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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9 thoughts on “A Limpopo Christmas, South Africa

  1. Wonderful read of how you spent Christmas and the photographs are always so enjoyable and adventurous. A bit of “on the road” jealousy here too!

  2. Nick and Lael,We really enjoy reading your blogs! For those of us who maybe won’t be biking to South Africa…ha….we get a good sense of culture and people through your writing….We will keep reading! Dana and Dick Sander

  3. Lael is a lovely young woman, but there was one photo of her nose where it looked like she was really neglecting the sunscreen. Skin cancer will get you in your 50s depending on your exposure and your genetics.

    • SPF 50 on the nose all day long. We’ve been riding for the last five months, now over two months in South Africa. We seek shade when possible, but it isn’t always possible or convenient. Neither or us enjoy sunburnt noses, but it is what we’re dealt at the moment. Brimmed hats may help, but the helmets are more important I think.

  4. Wow. Sounds like your enjoying South Africa! Happy Holidays! Glad they were special (aren’t they always when your on a bike?). Look forward to hearing about your New Years celebrations.

    • Oh, New Years was spent camping in the bush not more than 500m from the closest house that was blasting music all night. South Africa has been great, and there are a few more blog posts coming, but we’ve got plans to escape the tropical heat.

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