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.