A Week on the 1000 Miles Adventure, Czechia

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In 2016, the Czech government released a more palatable English language name for their country, replacing the cumbersome [the] “Czech Republic” with Czechia. Modern sources such as Google Maps and The US Department of State now prefer the name Czechia.

I know I’m snoring when I wake up abruptly and don’t know what woke me. This was the case in a small hiking shelter on the Czech-German border. The day began with a battleship grey sky and even though it wasn’t raining, the previous night’s dew would not dry from either the inside or the outside of my tent as I prepared myself in the morning. I reluctantly packed up the wet parcel and stuffed it into my seatbag. I get an incomplete feeling when packing wet tents and soiled clothing and electronics with dead batteries. I knew the rain was coming that day. Crossing the Elbe River the day before dropped me into the largest city I’d seen since Prague— Dĕčín— where I was able to source a weather forecast for the coming days from the wifi network at the public library along the river. I check email, I check the weather, I buy pastries, I buy beer, and I’m riding north out of town along the Elbe River bike path. Some of my favorite bike touring days include these in-and-out of town resupply blitzes, bounded my dirt and mud on both sides. The cashier at the grocery store has no idea why I’m sweating and dirty, nor why I’m buying so much cheese and beer.

My tires track a damp, rooty trail along the border. In fact, the trail is the border and with exactness the signed trail follows a series of knee-high concrete structures painted red and white, with coordinates painted on two sides and the letters C and D on opposing sides, signaling Czechia and Deutschland. Unlike most of the forest access roads or forgotten doubletrack corridors of the 1000 Miles Adventure route, this is physical, technical riding. These roots would be tough in dry weather; in wet weather it is a game of Russian roulette. I say that because I know how quickly serious injuries happen. Lael fell off a narrow wooden bridge this summer while riding and cracked several ribs. My friend Sue, whom we solicited from the Baja Divide group start to work in Alaska with us at The Bicycle Shop this summer, stepped off a mountain bike trail to allow downhill traffic to pass, anchoring her foot in a mess of logs and toppling to one side. She broke her leg in three places. All I want to do is finish the day with all of my faculties, but all I want to do is to have fun.

I rest in a small wooden hiking shelter, enclosed on all sides save for an open window and doorway facing the trail. There, I prepare a meal of noodles and klobása, and finish with a poppyseed koláč and a cup of coffee before laying down on the wooden bench to rest.

Awake, I rub my eyes and peel away cobwebs. I slowly finish climbing the gentle grade to a high point, my heart beating not much more than resting rate, and point the bike downhill on these same wet, rooty trails. Now, with sugar and caffeine and twenty minutes of rest, my ride is one of complete concentration. Focus and passion are irreplaceable elements when riding. 

Following a busy summer of work, a busy week of travel to California for QBP’s Saddledrive event, and a couple days of riding and planning in Central California before two and a half days of plane travel via Oakland and Stockholm and Prague to the far western border of the Czech Republic by train, I am tired. I disembark the train in Cheb and ride straight out of town along a river, camping next to a dammed lake for the night. I set up my Tarptent Rainbow for the first time as men in olive green fishing tents line the far shores. Rainclouds make good on their promise and I slip into the lake to wash away the greasy feeling of two days of travel before putting on clean woolen clothes for the last time in a while.

That first night out of town is the first good night of sleep I remember since the end of March. But the next morning, I rise and pack and ride and eat and ride and don’t stop until sundown. For the next 7 days, I keep the same pattern along a small magenta line on my GPS. By the end of the week, I can sense the need to take some time. Reluctant, but operating on an informed autopilot, I descend to Liberec and peck around town until I find a technical college that rents dorm rooms for a good price. For less than $15 a night, I have a large room with windows, two beds, three desks, and a shared kitchen and bath (with the other unoccupied private room). For four days, this is my home. The freedom of walking around in my underwear while cooking knedlíky and klobása and kysané zelí; sitting down at the computer with a beer to write, and revise, and edit— these things remind me what it means to have my own space, they remind me what I have been missing for much of the last ten years while traveling. To most everyone else in America, having a kitchen and a desk and privacy is taken for granted.  

The first week of riding along the 1000 Miles Adventure route is much like I expected, and that’s why I traveled here. I’ve only ridden some of the route in the past, near the Nizké Tatry National Park in Slovakia, but after two summers of riding footpaths and old roads in Europe I had a strong sense of what to expect. Even so, the borderlands between Czechia and Germany are more consistently wooded than I realized. This land, most of it managed for public recreation as well as timber industries, is extremely well signed with walking routes, cycling routes, and ski routes in every direction. Large public maps and signposts, covered picnic tables, and winter shelters abound in these forests. Towns are often no more than several hours apart by bicycle. The result is a fun and civilized route through an historic land with abundant natural space and people who love being active outdoors. With just over a quarter of the route behind me, I look forward to seeing how the country and the culture changes toward the east. I’ve only just left the German border behind in trade for the Polish border. Eventually, the route enters Slovakia and finishes at the border of Ukraine. 

The way I most often describe European bikepacking holds true on the 1000 Miles Adventure. Ride out of town on a narrow lane past some homes with fruit trees overhanging the road, ride through a farm field, into a forest, over a small rounded mountain on doubletrack and singletrack, back down into a farm field, past some houses, and through the center of town past a church and a store and a public space. In the first 250 miles, that is the general pattern. A number of small ski resorts are found along the route, a region of peat bogs and ponds are found in the mountains feeding brown tannic streams, and an area of towering sandstone cliffs and rock spires define a part of the route bounded by the Bohemian Switzerland National Park (Národní Park České Švýcarsko). Amongst the familiar, there are daily surprises.

My friend Abe arrives from Anchorage tomorrow to join me. We hadn’t seen each other all summer until he contacted me looking for a bike to go on a trip. I managed to get my hands on an Advocate Cycles Hayduke for him, and offered my carbon 27.5+ Knight Composites dynamo wheelset since I wasn’t using it. He had loose plans to travel to Central Asia, but once I got talking about Eastern Europe, his ears perked up. It might just be my passion for sausage and sauerkraut and beer that did it, but a couple of weeks later he bought a ticket to Prague. Abe and his friend Malcolm land in Prague tonight and will take the train to Liberec in the morning. We’ll roll out of town on Tuesday afternoon and head straight for the hills, riding into the Jizera Mountains followed by Krkonoše National Park.

For smaller portions, follow our ride on Instagram at @nicholascarman

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 My first few pedal strokes on the 1000 Miles Adventure route are promising. 

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The first few towns and classic European communities: stately city center, old world city structure, a few small stores, an amateur metal rock festival in progress…

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Some small towns in these mountains have small ski areas to match, operating one or two very old lifts, most often no more than 100-200 vertical feet. Cycling is also popular in these parts in the summer. Ortlieb is pushing the new sport of “bikepacking”! 

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Singletrack along railroad tracks.

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Forest access roads and singletrack to a popular rocky outcropping atop a local mountain.

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A developed spring, signage, and a covered picnic shelter.

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The first few days are a little wet, but I never get as thoroughly soaked as I did in Prague on my short ride from the airport to the train station. Suited for adventure, I’m running a Garmin eTrex 20 and an iPhone 5 for navigation, with a Sinewave Cycles Beacon headlight on the bars, which serves up to about 750 lumens at night or USB charging during the day.

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Tailwinds and an old railroad grade on a sunny afternoon make you want to bunny hop every mud puddle at 20 miles per hour.

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But when the rain comes back these ski shelters prove extremely useful, not that I mind a night in a tent, but this provides better ventilation.

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Failing to pack a utensil, I spend the first few days cooking and eating with a stick, until I upgrade to a plastic fork from a market, and finally a stamped steel spoon from an Asian discount store on the Czech-German border.

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Alcohol for cooking is easy to find at many gas stations in Czechia.

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Further infrastructure exists in these mountains, and I know I will find more in some of the higher mountains which are most popular with hikers and cyclists. On this morning, I happen upon a small woodland dwelling which houses a cafe. For $5 USD I order traditional sausage with a slice of rye bread, a beer, and a piece of poppyseed cake. Mustard and horseradish are on hand.

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———-

Blueberries are in season up high.

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Apples are everywhere, absolutely everywhere.

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Plums. Some are still not ripe, yet some of the smaller yellow and red varieties are nearly past prime and are sweet as jam.

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Blackberries and raspberries, this particular hedge forming the border between Poland and Czechia.

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Rose hips add color to the thicket alongside many tracks on the route. 

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These purple thistles are common, and a sign of the waning summer season.

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Fireweed tells the same story as it turns to cotton.

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Trail markers and maps and signs are everywhere. The first time I travelled across Europe by bike it was without GPS, relying only on signed routes, posted maps, and some free local maps available from tourist centers. It is easier with the GPS, but there is beauty in looking at the outside world in search of guidance, rather than staring down at a device.

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Mostly, I navigate using basemaps on the Garmin eTrex 20 downloaded from openmtbmap.org, and Open Cycle Maps on the Gaia app on the iPhone. It helps to have something I can use to quickly search for new routing, check weather, or find an address in a city, even though the iPhone is wifi only. I use a simple flip phone back in the States, which I’ve left behind.

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———-

The roads and trails along the 1000 Miles Adventure are varied, greatly varied. One of the things I love most about bikepacking in Europe is how often the scenery and the trail surface and the signage changes. Sometimes it seems like more of a scavenger hunt than a prolonged bike ride, which is a nice distraction for anyone who thinks staring a 50 mile bike ride in the face is daunting. Just pepper the experience with a treasure hunt and regular beer and pastry stops— that should make bikepacking fun for anyone!

A classic forest road.

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Rocky footpath.

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Faint farm tracks.

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Psychedelic bike path along the Elbe River.

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So many dreamy forest roads.

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A ferry from Germany back to Czechia. I love a bike route with a boat ride.

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Climbing out of town under an old ski lift, still in use in winter.

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Dropping into town.

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Back to pavement.

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Into the city to look around and resupply.

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Free wifi at the library. There is so much free wifi in Czechia, it would make for a simple working vacation destination.

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Back out of town.

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Up and over another mountain.

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To see what might be hiding at the top. An old stone tower, a restaurant with a beer garden, communication towers, an old bunker. In fact, just around the corner is a mountain hut with wifi and food and beer.

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Finished with a little night riding by the light of my Beacon.

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To wake up wherever you wake up. The world looks much different in the morning after selecting camp in the dark.

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———-

Dropping into town means it is time to resupply. With the frequency that you encounter towns along the route, you never need more than a day of food. You could easily ride from town to town on an unloaded bike if you wanted to eat and sleep at established services.

In the countryside it is still common for people to leave their children outside the store unattended, and their bikes unlocked.

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My everyday diet includes sausage, cheese, vegetables, and the ubiquitous crusty white bread rolls that can be found at any store. Fruit often comes ripe off the tree. Czech pilsener is an essential part of hydration. I can’t read the labels, but I’m pretty sure they recommend one every four hours.

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Coffee and poppyseed pastry offer a regular afternoon diversion, along with a nap.

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My only meal in a restaurant thus far has been at a rural train station. I don’t know what community was served by this station as there were no houses or people around, but the most wonderful smell of cooked onions and dough was coming from one end of the station. I decided at that moment that I would sit down for my first restaurant meal in the country.

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———-

I could keep living like this for a while. Fingers crossed that the summer sticks around.

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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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Life across the karoo, in broad strokes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of Prince Albert.  Into the wind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kudu boerwors and lamb.

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

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

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Rains re-awaken the desert.

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

Willowmore.

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

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Along the Groot River for the evening.

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

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

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This is our turn, of course.

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Steytlerville.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Graaff-Reinet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Signs in miles, before converting to metric.

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Droewors, Afrikaans for dry sausage.

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

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

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

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Let it down slow.

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

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

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

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Steynsburg.

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

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

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Burgersdorp.

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

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

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

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

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Jamestown.

You can’t go wrong in this freezer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dordrecht.

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

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

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

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

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

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Shuttling sheep along the paved road with flaggers.

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Barkly East.

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

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The Dewey Decimal System, in Afrikaans.

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Some Xhosa books.

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

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

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This is more or less how Lael sees things.  

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Railroad switchbacks.  Took me awhile to understand this.

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

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The Drakensburg Mountains are surfacing.

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Protein loading.

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What’s that, a bag of meat?

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

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Off to Lesotho!

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

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Romanian rail, Serbian sun, Montenegran mountains

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Above:  Sunny shades of Serbia.  Serbia is a big surprise, as we didn’t have any expectations at all.  

Since parting ways with my family, we’ve returned to our bikes in the Ukrainian Karpaty.  We followed the route from Kolochava to Yst Chorna, again.  It is shown as a road on the map, but it is more of a stream for about half of that distance.  We continue along forest tracks and singletrack to Yasinya.  To our south, the road crosses through the town of Rakhiv and into Romania,  Or, we can climb up the Chornahora Massif, possibly ride or walk up to the highest peak in Ukraine– Hoverla– and continue further east to cross into Romania elsewhere.  However, our plans with Przemek are looming, and the weather is constantly cold and rainy, at least about every other day.  It may not be the best time of year to be exploring the Romanian highlands.  Not sure if Saška would like to be cold and wet on her first bike tour.  Not sure if I want to be cold and wet.  Lael certainly doesn’t.  Weather predictions in the Balkans are promising– 30C and sunny everyday.  Przemek and Saška are coming from Slovenia.  He asks, “Can you be in Podgorica on the 5th”?

Sure!

Lael and I hurry to figure out where Podgorica is.  Ah, Montenegro.  Sounds nice.

We ride into Romania at sunset, and seek an inexpensive hotel in the center of town.  The first night in a new country is exciting.  Which currency do they use?  How much will we pay for a beer, and a loaf of bread?  It surely isn’t as cheap as Ukraine, although the facilities are nicer.  Immediately, we notice the roads are much nicer (smoother, but more traffic).  The roads in Ukraine are laughably bad.  Once-paved roads are actually worse than many dirt roads, in this country or elsewhere.  Low-traffic volumes are the reward.

Romania is welcoming.  The language is different, like Italian or French spoken through a 30% filter of Ukrainian, to my ears.  Espresso is omnipresent, and very good.  The Italians have left their mark on this part of Europe.  We will find more of this further south, and west.  Romanians use the Leu as currency.  Slovakia uses the Euro.   Both Czech and Poland have been EU members as long as Slovakia, yet they do not use the Euro.  Turns out, Montenegro uses the Euro as well, and they aren’t even part of the EU yet.  Previously they had used the Deutsche Mark in place of the unstable Serbian Dinar.  Montenegro only recently declared independence from Serbia in 2006.  There is a lot of history to learn for this part of the world.  We habitually load gargantuan Wikipedia articles about each country (Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia), or past country (Yugoslavia), or soon-to-be independent country (Kosovo), and read them offline in the tent.   

Romania

Romania, as seen from across the border in Ukraine. To some, the grass is a little greener over there.

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The next day, we purchase train tickets.  The afternoon allows me to service my bottom bracket, which has begun to creak.  Shimano warns, “Do Not Disassemble”.  I recommend to anyone wishing to prepare their bottom bracket for lots of muck and rain to do this before it makes noise.   Carefully remove the plastic cover, and the rubberized bearing seal.  Flush with lightweight lube, and pack with as much grease as possible.  

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The Shimano crank design is almost free of specialty crank tools.  Unfortunately, the non-drive side utilizes a bearing preload which demands a special star-shaped tool.  In this case, a light tap with a hammer and a Ukrainian coin set the bearing preload just right.

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The Romanian train promises to be comfortable, as the air is cool and the cabin is only at quarter capacity leaving the station.  We’re sad not to spend the time that Romania requires, but this train ride will serve as a small consolation, and a basic reconnaissance mission.  We’ll be back someday, armed with more summer.

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The bikes cost us about $15 each on the train.  There isn’t an official policy or place for the bikes, although the train attendants are very kind and flexible, much unlike the Soviet-era attitudes aboard the Ukrainian railways.  Someone is transporting a large sack of flour on the train.

The 14 hour train costs about $15 per seat, plus the bikes.  Not a bad way to get across the country.  All is well until a woman enters our cabin of eight seats.  Each cabin is only ticketed for a maximum of about four passengers, as the train is quite empty.  She argues that I am in her seat.  I show her our tickets, the attendant ensures that yes, I am in her seat, although he has moved us to this cabin to be near our bikes.  She’s not happy, and the remaining twelve hours are miserable.  I’ll almost never say it, but is was really uncomfortable.  First, she closes the only window and the door to the cabin.  Then, she eats some fragrant fried food.  Finally she inspects us uncomfortably for a while, trying to figure out who or what we were.  She argues with her husband.  Lastly, she lays down across three seats, stomach hanging out of her shirt, shoes off, looking at us.  Eventually, she is asleep and snoring.  At intervals, she stretches and rolls over and puts her feet up on the window.  There are some cookies, and more fried foods.  Then, two older Romanian men enter the cabin past midnight to claim their seats.  Now, there are six of us.  Five of us sit upright; she still claims three seats.  She snaps at the two men, who maintain conversational tone in the dark.  Their voices are calm, yet earnest, and it doesn’t bother me.  Incidentally, about an hour later, she begins texting on her cell phone.  The phone is set to full volume, beeping with each key stroke.  That bothers me.  Lael holds back a laugh.  Then I laugh, and she laughs, and the woman looks at us, realizing her mistake.  She lays down again, and falls asleep.

Eventually, the two men deboard the train in the early morning.  Lael stretches out on the remaining seats.  I find an empty cabin at about 4AM, and catch a few hours of sleep.  We arrive in Timisoara at 7AM, greasy and tired.  I glare one last time at the fried food text-messaging bossy lady, and take my things.  Lael suggests we could take another train further south.  I suggest we ride.    

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We exit the train station in Timisoara as all the businesses open for the day, and rain begins to fall.  This is a flat, fertile corner of Romania.  We’ll be in Serbia by the end of the day.

I’d never have chosen to visit this part of the country but we make a great day or it.  We stop in a small store at lunch, to take cover from the rain.  We order two beers and sit on the ground.  The patrons are half Roma gypsies, and half Romanian, split between two tables.  Everyone, at different intervals ask us questions in Romanian, French, German, and some Russian.  The one guy that claims to speak English is wasted, and really doesn’t speak English.  Still, he buys each of us a beer.  This is a poor town stuck near the border.  For a moment, I like being here.

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In fact, this border crossing is listed on the map and on my GPS, but is currently inactive.  We arrive at the abandoned post and ride into Serbia, looking for anyone who can officiate our crossing.  There is no one.  We return to Romania, to find an official border crossing.  We’d hate to be clocking time in the EU when we have in fact left the EU and are in Serbia.  Further, we’d hate to spend time talking to the police later on.

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Serbia

We arrive in Serbia at sunset (a pattern, it seems), and spot a small mound of mountains.  

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Vrŝac, at sunset.

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This is one of Serbia’s premier wine growing regions.  Serbia uses the Dinar as currency, which is valued at about 90 Dinar to the Dollar. 

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Vrŝac is a fantastic city.  

Lael and I have been carrying some things we’d like to send home.  I wander into the post office, which is very busy.  Instead, I leave some layers and a camera in the park.  

Sadly, the lens is scratched and the camera body has a mind of its own when the atmosphere claims more than 90% humidity.  Hopefully, someone in Serbia will appreciate it.  I can’t justify sending it home to gather dust, nor do I want to take pictures marred by a scratched lens.  After a year and over a thousand dollars of experimentation, I’m using the same camera and lens as last year.  It is simple, small, and inexpensive.

In the past year, the screen on my lightly used Olympus E-M5 died within a week, and I lost the external hardware to the EVF on a ride.  I scratched the lens of the Panasonic 12-35mm lens, probably beyond repair.  I broke the threaded plastic filter attachment in the same bike crash that killed my last E-P3 body.  The Olympus E-PM1 body which I left in the park has been a solid performer since I purchased it as my first camera just over two years ago.  This year, I’m planning to keep it simple and cheap.

I enjoy using the Olympus E-P3 body (newer one, as the last one broke), and the photographs from the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 lens are to my liking.  And when it rains or I want to put the camera away, it fits almost anywhere on the bike.  

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Serbia is full of sun, for us.

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We intersect the EuroVelo6 Route along the Danube River.  This route connects the Atlantic with the Black Sea.

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For about 30 miles, we ride hard packed dirt and gravel along the banks of the river.

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This French cyclist has ridden all the way from Dijon on the EuroVelo6.  He’ll finish through Bulgaria and Romania in the next few weeks.

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Serbia is another place we’d love to come back to visit.  Fruit grows everywhere, the people are friendly, and there are mountains in large doses to the south.  So many people speak English here.  They speak naturally, and transition quickly from Serbian.  I’m not sure how to explain the phenomena.  They also play a lot of basketball. 

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Everyone in this region is familiar with conflict.  Kosovo and Monenegro only recently declared independence from Serbia.  Albania has only been quiet for a short time, and bunker tourism is part of every visit to Albania, I hear.  Each of these countries was part of a failing Yugoslavia just 25 years ago.  A lot has changed in the Balkans.  A few countries are still not yet part of the EU.  

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Entering the mountains is refreshing.  For the most part, we chase paved miles en route to Podgorica.

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Each town posts recent death notices in public places, usually taped around a pole or a tree.

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Yugoslav-era apartment building are everywhere.  As long as you don’t find them ugly, they are fascinating.

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Mining and other industries appear to be healthy across Serbia.  This is a lot different than Ukraine, where almost every old industrial building is vacant and vandalized.

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We first encounter walking trails in Serbia along this dirt road climb.

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Further, we find signage for the walking routes and a biking route.  I do not yet have any insight into these routes, but they do exist.  While many small roads in the mountains are paved, many others are not. There are also thousands of miles of farm roads.  We only find basic road maps in our few days in Serbia.  Also, the Openmtbmap.org file that I was using on the GPS contains less detail than in other nearby countries.  In general, these maps are highly recommended as at least some map detail is available for almost every country.  A small donation to the project allows unlimited downloads.  I have downloaded the maps for Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, and Greece. 

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Fruit is everywhere, especially blackberries and raspberries.  And as everywhere else in Eastern Europe, plums are in abundance.

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Potatoes.

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Cabbage.  Serbian fields are productive, another change from subsistence farming in Ukraine.

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Roadside springs are abundant on mountain roads.

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In the city, we find this awesome traffic model, scaled down for children on bicycles, rollerblades, and on foot.  This is a good use of schoolyard space.  

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Hot weather and cold water is how I hope to spend my summers.  It feels like we’re getting close, finally.

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We find camp for the night in a cemetery, for the first time, actually.

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The next morning, we pass through Guča, home to the world famous Guča Trumpet Festival.  This festival celebrates the style of Serbian trumpet found in regional brass bands.  I’ve seen one such band escorting a wedding party; the music is riotous.

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The written Serbian language is a mix of Cyrillic and Latin characters.  My Ukrainian is more valuable here than in Romania, where our French-English-Ukrainian was more confusing than anything.  In many of these countries, people try to speak to us in German.  Younger people more often defer to English.

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The mountains!  With each pass, we climb higher and higher.  We climb to 2500ft.  Then 3000, 3500, 4000, and then over 4000ft.

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And at last, over 4000ft, we reach the border with Montenegro, or Crna Gora in Latinized Montenegran and Serbian.

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As we get close, the rain returns.  When the weather is good, I ignore the forecast.  I look for the first time in a week.  The computer calls for rain as far as we can see, in every direction of space and time.  Rain for weeks all up and down the Balkans.  At least it will be warm, as long as we are not chasing dirt roads up to 6000ft.

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Montenegro

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We continue our ride, intersecting lonely paved and dirt roads, and by chance, the largest canyon in Europe.  The Tara River Canyon claims to be up to 4300ft deep in places.  It makes for a spectacular descent from the rim.  A quiet paved road continues upstream in the canyon for about 20 miles.

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Where did that summer weather go?  Lael is still wearing her number from the Fireweed 400.

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We prepare a bounty for Przemek’s arrival.  We will meet him and Saška at the train station in a few days.  Local wormwood liquor is a good start.

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A local sign near the Biogradska Gora National Park indicates a 300km cycling route, for mountain bikes!  The route is signed, mapped, and English-language brochures are offered online.  A website dedicated to the “Top Biking Trail 3-Eastern Enchantment” provides all the information.  Maximum elevation is over 6000ft, maximum grade is 35%; mostly, I think it follows rideable dirt roads.  If the rain holds, we’ll include some of this into our route with Przemek and Saška.

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We descend from the mountain valleys at 3000ft, down towards Podgorica.  At 280ft elevation, the weather is much warmer and the skies are clearer.  If necessary, we’ll plan a route nearer to the coast to avoid the orographic effect of the mountains.  The tallest mountains in Montenegro and Albania are over 8000ft and 9000ft, respectively.  So close to the Adriatic and Ionian Seas (and the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black Seas), they create their own weather.  

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Just 8 miles out of Podgorica, we find a secret riverside campsite.  The water is cold and clear, and finally, it isn’t raining.  It has been a wet ride since crossing from Serbia.

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We awake to some sun and blue skies, tentative as they may be.

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Plums replaced by figs, we’re close to the sea.  We are, effectively, in the Mediterranean.

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Saška and Przemek arrive tomorrow, for two weeks of adventure.  We don’t have a plan or an end destination.  Surely, we’re all looking for good riding, great camping, and if possible, some sun.  Lael, as a recovering Alaskan, is always looking for sun.

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Anyone live in Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, or Greece?  We may be in the area over the next month.

Ukrainian meals

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Above: One of the finest meals presented to us, prepared by my mother’s godfather’s granddaughter, who visited us in the US in the early 1990’s.  Her grandfather was very close with my grandfather, as they emigrated to the United States together through Germany, during and after WWII.  

Between Amsterdam and Lviv, Lael and I dined and drank almost exclusively on the ground.  We purchased food in markets and in small town shops, and ate in parks and high atop hills.  We pointed at cheeses and meats and pronounced new words to taste the local flavors, ranging from fresh cheeses to the popular packaged snacks of the country.  In each place, we discover favorite in-season produce, packaged cookies, or alcoholic libations.  Cheeses and sausages change subtly between places, but they change.  Wine gets better or worse, depending upon your proximity to France, Italy, and Spain; while vodka gets better depending upon your proximity to Poland, Ukraine, and Russia.  Belgian and German beers are the best, while the Czech brands are also among the best, perfect for an afternoon in the shade.

In Ukraine, our patterns changed.  We left our bikes for a period of ten days to travel by rail, bus, and foot.  We visited family, dined in restaurants, and picnicked on overnight trains.  Most all of this time, we ate in chairs at tables.  Most impotently, we often dined with the guard of a local cook, ensuring a uniquely Ukrainian experience.  In Ukraine, we were served horilka (vodka) at breakfast, although we declined.  We experienced the season in which trucks loaded with watermelons from the coastal plains of the Black Sea flood the countryside with produce.  We tasted caviar from the Caspian and homemade wines from grapes grown overhead.  We ate familiar and unfamiliar things, discovering that many of the things we prepare for ourselves as Ukrainian-Americans is outdated, regional, or most likely reserved for special occasions.  As anywhere, we discovered a food culture which is far greater than the summary of a few popular dishes.

From my time at the Ukrainian table, both at home with my grandparents and in Ukraine, I know that simple handmade food is best.  In Ukraine, family-style dining is the only style.  Potatoes, cheese, tomatoes, bread, kovbasa, and maslo (butter), are good for you.

While in Ukraine, I stood on chairs at every dining table I visited.  I photographed markets, picnics, parties, and farms.  We dined in homes with family, and prepared simple meals while traveling by rail.  These photos are the result.  This began as a simple project to reveal several memorable and picturesque table settings.  It has become a broad catalogue of our time in Ukraine, and the relation of people and food and family.  It is an exciting reminder of where we are headed in a few weeks.

We begin by visiting my grandfather’s family in Bershad, near Vinnytsia.  There is a great market in Vinnytsia, adjacent to the train station.

Breakfast.

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Lunch, times three. As guests on my birthday, we received overflowing hospitality.

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Two.

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Three.

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Dinner

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When visiting, sometimes you need a snack between meals.

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And a snack between snacks.  When you want to be the best host that you can be, food is essential.  In a country that has experienced shortages and hunger, food is one of the most important things you can give.

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Traveling to Kyiv, thanks to my cousin Yaroslav.  A meal appears out of the trunk of the car.

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Visiting Olya, my mother’s godfathers granddaughter in the suburbs of Kyiv.  Another birthday cake, this one is the popular Kyivski Torte, most notably manufactured by the Roshen chocolate and confections company owned by recently elected President PoROSHENko.

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At the B&B in downtown Kyiv, probiotic yogurt, coffee, rolls, and fruit make a nice breakfast.  Kyiv is a world away from life in the village.  They might as well be separated by 80 years.

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Dining out is the only time we received individual plates of food, although we applied family-style dining rules.

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Great handmade varenyky and bliny at the Pecherska Lavra monastery.

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Picnic on the train, more Euro than Ukrainian.

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Chai, almost always plain black tea, is common.  How many scoops of sugar do you want?  They will look at you strange if you say none.  Some use enough sugar so that the spoon will stand up.

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In Stakhanov, in the far east, we visit my grandmother’s family.  We arrive to a refreshing lunch outdoors in the garden.

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They don’t buy the wine and horilka, but make it at home and reuse old bottles.  The woman in the green dress is like a great-aunt to me, and is reported to have a small business selling homemade horilka.  She’s got to be sure to test her product for quality, even at lunch.

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We enjoy a late dinner outdoors after taking Zhenya to see his first movie at the theater in town.  It is watermelon season, for sure.  Trucks line the roadsides selling melons from down south.

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The next day is structured around a meal at another house down the street.  The table sits beneath a trellis of grapes, next to the root cellar, amidst drying sunflowers.  These people are hardly farmers, but they grow most of their food.

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And make their own drinks to enjoy.

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Three generations.

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Back to Kyiv, via Kharkiv, on the train.  A quick snack in the train station.  Trains operate at maximum occupancy.  While many facilities and trains are old, the stations are gorgeous thanks to Soviet spending.

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Take-out in Kyiv, including traditional Ukrinian dishes and a French baguette.  Incidentally, it is harder to find tradtiionaf food in Kyiv than is it to find some more modern international offerings.  Sushi is immensely popular in the city right now.

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Leaving my parents and my family behind, Lael and I train back to Lviv, to ride our bicycles into the Carpathian Mountains.  We stop in Striij to rejoin Przemek.  He’s already made friends in town.  In fact, he’s made a lot of friends.

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Darts, once the meal has subsided.

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And a little homemade juice for the road.  Thanks Djorka!

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Into the moutnains, we stop at a small farm which serves simple meals.

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Down the road while filling water at a mineralic spring, we are invited to stay with Pavlo and his wife at their summer dacha, about 25 miles up the road.  We arrive to a hot meal of stuffed peppers.  They live full-time in Ivano-Frankivsk, and are lucky enough to have a small summer home in the mountains.

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The most typical Ukrainian breakfast includes buckwheat, prepared with a fried egg and a pickle in this case.  Black tea starts the day.

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While cycling in the mountains, we encounter a couple of young Ukrainian bikepackers.  We share a picnic outside a small shop including pickled fish, cheese, bread, vegetables, and chocolate.

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Returning to Striij, we enjoy one more meal with our friends.  We peel potatoes, cut watermelon and salo (pork fat), and sit under a starry sky.  Nights like this are validating and encouraging, despite occasional challenges on the road.

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Food in Ukraine largely comes from close to home.

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Just out the door.

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Out back.

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In the garden.

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Or out in the fields.

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Drying for later use.

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Underground for much later.

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Brought to the table bit by bit, until hopefully, the next harvest has arrived to replenish the supply.

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From local markets.

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Selling goods from distant regions.

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Or from local producers, selling goods which may be transported around the country, such as these wines from Crimea.

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Chardonnay.

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And horilka, this one made with buffalo grass to produce a lightly sweet flavor.

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In shops it is not uncommon to see an abacus in use, although it appears there is a calculator in case the abacus fails.

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On the trail, it is hard to ignore this bounty of apples.

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Or these honeys and nuts being sold on the roadside.

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Fresh almonds.

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In Crimea, samsa serves as fast food, sold from this wood-fired drum by the roadside.

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It is less than three weeks before our discovery of food continues in Eastern Europe. Oh, and there should be some good riding along the way.

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Maclaren River Lodge

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Alaskan hospitality can be hit or miss, but the folks alongside the Maclaren River are wonderful and a ride down the Denali Highway should at least include a slice of pie and a coffee.  On a clear day the dining room has views of the Maclaren Glacier about a dozen miles upriver, and a BLM mountain bike trailhead marked “Maclaren River Road” will take you to the terminus of the glacier.  Unfortunately, a river crossing four miles down the road was impassable after several days of rain.  On the other side of the river, the trail continues another eight miles.  Glutenous, homemade country bread is just like grandma used to make and an entire loaf only set me back $7.  I tried eating it with drops of honey alongside the road, but it’s so good that it’s best enjoyed on it’s own.  It’s a real fine food source in a land of understocked grocery stores and dusty Hormel cans.

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A nagging cold and a persistent rain led me to take a day off the bike to enjoy bottomless coffee and internet.  Somehow, four homestyle meals and an equal number of hot showers along with a day-long coffee fix only cost $40.  The Maclaren River Lodge has a reputation for being kind to cyclists, but the experience outweighed both the modest price and the reputation.

Alan and Susie spend the winter here and use snow machines to transport goods to the lodge, which remains open to winter enthusiasts even though the road is closed.  Yes, it’s cold here in the winter.  Yes, they get a lot of snow.  And yes, it’s dark.  “But it’s worth it”, they say.

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