Monday, 30 June 2014

Victoria Falls Half Marathon

First light: 0635 hrs
Time start: 0715 hrs
Time finish: 0857 hrs
Weather: 12C
Humidity: 33%
Circumstances: 2014 Victoria Falls Half Marathon

"It has never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so wonderful must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight." Livingstone's words in 1855. Difficult to better.

Not often you run one of the 7 wonders of the world. Not every day you run across Victoria Falls bridge into Zambia. Not every day you run through a cooling shower of mist rising from Devils Gorge. Not every day you run in a national park with armed wardens at elephant crossing points. Quite the event. Quite the run.

Arriving to the Falls was, eventful. An arduous journey by vehicle. Distance 750 kms. 11 hours. Another late night of Harare hospitality meant a later than planned for departure. Moreover, the last 4 hours were driven after dark O clock. Not at all sensible. The risk of a chance encounter with Eddie the Elephant, or a host of other animals, increases significantly after last light. Great times at Amanzi's though.

0715 hrs. Race time. Field of around 700 for the half marathon. Tremendous atmosphere in town ahead of the start. With prize money down to 10th place a quality field was 
assembled. The full marathon set-off 45 minutes earlier at a speed I could barely sprint. To give you an idea of the quality of African athletes participating, the half marathon was won in under 65 mins. Mo Farah territory.

Perfect conditions today. Altitude feels fine after a few days in Zim. Low humidity and a pleasant temperature, together with a rising sun. Doesn't get much better.

Hooter sounds. Run north past the main entrance to Victoria Falls on the left. Through the customs post and into Zambia. A beautiful setting as the field stretches out over the 109 year old Victoria Falls bridge. When completed in 1905 it was the worlds largest cantilever construction. Cecil Rhodes had a vision of a railway line from the Cape to Cairo. A bridge was required over the Zambezi gorge. He died before it was completed. A true feat of engineering brilliance. These days more people throw themselves off the bridge than cross it.

People throw themselves off by bungee jump half way along the bridge. $135 to scare yourself senseless by plummeting 111m towards the Zambezi. What can possibly go wrong? Well, the cord snapped a couple of years back, miraculously the jumper survived. The world's press had a field day; crocodile infested waters, swept away by the rapids, the whole works. She managed to swim to the bank with her feet tied together and haul herself out with a broken collar bone and other injuries. She made a full recovery. Aussies are tough.

Funniest thing though was Zambia's tourism minister jumping a few days later to help assure the safety of the attraction. Bet he enjoyed that... Which British, US, Canadian, or Sierra Leonean Minister would you like to see hurtle towards the Zambezi to make a point? I'm trying to talk Lifeline into a tandem jump later this afternoon, we might be back later...

Run back across the bridge a second time and head towards the first water station at 5 kms. Plenty of runners taking selfies on the bridge. The amount of gear people run with these days is amazing. Music, headphones, head cameras, camera for the selfie, belt kits with water bottles and food, headbands, calve socks, huge watches... incredible... Suffice to say those Kenyans & Zims at the front of the field had no such paraphernalia.

I'm flying today, haven't run 5 kms at this speed for many a year. Go past 2 elephant crossing points. Huge elephant poo everywhere. Bigger poos than even yours Tea Cake. We see no elephants today.

Plenty of support on the road adds to the atmosphere. Lots of cars with stereos turned up full blaring out rock music. African drums playing incessantly in some of the lodges. All adds to the feel good factor.

Little more on Victoria Falls. Also known as 'Mosi oa-Tunya' (the smoke that thunders) is half way along the mighty Zambezi River. Africa's fourth largest at 2,700 kms (after Nile, Zaire and Niger respectively) and the only one that flows east into the Indian Ocean.​ Victoria Falls is approx 1,700m wide. It’s one and a half times wider than Niagara Falls, and twice the height, making it the biggest curtain of water in the world. My second time, it remains breathtaking.

Good time at 10 kms. Won't keep this pace up. 14 kms turn into the breeze. This is more realistic. More of a struggle now. At 16 kms going uphill. Pace now falling away quicker than the Iraqi army.

Last couple of kms. Final push. Can hear the music at the finishing point - Victoria Falls Primary School. Good turnout. Try to lift the pace for the last 400m around the grass track. Blow that. Just finish.

Waiting for Lifeline to finish. Teamwork. I head for breakfast, have a rub down, do some stretching, read the papers, have some coffee, hang on, ... quick, here he is...

In all seriousness, he's had a good run and extremely pleased with his time. Right, enough praise, into town for that big brekkie.

We've spent the previous 2 nights in a more humble lodge outside of town. Tonight is the reward. We book in the luxurious Victoria Falls Hotel. What a hotel. Expensive, even when sharing a twin room. Worth every cent though. Steeped in more than a 100 years of fascinating history. There's the Livingston Room, Stanley Room, a beautiful terrace for afternoon tea, and of course a bar with chilled glasses and cold Zambezi. Come on, we deserve it...

Photos and other bits on Twitter: @roadrunnertns

Roadshow now moves to Bulawayo tomorrow...

P.S. This post is dedicated to JH's 95 year old Mom in Canada. She was read the last post (Harare) and liked it. Apparently she's a tough critic... This is for you Mrs. H. I hope you enjoy it. Ask your son to tell you the story when he went down with malaria, following a trip to Kenya with me...

P.P.S. Divas, look busy. I'm back Friday...

Saturday, 28 June 2014

'Early Morning Run in... Harare'

First light: 0626 hrs
Time start: 0708 hrs
Time finish: 0743 hrs
Weather: 7C
Humidity: 64%
Altitude: 3,000ft
Circumstances: Thursday morning, downtown Harare

Rather later than planned this morning. This owes a great deal to the fine Zimbabwean hospitality and friendship on display at 'Tin Roof' last evening. I'm certainly not a startled gazelle this morning. Please meet 'Lifeline'. He's my guest runner and guide. In fact, he's not exactly looking too spritely either.

We drive from the cottage in Chisipite to downtown, takes 10 mins. Lifeline is based here in Harare. Early disclaimer. The jokes are mine. The factual errors are his - to any Zimbabwean readers.

First up. President Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Mention him or not? Elephant in the blog? This is a regime, how can I put this, which doesn't take too kindly to 'publishing false news' (aka criticism). Can be a prisonable offense by all accounts. A mildly funny, non-political blog shouldn't be an issue. Right?

So mention him? Of course. Yes. Probably impossible to leave him out. For better or worse, he is Zimbabwe. Top banana for 34 years. July last year saw him begin his seventh term in office. Say what you like about him, and people say plenty, he’s still there. Seen them all off. An enduring political survivor. He won’t be joining us this morning though. I’ve heard he’s fit and trains regularly. It must work. 90 years old this year. Enjoys an old fashioned exercise regime, similar to Roy Hodgson’s, apparently shaped by his 11 years in prison. Mad Bob that is, not Mad Woy.

In 1980 Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. Zimba dza mabwe - Houses of Stone. Zimbabwe was colonised by Cecil John Rhodes in the late 1800s. The country was named Southern Rhodesia after him. More on Cecil when I get to Bulawayo.

I’ve been to Zim several times in the past. Longest was 3 months in 1995, a few shorter visits followed, last one in late 1999. Gap of 15 years. It’s wonderful to be back for this eagerly awaited trip.

Zimbabwe is a staggeringly beautiful country of 12 million people. All countries have history. Zim has in abundance, then some. A somewhat tumultuous past doesn't do the story justice.

We arrive and park at Harare Sports Club, the main cricket ground. Zimbabwe achieved test match status in 1992. They played their first match here against India. The past 22 years of cricket politics could fill a blog by itself. A case could be made the politics of the country and cricket are intertwined. Whatever the facts, Zimbabwe is coming back at test level after a self imposed exile, and they still manage to pull off the odd remarkable result in the one day format of the game. I wish them every success.

The cricket ground is beautifully appointed, sat next to the Harare Golf Club. Looks particularly good this morning with the sun rising up over the main stand. We set off at a gentle pace. This is about the sights, the feel, rather than training. Nothing now will make a difference to Sundays half marathon at Victoria Falls.

Begin heading east on Chancellor Ave. The bright sun takes the chill off this rather brisk morning. Compared to Freetown this is freezing. Many of the locals are dressed ready for the Antarctic. An African thing - there's some crazy headwear about. On the opposite side of the road is the President's residence, next door State House. Well armed guards dotted around the perimeter.

Head south along 7th ave. Traffic is fairly sparse and drives on the left. The business district awakes slowly. Downtown Harare is in good shape, a well organised grid system. Town planning at its best, back in the day. Nice looking park on the left. All roads are treelined.

7th Ave is interspersed with smaller roads and numerous crossroads. Most controlled by working robots (local name for traffic lights). Road names are a mixture of traditional colonists and prominent figures representing the struggle for independence. We cross Herbert Chitepo Ave, Livingstone Ave, Selous Ave, before turning right and heading west on Samola Machel Road. Samola Machel was a Mozambican military commander and leader of FRELIMO. He fought against the Portuguese which later lead to independence in 1975. The charismatic leader became Mozambique's first President. His wife Graca is a remarkable woman. 12 years after Samola's death, in a plane crash, she married Nelson Mandela in 1998. She was the first woman in the world to marry 2 Heads of State. She's still going strong, and the first African woman to become a British dame. This post isn't long enough to give justice to this incredible lady's achievements.

Easy pace this morning. A run where can you chat all the way. There's the 100 years old Meikles Hotel set back to the left, the ubiquitous Nandos on my right. Ah, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. The bank is one of many impressive buildings in the downtown core. A few short years ago Zimbabwe officially had more millionaires than any other country. In fact, over 90% of the population was a millionaire. Unfortunately Zimbabwe's inflation was running at 231 million per cent in 2008.

The ban on foreign currency trading was lifted in early 2009. The ship stopped sinking. The US$ became, and remains the main currency. This is often referred to as Dollarisation. The problem is there's no change. No cents. Most prices are thus rounded up. Should change be required it's made up with bubblegum or a few sweets, or sometimes in coins of South African Rand. The local guy who made the gum apparently became a genuine millionaire as a result. Dragons Den would have passed on that one.

Talking of cents. Did you know the gangster rapper '50 Cent', or as they call him in Zimbabwe '$4 million dollars' was the country's favourite artist a few years back.

Whatever and wherever blame can be laid, it would seem Zimbabwe is recovering, or at least things have stopped getting worse. The economy remains under strain and money tight, but it's a million miles away from a failed state many might have you believe.

We dawdle west along Samola Machel, before heading north on Julius Nyerere Way. Some impressive buildings in this area. There's the Tourism Authority, which is a major source of foreign revenue. More on this from the Falls. Ahead is the ruling party's headquarters - Zanu pf. We've also seen impressive churches - 85% of Zimbabweans are Christian.

On the left is Harare Gardens, close to the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Plenty of greenery in the city. Head east now 4th Ave, before turning north for home. Back to the cricket ground. We walk on the pitch through an open gate for photos. Excellent run and just what the doctor ordered after last nights shenanigans.

Back in the vehicle. Decide to head to the 'Wild Geese' restaurant for breakfast. I know, what a life. 30 mins drive. A beautiful place in the most delightful grounds. Set-up a few years ago by the author of 'The Wild Geese'. Book became a second rate hammy late 70's mercenary movie full of wooden acting held together with a preposterous plot. One of those movies so bad that some consider it good. Even has something of a cult following. The signed photos on the wall evidence the good time the actors had making it - Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Roger Moore and others. They tried a remake in 2004. Another ridiculous script, 'The Wonga Plot'. This time an old Etonian, together with some South Africans, stop in Harare to buy weapons to overthrow a West African government for oil. Should have called have called it 'Wild Geese 2', perhaps why it ended so disastrously.

To Victoria Falls tomorrow...half marathon Sunday, Bulawayo Monday / Tuesday. 2 new posts coming up. JoBurg at the end of the week before returning to Freetown. See you all again real soon...

Photos and other bits on Twitter: @roadrunnertns

Sunday, 15 June 2014

'Early Morning Run in... The Future'

No run today. Instead a round-up and look forward.

First, a huge thank you to each and everyone who's read and supported this blog. Since the first post in Monrovia, 4 months ago, more than 3,300 viewings. Expectations? I had few.

Dream road trip on the near horizon. First half marathon for 15 years. 29th June. Two weeks today. Not just any half marathon. Victoria Falls. Oh oh, you're now thinking, sponsorship request? Relax. A half marathon is hardly Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. Ayo - if you're reading this...4 kms! 4 clicks. 4 kilometres? I mean, really, ...4 kms...

Arrived back Sierra Leone from Senegal (Post 13) 2 weeks ago, always good to be back home in Freetown. Walked from Lungi 'International' Airport the 20 minutes to catch the water taxi over to Freetown. Half-way I was approached by a 9 year old boy who wanted to pull my bag. Polite boy with a wonderful smile. He had character. He had something. I told him I pull my own bag, but why wasn't he in school. His English was extremely good for one so young. He told me he didn't have a uniform. Said he couldn't go to school without one. We walked on a few minutes in silence. Asked him why he didn't have a uniform. He said his father was dead. His mother was sick. He was being looked after by his grandmother. She was poor and had no money for a uniform. He changed the subject. Asked how I was going to Freetown and how long I'd been there. He was very chatty and matter of fact about his circumstances. He asked for nothing and was amazingly cheerful. He had no shoes. He didn't ask my name, nor me his. We walked on. I asked when he last went to school. A few weeks previously. I arrived at the water taxi ahead of the remainder of the passengers who had chosen to take the more conventional minibus. I sat on the wall sweating slightly, gazing over the 9-mile wide estuary towards Freetown. I was reflecting on this boy and general life insecurity. Couldn't call the boy across, there were many kids waiting for the minibus. Sorted him $10 in Leones. Took him to one side and discreetly pressed the money into his hand. Said to give to his grandmother, she should buy him a uniform. He must go to school. He said nothing. Did he ever get his uniform? Probably not. His grandmother probably had numerous competing priorities. But, he may have, you never know. It's never futile. Could be a future President. What do you learn - that the value of money changes in different hands. In Africa you can do a lot with a little.

Time in Africa is touched by these stories and interactions all the time. Could write of dozens. Never been touched by bereavement and death so much in my life. There's a great line in Sierra Leone. In Krio. Ow fo do? In English. How for do? Means, what can you do? It's outside of your control. We might say, 'it is what it is'. I say 'ow fo do' a lot now.

Back to the dream road trip? Freetown to Nairobi, via Accra. Nairobbery to Harare. All on the 'Spirt of Africa' - Kenya Airways. KQ. Two days with codename 'Lifeline' (TA to his nearest and dearest) before a magical drive to the Falls. A 2-day journey with an overnight stop in Bulawayo. Cecil John Rhodes is buried here. Well, in the Matopo Hills, about 25 kms away. One of the wealthiest men in the world when he died aged 48. Today no doubt a controversial figure. He died 112 years ago. Life was different. I'll reflect more when I'm stood at his resting place. Poetic last words though, "So much to do, so little time to do it."

Talking of my host in Harare, and co-runner in Vic Falls, 'Lifeline' (TA to his nearest and dearest), I have to confess I was a little depressed last night, so I called 'Lifeline'. Reached a call centre in Pakistan. Told them I was suicidal. They got all excited, and asked if I could drive a truck.

Back to the dream trip. Victoria Falls. 29th June. 0600 hrs. Can't wait. White water rafting on the Zambezi in the afternoon. Couple of days in the Falls before continuing south to Jo'burg. Time in South Africa, before the long haul back to Sierra Leone. I know, I've a business to build, not wandering around Africa on some middle aged gap year. What a road trip though?

Talking of middle age. On a flight into Cairo a few years ago, I wasn't quick enough to put my headphones on. Dread of all dread. A conversation with the fellow next to me. I mean, who wants to hear a strangers life story at 35,000 ft. This fellow was a top Egyptian surgeon. Learned this fact from said life story. Then the dreaded question. "Do you ever wonder why we're here?" He mused, "What's life all about." After 5 seconds of reflection, "No." He said he was 55 years old and now half way through life. Made him consider things. After fighting the urge to recreate a scene from 'Airplane' (the samurai sword and rope), I informed him he was more than half way through his journey. Let's face facts, he probably wasn't living to 110. Thinking back, don't think he found me particularly inspiring. He gazed mournfully out the window. Quick as a flash, headphones on.

That was a few years ago. I might handle things differently now. I'm a half way to a hundred guy myself. Life is a wonderful thing; it's no dress rehearsal we were fond of saying in the military. You have to make the most of it. It's like the old Bob Hope joke. Who really wants to live to 100? Anyone who's 99.

Back to the Blog. The most viewed post to-date has been Freetown, Sierra Leone. My personal favourite post, London a close second. Most enjoyable run Dakar, Senegal. Least enjoyable Accra, Ghana. Top guest runner - Pivot 1664. Most entertaining guest - Escargot. Funniest stories - any with my special shipmate Johnny Admin in.

It's been a hoot so far, this is post 14. I thought a lifespan of half a dozen or so. By end first week July there will be 4 more. Harare, Bulawayo, Vic Falls & Jo'burg. 'Lifeline', looking forward to seeing you next week...

However, before heading south...

Guest speaker role on Friday to the Gloria Foundation Petroleum Mission which aims at uniting young Sierra Leoneans in the petroleum sector to help ensure they are strategically placed in society to impact this nation with skills and training. JTC - a pleasure to meet you, good luck with your commendable efforts to make a difference...

Sunday, 1 June 2014

'Early Morning Run in... Dakar'

First light: 0640 hrs
Time start: 0615 hrs
Time finish: 0651 hrs
Weather: 22C
Humidity: 73%
Circumstances: Saturday morning, early in Dakar

Senegal. First time visit. A 75 minute flight north from Freetown. A world apart. Like coming to Paris, relatively speaking. Two things to quickly clear up...

First, one of my favourite lines when seeing someone extravagantly attired is, 'dressed like a Senegalese lottery winner'. You may remember an earlier post referencing my divas. Friday in Freetown is African Day. Means national dress. Essentially outfits complete with volume control. Eagle, aka Baldylocks, came in last Friday dressed as a strawberry cornetto. Here in Dakar everyday is Africa Day. People dress loud, proud,and bright. They look good.

Second, the world famous Paris-Dakar Rally? It no longer finishes in Dakar. Hasn't since being cancelled in 2008, due to security issues in neighbouring Mauritania. From 2009 the rally has been held in South America. The Paris-Santiago Rally doesn't sound right? Although 6 years since finishing in Dakar many local drivers are still auditioning. Including my local taxi driver, Tala. Scares the living daylights out of me every morning, afternoon and evening. We zig-zag through Dakar's streets listening to Edith Piaf CDs (Edith, the original French diva - SL divas, take note. Non je ne regrette rien). Tala's working hard on my French. I'd prefer him concentrating hard on the road. He tells me each morning, tapping his chest, he's a wolf. Certainly has me howling on occasions. In fact, he's a Wolof - largest tribe in Senegal. He's proud.

He mentioned yesterday he had 3 wives. I replied I've only one. More than ample. He was amused to hear that in Yemen you can say three times, "I divorce thee"; that's it, you're done and dusted. Moving swiftly along, time and tide...

Tremendous climate here. Wonderful breeze. Cooler than Freetown with less humidity. No rain. I depart Ibis Hotel heading east. Into the rising African sun. Never fails to lift the spirits. Streets are deserted. The impressive Central Bank of West Africa on my right. The French Embassy behind. Jog down to the Corniche Est. Turn right and head south. Port and docks to my left side. A sea of cranes, warehouses, containers and flatbed lorries. Drivers beginning to stir and huddle together. One shouts, 'C'est Bon'. I'm running this morning at Africa's most westerly point.

The corniche. An elevated road. Atlantic Ocean down below, drop of about 30 metres. Isn't it one of life's simple pleasures, running along a coastline? Still gets me every time. Some nice looking restaurants and hotels in this area. Lagon Un (Twitter for photos: @roadrunnertns) is a unique bar & restaurant. Definitely worth a visit. Several other joggers this morning. Some expats. Some Senegalese. A few local coffee trolleys opening, people out collecting fresh bread. Funny how some French legacies endure. Few motorbikes here. Mostly scooters. The French thing...

...reminds me. There were 2 cats. An English cat; named one-two-three. A French cat; he was called un-deux-trois. They decided to race across a canal. Naturally the English cat, one-two-three came first. The French cat, un-deux-trois, ...quatre cinq. Couldn't get through without a French joke.

Extremely pleasant running along the corniche. Slightly undulating, a few climbs to push up and over. Small coves below. Some rocky, some sandy. Senegal is light years ahead of Sierra Leone in development terms. Stability being a key factor. There have been over 45 successful putsches and unconstitutional changes of government in the 15 member states of ECOWAS since 1960. Sierra Leone is near the top of this league. Only Senegal, and one other country, have been spared this experience in the region. Bonus point for the other.

Nearly 20 mins done. Time to cut off the corniche. I head north up into the Embassy sector. Avenue Pasteur. British Embassy to my right. Next door the Ambassador's residence. Looks a nice set-up.
Lovely tree-lined boulevards. Henry, you've complained you've never received a namecheck. Well, you're in. Navigating these pavements with the trees and roots playing havoc reminds me of pushing you around Florence in a push-chair. You were cute and had Italian ladies kissing your feet and making a fuss of you. Ha, nobody would want to go near your pieds these days.

Head into a large roundabout. Nice buildings all round. The National Assembly. The African Art Museum. Take a right exit onto Rue Mandela. Tree lined again. All the way along to the main hospital in Dakar. L'Hopital Principal. Close by is the city morgue. I'm now in the dead centre of Dakar.

North, onto the most prestige road in the city. Avenue Leopold Senghor. The first president at independence in 1960. He ruled for 20 years. Known as the founding father of Senegal he lived until he was 95 years old. This before the modern trend where African Presidents knock a few years off and magically become younger. Senegal has recent experience of this. African footballers is another prime area for age reduction. This is a spectacular road. The beautifully appointed Presidential Palace on my right complete with ceremonial guards outside the gates. Pick up the pace now. In the distance I can start to see Place De L'Independence.

The centre point of old Dakar. Faded glory, but I can imagine this square back in the day. Must be nearly 300 m long in the shape of a large oblong. I do 2 laps taking in the early morning beat as the city awakes. Taxis everywhere. Nut sellers setting up. Newspapers being pegged up in the battered kiosks. People in local kaftans and red fezes. Could be a Tommy Cooper convention. Big international brands dominate the skyline - banks, insurance companies, airlines. There's the Pullman Hotel. Looks inviting. Was the Sofitel. One more lap and head out of the square east along Avenue Hassan II back to the Ibis.

As I warm down I reflect fondly on my time in Senegal (5 days). A city of contrasts. Brand new roads, expensive 4x4 vehicles, bridges, tunnels, shopping centres, sky scrapers, hotels, cranes, construction...then a horse and cart appears, some sheep run across the road. Plenty of shanty and poverty mixed in too, as you leave the centre. The result a compelling mix of modern and traditional. Although overwhelmingly (95%) Islamic few Senegalese women are veiled. This seems a comfortable country, one at ease, at least on first impressions.

Vous revoir bientot.

Other one for the bonus... Cape Verde.