Facebook and cigarettes; Sinai, Egypt

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I’m taking grainy high ISO photos of soldiers taking pictures of others soldiers standing with their arm around Lael.  The sun has set and we’re standing outside a major military checkpoint on the main highway in Sinai, at the junction with the road up to St. Catherine’s and Mt. Sinai.  They’ve taken pictures standing beside me, but they seem to prefer Lael.  I’ve been in this country long enough to expect that.  Technically, the soldiers are considerate of the way they handle her.  It still kind of disgusts me, but that’s my own projection on their otherwise polite behavior.  Maybe it is the comments in Arabic which are followed by laughs that concern me.  I smile in non-commmital non-agreement, so as not to be standing expressionless when they are laughing.  One of the three men in the group named Muhammad offers another Cleopatra cigarette.  Butane lighters rise from every pocket, each reaching to light another man’s cigarette.    

I’m told to show the photos I’ve just taken.  “You must delete, no military picture”.  They continue the cell phone photo shoot.  Another truck arrives, expected to be our last ride of the day, now past dark.  We sit in the back seat of this vehicle, the first extended cab and the first cushioned seat of the day.  The truck will depart at 7.  Meanwhile, four soldiers including the commanding officer, who compares himself to a tiger, are huddled around four cell phones.  They are focused on the larger Samsung phone with a proper screen.  What’s the chance they’re handling official business via the phones?  Within the hour we’re blowing up the pockets of Egyptian soldiers all over Sinai.  From the last six months in Albania and Lesotho, and now in Sinai, I’m convinced this is “the year of Facebook”.  I wasn’t alive when we set foot on the moon or color television arrived.  But I was in Sinai when Facebook landed.

We’ve been shuttled down the western coastline of the Sinai Peninsula in five different trucks, this our sixth.  Riding from Cairo under the Suez Canal– I surely thought we wouldn’t be allowed to ride through the tunnel– we are stopped at the first checkpoint leading south onto the peninsula.  There, the police confiscate our passports.  We wait in the shade.  A “convoy” will soon arrive.  We begin riding behind a police truck.  Within a kilometer, the commanding officer realizes we are not riding motorcycles and that we will not be able to keep pace at 90km/h.  A coach bus full of tourists is part of our convoy and the driver is yelling about something.  We are forced to load our bikes into the back of the truck, reluctantly, although I quickly relent.  The road is flat, surrounded by mostly flat desert and abandoned hotels and trash.  At each checkpoint, we unload our bicycles and wait for another truck to arrive to cart us across the following section of road.  By the time we reach the second checkpoint no one knows who we are or where we are going, except they ask for our passport and ask where we’ve come from and arrange another ride. I’ve taken the front wheel off our bicycles to pack them into the back of the second truck, leaving room for the two of us and two young recruits with two ancient AK-47s.  By the third checkpoint, it is assumed our bicycles are broken.  Surprisingly, nobody speaks more than a few words of English.  I don’t speak a word of Arabic, yet.  I am surprised, considering the hordes of young men with near-perfect English in Cairo selling services and counterfeit sunglasses and jeans.  Not until we arrive in the city of El Tor do we meet someone that can explain the situation, which doesn’t require much explaining.  They consider the road isn’t safe to cycle, although dozens of private vehicles and tour buses pass.  We’re told we cannot be riding after dark.  I try to explain that we weren’t; we were first stopped seven hours ago.  Another officer insists, scathingly, that we mustn’t ride after dark.  Okay.

After a night in Tor, we are allowed to ride to Sharm el Sheik, the package tourist resort town at the southern tip of the peninsula.  Arriving at dark we camp out in the desert on the way out of town.  In the morning, we are not allowed to pass the checkpoint, and are forced to pay for a seat on the next East Delta bus to pass.  Arriving in Dahab, I spot a dotted line on a tourist map connecting to Nuweiba via the coast.  I ask the attendant at the petrol station if such a road exists.  “Yes, behind the Blue Hole you must carry your bike over the hill.”  This is our only chance to explore Sinai off-pavement.  If we go back to the main road we surely will not be able to ride.

To anyone looking to ride through Sinai, until the situation changes, which it will, you should be allowed to travel from Eilat, Israel to Cairo, but almost certainly not via the road straight across the peninsula.  Rather, you will take the road to the south through Sharm el Sheik.   At the discretion of each checkpoint officer, you may be allowed to ride.  Otherwise, frequent bus services are offered between Taba and Sharm el Sheik, and from Sharm to Cairo, with stops in between.  You may be shuttled into the back of police trucks as we were.  It is not the right time to plan a visit to Sinai, but if you are hoping to continue a long-distance ride through the region (Syria would be a bigger problem), it is possible.  Sharm el Sheik and Dahab are still welcoming a small but steady flow of tourists from Russia, UK, EU, and USA, as well as many Egyptians on winter holiday.   

Leaving Cairo via the main road, decreasingly busy as we near Suez and the Sinai Peninsula.

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Our first night is spent adjacent a military checkpoint in an abandoned building.  Six 22 year old soldiers invite us in for tea at dusk, sit us in their bunkhouse, and prepare a dinner of flatbread, scrambled eggs, and soft feta.  They close the door and leave us to eat privately.  After another cup of tea and the offer of a cigarette, they show us the building across the road.  While protected from the wind, the sound of passing trucks commands our dreams for the night.

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Roadside stops are nicely appointed, offering hot drinks and shisha.  Cold drinks and packaged goods are available.  Amazing how a cooler full of cold cans and some dusty seating could be anywhere in the world.

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Sinai at the speed of a police escort.

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Both boys are named Muhammad.

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Another checkpoint, between mountains and the sea.

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El Tor to Sharm el Sheik.

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Sharm el Sheik is the kind of place to avoid unless you enjoy the spectacle.  A constant state of incomplete development and cheap tourist tricks mar the otherwise beautiful setting at the southern tip of Sinai.  Many signs are in Russian.  

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East Delta bus to Dahab.

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Dahab, a long-haired version of Sharm where divers and Russian beach bums spend the winter.  The Blue Hole is a popular diving attraction.  Not a bad place to kill a few months for cheap.  Reminds us of Baja.

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We’ll come back with fatbikes some day.  

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We push out of town just before dark, hiking over the hill behind the Blue Hole and camping on the beach for the night.  

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The trail continues for several kilometers to Ras Abu Galum, where a dirt road resumes all the way to Nuweiba.  

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Egyptians account for the few people enjoying the simple beach camp at Ras Abu Galum.  The Peace Land Cafe provides simple foods and some drinks, as well as accommodations in the form of simple shelters.

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Other than a few tourists and some Bedouins, there isn’t much out here.  There are two military checkpoints on the way to Nuweiba.  None of the young men at either checkpoint are in uniform, and none are armed.  There is a friendly Jordanian-Italian man who lives in Holland fishing for calamari with an old Bedouin man whom he calls his uncle.  

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Near Nuweiba, local Bedouins are fishing for the day, preparing foods over fires on the beach.

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“Come!  Tea!  Eat!”  Typical Egyptian hospitality.

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Old Testament.

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Home for the night in one of many abandoned buildings on the coast.

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Nuweiba.

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Just about a dime a dozen.  Beats the hell out of a baguette.

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Thankfully, we are allowed to ride from Nuweiba to Taba, and across the border to Israel.

At the north end of the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea: Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

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Welcoming Russian, Ukrainan, and EU tourists.  Who expects Ukrainian tourists?  You know you’ve found a budget travel destination when…

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Israel claims only several kilometers of Red Sea coastline, as does Jordan.  Both make the most of it. 

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We are not in Egypt any more.  Into Israel to check out the Israel National Bike Trail and the Holyland MTB Challenge race route!  Anyone living in Israel, Jordan, or Palestine?

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Walking to the pyramids; Cairo, Egypt

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Leave the bikes in storage for a few days.  Cairo is a walking city.  It is possible to cycle in the city, although best to avoid late afternoon and evening when Cairo reaches a climax.  Mornings are cool and quiet, as Cairenes sleep late and start slow.  Friday morning is especially quiet as the county is at prayer– also a good time to ride.  After enough sugar cane juice, shisha, and tea, Cairo gains steam by mid-afternoon and charges through the evening.  Fancy buying a watch or a car at 11PM?  It’s available, alongside counterfeit Levis and Adidas, many of which remarkably bear three solid stripes, at one-third the expected price.  Typical two stripe and four stripe models are also available.  Sidewalks flow steadily through the last half of the day, except for blockages near ice cream stands, which are en vogue.  Side streets reveal unremarkable shops selling mops and sponges and repair parts for Indian and Chinese made motorbikes.  The cheapest food in the city is found on these back streets.  Here the proprietor is also less likely to extort a few extra Egyptian pounds for the service, for lack of practice at such things.

In three consecutive days, today our fourth, we walk.  On our first day we walk to the pyramids, twenty miles round trip, with lots of dust and traffic but just as much fresh cane juice to wash it away.  Arriving just before the gates close, we spot the nearest two structures, embrace their presence, and turn around toward home.  There is a golf course just beneath the pyramids.  Some of the most aggressive touts in the city are found here, selling camel rides.  No thanks, we walked here.  Some have to be told twice.

We meet a helpful young man in an all white linen suit who claims to have business in Sharm el Sheik, a popular resort town at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.  He indicates that it is safe to ride to Sharm; that he takes this trip by car weekly.  This is the hopeful answer to a question which we have been otherwise unable to answer.  Is it safe to cycle in Sinai?  Will we be able to reach Taba, at the border of Isael?  He thinks, and we hope. 

On the second day, we walk to the Coptic city, a walled area which encompasses ancient Coptic churches, a synagogue, and cemeteries with names written in French, Greek, and Arabic.  Copts are ancient Christian Egyptians– Oriental Orthodox– who predate the Muslim conquest of Egypt.  They persist as the largest Christian community in the Middle East, and the largest religious minority in the Arab Republic of Egypt.

On the third day we walk to the old Islamic city, in the shadows of the Saladin Citadel.  There are fruit vendors and tea cafes, and a vendor selling tongue, liver, and the skin of a cow’s head, skillfully removed from the animal.  We arrive late in the afternoon, as the mosques and attractions are closing.  No thanks, we don’t need a tour.  In most of the city people look at us with some curiosity, yet mostly leave us alone.  ‘Welcome to Egypt”, they say.  Near popular touristic attractions, it is different.  We’re happy to spend our time walking.

We meet a group of children riding bicycles in the gated lot in front of the Abdeen Palace.  The streets are too busy for children to be riding bikes, although as if by magic there are men delivering loads of bread by bicycle, riding against, across, and with traffic.  They balance long wooden racks of flatbread on their heads.  The boys in the lot are riding the typical fat-tire BMX bikes, the two oldest boys on typical British city bikes.  The boys heckle and holler in Arabic.  So as not to encourage them, I offer only a faint smile.  Three girls are riding bicycles.  Lael and I approach.  They accept our presence with shy smiles, questions and eventually, selfies.  We accept the offer to ride their bikes, wishing we had our bikes to show them,and to explain that we wish to ride across Egypt.  I try to explain, but without props it is hard to convince them of the inconceivable and impossible.  We feign normal levels of excitement to make their acquaintance, but Lael and I look at each other, our eyes screaming “these girls are riding bikes in Egypt!”.  For some context about women and cycling in Islamic countries, check out the inspiring trailer for the Afghan Cycles film, documenting the fledgling Women’s National Cycling Team in Afghanistan.

Check out Lael’s thoughts about Cairo in her post titled Running in Egypt.     

On the fourth day, we walk to the Nile and nowhere in particular.  We take a brief out-and-back trip on the metro.  In each car, men offer their seat to Lael.  We pack our things, downloads maps and tracks to the GPS for Sinai and Israel, including the Holyland MTB Challenge.  We will leave in the morning, after a cup of cane juice.

All images from Fujifilm X100T, purchased in Johannesburg to replace another broken Olympus body.

Check out the Blue Bird Hotel for a cheap place to stay in the center of Cairo.  In a city famous for disingenuous dealings, the young brothers that own this place are refreshing.  We paid less than $18 a night with breakfast.  Secure bike storage was made available.  Cairo is our favorite city anywhere.

To the pyramids:

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To the Coptic city:

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To the Citadel:

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The Nile and the Metro:

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JNB, DOH, CAI

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JNB, DOH, CAI.  Johannesburg, South Africa; Doha, Qatar; Cairo, Egypt.  

Run to the bicycle shop to pick up bike boxes, catch a ride home in the shop’s team van.  Pack bikes.  Ride to Sandton Gautrain station, sitting next to boxes in back of a Honda CR-V.  Gautrain to O.R. Tambo airport.  Check in with Qatar, luggage under 30kg no problem, bikes fly free.  Process VAT tax refund for camera and shoes, money which will arrive on a cash card in 6 weeks or months.  Running to catch plane to Doha, despite lots of extra time.  Movie selection is great, lamb and basmati rice with French red wine and chocolate torte, hand wipes, earplugs and eye mask if you wish.  No sleep, just movies.  Doha, again. Never thought I would return.  This time it is amusing and comfortable.  Almost miss the flight to Cairo, for real, Lael somewhere between the bookshop and the ladies room, head in the clouds.  Movies, snacks and birdseye views of Arabia all the way to Cairo– Persian Gulf resorts, Arabian Desert farming, Suez Canal, and Cairo, the city seemingly made of sand.  Deboard.  Buy tourist visa for $25, fastest customs processing ever.  Reassemble bikes in the shade, with watchful but polite eyes.  Ride away on wide boulevard, peaceful for the first kilometer, followed by 20 mad kilometers, increasingly frenetic.  Ride fast to keep up with the stream, no traffic lights.  Finally, elevated highway with no exits and entrances and traffic slowed to 35 mph, safer if not safe.  Drop back into the madness, slowly understanding how 16 million people can move through the same city without a single traffic light– civility.  One truck carries thousands of eggs, neatly stacked and unsecured.  Traffic is jammed near the center, bikes win.  Hotel which I’d arranged is lame: empty, and politely rude on the phone, no thanks to Lonely Planet’s top recommendation online.  “Welcome to Egypt.  You need hotel.  I give you good price.”  No thanks, but one such clever streetcorner entrepreneur suggests the Blue Bird Hotel, which is perfect.  The young brothers that own the place, one named Islam, ask what we’d like for our welcome drink.  “Coffee?”  Of course.  There is a familiar spice in the coffee, which at least the Egyptians are humble enough to call Turkish coffee, unlike the Greeks.   Leave the bikes in a storage closet and sleep in a dark room for a long time.  Tomorrow we walk twenty miles to the pyramids.

The Gautrain takes bikes which are packed in a box or a bag, although plastic bags and tape can conceal a mostly complete bicycle.  Qatar Airlines accepts bikes weighing less than 30kg free of charge, but overweight items are ridiculously expensive.  Riding anywhere in Cairo is possible with nerves of steel; best to come and go in the morning– the city sleeps late and is slow to start.

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Arabian farming.

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Suez Canal.

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Cairo, the city seemingly made of sand.

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Dragon’s Spine: Barberton to Limpopo (to Joburg)

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This is another composite route, heavily guided by the Dragon’s Spine Route through Mpumalanga and Limpopo, with the exception of the section through the Wolksberg Wilderness.  The route from Messina to Joburg is our own.

Nelspruit- Alkmaar- Mount Carmel Pass- Long Tom’s Pass- Blyderivier- Pilgrim’s Rest- Kaspersnek Pass- Ohrigstad- Burgersfort- Bothashoek- Makuba- Dublin- Kappa- Modifa- Wolksberg Wilderness- Haenertsburg- Houtbosdorp- Mooketsi- Blinkwater- Letaba Dam- Thohoyandou- Gundani- Klein Tshipise- Popallin Ranch- Limpopo River- Messina (border town to Zimbabwe)- Mopane- Waterpoort- Vivo- Senwabarwana- Monte Christo- Rebone- Marken- Visgat- Vaalwater- Alma- Sandrivierspoort- Rooiberg- Leeupoort- Assen- Brits- Hartbeespoort Dam- Pretoria- Centurion- Johannesburg 

Dropping from elevation into Barberton and Nelspuit, in the northeastern Lowveld region of South Africa, the air is hot and humid.  We’ve tasted this air since first passing within range of the Indian Ocean, leaving the high mountains of Lesotho, but the experience is thickening by degrees and percent humidity each time we enter the lowlands, each time a degree of latitude further north to the equator.  Mangos are plentiful, such that we can hardly consume them as fast as we find them or are given bagfuls.  Bananas are sold by the roadside, but we do not see the trees.  Macadamia nuts are the new choice crop of white farmers, formerly citrus, avocado, or banana farmers, or urban professionals.  On a clear day it is hot.  On a hazy humid day it is hotter.  At night, inside two layers of tent (one for the bugs, the other for the heavy dew), millimeters from the sunbaked earth, stuck to a plastic sleeping pad without clothing, it is hottest.  There are a few nights where we don’t fall asleep until very late at night, already morning.  

The night before Christmas, tired from several long days of riding and too much sun, we awake before 5AM.  The night was too hot, the sunrise reveals the too hot sun.  But by the time we are rolling on the bikes, the breeze matches the rate of perspiration and the atmosphere is bearable and until midday I forget that I am tired.  In the shade, if you aren’t moving for long enough, it is possible to stop sweating.  Just don’t lift a finger.  

Day after day of sleepless nights and too hot days and wondering if anti-malarial Mefliam pills are making me hallucinate or if it is just the mirage and a tired brain, the challenge of a brief period of washboard on the sandy road alongside the Limpopo River is too much.  That feeling of riding full-speed into a rumblestrip of sandy washboard with sweat dripping from my nose, to be slowed to a speed in which every corrugation becomes an obstacle, bucking up and down– that is the moment.  I wait in the glittering shade of a thorn tree, agreeing to swarms of micro malarial mosquitoes in trade for some respite from the sun.  Most of my body is content with the sun, including my arms and shoulders, but our noses have taken a beating.  Lael arrives.  Almost without saying anything, there is agreement.  “I don’t think that I can do this for the next six months”, I say.  If we continue riding at our current pace, we’ll follow the vertical noon sun north, past the equator and all the way to Ethiopia and Sudan.  This is not the season for that trajectory.  “I don’t want to do this for the next six months.”  

We were planning to cross the border to Zimbabwe tomorrow.  Within six hours, having arrived in the border town of Messina, we’ve bought cheap plane tickets to Cairo.  In less than three weeks we fly from Johannesburg back through Doha to Cairo.  Our focus is on Israel, Turkey and Georgia, but there is more to it including Egypt, Armenia, and Lebanon.  Georgia has been the goal for the last two seasons.  There is much to be excited about.

Planning to cross into Zimbabwe soon, I prepare the bikes for several months of travel while in Nelspruit.  I service both suspension forks, replace consumable drivetrain parts on my bike, source a spare tire, brake pads, and a cable.  Lael‘s secondhand Rock Shox Reba fork came to us with her Raleigh XXIX back in 2012, part of a mostly complete bicycle sourced for $400.  The fork has been serviced four times, seals replaced once, and it has almost always been neglected on the road.  It still functions, and the stanchions show only slight wear, indicated by the subtle lightening of the gold colored finish. 

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It is a challenge to find suspension oil, even in a larger city like Nelspruit.  After asking around for a while, a friendly mechanic at the local BMW dealership gives me half a bottle of 10W oil.  The Reba technically calls for 15W, my Fox requires 10W. 

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Sadly, as I’d been warned, the stanchion on the air-spring side of my Fox Talas fork is greatly worn.  This is surely the result of contamination the many muddy situations we’ve found in the last six months.  Officially, negligence is to blame as Fox recommends the fork oil is replaced every 30 hours.  It has been well over 500 hours, I think.  

The fork never felt as supple as I would have liked, even when new.  I assumed tight-fitting fresh seals were to blame.  I should have serviced it when new, and several times since.  Yet, Lael’s fork has been similarly neglected four times over.  I might be looking at a Rock Shox fork next time around.  A rigid bike is again a consideration, especially with the widening range of 29+ rims and tires.    

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Leaving our hosts in Nelspruit, we shoot out of town after a full day of bike repairs, yellow fever shots, and preparations for crossing the border.  We spent three days with Warmshowers.org hosts in Nelspruit, and when we ask for a place to camp near the end of our first day from town, we are again invited inside for dinner and breakfast.  We’ve come to rely on South African hospitality.  Thanks to Vim and Estra in Nelspruit, as well as Edie and Roy on the road to Long Tom’s Pass.

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The meeting of commercial timberlands and the Escarpment gives us some of the most memorable rides in South Africa.

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Citrus and avocados abound.

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And timber.

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Connecting to pavement, we round out the day’s ride by climbing Long Tom’s Pass, up near 7000ft.  Cool and breezy up here.  There is a brewery at the top of the pass called Hop’s Hollow, worth a brief visit.  Storm coming in.  The Dragon’s Spine route leaps away from the tar road onto a disused doubletrack, which connects to well used forest roads by morning.

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Riding high above the town of Sabie, we spend most of the morning wondering if we should descend 3000ft+  to taste the famous pancakes in town.  Sabie is also known as a popular mountain bike destination.

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This and the edge of the Drakensberg Mountains between South Africa and Lesotho are some of the most clearly defined section of the Great Escarpment.  Small waterfalls drop from the Highveld to the Lowveld.

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Clear cut.

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Forest service roads are one of few resources in South Africa to get off the beaten path on a bike without crossing fences.

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Beautiful and plentiful dirt roads.

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Colorful shacks near the old mine at Pilgrim’s Rest, still inhabited.   

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Leaving Pilgrim’s Rest, we ride north on a roundabout path to Ohrigstad over Kaspersnek Pass.

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Surprise, a terrestial crab.  

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Thanks to recent rains…

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…the bush is thriving.

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Back to the RR, an old friend by now.

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South Africans love the disc brakes.

“Where from?  Where to? How long?”

 “From Cape? Seriouz!?”  

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Seriouz.  And we’re off.  It’s the same in America.  Everyone is impressed, but nobody cares.  That’s fine.  

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We blast thorough one town after another enjoying the open roads and the approach to Zimbabwe.   

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The map doesn’t really indicate that we’re entering a former black area, except that a lot of small towns with unfamiliar names are shown.  I’m not sure how it was administered during Apartheid, but there are thousands and thousands of black families living in villages along the road we’ve chosen.  The road diminishes in quality, eventually the kind of thoroughfare which naturally widens as each vehicle tries to avoid the rocks and potholes and frozen ruts in the center.  Most small towns in South Africa don’t even build sidewalks to connect the sub-urban black townships to the historically white towns.  Shame. 

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South Africans of all kinds love margarine.

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Coca-Cola for the whole family, offered at a special price with a loaf of white bread and a can of Lucky Star Pilchards, a popular canned fish product in tomato sauce.

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We’re happy to know that maas is always available, as it has become our daily breakfast.  This is the most common brand in the country, produced by Danone.  It is consistently chunky and not too funky.  Most of the local brands feature variable textures and flavors, depending upon how much the cultures have developed.  Some have a definite sour cream flavor.  Most are more like yogurt.

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Nothing goes with pilchards, maas and Coca-Cola like the ANC (and pap), the most powerful political party in the country since the 1994 elections, currently blamed for mishandling the government.  Yet, “the people” vote for the ANC every year, winning more than 60% of the vote.  Eventually, the party will fragment.  The Democratic Alliance, Economic Freedom Fighters, and Congress of the People are gaining steam.  Competition is good.

If you haven’t heard, president Jacob Zuma has spent millions of dollars on his personal estate in KwaZulu-Natal.  This is as far as we get with most political discussions.  Surely, it is abominable, but the claim that everyone and everything is corrupt has lost value to me in the last six months, from Ukraine to Albania and South Africa.  It is often an excuse as much as an explanation.

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Into Dublin, South Africa.  We stray from the Dragon’s Spine route to explore a 4×4 track spotted on my Tracks4Africa maps.

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The track makes a connection through the Wolksberg Wilderness.  It promises to be a 4×4 road, a designation that sits between “gravel” and “path” on my basemaps, leaving lots of room for variety.

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It turns out to be a true 4×4 track, abandoned due to washed out bridges, reclaimed by occasional cattle traffic and the odd hiker.    

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The twenty mile route begins with ten miles of flat singledoubletrack and many warm water stream crossings.

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The only bridge still intact.

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Eventually, it climbs 2000ft+, requiring a push up to elevation on the loose track.  

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The views are worth it, and the chance to be up at elevation is exciting.  A cool night would be nice.

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Except we descend most of that elevation before dark.  We camp next to an abandoned house in the Wolksberg Wlderness, once a ranger’s residence or similar.  This place is one of few wide open spaces in South Africa, without people or fences.

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In the morning, we pass through Haenertsburg and load up with supplies for Christmas Day, not that we’ll need them, but we don’t know this at the time.  We encounter boundless hospitality and lots of shops open for business on Christmas Day.  Read more about it in the post “A Limpopo Christmas“.

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I buy 6 vetkoeks, she offers two for free as she is packing up her stuff, stuffing a total of 8 into a plastic sack.  I hand her two more rand, because it isn’t a lot of money.  She finds that to be hilarious.

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People trails.

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Post-Christmas at the Shoprite.  

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The spoils of a climate and a season with nights to hot to sleep.  Mango fibers are stuck between my teeth for days, riding from mango tree to mango tree.

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Descending for the last time, the Limpopo River is in the distance.  Zimbabwe is just beyond the river.

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Uphill, a seemingly sisyphean task.  But that’s what dung beetles do, they roll shit uphill.

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Baobab.

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Along the Limpopo River, we decide that we simply cannot spend the next months of our lives in the tropics.  We gotta get out of here.  Joburg is about 500 miles south by dirt.

By sunset the next day, we have two plane tickets to Cairo.  The cart is momentarily in front of the horse, but we’ll catch up.

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We start back towards Joburg along the RR line.

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A group of woman are harvesting mopane worms, the caterpillar of a common moth in the region.  

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A stick forces the guts out, like toothpaste from a tube. 

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We stop into the shop in the small RR town of Mopane, named for the tree, for which the caterpillars are also named.  The shop is housed in the old RR station which still serves a once or twice a week passenger line.  The shop, managed by an older couple who have lived most of their lives in rural South Africa, preserves the building and a valuable community resource.  

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Classic rural South Africana.

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They live in one of the old RR houses adjacent to the station.  

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We just wandered in for a cold beer near the end of the day, but the result is many hours of conversation, dinner, a bed for the night, and coffee in the morning.  And the chance to be a part of the community for a time.  If riding near Messina, stop through Mopane, just 20 miles southwest of town.  This couple has adopted a boy– nine year ago– who is now thirteen and would have loved to see our bicycles, they say.  Sadly, he is at home with his extended family for the school holiday.

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We find ourselves picking lines on the map again, passing miles and miles of game farms, which mean miles and miles of fencelines and bush.

Those are some big tracks.

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In typical South African fashion, we are invited to stay with a family on holiday, who are residing for the week within a game park.

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In the morning, some tame zebras are eating hay by the side of the house.  

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Thunderstorm avoidance.  Open on Saterde from 8:30-14:00.

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Hartbeespoort Dam near Brits.  It is all tar from here to Pretoria.

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But there is a healthy slice of singletrack en route to Johannesburg, by way of the Braamfontein Spruit Trail (nice video here).  

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We’ve ridden in every province in South Africa, except the North Cape, but including the embedded countries of Swaziland and Lesotho.  We’re already talking about coming back someday, possibly with fatbikes, to visit the North Cape, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.  For now, the chapter is closed.  That’s three months in South Africa.  Three months ago, I didn’t know anything about South Africa. 

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Thanks to David Bristow and Steve Thomas for compiling the Dragon’s Spine Route, and for publishing GPS tracks on the Dragon Trax website.  The route connects the southwestern city of Cape Town to the border of Zimbabwe in the north, through Lesotho, and is a treasure for anyone interested in adventure cycling and South Africa.  This is the definitive off-pavement touring route across South Africa.  

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Grassveld, Battlefields, Timberlands, Swaziland

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This route is a composite from the Dragon Trax website and our own adventure compass, connecting the border of Lesotho at Monantsa Pass through Swaziland at Bulembu, passing through part of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga Provinces in South Africa. The riding mainly consists of wide open gravel roads, railroad service roads, and forest roads, as well as some tar.    

Monantsa Pass (Lesotho/RSA)- Phuthaditjhaba- Kestell- Aberfeldy- Harrismith- Colling’s Pass- Elandslagte- Wasbank- Dundee- Utrecht- Knight’s Pass- Paulpietersburg- Piet Retief- Emahlatini Border (RSA/Swaziland)- Mankayane- Lusutfu River- Bhunya- Thembisa- Ngwenya- Maguga Dam- Pigg’s Peak Gold Mine- Ntabeni River- Bulembu- Josephdal Border (Swaziland/RSA) 

Only a week ago, I was happy to be leaving South Africa for Lesotho.  But we’re pleased to be back.  We look forward to a proper shower, an internet connection, and vetkoeks.  The thing we crave most is the mental space to relax.  I’ve never considered myself an especially private person– and I’m not in my own culture, I don’t think– but Lesotho has shown me how much personal privacy we have built into our lives. 

In time, South Africa is less and less challenging.  And while we are still learning and questioning and understanding, we begin an unconscious process of acceptance.  We know what we will find in local shops and what we like to eat.  We know how and where to find places to camp or who to ask.  We know which tar roads might have wide shoulders, which will have little traffic, and that the endless gravel roads are our home.  That word– “home”– is something which comes up infrequently while on the road.  It is only through the impassioned love of a place, such as in Albania, or with time that we might think of a place as home.  Here, it is time which has worked to make us feel this way.  That, and the shared cultural elements which make South Africa so much like America.  I have to laugh when South Africans ask knowingly about America, to point at the faults which Hollywood and media have so effectively spread to their shores.  Yes, we eat a lot of junk food and drive big cars and get fat.  It’s true.  

“But so do South Africans”, I say.

“Is it?”, which is the universal response for anything agreeable or disagreeable in South Africa.  Lean you head to the side, and ask calmly, “is it?”  It means as much or as little as “really”, which is as much a habit in America as “is it” is in South Africa.  But to me, the accent which Afrikaners impart on English is beautiful and charming.  Is it?  

We define newly discovered cultural similarities daily.

Coming from Lesotho, we shoot north to Kestell to camp for a night at the Karma Backpackers

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Vintage South Africana is everywhere in these old towns, which reminds me of the American West and the history of westward migration.  Voortrekkers left the Cape Colony to settle vast tracts of land in the interior, c. 1830-1840.  Many people traveled overland by covered wagon into sometimes challenging climates, to face attacks by the displaced or defensive native people, to eventually establish farms and communities such as the capitol city Pretoria, named for Andries Pretorius

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Vetkoek, literally meaning fat cake, is common in small town shops.  The fried dough is like an unsweetened donut, and at 1 rand apiece, makes an affordable packable snack.  Lael puts salt on everything.  

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The Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, or the Dutch Reformed Church, is a feature in many South African towns, although Anglican churches are also common.  Toyota trucks are a favorite of South African farmers.  Ford has recently entered the market.  Other Asian brands such as Mahindra, Isuzu, and Nissan are present to a lesser degree, as a lower priced alternate to the revered Toyota.  

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The greeting of wide open roads and rolling topography is refreshing after our time in Lesotho.  Each time we leave a country and return, it feels more and more like home.  

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Harrismith.

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Stretch the legs.

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This is a continuation of the Drakensberg, which are featured more prominently to the north and the south.

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This is the kind of riding, much like the karoo, that makes the Dragon’s Spine route like the Great Divide.

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Dropping off the edge of the Escarpment, from 5000ft+down to about 2000ft.  Trees, heat, and humidity are more abundant down low.

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The Dragon’s Spine route takes us along the railroad tracks from Elandslaagte to Wasbank, a once-great town that is now an impoverished shadow of its past.  Trees are growing through the windows of the old train station.  A hotel is advertised, now home to a single pool table and a bottle shop.  Some old towns are charming, but not Wasbank.  We are grateful to meet a shop owner who calls his parents, who offer us a place to put our tent for the night.  Inevitably, they invite us inside, feed us a traditional Indian meal, and offer showers and a bed.  Their family has owned the petrol station in town for many years.

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This is not the first time we’ve ridden RR lines in South Africa, but it cements the concept.  Most RR service roads are ungated and seem to be pretty reliable routes to travel by bike, although interruptions in continuity are possible, which add to the adventure.

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Dundee, where we are interviewed by the local newspaper, the Northern KwaZulu-Natal Courier.  

We speak with two very nice young woman, a reporter and a photographer, and the next week they publish an article titled  “Living young, wild and free from Alaska”.  

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Everyone describes the failing school systems in South Africa.  Most people have to pay to go to school, and options for high-priced education is available to those that can afford it.  The poorest children can attend school for free, and there are food programs as well.  I’m not certain of the quality of a free education in South Africa.  I’ve met some promising youth, but a lot of young people are slipping through the cracks. 

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RR lines are awesome in South Africa!  Johann, our host from Prince Albert, described a trip he made many years ago following RR lines for a great distance across the country.  We’ve only seen freight lines thus far.  

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Railroads, like canals, show you life away from tar roads.  We meet a farming family for the night.  We tour the farm and the irrigation system, which provides just enough water to grow maize in this semi-arid climate.  They prepare a braai.

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Near Utrecht, the only town in South Africa within a game reserve.

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Riding the RR line toward Piet Retief, and Swaziland.

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The quantity of productive timberlands increase around us, all the way across the border.

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We immediately notice the nice roadside bus stops.  The absence of now-familiar South African economic inequality is obvious.  That is, people are more uniformly poor in Swaziland, which to us, makes the county feel wealthier.  There is a calm to the country.  There are few fences.  People smile.  People speak English really well, and have ideas and opinions.  These are our first impressions.   

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That’s how you source local food.

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As in Lesotho, Swaziland is also the beneficiary of foreign aid.  New schools are a common project, as are improved toilets and rainwater catchment systems for the schools.

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The timber industry is healthy in the mountainous west of Swaziland.  In the eastern lowlands, sugar cane and bananas are the main production crops.  Agriculture and other industries are partly organized through the monarchy.

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Eucalyptus is a common hardwood resource.  It appears to be fast growing, resulting in tall, straight pole-sized trees

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Pines produce pulp and other low grade products such as fencing and palettes.

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The Coca Cola Company dominates the market in South Africa.  This cold grape-flavored Fanta is 40 rand, or about $0.35.  The currency in Swaziland is also fixed against the South African rand, as in Lesotho.

Beer and soda sold in both Lesotho and Swaziland is made in country, licensed from the South African parent company. 

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No need for coins, I watch these kids play round after round of ‘The King of Fighters” by coaxing the tines of a plastic fork into the coin slot.  This is outside a rural shop.

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Timber mill and timberlands.  

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Shoot me!  The kids are relaxed and kind, a little less maniacal than in Lesotho.  I really enjoyed this group.

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While taking a series of obligatory portraits, I try to organize a group photo before leaving.  They stop me as I begin packing up, “you must shoot him”.  

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They are referring to this young boy, who has been slowly making his way from down the road ever since I arrived.  All the other children quickly arrived at the road.  It just took him a little longer.  

All smiles.

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Mostly, the children don’t treat him any differently.

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Summer nights are nice, as long as the heat sets with the sun.

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Tracing the western border of Swaziland on our brief tour of the diminutive kingdom, we camp near Ngwenya for the night.  

Sunday night party outside the General Dealer and bottle shop.  This bar is bumping tunes to a small crowd of men, children, and older woman.  It is not uncommon to hear Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album in between classic African artists and more modern electro-pop.  The song “Koze Kuse” by DJ Merlon featuring Mondli Ngcobo is the most popular song in South Africa right now, if the stereos of local taxis are any indication.  The music video captures some classic South African scenes.

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Steps Over Swaziland, a film project advertised on the side of the road by this LP-sized sign.

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Swaziland claims the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world.  Public service announcements, free public health services, and free condoms are common.

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Diving back into the Timberlands on a series of tracks in the area near Pigg’s Peak.  This northwestern part of the country is prime for explorations, folded with mountains and laced with logging roads.  There are several MTB races in the area, mostly attracting South African riders.

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This route connects us back to the border of South Africa at Bulembu, now famous as the home of the Bulembu Emasi dairy.  Called mass, amasi or emasi, this cultured milk has a bright fresh yogurt taste, much like the yogurts we enjoy in Eastern Europe.  It is the best energy food in South Africa (sorry Coca Cola and Nik Naks).

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Bulembu is an old mining town revitalized by the dairy and a small stream of tourism.  Asbestos was once shuttled to Barberton, South Africa by an aerial cableway (like an alpine gondola), a distance of over 20km through very mountainous terrain.

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Back in South Africa.  While the roads turns to tar across the border, the ride from Bulembu to Barberton is epic.  The road rides high ridgelines until a blazing fast descent drops us into Barberton, 3000ft below.

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The road is punctuated by geology lessons, funded by the state.  Called the Geotrail Route, the new roadside facilities don’t seem to get much use.  The road is deserted.

This academic paper provides a fascinating overview of the mining history in this region, with maps and images.  This is one of the most significant gold mining regions in South Africa.

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Descending to Barberton, we once again meet hot and humid weather, as well as mangoes and bananas.  We’re about a week away from the border of Zimbabwe, and the end of our ride across South Africa.

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Dragon’s Spine: Semonkong, Lesotho to Monantsa Pass, South Africa

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Semonkong- Ha Kobeli- Senqunyane River-  Mantsonyane- Pass of Jackals- Thaba Tseka- Ha Leoka- Letlapeng- Khatse Dam- Mapeleng- Ha Lejone- near Kaa Mine- cross Motete River- along Malibamatsu River- Oxbow- Moteng Pass- along Caledon River- Monantsa Pass   

This is the second part of our ride across Lesotho, following the Dragon’s Spine Route as described by the GPS tracks downloaded from the Dragon Trax website.  Check out the first few days of our ride from the border of South Africa at Tele Bridge to Semonkong, Lesotho

On the morning of our ninth day in the country, as we crest the border to Monantsa Pass and ride back into South Africa, I am relieved to be leaving Lesotho.  But Lesotho ranks next to Albania and Arizona and Alaska as one of the most unforgettable places we’ve ridden.  It has been a bewildering and beautiful week, with the most challenging riding of the summer, now the first week in December.  We are inspired to see people living their lives close to the land and traveling by foot, towing 50kg sacks of maize atop surefooted donkeys over great distances, because secretly, we despise cars as much as young Albanian men aspire to own them.  But the ubiquity of certain insistant exclamations and queries from the roadside– such as “Where to?!” and “Give me the sweets!”– is tiring, overwhelming, and finally disappointing.  While living outdoors and traveling at a human pace in Lesotho, on foot or by bicycle, you’ll never not be near people.  And when Lael and I finally find a quiet place away from any roads, houses, maize fields, trash, or donkey tracks, a shepherd comes down the mountain to stand close and watch us.  A little disappointed, as my energy for this kind of thing has waned in the past week, I manage to smile and say hello.

Completely encased within the border of South Africa, the tiny Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho is a world away from its geographic guardian.  Lesotho is lively and exciting, with a unique history that defines a population with more hope and happiness than its neighbor, despite greater poverty on paper.  But wealth (or poverty) as described by per capita annual earnings in South Africa and Lesotho does not tell the whole story, not only because Lesotho is far less expensive than South Africa, but because a majority of the Basotho live in rural villages tending to their families and communities, producing food, keeping animals, building homes, and not earning or requiring much money for petrol, electricity, DSTV, or even cold beer.  Whereas, many poor South Africans are forced to leave their families for much of the year to work on distant farms or in distant mines, factories, or the homes of wealthy white families to earn money.  In South Africa, people live in villages and townships, structured community spaces arranged near shops and schools and other places that cost money.  Conversely, the mountainous countryside of Lesotho is blanketed by people and maize, with many small villages of loosely organized homes naturally scattered along a hillside, the land considered a community resource of the Basotho people held in trust by the king.  Despite the world’s third highest rate of HIV/AIDS and barefoot children with tattered pants running through the hills, Lesotho seems like a happy place.  People are proud to live here.  Children smartly inform us, “maize is our staple food” (although nobody in southern Africa seems to realize that maize was at once imported from Mesoamerica to this continent by Europeans, a fact I recall from grade school).  Much of the black population of South Africa has been broken by Apartheid– no wonder the people are frequently charged with being unmotivated, uneducated, and unhappy.  Lesotho is much, much different.  As much as I was eventually ready to leave the country, crossing into Lesotho is a breath of fresh air.

Aside from the inevitable challenges and awakenings of travel in a foreign land, the riding in Lesotho is epic.  The geography of the country is hard to grasp at first– aside from being extraordinarily mountainous.   A limited pattern of tar roads and decent quality gravel roads cross the connect the country and feed the growing demand for faraway goods, all of which come through the capital city of Maseru.  In much of the rest of the country, famously bad roads, footpaths, and animal trails connect everything.

Our less than obvious route across Lesotho crosses deep river valleys and high passes, and we touch our tires to tar only four or five times in about seven days of riding.  If looking for a memorable route across the country, the Dragon’s Spine Route delivers, but it is challenging.  There are more than a few other ways to plan routes through Lesotho.  Exit or entrance via the infamous Sani Pass is recommended by Logan at Pedaling Nowhere.  The riders at Lesotho Sky may be able to provide detailed information about off-road routes and more conventional gravel roads and tar.  In addition to a mostly complete, but discontinuous GPS track across the country, I relied heavily on both the Tracks4Africa basemaps and the OpenMTBmaps.  Both are recommended when traveling off the beaten path in South Africa and Lesotho, as each provides a unique yet incomplete vantage.  The tar roads are largely free of traffic, except near Maseru.

Leaving Semonkong with a load of food for two days, and the sense that something unique lay ahead.  Our GPS track ventures into roadless terrain, and without topographic detail, I can only guess what lay ahead.  There is a river crossing, some GPS waypoints indicating “steep” sections of 4×4 tracks, and other fragments of information that incite some caution (and excitement).

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A nice evening for a ride, and a very nice road.

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These woman stop us with cheers and jeers, insisting that we try their maize beer.

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Some for baby, too.

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And when the 2L Coke bottle empties, the big blue jug appears to refill it.

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Going down.

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At dark, we ask to put our tent near this village, a practice we’ve developed to limit curiosity in our presence and avoid alarm.  Thankfully, the man constructing the structure near our tent is from Maseru, speaks English, and generally understands and appreciates what we are doing, avoiding the usual confusion and excitement of our arrival.  This also ensures a little privacy as well, although we do have two visitors while we set-up the tent and unpack.  By zipping ourselves into our nylon cocoon, the girls eventually get bored and wander off.

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The World Food Programme is responsible for administering many programs in Lesotho.  This building will be a kitchen for the school.

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Our audience, who we regrettably shut out after we unpack our things.  Tired from riding all day, we are most tired from being around people all the time.

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Nearing the hottest part of the year, Lesotho is just right in summer.  The sun is still intense, but the days are nice and the nights are cool.  Most of the country is above 5000ft.

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In the evening, we’d turned off the main dirt road onto a steep track.  The only discernible tracks end at the village where we camped.  Beyond that, it is all donkey tracks and foot paths along an old road bed.

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A chasm lie ahead– that must be the Senqunyane River.

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We descend all the way down to river level on a technical track, presumably once passable by 4×4 and probably not impossible to drive in most places, but there is no sign it has been driven in decades.

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Views, and a technical ridable descent to an eventual swimming spot.  Nothing not to like.

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Sheep traverse the mountainside above, on what appears to be a good trail.

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A little steep for loaded hardtails.  Rather, a little too steep for kids without health insurance many hours from whatever or whomever would help if we needed it.  The concept of self-preservation is present in our minds while traveling rough and remote tracks.

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The newer bridge replaces an often dangerous ford, still required for the cattle.

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Immediately, the track ascends the other side.  It rises more steeply than we descended, I think.

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Soon, there are children keeping pace with our hike up the mountain.  This total ascent is about 2500ft, although more elevation is gained later.  A lot of the ascent is unreadable, but a pleasant enough place to push a bike.

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Along the way, a growing group of children take chase.  One particularly confident girls insists questioningly, “You are lost!?”.

“No, I am not lost”, I inform her.  She insists, again and again.  “Fada, you are lost.”  Many of these children call us father and mother.  Not sure if this is a typical sign of respect, or something related to the history of Christian missionaries in Lesotho.

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After the usual introductions in which kids demand sweets and I laugh at them– asking instead if they would respond to my enthusiastic greeting– we break for some photos.  Kids love to see the images.  I think it is a reasonable way to exchange a few moments together, and to forget the sweets.  It is not uncommon to be asked for sweets again as I take my first few pedal strokes away.  I laugh again, half-heartedly.  Bye!

More than “Hi” or “Hello”, people love to say say “Bye” or “Bye Bye” in Lesotho, often used as a greeting as well in more rural places.  In order of frequency we hear the phrases “Give me sweets”, “Where to?”, “Bye bye”, and “Good morning”.  Morning lasts all day.

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We eventually crest the ridge to discover a deep river valley on the other side as well.  We continue along the ridge, continuing to gain some elevation.

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Thunderstorms closing it, threatening.

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We take cover for a few moments as the wind blows and some water falls from the sky, thinking something really severe will develop.  Everyone else seems to know that the storm will not materialize, but they offer us a roof for some time.  The eldest daughter in the red and white robe is preparing to become a sister in Roma, a small city nearer to Maseru.

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“Shoot me!”

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“Me too!”  Lesotho is an aspiring photographer’s dream.

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Maize for miles, all planted and harvested by hand, ploughed by animal, and most often transported by donkey to town for milling, and again by donkey on the return trip.

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A 3-string gas can banjo.

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Christianity is widely present in Lesotho.  Our bag of beets reminds us.

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As we near Mantsunyane and a motorable road, outhouses, green plastic Jojo water tanks, and corrugated metal re-enter the landscape.

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And we dance.

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There are always shortcuts for animals and people on foot.

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Finally, after a full day or riding and pushing, we are within sight of Mantsonyane.

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The nuns that teach at the large school here are all waiting for rides home, this being a Friday several weeks before Christmas.

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Mantsonyane.

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Friday night pony races.

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A quick resupply in town, including apples, onion, cold beers.

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And of course, repackaged off-brand Nik Naks.  Originally sold in 5 or 10kg tubes (usually almost 2m long), this seasoned puffed maize is redistributed into small bags and sold for 1 rand or 1 maluti, equal to about $0.10.  These smaller bags were only a half maluti, so I bought six.

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We follow the tar from Mantsonyane to Thaba-Tseka fro about 30 miles, over a high pass.  The road is nearly empty, save for a few donkeys and white government vehicles.

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From the roadside we are invited to camp in a village and are led to meet the chief, a woman.

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Complete with crash test dummy.

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Camping adjacent to the chief’s house, the crowd of curious children keep their distance, for which we are thankful.  After we have zipped our tent closed for the evening, for privacy, two small girls come by and are quietly felt nearby, whispering.  Lael unzips and pokes her head out.  They politely inform us, “We are here for the sweets.”  Lael informs them that we don’t have any, and apologizes, not that we are sorry.  We’ve been asked for sweets in many ways but I’ll never forget the phrasing, “We are here for the sweets.”  Priceless.

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We awake to the chief sorting her maize at sunrise, tossing pebbles and ill-conceived kernels by the wayside.

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She then instructs this boy to stitch the bag back together.

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This shepherd has bought two fresh rolls from the shop for us.  Bread is a delicacy for those that rely on maize.  This village is much different that many of the places we’ve been in the last few days, as it is bisected by one of the only tar roads in the country.

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We climb the Pass of Jackals toward Thaba-Tseka and turn towards the infamous Khatse Dam.  South Africans are especially proud of this massive civil works project, which provides power for Lesotho and water for South Africa.  The project forcibly relocated many people, who ironically live without electricity.

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The tar road brings us to our highest elevation in the country, over 9500ft.  This is the first time we have been able to look out without seeing signs of people everywhere.  Not that two shepherds didn’t find us in the twenty minutes we rest by the roadside.  We offer some of our tea and scones, which they are obliged to accept.

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No people, for the first time.

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Thaba-Tseka.

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The dirt road towards the Khatse Dam is well-traveled and in very nice condition.

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I exercise some tactics to avoid being asked for sweets, proactively greeting and questioning the children who come to the roadside.  The idea is to distract them from their practiced and half-hearted routine.  It works about half of the time, or less.

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They are picking fresh greens which grow wild in the young maize fields.

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A talkative shop owner offers us pap and eggs upon learning that we are from America.

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The Khatse Dam.

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And our campsite, aside yet another school.

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By morning, our audience awaits.

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For some reason the GPS track from the Dragon Trax site chooses the tar road to Ha Lejone instead of the nice gravel road along the lake.  I inquire locally and am told there are some “rascals” along this road.  I can understand, I think, as I did sense some tension on our way to the dam yesterday.  I suspect some resentment toward South Africans as a result of the dam.  We proceed with curiosity.

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It proves to be a gorgeous ride on the mountainsides along the lake, and the feeling in each community is quite normal.  That is, until a boulder comes tumbling down the mountain from several hundred meters above, sent by some mischievous shepherds.  Rascals might be the exact word to describe this kind of behavior.  The boulder missed by about ten meters.  I heard it a few seconds before it came hurtling onto the road surface behind me.  A good shot, I say.  The boys send two more rocks downward.  I should hope this is an isolated incident.

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The lake is crossed by several small bridges.

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We seek shelter from a thunderstorm in a small bottle shop in Ha Lejone.

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Curious, as always.

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But these kids are tons of fun.  Most kids in Lesotho are loads of fun, if you can find the energy for it.  We can’t fault them for finding us interesting and wanting attention.  We love them, but by the end of the day, we relish the few moments of peace in our tent.

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Away from Ha Lejone along the lake, we consider two route options.  The Dragon Trax route follows a river, away from any roads or trails shown on my basemaps.  Locals don’t know anything about the route.  It will either be a well traveled footpath that only people in the last few villages use, or it won’t be much of a trail at all.  The alternate route is a 4×4 road past the Kaa Diamond mine over a pass to the main tar road, landing somewhere near the AfriSki center on the other side.

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Now that we are mining country, even the good gravel roads get extremely steep.

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Storms continue to threaten.

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We climb one last time for the evening and descend to the Motete River for the night.  We’ll begin first thing in the morning.

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Damp roads and a chance of rain invite us in the morning.

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The road continues for several kilometers, diminishing along the way into a wide footpath tracked only by feet.

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And then a series of singletracks to the last village.

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This is where it gets interesting.  From here, we follow the Malibamatsu River to the tar road, a distance of almost 20 miles.

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At first, we find remarkably ridable hillside singletrack.

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Pick and choose from mostly ridable trail, but with frequent dismounts.

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The trail becomes less defined, rougher, and less continuous, easily confused with the thousands of sheep trails on the hillside.  We continue as near to the track shown on the GPS as possible, which often lands us onto reasonably passable trail.  Eventually, the we must cross the river, four times in total, in quick succession.  At this point it has been raining slowly for several hours.  We wade waist deep through a strong current, about as deep and swift as I am comfortable carrying our bikes.  We leave our shoes on, and hoist the bikes mostly out of the water, partly floating them on the surface to reduce the strain and to stabilize ourselves.  When crossing the river in the opposite direction to keep the bicycles on our right hand side but not upstream of us, which presents a serious hazard, we point the tires upstream and walk sidestep from bank to bank.

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These two shepherds try to help Lael find a better place to cross, as I have already carried both bikes across this section which went nearly to my chest.  This was the fourth and most challenging ford.  There are no villages for many kilometers in either direction.   These boys are tending to a flock of sheep for the summer, living in very simple thatch roofed round houses, like slouching squat versions of the nicer roundhouses most Basotho inhabit.  These guys were actually really cool, and asked for our phone number to call us later.  We informed them that we did not have a phone, which was shocking and hilarious.

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Eventually, after hours of bushwhacking along infrequently ridable sheep trails, the route regains some definition.  The rain leaves us, and the feeling comes back to our fingers and toes.  We were at once quite miserable.  A lightness returns to the day.

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To finish the route to the tar road, the trail shortcuts several meanders.

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A shepherd’s shelter, which often takes a high vantage.  Each shelter is spaced just within sight of the next one, usually a km or more away.

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The last few km are partly ridable, the sun shines, and what once felt like a huge task, is not more than a powerful memory.

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We immediately point our tires up Moteng Pass and spend the entire climb praising the virtues of tar roads.  After many miles of pushing, my Achilles is very tight.  The tar is a relief for now.

Up.

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And down, at breakneck speeds down 4000ft.

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The Dragon Trax route continues north up another roadless river valley to connect near the border.  We opt for a casual long-cut on the tar road, to connect with a gravel road along the border.  This likely adds over sixty miles, but our bodies enjoy the chance to pedal and dry out.

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We turn onto gravel for our final day of riding toward Monantsa Pass.

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The white flag indicates that there is maize beer for sale.  Yellow indicates fresh fruit.  Green, vegetables.

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I assist with some roadside bike repair.  My Crank Brothers Multi-Tool is a marvel, especially the chain tool.

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Sorry, no sweets, kids.

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Riding to South Africa, which will be a relief.

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We take a wrong turn just before the border and climb an extra 1500ft into a wooded meadow.  There have been very few trees in all of Lesotho.

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We camp for the night, and plan to ride across the border in the morning.  At least up here we are treated to a peaceful night.  It feels like Northern Arizona up here.

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Donkey wake us in the morning.

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Descend to the main dirt road.

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And climb to the border.  There are crews of workers lazily tending to road construction matters near the top of the pass.  Less than a 100m from the border, one woman demands, “Give me your squeeze bottle!”  She is referring to the water bottles on my fork.  I look at her, sweating and panting from a steep climb in intense sun.  I shake my head no, and push for the border.  I love you Lesotho, but I need a break.

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The descent off the backside of the Drakensburg into South Africa feels like a homecoming.

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