Thursday, February 19, 2009

Harrismith, South Africa

Friends: "Is he dead?," I heard a woman's voice ask, awakening me from an afternoon nap. I glanced at my watch and was shocked to see it was 4:30. I had been zonked out for four hours. I thought I might snooze for an hour or so and then go explore the artist and British ex-pat community of Clarens, but I was much more exhausted than I realized.

My initial plan had been to spend several hours in Clarens and then continue on to Golden Gate National Park 11 miles away and camp there. But I barely had the energy to make the final climb into Clarens, depleted from my week-long ordeals in Lesotho, completed less than 24 hours earlier. So I sought out the backpacker hostel/campground in Clarens for the night. I unrolled my tent beside the only spot of shade in the mid-day beside a camper unit. I didn't even have the energy to immediately erect it. I put down my sleeping pad and collapsed for a few minutes before before putting it up. I hadn't been this utterly depleted since I came down with hepatitis in India. I had slept 12 hours the night before, but that wasn't enough.

Every day in Lesotho had been a killer, demanding an utmost effort with very little relief, and I was now paying the price. There were very few flats to recover on and the descents on the rocky roads required considerable braking and mental energy. I was continually on edge, not only from the difficulty of the ride but also from my concerns of the people along the route. I was assured that the people of Lesotho were kindly and welcoming, and they generally seemed so, but the chasing kids were a torment and some adults as well. I passed many lonely shepherds tending to sheep or goats who could see me coming and would jog to meet me asking for a cigarette or food, some saying,"I'm hungry."

I had a similar experience in Morocco. Just about everyone along the road came running asking for something, but the people there weren't as hardened or desperate-looking or as many of these shepherds, and they didn't ask for food, just cigarettes. Some shepherds in the distance who didn't have the time to catch up to me would gesture and pat their stomach. I had to wonder how desperate they might be. They could see for miles that no one else was around. If they cared to they could assault me with the two or three foot long stick, many ornately-decorated, that they all carried. Lesotho has a dramatically lower crime rate than South Africa, but still the large supermarket in Mokhotlong was guarded by a guy cradling an AK-47, something I hadn't seen in South Africa.

When I was awoken by the woman's voice in Clarens I realized that the camper unit I was camped beside was occupied by a young couple. I apologized to the woman and then asked if there was another quiet place I could move my tent to. I was shown a spot a couple hundred feet away along a creek and beside a fence that gave me complete privacy. It took more effort than I realized to take down my tent and move. As I was about to push off, the woman said she had made a big batch of potato salad and would I like some.

I couldn't have asked for anything greater. I had seen some in the local supermarket, but it was grotesquely over-priced, as was most of the food in this tourist town. I was too tired to eat it right away. I slept another four hours until nine and then made it my dinner at nine p.m. I slept another four hours until one a.m. and then ate a peanut butter sandwich and read a bit. I didn't awaken again until 7:30, sleeping nearly 18 hours straight. I didn't feel fully rejuvenated and began a long debate of whether to linger all day in Clarens or bike 15 miles to the campground in the park and continue my recovery there. I awoke to a cramped and sore left calf that I had strained in Lesotho from the odd effort of pushing my bike up 20 per cent grades. It had me limping a bit there and even worse now. I tried to sleep some more after eating another peanut butter sandwich. When the sun began heating up my tent, I decided to push on to the park.

Golden Gate Park takes its name from a pair of sandstone buttresses that mark the entry to the park. In the evening light the sandstone turns golden. It had been a spectacular ride since leaving Lesotho with the dramatic Drakenberg mountains to my right marking the border of Lesotho and through towering bluffs and kopjes reminiscent of Monument Valley. The national park was even more spectacular. The road was up and down, but the grades were gentle compared to those of Lesotho. I was in no hurry, so I could ride in an easier gear than I might otherwise and just loll along and revel in the beauty. My legs were rubbery, but they managed. The scenery wasn't much different than much I had passed through since leaving Cape Town, though I was at a higher altitude here, over 5,000 feet.

The campground was across the street from a visitor center and gas station. I was shocked to learn that it cost $20 to camp. Just as I was learning this a guy traveling by motorcycle, who had followed me into the visitor center, joined me at the desk. He too was appalled, saying that one could stay at a hotel for less. The motorcyclist was stranded there because the generator for the gas station was out and couldn't pump gas. They promised it could be fixed at any moment, but he was worried about having to stay there too. The motorcyclist was a retired park ranger. He had just bought his motorcycle and was on the second day of a circuit of his country. He had never been to the Kalahari and was particularly looking forward to that. He told me that I could easily camp anywhere in the park. It was just past noon, way too early for me to be wild camping, especially since the park was pretty much treeless. I would have to disappear over a rise and camp behind the tall grass, but I didn't want to be sitting in the direct sun all day. I'd just hang out here in the shade and rest for four or five hours and then go camp. The park had baboons, but the ranger assured me that they wouldn't bother me.

The ranger was another of those most genuinely friendly South Africans I've met who was sincerely interested in my travels, past and present. We plopped down in the shade and talked. We were shortly joined by anther motorcyclist, a guy who lived 40 miles away who loved the tranquility of the park. He raised white lions that he sold to zoos and private hunting reserves. He invited me to visit, but it wasn't the direction I was going. He was a cyclist as well and had recently bought a $6,000 Italian racing bike. When the ranger told him it cost $20 to camp there, he too thought that was ridiculous. After hearing of my robbery and my exhaustion from Lesotho, he offered to pay for me to camp. I refused, but he pulled out 200 rand and forced it on me, saying he'd like to contribute to my trip. If he hadn't told me he had just spent $6,000 on a bicycle, I would have been more insistent in refusing it.

He, like others, said I was lucky that they guys who attacked me hadn't killed me. I said that I thought robbers knew enough that the police let a simple robbery go, but if they went further, then they'd be pursued. He said that the robbers aren't that smart, plus they don't care if they go to jail. All their needs are met in jail, he said. "They even put the lights down for them," he added.

The ranger too said that I was lucky to get off without any physical harm. He said that every South African, if they haven't been victimized by a violent crime, has a close friend who has. Both his sons left the country after a violent assault. One now lives in Italy and the other in Canada. One of his sons left after a robber tried to cut off his finger to get his wedding ring. He gestured towards the canyon wall and said, "We live with the sad fact that there are hoards of thieving blacks just over that ridge. And they'd as soon assault a black as a white."

Later, George

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