Crossing the Judaean Desert, West Bank, Israel

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It is HLC season in Israel.

Nowhere else have we engaged the local bikepacking community as in Israel.  America is a big country and there are many riders, but there are miles and miles of trail for each rider to hide.  South Africa is a big country which claims a lot of riders, but most mountain biking seems to happen behind closed doors on private land tracts, only on the day of a race or scheduled ride.  Israel is a small country with a lot of people and a lot of public trails.  The people are active, organized, and committed.  Self-supported bikepacking is rapidly growing out of a foundation of mountain biking and hiking.

We receive the details of a plan on our small yellow phone to meet Ilan Rubinstein at Mitzpe Yeriho at 1800 hours.  We will sleep within the confines of the community, a Jewish settlement on a hill above the city of Yeriho (Jericho) in the West Bank.  We ride at 0600 hours.  Active, organized, committed.

We were first invited to participate in the HLC race last fall, via the blog.  By the time we crossed the border from Egypt I had received invitations for accommodation or conversation over coffee in places further north.  Facebook friend requests flood from serious looking riders, their names masked by Hebrew characters which I still cannot read.  We meet on the trail, partly by coincidence, and they know all about us.  I don’t usually recognize them by name, but we are friends.

The 1400km HLC was organized by a core group of riders in less than a year, and the first race took place in April 2014 from the southern flank of the tallest mountain in Israel, Mt. Hermon, situated at the junction with Lebanon and Syria.  Zohar Kantor, a Tour Divide veteran, conceived the event.  Limor Shany traced a line across the country from north to south, an extension of the week-long supported mountain bike tours he has been operating for years.  Ilan Tevet is the ever-convincing marketing man with a Swiss Army knife of skills to facilitate and promote the event.  He was the one to invite us to Israel and to the HLC last October.

Last year, the weather was hot in April, with two substantial heat waves during the HLC.  April is a month tightly sandwiched between cool wet winter and oppressively hot summers– the weather can go either way, but is most likely to be hot and dry.  The north of the country features a typical Mediterranean climate with wetter winters, while the south is consistently dry most of the year.  In almost any part of the country, substantial rain results in unrideable trails.  Limestone soils quickly clog tires and irregularly shaped limestone fragments– their exterior surface slickened by moisture– are hazardous when wet.  I’ve heard the complaints from last year’s heat, but Lael and I have spent enough time traveling this country during the rains to know which is worse.

The culture of the HLC isn’t entirely new, except for the essential details of being a week long self-supported race across Israel.  Israelis love mountain biking and regularly ride in groups, scheduled one day a week or more.  We’ve met many groups of riders who have been together for as much as a decade.  Ilan Tevet’s group rides very early on Tuesday morning and gathers for a stomach full of hummus at 8AM, before parting ways for their respective professional lives.  Some groups employ a more advanced rider to aid skill building and as a guide.  And the bikes!– we’ve seen more high-end bikes in Israel than anywhere in the world.  Spotting an Ibis, Turner, or Santa Cruz in the wild in America is uncommon, except in high-octane wealthy mountain towns like Crested Butte or Moab, or attached to riders with supreme skill.  Even in the middle of a suburban forest in Israel these bikes are not uncommon, and their association with skill is seemingly at random.  The impact of global marketing has also pressed enduro and all-mountain trends into the Israeli mountain bike culture.  Knee pads and other armor are common.  At the same time, lycra kit mated to Epics and Scalpels and Superflys are all part of the scene.  A few rigid singlespeeders keep it honest.  And on Shabbat, we ride.  Check out the Ben Shemen forest on Shabbat.  Only Marin comes close in my experience.

Bikepacking is growing thanks to the HLC and to the popularity of overseas events like the Tour Divide.  Bikepacking for fun, or mountain bike touring, seems to be missing from the current patchwork of Israeli mountain bike culture, to the point that when we describe to some riders that we are touring the HLC route, they are confused about how this is possible.  American riders often make the same mistake, failing to differentiate touring the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from racing the Tour Divide.

Coming from Jerusalem to Mitzpe Yeriho, we descend 2000ft on paved highways toward the Dead Sea.  We are the first to arrive and take a place at the picnic table outside the small grocery in the community.  Like many small planned communities in Israel, there is a gate surrounding the property and a structural steel gate at the entrance, often kept open during daytime hours.  But this is the West Bank, and even if only in my imagination, it is different here.  The shacks of sheepherding families line the roadside from Jerusalem.  But when we enter Mitzpe Yeriho, we could be in any other community in Israel, from the Negev to Galilee.

Ilan Rubinstein arrives first from Eilat, and quickly unveils a third of a bottle of Johnny Walker.  We’re sitting in front of half-empty pints of Tuborg Red and a tub of hummus, one half of our now-typical dinner.  Ilan serenades us with stories about the “spirit of the trail” and about the life-changing experience of racing the HLC.  It is inspiring stuff and Ilan is one of the greatest students and most sage instructors of the method.  But Ilan scratched from the HLC last year after a monstrous effort to Jerusalem.  The details of the end of his race are never made clear to us.  Despite countless queries, he avoids answering by chasing tangential trail philosophies.  He did the same thing last time we met him on the beach in Eilat.  There is something out there for him yet.  He arrives on a Specialized Epic with a combination of Revelate and Nuclear Sunrise gear.

Omri arrives next, a much younger man on a smartly packed Cannondale Scalpel with Porcelain Rocket gear.  He scratched even sooner in the race last year, but is quick to admit his mistake, with a smile.  The HLC is not like a short-source XC race, where he excels and where he draws much of his experience.  You cannot ride the same way, at the same intensity.  He recently spent several months in Ecuador touring Andean backroads, shadowing some of the routes he’d seen on Cass’ blog While Out Riding.

Nir deboards the same bus as Omri, a relative novice mountain biker (in time, not skills, since starting to ride three years ago) and a first time HLC racer.  He rides a singlespeed Kona Unit packed with Revelate Gear.  Nir is comfortable telling Ilan when he is overthinking, which amuses us greatly.

We’re just along for the ride.

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Awake before dawn, above Jericho and the Dead Sea.  How else could you convince men to wear tights and sleep on plastic house wrapping on the ground in a park?

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Leaving Mitzpe Yeriho, we pass several small homes with large flocks of sheep and goats.  These poor Arab families are increasingly a minority in Area C of the West Bank as Israeli settlements grow at an extraordinary rate.

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A climb ending in a steep hike downhill sets the tone for the day.

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Searching for trails etched by sheep and camels over decades and centuries.

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Unlike many of the official hiking and cycling trails and 4×4 routes we have been riding, this trail likely predates the state of Israel by many years.

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A nearby mountain bike route called The Sugar Trail passes from the hills above Jerusslem to the Dead Sea, once a popular trade route now a popular shuttle run.

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Singlespeed and happy, Nir keep an even keel and an even cadence.  The sign on the front of his bike indicates that he is riding the HLC to raise money and create awareness for Asperger’s syndrome.

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There are a series of wells along the first part of our ride, which makes carrying 7L of water feel a little silly.

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HLC training.

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The Judaean Desert is never this green, locals say.

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Mountain bike traffic– luggage and water uphill, full-face helmets downhill.

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Continuing to the south, the desert becomes increasingly green.

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Short steep hikes punctuate much of the first part of the ride.  Following GPS tracks up and down steep hillsides within sight of rideable trails is amusing, but the resultant ride is absolutely worth it, making connections one would not have seen from afar or from available basemaps.  The combination of local intel and a GPS are irreplaceable.

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A donkey would be a better tool than a bike up here.  Sage is in season, easily identifiable by smell from several meters away.

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Camels and green grass.

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Some flow, some chunk, some hiking, and some technical descents if you choose to ride them– HLC training.

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Ilan, the bikepacking poet from Eilat.  Ilan is well-known to provide hospitality to passing cyclists and has met many riders connecting distant parts of the globe, coming through Israel from Jordan and Egypt.  He has arranged for us to sleep in the aquarium in Eilat on several occasions, where he works as an accountant (with seemingly endless vacation time to go bikepacking).

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Still over 2000ft above the Dead Sea, Jordan in the distance.

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Metsokei Dragot, water refuel.

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Mostly doubletrack from here to the end of the day.

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Morning above the Deas Sea, cool air reminding us that we are here in the right season.  This place is an oven in the summer.

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Our track crosses a series of deep wadis which drain to the Dead Sea.  We can ride into these canyons, but not out.  Local Palestinian 4×4 clubs are out enjoying the day, bumping Arabic electro tunes.

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Lael judging form.  Looking good guys.  Good luck at the HLC!

The race starts from Mt. Hermon on Thursday morning at 7:00.  Follow along on the HLC 2015 Trackleaders page.

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We eventually arrive at an important junction where we can continue toward our planned destination at the Aravah Junction, or ride toward Arad and end the day at a reasonable hour, before dark.  Before the decision is made, minds wander to cold beers and obligations at work the following day.  We finish our crossing of the desert in Arad, where regular bus services take Omri, Ilan, and Nir back to their lives.

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We reconnect with the HLC track in Arad and begin riding north for a second time along this section.  If anyone asks, we live on this off-road artery across Israel, on the HLC.

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Sojourn in Jerusalem, Israel

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Journey to Jerusalem between solar powered weeks in the Negev and the rising tide of spring in the rest of Israel, unfolding new layers of riding to the north.  Arriving in Eilat on the first of February, we cordone ourselves to the south for a few weeks, making circles in the desert to join Ilan and Danny for a fresh piece of the IBT.  We finally pass north to the Dead Sea, and out of the deepest natural basin on Earth, in a sandstorm.  We continue toward the north– just to the center of the country– to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  Jerusalem: an ancient modern city amidst a series of steep hills, bounded on three sides by Palestine, one of the highest densities of religious Jews in the country, rich in culture and beauty and diversity.  Tel Aviv, I now know, is quite the opposite.

Rain arrives in tandem with our arrival to Jerusalem, 2500ft above sea level.  Cold weather sees us into a cave for the night, one of hundreds or thousands in these limestone hills.  But this cave just happened to find us on a dark night on a terrace just below the HLC route, just out of town (GPS coordinates here).  We push onto a narrow track to set up our tent in the pines.  A dark hole in the yellow glow of the evening catches Lael’s attention– just a mile from the edge of the city, properly– we literally walk into a warm dry cave out of the rain.  This becomes our home for the two and half days in Jerusalem.  This place, we promise, remains on the list of places to revisit.

On our first morning in the city, we meet Louis in the souk.  Dates and nuts and Euro-chocolate pastries take center stage, next to olives and piles of pita and fruits and vegetables.  It is a nice market, probably stunning if you come from Iowa, but nothing compared to Cairo.  Cairo tends not to be a popular topic of discussion in Israel; instead, I tell people we have come from Eilat.  That’s nice.

Louis comes from Iowa.  He first traveled to Israel at the age of 18.  Ten years later he has just completed six months of mandatory military service, now awaiting his Israeli passport in the post.  He will maintain dual citizenship, but plans to live in Israel.  He finished with the military last week, and begins work as a music teacher on Tuesday.  After a cold shower and several cups of hot coffee, we walk all around the city to the tune of every thread of information our impromptu tour guide can offer.  His knowledge and passion for the city is contagious, passing secret alleyways and favorite eateries.  He rides a Brompton and without hesitation, asks us to coffee at his apartment as soon as we meet.  Thanks Louis!

We meet Julian on our second evening in town.  Julian comes from Philadelphia by way of a semester in Jerusalem a few years ago through Eastern Mennonite University.  He came back to volunteer time to develop the Jesus Trail.  He now works for the Abraham Path, an international walking path projected (and growing) across the Middle East, from Sinai to Turkey.  Through the development of local walking resources, the organization aims to empower governments and people to welcome visitors, and in return, to hit the trail to discover other parts of the Middle East.  This is grassroots diplomacy, although the organization claims to be “non-profit, non-religious, and non-political”.  Most staff members come from the USA and the EU.  The Abraham Path relies on the vast network of existing trails in Israel, yet charts a new path through the West Bank (Palestine)  The Jordan Trail is now complete.  A projected route is in development in Sinai.  Scouting trips have been made to Eastern Turkey.  Syria is on hold for the moment.  There is talk about extending the path into Iraq.  Julian has been a valuable resource to us, even before we set foot in the country.  He has suggested routes and contacts in Israel, and proposes a trip to Jordan later in the month.  He rides a secondhand Surly Pugsley.  Thanks Julian!  

Yuval stands outside staring at our bikes, locked under the sodium glow of a street lamp.  We exit the coffee shop with Julian, a stack of 1:50,000 hiking maps in his hand.  Yuval is in awe of our bikes, “they are beautiful” he repeats over and over.  Immediately, he offers a place to stay for the night.  He invites us to the small bar where he works, for a round of Goldstar lagers.  We talk until late in the night about bikes and travel and Jerusalem.  He has recently completed his three year military service and has begun to study animation at Bezalel Academy.  He rides a finely appointed Surly Long Haul Trucker which he acquired in Germany and has taken to Iceland.  There, he ran into a guy that wrote a story for Bunyan Velo.  “You know Bunyan Velo?” he asks.  

Yuval asks if we know Poppi, aka @UltraRomance.  I don’t, but I point the question at Lael, knowingly.  You know a guy named Benedict?  “You mean Jeremy’s buddy from Texas?”  We’ve both heard that name while camping with Jeremy.

“I drew a picture for him.”, Yuval says simply.  “He said he would send a patch.”  

He never sent a patch, despite the massive popularity of Yuval’s pencil work, including a recent feature on The Radavist.

I’ve been carrying a Bunyan Velo patch in my wallet for the last eight months.  As I pass it to Yuval, he reaches for an envelope from Matt Whitehead, Patagonia-sponsored traveler, fatbike rider, and surfer.  The envelope contains a small stack of patches, a white background with a line drawing of a bicycle and a bundle tied off the back.  The bundle is a heart.  He hands one patch to me, and another to Lael.  Thanks Yuval!

Bike, electric bikes, and pedestrians; signs warning not to enter religious Jewish communities dressed in pink shorts and cutoff sleeves; an Ethiopian Orthodox church, lions everywhere in there; the Old City, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, and a big line to visit the Temple Mount, normally closed to nonbelievers; hummus, dried fruits, sweets; Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, lots of English; vineyards and INT singletrack and farm tracks and a dirt road entrance all the way into Jerusalem; a mosaic showing Jerusalem at the center of the world; Louis, Julian, and Yuval; an IMBA certified trail out of town and a signed route to Tel Aviv; and of course, our cave.

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Coffee in Palestine

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He insists that it must be cold in Alaska.  “Yes.”  I resist divulging any further details.  My computer is plugged into an outlet shared by a machine stirring an iced drink across the plaza.  A plastic bag containing a 1 kg tub of hummus and a pile of pita bread sits on a bench next to my bike.  Small shop windows encircle the plaza.  This public space is borrowed from a Soviet urban planning guidebook, or from community college design.  The man keeps a shop full of junk best described as a hardware store, but he is offering herbs procured from Arabs over there, looking to a rocky grassy landscape beyond a security fence.  This side of the fence is an orderly collection of homes and a managed pine forest.  The herbs are claimed to cure almost anything, he jests, or so they say.  I ask if he ever goes over there.  Only when going to Jerusalem.  It is 40 minutes this way, much longer to go around.  

I ask, in exact words, “What’s going on over there?”  

“They live with the sheep, the goats.”  

Now he’s trying to sell me a bottle of 100% alcohol.  I inquired; my own fault.  I’ve never seen 100% alcohol and I can’t read the Hebrew label and the price is kind of high.  I return the bottle to the counter.  Ethanol reaches a 96% equilibrium with water at standard temperature and pressure, bolstered only by the presence of benzene or other exciting additions, as I recall to myself.

I continue asking, and he continues to describe the life of Palestinian Arabs with an obsessive focus on the animals they tend, as if the practice of our forebears is anymore admonishable in light of microwavable chicken nuggets and foil-sealed yogurts.  At a high point, he exclaims, “they eat the eggs from the chickens!”  Lael and I look at each other knowingly.

We pass an unmanned gate, like a toll booth, just north of Meitar.  The HLC route circumnavigates Palestine.  To Israelis and much of the world, this is the West Bank.  To Palestinian Arabs, especially those living in the West Bank, this area is unquestionably Palestine.  However, Areas A, B, and C are all administered differently.  About 70% of the West Bank is wholly secured and administered by Israel and the IDF.  This is Area C.  Jewish settlements in Area C of the West Bank are rapidly growing and are encouraged by Israel, creating a Jewish majority in a region which is largely off-limits to the Palestinians living in Areas A and B.  Those areas, on the other hand, prohibit Israelis and are administered by the Palestinian Authority.  In some cases, such as with the security of Area B, the PA and the IDF work jointly.  

Every map of Israel I have seen includes the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights without question.  One map included the land area of Sinai, formerly under authority of Israel, although at least that map indicated the area is part of Egypt.  It reminds us of the tourist map we received when arriving in Serbia.  Where is Kosovo?, we wondered     

We continue uphill on a secondary paved road.  Men stand alongside sheep and goats on the roadside as promised.  Unsanitary water flows downstream toward Israel.  Half-built homes, similar but different than those in Israel, stand tall on the hillside.  Certain adornments and features connect them to homes I’ve seen in Egypt.  We pass a steel gate onto a disused paved road.  A dirt mound blocks the road beyond the gate.  I ask a shepherd if this is the way to Dahariya.  He agrees, repeating the word as it is pronounced locally.  

We enter Dahariya past dozens of auto repair shops, men with greasy hands standing in amusement and awe of two tourists arriving from a closed road by bicycle.  Tourists visit placed like East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron, but not Dahariya.

Our eyes focus on the light traffic ahead, our minds peer out the corners at fruit stands and homewares sold in small shops.  Mops and colored plastic buckets are remarkably common in Muslim countries.  Cleanliness, especially clean floors, are a homemaker’s obsession.  The camera remains hidden.  When stopped, I make obvious gestures toward beautiful fruits and taller buildings.  I do my best to act like a tourist.  Everyone wonders, suspects, supposes we are Israeli.  I photograph the street and obvious things, and slide the camera back into the pouch over my shoulder.    

At a major intersection a man confronts us.  He is obviously asking where we come from and where we are going, through basic English.  I pretend not to understand several times to decide how to respond.  I first insist I am from Alaska, from America.  He continues with the exact query.  I admit we have come from Meitar, which doesn’t please him but doesn’t surprise anyone.  A group aged from young boys to old men congregate, each and all with a more polite and positive demeanor than our surly captor.  The next question I don’t understand.  Each time he repeats it I hear the word evrit, which I repeat as a question.  Satisfied at my inability to answer, we are told to come inside.  

We cross the street into a coffee shop, a covered open air space nicely kept with far more space than patrons, printed murals of fresh fruits and cooked meats posted to the walls.  We sit, the two of us and the surly man and another man by my side.  I hate it when Lael is cordoned away from me in a group like this.  She and I sit diagonally from one another, each sitting next to and across from strangers.  It feels like a strategic move, but it couldn’t possibly be the case.  We relax into the absurdity of the situation. 

Four coffees arrive in paper cups, boiling water poured over fine grounds with sugar, the smell of cardamom light but present.  The day reminds me of those cool Sundays in autumn when a sweater is necessary.  It is already late afternoon, springtime in Palestine.  As I finish the first cigarette, a second man offers from his pack, offering fire from his lighter.  Two bottles of water arrive at the table.  The older men inform us apologetically that they do not speak English, in English.  We deny any reason to apologize.  Young men near to my age come and go through the door; most are a little younger, carrying smartphones in their hand.  Someone is fishing the stream of pedestrians on the sidewalk to see if anyone can speak English.  A string of unenthused men arrive and politely ask us where we are from.  We exchange names.  “Welcome”, they say before they exit.  It is a pleasant charade which continues for some time, as the third round of cigarettes are drawn.  Two non-alcoholic malt beverages are brought to the table.  A teenage boy takes the place of the man next to me.  The surly man across from me has lost interest and the round of questioning restarts.  The boy to my right opens the strawberry flavored drink and pours it into two plastic cups.  At the wave of a hand, two packs of chocolate wafers arrive at the table. 

A boy, perhaps thirteen or fifteen years old, is given a smartphone to bring to me.  A Facebook application is blank, awaiting my input.  I type my name, selecting the image of me and Lael in front of our bicycles with the subtext listing my high school.  The boy scans the page and reads the title of a past blog post on my Facebook wall, but all I hear him say is the word Israel.

Lael returns from the bathroom and we stand, shaking as many hands as we can find.  Two boys want to ride the bikes.  They throw a leg over, manage not to fall off as the seatpacks wag side to side, and skid to a stop after a short tour.  They point to the bottle of wine rising from Lael’s feedbag and say whiskey.  “Wine”, I reply.  But the word whiskey comes back at me again and I give up.

Into Dahariya. 

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Leaving the coffee shop.  I am Facebook friends with the young man in the black sweater on the right, and with shepherds in Lesotho, young boys who love Mercedes cars in Albania, and a soldier in Egypt who frequently posts selfies of himself in front of sand colored tanks.  One young boy in Kosovo casually tells me he loves me whenever we chat, but I think the translation is imprecise.  

We turn the corner and stop to consult the GPS.  First, let’s ride out of town.  Then, we’ll figure out where to camp for the night.  It may be easiest to pass back into Israel if we can find a gate.

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Rowdy, but friendly.  Lots of skidding tires.

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From Dahariya, we descend back to Israel.

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The unmistakable skyline of a Muslim village, punctuated by the minaret of a mosque.

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We pass a small security gate manned by two young soldiers.  We show our passports and are allowed to pass.  Just a few kilometers away we make camp amidst ruins on a grassy knoll.  Tonight, Israel is a quieter and simpler place to camp.

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Sunrise over Palestine.

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Sandstorm out of the Dead Sea on the HLC, Israel

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At 1200ft below sea level, there is nowhere to go but up.  Into a stiff west wind, we depart from the gas station at Newe Zohar, at the south Dead Sea.  The ascent out of this big hole, the Jordan Valley, comes in three distinct parts.  The first thousand feet are a steep hike up a signed footpath.  The second thousand feet are gained slowly up a wadi along a signed cycling route, which often rides above the drainage on a series of camel trails.  Finally, a dirt road leads up to elevation and to the city of Arad.

Leaving in the afternoon from the sea, we top out by the end of the day.  The wind clouds the sky with earthly particulates, concealing the sun.  The wind slows us to a stubborn crawl.  By the end of the day, we camp by the side of a dirt road, sheltered by a barren hillside near a Bedouin community.

Through Arad the next day, the wind intensifies.  We consider out options and consider the forecast for rain and wind next week, when Christina arrives from Alaska.  

We press on through slowly greening hills, past cherry trees, grasses, grazing sheep.  Riding and pushing another couple hundred feet upwards, we reach the Yatir Forest and the border of Palestine.  Israelis refer to is at the West Bank.  Across that fence is Area C, which is described as being under “full Israeli civil and security control”.  There are no trees on the other side of the fence, only rocky hills and grasses and two communities, each centered around the towering minaret of a mosque.

This is a dusty beautiful place.

A group of seniors are walking the entire INT, one day per week.  They offer to take our bikes on their bus and to house us for the evening.  We can restart in the morning.  Aside from severe wind, I remind Lael that everything else is just fine.  It isn’t raining, it isn’t cold.  She glares at me.  We continue.

A moment later large rain drops begin got fall.  Pushing across a grassy field towards a number of unfinished structures, a pair of eyes and hand emerge from behind a tarp.  A Bedouin shepherd invites us into his camp.  We sit, and have lunch, offering an orange, which he accepts.  He refuses our bread and hummus.  He makes mint tea with sugar.  Lael pulls our her sleeping bag and rests until the rain passes.  We continue.

We camp in the Yatir Forest near a large tent which serves young IDF recruits who are staying for the week to utilize the nearby weapons range.  They sit around the fire on the morning of their departure.  We make coffee on their fire, they make coffee on a gas burner.  They offer cigarettes and a kilo of apples.  Several speak English; the feeling is much like being with a group of young men anywhere.  It reminds me of the night spent in Egypt by the highway, mothered by a group of 22 your old boys.  Other than Lael, there is one other girl around the fire.  

The morning air is clear and the technicolor kaleidoscope of Israel presents itself, an exciting change after two weeks in the desert.  Going to Jerusalem.

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To the Dead Sea on the HLC, Israel

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We complete a circle around the Negev desert with Ilan and Danny, connecting new singletrack from Mizpe Ramon with the now familiar HLC route from Tsofar back to Sde Boker.  Moving north from Sde Boker, we eventually descend 3700ft to the Dead Sea, over 1200ft below sea level.  We ascend an ancient Roman road into a forest along the border of Palestine, we cross paved roads teeming with inexperienced roadies pissing by the roadside on Shabbat asking for snacks from their group’s escort vehicle; we sleep in a cave in a forest park outside Jerusalem and push our bikes through the Old City market in the morning, deflecting questions from Arab vendors about “How much, the bicycle?” while we seek the earthy brown bread they make.  Israel, the Negev, Palestine, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, the West Bank, Area A, Area B, Area C; chalky lime wadimakhtesh, savvanafication and desertification, kibbutzim, fences, farms, forests, 4×4 tracks, and so many signs and trails, but one simple GPS track from north to south, or south to north.  That’s only a few days on the HLC. 

The HLC, as you well know by now, is the annual bikepacking race across Israel from north to south, although it really only becomes an annual race after its second running this April.  By now, you also know our propensity to follow existing routes through new lands, using them as backcountry highways and approximate touristic guides as we slowly peel away the layers of a place.  From scheduled off-pavement touring routes like the Traversée du Massif Vosgien in Alsace, France to rough and tumble footpaths across Poland and the multi-day stage race route across Greece, the Bike Odyssey, we like to know that even when our maps don’t entice us in one way or another, we can continue along a charted path.  These routes aren’t challenges to be accomplished and completed, but sometimes-challenging paths of discovery.  Most of the time, just as we set off across South Africa on the Dragon’s Spine, we don’t really know what we are in for.  Two weeks out of Cape Town I wrote about our growing understanding of strongly institutionalized racism only twenty years after the official dismantling of the Apartheid system, “and I thought I was just bikepacking across South Africa”.  There was a lot more to South Africa than dirt roads.  There are many things you cannot learn from the internet, or from others.  Those are discoveries to be made on the ground.

Seven years ago we looked at dirt routes with curiosity.  Several years ago, we pushed onto dirt almost full time, beating around the bush on an old Schwinn High Sierra and a Surly LHT, but singletrack and true all terrain biking loomed.  Our current bikes, a Surly Krampus and Lael’s secondhand Raleigh XXIX enable access to most of the riding we encounter.    Even so –and we have already spent lots of time on fatbikes– there is a proper fatbike tour in our future.  Places like Namibia, Jordan, Finland, Baja California, Australia, Mongolia, Bolivia, Egypt, and Alaska beckon.  How best to use a bicycle to reach new places?  I’m not ready to abandon the bicycle.  Lael talks about walking.  I think about fat bikes and full suspension and ultralight, perhaps not all at the same time.  Having a bike by my side is a strong habit.  Our current equipment is suitable for about 90% of the riding we can expect to find (including pavement, of course), which makes our bikes reasonable, and as close to perfect as one could ask.  But the other 10% is fascinating.  Maybe it is more than 10%, once the lens of a fatbike is properly focused.  A full-suspension bike is a similar extension, although more a difference in degree than in kind.

As for the HLC route, the riding ranks alongside some of the best explorations we’ve had in Europe and uses a similar mix of well-signed dirt roads and walking trails.  The chance to ride in the desert reminds us of the AZT, but is far less technical.  It is like the Divide, with much less climbing, yet more technical than the endless dirt roads which link Canada and Mexico.  The route includes a mix of recently built IBT singletrack, technical jeep trail, sandy wadi, mellow dirt roads, and just a bit of pavement.  

No, the politics of the region do not present themselves significantly along the HLC, especially not in the desert.  The entire route remains in uncontested Israeli territory, excepting the section in the north in the Golan Heights, which is under full Israeli military control.  Israel is extremely safe.  However, it is not uncommon to see young soldiers with automatic weapons over their shoulders, a duty of their combat training to keep the weapon with them at all times.  Otherwise, overpriced gas station snacks, smooth paved roads, an efficient bus system, and helpful but know-it-all Israelis welcome you as in Germany, or America.  

For anyone interested in a bikepacking challenge in the style of the Tour Divide or the AZTR, airfares to Tel Aviv are very well priced including roundtrip rates from NYC for just over $600, and the bike flies free with Aeroflot.  It is rumored that the great Scott Morris will be there, alongside AZ compadre Max Morris who returns for a second year.  Even Lael is thinking about a nice ten-day riding binge back to the Red Sea.  There may be no other bikepacking race in the world that pushes through the crowded marketplace of an ancient city.  The HLC starts April 9.

From Sde Boker to the south Dead Sea.

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Nearing the rim of Makhtesh Gadol, or the Great Makhtesh– The Big Crater.

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Into the makhtesh, a natural non-impact crater found only in this region.  The entire makhtesh drains though a single wadi at the southeastern end.  

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The HLC features miles of mellow dirt roads, sinuous lines of singletrack, and here, some chunky 4×4 tracks.

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The Tsin River at -200ft, and still descending.

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Weathered date palms and other salt-resistant flora.

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A short lungbusting climb to a high vista above the river, still only at -278ft.  The lowest point in the USA at Badwater, Death Valley, CA is just four feet lower at -282ft.  But I am still on top of a hill.

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Our route crosses to an adjacent valley, where we ride a gravelly wadi, recently compacted and cemented by rain.  The jeep tracks in the center are softer than the surrounding riverbed, which is often less smooth than the softer tracks in the center.  It is a riddle often without an answer, except perhaps a fatbike. 

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Into a precise and narrow canyon of soft limestone, down to Ein Tamar at the southern end of the Dead Sea.  Looks like rock, but is soft like fragile dry clay.  Really fun and easy downhill riding, especially when a clear drainage presents itself.  This section is signed as a local MTB route.

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We arrive in Ein Tamar just after dark and discover a public camp in a spacious town park featuring fresh water and pit toilets.  The local grocery is well stocked and open late.  We often dream about free, legal camping and cold beers at the end of a long day.  The combination usually remains a dream, but is not uncommon in the Negev.  In most communities in the desert you may ask for a place to camp, while some even have simple established places for camping.  Just ask.

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About a kilometer from the town is the southern terminus of the Dead Sea, which is exclusively cultivated for salt production in the south, separated into evaporation ponds.  No floating in the water down here.

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Additional spoils of our free campsite, and of traveling in a wealthy country.  I find 22 strawberry yogurts in the trash at the park, obvious remnants from a picnic on the previous day, discarded alongside plates of Israeli salad and paper coffee cups, and a persimmon.  How many yogurts can we pack on our already loaded bikes?  Well, about 22.  There is always a way.  I ate 14 that day.  Lael insisted on counting.  

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Salt ponds, land mines.

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Shade.

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The HLC follows dirt tracks to the west of the Dead Sea for some time, crossing drainages at the base of the mountains before turning sharply upward and away from the valley.

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More chalky wadi riding.  Sublime when dry, miserable when wet.

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1000ft up an unrideable hiking trail away from Nowe Zohar begins our ascent out of the Jordan Valley.  Toward the center of the country, forests and flowers, and Jerusalem!

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Central Negev Loop with Ilan and Danny, Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arriving at Sde Boker, about 1500ft.

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

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

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

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

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Pizza and beer in the middle of nowhere, Israel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A quick tour of the tar road to Mizpe Ramon.

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

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

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

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Fresh IBT, all day long.

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

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

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

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“Get off bikes!”  Yeah right.

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

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

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

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

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Up, but not much.

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And down.  Way more flow than the previous day.  

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

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

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

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

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Camel tracks.

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

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

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

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

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Facebook and cigarettes; Sinai, Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sinai at the speed of a police escort.

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Both boys are named Muhammad.

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Another checkpoint, between mountains and the sea.

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El Tor to Sharm el Sheik.

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

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East Delta bus to Dahab.

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

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We’ll come back with fatbikes some day.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Old Testament.

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

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Nuweiba.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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