walkers or cyclists to see who could cover the 500km in the shortest time whilst raising funds for the SPCA. Over time, The Blue Cross has evolved into more of an adventure; the routes have changed to take in more of the beautiful countryside and to avoid the dangerous tarred main roads.
Participants have to be self‑sufficient so considerable logistical planning is required when deciding the overnight stops and distances to be travelled each day. A good second to back you up is critical to the success of your expedition. You will need to be armed with a fine sense of humour, patience (as the riders can sometimes take a very long time), an acute sense of direction and the ability to use a GPS. Your second should be resourceful and have a clear understanding of your needs! Once you have a reliable 4x4 vehicle, a bike or two in good working order, plus a back‑up bike if possible, - then you are ready to go!
You can opt to overnight at the various lodges, B&Bs and hotels en route to Nyanga, or you can do the cheaper, real bush‑trip alternative where you carry all your equipment and sleep in the bush. Be prepared though, as one camping team awoke to ice on their pillows whilst out in the open near Chipinge. Laurie, Alastair and Andrew re‑looked at the previous routes on Google Earth and some new and exciting tracks were plotted. The attraction of this event is the unknown, the prospect of exploring new country, seeing new views and places and the sheer unpredictability of the whole experience. If you love the outdoors, have an appreciation for the beauty of the African wilderness, are unafraid to get dirty, sometimes really dirty, and you revel in the experience of a bit of discomfort, then this adventure is for you. It’s exciting, exhausting, humbling, sometimes frustrating (especially when you are thirsty and can’t find your second!) but it is also truly rewarding, amazing and life changing.
D‑day finally arrived and we left Harare at sunrise to make our way to Mahenya in the lowveld. We chose to break up the ride, doing a short 23km on the dirt road in the afternoon. This gave us the opportunity to ease the nerves and introduce our bottoms to the saddles. Saddles that we would become very well acquainted with. Later, back at camp, we met the other riders who had opted for a game drive in Gonarezhou; they raved about the spectacular herds they had seen.
Pic of Day 1 of Save River start
Day 1: Mahenya to Chibuwe: 85km. It was an early start and all the riders eagerly gathered in the sandy Save River bed. After photos, we drove off to the 23km turnoff point and started our ride on the dirt to Chibuwe. A blustery headwind swirled up the sand and we were soon covered in a film of fine dust. Our seconds experienced two vehicle punctures – one of which was a blowout on a steep and sharp rocky section. Virgin Blue Cross rider, Andy, had his share of punctures, too, and quickly learned the benefit of slime‑filled tubeless tyres, which he did not have. The day was tough for the riders, bikes and vehicles. The temperature rose steadily and the landscape became more rocky and uneven, forcing us to push our bikes up some steep hilly sections.
As we neared the end of the day, the terrain was more treed and bushy, and included a beautiful descent down the gorge to Chibuwe. Laurie’s back brakes had to be disconnected and we had a heart‑stopping near miss with a suicidal pig that absently wandered across the road, with his large ears almost covering his eyes, oblivious to the rapidly approaching bike. Fortunately, the pig and cyclist narrowly missed each other and we carried on our way, finally arriving at Chibuwe in the early afternoon. A large gathering of the local children awaited us under a huge shady tree. They were fascinated by these strange dirty people with their tortoise hats.
Day 2: Chibuwe to Skyline: 109km. We restarted our expedition on the relatively flat Tanganda‑Mutare tar road at Chibuwe to cover just 13km, until we reached the base of Barbara Hill. The renowned Barbara ascent is a gruelling 14km climb up a dusty dirt road, with several villages along the route. There were waves of enthusiastic children urging us on, together with cows, chickens and goats frequently wandering across our path. We learned with certainty if you see a chicken ahead, it will definitely “cross the road” at absolutely the last moment in front of you.
What a welcome relief it was to reach the top of Barbara Hill and to start the gentler climb towards the town of Chipinge. We stayed off the busy Mount Selinda Road and had a thrilling off‑road ride through abandoned orchards, a dairy farm, then past our home for the evening, the lush Fiddlers Green Polo Clubhouse, before reaching Chipinge town. We changed onto road bikes for the remaining kilometres of steep ascents and exciting descents along one of the most beautiful roads in our country. We rode through forests and valleys to reach our planned stopping point at Skyline Junction, the intersection of the Chipinge/Mutare/Chimanimani Roads.
Pic Barbara Hill local support/Baobabs/Fiddler Green
Day 3: Skyline to Mutambara: 90km. After a good rest overnight at the Polo Club, we drove back to our finish point, 11km short of Skyline, to resume our ride. An amazing descent down from Skyline to the Chimanimani Sawmill awaited us. A puncture whilst descending at about 60kph just added to the thrill. The tyre was nervously changed on a sharp bend in the road and we carried on through to Chimanimani where we changed onto our off‑road bikes to begin the 60+ km of Tank’s Nek. This is the old Melsetter Road that links Chimanimani to Cashel. The ride includes 20 kilometres down, 20 kilometres up and then another stunning 20 kilometre descent down to Cashel and on to Mutambara Mission. The climb snakes up and up and never seems to end, but the views across the valley make it all worthwhile. You truly feel like you are on top of the world.
Pic Chimanimani Mountains/Tank Nek
Day 4: Mutambara off‑road – Inn on the Vumba: 82km. This stretch of the ride included more stunning bush, through miombo woodland, huge granite kopjes and hidden unoccupied valleys. We encountered lots of sand in places and, in the occasional villages, we encountered some very jovial and inebriated local people who were celebrating the Heroes Weekend. They were all very friendly but sometimes rather overzealous. They even asked us if we were going to Rio! Experiences and exchanges like these are unique to Zimbabwe’s friendly people. We were humbled when a gentleman on an old creaking mountain bike flicked past us on a downhill section, with a 10kg bag of mealie meal strapped to his carrier, oblivious to the rocks and ruts on the road, whistling away and greeting us as he flew by.
Day 5: Penalonga‑Nyangani:112km – the end in sight. A “new” off‑road section along the Pungwe water pipeline at Penhalonga proved to be a lot steeper and more difficult than we had expected and it seriously challenged our weary legs. The vehicles drove around on the tar, a much more sensible route! We rejoined the tar near the Water Treatment Works on the Penhalonga Rd and made our way towards Watsomba. The road became busier near the town and the dust was thick and deep. It was certainly a curious experience to ride in 100mm of soft powder. Our end point was in sight: we could actually see Mt Nyangani from one point although it did seem (and was) a very long way away!
The final tar road section along the Mutare‑Nyanga Road has energy‑sapping cheeky hills. As we turned off the Nyanga Road and headed towards Rhodes Nyanga Hotel and onto the Nyangani car park, we knew we only had another 15km to ride, but it felt like much more. The thought of a cold beverage and the very festive bunch of SPCA staff and supporters waiting to celebrate our ride, spurred us on.
We looked forward to meeting up with the eight walkers whose adventure had started 14 days before. Sharing our adventures at the base of Nyangani, we discovered The Walkers included little Thumbelina, a small rescued dog who had walked 300km of the route with Kathy. Thumbelina thoroughly enjoyed the experience, too!