Tall Tales | Botswana Bushwhacking with Ludo May.

Tall Tales is a collection of our favourite crazy bike-related stories from our favourite riders, racers and industry legends.

Everyone has that story that they wait until the end of the night to pull out when the anecdotal oneupmanship starts to get into the final round. Tall Tales is a collection of our favourite bike-related stories from the best in the business.

Ludo May brings us a Tall Tale of an impromptu tracking of big game through the bush in Botswana following the Kingdom Enduro in Lesotho.

Photos by Max Schumann.

While planning my trip to Africa last winter, my friend Congo, organizer of the Kingdom Enduro race in Lesotho in which I was participating, proposed to me and some friends to extend our stay on the African continent and experience a mountain bike safari in Botswana. I can tell you that it didn’t take me long to accept his proposal.

Wait, a mountain bike safari means riding a bike through the savannah, sleeping in tents and meeting all kinds of animals? Basically, it’s a bit like being in the Lion King but with your bike. Yes, it is. Well, I can assure you, it will remain a trip that we won’t forget as the change of scenery was insane.

Nobody in the group had ever been on a mountain bike safari before and we were wondering a few questions. What kind of ride was awaiting us? Were we going to ride close to the animals? What happens if a lion attacks us? Would we really sleep outside in tents with the wild animals? When do our guides use their guns?

On the first day, our group, made up of René Damseaux, Chris Johnston, Max Schumann, Fabian Scholz, Nick and Kim Hardin, my girlfriend Nancy Pellissier and myself, met at the Johannesburg airport and then drove to Pont Drift, on the border between South Africa and Botswana. After a 4 hour drive, a night on the road in a hotel to cut the trip short, and the last 4 hours by car, we arrive at the Botswana border and meet Mario and Lion, our guides from the Cycle Mashatu company.

After filling in some papers for the customs, we’re allowed through the barriers. We park our vehicles and prepare our stuff for the next 4 days of riding. Jeeps come to pick up our bags and we climb straight onto our bikes for a first afternoon of exploration. We ride our bikes to the official customs, where we have to clean our tyres and shoes in a kind of tray on the ground. The reason for this disinfection is the presence of the foot-and-mouth virus in South Africa and non-existent in Botswana. These are the last administrative formalities and we can enter the reserve.

A few tens of meters further on, we are waited in the shade of large thatched shelters by the mother of Cycle Mashatu’s manager who has prepared a tasty picnic for us. The guides take the opportunity to tell us about the plan of the next days (and also about our camps for the nights to come).

Please note that our guides are equipped with rifles for our protection. To be honest, we don’t know if we should be rather reassured or completely freaked out by this fact. They explain to us that it is for our safety, that they rarely use it and that it is mainly to alert the animals in case of danger. They told us that none of them had ever shot animals.

Full, we are ready for our first laps in the Mashatu reserve. It’s located in the Tuli Reserve in the Limpopo Province and is made up of some 29,000 hectares of bush where friendly animals graze freely.

In a single line, so that the animals have the impression that we are one element, we start our trip. After a few meters on a track, we turn off onto a path that is almost non-existent. As soon as we change course and after only a few minutes on our bikes, we see the first animals of the savannah. Dozens of gazelles and zebras racing in front of us by and a giraffe’s head protrudes from a shrub in the distance. It’s like being in a movie. We can hardly believe our eyes and we quickly realize that the next three days are going to be exceptional. We continue our journey on arid trails and under a blazing sun.

The heat of this first afternoon in the savannah is overwhelming, it must not be far from 40° C. We cover some 15 km and we come across all kinds of animals. Mario tells us that the first elephants are not far away. We approach gently and suddenly we hear shouts from them. They have spotted us and are shouting for danger. Mario tells us that it’s better to go another way. Further on, we arrive in a field full of gazelles; there must be at least 1000 of them, it’s just unbelievable.

We make another discovery on this first day: we thought we were pretty well equipped, but we have to realize that our tyres are not strong enough to resist the millions of bush thorns that dot the trails. The punctures keep coming, but fortunately our guides have enough milk to fill our tubeless.

At each turn, it’s a new discovery and we meet all sorts of animals straight out of our childhood adventure stories. After a few hours wandering in the savannah, night falls gently and we head towards our first camp. But just before discovering where we were going to sleep, we come across Pumba, a famous warthog with all his family watching us and probably wondering what we are doing here.

We arrive at the first camp, temporarily installed on the banks of a dry river bed. A large table is set up and thrones under a huge Mashatu tree. The military two-seater tents with cots are lined up and connected by small paths made of large stones. There is even a toilet area a little further away and a shower in the open air. This is a foretaste of life in the bush.

TLD A3 Helmet

After changing clothes, we spend our first evening in the savannah, next to the fire and with candlelight, listening to the sounds of animals, enjoying a delicious meal prepared beforehand and warmed by the fire and sipping some beers. We enjoy this peaceful jungle atmosphere, knowing that lions and hyenas are not far away. At bedtime, we are not really reassured but we try to tell ourselves that we are not the first to have done it and that it is surely without risk.

Our guides do give us a few safety tips if we have to go to the bathroom at night: no need to go to the bathroom, relieve yourself not far from your tent and go straight back to bed. On that first night, I must say that I spent more time listening to all kinds of noise and trying to guess which animal it was than sleeping.

The next morning, after waking up with the dawn at 7 o’clock, we have breakfast in the middle of nature in a dreamlike setting. The plan for the day is to go mountain biking from the camp, make a loop of some 20 km and come back to the same camp for the next night. Caffeinated and ready for new adventures, we gently ride through the nearby forest. We come across the first signs of animal presence: a porcupine needle and a little further on we see traces of a hippopotamus.

We continue our route with a sharp eye so as not to miss anything and the first animals we see that day are giraffes. These elegant creatures with long legs and an oversized neck are fascinating. I could stay for hours watching them. On our second day, the sky is a little hazy, so the heat is less stifling than the day before. But we won’t have to wait long for a real heatstroke. We were riding and I was positioned behind the guide when suddenly, around a bush, we came face to face with an elephant. The elephant was just as scared as we were and it made a huge growl.

Mario immediately turned around and shouted to the whole group: “Back, back, back, back!”. Surprised, we turn around and sprint back to Lion, the second guide who was closing the gap. He puts us in a safe place and we wait for Mario to comes back, which he did a few seconds later. He had taken it upon himself to counter the animal with gestures and shouts so that he and his companions would also turn back. A good little adrenaline rush for everyone.

Somewhat shocked, we exchange on this episode which fortunately ends well, while continuing our road. A few minutes later, we arrive at the first refreshments prepared by our companions: tea, fresh sodas and some biscuits to recover from our emotions. During this little break, we take advantage of the terrain to have fun on our bikes, ride a small canyon and some slopes.

We get back in the saddle and meet several species again. Elephants luckily a little further away, giraffes, zebras and wildebeests; always magical moments. At the end of the day, we are back at the camp, share a good beer and look back on the euphoric moments of our day. Our guide suggests a 4×4 jeep trip at sunset to observe even more animals. No hesitation, we jump at the opportunity. The advantage of travelling by jeep is that the animals see us as one big harmless element, whereas on mountain bike, they take us more easily for predators. For this reason, in a jeep, it is easier to get up close and personal with the animals.

As soon as we leave, we find ourselves in the middle of a herd of elephants, only a few meters away from them, they pass us by, a quite unforgettable moment. A little further on, the driver stops again, and on a branch of a tree, a leopard is watching us, just magic. After going up the bed of a dry river, we come back to a small hill where we can observe a family of cheetahs. We still haven’t seen any lion but it is already time to go back, just before dark.

The next day, we leave for the longest day in terms of distance. Throughout the day, we trying out some challenges, tree climbing, jumping etc… All of a sudden, we come across fresh lion tracks. After capturing a few shots, Mario invites us to follow the tracks and try to see some lions. Between excitement and anxiety, we follow the guide. As we go along, I wonder if it’s really safe after all. But, unfortunately, it won’t be for this time. After a few minutes, we lose the tracks, the lions having surely continued their way in the bush inaccessible to us.

So we won’t see the king of the savannah on our first bike safari. An excuse to come back. After a rather exhausting day in terms of heat and kilometers, we arrive mid-afternoon at our last camp. We were going to sleep under the stars, in the middle of the savannah. A camp straight out of a dream. A fence made of tight wooden pillars and 2m high (to avoid any intrusion) surrounded our beds arranged in a circle on the sand. A few tall trees where small monkeys lived served as a roof. The spot is magnificent.

We take our quarters in this magic place. The fire and the dining area are a little out of the way and out of the dormitory area. After a last tour in jeep to contemplate the African sunset from a cliff straight out of the Lion King (It’s the circle of life…), we take advantage of a last pleasant evening by the fire to share a few beers and exchange on this exceptional experience that we lived all together. The night, full of strange noises, was rather good. The guides slept not far from us (with their rifle nearby anyway) and tell us in the morning that hyenas have surely passed by the camp during the night. Last anecdote that reminds us that we are indeed living something sick.

Every beautiful thing has an end and after breakfast we return to the border in 4×4, our heads full of incredible memories. Much more than a bike trip! We wish all animal friendly bikers could enjoy the magical experience of riding among the beasts, sleeping in the middle of the savannah and, who knows, maybe meeting lions.

You will be able to track down all of the crazy stories in the Tall Tales series head here.

Why not check out our Wise Words interview with Ludo here?