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Bunyan Velo, Issue No. 5

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For restless vagabonds who explore on two wheels endlessly:

for racers who race without promise of prizes or money, assured only adventure and challenge;

for advocates of bicycles who ride every day, and live and breath by bike;

and for everyone else who dreams of riding new places, Bunyan Velo is back for another year to stoke our passion for riding and life.

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Read it for free.

Buy it for $5.

Donate to support the project, because there is nothing else like it.

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Lael and I have enjoyed every word of this issue in the last few days, reading to each other in our tent to shorten the long winter night.  We enjoyed Eszter’s account from Arizona in which Bunyan Velo editor Lucas Winzenburg unleashes a half-digested burger partway up Mingus Mountain in Arizona.  The accompanying black and white photographs by Glenn Charles are stunning.  Joe Cruz tells stories of South Africa “over rusks and Nescafe”.  Logan and Virginia rustle up sandstorms and singletrack in Morocco.  Read about Iceland and the Lost Coast of Alaska; the Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Loop and the Oregon Outback; settle into “Four Seasons in Sweden” with Johan Björklund.

Central Negev Loop with Ilan and Danny, Israel

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The plan is to meet in Ezuz on Thursday night, near the border with Egyptian Sinai.  We’ll ride for two days through a southwestern slice of Israel normally reserved for artillery training and ranging antelope, and not much else save for a single road crossing with a free campground and a water tap.  Israelis call this “the backyard”.  When we arrive, I ask about the terrain even through I’ve studied the GPS track.  “Should be mostly dirt roads”, Ilan says.  

Ilan and Danny are coming from the city, escaping busy lives for fifty something hours of touring and training in preparation for the upcoming Holyland MTB Challenge, a north-to-south cross country endurance race set to depart in early April.  Ilan is, as he calls it, a shadow organizer of the event, who is proud of the route, the website, and the chance for others to ride and race across Israel.  Both Ilan and Danny rode last year– mostly together– and both scratched from the race after five days.  Achilles tendons worn by pushing bikes uphill is the shared excuse, although they weren’t on track to finish the 800+ mile route within the 11 day cutoff.  Both are keenly working to improve several underrepresented mountain biking skills: bike pushing, sleeping comfortably and efficiently outside, and learning to rest and relax while stopped outside gas stations and grocery stores.  

Lael and I plan to arrive in Ezuz by way of dirt roads from Sde Boker, which is a quick ride on hardpacked dirt with tailwinds.  It is Thursday afternoon and the area marked “No Tresspassing!  Firing Area”, is silent.  The Israeli weekend is Friday and Saturday.  We arrive in Ezuz four hours before Ilan and Danny will arrive, but just as two other riders depart the cafe.  One rider is named Ilan.  For a minute, I’m confused.  What is your last name?  “Rubenstein”, he clarifies.  Ok, not the Ilan we are meeting, but he knows that the other Ilan is coming.  How is it that on the same day two bikepackers named Ilan are riding across the same desert tracks from Ezuz, a tiny community of only twelve families?  This Ilan assures me that the coincidence was discovered days ago, via email or forums.  Since the route is only passable on weekends, and the desert is only palatable in the cooler months, and the HLC is fast approaching, the coincidence is understandable.  This is our second major introduction to the active bikepacking community in Israel.  The first are the dozens of emails I’ve received from riders who have offered assistance, shelter, and routing through their country.  Lael and I remark that South Africa was supposed to be real hot about mountain biking.  I’d never heard of mountain biking in Israel, but I’ll be sure that you do.  These people actually ride bikes!

Danny and Ilan arrive in the evening as scheduled.  After introductions and a beer, we settle into a nearby grove for an early rise, agreed not to come from an alarm– we’ll meet in the morning when we wake.  Seems logical.  You never know who you’ll meet on the internet.  

Morning brings a casual pedal up-drainage, slowly trending steeper through gravelly wadi and hard dirt riverbank.  The effort comes from the upper legs, from deep muscles, but is not entirely exhausting for us.  That is, Lael and I have been at this for over six months, and we’ve been sucking air tackling steep climbs and gravelly wadi since arriving in Eilat.  Danny and Ilan are more accustomed to the hard dirt trails up north, and probably office chairs, I think.  They describe spacious pine forests and manicured trails in the center of the country.  

Nearing our expected midpoint lunch stop– a campground with water– we split the group in half.  Lael and I ride onward to rest at the campground.  Lael wants to go for a run, so we agree to get there first.  Danny and Ilan rest in the shade of a river bank, agreeing to meet a short time later.  Danny arrives at the campground as Lael is off running.  We talk.  Lael returns.  The three of us talk, fill waters, lube chains.  Ilan is missing.  Danny and I jump on our bikes, now several hours since arriving here for our rest.  The sun is getting low.  We meet Ilan just over the first rise, pushing his bike.  He has pushed for 6km, which accounts for some of the only easily rideable dirt road of our half-day wadi ascent, not that it was easy.  But it was rideable.   

Under the shade of stone walls and palm fronds– a free camp area provided by the Israeli government– we clean out the inside of his tire.  Danny has a tube that doesn’t have any holes in it.  Ilan has been carrying his tube for years– never needing it, until now– discovering it has since been damaged by two years of transport on a bike.  Flipping his Trek Superfly right side up, we consult the maps loaded to memory and agree to ride the paved road to Mizpe Ramon.  There, we eat, we sleep, and restart in the morning.  Most importantly, we alter our course across the desert in trade for some fresh singletrack.  A section of the Israel Bike Trail from Mizpe Ramon to the ruins at Moa (near Zofar) has recently been built and signed, the newest piece in an expansive cross-country trail project which mirrors the Israel National Trail.  And, we’ll descend all day.  At least, we’ll finish the day lower than we started.

The IBT is a delicacy in a land of rough cut 4×4 tracks and sandy wadi.  The modern, durable trail is cut from cliffbanks, sinuous and signed for miles.  Intermittent sections of doubletrack offer mental respite from the trail, although in total, the IBT is suitable for novice to intermediate riders with strong fitness.  This is not the kind of trail that will scare first time bikepackers.  It will embrace them, leaving a smile.  It is a welcomed resource in a country already densely woven with riding and walking.  Israel is a great place to ride, and it’s getting better.  Events such as the Holyland MTB Challenge are working hard to make that fact known.

Swinging from canyon wall to canyon wall, traversing the sandy wadi with spinning legs and speed, the IBT shuttles us back down to sea level, to a series of ancient ruins, to a McDonalds on a paved road, to a bus back to Tel Aviv, and to the end of our brief partnership.  Ilan washes in the public bathroom, exiting almost as if he has showered wearing flip-flops and wet hair.  Lael and I are quick to buy and finish an expensive beer from the convenience store.  Sharing a few more pedals strokes away from the McDonald’s, we turn back upstream toward Sde Boker, now 11 feet below sea level in the Aravah Valley.  Danny and Ilan continue to the bus stop on the roadside.  

Arriving at Sde Boker, about 1500ft.

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David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, lies here.  The community also claims a university in an idyllic mountain desert landscape.  Many rural Israeli communities were built in the 1950’s and 60’s, reminding me of the many large university building built during this era in the US.  I think of SUNY Albany.  The designs are efficient, square, concrete.

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Sde Boker has a small bike shop, guarded by a tough group of local riders.

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To Ezuz.  They say it rained the week before we arrived.  Nothing but sun for us, although nights are cool and breezy.

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Ezuz.  Singlespeeds, Revelate luggage, and some capable riders.  Ilan Rubenstein, on the right, had kindly contacted me via the blog prior to our meeting.  I just didn’t know we’d meet like this.  We wait for Danny and the other Ilan.

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Pizza and beer in the middle of nowhere, Israel.

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In a stack of National Geographic magazines, I spot a series of issues from 1973 and 1974.  I know what I am looking for: “Bikepacking Across Alaska and Canada” by Dan Burden, May 1973.  This is the earliest use of the word bikepacking I’ve seen in print.

For Velo Orange fans, you’ll be excited to know the article which follows it is about the wild horses of the Camargue preserve in Southern France.  The Camargue is the name of a new Velo Orange touring frame with clearance for full-size 29″ tires.  An unnamed disc variant is soon to be released, although the styling breaks from the traditional European elements Velo Orange has championed for so long. 

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Many Israelis speak excellent English.  Even so, there is a unity in familiar equipment and sleeping on the ground.

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As promised, “dirt roads”.  Kinda soft for 2.2″ tires, in my opinion.  Thinking about coming back to these parts with fatbikes some day.

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Some riding, some walking.  Good training for the HLC.

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The track finally climbs out of the wadi onto a hard dirt road.  We ride to fresh water, leaving Danny and Ilan behind.  

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Danny and I return to find Ilan, pushing his bike.  The rear rim skips across angular rocks, the deflated tire battered by months of use and six kilometers of pushing.

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A quick tour of the tar road to Mizpe Ramon.

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Digital and caloric refuel at the gas station in town, before rolling less than a kilometer down the road to a free public camping area for the night.

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The small forest features fresh water, toilets, and trash cans.  A youth groups tends a fiery blaze for a few hours, until bedtime.  Free camping is awesome.

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The next morning, we arrive at the edge of town, at the edge of a cliff, at the edge of a crater, called makhtesh in Hebrew.

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Fresh IBT, all day long.

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These non-impact craters are the largest of their kind in the world, and the Hebrew word is accepted by the geologic community to describe them.  A single water gap drains each crater.  There are three prominent craters in the region.

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Danny removes a broken spoke which has wound itself into the back of his cassette, hindering the freehub.  Both Danny and Ilan are part of a MTB group– 4 Epic– which organizes local races and rides.  Israelis are organized and efficient.  

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High quality trail, simple and durable, perfect for multi-day rides.  Would you please sign it in the other direction?  The trail is currently only signed north to south.

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“Get off bikes!”  Yeah right.

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A gasline road rolls across the basin of the makhtesh.  On their second day from town, and from office chairs, these guys are finally finding their stride.  Less than two months to go!  We talk about new gear choices for this year, and new strategies.  Ilan is walking the 11 flights of stairs to his office, preparing his hike-a-bike legs.  Rubber soled shoes are to be used instead of the hard plastic soles found on many performance shoes.

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Some of the trail is “green circle”, which makes Lael grin.

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Ilan rides a full-suspension Trek Superfly with a mix of Revelate Designs and Nuclear Sunrise luggage.  The framebag space of a hardtail would be nice, he says.  The modular waterproof Revelate Terrapin setbag allows easy gear removal at the end of the day.  An SP dynamo hub powers an Exposure headlight, and soon, also the GPS.  A Lezyne backpack carries extra food and water.

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Danny is riding a hardtail Trek Superfly with a Jones Loop H-barRevelate Designs luggage, and a Wingnut pack for extra food and water.

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Up, but not much.

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And down.  Way more flow than the previous day.  

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Finishing with a short downstream wadi ride, we miss the final section of IBT singletrack to Moa.  We’ll have to come back with our Alaskan friend Christina for this piece of trail.  She arrives next week.

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Retro-modern: checking the bus schedule aside several thousand year old ruins.

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The end of our partnership.  Back to our real lives.

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Back to Sde Boker, by the now-familiar HLC route over the Marzeva climb.

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Camel tracks.

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Back up to Sde Boker, just 1500ft above sea level.  Our next day of riding will take us all the way down to the Dead Sea, more than 1000ft below sea level.

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Thanks to Danny and Ilan for a great weekend on the bike.

Thanks to Tamir and Adi for hosting us in Sde Boker.

Ilan– the other one– we may still see you in Eilat.

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Negev heart, Israel

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Some days in the Negev desert: resupply at kibbutz, riding sandy wadi and rocky trail, sleeping out under a waxing gibbous, a full moon, and not too distant artillery fire.  Thorny acacia trees are the bridge between South Africa and Israel, although shade is far less important in this northern winter.  We love the desert.  Halva, olives, persimmons, wine, pita, cucumbers, onion, hummus, and water.

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A bus on the Jordanian border, Israel

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A night on the HLC and IBT routes, which for a time follow adjacent tracks along the Jordanian-Israeli border in the Aravah Valley.  No plan for camp and too much time spent inspecting sandy dates and pomelos on the ground, night falls too soon.  The desert expanse is without features for miles, and a north wind blows.  A bus resides between and beneath two communication towers, within sight of a disused observation structure on the Jordanian side.  Russian and Hebrew graffiti color the outside of the bus.  Passing from Egypt to Israel, we are no longer wealthy tourists but experienced opportunistic dirtbags.  I swear, we haven’t changed.

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From Eilat on the IBT and HLC, Israel

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No culture shock, except two-thirds of every road sign is illegible, and one-third is in English.  And, for the first day we don’t know the exchange rate from shekels to dollars, so Monopoly rules apply (try not to spend, but it is not real money so who cares).  The other two languages are Hebrew and Arabic, with Hebrew on top.  

Leaving Egypt, border agents rigorously inspect a few chosen items, ignoring most of the rest.  They seem most curious to fondle the sack of flatbread in my framebag, ignoring the conspicuous 2L steel bottle on the underside of my down tube.  Israeli border agents are far more professional, interviewing each of us separately to determine how we manage to travel with so little luggage, for so long.  “Don’t you stop to see the sights?”  Lael informs her that we are always seeing sights, all the time.  Our bikes are loaded onto the conveyor and sent through the x-ray machine.  

Public bathrooms with sit-down toilets and paper and hot water, and they don’t cost two rand.  Free sugar packets from every roadhouse.  But cane juice is gone and the bread isn’t as good as Egypt, and everything seems really expensive except it’s really just like America.  Local kibbutz communities do produce organic dates, olives, goat yogurt, and wines; although expensive, they are worth the money.  The biggest homecoming to the first world?  Some schmuck who asks too many questions he already knows the answer to, while I am eating.  Don’t interrupt my meal to be a schmuck.  I’m far too familiar with this practice.  Americans do it well.

We connect signed dirt trails straight out of Eilat, linking to the Holyland MTB Challenge race route and the Israel Bicycle Trail the next morning.  The Holyland MTB Challenge took place for the first time last April, connecting the southern border at the Red Sea to the Golan Heights in the north, near Syria.  The Israel Bike Trail will also connect the country north to south, and is currently complete from Eilat to Mitzpe Ramon, included miles and miles of freshly signed and graded singletrack through the mountainous desert.  Thus far, in two days of riding, the two routes coincide for much of their distance.  Thus far, the riding and camping is Israel is great.   

Leaving Eilat and the Red Sea.

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Hiking and cycling trails, signage not seen since Europe. 

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Designated camping areas minimize impact on the land.  Often provided for free, they do not have water, but offer space and fire pits.  So far, I’ve seen only drive-in sites on dirt roads.  

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Technical riding on rocky sandy footpaths, trying to find our own way through the mountains.

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Easy cycling routes, mostly on dirt roads.  Camels on wheels are cool.

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The colors of the Israel National Hiking Trail.

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Which provides a shortcut up a mountain.  We choose to hike our bikes to avoid a $12 per person park fee, required by way of the main dirt road and the HLC/IBT route.  

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Nice trail.

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Which opens up to a rideable plateau up top and a playground of trails.

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Eventually connecting to the IBT and the HLC route.

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Israel Defense Forces (IDF) property and nature reserves cover much of Israel, I’ve been told.

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Incidentally, IBT signage only routes from north to south– no signs coming from the south.  Hopefully the northbound signage is forthcoming.

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Fresh trail.

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And an unofficial wild camp on an east facing ridge.  A campground listed on my GPS turned out to be a commercial quarry.  Instead, we take the opportunity to camp up high, overlooking the Aravah Valley and Jordan.

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Haven’t found alcohol for our stove yet, so a fresh cup of singletrack will have to do.  The imprint of the trail-building machines can still be seen.  Jordan in the distance.

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Switchbacks and countours– modern trailbuilding, durable trail.

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Old trail, and new bike-specific trail, both apparently in use.

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Some sand, not too much, but just enough soft stuff to think that now would be a good time for 29+.  Are those Surly Dirt Wizards available yet? 

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Fresh goat yogurt at our only resupply point for the day, the cafe at kibbutz Neot Semadar.

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More fresh trail.

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Arroyos, called wadi, which is Arabic for valley, usually a dry desert valley.

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We plan to ride a few more days of the HLC/IBT before turning west to meet a group of riders over the weekend, which will lead us back south toward Eilat.  Thereafter, we shoot north to meet our friend Christina in Tel Aviv, who is flying from Alaska for ten days of sun and sand in the desert.  Cool nights, warm days; dry, not too hot, fresh trail– nothing not to like.  

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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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