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.
So, what I've failed to collect in terms of local knowledge is that, the Ntsikeni Valley? Is a soggy wetland. Which spills out onto the "road". Ntsikeni Lodge is in the middle of a marsh. It's beautiful, with secretary birds, black swans, blue cranes, and paradise flycatchers which hover like weird little helicopters over dancing reeds and droopy grasses. There are genuine little babbling brooks everywhere, which sometimes flows their courses over the hacked, lightly tire-treaded load-less-traveled which forms the path from the Glengarry Gate, entering the reserve, to the lodge. The intersection between the road-less-traveled and the babbling brooks means, that you and your car need to go through it. Which is great if you live there and drive a thing equipped for muddy wet roads and general off-loading, like, I don't know, an actual 4×4 or tame hippopotamus, but I'm going to be modest and frank. The PeopleWagon, as much as it has the soul of a secret pirate ship, is a Toyota Quantum, whose native habitat is tar road. This guy took some thrashings on the way here. We went through about five little streams, and before each one, I'd stop the car, and slosh up and down the water to see how muddy or rocky it was. Through doing this, the PeopleWagon and I made do, and we reached the Nature Reserve in mostly one piece, albeit with some white-knuckled passengers. Impressive footwork on behalf of the PeopleWagon, up to this point.
At present, I'm waiting for the caretakers or anyone to come and open the gate; I've been here for two hours with my feet up in a fold-out deck chair in the shade of the PeopleWagon, typing this. Unless there are people hiding in the thatched-roof chalets, peering through the windows and watching me pee in the field. I really, really hope this isn't the case.
Malcolm and Gail Button, caretakers of the lodge, eventually arrived at around two in the afternoon and opened up the gate; Malcolm is a bird-guide and runs tours for Button Birding. They're not usually at the lodge at all – their regular keeper was involved in an unfortunate accident, so by chance, they happened to be there to see us in and feed us. Which turned out to be a very, very good thing.
I confess that I took a nap in the afternoon and sort of ignored the alarm I'd set for myself on my phone; Gail woke me up at five and told me that she and Malcolm were going for a drive to try and get some cellphone reception, as he wanted to send a text message. Realizing I'd been cut off from everything for the whole day, I hopped into Malcolm's Pajero and cruised along with him, feeling worried about not having had contact with the team.
By sheer chance, Alan and Donna called me as soon as two signal bars popped up on my phone, next to the road, with a herd of blesbuck silhouetted against the grassy hills of the sunset. Donna was struggling, and wanted to be picked up. They were in the Reserve, they thought, on the "Blue Route" – the Freedom Challenge Maps we have to work with have a couple of different-coloured routes to choose from, and some of them actually just follow roads. Not having maps at hand, we drove back to the lodge, where Malcolm and I figured out that the Blue Route really was the road we'd travelled on to get here by car – I could just go back the way I came to go pick them up.
Now, I need to confess that I had priority drumming in my head as I got in the PeopleWagon to go and meet the team – I was worried about not having had signal before, and the sun was setting, so I was probably a little less cautious than the first time arriving. Having driven the route before, I was Luke Skywalker when he shot down his first TIE fighter: cocky.
So, okay, the PeopleWagon ended up skidding and getting stuck in marshy grass about a kilometer from the Lodge.
I'm not a jogger, me, but probably the time I ran to get to the lodge is the fastest I've ever done for that kind of distance. Stopping only to repair my R39 flip-flops along the way, I spilled into the kitchen where Gail was preparing dinner, and panted, "I'm so sorry to inconvenience you, but, I think you may need to drive with me to the gate".
Malcolm and I got into his car, and wordlessly drove into the misty descending darkness, where we eventually spotted the PeopleWagon in the gloom – in a grassy patch, just off the road, like some sheepish boy who'd gotten a carrot stuck up his nose.
Malcolm was silent for a second and then calmly asked, "HOW did you get there?"
I squirmed in my seat. "I skidded and went off-road and … couldn't get back on?"
Malcolm walked around the PeopleWagon to assess the situation.
"Do you have any rope? I can't see how we can pull it out from the front; the back, maybe?"
Beaming, I realized there was at least one thing I could do – attach the tow-bars, which are like two pegs with round hooks at the end, and are screwed into the front of the car when you remove two hidden plastic caps, so Malcolm drove in the front and towed me out.
"Cool bananas", Malcolm said.
Malcolm hooks the PeopleWagon up to his Pajero and pulls me out like as easily as a milk-tooth.
"Cool bananas," Malcolm says again, kindly. "We're going to drive up to a point where you can turn around. Then I'm going to fetch your unicyclists, and you're going back to the lodge."
"Thank you, Malcolm", I gush.
"Turn off your inside light!" he barks.
In the morning, we set off for St. Bernard's Peak hotel, after Malcolm had scrutinized the maps with us. Chuckling, he enjoyed echoing the first thing Elissa said to him when he encountered them on the road, turned-around and fighting their way through Ntsikeni Valley: "These directions are CRAP!"
So, he drummed both the cycle route and the road route to our destination into all of us, even marking out good rendezvous-points.
Thus, thanks to Malcolm, the route to St Bernard's was pretty straight-forward: Donna and I only stopped and asked for directions once. Apart from that, our day's been pretty simple! Alan and Johnny have had a hard day, though. Johnny recounts that, walking through most of the squelchy marshland that is Ntsikeni Valley, he and Alan eventually found themselves being chased by a herd of creepy cows. It started with one, disgruntled moo from a particular bovine individual, some aggressive advancing, and within seconds, the entire herd was in on the game. He and Alan ran for it, and Johnny headed for a tree and scrambled up it, leaving behind his unicycle, and Alan, doubled up with hysterical laughter. They don't know why the cows all mutinied, or why they all suddenly lost interest and headed for their salt-lick. Cows are creeps.
Despite this, morale is good! Alan and Johnny are doing a tremendous job, and so is Donna. They're growing strong, and seem to be having fun, and there are as yet no real major injuries to report, save for Donna's impressive black eye. Johnny's also got a small cut on himself from glass. Luckily the dude is studying medicine and figured out that he can superglue himself back together. No kidding.
So, we're close to Swartberg at the moment. Know what this place is full of? History! There are fossil beds and early rock paintings everywhere, and numerous fossil routes and trails to walk – a fact which seems to be convincing Donna that she really needs today to rest up, too, before she goes on with the trail. She'd done two full days though, and she's a tiny little machine. We are definitely going on a fossil walk today before we drive to Masakala – Donna has high hopes for Jurassic souvenirs.
Today is Day 7 for us. We've covered the Sisonke Region, and today that means we have 37 days left.
What a crazy thing to do with our December.
Again, we apologize for the scattered updates. We've been very … rural, lately, and we actually struggle to pick up cellphone reception in places. Where we can, we Twitter. Are you following us on Twitter? If it confuses you, you know there's the feeder on the top right corner of the page, right? And we stick pictures up where we can.
The CounterBalance mission has begun but it is by no means over – we still urgently need support in the form of donations for shoes. Our goal is to buy 2,000 shoes; a pair of shoes costs R100. We implore you to reach into our hearts, take a look at what these crazy kids are doing in the name of charity, and urge you to give. Heartfelt thanks to those who've supported us thus far – every bit helps.
T'is the Season!
Please feel free to use the pictures in our post!
You may have noticed a link on the right side bar under the Twitter feed. You can track the unicyclist's latest position if you login using these details:
Username = freedom
Password = password
Stalk Team CounterBalance using satellite navigation!
Some Recent Unicycling Stats:
Blue Lagoon – Indigo Skate Camp: 65km, 17 hours
Indigo Skate Camp – Minerva Nature Reserve: 70km, 13 hours
Minerva Nature Reserve – Allendale: 50 km, 7 hours
Allendale – Centocow: 59 km, 12 hours
Centocow – Ntsikeni Nature Reserve: 43 km, 13 hours
Ntsikeni Nature Reserve – St Bernard's Peak: 52.5 km, 10 hours
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