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

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