“In order to understand West Africa you need to feel it.” – Man in a bar to Robert Gex ,West Africa en Velo rider
Guinea was a surprise, perhaps because we all had no idea what to expect or maybe because Guinea is just such a unique place on our route. A country of 13 million people, it is considered one of the poorest countries in the world and sees few visitors. It is because of this and the route, which we took, that our Zimbabwean staff member Noah would often mutter, “we are in deep Africa now”.
Deep, indeed. Luscious green, a country of great natural beauty and many rivers. It is rich in minerals, culture and history. Deep also are its problems from having to deal with refuges from the troubled past of neighbouring countries, from a failed experiment with socialism, from two years of military rule and from its ethnic divisions. Yet this country now has an elected civilian government and one can feel just from seeing the roads being build that efforts are being made to improve the lot of its people.
If there is one thing we end up doing a lot on a trip through West Africa on a bike is ‘feel’ West Africa. Robert, an American cyclist living in Thailand, stopped for a drink in a local bar in Sierra Leone while waiting for a ferry that would bring him to Freetown. When a man asked him what he was doing here, Robert responded that he was part of a group are cycling from Morocco to Ghana. The man responded that in order to understand West Africa, you need to feel it and that there is no better way of doing this than by bicycle.
One night in Guinea, just before we were to cross the border into Sierra Leone we were staying in a village typical of many that we had seen on the trip. It was situated close to a small river where I went to wash myself after cycling in the hot and humid conditions. Refreshed and clean, I went back to our campsite which was located on the village soccer field. Our staff was busy preparing dinner and a short distance from them was a group of local elders, sitting and watching the ‘goings ons’ of a group of foreigners – cooking, setting up camp, washing themselves and their clothes. In front of them there was table filled with local produce – bananas, coconuts, oranges, cucumbers – a welcoming offering to the guests in the village. The coconuts were particularly popular.
After I set up my tent I walked over to the elders with our local fixer and sat down to chat. We exchanged pleasantries, than chatted about their lives, how they make their living, what we are doing here and so on until our scheduled daily rider’s meeting. I asked them if one of them would like to say something to our riders. They picked a young man, who spoke to us about their lives in the village and explained their problem with fresh clean water and their need for a village well.
After the meeting, Michael Howard, one of the riders and a successful businessman came over and started talking to the elders. By the end of the evening, Michael had committed himself to funding a well project for the village and another well project for the village of our local fixer. Michael later explained that he felt touched by the needs of the villagers but was also motivated by the need for actions and for others who, like him, could afford to make contribution, to be an example and to contribute to the lives of those whose current circumstances were not as favourable.
Michael’s words reverberated in my mind because one of the goals for setting up the original Tour d’Afrique was to provide an alternative way for people to visit Africa, something other than the usual safari or holiday on the beach. So on behalf of the villagers, I want to thank Michael and the many others over the years who went beyond the cycling and made valuable contributions, either through the TDA Foundation or through projects of their own. Examples include Tim Padmore and Ronda Green who set up ceramic workshop on Zanzibar and Jason Becker who supported the college education of a young man he had met cycling through Kenya. There are many, many others – too many to name – but in the end, it is people like them, like you, who we at TDA take a particular delight in introducing to Africa.
Taiwan is known for its great cycling culture and its gorgeous scenery. There are also, however, a number of other, slightly more off the wall, reasons to cycle this island. Let’s take a look at 10 of them.
1. Rainbow Family Village, Taichung
The Nationalist Chinese army retreated to Taiwan after being defeated by Mao-Tse-Tung and the Communists. Here the soldiers were housed in temporary military settlements, some of which became permanent, like the Rainbow Village. Eventually, the residents moved away and developers moved in. Finally, only 87 year-old military veteran, Huang Yung-Fu, and 11 houses were left. Huang, now known as ‘Grandpa Rainbow’ decided to start painting the remaining buildings. Local university students discovered this work of ‘street art’ and began a campaign to save Huang’s work.
2. The Dome Of Light, Kaohsiung
The world’s largest glass work of art (30 m high, covers an area of 2,180 square metres with 4,500 glass panels) is located in the Formosa Boulevard MRT station. It took 4 years to complete and tells the story of human life in four chronologically arranged themes: Water: The Womb of Life; Earth: Prosperity and Growth; Light: The Creative Spirit; and Fire: Destruction and Rebirth, with an overall message of love and tolerance. The station itself is also the location of the Formosa incident in 1979, when protests against Taiwan’s then one-party state began the process towards democratization. Today, the country is one of the region’s most democratic.
Holy shit! This ‘crappy’ eatery was inspired by a Japanese cartoon character named Dr. Slump whose favourite past time was “swirling poop on a stick”. The walls are decorated with shower heads, while plungers hang from the ceiling along with fæces-shaped lights. Chairs are actual non-functioning toilets, food is served in plastic miniature toilet bowls and drinks arrive in miniature urinals. Sound crazy? Maybe but the company now has 12 restaurants in Taiwan and Hong Kong with future locations planned in Macau and Kuala Lumpur. Mind you, Taiwan also has restaurants that resemble jailhouses and hospitals.
4. The High Heel Church, Chiayi
This extraordinary structure, 18m high and constructed of 320 blue-tinted panes set into a metal grid, was constructed to commemorate the blackfoot disease outbreak during the 1950s in Taiwan. Apparently a local girl contracted the disease and had to have the lower portions of her legs amputated, ending her engagement, and resulting in her spending the rest of her days alone and living in a church. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the church has received Guinness World Records certification as the world’s largest high-heel shoe-shaped structure. Not everyone loves it. One commentator wrote “What were the authorities thinking when they commission such a hideous-looking building in the area? It’s just disrespectful.”
5. Bei Tou Incinerator Revolving Restaurant, Taipei
Looking for a romantic restaurant with a great view? Your search is over. Not only can the Bei-Tou Incinerator treat 1,800 tons of garbage from the Taipei area per day, it features a revolving restaurant 120 meters up its 150-meter-tall chimney. It seats 120 guests and is powered by energy from the incinerator. The views over Taipei are sublime and, perhaps fittingly, one of its feature dishes is pigeon.
This park features all-cardboard exhibits like the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Big Ben, all set amongst windmills, sheep, monkeys, giraffes and cardboard trees with paper leaves. Tired of walking? No problem. A working cardboard train runs through the property. Hungry after exploring the cardboard garden? No worries. The park has, of course, a restaurant where the furnishings, decorations and crockery are all made of corrugated cardboard.
7. Houtong Cat Village
This village was once a prosperous mining town of over 6,000 people but once the coal industry began to decline the population eventually fell to under a hundred. Just another small town facing tough times. However, in 2008 a local cat lover organized volunteers to start offering the cats that had been left behind a better life. Social media was just gaining popularity and by posting photos of the cats online, they garnered an overwhelming response from the country and around the world. Drivers entering the town are now greeted with a sign that reads ‘A lot of stray cats here. Drive slowly.’ and a special bridge was constructed above the busy railway, to allow safe passage for the cats who now number well over 100. Shops in town are full of all manner of cat related items but it is still the cats themselves that are the main attraction. Meow!
8. Wanli UFO Village
Everything about Wanli is sketchy. What was once a beach resort, designed apparently for US soldiers, lies virtually abandoned. Locally known as the UFO village due to its distinctive Futuro pods (see photo), even its existence is debated with some claiming it has been demolished while others insist it is still there. Legend has it that the area is haunted by evil spirits. That during its construction there were suicides and unexplained accidents. That it was cursed because the remains of Dutch soldiers were dug up to make way for the resort. That a ceremonial Chinese dragon was destroyed. What’s the real story? You’ll have to pedal over to find out for yourself.
9. Tengfeng Fish Ball Museum, Taipei
While cycling in Taiwan it is almost inevitable that at some point you will have stopped at a roadside stall for a delicious bowl of fish ball soup. Seriously though, what do you really know about those crispy little balls of goodness? The Weixiang Fish Ball Shop was founded in 1950 and in 2004 they added the Dengfeng Fish Ball Museum in order, one assumes, to answer questions just like that. The balls are actually fish paste mixed together with vegetables and spices. In fact, the museum was created to promote Tamsui’s local fishing culture and tradition. Visitors can learn about the secrets of fishing products and even have a chance to roll their own fish balls by hand.
10. Ice Cream Burrito, Night Markets
A Taiwan exclusive – Take a flour crepe and cover it in fine pieces of peanut brittle. Add three scoops of ice cream, likely in flavours like pineapple, taro, or peanut. Sprinkle some cilantro and then fold the edges in and roll up the contents into a magical, tasty creation. The combination of flavours and textures achieves a balance of creamy, crunchy, chewy, sweet, herbal, tart and nutty. A perfectly yummy way to celebrate the end to another day of cycling in Taiwan.
Wherever you were to meet Hanne, you would immediately notice her wide smile and entrenched laugh lines. She speaks eloquently, even when exhausted, with a thick Norwegian accent. In any conversation about her personal life, she will quickly bring up her children and grandchildren, proud to be their role model.
So, what is she doing here, cycling the backroads of West Africa? Hanne says that she is in her third life – and we’re not talking reincarnation. Hanne sees her life as being lived in three different parts. The first was her childhood, raised in a fishing village in Norway. The second, her family life – becoming a mother and raising two daughters. The third, the one she lives today, is one she gets to live for herself. She can choose whatever she wants. This means doing psychology work all over the world, running an education project in Tanzania that was founded by her late father, and doing the Tour d’Afrique in 2017. All of these choices led her to TDA West Africa.
There were a few things that made Hanne want to join this tour. The most prominent was her desire to return to Sierra Leone after working with MSF there in 2007/2008. After the civil war, there were many victims who survived the war with unseen wounds. She worked with a local team for 8 months, training them in counselling and therapy. After 10 years, she looked forward to the prospect of coming back. Hanne was also intrigued to see the similarities and differences of the surrounding countries. From her own time in West Africa, she had heard about how much the countries and the people have in common, and how they depend on each other for trade, employment, and shared knowledge.
Hanne is drawn to the simple life – One that she experienced on her self-supported kayak trip around the Island of Senja in Norway, the 2017 Tour d’Afrique, and her solo bike tour of Tanzania, post-TDA. She enjoys expeditions that push her to her limits, helping her discover what those are. More than that though, she enjoys a life where time just goes beside you, instead of having to chase after it. As we sat under the shade of a tree in a bush camp in Sierra Leone, she shared a proverb of the Norwegian Sami people that gave me chills: “Time is not going, it is coming.” This is how Hanne wants to live this third life of hers, and TDA is a place where she can realize that lifestyle.
Cycling West Africa: Hanne Renland Rider Profile - YouTube
If you want to check out Hanne’s project in Tanzania, you can find the website here and their Facebook page here.
TDA Global Cycling’s Operation Manager, Miles MacDonald, reflected on his numerous experiences in the Sudan over the years.
“Nomadic motion has become home like, and yet in the last weeks while surrounded by the same desert sands, under the same mesmerizing nights of stars and against the same frigid morning winds, it is not the feeling of home I know from 13 years ago, or from more recent years on the tour, it is unique and a separate experience unto itself. Given definition by the local inhabitants whom chance allows myself to encounter, by the individual participants and the stories they bring to the tour, and by the staff who set the tone and direction of the journey.” Read more.
Cycling in Southern Africa can bring you to some of the world’s most iconic sights – Lake Malawi, Victoria Falls, the towering Red Dunes at Sossusvlei and Cape Town’s Table Mountain. Over the years our riders and staff have discovered some lesser-known but equally interesting attractions.
“If you are cycling south towards Mzuzu, your route will begin with with a stunning, if challenging 1000m climb up onto the country plateau. Congratulating yourself on making it to the top, you might just miss one of Malawi’s, if not Africa’s, hidden gems – a bamboo bridge first constructed in 1904. WTF – that makes it 114 years old. Each year the local villagers get together and make the needed repairs, ensuring it lasts for another century or so.” Read more.
Tour d’Afrique Assistant Tour Director, Stephanie Thornton wrote a nice piece from Nairobi about how her experience cycling through Africa was a wake-up call, pointedly reminding her about how fortunate those of us that have access to safe drinking water at all times really are.
“Men, women, and children populate the shoulders of the roads in Ethiopia. Donkeys and horse carts carry litres and litres of water daily. In the vast rolling hills of Ethiopia it’s almost impossible to imagine where families might get water. Now in the arid Northern Kenya, watering holes seem scarce and local herding boys shout for “maji” – the Kiswahili word for water – instead of money or sweets.” Read more.
Michael, our resident TDA Global Cycling beer expert, put together a collection of brews for the riders on the inaugural Pub Ride to keep an eye out for….for better or worse.
“(I)n 1777, Frederick the Great banned coffee, stating “It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects… My people must drink beer. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were his ancestors.” Read more.
The innovative and restless minds at TDA Global Cycling rarely rest. We are always looking for changes that will make our cycling adventures even better.
“Taiwan. This compact island has it all – colourful temples, vibrant night markets, soothing hot springs and friendly people. The scenery is outstanding – tropical rainforests, stunning gorges, rumbling volcanoes, towering sea cliffs and incredible ocean views. Our route will circumnavigate the island, including the unspoiled east coast with its picturesque fishing villages and endless beaches and coastline.” Read more.
Veteran TDA Global Cycling master mechanic Doug Percival has practiced his trade in many far-flung corners of the globe but here he returns to his family’s homeland in search of his ancestors.
“Oddly enough, the castle was a gift to the daughter of the Earl of Dunbar in 1214, and Dunbar is a name on my fathers side, dating back to the 1100’s… Standing on the hill, where some small original walls still exist, with a 360 degree view of Scotland to the north and England to the south was a strange experience, and certainly had me pondering on the millennia of family that had stood in the same place, with the same view…how the World has changed, what those walls have seen!” Read more.
Silk Route Communications Officer and Gaelic Fashionista, Elaina O’Brien took the opportunity to remind us that while cycling is important, cycling in style is even more so.
“With the summer in full swing, our riders have been sporting their favourite seasonal looks on the bike, and we’re loving the variety of trends and styles. The fashion in the field throughout the Silk Route has been funky, chic, and classy.” Read more.
Long-time TDA Global Cycling staffer Shanny Hill took some time off this summer to remind himself what unsupported bike touring was like. And to deal with his fear of bears…
“I followed the recommended advice: carry bear spray and make a lot of noise. If you ask my brother I might have followed that advice a bit too closely. With images of grizzlies in mind, I got in the habit of blowing my whistle frequently. Really frequently. Every minute or two. Every day. For 10 days straight from Banff, Alberta to Whitefish, Montana.” Read more.
Our Silk Route Communications Officer, Elaina, took a closer look at what it was really like pedalling through the Islamic Republic of Iran as a female cyclist.
“Although there are strict formal guidelines for locals and tourists alike, there is indeed some wiggle room for tourists. Authorities will generally leave you be unless you’re clearly pushing the cultural boundaries. Locals are more than happy to see foreigners travelling in their country so they are more understanding.” Read more.
Our good friend David Houghton, who cycled the inaugural Magical Madagascar trip in 2017 contributed a guest blog highlighting 4 reasons for anyone to consider cycling Madagascar…instead of watching the Pixar film.
“Is Madagascar more than four bumbling animals who escape from a zoo and meet up with a ring-tailed lemur named King Julien XIII? Hell yeah. Is Madagascar, located off the southeastern corner of the African continent, a challenging place to get to? Hell yeah. Is Madagascar one of the most unique and rewarding places in the world to ride your bike, an island that’s a microcosm of our world that’s also home to vegetation and animals you’ll see nowhere else on the planet? Hell yeah.” Read more.
Our West Africa en Vélo staff member Sophie DeGroot penned a wonderful essay on how cycling can help you become an active participant in your travels instead of a passive spectator.
“Too often tourism is a one-sided affair. A bicycle is a fantastic mechanism to shift the power dynamic between the tourist and the local. Literally removing yourself from a spectator’s box makes you more approachable and evens the playing field in which interactions take place. The people you meet, the places you see are not just closer than your mirror suggests, they are a part of your everyday experience.” Read more.
It is a rare thing, indeed, when we suddenly find ourselves able to include a destination, previously inaccessible to cyclists, in one of our expeditions. When we heard that the remote town of Tuktoyaktuk had recently been linked to the rest of the world by road, we knew we had to make it the starting point for the 2019 North American Epic.
“On September 3, 1995, Metallica and other popular bands flew into Tuk, putting the little village in the international news. The bands played a concert in Tuk as a publicity event for Molson Brewing Company promoting their new ice-brewed beer. Dubbed The Molson Ice Polar Beach Party, it featured Hole, Metallica, Moist, Cake and Veruca Salt. Canadian film-maker Albert Nerenberg made a documentary about this concert entitled ‘Invasion of the Beer People‘.” Read more.
The second section of the 2019 Trans-Himalaya Cycling Expedition runs from Manali to Rishikesh and is aptly named – Heavenly Hill Stations. Our route will take us through 3 of India’s most beautiful colonial hill stations. They were established as high-altitude towns to be used as a place of refuge to escape the blistering summer heat and dust of plains during the British Raj and were designed to, as much as possible, replicate the climactic conditions back in the British Isles. However, after the 1857 Mutiny, these towns also served as vital centres of political and military power.
The small town of Manali is situated in the Kullu Valley, often referred to as the ‘Valley of the Gods’. The story of its founding goes like this – One day Vaivasvata, the seventh incarnation of Manu found a tiny fish in his bathing water. The fish told him to look after him with devotion for one day it would do him a great service. Vaivasvatatava cared for the fish till the day it grew so huge that he released it into the sea. Before departing the fish warned Manu of an impending deluge when the entire world would be submerged and bade him to build a sea-worthy ark. When the flood came, Vaivasvata and the Seven Sages were towed to safety by Matsya the fish – which is regarded as the first avatar of Lord Vishnu. As the waters subsided, Manu’s ark came to rest on a hillside and the place was named Manali.
Its location marks the beginning of an ancient trade route to Ladakh and from there over the Karakoram Pass on to Yarkand and Khotan. The British made it into one of their hill stations in the 1800’s. During their rule, they introduced apple trees to the area and to this day, the fruit remains the best source of income for the majority of the locals, although tourism is growing quickly. The Brits also introduced rainbow and brown trout into the nearby lakes and streams.
Today, the town is a popular adventure destination with trekking, paragliding and whitewater rafting all available. A pleasant 2km walk out of Manali will take one to the sacred Hadimba Temple (1553) where pilgrims come to honour Hadimba, the demon wife of the Pandava Bhima from the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata. Nearby Gatothkach, the warrior son of the Pandava Bhima and his demon wife Hadimba, is worshipped in the form of a sacred tree. Old Manali is worth exploring with its ancient stone and wood houses and is the location of the Manu Maharish Temple, the alleged site where Manu’s ark came to rest after the great flood. The Manali Gompa is world famous for its large statue of Buddha and sublime wall paintings. Finally, one can relax at the Vashist Hot Water Springs and Temple, dedicated to the local patron saint, which is 3km from Manali, across the Beas river.
This 3,700km ride will take cyclists from Kashmir to Kathmandu. Along the way they will pedal over passes as high as 5,000m, spin past remote forts...
Shimla, the capital of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, is named after a Hindu goddess, Shyamala Devi, an incarnation of Kali. Attracted by the dense forest of pine, deodar, oak and rhododendron and its cool climate (it stands at 2200m) the British took control of the area in 1815. Prior to that there was only a temple and a few scattered houses. As more and more British officers and bureaucrats decided to spend their summers in the area, it became famous for balls, parties and other festivities. Rudyard Kipling wrote that it had a reputation for “frivolity, gossip and intrigue”. In fact, the writer used the town as the setting for his books, Kim & Plain Tales From The Hills. In 1864, Shimla was officially made the ‘summer capital’ of British India.
The railway route from Kalka to Shimla was completed in 1903 and, with more than 806 bridges and 103 tunnels, was touted as an engineering feat, known as the “British Jewel of the Orient”. In 2008 the line became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is definitely worth a ride. It has a ruling gradient of three percent and 917 curves, the sharpest of which is 48 degrees. One interesting story is that during its construction, British Colonel Barog miscalculated tunnel construction and the ends failed to meet in the middle. Humiliated, he shot his dog, then himself and is buried at the entrance to his mistake. A new tunnel was successfully completed with the help of a local ascetic Bhalku who used a long and solid wooden staff to hit the ground and divine the correct alignment! He also helped with the alignment of several other tunnels on the line and was eventually awarded a medal and turban by the British Viceroy.
The town is home to a number of buildings in the Mock Tudor and Neo-Gothic styles of architecture dating from the colonial era, as well as multiple temples and churches. The centre of Shimla is the Mall, which meanders along the mountain ridge for 7kms. There is no traffic and a walk along its length will allow one to take in sights like the Viceregal Lodge (LP describes it as “a cross between Harry Potter’s Hogwarts and a Scottish baronial castle’), the Town Hall and the Neo-Gothic Gorton Castle. At the east end one can make the strenuous 30 minute hike up to Jakhu Temple for some incredible views of the snow-capped Himalaya. The temple itself is dedicated to the Monkey God, Hanuman. Appropriately there are hundred of monkeys in the area as well as a 33m statue of Hanuman, in pink, no less.
Known as the ‘Queen of the Hills’ for its spectacular views of snow-covered Himalayan peaks as well as over the Doon valley, Mussoorie was established by the British in 1823 after Lt. Frederick Young of the East India Company, who came to the are to shoot game, decided to build a hunting lodge there. Its name appears to be a derivation of ‘mansoor’, a shrub which is indigenous to the area. Mussoorie was the intended terminus of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India in 1832 that began at the southern tip of India. It was also known for spirits. In 1832, Sir Henry Bohle started ‘The Olde Brewery’ on the outskirts of town. However, he argued with the aforementioned Lt. Young about licensing and in 1834 the facility was shut down. It was reopened in 1850 when Sir John McKinnon, the brother-in-law of Sir Henry Bohle, restarted the brewery, being the first in British India. It is said that the famous Indian poet, Mirza Ghalib, was a big fan. Shipping the big barrels of beer to their destinations on carts gave name to the town’s Cart MacKenzie Road which still exists today.
Under British rule, Mussoorie, in 1827, became a convalescent centre for soldiers. It was also the temporary home to the last Maharaja of Punjab, the child King, Maharaja Duleep Singh, son of the great Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. After the two Anglo-Sikh wars, the Punjab was ready for annexation by the British and Duleep Singh was forced to sign away his kingdom and wealth, including the famous Koh-i-noor diamond, to the Governor General of India, Lord Dalhousie. Before he left for England, the Maharaja was kept at the Castle Hill Estate near Landour Bazaar in Mussoorie. His days there came to an end on April 19, 1854 when he was deported to England where he lived in exile for the rest of his life. During the 1959 Tibetan Rebellion, the Central Tibetan Administration of the 14th Dalai Lama was at first established in Mussoorie while the first Tibetan school was established in Mussoorie in 1960. Today, some 5,000 Tibetans live in Mussoorie.
Considered by many to be the honeymoon capital of India, one can enjoy a 3km walk along Camel’s Back Road from Kulri Bazaar to Gandhi Chowk, passing a rocky outcrop in the shape of a camel’s hump. Gun Hill is a wonderful place to look out over the Indian plains and can be reached by cable car from the Mall Road. There is also the opportunity to visit the remains of the building and laboratory of Sir George Everest, the Surveyor-General of India from 1830 to 1843. Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak is named for him. The renown Landour Language School offers classes in Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit and the local dialect of Garhwali.
We last ran the North American Epic in 2015. It started in Anchorage, Alaska and finished in Mexico City, Mexico. It was a pretty epic ride – 10,000 km, 116 days & 3 countries. No need to change anything, right? Well, somehow we got word that the Canadian government was building a new road between the Arctic hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik, thereby connecting the rest of the North American road system with the shores of the Arctic Ocean. A lightbulb went off in our collective TDA hive mind and before you could say, let’s think this over, we had sketched out a new North American Epic route, one that would start in Tuktoyaktuk and continue south, all the way past Mexico City, to Panama City – 14,500 km, 165 days & 9 countries.
To us, as Canadians, one of the coolest things about the new route was the starting point in Tuktoyaktuk (commonly known as ‘Tuk’), a tiny village of about 900 people. The name translates as ‘resembling a caribou’. According to local legend, in ancient times a woman looked on as some caribou (Tuktu), common at the site, waded into the water and as a result turned into stone. Reefs resembling these petrified caribou are said to be still visible at low tide along the shore of the town. Our riders will have to check that out. They will have time. There is only 1 gas station and 1 supermarket (just wait until you see the prices!) although the first sit-down restaurant, Tyson’s Burgers, opened last summer. You might think such a small town might not be that interesting but please, read on.
Tuktoyaktuk, set on Kugmallit Bay, was used for centuries by the Inuit to harvest Beluga whales and caribou. Its natural harbour, located conveniently near the Mackenzie River Delta and sheltered from the winds and waves of the Arctic Ocean, made it a perfect setting. Interestingly, the fact that it was situated so closely to the outflow of the MacKenzie (Canada’s longest river) meant that its people developed a permanent rather than nomadic culture. Driftwood floating down the MacKenzie gave the locals wood to build houses rather than igloos. It even influenced their diet as they were able to cook food.
Most of these whale-hunting Inuit died during epidemics that swept through the area in the early 1900’s. The diseases were brought by American whalers. However, in the 1930’s the Hudson Bay Company built a trading post there which attracted local Inuit to the area. Known at that time as Port Brabant, it was the first place in Canada to revert to its indigenous roots in 1950, reclaiming the name – Tuktoyaktuk. In the 1950’s, the town was an important staging point for DEW (Distant Early Warning Line), part of the North American missile defence system. The 1970’s briefly brought oil and gas exploration in the nearby Beaufort Sea during the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries 1973 oil embargo and 1979 summertime fuel shortage and, indeed, that explains the large industrial buildings around the town.
The completion of the all-season Inuvik – Tuktoyaktuk Highway (ITH) in November 2017 will likely have an even larger impact than these previous events. It makes it Canada’s only community on the Arctic Ocean to be connected by road to the rest of the country. Tourism, as illustrated by our own cycling adventure, will soon be a large presence in the community. The 137 km 2 lane gravel road took 3 1/2 years to build (that is 40 km/year) and cost over $300 million. It has to withstand temperatures from as low as -40C in the winter to +20C in the summer when the sun never sets. Unlike some remote roads like the virtually straight Eyre Highway that crosses the Nullarbor Plain in Australia, the ITH winds endlessly through a collection of brackish estuarine basins, locally known as the ‘Eskimo lakes’, requiring eight bridges and 359 culverts.
North American Epic
Cycling from the Arctic Ocean to Panama City will take you through 9 countries and countless variations in landscape, culture, language, cuisine and...
Things To Do in Tuk
You may not have time to do all of these on your all too brief visit with the North American Epic but we know you’ll be back.
Look for pods of Beluga whales.
Talk to the village elders
Explore the Pingos. These are Ice Dome Hills – layers of soil over an ice core. The Tuk area contains more than 1/4 of the world’s 1350 pingos. The nearby Pingo National Landmark has 8 Pingos including the world’s second highest, the Ibyuk Pingo, at 49m high and 330m wide. It is the size of a 15 story building and creates a striking contrast to the surrounding pancake-flat tundra. You can hike to the summit for a great view.
Try the local delicacies – Muktuk (raw Beluga whale meat) & Caribou soup
Take a polar plunge in the Arctic waters.
Visit the ‘Our Lady of Lourdes Ship’ sitting in the middle of town next to the Catholic Mission. This 60′ vessel was donated to Canada’s Northern Missions by Pope Pious XI in the 1930’s. The schooner delivered supplies to far-flung Catholic missions in the Arctic, from Tuktoyaktuk to Cambridge Bay in what is now western Nunavut, in the 1930s and ’40s, braving storms and shifting ice floes. It arrived in Tuk in 1940 and was an important link to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, it is also a reminder of the sad history of Canada’s residential schools. While it carried vital supplies out to the missions in the spring, it returned in the fall with Inuit children who were then sent to residential schools across the country. These children were kept from their parents for years. Some never returned. In 1955 the ship was pulled from service and beached near the town. In 1967 a DEW Line helicopter moved it to a storage pad and in 1978 Dome Petroleum workers painted the ship and added a historical plaque. In 2008 local volunteers repainted it and resealed the holds.
Go boating with a local guide to the commercial whaling ghost town of Herschel Island.
Visit the Icehouse – a natural freezer dug into the permafrost where villagers keep their catch.
Check out 2 replica sod houses.
Tuk Fun Facts
Tuk is referenced numerous times in Canadian legendary songwriter Stompin’ Tom Connors’ song, “Mukluk Shoe“.
On September 3, 1995, Metallica and other popular bands flew into Tuk, putting the little village in the international news. The bands played a concert in Tuk as a publicity event for Molson Brewing Company promoting their new ice-brewed beer. Dubbed The Molson Ice Polar Beach Party, it featured Hole, Metallica, Moist, Cake and Veruca Salt. Canadian film-maker Albert Nerenberg made a documentary about this concert entitled ‘Invasion of the Beer People‘.
In July the mean temperature is 10C. The average high is 15C and the average low is 7C. The record high is 30C and the record low is -2C. The precipitation rate is lower than most deserts. So be prepared for anything.
We love to write. On our blog we cover a variety of topics. Sometimes it’s a new tour announcement, while at other times it might be the owner’s thoughts on a current event or an idea that’s been ricocheting around his head. Whatever it may be, we like to keep it eclectic and wander all over the map in terms of subject matter, style and authors. Each year we take a moment to reflect on the top blogs that, for whatever reason, resonated the most with our readers. (Check out our Top 10s from 2016 and 2017 as well). Below are the top 10 most read blogs of 2018…
Every year the start of our longest running and most beloved long distance tour is watched closely by a small worldwide community. This blog, posted in early January shared a list of some of the 2018 participants personal blogs which were then used to document their journey over the four months that followed.
“Life is about the adventure along the way not the final destination. I’m sure this is going to be one hell of an adventure. – Martin Arrell (New Zealand)” Read more.
In this blog we announced an exciting opportunity for a young filmmaker to intern on our cycling tours and document our inaugural West Africa tour. It spread like a digital wildfire in the online video community. Five months and 144 applications from 28 different countries later we had our intern chosen. She is now in West Africa producing some great videos already.
“…not everyone is able, or ready to make the leap from cycling with friends on the weekend, to embarking on a multi-month overseas cycling tour. So more and more we have been trying to open a window on these experiences through video…we created a unique and unprecedented opportunity for an aspiring filmmaker or travel videographer to gain valuable experience while traveling and filming on our tours later this year.” Read more.
Henry wrote an impassioned post about cycling in Toronto based on his own personal experiences. This blog post was timely as well – being written just as another cycling fatality was reported on our city streets. The blog caught the attention of the media and sparked an online discussion about the ways to reduce these kinds of incidents.
“I live here in Toronto and have to face the streets here day after day. The tragedy is that it does not have to be this way. In most developing countries, as much as the drivers would love to own the roads, unfortunately for them, there are motorcycles, scooters, cyclists, pushcarts and even animals on the roads. This forces drivers to operate at speeds well below the ones I experience when I am forced to cycle on Bathurst, Sheppard or Bayview.” Read more.
Henry Gold has been writing a lot this year. This 10 part series allowed him to share a series of reflections he had been collecting over the past years as he lead this company and traveled the world. This was the first in the series of enlightening blogs by Henry and you can read the others by following the links at the end.
“Each blog in our 10 part series features five thoughts drawn from my experiences over those sixteen years of cycling around the world. I hope that these meditations will inspire you to get on a bike – whether to cycle around your local city, your province or state, your country, or even another continent. Every ride is an adventure bound to expand your physical and inner world. You will not regret it.” Read more.
This was one of several new tours we announced in 2018. This one in particular was highly anticipated and caught people’s attention right away. There is still space to join this tour (set to run in the second half of 2019) but it’s filling up fast.
“There are seven continents – and we cycle on six of them – but there is only one Himalaya mountain range and there we do not cycle. It was five years ago that Depi Chaudry, one of several people who have been of great help with our Indian cycling tours, suggested a new cycling trip – the Trans-Himalaya from Kashmir to Kathmandu. If you are like me and you haven’t been to Kashmir or Nepal, then your reaction would be ‘Wow, what a great fit for TDA’. But as we all know, ideas take time to be implemented – even good ones.” Read more.
Europe is the most popular destination for cycle touring. That’s a fact. We are proud to be able to offer tours in over 20 European countries and the list is growing. This light-hearted post avoids the regular trappings of a practical blog and gives some thoughts on the more intangible benefits of cycling in Europe.
“There are 24 languages spoken in Europe so, inevitably, as you cross a border, you will hear a new language. Of course, this can be very scary. The way to overcome this is through the oldest language-studying method in the world. Focus on easily remembered words that become handy when, for example, you get a flat tire, when you can’t find a clean toilet, when the food you ordered an hour ago comes burnt or cold and so on.” Read more.
If you aren’t renting, the least enjoyable part of an overseas bicycle tour is bringing your bike along with you. We have done it countless times and have learned a trick or two that might help make it less stressful and complicated.
“Bring some packing tape to the airport with you. There is a chance that instead of putting your bike box through an x-ray, the security officials will want to open it up and look through it. The packing tape is so you can re-close the box afterward. Having a house key accessible will help you to cut the tape (with the edgy end of the key)” Read more.
For the annual Earth Hour event, Henry put out the challenge for a more ambitious goal. With climate change affecting more and more people and dire reports seeming to be published weekly now, it’s good to start having this conversation and looking for real solutions.
“So, why not take an hour and shut off your electricity and feel good? But really why bother if things are not getting better but actually getting worse…I have come up with an even more striking concept, one that could have some potential impact if adopted by even a fraction of the population on the planet. Earth doesn’t need an hour of rest a year. The planet needs a complete day of rest. A global holiday. A day where there is no energy except human energy being used.” Read more.
One of many off-the-cuff comments by the United States new Agitator-in-Chief was in January when Donald Trump referred to African countries as ‘shithole countries’. Having worked in Ethiopia during the ’80’s famine and created the Tour d’Afrique which has crossed Africa annually over the last 17 years, Henry felt he needed to respond.
“So when I woke up yesterday to the news that the President of United States – possibly the most influential individual in the world and certainly one of the preeminent leaders today – makes a comment that is so completely based on lack of real experience that I thought to myself: Mr. President what you really need is to take a break and join the Tour d’Afrique. Two weeks on a bike will be enough for you to start changing your mind. Two weeks of exposure to real life as compared to the life you have lived until now, could change your life. Two weeks and you could make a difference to millions. What do you say Mr. President?” Read more.
Madagascar can seem far away, and it is. We decided to bring it a little closer and share with people online the basics of travelling there with your bike (hint: it’s not as difficult as you thought).
“Madagascar is one of the most recent areas on earth to be inhabited by humans. As well it’s physical separation from the African continent allowed it’s flora and fauna to evolve in a different direction from Africa, and indeed the rest of the world. Travellers have been amazed at it’s incredible diversity and beauty for centuries…It is also an island that has attracted cycle tourists, who are dreaming of a adventurous ride through this beautiful, hospitable country.” Read more.
The TDA Staff’s Favourite 10 blogs of 2018 are coming soon.
It all started rather innocently. I was having breakfast listening vaguely to a conversation behind me about projects and donations when Mateo, our cartoonist extraordinaire, showed me a cartoon of a mosquito asking for a blood donation. “Just one little drop can save a life”. It made me laugh.
I turned to the gentleman behind me and said that he might also appreciate the cartoon. He turned out to be Peter Penfold, the former British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone during its fairly recent tragic past. As a person who played a key role in restoring democracy in the country, the High Commissioner had written a book about the time – Atrocities, Diamonds and Diplomacy.
I was so fascinated by his stories that I asked if he would be open to giving a talk the same evening to our cycling group in order to give them a context to the country, the people and the culture they were experiencing from the seat of the bicycle. The Commissioner, to my delight, agreed.
Inspired by the talk, I decided to wander the streets, the places he mentioned, to make his words come alive with images. Looking at the Google map of the city, I noticed a nearby destination, the Peace Museum, that I thought would be a good place to start. I set off in a straight line towards my target, crossing one shantytown after another. Here, as in the other ‘Lonely Places’ that I have written about, places where foreigners tend not wander, no one bothered me, in fact quite the opposite. If I was paid any attention at all, it was a smile or a friendly greeting. The places themselves seemed liked scenes from a Hollywood blockbuster disaster movie. Unfortunately, in reality, the civil war and the Ebola epidemic were calamities that had helped create the present reality and there were no gofers around to provide a large latte to the technical crew behind the scenes.
The Peace Museum was not obviously marked in any way so I walked into the UN compound to ask where it was. Several more ‘asks’ led me to a small building which, upon entering, I found empty. One room seemed to have previously contained abandoned archives, another some covered exhibition tables, yet another some exposed displays. As I wandered around a man approached me, pointed to a chair and explained that this was the former rebel leader’s favourite seat. Next he pointed to some amulets the rebels wore that they believed protected them from bullets. It was not long however before another man saw me, started yelling that the museum is going through renovations and shuffled me out of the building.
Once outside I noticed a modern building a couple of hundreds meters from me that turned out to be the ‘Special Court for Sierra Leone’. This court, set up to try war criminals, was mentioned by the Commissioner in his book as something that he thought was a mistake and ended up costing in the vicinity of a quarter billion dollars. The court, before it shut down, convicted nine men, so about $26 million dollars per prisoner: ‘not something that a poor country should be spending money on, especially as the criminals were not high ranking individuals’. Upon closer examination I found out that the building was handed over to the government in 2013 and now sits empty, beginning to fall apart. Seems like the High Commissioner may have been right. From the High Court, I headed to the place where Freetown was established, the famous cotton tree where returning former slaves sat down and contemplated their new freedom.
If the side streets did not look as carefree (and car free) in Freetown Christiania, Copenhagen (where I happened to be walking in July after the end of the inaugural Pub Ride), the Freetown streets leading to the core of the city were a raucous mix of traffic, blaring horns, and the miscellaneous noise of people working and trading – doing what they do every day. We had a pleasure of riding this way on the way from the port to the other side of town upon our arrival in Freetown and for me, having cycled in India on our Hippie Trail, the only thing that was missing were the sacred cows. The resulting chaos is not without its charms and though scary at first, in many ways it is safer than cycling the main streets of Toronto where cars are able to speed at over 60km an hour and blasting away at the few daring cyclists.
I found the cotton tree, proudly standing and recording everything that it sees. One day human beings will likely invent an app that will be able to hook up to the tree and tell one very long human saga, of hope, wars, disasters, reconciliations, rebuilding and more hope. I say more hope because if you look at enormity of the rebuilding challenge of Sierra Leone, without hope there is no future. And the people of Sierra Leone believe in the future.