A Limpopo Christmas, South Africa

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I’m calling it holiday gambling.  The stakes are low– there is little to lose, yet much to gain.  Get on a bike, go somewhere, and wager with that special day by trying to be in the right place at the right time to meet new people to see what the hell it is they do on the hottest day of the year when much of the rest of the world is shoveling snow and waiting for a fat guy to come down the chimney.  The summer solstice arrives in coincidence with our passing the Tropic of Capricorn, going north, which means that we’re in the tropics, it is extremely hot, and the sun is unusually powerful for about 80% of the day.  I’m excited to describe to Lael the mechanics of the sun and the Earth and how at noon, the sun is exactly overhead.  Sweat drips off her brow.

Christmas holds much less magic to me than it did when I was seven, eight years old.  Yet even after enduring that deflated feeling the day after– year after year– the arrival of Christmas still awakens some childlike excitement.  I’ve stopped giving and receiving gifts in the last few years, except for a few bicycle related gifts and books that went in the mail to some small people in Anchorage, who miss their dear Aunt Lael.

Passing from Mpumalanga to the northernmost province of Limpopo, things change.  There are more people, sprawling rural communities, and dismal dirt roads.  We’ve said all along that South African roads are built and maintained to a very high quality.  Something is amiss in Limpopo.

It doesn’t take long to notice the most glaring change: we are the only white people around.  Children wave and wonder where we are going, much as in Lesotho or Albania.  Women laugh to themselves, not inappropriately, yet curious as to why we’re riding the dusty rural backroads of Limpopo.  Not that there is any hostility against us, but I make an effort to introduce ourselves as “Americans, from Alaska”.  Not that there was any hostility when we were supposed to have been South African, but it seems to help that we are American.  

We’ve diverted from the Dragon’s Spine Route to make some route discoveries of our own.  The chance to wander again at will is liberating, even if the heat is stifling.  As such, we spend a lot of time sitting out front of the General Dealer or the Bottle Shop, bullshitting with locals and enjoying cool drinks.

And on Christmas Day, fueled by less than a few hours of sleep, we begin placing bets.  The previous night is too hot to sleep comfortably, especially after our 3000ft descent to the humid lowveld.  Music bumps from a nearby farm house until 2AM.  We’re awake by 5:30, riding by 6, and drinking cold beer by 7:30.  At seven, we’re seated outside of a grocery with empty bottles of maas and ginger beer at our feet.  At seven thirty, two tall glass bottles of Castle Lager lay empty.  Roasting ourselves for such self-fulfilling fortune, we exchange a knowing look.  Merry Christmas.  We’re poised for one hell of a day.

Limpopo looks a lot different than most of the rest of South Africa.  For all the high quality graded dirt roads which access expansive karoo farms, I am astonished at the condition of these roads which connect thousands of (black) homes.  Limpopo is statistically the poorest province in South Africa.  On our first night in Limpopo we are kindly offered a place to put our tent as the sun goes down.  A young man in a hatchback Toyota leads us to his mother’s house.  

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We are given a place for the tent.  In time, we are given a cold bottle of apple soda and a roll of toilet paper, which one of the younger men purchased for us at the store.  A small tub of water arrives for us to wash ourselves.  And then a stack of white bread, six slices in all.  And a warm can of Koo brand baked beans.  Amazing.  

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Everyone is home for Christmas.  We’ve been hearing about the significance of this time since arriving in South Africa.  As many people move away from home to find work in the cities, they are reunited with their families only several times a year.  Many are visiting from Guateng Province, including the cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg.  Many are home for two or three weeks. 

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The next day, we shoot for a potential connection through the Northern Drakensburg, the mountainous continuation of the Great Escarpment which has been our approximate guide since the Western Cape.  We find an abandoned 4×4 track through an incredible wilderness reserve.  We’ll talk more about our route across Lesotho and South Africa soon.

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We descend the escarpment from tolerably extreme heat to sweating all night in a bug net next to another sweaty person to awake at 5AM, sweating.

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On Christmas Eve, ten minutes before dark, we meet this man.  He took a taxi bus to the city of Tzaneen early in the morning, bought a bicycle, and then rode 60km home.  He also bought a new hat in town.

Across all of South Africa we’ve met many self-proclaimed mountain bikers (in plainclothes, always), but I haven’t met a single one of these well-endowed cyclists on the road or trail.  I’ve met about two dozen farmworkers riding all kinds of 26″ wheel bikes, but never the hallowed 29″ wheels that cyclists in South Africa rave about.  So what’s the secret to becoming a real cyclist?  Riding.

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Christmas Day.

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There is a line out the door at the butcher shop.  The butcher shop is just a small room with a band saw.

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Steel cans, crushed, rusted– single, double, triple, quadrupletrack.  We’re following the GPS routes from the Dragon Trax resource again, weaving doubletrack and walking trails through the bush between villages in the last few stages toward the Limpopo River, between South Africa and Zimbabwe.

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A taxi driver stops to speak with us.  I ask if he is working on Christmas.  Sort of, not really, but many others are working in bottle shops, groceries, and fruit stands.  

We agree that it is too hot.  He invites us to his home for a beer and some food.  His wife provides a plate of chicken and pap.

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We share the food, eating with our hands.  There are some approximate rules to the ritual of eating which I try to learn on the fly.

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His children, more or less.  Family details can be hard to follow.

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We are led to the center of town, “at the top of the hill”.  Not much of a hill, but there are a few shops and as many shade trees.  

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Much like the Midwest or Mexico or anywhere else, we enjoy cold beers and cars and loud music.  Here, we transition from the custody of the taxi driver to that of an older man, who we remember as “the uncle”.  He immediately learns both of our names, and for the rest of the day insists that we “feel at home”.  

“Nico, feel at home”, he says.

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Where there’s music, there is dance.

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The party has been going since Christmas Eve, at least.  A quick nap at the bottle shop should prepare this festive soul for another round. 

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Everyone is home for the holiday.  Most cars are from Guateng Province, listed as GP on license plates.  This is an old Corolla.  Toyotas outnumber any other make.  It is reported that many preowned cars and trucks are offloaded to South African ports from Japan.  

The group insists we visit the next town.  We ride, they drive.  I feel like a freshman roaming a state university campus for a party. 

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We are led to visit some family in this town.  Someone’s brother I think, mothers, some sisters, lots of kids, a second home in Joburg, the grandfather with a doctorate.  All is well in what seems like an especially civil environment compared to the bottle shop, until a small feud about money erupts.  Christmas isn’t complete without a few tears.  The group splinters back into two; we return to our village. 

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To meet the uncle’s mother.

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And to a town transformed.  Now, there are hundreds of people along the main dirt road through town.  A stew of load music pollutes the air from every direction.  African stereos only know one volume.

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The day’s extended meet and greet session continues as we arrive in town for the second time today.  This time, all eyes on us.

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We visit another town before dark.  The bottle shops can’t keep up with the demand for cold drinks, especially as some (many?) people do not have refrigerators at home.  We’re looking for some cold ciders, I am told.  They weren’t cold enough in the first town.  Hang on.  Agree.  Wave.

The day is an agreeable whirlwind of activity.  After hours and hours of alternating between cold beers, warm beers, brackish water, and cold beers, we are led to our home for the night.  Here we meet the rest of the uncle’s family, including most of the women and children.  They provide plates of food, which we eat in the dark at a table outside.  Rice, squash, beets, chicken…

An older man dances to the music by himself.  He’s a very good dancer, and he doesn’t look to see if anyone is watching, nor does he watch himself.  A woman dances, separate but near the man.  Lael joins and the women laugh loudly.  Most of the women now join for the rest of the song, and I am drawn in.  The two children are invited by adult hands.  The group poses for a series of grainy cell phone photos until I offer my camera with a flash.

Music plays into the night from all across the village, like a symphony of crickets across a field.  One by one, into the night, the voices fade.  They return just after sunrise. 

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If the sun is shining, the music is blasting.

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Pap is prepared for the day.

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Hot tea and bread for breakfast; a special treat to use the tea set, which is unearthed from a dusty cupboard just for us.  A fresh bag of black tea is opened.

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Last chance for photographs.  Goodbyes.  Great thanks to our Christmas family!

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A big bag of mangos for the road.

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Hot and humid and deflated just like I remember, we pedal our tired Christmas spirits down the road.

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Dragon’s Spine: Lundean’s Nek, ZA to Semonkong, Lesotho

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Lundean’s Nek- Teleriver- Qoboshane- Tele Bridge (RSA/Lesotho border)- Alwynskop- Ha Falatse- Phamong- Bethel- Ketane- Ha Khomo a Bokone-Ha Mojalefa Tsenekeng- Semonkong

Four boys take chase from the last town, meeting us on the road as they shortcut a series of switchbacks that we work desperately to climb.  At each turn, they stop and wait without saying a word.  They continue the slow run as we pass, keeping aside or behind by only a few feet.  Our route is a rough dirt road turned steep 4×4 track, and will soon become not much more than a loose assortment of footpaths and donkey tracks.  At the end of the doubletrack-width road, we scout the route ahead.  The eldest boy indicates one track versus another.  We continue up.  Over a thousand feet higher than where they began, the four boys turn back towards home.  One is wearing knee high rubber boots.  Another is barefoot.  They are not winded.  Barely in the first grade, these young men are stoic.  Children in Lesotho are like men and women, only smaller.

Looking for the route up to the saddle on a goose chase set forth by the pink line on my GPS– one in a series of tracks I casually downloaded from the Dragon Trax website several weeks ago– we push through the boulder field at the end of the road and choose one of many trails into the scrub.  Naturally, we follow either the best looking path or the one with the least elevation gain, ascending slowly enough to make me wonder how we will intersect the pass, likely to arrive well below it.  Slipping sideways on granular decomposing bedrock, we look upwards.  There are a dozen sheep above us along an approximate line on the hillside.  Lael thinks there is a better trail.  We point the bikes straight up the hill and begin pushing, using the brakes in the manner of an ice axe to hoist ourselves over tufts of brown grass.  We drop our bikes along the trail and break for water.  Two woman appear from the direction of the last town, carrying small backpacks and large handbags of goods.  They walk past without saying anything, barefoot.  I am amazed to see them here.  If they are surprised by our presence they don’t show it. 

The trail continues upwards as a pronounced bench cut by hoof and human, punctuated by steep scrambles through boulders worn into trail.  Looking back, I imagine that with some skill, this is mostly rideable.  We make only a few pedal strokes up to the saddle.  

At the top, a group of five men and women are seated, sharing two large mugs and one big chicken bone.  One mug contains a maize drink, lightly sweetened.  The other, which they decline to share with us, is an alcoholic maize home-brew.  They indicate through charades that it will make our heads crazy.  The chicken bone is offered, which I decline.  The sweetened maize drink is nice.  Reminds me of a drink the Raramuri prepare in the Copper Canyon, Mexico.  Two woman in the group ask for “sweets”.  We offer a small bag of raisins in trade for the taste of their drink.  Lael unveils the raisins as if a consolation for not having chocolates or candy– which we assume they are referring to– but they are delighted nonetheless.  

Despite constant exclamations for “sweets!” by the people along the roadside, I haven’t given anything to anyone, at least not since I bought some apples and nik-naks for the young girls that entertained us with a vast repertoire of songs from school.  They were adorable, educated, polite– less than five years old, I think– and did not ask for anything.  But it was lunch time, and I felt inclined to share something as Lael and I sipped a 1L glass bottle of Stoney.  Lael cut up the apples and tore open the bags of puffed maize, instructing them to share with the youngest int he group.  They did.

Once the formalities are finalized with the woman holding the chicken bone– pointing to the next village and pointing to the last– we say “Dumalang. Thank you.” and roll over the hill.  No one in the group is incredulous that we are on top of the mountain with our bicycles.  I am.

On an adjacent hillside is a small round house with a thatch roof, around which dozens of people have gathered near a smoking fire.  Something special must be cooking on that fire– an animal, I assume– and the maize beer must be flowing.  The group is loud, making an impression of being no less than a proper party, perhaps more.  This is Friday night in Lesotho.

Our route continues away from the party, now on a better trail along the hillside which is rideable about half the time, maybe more.  We gain some distance on the two barefoot women we met earlier, to lose it at the next short rocky ascent.  Coming to another saddle, a group of single-room round houses appear.  We arrive just behind the two women, who now laugh loudly.  They are tired and happy to be home.  I am happy for them, and at least I realize it is amusing that I am here.  Several children nearby agree.  

We continue away from the village on a wider bench lined with cobbles on either side.  The track appears to have been a road, or perhaps was planned as a road.  It remains for many kilometers as an easily identifiable corridor of footpaths and donkey tracks, all the way to Semonkong, always with rocks piled alongside.  Far from the open roads of the karoo, this is still the Dragon’s Spine route.  Lesotho, as it should, lends its own character to the route.

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From Barkly East and Wartrail we cross Lundean’s Nek into a fragment of the former Trankei region, between mountains and the border of Lesotho.  Transkei was one of several apartheid-era black homelands, or Bantustans as they were later called.  We are still in South Africa, but life is different here.  There are no white people, and the home life is based upon subsistence farming, not daily toil for basic wages.  The result,  as I see it in my brief visit, is not a wealthier life, but quite possibly a richer life.  Many criticize the black homelands projects for creating regional ghettos based upon race.  I agree upon principle. However, the communities seem strong and people seem more open and energetic with us.  The Bantustans were designed to become independent states, forcibly separate from the nation of South Africa.  If it sounds like a strange and strong-armed social engineering project, it was.  While separate from South Africa, none of the Bantustans were ever recognized by any other nation, a purposefully defeating geopolitical purgatory.

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Along the Tele River, between the former Transkei and Lesotho.

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Villages feature public taps.

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There are people everywhere, absolutely everywhere.

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While there are several river fords to cross into Lesotho, we continue in South Africa to the official crossing at Tele Bridge.  

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Ooph.  Beware with bottles on the fork that they do not dislodge during rough descents.  We’ve made velcro straps to secure the bottles, but this still happened.  I went straight over the bars.

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Afternoon thunderstorms are becoming more frequent, although not entirely regular.  Often, clouds build for hours and hours.  We hide inside a store.

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Funny guys, tough guys, and nice guys– South Africa is full or characters.

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Late in the evening, we make friends at the bottle shop.  We are led around by the local English teacher to see the farming project in place on his property.  I can tell he’d had a few drinks already.  We oblige nonetheless.

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We spend time in the bottle shop with a group of young men.  This woman owns the shop.  Good conversations cannot be taken lightly, and we talk for hours.

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We take a tour around town.  Many young people out walking in the evening.  For the night, we stay inside a fenced property adjacent to the bottle shop.

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By morning, we ride into Lesotho.

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Free condoms in the toilet.  Lesotho has the third highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world.

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Lesotho. South Africa is across the river.

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Alwynskop, Lesotho.

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We connect to the tar road at Alwynskop for several miles to meet a dirt road toward Phamong.  

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We’ve been told about the condition of the roads in Lesotho.  So far, so good.  There are many signs indicating projects funded by the USA, EU, and other wealthier nations.

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We stop to avoid the sun for some time.  Immediately, people move in our direction, toward our bikes, toward us.

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This young girl recites a school lesson, “I am a girl.  I am five years old.  I live in a city.  My name is…”.  

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The group joins for a shoot.

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Followed by an impromptu performance of song and dance.  The first song is in English, “Early to rise, early to bed…”, while the remaining are in Sesotho.  A half hour later I share apples and maize puffs, partly to save these girls from themselves.  They are slowly losing steam near the end of the performance.

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Day one in Lesotho features incredible roads.  But we’re still waiting for the kinds of roads that make this country (in)famous.

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Everyone has a voice, and everyone uses it.  I’ve never waved so many times in one day.

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Another stop.  Michael Jackson comes bumping out of this shop.  Curious, I enter and buy some maize puffs and a beer.  The stereo is operated by the small solar panel outdoors.  The rest of the playlist is comprised of African tunes.  We’re starved of music, and spend some time in the shade listening.

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As Lael boils eggs over a beer can stove on the ground outside, an audience surrounds.  Even I recognize how unusual we are, especially Lael.  Just as our audience peaks, she often feels the need to fit in her six minute jump roping routine.

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The stone-faced group is quickly cajoled into shouts and smiles.

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We’re headed to the village of Bethel, where we’ve ben told we can find a Canadian man.  No more was told about him, but I am curious.  In Phamong, I ask directions to the Canadian.  “His name is Mr. Ivan,” I am told.

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We find Mr. Ivan and his home, his school, his gardens, and his solar projects.  He is a former Peace Corps volunteer who settled in Bethel many years ago, and has been growing his positive influence through education and employment.  He’s an eccentric obsessed with solar energy, permaculture, and education.  He is exactly what people in this country need.  He’s also Ukrainian, via Saskatchewan.  It is not until he says “as common as borsch” in conversation that we make the connection.  The phrase has now entered my vocabulary.

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Our route after Bethel promises to be more adventurous.

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We will follow the serpentine line into the mountains, and will stay high on dotted lines until descending into Semonkong.

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Climbing from Bethel toward Ketane.

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Shops are stocked with maize, maize puffs, vegetable oil, soaps, matches, candles.  Cookies, cold drink, and beers are sometimes available.  Methylated spirits and paraffin are also common.  The official currency of Lesotho are maluti, which are price fixed against the South African rand, which are also accepted everywhere.  

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Leaving Ketane, toward the end of the road.  

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These are the boys who steadily chase us uphill.  

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The end of the road, and the beginning of our adventure into the mountains.  The boys return home.

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Just a couple of “peak baggers” in Lesotho, coming home from market.

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Party house.  Friday night in Lesotho!

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Every inch of rideable trail is worth the effort.  To share the same footpath as thousands of people over many decades is powerful.  

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The outline of a road guides us beyond the first village.

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By morning– in fact, before sunrise– a man calls out loudly in front of our tent.  “Morning!”.  I hear his voice, unzip the fly, and peer outside with sleepy eyes.  He is beaming, wearing a smile.  We exchange greetings in English and Sesotho, and I lay back to sleep.  He just couldn’t help himself.  We made our presence known in the evening to ask for a place to camp.  There is plentiful open space here, but people are so curious it is best to introduce yourself.  I most villages, it is recommended to ask the chief for permission to camp.  Our tent rests between towns for the night.  

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The idea of a road continues, village to village.  There are no vehicles, no corrugated metal, and no outhouses this far out.  Eventually, these features return one by one as we near the other end, near Semonkong.

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Outhouses and corrugated roofing reappear, indicating our proximity to town.

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Finally, we encounter a group of students who have been hired to register voters for the upcoming elections.  We make friends with many high school aged youth.  They speak English and are more connected to urban styles and global perspectives.  Cell phones are ubiquitous.  

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New styles for the 2015 spring bikepacking season.  A photo shoot ensues with both of our bikes and helmets.  

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At last, the road becomes passable by 4×4., but this last climb has us pushing.  From the end of the road near Ketane to the beginning of the road near Semonkong, I estimate that about 50-60% of the route is ridable.  Through this section we are on and off the bike frequently, although the connection this route makes is worthwhile.

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We join the flow of people to and from town. It is Saturday, and many people are returning from market with 50kg bags of maize meal, large bags of maize puffs, and other necessities and delicacies.  It is amazing the things woman can carry on their heads.

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Voter registration PSA.

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Maletsunyane Falls, the tallest falls in all of Lesotho.

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Finally, while a high quality gravel road continues toward town, the local people straight-line over hills to shorten the distance.  Our GPS track follows.

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Who cares about singletrack when you have six to choose from?

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Into Semonkong.

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Shopping.

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And out of town as fast as we can.  The town is deflated after a busy market day.  This is our first city in Lesotho, barely more than a few thousand people, and we don’t find much reason to linger.  We’re meant to be in the mountains, I realize.  The next segment promises similar adventure, as the GPS does not indicate a road for some of the distance.  Donkey track, forgotten 4×4 road?  Certainly, we’ll find footprints.  There are people everywhere.  

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Cycling in South Africa

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“Ride a bicycle: see interesting places, meet interesting people, then save the money you would have spent on a car and fly overseas.”

Everyone’s Guide to Cycling in South Africa, by David Bristow, who also co-authored the Riding the Dragon’s Spine guidebook with Steve Thomas.

A refreshingly complete look at cycling, with emphasis on “Business and pleasure”, “Touring for fun”, and “Bundu biking”, an apt yet mostly forgotten name for early mountain biking in South Africa.  Cycling in South Africa is still as great as it was in 1991.

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Life across the karoo, in broad strokes

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Prince Albert- Willowmore- Steytlerville- Jansenville- Graaff-Reinet- Nieu Bethesda- Middelburg- Steynsburg- Burgersdorp- Jamestown- Roussow- Barkley East- Wartrail- Tele River

There are small towns and expansive farms with teams of farmworkers in blue cotton coveralls slowly working under the sun in full-brimmed caps.  There are afternoon winds and windless starry midnights.  Kudu sausage and lamb chops on our plates indicate the presence of wild game and managed stock, especially Merino sheep and Angora goats.  Twice, antelope race alongside the road excited by my 18mph presence, afraid or unable to cross the barbed wire fence.  Once, I reach past 35mph with the assistance of a powerful tailwind, gaining on the full-tilt sprint of the animal.  At last, side by side, it cuts right toward the fence and jumps.  Tired or distracted or unable to jump high enough, it somersaults into barbed wire in a flurry of fur.  It watches as I disappear down the road.  Both our hearts are racing.

This is the karoo.  Our first attempt to leave Prince Albert, situated on the north side of Swartberg Pass, is foiled by strong headwinds on washboarded sandy roads.  We turn back to spend another day in town.  There, while sitting by the curb drinking from my water bottle, a man pulls up in a white bokkie.  He invites us to join him for drinks with a few friends, which necessarily means multiple rounds of brandy and coke, plates of meat, and hot chips.  He invites us to stay at his house.  The next day, we tour his stonefruit farms where he grows peaches, apricots, plums, and nectarines in a series of drainages where the waters of the Swartberg Mountains meet the sun of the karoo.  Any further into the karoo and he’d be the owner of a dusty sheep farm, but here, he manages a vast oasis which employs as many as 184 people during harvest.  In the evening, we prepare a braai.  On the second day, after wind and rain have subsided, we head east.  For the next two weeks from the Swartberg Mountains to the Drakensburg Mountains and the border of Lesotho, we’ll not escape the embrace of similarly generous farmers, wide open gravel roads, and endless sunshine.  In consecutive nights, we are treated to farm-fresh lamb, indoor accommodations, and company.  If you ask for water in these parts, you’re likely to get a whole lot more. 

The riding is as I often say, “Divide-style riding”, named for the Great Divide Route.  The gravel roads are maintained to a high standard, towns come once or twice day; food, water, and camping are fairly straightforward, especially if keeping to public routes.  Our fortune continues all the way from Cape Town as tailwinds shuttle us to the north and east.  As our path curves through the karoo, the winds shift to our backs.  I don’t know what has brought us such good fortune, but I am grateful.  With few exceptions, we’ve enjoyed weeks of tailwinds.  I am not sure why both the Freedom Challenge and Dragon’s Spine routes are scheduled in the opposite direction, although they can be toured in any direction.

On our first day out of Prince Albert we continue on the Freedom Trail (more accurately, the Freedom Challenge Race route) to Willowmore.  There, we will decide if we continue on the Freedom Trail or the Dragon’s Spine route (GPS tracks; Riding the Dragon’s Spine guidebook), which we have just discovered.  One requires some advance planning, communication with the race organizer, payment for lodging or traversing permits, and eventual portages including a notable 4×4 track east of the Baviaanskloof, which would be our next stage.  Further, the race organizer is suspicious of how we will supply ourselves with food, and if we will be able to heft our bikes over 3m tall game fences.  He and I disagree about the term self-supported.  The Dragon’s Spine entices us with a rideable route on public thoroughfares, eventually deviating into Lesotho and continuing all the way north to the border of Zimbabwe.  The route also passes near Swaziland, enabling a quick trip into that country’s mountainous western half.  The decision is easy.  We begin working towards becoming Dragonmasters out of Willowmore.

Separated by fifty miles of open country, karoo towns melt together, yet slowly change from the whitewashed touristic strip of Prince Albert in the west to the mostly black communities of Barkly East, near Lesotho.  Despite this major trend, one town may be manicured and orderly while another is disheveled and drunk by noon, for lack of work and purpose.  I find it difficult to make conversation with poor blacks in this country, at least those that wear blue coveralls to work, which is the universal laborers uniform in South Africa.  Most blacks live in sprawling townships of ramshackle government housing outside of town, vestiges of official apartheid programs.  Footworn dirt tracks lead between town centers and black townships, and mostly unpaved streets connect rows and rows of houses, which may or may not have electricity.  Many homes feature passive solar water heaters on the roof.  

It is only outside the bottle shops and tuck shops that we share a few words, as passersby marvel and squeeze our tires.  While resting in the shade eating a papaya and maas, a local cultured dairy preferred by blacks, we receive friendly and curious looks.  I imagine their wonder, “why are those sunburnt white people sitting on the ground to eat?”  Some people must realize we are tourists; schoolchildren and groups of woman carrying goods on their head shyly turn away to laugh amongst themselves.  A man is sitting on the sidewalk twenty yards away, in front of a small panel of particleboard topped with shoeboxes of generic Nik-Naks– popular maize cheese puffs– and some barely past ripe apples.  We look towards one another, each as curious as the other.  We smile and nod, as if part of a secret club of humans than still knows sitting on the ground in the shade is a good use of time.  I think so.

I haven’t heard the word racism in South Africa, yet I can’t get away from it in American media, even from afar.  We do share healthy conversations with white farmers in the evening about the direction of the country, the degradation of the schools since “they” took power of the country, the ANC party, and the rising cost of labor.  We are guests in their homes and in their countries.  And I mean what I’ve said before, we meet some of the loveliest people in the karoo.  These people are living honest Christian lives.  Its just that they grew up in a system of legislated segregation, with hundreds of years of black labor to thank for their farms, their railroads, skyscrapers, and their wealth.  And as the owner of a potato chip factory likely complains about the seemingly inconsequential rising cost of salt, white farmers challenge the rising minimum wages in this country.  Different sectors of the economy maintain unique minimum wages, including the hospitality industry (home workers, mostly, not hoteliers) and farmworkers, the two labor groups we meet.  In an article dated from 2013, the minimum wage for farmworkers was reported to have increased from R69 a day to R105, a 52% increase.  Yet, that’s an increase from about $6 dollars to $10 a day at current exchange rates.  A can of Coca-Cola costs about $0.60, a full plate of Take-Aways is usually $2-$2.50, and while plenty of bottled beer and Cokes are consumed in this country most laborers and their families subsist on fortified maize meal.  As above average inflation plagues the South African currency, wages diminish in actual value while farmers who export their products gain from the devalued currency.  Exotic mohair for export?  Peaches and apricots off the tree while the southern USA and Turkey are frozen for the winter?  South African farms are far less mechanized than in America, where farming on a massive scale is the only way to compete.  The farm industry seems healthy, but there are sighs late at night.  “It’s hard.”

For us, there is still more to unravel.  Indians were also disenfranchised during apartheid, although less so than blacks.  “Coloureds”, an official class of mixed race persons also including Malays and others, fit somewhere in between.  Asians from certain nations, usually trade partners of South Africa, were given exception as “honorary whites”.  I’m can’t seem to find any honor in the situation.  And while the task of classifying the population was a continual challenge, it stands that the most important statistic is that the elite class of whites make up less than 9% of the country’s population, descendants of Dutch, English, French, Scottish, and Germans, mostly.  But they don’t control the government anymore, at least not since the first universal democratic elections in 1994.

The country is not unsafe.  Gruesome crimes are described, such as a well-reported series of farm attacks across the country, most likely crimes of desperation.  We’re constantly reminded and warned of theft.  But the streets of small cities and towns do not bear any aggression.  People are nice.  Markets are bustling.  The population is young and growing.  A peaceful disharmony exists, although periods of struggle are likely to shape the future.

I didn’t know anything about South Africa two months ago.

Out of Prince Albert.  Into the wind.

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Jaco rescues us from the roadside, settles us at his home, and feeds us heartily.  He has made several journeys to Namibia by motorbike and recalls the hospitality he received while there.  Clean clothing was a highlight.  He plans a motorbike trip from Cape Town to Cairo in the future, if he can ever get away from the trees.  In addition to fruits, he also grows onions for seed, a common crop in the mountains before the Great Karoo.

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His fruit sorting facility is nothing like I expected.  The computerized system inspects and sorts fruits on a massive scale.  Laborers harvest the fruit.

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Back on the Freedom Trail, toward Willowmore.  The thorny acacia is omnipresent in this part of the karoo, a subregion called the thornveld.  Veld is Afrikaans, literally meaning field.

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Not much out here other than windmills and stock tanks, miles of barbed wire, and the occasional farmhouse.  When someone says “pass a few farmhouses”,that can be ten miles or more.  

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We stop for some water at a farmhouse.  Incidentally, this is a mid-day stop during the Freedom Challenge race.  We ask how frequently they see riders outside of the race.  Very few, it seems.

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Many farmhouses date back a hundred years or more, and are composed of several accretions over the years.  You’ll find some unusual floor plans in these homes.

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Angora goats, whose hair is called mohair, characterized by long, silky fibers.  Angora fibers come from an Angora rabbit.

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As we request water at dusk, we are invited indoors.  Invited to an impromptu meal, prepared by a farmer whose wife is away for the evening.  He keeps goats and sheep, some for their fibers and others for meat.  Two ostriches are what remain of a once profitable ostrich farm..

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He is a gracious host willing to share his stories and impressions of the world.  We’re fascinated to learn what people think of our country, although I didn’t know anything about this place until recently.  If he looks a little out of place in the kitchen, it may be the case.  He apologetically assembles a series of sandwiches and hurriedly thaws some meat from the deep freeze.  But of all the lamb we taste in the karoo, this may have been the best.  Perhaps it is the instruction to simply take it from the fire with bare hands that makes it taste to good.

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Kudu boerwors and lamb.

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All sheep farmers are former rugby players.  All karoo farmers love to eat meat.  South African men take great pride in their braai, both the technique and the equipment.  His braai is homemade from an oil drum.

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The next morning we detour towards a possible connection with some hot springs which Johan has recommended.  Still early in the morning, we opt to continue riding.  However, these unimproved springs are located with a waypoint on the Tracks4Africa GPS basemaps.  From the north, you can follow the rail line from Vondeling Station between the mountains.

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Rains re-awaken the desert.

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A few towns offer a limited touristic infrastructure, which diminishes as we travel east away from the reach of Capetonians.  Eventually, small towns feature a single aging hotel at the center of town.

Willowmore.

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Outside of town, the black townships sprawl into the veld.  Each township appears like an upscale suburban neighborhood on my GPS, but I soon learn the pattern of the land.  White people live on farms in the country or in the small grid of old homes in town.  Blacks live in farm housing, or in sub-urban townships as much as several kilometers from town.  The quality and vintage of the housing varies.

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Along the Groot River for the evening.

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Some farm housing, more substantial and scenic than most.  No electricity, no running water, and only salvaged wood to heat the home and cook.

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Again, at dusk, we inquire about water and a place to camp.  We are offered a place on the lawn.  By morning, we’re called to a hearty farmer’s breakfast of eggs, sausage, and toast with coffee.  Homemade marmalade is a highlight.

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This is our turn, of course.

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Steytlerville.

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Jansenville.  Ripping tailwinds put us over 100 miles on this day.

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Again, with the plea for water, we are offered a place to sleep.  Rather, I try to insist we sleep outside but it seems foolish in light of the offer.  A guest cottage down the road is our home for the night.  As we step out the door, Sydney and his wife Gay hand us two freezer bags of meat.  One is kudu sausage, or boerwors (farmer’s sausage), and the other are lamb chops.  We’re tired, but we start a fire outdoors to cook the meat. There is only one way to prepare meat like this.  It would have been a shame to waste it in the pan.

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In the morning we are again called to breakfast, and asked to assist with a special project.  A ewe is suffering from severe mastitis and cannot feed her young.  Lael sternly assists in the delivery of a formula.

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And before we go, a meat snack for the road– homemade kudu biltong.  This lean cured meat is like jerky, but usually requires the aid of a knife to portion it into manageable bits.

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These days, we’re carrying as much as 4-5 liters of water each.  That full quantity is only essential if we expect to camp overnight.  The system of bottle cages on the fork was first devised for long stretches of the Freedom Trail, although established water sources are more plentiful on the Dragon’s Spine route.  Each side of the fork holds 1.6L of water in two cages, tightly taped to the fork with about a half a roll of electrical tape.  Other tape works just as well, but the trick is to get it tight.  With two bottles playing precariously near to the front wheel, we fashioned some velcro straps for security.

Note, we are carrying a pack of water treatment tablets purchased in Cape Town in case we require them, but are relying upon taps in town or on farms, and occasionally at stock tanks.  If we camp near a water source we will prepare hot food or drink from the source, bringing the water to a boil.  

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Graaff-Reinet.

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At the Spar supermarket, Braaipap is marketed toward a white Afrikaner audience.  Everyone eats maize in South Africa, cooked into pap, usually the consistency of thick grits or polenta.  Poor families rely upon it as a staple, usually purchased in 25 or 50kg bags.  Most common brands of maize are fortified.  About 11 or 11.5 South African rand to the dollar this week, so even these 5lb bags of premium maize are less than $2. 

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Stopped to camp by the roadside.  Lael is still jumping twice a day.

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Erasmuskloof Pass, just a little notch in the many small mountains that dot the karoo.

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Thankfully, all the gates on these public routes swing open.

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Nieu Bethesda, a quaint little town in the karoo that white people like to visit.  Situated at 4500ft in a small mountain valley, it really is a beautiful setting.  Read more about it on the Revelate Blog.

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Several kitsch-chic cafes serve the touristic community.  A local brewery offers these fine unfiltered ales.

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Dirt Busters by Deon Meyer is a great resource for off-pavement routes across the country.  Meyer is an Afrikaans novelist famed for thrillers.

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Signs in miles, before converting to metric.

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Droewors, Afrikaans for dry sausage.

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Camped inside a game reserve, we hear antelope and zebra throughout the night.

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Here, our GPS track chooses a less travelled doubletrack.  Admittedly, I don’t have the complete guidebook of the route.  I glanced at a few pages in Prince Albert before I was certain that we’d be riding the route.  There are some inaccuracies and missing sections in the GPS files offered on the Dragon Trax website, not unusual for a new resource like this.  I’ll see if I can offer some improved tracks.  

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Just to see how one might singlehandedly cross a 3m game fence with a loaded bike, I pass the first 2m fence in front and hoist my bike to the top of the taller fence.  

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Let it down slow.

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Middelburg.  The owner at the dainty Afrikaans coffee shop (tea room/craft center/jam cellar) asks if we have a way to cook some sausage.  Sure!  I expect she will return with a small freezer-pack of local boerwors.  She returns with a large plastic bag of fresh, never frozen local kudu sausage.  At least six or eight pounds in total, maybe ten.  I make room in my seatpack, which I just packed with two days of food.

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Seeing as the sausage must be cooked immediately, we set about on a mission.  A gravel pit, salvaged fencing and barbed wire, and scrapwood from the veld serve to make an impromptu braai for our meat.  Under clear skies and with a chilled bottle of sauvignon blanc from town, we sit and slowly cook the wors.

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Such high-quality lean meat has us soaring for days.  We both enjoy meat, but this was some superfood.  Biltong is second best.

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Steynsburg.

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I’ve stopped many times to offer air to riders whose tires are gradually and continually losing air.  This bike has been converted to a singlespeed.  The frame is broken at the top of the seat tube, has been welded, and is broken again.  The front wheel is from an English three speed, 26 x 1 3/8″, and uses a Dunlop valve.  The rear Schrader valve was no problem for my Lezyne pump though.

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There is surprisingly little washboard on these roads.  When we tell farmers that the roads are very nice in their country, both the paved and unpaved roads, they are astounded.  Somehow, the world imagines everything is perfect in America.  

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Burgersdorp.

I’m pretty much fluent in Afrikaans, as long as it relates to coffee, tea, sugar, cookies, and milk.  One-stop shopping in aisle two.

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Another black township on the edge of town, this one is called Mzanomhle.  These townships typically include many of their own shops, schools and other services.  Rugby and cricket are popular sports for white youth.  Football, sometimes also called soccer, is a black sport. 

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This is approximately what I see on my GPS when entering town.  I know the classic grid in white near the intersection of the main yellow roads will be the town with the main shops, owned by white Afrikaners, Chinese, and Indians, mostly.  The complex of red communities are the black townships.  Oh, and the red lines are dirt streets.  The white ones are paved.

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Commuting to work.  This rider caught up with me on a short climb, although my excuse is that we had just started pedaling for the day.  I need some time to warm up.

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Jamestown.

You can’t go wrong in this freezer.

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Schools are an important part of life for children here, and during the day groups of children in uniform populate the town during a midday break.  These boys enjoy the afternoon after a half-day of school on a Friday.  After a substantial English exam in the form of a lengthy conversation in which I asked everything I’d been dying to know about lives in the township, I share a bag of cheese flavored corn puffs with them.  The eldest boy on the left is the most outgoing– in English at least.  His mother works as a cook at the school and his father drives an ambulance.  Their favorite meal at school is chicken and pap.  There are eleven official languages in South Africa, including 9 native languages besides English and Afrikaans.  English is the official language of government and business, but many whites grow up speaking Afrikaans, especially on farms.  However, everyone speaks some English, and there are truly English families, some of which speak the language, and others who also trace their ancestry to the Isles.  Some of the other languages include Xhosa, Sotho, and Zulu.

There are schools that teach primarily in English, Afrikaans, and any of the other nine languages.  All teach some English, and many still teach some Afrikaans.  However, attending a proper English school is a huge advantage for these young boys.

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Not far down the road, perhaps an hour or two, we are stopped by a passing truck to come fill our waters at their farmhouse down the way.  We stop, we talk.  We play with the kids.  Now, we are asked to stay for dinner and to stay the night  In that case, I jump in the small above ground pool with the kids.  

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They show us around the farm, home to hundreds of merino sheep.  They will be sheared several times, but eventually they are sold to slaughter.

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She is as charming as she looks, and has taken a liking to speaking English although her family mostly speaks Afrikaans at home.  Who says TV is a waste of time?  Despite her indoor education (even before school age) she is most at home outdoors running barefoot through pens full of sheep shit.  Her older brother will soon move away to boarding school for the semester.  Most farm children move away for school, as young as 5 or 6 years old.  They grow up quickly.

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Their father Casper is the head of the provincial wool growers association.  In addition to facilitating the industry across a vast area, he is also involved with a program to connect upstart black farmers with the skills and expertise they may need to achieve independent success– a refreshing perspective.  Livestock theft is common, especially at night.  He says it happens frequently on a full moon.  This is one of few farm families that did not have a servant in the house during the day.  At less than a dollar an hour, it now makes some sense to me how people can afford this.

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Dordrecht.

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I’m still trying to unravel the marketing mystery of coffee and chicory in this country.  All share almost the exact same packaging and claims of being “Rich and Strong”.  They’re are all cheap and tolerable, easy on the stomach, and virtually caffeine-free.  They brew a dark pot best enhanced with a spoonful of sugar.  We’ve grown to like it even though real coffee is available at the fancy supermarkets.  Rooisbos tea is also a favorite midday drink as we pass time in the noon hour in the shade. 

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There is either an Anglican or a Dutch Reformed Church in each town, or both.

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Roussow, an exclusively black community without any historic infrastructure, no grid, no old church.  This village reminds us of some reservations in America.

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Again, we replay the request for water and receive a room for the night.  Twenty four year old Vossie is living by himself in a five-bedroom house, managing part of a sheep farm with over 8000 sheep.  His parents and brother live several kilometers down the road.  Hard rain falls through the night and all through the next day.  We spend the day drinking coffee, napping, and watching bad movies with Vossie on TV.  He is the sixth farmer we have stayed with, the fifth to prepare lamb for us, and the sixth to also be a rugby player.  One of the few white people we have met near our age, we is refreshingly aware of life in America.  Again, a little TV never hurt, although he was concerned we might all be gun-crazed hoarders preparing for the apocalypse.  I think the Discovery Channel is to blame.  Lots of American TV is exported to South Africa. 

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His home is tucked up into the hillside, near 6000ft.  From Prince Albert we have slowly ascended from about 2000ft.  From here, we remain above 5000ft all the way through Lesotho, the Mountain Kingdom.  We’re getting close.

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Shuttling sheep along the paved road with flaggers.

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Barkly East.

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Take a look at the local slaghuis, the butcher shop, for some delightful dried meats.  We buy half a kilo of biltong and half a kilo of droewors to pack into Lesotho.

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The Dewey Decimal System, in Afrikaans.

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Some Xhosa books.

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Natural products and tinctures on the shelves of the local market.

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There is a small stifling culture of inns, teas rooms, and coffee shops operated by white Afrikaner woman.  I suspect much of this will disappear in the next generation.

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This is more or less how Lael sees things.  

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Railroad switchbacks.  Took me awhile to understand this.

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 Hansa Pilsener is a popular SABMiller product, a fraction of the company’s global beverage dominance.  The original South African Breweries (SAB) originated in 1895.

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The Drakensburg Mountains are surfacing.

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Protein loading.

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What’s that, a bag of meat?

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In our last night in the country before crossing into Lesotho, we meet another sheep farmer.  Vossie mentioned a friend who had a farm near Wartrail on the right.  I assumed his instructions were lacking detail and ignore them.  By chance, when we ask for water, he’ve hit the mark.  Another guest cottage for the night.  Just ask for water.

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Off to Lesotho!

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Just a sliver of South Africa left, through the Transkei region along the border before crossing at Tele Bridge.  Should be all mountains and crumbling dirt roads for the next week or more!

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In other words, from AK to ZA

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Dundee is a gorgeous town in the Battlefields region of the KwaZulu-Natal province.  The air is humid, the land green; trees are a growing resource for shade after weeks in the veld.  The city is an unusually un-segregated mix of black and white, bustling with small town commerce, equal parts derelict and shiny new.  A lack of abandoned storefronts is a feature in a rural town in South Africa, as in America.  The Dragon’s Spine route has ushered us through the open roads of the karoo and over the mountain highlands of Lesotho, and back into South Africa.  Leaving the country for two weeks and arriving in another province and another climate is startling and exciting.  The South Africa we left behind is different than the South Africa we discover in the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal, but not altogether different.  We rode about 30km of gravel railroad service roads yesterday from Elandslaagte to Dundee.  In Dundee we’ve just been interviewed by the local newspaper, the Northern KwaZulu-Natal Courier.  The woman at the local tourist office phoned a correspondent from the paper.  We stand in front of our bikes outside the office for a photo.

In spite of the recent drought on the blog, several outlets have published materials originating from our mad traveling contraption.  Soon, we return to your regularly scheduled program.  Enjoy!

The Salsa Cycles Blog has published “Riding to a Glacier” about an impromptu ride from our front door in Anchorage, AK to the Knik Glacier.  While the events have been documented on the blog, this is an original adaptation, featuring Lael, Christina, and the inimitable Carp, who can ride through waist-deep water.  Thanks to Mike Riemer for sharing our home-brew adventures with the Salsa community!

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The Revelate Designs Blog features “A Letter from South Africa”, in which I complain about white people who complain about being white in a country where being white is still a great privilege.  But we meet some of the loveliest people in the karoo, “these people have hearts the size of Africa.  It is money and politics which lack heart, I suppose.”  There are details about broken carbon, a failed $90 tire, more dead zippers, and a USB charging device that quit after a month–  a must read for curious gear heads.  There are details about the groundbreaking luggage designs in use on our bikes.  Thanks to Eric Parsons for epically creative luggage and the chance to speak candidly about life on the road.

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The new Routes page on Pedaling Nowhere is a growing resource of established routes and creative additions to our community.  It brings detailed and visual route information to one place, including inspiring images, essential stats, and route descriptions.  There are many ways to find and design routes, but this resource has a lot of potential to connect more people with more riding.  I’ve shared three routes from our European adventures alongside classic rides from Cass Gilbert, Joe Cruz, Logan Watts, Tom Walwyn, and more.  Thanks to Logan Watts for the visual and technical expertise to create such a powerful site.  Just don’t follow any of his bikepacking tips— as always, drink real beer!

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Another great place to discover routes is Bikepacking.net, one of the oldest resources of its kind.  There is a growing list of bikepacking routes, an active forum, and an user-supported database of gear reviews, trip reports, and tech.  I recently added the Bike Odyssey race route in Greece to the page.  Sign up to become a member of the forums or to add content to the page.  If you haven’t yet heard of Scott and the mammoth bikepacking scavenger hunt he and Eszter completed this past summer on the Continental Divide Trail (not the Great Divide Route!), you should also write to thank him for the concept of a bikeable Arizona Trail (AZT), and for the Coconino Loop, the Gila River Ramble, and other SW-area routes.  He’s also the guy behind Trackleaders.com and Topofusion mapping software, and has inspired riders to carry their bikes for over ten years.  A veteran bike adventurer and computer programer, I crown him “The Wizard” of bikepacking.  Thanks Scott!

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Bikepackers Magazine, in collaboration with Bikepacking.net, has compiled a resource called the 2014 Bikepacking Year in Review.  Lael and I are featured among a list of accomplished racers and riders, including Mike Hall, Kurt Refsnider and Jay Petervary; Scott Morris, Eszter Horanyi, Cass Gilbert, Kurt Sandiforth, Bjorn Olson and Kim McNett.  Bikepackers Magazine is a top resource for bikepacking news.

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Lastly, the Anchorage Dispatch News published an article about us just before we left town in July, entitled “Bike-work routine allows couple to take long cycling treks”.  Lael and I lived in Anchorage for the winter and organized an event called “The Art of Bikepacking”.  Held at The Bicycle Shop on Dimond, I shared a series of photographic prints from our travels in Europe; Eric Parsons of Revelate Designs spoke about the history of his company; and Dan Bailey shared professional tips for amateur adventure photographers like us.  Thanks to Erik Hill for the exposure in the ADN.

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