Saturday, January 31, 2009

Graaff-Reinet, South Africa

Friends: I am deep into the Karoo, the semi-desert that covers one-third of South Africa with stretches of over 100 miles between towns. In just about any other part of the world the Karoo wouldn't be subjected to that "semi" qualifier, but in a country that also contains the Kalahari, a desert of classic and extreme proportions, it must.

Though it has vegetation and animal life and a few towns, its predominant emptiness and harshness and scorching heat and lack of rain make it as much of a desert as the Mojave or Negev or Atacama or Nullarbor and other significant deserts I've biked. I must carefully plot my day so that I can be at a town or roadhouse in the middle of the day during the worst of the heat. I had to take the long way of 156 miles from Beaufort West to Graaff-Reinet, the two prime towns in the Karoo, because the more direct route of 130 miles had a stretch of nearly 100 miles without water. The longer route had water after 48 miles and then 52 before a final stretch of 56 miles to Graaff-Reinet. People tell me I could get water from a sheep farmer, but the farms are 20 or miles apart and the farmhouses are well away from the road and their driveways are usually barricaded and locked.

I can at least usually count on a rest area every so often with two or three thatched shelters, each over a concrete picnic table, offering a bit of shade, though no other amenities other than garbage cans that might contain an old newspaper. But the shade is most welcome and the only to be found other than against an embankment if the sun is low enough in the sky. The sun is so intense restaurants provide awnings for drivers to park their vehicles under, and locals walk about under umbrellas.

A police car pulled me over a couple nights ago at 7 p.m., an hour before sunset. Just as the officers who pulled me over in the Negev of Israel a year ago, they were dumbfounded to see a cyclist miles from anywhere out in the middle of the desert. They didn't wish to applaud my spirit, but questioned my sanity, thinking I could be a wacko on the loose. The pair of young black women officers approached me very warily. After I established that I was at least halfway sane, I asked if they might have any cold water to spare. The temperature was still in the 90s and though I had five bottles of water bottle, all were full of tepid, not very palatable, water. They pulled out a two liter bottle of water with a still thawing huge ice cube in the middle. I couldn't help but to exclaim "Ice!" Not even my exuberance brought a smile from the officers. They produced a paper cup and poured me a glass. After quickly gulping it, they did the unimaginable and offered me the rest of the bottle. After gulping some more, I realized I needed to show some restraint, as I could feel the middle of my chest along the trail of my esophagus turning frigid.

I bequeathed the officers with a special Obama edition of the "Chicago Tribune" from the day after the inauguration, the day of my departure. I brought along six of them to dole out to people who did me favors. When I handed it to the officers, they were surprised that I didn't want it back. I had previously given away two others, the the first to a young woman at the airport who was willing to store my bike box in her closet. Five other people had declined my request, including the official left-luggage department. I had collapsed it so it took up no space. Having the bike box awaiting me was significant enough that I ought to have given her all six of my papers. If I hadn't been able to find a place to store it, I would have just left it, and then been forced to find a box from some bike store in Cape Town and then have to haul it out to the airport.

I gave the second Obama newspaper to a woman at a tourist office who filled two of my water bottles with cold water and ice. All I asked for was tap water. She said she didn't think I'd want that, as it had chlorine in it and tasted like water from a pool. I told her that was okay, as I had been drinking tap water all along, and was well used to it. She greatly surprised me when she returned with ice cold water from her private stock. It was lucky that one of the bottles I had given her was my thermos water bottle, so it preserved the cold much longer than otherwise.

On the outskirts of Beaufort West was a huge billboard proclaiming "Leave Our Children Alone." It contained the profiles of seven children. Two had xs through them and the explanation, "Two out of seven children in South Africa are sexually abused." Beaufort West, with a population of 36,000, is the largest town in the Karoo. It is on National Highway One that connects Cape Town with Johannesburg. They are 900 miles apart. It is a two-lane highway for most of its distance with shoulders wide enough to make it four lanes wide. People warned me there would be a lot of truck traffic. There was some on the short stretch of it that I biked, but not much compared to what I have experienced elsewhere, especially that 20-mile segment that I forced Waydell to chase after me in Mississippi several months ago. The truckers frequently swung wide of me, even those approaching from the opposite direction, going off onto the far shoulder, to lessen the wall of air they were inflicting upon me.

Beaufort West has a museum devoted to Christian Barnard, the first person to perform a heart transplant. He was born in Beaufort West, the son of a pastor. The operation took place in Cape Town in December of 1967. He transplanted the heart of a 25-year old woman, who died in a traffic accident, into a 53-year old man. A team of 30 surgeons, technicians and nurses had been on 24-hour standby for a month awaiting a suitable heart for the operation. The patient survived less than a month. Barnard performed a second transplant less than a month later. The operations made him an international celebrity. The museum contained hundreds of plaques and medals and citations from around the world congratulating him. There were photos of him with the Pope, Mandela, Sophia Loren, the Shah of Iran, Gina Lollobrigida and many other celebrities. His father's former church, dating from 1870, is part of the three building museum. The toilet offered free condoms.

The two Internet outlets in Graaff-Reinet both close at noon on Saturday. This one is letting me stay a bit beyond closing, as I didn't arrive until 11:45, just another of the many small kindnesses that I have been shown. People have continually been going out of their way to look after me.

Later, George

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Prince Albert, South Africa

Friends: Thanks to my friend Ian, I knew about a secret camping spot in a clump of trees on a side road two miles beyond the summit of Swartberg Pass, one of the the most spectacular and challenging climbs in South Africa. I had been looking forward to a quiet, secluded place to camp after three straight nights huddled against a barbed wire fence barely hidden from the road. There's not much traffic in rural South Africa, especially at night, so being so close to a highway has hardly affected my sleep, but it can be a strain pushing my bike down and then up an embankment through the brush for my nightly nook.

It was a relief knowing this isolated, semi-forested camp site awaited me as ominous, dark clouds began moving in, engulfing the summit of the 5,000 foot pass, as I was in the midst of the 15-mile climb to its summit. Before long, cold gusting winds had me shivering despite my extreme exertion. The grade had been a moderate five to six per cent, but it required extra effort, as seven miles from the summit the pavement turned to dirt, and then two miles from the summit the grade suddenly jumped to ten per cent, just as the air turned misty and the winds grew stronger, threatening to knock me over.

I didn't know the pass was unpaved until an Australian I met at an ostrich farm earlier in the day, who had just driven over it, told me it was the most difficult road he had ever driven and that it would be impossible to bike. He was still shell-shocked. He said the road was barely one-lane wide and had countless blind, hair pin turns. And worst of all, he said, there was hardly any traffic, so there would be no one to rescue me. He had passed only three vehicles in 40 kilometers.

I might have selected an alternate route if I had known the pass was unpaved, but by the time I was at the ostrich farm I was too close to it to turn back. Dirt roads don't necessarily intimidate me. The Sani Pass into Lesotho, also on my itinerary, is dirt, and so was the "World's Most Dangerous Road" in Bolivia that I sought out. If the Swartberg was as horrendous as this guy thought, my friend Ian would have warned me. I've known Ian for years from the Telluride Film Festival. He's a South African who splits his year between Cape Town and Colorado. He works in the film industry as a rigger and hangs all the signs at the film festival, a daunting task. And he's a great outdoors man. He's presently skiing his heart out in Colorado, but will be in Cape Town when I complete my circuit of the country in March. Meeting up with him will no doubt be one of the highlights of this trip.

Ian was the only person who was familiar with South Africa not to warn me of the dangers of the country before I left. One friend, who left South Africa in 1986 and has never been back, said if she ever returned the first thing she would do would be to buy a gun or a big knife. Another friend who left the country advised me to stick to a safe, well-touristed area along the coast called "The Garden Route."

Knowing a clump of sheltering trees over the summit awaited me gave me great solace as the winds increased and the temperature plummeted. The only vegetation on the climb had been low-lying brush of the fynboe (fine bush) family, a type of vegetation with very fine leaves to minimize evaporation, that is unique to the Cape region of South Africa. The fynboes evolved as a response to the region's arid conditions. There are 7,000 varieties of the fynboe, divided into four types--woody shrubs, reed-like resticoes, bulbs and small-leafed bushes.

The road was at least solidly packed gravel and not too badly rutted or wash-boarded. There had been signs on the approach to the pass announcing it was open. I feared it could be a dirt road that could be rendered into mud when it rained, making it undriveable, forcing the closure of the pass. I paused to catch my breath and to eat an energy bar just before the final two-mile 10% grade to the summit. While I rested, just the second car to come by in the hour-and-a-half I had been climbing came down the road and stopped to see if I was okay. I was happy to have someone to ask if the road remained solid so I need not be concerned about it turning to muck if it started raining. They assured me the road could withstand rain. I thanked them for stopping. They said they were happy to, as they wanted to express their admiration.

When I reached the summit, I stopped to put on gloves and a wind-breaker for the descent to the trees. There was no picture to take, as I was engulfed in clouds. This was quite a contrast to the day before when I was baked by 90-degree temperatures. It was 6:30 when I reached the side road Ian had told me about. About a quarter mile away was a lone large baobab tree with four or five thick trunks sprouting from its base, not exactly the forest I was looking forward to, but adequate for providing some protection from the strong winds. Since I couldn't see the stand of pines Ian had told me about up ahead and the weather was only growing nastier, I made this my camp site for the night. I learned the next day that Ian's pine forest had been cut down a year ago, as the pine trees were not indigenous to the area.

Though the tree trunk was as wide as my tent, it couldn't fully block the gusting, swirling wind. It rocked my tent well into the night. I had to put on my sweater and vest and wool cap to stay warm, as the temperature fell into the low 40s. I'm not sure when I finally fell asleep. It was just 50 degrees when I resumed my descent at 7:30 this morning. It was slow going. It took nearly two hours to descend the remaining nine miles of dirt, having to pause frequently to rest my wrists from the hard braking on the rough road. But it was a truly spectacular ride through a rough and rugged canyon. If I hadn't known about Ian's campsite I would have pushed on last night and not have been able to enjoy it in the limited visibility and frigid cold. I would have been nervously finishing off the descent in the dark and groping for a place to camp.

Ian wasn't the only person I could express great thanks to yesterday. I will be feeling unbounded gratitude for days to a young man who worked at the Ostrich Museum in Outshoorn. He nabbed a thief making off with my saddle bag full of all my bicycle tools and spare parts from my parked bike in front of the Ostrich Museum in downtown Outshoorn. He was suspicious of the thief, as he had followed me in to the museum after attaching himself to me several minutes before when I left the local grocery store. He wanted to show me around town and accompany me on his bike. I knew he was a sleazy sort, but didn't fully discourage him. He said he'd wait for me while I perused the museum.

After that incident I brought my bike into the museum and left it there while I went over to the library just around the corner. I was surprised to see the thief join up with me as I entered the library. I told him the guy at the museum said he tried to steal a bag off my bike. He denied it. He said the bag was falling off my bike and he just rescued it. That was impossible. Even though this was a significant town of 80,000 with a large library, the library did not have Internet. I read the daily paper while the thief sat beside me. He didn't follow me back to the museum though. When I returned to the museum, the young man there said someone called to say the thief had followed me to the library, so he called the police. They were there before I had filled my four bottles. They said they would drive along with me as far as I wanted to protect me from this young man. I didn't feel any great alarm, knowing he'd have a hard time keeping up with me. I told them if they just followed me for a few blocks that would be adequate.

There are nearly half a million ostriches scattered on some 600 ostrich farms in the Outdshoorn vicinity. The herds of ostriches provide quite a unique site. They are friendly and curious. When I stopped to take a picture, the birds came swarming towards me. Several of the farms offer tours. I stopped at one on the way to the Swartberg Pass. I learned even more how friendly ostriches can be. Our guide invited people to pet and feed and ride the birds. One ostrich wrapped his long neck around a young woman's head to pluck grain out of her hand. The guide invited us to stand on a cluster of eggs. The ostrich egg is the largest egg in the bird kingdom, though the smallest in proportion to the size of the bird. The egg is so large it takes two to three hours to hard boil. A bird normally lays 14 to 16 eggs a year, but the farms can induce a bird to lay as many as 120 eggs per season by snatching the eggs from them after they've been laid, placing them in incubators. They live 40 to 50 years and are the fastest of the two-legged animals, capable of speeds over forty miles per hour

The Outshoorn area provides over 80% of the world's ostrich products. At one time they were among South Africa's leading exports, ranking fourth behind gold, diamonds and wool. Up until the 1960s feathers were their most important product. Now it is 70% leather, 20% meat and 10% feathers. The region still exports over 200,000 pounds of feathers a year, used mostly for dusters.There is only one leather stronger than ostrich, kangaroo. The ostrich leather lasts sixty years. It is smooth on one side and rough on the other. Ostriches are native to the Sahara. They thrive in hot, arid climates. The ostrich was first domesticated in Algeria in 1857 and was introduced to South Africa six years later. There was tremendous demand for feathers up until after WWI. The market collapsed with the decline of the world's economy and the introduction of the automobile. Ostrich feather hats were impractical in the close confines of the car and in the fast speeds of the open deck cars.

Though Prince Albert is a town of just a few thousand people, it too has a museum tracing its history. One exhibit was devoted to the construction of the Swartsberg Pass. It was built with convict labor from 1881-1887. The first car crossed it in 1904. It was designed by a well known engineer--Thomas Bain. It was the 17th and last of the passes he built.

Later, George

Monday, January 26, 2009

Ladistown, South Africa

Friends: Four days in South Africa and I've hardly met a person, at least among the whites, who hasn't told me to be careful or to "watch yourself." Several have offered to guard my bike when I've gone into a grocery store, because "someone is liable to snatch it," or "someone might be naughty."

When I asked the two black women at the Cape Town airport information desk how to bike out of the airport towards the coast, they told me the only way was on the national highway and that bicycles weren't allowed on it. Looking at the map taped to their counter I noticed a lesser road paralleling the national highway and asked about it. "No, no, you don't want to take that road," they said. "It goes through the neighborhoods." They knew no more explanation was necessary, nor did I ask for one.

I didn't think I had reason to fear riding a major thoroughfare through the "neighborhoods," especially at nine in the bright light of early morning, so I choose to ignore their advice. There wasn't much traffic on the four-lane highways through the shanty-towns, nor a great many people out and about. As I slowed for a traffic light, Known as "robots" here, an occasional pedestrian greeted me with a respectful "Hello Sir." I felt no cause for alarm. It might have been too early for the dangerous sorts to be up and about.

I suspected the women at the information desk were more concerned about protecting me from a sordid first impression of their country than for my safety. For ten miles or so I biked past a huge sprawl of one-room, mostly rusty, corrugated tin shacks, snuggled wall-to-wall with only narrow paths between them. Every couple of blocks I passed a water spigot with a line of people waiting their turn to fill an assortment of plastic buckets. About the only thing that made it less appalling than the slums of Bombay were occasional clusters of standard issue bright blue porta potties. It was unsettling to imagine the lives of the tens of thousands of people living in such cramped conditions without electricity or indoor plumbing.

It has been hard to shake the image of such squalor, especially in contrast to the palatial white neighborhoods, mostly fenced in, often with barbed wire. Of the 50 million inhabitants of this country, only five million are white. They have it well off, but they know their wealth is resented. In the last days of apartheid, hardly a white went to sleep at night without the fear of being stabbed in the night. The fear of those days lingers. Though the blacks were welcoming through the neighborhoods, recognizing me as visitor, out in the countryside, when I pass a black along the road, hardly a one speaks, just looking right pass me, even when I greet them with a hello. I am accustomed to brightening people's faces with delight at the site of my overloaded bicycle. Here they remain passive, if not antagonistic. I am more disdained, than welcomed.

When I asked the white owner of a small grocery store in a small town if there was a town park where I might go eat my lunch, he advised me that it was not a safe place. The most prominent sign in the towns I pass through is directions to the police department. Most of the ATM machines have shelters built around them for privacy to prevent ne'er-do-wells from spying on one's transaction, getting a pin number or seeing how much one might have withdrawn.

Reading the newspapers further emphasizes that this is a very unsettled country marked by violent behavior of an extreme, aberrant sort. There were side-by-side stories on page two in the Port Elizabeth Herald of youths gone amok. One was of five boys aged ten to 14 who sodomized and murdered a 19-month old. The other was of four 14-year olds who raped a nine year old boy. On the next page a headline read "Bouncer turns himself in after club death." Another story told of a father still in distress over the disappearance of his 18-year old daughter three years ago, fearing she'd been abducted and forced into prostitution. None of these were sensationalized "National Enquirer" attention-grabbing stories, just simple straight reporting. The same with a story about a worker suing his boss for calling him a "baboon."

The only positive news in the entire paper was the promise of "A New Dawn for Africa" with Obama in the White House. Among the many stories on Obama spread over three pages was one quoting an astrologer from Burma predicting Obama would win another term and survive three attempts on his life, though he couldn't be certain without reading Obama's palm.

As always, it is fascinating to immerse myself in a new country, learning its history and its character. Its like having an affair, initially being enamored by its quirks and unique qualities. First impressions don't always hold true. It does seem that the further I get from the big city of Cape Town and out into rural South Africa, the less alarmed people seem. The biking has been first-rate with excellent roads and not much traffic. I followed the coast for over 50 miles to Hermanus, one of the premier whale-watching spots in the world, though not this time of the year. The town has a large bay with a sandy bottom that the whales seem to thrive upon. There are enough penguins in the vicinity to warrant a penguin road sign.

Besides the incessant warnings to be careful, the only other disagreeable aspect of my trip so far has been the slight difficulty of wild camping, as barbed wire fences line most of the roads. Twice I have had to camp beside a fence less than 30 feet from the road, just barely sheltered from sight by bushes and a dip in the road. One night I was able to go off on a dirt road and find a break in the fence and disappear into a cluster of trees. The other negative has been the lack of Internet in libraries. The only library I have come upon with the Internet was in the larger town of Strand, though one had to pay for it. As of January first, Internet use required the purchase of a 50 rand card. At ten rands to the dollar, that wasn't totally unreasonable, but since it was on my first day in South Africa, Internet was not of great urgency.

I am still conditioning my skin to the sun and my body to the 80-degree heat, holding me to an average of 70 miles a day so far. After I turned inland from Hermanus the countryside has turned very arid. With prominent ridges towering in the distance it is similar to the Basin and Range region of southern Nevada. My legs are still finding themselves, weary from all the climbing over the hills and a handful of named passes. There were a few clearings off the road on a pass late yesterday afternoon that I could have camped at, but signs warning not to feed the baboons made me wary. When I saw one the next morning, about the size of a man, lumbering along the road, I wouldn't want to have tangled with him.

At times I have to remind myself I'm in South Africa and not Australia. All the men in shorts and the ubiquity of meat pies and sausage rolls and biking on the left-hand side of the road hearken me back to the Land Down Under. But it was rare to see an aborigine in Australia, while blacks are a common site here.

Later, George