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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A Limpopo Christmas, South Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christmas Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nico, feel at home”, he says.

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Where there’s music, there is dance.

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

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

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

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

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To meet the uncle’s mother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If the sun is shining, the music is blasting.

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Pap is prepared for the day.

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

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

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A big bag of mangos for the road.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Villages feature public taps.

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There are people everywhere, absolutely everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By morning, we ride into Lesotho.

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

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Lesotho. South Africa is across the river.

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Alwynskop, Lesotho.

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

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

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

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

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The group joins for a shoot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our route after Bethel promises to be more adventurous.

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

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Climbing from Bethel toward Ketane.

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

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Leaving Ketane, toward the end of the road.  

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These are the boys who steadily chase us uphill.  

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

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

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Party house.  Friday night in Lesotho!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Voter registration PSA.

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Maletsunyane Falls, the tallest falls in all of Lesotho.

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

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

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Into Semonkong.

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Shopping.

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

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Cycling in South Africa

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

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

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

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Life across the karoo, in broad strokes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of Prince Albert.  Into the wind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kudu boerwors and lamb.

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

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

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Rains re-awaken the desert.

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

Willowmore.

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

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Along the Groot River for the evening.

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

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

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This is our turn, of course.

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Steytlerville.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Graaff-Reinet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Signs in miles, before converting to metric.

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Droewors, Afrikaans for dry sausage.

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

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

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

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Let it down slow.

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

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

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

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Steynsburg.

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

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

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Burgersdorp.

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

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

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

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

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Jamestown.

You can’t go wrong in this freezer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dordrecht.

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

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

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

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

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

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Shuttling sheep along the paved road with flaggers.

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Barkly East.

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

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The Dewey Decimal System, in Afrikaans.

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Some Xhosa books.

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

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

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This is more or less how Lael sees things.  

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Railroad switchbacks.  Took me awhile to understand this.

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

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The Drakensburg Mountains are surfacing.

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Protein loading.

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What’s that, a bag of meat?

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

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Off to Lesotho!

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

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In other words, from AK to ZA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Into South Africa: Cape to the Karoo

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Squinting into the sun on the edge of a continent I hadn’t expected to visit a month ago, we depart Cape Town and the coast.  The first few days– like the first days of our first bike tour back in 2008– are spent spinning circles with our legs, waiting for this place to say something.  There is no ceremony, only a hurried effort to pass city limits and not stop at the shops on the way, for fear that we’ve forgotten something.  It will all make sense in time.  

Some hours and miles down the road, we’ve got a goal for the day and a feel for the place.  The maps make sense, the heat of the sun is real, and the anxiety of the days and months ahead turns to excitement and understanding.  

Our arrival in Cape Town is not the result of long-term planning and anticipation.  On the occasion that Lael makes major decisions, the cart often finds its way in front of the horse.  But for anyone that has jumped into icy waters or nervously asked for a date– or left on a bicycle trip– that’s often the only way.

Immediately out of Cape Town we connect to a series of sandy farm roads and local tar.  First, we must learn to ride on the left side of the road, refer to trucks as bokkies, and paved roads as tar roads.  The cape region is folded with mountains and fertile valleys in between.  Fields of finely sorted fruits and fields of black laborers waving gleefully send us into a tailspin of speculation about the politics and economy of South Africa, and all of Africa, topics which I’ve hardly ever considered.  I don’t know anything about Africa.  We agree that the wine really is excellent.  The sun is hot.

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Wine grapes are abundant through the first few days of riding.  Quality wines range in price from $2-$5.  A few cubes of ice in a glass of wine are not uncommon on a hot day.  

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We focus our efforts at discovering some of the Freedom Trail, the basis for the annual Freedom Challenge, an adventure mountain bike race across South Africa that is growing in popularity.  The format of the race is similar to something like the Divide where the clock runs non-stop, although food and lodging are provided at points along the way, usually at farmhouses or villages.  Notoriously, there are several challenging portages and frequent tall game fences or shorter livestock fencing to surmount.  Add to that the challenge of traveling across the country in June, which is winter in this country, and the requirement to travel solely with paper maps and a compass, no GPS.  

Most riders engage the Freedom Trail during the annual race, but the route can be ridden in any season, although summers may be extremely hot and winter can be cold at elevation.  However, the route is not open to tour at any time without prior arrangement.  It is not a wholly public route– making essential connections across private farms and game preserves– although it does rely heavily on public roads for most of its distance.  Contact the Freedom Challenge organization several weeks in advance to arrange a ride on the Freedom Trail.  An itinerary will be provided based upon your intended per diem mileage.  A fee is required to cover permitting, as well as food and lodging in remote areas.  It is possible to tour the route with nearly complete food and lodging arrangements, enabling ultralight travel.  Not all of these details are clear on the website.  

The Freedom Trail begins about a day’s ride out of Cape Town near Wellington with a short dirt road section followed by the famous Stettynskloof portage.  We opt to cross the mountains through historic Bain’s Kloof Pass, a gorgeous tar road.   

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As sunset, with winds howling along the face of the mountain, we shoot up a dirt track within the nature preserve.  Thus far much of the country is fenced, singed, and guarded.  Looking for flat ground, I spot a small building away from the road.  I approach slowly.  The structure is recently abandoned, apparently of some former official pedigree.  It makes fantastic cover for the night.

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Across the mountains we enter the Breede River Valley and enjoy the towns of Worcester, Robertson, and Ashton, before passing Kogmankloof poort (Cogman’s Kloof).  The Breede Valley is an especially productive wine region.

A quick lesson is Afrikaans assists map reading skills greatly.  A kloof is a valley; a vlei is a swamp; a poort is a low pass through the mountains, often a water gap; veld refers to a field, usually the wide open grasslands or brush of the karoo.  Oh, and the karoo is the great stretch of land away from the sea known for small towns, a semi-arid climate, and big sheep farms.  Karoo kitsch culture, much like the culture exploited in parts of the American midwest, seems to be in full swing.

Worcester provides the opportunity to ship some things home and finalize GPS tracks and maps.  Francois at Manic Cycles provides us a with a GPS track of a pleasant gravel route through the Breede Valley toward Ashton and Montagu, where we plan to connect with a section of the Freedom Trail. 

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Abandoned tar, thanks to Francois.  He was recently contracted to design a route for the upcoming Cape Epic mountain bike race.

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Kogmanskloof poort, between Ashton and Montagu.`

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Montagu is a pleasant town, a few days from the pace and influence of Cape Town.  The region is home to a productive industry of dried fruits and nuts.  Cape Dutch architecture melds local materials with styles imported from Holland.  Fresh white paint is the color of choice to reflect the intense sun at thirty something degrees south.

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Further afield, the land opens up in a familiar way.  Many roads inland of here are gravel, except for the main connections between towns.

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Ouberg Pass invites us with a climb immediately out of Montagu.  Keith, whom we met in town, meets us at the top of the pass to say hello.  He runs a local guide operation called Langeberg MTB.  You can call him Mr. MTB.  Mountain biking is growing in popularity in the country.

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Open roads for miles.  We camp near the road in a small gravel pit, and awake at sunrise.  It is nice to restart the pattern of rising early and riding longer days.

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The route passes high quality gravel roads, connecting to less traveled farm roads, and onto a mellow 4×4 track into the Anysberg Reserve.  

The nature reserve contains notably more wild game than elsewhere.  After recent rains, the rivers and streams attract animals of all kinds.  Most stream beds are dry most of the year.

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Cats or dogs?  A lynx, perhaps.

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A scenic doubletrack leads through the preserve, antelope springing away from the stream as we pass, including springbok, kudu, eland, and gemsbok.

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Highly folded layers give the Cape Fold Mountains their name.

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We take shade for an hour or two to enjoy lunch and fill our bottles at the ranger’s station.  We’re carrying 4 and 5 liters or water each, with two cages taped to each side of the fork.  Four cages times 800ml each is just over three liters on the fork.  Lael has a bottle mounted to her stem top cap, a simple and unique mount available from King Cage out of Durango, CO.  I’ve got two more liters under the downtube in a Klean Kanteen cradled by a Salsa Anything Cage.  

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Signs and fences are the rule in South Africa.  It is claimed that some gates are illegally placed across roadways on large tracts of land to deter livestock theft and other crimes, and to contain animals.  It is impossible to know which signs indicate private property with the legal right to pass, and which rightfully and legally exclude the right to pass on a private road through private property.  

Famously, mountain bikers in South Africa are pictured tossing their bikes over gates and game fences up to 3m high.  I’m not advocating trespassing on private property, but you will encounter fences if traveling anywhere off the main gravel roads.    

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Tubeless tires are essential for off-pavment travel.  This is the most common tree in the semi-arid regions of the Western Cape.

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Abandoned.

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Unlocked.

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Water sources come in the form of stock tanks, farmhouses, and mountain streams.  

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Gate jumping techniques improve with time.  Game fences– about 3m high– are always a challenge.

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South Africa has some of the best wide open dirt roads that I’ve seen.  They may be less densely woven than in parts of the US, where USFS and BLM offshoots often lead in every direction, but the roads are wide and nicely graded.  The riding is perfect for day long conversations side-by-side.  I call these Fargo roads, in reference to the dirt road hungry Salsa Fargo.

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Camping along the gravel roads is possible once out of town, although most people in the country will warn that it is unsafe, something you may hear in any country.  We find a quiet spot for the night below a quiet road partly concealed by a shrub.  There are fences everythwhere along the road, and I’ve been told by farmers that it shouldn’t be problem to hop a fence to camp in most places.  However, individual farmers may think otherwise.  Best to ask at a farmhouse if possible, a common practice around here.  You’re likely to get more than a patch of dirt for the night.

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It is quite possible to self-design a dirt route across the country once away from the reaches of the city. 

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Vleiland is just a little dot on the map, but surpassed us with a small community center with alibrary, and an aging store nearby.  The store stocks bread, cold Coca-Cola and Stoney ginger beer, along with a few other dusty items.  Lael looks with wide eyes and remarks that we could easily resupply in this place, despite mostly bare shelves.  Amazing what changes after a few years on the road.

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This section of the Freedom Trail from the Anysberg Reserve to Gamkaskloof and Prince Albert follows the scenic backside of the folded Swartberg Mountains.  

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Following the Freedom Trail further, past Seweweekspoort Pass, we continue on towards a famous donkey trail down into Die Hel, or The Hell.  Dutch settlers reportedly entered the idyllic valley and rarely left.  The trail is named De Leer, or The Ladder.  

The route passes into the Bosch Luys Kloof, a private nature reserve bisected by a public road.  Then, it connects to a private 4×4 track called “To Hell and Back”.  We dial the the number listed on the sign to ask permission to travel this track, which connects to De Leer.

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In about 11km, the track ends at a steep mountainside overlooking the Gamkaskloof.  The ladder into the hell begins here, but not before a quick snack .

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This connection, among others along the Freedom Trail, requires prior arrangement to pass.  I had contacted the Freedom Challenge organization several weeks prior while in Cape Town but did not receive a response, the result of a communication mishap I have come to learn.  

There have been ongoing issues with some of the landowners at the base of De Leer, culminating in a situation where event organizers cleared a mess of razor wire at the base of the trail in 2013, which had been illegally installed by landowners.  They re-opened the route just in time to enable the leaders to pass during the Freedom Challenge.  Read all about it and the resulting citizen’s arrest on the South African bike forums page, The Hub.

The ride through the Gamkaskloof is followed by a steep climb up Eland’s Pass to eventually meet the famous Swartberg Pass from the west.

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On our third day in insistently intense sun, we take every chance to submerge in cool mountain water.

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Protea is the national flower of South Africa and also the name for the national cricket team.  This is Protea eximia.

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Swartberg Pass.

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While descending the pass, a stream of sealant sprays from my rear tire.  It eventually seals, thanks to a gob of latex and dirt which fuses to the outside.  I later learn that an internal lamination is compromised, as  knobs are also tearing away from the outside of the tire.  

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Near the base of the pass, en route to Prince Albert.  A cold stream crosses the road.

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After three days in the sun, we immediately seek shade at the supermarket in Prince Albert.  A large glass bottle of Stoney ginger beer cuts the thirst.  A two rand deposit is required for the bottle, to ensure it is returned for future use.   

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In town, I check the weather, maps, and e-mail.  A glance at Warmshowers.org indicates a host in town.  I call.

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Johann is a veteran volunteer and friend of the Freedom Challenge.  He imparts knowledge of routes in the karoo and about South Africa in general.  He invites us into his home, a unique straw-bale constuction with an open floor plan.  

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There won’t be any opportunities to purchase a tire between here and Johannesburg, so we head for Oudtshoorn the next day, a century ride which crosses twice over Swartberg Pass.

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A 29×2.2″ Vittoria Saguaro tire with a tough TNT casing fits the bill.  I’ll miss the volume of the Hans Dampf, but this is a great replacement for now.  There were quite a few 2.2″ tubeless tires to choose from.  Repeatedly, the salesman tried to sell me 2.1″ Maxxis Crossmarks, one of the most popular tires in this country.  The same happened at the other shop in town, even though I introduced myself by stating that I was looking for the largest volume tire available.  “Really, the Crossmark is quite nice”, he insists.

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Back home to Prince Albert, four thousand feet up and over.  Lael loves shopping, bit only when it involves such a ride.  We spend a few more days in the vicinity of Prince Albert.  Every day. every morning, she rides to the top of the pass while I am still sleeping.

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Johann prepares a braai of lamb chops.  Do not miss the opportunity to eat lamb or sheep in this country.  It is exceptional.

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Homemade olives.

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Johann also shares with us a new dirt route across the country called the Spine of the Dragon, designed by friends David Bristow and Steve Thomas  The route is detailed in this guide entitled Riding the Dragon’s Spine, including a 58-day itinerary from Cape Point to the border of Zimbabwe, via Lesotho.  The route relies exclusively upon public thoroughfares.  The language of the guide and the associated websites is inspiring and inclusive.  GPS tracks of the entire route are available for free download from the Dragon Trax website.  In exchange, a donation to a charity of your choice is recommended.  This is an exciting find.  

Thanks for everything Johann!

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We’ll be using the Spine of the Dragon Route as a backbone for our travels in the coming weeks.  Off into the karoo toward Lesotho.  

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B/W South Africa

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Thanks to Dan Bailey for the challenge to share a series of black and white photographs, first executed via Facebook.  Each person learns something different from such an exercise.  The content and composition of the images come forward as the rainbow of colors fade.  I, like many others who spend their days outdoors, am attracted to the earth and the sky, to red dirt roads and blue hues overhead.  But there is some dishonesty in color, especially in the digital age.  Monochrome renderings highlight words and shapes, textures, and contrasts.  The dark tones, in contrast with a white background, are honest.  They are like printed words on a page.  

Dan will be publishing his first printed book on adventure photography in 2015.  He has also written a series of e-books about photography.  He lives in Anchorage, AK.      

Thanks to Jason Boucher for the inspiration to share only a limited series of images– 10 in total– from a substantial and well-documented experience.  He and nine others recently rode fatbikes away from the Western Slope along the Colorado River, over the La Sal Mountains, into the city of Moab, and back.  Jason organized the ride, and called it the Desert Ramble.  Almost every rider in the group is a formidable photographer and the collection of talent and equipment on that trip is impressive, as are the bikes.  To come away with only ten images is a reminder that brevity, and the right words, are better than an hour long speech.

Jason works for QBP in Minnesota, influencing the bikes we will ride next year.  He also writes about his experience with Olympus OMD, Pen and E series cameras on his his site Oly All the Time

And yes, Lael is carrying a jumprope.

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