We’re in the Eastern Cape, and we’re coasting along the ridges of the Drakensburg mountains. The hills and slopes of the landscape are like some giant lizard’s cracked skin; the hills are green and full of long, winding cracks of deep red floodplains and sinkholes. We see horses and cows everywhere, and flocks of different little birds gather on the roads and scatter like a cloud of butterflies when the PeopleWagon comes trundling through. Weaver-birds, fly-catchers, LBJs (Little Brown Jobs). Ibisis crowd the canopies of trees and leave and arrive together like the popular kids at their favourite table in the cafeteria.
River basins weave in and out of valleys, some gushing rivers, others mere trickling streams.
This is a breathtakingly beautiful, remote part of the world .So remote, that even Google doesn’t know where we are.
Well, that’s not entirely true. We have maps and landmarks and we know how to get to our nearest "big" towns. Like, yesterday we drove through Matatiele, and man, was that place almost too much for us. We got everything we’ve been sort of on the lookout for, for the past week: special watch batteries, certain brands of ointment, Velcro. Velcro! That place also boasts both a Spark and a Shoprite, as well as two – count ‘em, two KFC establishments. So, Matatiele’s been the biggest town we’ve passed through since Ixopo, which was the nearest "big town" while we were stationed at Centocow. After surviving the misty wetlands that is Ntsikeni, and the charming, mountain-hidden 70’s blast from the past that was St Bernard’s Peak, we eventually ascended to Masakala guesthouse, which was about 3km away from Matatiele.
Now, we don’t mean to look any gift horses in the mouth. Everywhere we’ve stayed at, has been incredibly hospitable and warm and friendly, and we’ve been fed well at every stop.
But our hostess at Masakala? Almost found herself kidnapped and forced to accompany us in the PeopleWagon, so delicious was our food. We were served a very traditional meal – pap, spinach, potatoes, rice, carrots in gravy, peas. All vegetarian. But man, was it all-encompassing. We raved about the flavour, the spices, the herbs, the home-made "steam bread" – bread cooked in a pot, inside a pot – and left our hostess merely gaping, wide-eyed. "I’m speechless," she said.
It was good, man. It was so good.
Masakala guesthouse is a thatched-roof rondawel in Masakala village, built and styled according to traditional local architecture and design. It’s traditionally simple, with no electricity, but very homely and comfortable. Johnny and Alan arrived at four in the afternoon, tired, but in high spirits.
In any case, I think Masakala put us all a little more at ease. It’d been just under a week of riding, and Johnny and Alan have started feeling the strain.
We’ve started doing drastic things: we broke into our jar of Nutella.
We’d been saving that.
Yesterday we spend a delightful day at Malekholonyane Guest House, which is pretty much three thatched-roof chalets and a kitchen, on top of a valley. It looks right into the Drakensburg and has grassy hills spilling out from under it, which fold into and out of valleys and beds of rock. Here, we met another traveler passing through the night, a loner in tent, with a haunted look on his face. He was quiet for the most part, but when politely questioned, revealed that he was hoping to find a remote spot where he could farm, because after teaching English in Korea for six years, he’d found that car alarms drove him crazy, and that he was incapable of living in cities anymore.
We’re not sure if he was enjoying a dry joke or not, but it put our questions to a stop.
Hi! We’re in Rhodes! Not the Grahamstown one, though – it’s the tiny hidden village between the mountain cracks around Naude’s Neck, close to the highest point in the Eastern Cape. Well, Johnny and Alan scaled the tallest point of the Freedom Challenge route – by reaching a point 2,600 km above sea level, close to Naude’s Neck. The only point of reference that seems to make sense to anybody as to where we actually are is that we’re close to Tiffendale, a ski resort in sunny old Africa, which primarily makes Rhodes a holiday town. There aren’t even street names here – each house or Bed & Breakfast merely has a number that says “Roundabout Rhodes 23” or whatever. I think there may only be about 23 lots in Rhodes, to be honest.
The road to Rhodes took myself and Donna about four hours to navigate from Maclear, where we’d stopped earlier in the day to collect some parcels sent to us, including my sweet little training unicycle (it’s so pink), and Brad Jackson’s awesome Magiclights. We are gonna be so nocturnally equipped, night-vision-wise, it’s not even funny. We almost didn’t leave Maclear, because the postmaster we met while waiting in the queue, while truthfully being sincerely helpful, seemed to be starved of conversation and without any obvious grasp of sarcasm. He creepily ushered us into his office, where he locked us in, made us sign for the package, and then spent about fifteen minutes carefully pouring over a hand-drawn map of how to get to Rhodes. Here’s how we know “Anne” (as his nametag read, no kidding) was being facetious, at best: he told us that the dirt road to Rhodes would get us there in “Oh, an hour, or an hour and a half”. I mentioned how it took me, Donna and the PeopleWagon four hours of narrow road-navigation, sharp drops, steep climbs, and next to no safety barriers, right? To First Car Rental’s PeopleWagon’s credit, the purple beast was very well behaved, and we ended up at Rhodes in one piece, without having to host another sleep-over in it. Have I implied enough times that the road to Rhodes was a long one? I mean, we’ve driven longer distances. We’ve been in worse conditions.
Rhodes just became frustrating because we’d climb a hill and expect to see a town, and then see nothing. Then we’d reach the top of another hill and expect to see a village, and see nothing. And then we’d loop around another heap of basaltic lava rock and hope to see a farmhouse or something and see… nothing. Rhodes started seeming like a non-aquatic Atlantis.
But we got there, eventually. And Alan and Johnny almost beat us – guys, these two covered the steepest climb of the tour, and have covered 83 km in just under 10 hours. That’s faster, and further, than they’ve done since the tour started.
Remember how I was just complaining how far and steep the road was? From the comfort of a four-wheeled Toyota Quantum? Where all I have to do is maintain some basic clutch control and put my foot down the whole way?
These guys did that, on one wheel each. After a poor night’s sleep. And some recovering health. See, Alan got a little sick on Monday, and Johnny cycled 37km in four hours to Vuvu village, by himself. Alan was so sick, in fact, that we actually drove the guy to Mount Fletcher, the next-best “big town”, and found a public hospital. Al took one look at the waiting-room, and at the hunched bodies shivering under blankets, excused himself to use the restroom, and then off-handedly declared that we as in fact feeling much better and would probably be okay if he took a day’s rest and maybe just re-hydrated. As it turns out, he was right, as he and Johnny both proved to be one-wheeled machines on the road to Rhodes.
Well, Johnny was probably worse-off than Alan yesterday – he wasn’t very well-rested. None of us really were. We spent the next night on the floor of a school in Vuvu. We were received by fairly confused pair of ladies who sort of vaguely indicated that they were going to try and split us up and house us “within the community” – while we didn’t want to feel unappreciative, our previous host house did give us the feeling that we were intruding and severely confusing innocent people. So, we tried a new angle – were there perhaps a few spare mattresses lying around? We could just whip out our sleeping bags and sleep in the school. It’d be cool. It’d be like a school lock-in, except less copying homework off peers and public humiliation.
Hello, happy Monday, everyone!
Since the last time we updated from Rhodes, our rest day, we’ve gone downhill for the most part (what with there not being an awful lot of places higher than where we were) and have been staying at a succession of farmhouses with extremely kind hosts. Sure, we’ve been made welcome in people’s houses before, and met chatty, interested caretakers (as the unicycles will always generate interest), but the past three or four days have introduced us to extremely sincere farming families. Families who live some 80 km away from their nearest big supermarkets or doctors, who buy in bulk, make their own butter and harvest their own milk. And cook delicious meals. Johnny pointed out that a likely reason for the delicious variety of food we’ve received may have something to do with there being a token vegetarian in the group, as we’ve, well, been fed a ridiculously delicious wealth of dinners, while our hosts nervously ask us if there’s enough for everyone and if the food’s okay and please have some more. To the charming credit of our hostesses, some imaginative recipes for vegetable casseroles and platters were sourced and prepared, with no need for any of the nervous presentation – we have gone to bed every night just a little too full, and wondering if we could’ve snuck more in.
So, we’ve been eating well.
Since Rhodes, everybody’s merrily told us that the road from there’d be much, much easier. In fact, on the first Thursday back on the road, the roads were so easy that Johnny and Alan arrived at our guest farmhouse, Chesney Wold, at about two in the afternoon – having easily cycled some 68 kilometers in only about seven hours.
They almost missed it, though, because the PeopleWagon was nowhere in sight.
This was because, at that exact same moment, the PeopleWagon was slowly being rocked back and forth as it was navigated around an extremely narrow path carved into the side of an undulating mountain, with a road built of loose, cragged rocks. The full scale of how out-of-place we were, was, I guess, like a hippopotamus trying to climb a spiral staircase. That narrow pass was the single most terrifying strip of road I have ever traveled on, and it is difficult for me to describe exactly how horrific it was. Donna and I found ourselves remembering what a great time we had back at Minerva when the car got stuck in the mud, in the dark. I guess being able to see the cliff you might fall off in broad daylight as opposed to an assumed sheer drop in the dark puts things into perspective. Nor am I completely sure what’s worse – being in the driver’s seat or sitting as a terrified passenger. For my part, I was the latter, and I’d attached myself to whatever holds I could latch onto like a spider-monkey, while Donna navigated the car through the debris like a champ. There was nowhere to turn around – and every time we’d appear around a bend, we’d see another ridiculous loop winding out and up, ahead – and all we could do was keep driving.
We eventually realized that a white bakkie was patiently driving behind us, and we were informed that we were driving up towards the end of the road – his farm cottage on the top of the mountain, which was definitely not Chesney Wold. Somewhere along the road, Donna and I had taken a very serious wrong turn.
It made sense, too, because none of the land-marks we described when phoning for directions seemed to resonate with anyone; see, the road we were on was narrow, over-grown with trees, and had a farm plot on both sides. There were gates we had to drive through, and a river ran on our left with a blue-green bottom – all pretty distinctive clues which people should’ve recognized instantly when we described them. Despite this, we went against our womanly intuition and ended up amongst some confused gentlemen innocently inoculating some cattle on the top of a mountain. The farmer who’d driven behind us on the way up, sent his son to guide us back down the mountain.