Archive for December, 2010
I'm writing from the PeopleWagon again. I've arrived at the Ntsikeni Reserve Lodge, I think, and have just bid good-bye to Claire and Elissa, our two accessory cyclists – traditional, two-wheel cyclists, I mean – who are also braving the Freedom Challenge route, but will be done in half the time it will take us. Well, they have double the number of wheels we have to work with, so I guess it stands to reason. They hitched an off-road ride with me this morning because they were meant to spend last night in Ntsikeni, but some complications have temporarily detoured them and forced them, kicking and screaming, to spend the night in the same place as Team CounterBalance, again. We met at Allendale, the Waddiloves' ridiculously hospitable farmstead, and regrouped again last night at Centocow.
Centocow is a monastery. It, along with several others dotting the landscape, was built for Trappist monks as specific sanctuaries designed to be exactly one horse-ride away, as monks could only sleep in monasteries; thus, if they left at dawn, they'd arrive at the next nearest monastery by dawn. Today, the place has been rigged to look like a trendy loft disguised as a foreboding red brick compound nestled next to an old church. There are three floors to the building; our sleeping quarters and chic little living-room/kitchen were on the top, and some small textile industry takes place in the middle – there is a massive loom spinning fabrics and fibers. The ladies who work there are quiet, industrious, and extremely accommodating; they helped us getting our bags up and down the flight of stairs when we arrived and left, and laid out places and prepared our dinner and breakfast. When I arrived at the monastery, several hours before the team, they were meticulously cleaning the place – mopping the wooden floors, preparing the beds. Centocow was an extremely cozy place to spend the night. Alan, Donna and Johnny arrived together at about 9 o'clock, all smiles – this was Donna's first full day on a route, which has been motivating for everybody.
The team sort of just missed a very incredulous reporter, Terry Mingay, who arrived with the caretaker, Bev, and writes for a local paper called Nix Matters. She and her kids grilled me on "How do they balance?" And "Why are they doing this?" They left about an hour before the riders arrived, despite her kids' protests – "We want to see the unicyclists!"
We got an early start this morning, after a quietly-prepared, massive breakfast spread, and loaded up Claire and Alyssa's bikes into the PeopleWagon so we could road-trip to Ntsikeni Valley together, where they'd leave and try and head for Masakala to make up for time they'd lost – they were meant to have left from Ntsikeni lodge early in the morning.
Johnny's just fastened a horn he found on a cycle route to his helmet, and is prancing around the hut at Masakala Guesthouse with it. It makes him look like a swept-back unicorn.
Donna is massaging Alan's back while he flicks through pictures on his iPhone, and we're all sitting on the cozy little veranda of the Masakali Guesthouse, with its pillars draped in grape vines and villagers shooing cows and horses home.
I regret that so far, pretty much all I've talked about is from the perspective of the Purple PeopleWagon.
I need to get more into the heads of unicyclists – of what they're experiencing. How they'r finding the terrain. How they're managing to keep it… balanced. I sneak out my Macbook and surreptitiously start typing while I ask innocent, unobtrusive questions. They'll never figure out I've set up a sneaky interview.
So, what's the first thing that comes to your mind after this day?
JOHNNY: Wind. Side-wind.
JOHNNY: We met a man who told us there's a giant snake who lives in the Drakensburg who controls the wind, and that he's angry! Today was a day with terrain that wasn't that challenging, but what made it this tough was this wind which wouldn't let up, which constantly comes from the side; you have to twist your whole body to counter-act the wind, when you're already twisting your body to counter-act everything else, and you twist muscles that, you know, you shouldn't be twisting!
So, muscle-wise, what's hurting the worst?
JOHNNY: (slaps himself above the knees) This part. The top part
ALAN: It's different – with the wind, it's like my upper body really got a work-out; my back and neck is stiff too. But mostly it's the legs.
The mud today? How do you cycle through that?
JOHNNY: You don't! You walk!
ALAN: THere's no traction, see…
I know about that "no traction" thing…
ALAN: The wheel just spins…
I know all about that too!
JOHNNY: We do get to ride the downhills in mud, you can get by without traction that way. Flat sections and uphills, where you don't have any traction, is the main issue, really. Otherwise, you can't move through mud.
What's been the toughest so far?
JOHNNY: Day 1.
ALAN: No doubt about it.
JOHNNY: Psychologically, physically, everything. Navigation was a big issue.
ALAN: There really was a bit of a panic, in terms of what we were actually in for. It was an unbelievably tough day.
DONNA: The people made it eerie.
JOHNNY: The worst was the humidity.
ALAN: We went through, what, 12 liters of water?
JOHNNY: And we went through 17 hours of riding, we ran into difficulties with people…
ALAN: Our support vehicle couldn't find us…
ALAN: Yeah, so it was just a shock of a day. It was bad.
JOHNNY: It was a very, very humbling experience about what we were in for. But we made it.
So has Day 1 still been the toughest, in terms of terrain?
JOHNNY: The terrain wasn't so bad! The toughest terrain was Minerva. Sorry, Ntsikeni – that was just completely unridable terrain.
ALAN: Minerva was really scary, because we really didn't know where we were, it was misty, we thought we were on the right course but couldn't be sure, and then we kind of just eventually popped up at the right place.
ALAN: It was the slowest we've done in the shortest distance. It went from nothing, to cattle track, to road, then we hit a Jeep track, so it improved eventually, but the marsh was impossible.
JOHNNY: You ask about the toughest terrain, but there's lots of things that factor into an experience which makes a ride tough or easy.
DONNA: It depends on if it's wet or dry, or light, or dark… a lot of things make navigation difficult. Weather plays a big part.
JOHNNY: Definitely, yeah.
DONNA: Maybe we should start summarizing weather conditions on the blog…
ALAN: Wind factor, sun factor, cloud factor…
DONNA: Silly-why-are-we-doing-this factor…
What's been your favorite route so far? Have you, um, have you been having fun?
ALAN: Good question!
JOHNNY: Well, ja! I mean, even Day 1 was fun, despite the circumstances, it's an adventure!
DONNA: Yeah, it's like a rewarding pleasure.
JOHNNY: Look, there were times when I wasn't smiling.
DONNA: Yeah, we found after you'd separated from us, when you were in Ntsikeni, you looked pretty wild.
ALAN: The look on your face was like an animal –
JOHNNY: I was stressed! I really was. I think that was my worst moment.
DONNA: Look how pretty the sky is.
JOHNNY: It's really pretty, Donna.
Is there anything you'd like to share that might be of interest to unicyclists?
JOHNNY: Yes. The reason we've been going so slow for these past 7 days, has not been terrain, it's been navigation. David Waddilove told us in the beginning, "You have a map, and you have a narrative. One of them is right." This is incorrect!
ALAN: We've spent a lot of time just stopping, re-routing, trying not to get lost. Sometimes we just don't know where we are.
JOHNNY: Many of the roads are simply not marked. We
ALAN: Also, we're very, very novel on the route. These people have never seen unicycles before. We hear a lot of laughter, a lot of screams, a lot of whistling. It gets a bit irritating afterwards.
JOHNNY: Lots of "Haibos!"
ALAN: And bicycles. Messed-up bicycles. One was held together with loops of wires, and falling apart… they follow us for kilometers.
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.
Before we do anything else, we have one or two or three pictures to show you from the past few days. They're modest, but we like 'em.
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.