Monday, February 9, 2009

Matatiele, South Africa

Friends: An older soften-spoken black man with the air of a sage upon learning that I had bicycled over 1,000 miles from Cape Town asked, "Have they robbed you?" I said no, without mentioning the attempted robbery. He expressed a sigh of surprise and uttered a prophetic, "Not yet." If I knew the proper response to ward off this curse of a sort, whether spitting on my hand or exclaiming the right words, I certainly would have, though I'm not sure how long it would have been good for, as all this talk about being robbed made it sound like an inevitability. It was certainly getting tiresome.

Not less than 24 hours later, I was sprawled in the weeds down a steep embankment as two frantic young men crazily waved knifes in my face demanding, "Give us the rest of your money or we will kill you." They had been waiting for me along the road half-way between the towns of Ugie and Maclear. They didn't look much different from many of the sinister men I have passed along the road who leer at me with undisguised hatred, except one was on each side of the road walking towards me. As I neared them on a slight incline they converged on me before I had a chance to react, tackling me and forcing me and my bike down a steep embankment of tall grass.

I'm not sure at what point I became separated from my bike, or even if they knocked me off my bike or if it happened on my forced plunge off the road. My first impulse was to get up and run back up to the road where I could be seen, but they were too quick for me and blocked my way. They were screaming, "Give us your money." I quickly pulled out my wallet and screamed back, "Yes, yes," and pulled out all my bills, South African and U.S., and thrust them forward, relieved they didn't grab my wallet with its credit cards and ID.

Then they demanded the money they suspected I had hidden on my bike--"Give us the rest of your money or we will kill you." Fortunately, I had some more to give to keep their knifes at bay. I quickly fished it out of my handlebar bag and handed it over, but they demanded more. I told them that was it. One was already ransacking my front panniers, finding my camera. The other screamed, "Where is your gun?" I screamed back, "I don't have a gun." Then he shouted, "Where is your cell phone?" I told him I didn't have one. I picked up a twenty dollar bill laying in the grass that one had dropped, not recognizing it as U.S. currency, and slipped it into my pocket. As I reached for a loaf of bread that had scattered about, they screamed to stay put and stay down. They both remained crouched, looking up at the road, ready to run at any moment if a car should come past.

One was digging deep into my rear pannier where I had some more money hidden. They continued to scream, "Where is the rest of your money?" I screamed back there was no more. They threatened, "If we find more money, we will kill you." One was getting to the bottom of the pannier where I did have more money hidden in the pages of a book. But before he reached it something spooked them and they fled. As I took stock it didn't look as if they had taken more than my camera and my money.

My gear was strewn all over the place. My front handlebar bag had come unsnapped as I plunged down the embankment and its contents were scattered all about. I spent 20 minutes combing through the tall, thick weeds trying to find my tire irons and adjustable wrench and allen wrench and spare glasses and all the other small crucial items I kept in my handlebar bag--sun block, WD-40, journal, map, tooth brush, dental floss. I was bleeding from my elbow and my knee and had a severe bruise on my thigh. My shorts and shirt suffered rips in the melee. The bike seemed to be okay. As I took stock of things, I kept feeling relieved that it wasn't as bad as it could have been. They didn't take my watch or glasses or passport or water purifier or run off with any of my parcels (tent, sleeping bag, panniers) and didn't stab me.

I was shocked at how calm I was after my minute or more of absolute terror. I was less shaken from this than from some close calls I've had as a messenger when I've had my life flash before me after a near fatal accident from someone opening a car door into me or nearly hitting me when I've been riding at full-tilt speed. Such incidents have left my heart pounding so hard I haven't been able to hold my hand steady enough to put a key into my Kryptonite lock. I held out my hand here as a test and there was no quiver.

Still, it was deeply unsettling. I could barely fall asleep that night as my mind  couldn't stop replaying the incident over and over. I awoke to every sound in the night thinking I was being stalked. I was in a region of nearly all black towns thick with menacing-looking characters, towns where security guards frisked every suspicious looking individual entering and exiting the supermarket--on the way in for weapons and on the way out for anything they might have stolen. Now everyone I pass along the road sends a deep stabbing shiver into my heart remembering the incident and fearing another. I feel as if I am a marked man.

As I lay in my tent, I wondered if there were others out searching for me at that very moment. I am easy prey. The guys who ambushed me could try again knowing I'll have restocked my money and there were other items they could have taken from me. When I awoke to a horse clomping past I imagined its rider had spotted me in the clump of trees I was camped in and was turning in at the opening in the fence just beyond. That evening was the first time in this trip and only the third time in all my travels around the world that I stopped at a farmhouse to ask if I could camp on someone's property, I was so leery about the region I was in. The elderly black woman refused, saying her son was a drunkard and there was no telling how he might react. She suggested I camp at the police station two miles back. I had considered it, but it was an isolated police station with a noisy generator providing its electricity. I knew I would get no sleep if I camped there. When I awoke to a hooting owl, I feared it might be the signal of someone who had spotted me. I braced myself for running steps at any moment with knifes slashing through my tent.

I kept thinking what I could have done differently to avoid this encounter. One thing is not to linger long in any town, lessening the number of people who see me. I had a pretty good idea who fingered me in Ugie and set up the ambush. As I ate a fish and chips meal on a picnic table in front of a grocery store, a series of young men stopped to have a chat with me. There was one particular seedy-looking guy with alcohol on his breath and a crooked wool cap pulled low to his eyebrows who talked to me for a while, disappeared for 20 minutes and then returned and talked some more confirming the route I was taking. I meet such characters all the time. But this was a particularly rough stretch. In one town no one wanted to give me water. When I finally found a garage that would, a guy semi-reluctantly took my two empty bottles and disappeared to fill them. I wanted to follow him to see what he was putting in my bottles, but could tell I wasn't welcome. The water was so murky I was afraid to drink it.

It was six miles to the next town after the robbery. I went to the police station to report the crime. The police wanted to immediately set out to try to find the thieves, though I knew that would be a futile mission. But I did want to have an official report.

I discovered that my rear derailleur was slightly bent from the crash. I had to be careful in shifting into the large ring on my freewheel. I wasn't careful enough the next day and threw the derailleur into the spokes, severely bending the derailleur and the frame. I was totally incapacitated. It was easily the worst mechanical failure I've had in my travels and just after the worst robbery. I didn't know whether to be enraged or relieved. Could the cycling gods be telling me to abort this trip. It took me less than ten minutes to get picked up by one of the mini-van taxis that run between the towns.

It was thirty miles to Matatiele where I actually had a contact, a good friend of Ian's who leads bicycle trips in Lesotho. I had tried to contact him via email before I left. Ian didn't realize he had changed his email address and had only alerted him of my imminence a couple of days ago. I didn't know whether he knew I might be arriving or not. When I was dropped off at the bus terminal a friendly man greeted me and asked if I needed any help. I asked if he knew Mark McLeod. He knew him well, but wasn't sure if he had his phone number or not. We went to his office, but he couldn't find it. He told me to try the BP petrol station, as someone there might know.

On my way I saw the first white person I'd seen in several days. I asked if he knew Mark. He did, but he didn't have his phone number on him. He did know where he lived, but it was 20 miles out of town. He told me his law office was right around the corner. It was a Sunday afternoon, so he wasn't likely to be there, but it was possible that his phone number might be on his office door. It wasn't, so I continued to the BP station. The manager called the owner, who was Mark's friend. He too did not have his phone number, but he told me he would try to find it and to stand by for several minutes. When he called back he said he had called several people who work for Mark and others who knew him, but none were answering their phones, but he left messages with them to call him back and asked where I might be reached. I was planning on staying at the caravan park just a couple blocks away. He said he would call there if anyone called him back with his phone number.

All this good will was appeasing my concerns about being in South Africa. At the campgrounds the son of the owner had an auto and motorcycle repair shop. Even before I checked in we tackled the job of straightening my frame and derailleur. We got it about 80% there, but not totally. I could limp along if need be. My only hope was that Mark might know of a mechanic in town. As I was giving the bike a test ride the next morning, unable to the afternoon before as a rain storm blew up, the first rain I've encountered in South Africa, I met another guy who knew Mark and was a bicyclist. He said there was one able bicycle mechanic in town. We went to his store arriving at eight, just as it was opening. Unfortunately, the mechanic was gone for the week. So we went to Mark's office.

Turns out Mark is as much of a bike mechanic as a lawyer. He was thrilled to tackle my bike right there on his nice wooden-floored office, turning the bike upside down, stabilizing and propping the handlebars up with a couple of his thick law books. He said by luck he had his bike tools out in his car in two large tool chests. He was such a good mechanic that the mechanic I had initially been taken to often brought his problem cases to Mark. He immediately diagnosed that the frame needed a little more straightening and that the derailleur needed to be replaced. We walked over to the sporting goods/bike shop and perused its derailleurs. There was one that would fill my need. All this was too good to be true. I apologized to one of Mark's fellow lawyers for stealing him from his law work first thing on a Monday morning. He said Mark would much prefer to be working on bikes than law, and that he couldn't be happier. It sure seemed so.

All the while Mark worked away, he rhapsodized on how sensational the biking is in Lesotho. Ian had actually filmed a documentary of one of his bike trips five years ago. Mark was urging me to take an alternate route than the one I had planned on. I could not resist his advice. The Sani Pass has all the reputation, and was even the subject of a recent National Geographic cable show, but Mark suggested a far more spectacular and less traveled route. I could enter Lesotho just 30 miles from Matatiele, rather than 100 miles further on as I had planned, enabling me to prolong my time in Lesotho and escape South Africa a little sooner. I could be there in several hours rather than a couple of days. After repairing my bike, Mark drew out a detailed map with camp sites and sources of food and people he knew that would be worth meeting on my route through Lesotho. Then we went to his computer and used the Google map to follow the route kilometer by kilometer over passes and along rivers. It looked sensational. I could hardly wait to get at it, but I could not resist the offer to stay over night. One rarely meets such a person as Mark as well as his wife Nicky.

Later, George


Robert Kennedy said...

Based on what just happened, I'm thrilled you're all right, that you weren't severely wounded or worse, and that your bike was repairable. You were fortunate to be on a bus route and so close to a friend who just happened to be such a skilled bike mechanic and one so familiar with a biker's perspective on where you were heading next. If ever you needed a friend, this was it. That man is to be commended as we all owe him our thanks. This is obviously a less romanticized excursion, one that places you on alert at all times, forcing you to use your wisdom and best judgment. Your experience echoes the sense of desperation that pervades throughout so much of Africa. You are able to ride on to your next adventure, while so many remain stuck there, hopeless and utterly impoverished. Just the sight of you traveling through exudes a sense of freedom that many of them will never experience. Some obviously resent it and can strike maliciously. I can only hope that the next section of your journey is so phenomenal that it helps erase some of the bad memories from what you just experienced. May the force be with you, George.


T.C. O'Rourke said...

I’m so sorry to hear about this miserable experience. I’m glad it wasn’t worse, that you didn’t lose your ID, camera or other essentials. Or more importantly your injuries weren’t more severe.

Speaking as a person who’s had the shit kicked out of him by random strangers on more than one occasion, I can say it will affect your peace of mind for some time. You should allow yourself some emotional space to be distrustful and over-cautious. Feel better knowing that these jitters will pass.

Your use of this experience as an opportunity to assess what you might do differently is 100% right on.

And the fact that you were among friends repairing your bike less than 48(?) hours later is a estimate to your expertise as a traveler.

Godspeed, my friend.

Ishkadebble said...

What a startling and distressing experience. What supreme and amazing help you had on the heels of what could have been the ultimate setback. The first thought that ran through my head was so cliched. "Oh, I am SO glad he is alright!!!" Well. Not quite accurate. Your physical injuries as described are not extreme. You still have the most critical necessities for travel. But having one's sense of safety throttled so harshly is quite an injury, one less tangible and harder to treat than obvious things like cuts and scrapes and bruises and bent derailleurs. So when I say that I am so glad you are alright, I really mean "I am thrilled to hear that after all that craziness you are alive and relatively intact and a bad situation did not play out to it's extreme. I know your encounter and it's consequences could have been different and I am delighted that you can chose to continue.... Here's hoping that the familiar rhythm of riding and breathing brings you closer to a sense of balance, and that the remainder of your journey abounds in good fortune. Debbie

Yonder Vittles said...

i am glad to hear that you are well after this most trying experience. keep riding man. best, aaron.