Monday, February 23, 2009

Pongola, South Africa

Friends: After some two weeks at over 5,000 feet in pleasantly cool temperatures, I have returned to heat and humidity as I descended to Newcastle, a coal mining and steel manufacturing city. The humidity was extra thick thanks to standing water left over from a torrential downpour the afternoon before.

The rain hit at four p.m. just as I reached a 21 mile stretch of dirt road. The timing was another one of those small miracles that saved me from what could have been a terrible nightmare. I wouldn't have wanted to have been caught on the dirt road in the rain. And there was a rare amenable place to camp at that point where the paved road turned to dirt--a row of towering trees that marked the boundary of a hillside pasture. There happened to be a gate right at that point and for a change it wasn't locked. If it had been, I would have had to hop over. I took quick shelter under the first tree and then hopped from tree to tree, maybe 15 up, until I felt safely distant from the road to set up my tent.

I had seen the dark clouds of the storm moving in and had been tempted to camp in several unfenced cornfields, but that could have been a disaster, as the rain would have turned them into a muddy quagmire. When I initially chose this route out of Harrismith I didn't realize it included a stretch of dirt, as my map showed a paved road all the way to Memel. It wasn't until 5:30 p.m., as I set out of Harrismith and asked a motorist the way, that I learned I would have dirt to contend with. It was too late in the day to change my plans, so I forged ahead. But as the rain poured down, I feared I might have to double back 40 miles if the road was turned into too much of a mess by this deluge.

Once again it was a night of hoping to hear traffic on the road. There were two or three passing vehicles, offering some hope that the road was passable. When I set eyes on the road the next morning, however, it was slop more suitable for swine than bicyclists. There was one set of wheel tracks depressed into the mud that was hard enough to be barely rideable. As I was debating whether to attempt this 21-mile stretch of dirt or doubling 40 miles back to Harrismith, a four-wheel drive vehicle pulling a boat came around the bend. The driver stopped and heartily greeted me with, "It looks like you're on a mission." I asked him if the road was as bad as it appeared. He said this kilometer I was looking at was the worst I'd encounter. He said there were even three short stretches of pavement on the steeper sections. His information was correct. I managed to ride 5.6 miles the first hour, then upped my average speed to seven miles per hour after two hours as the sun dried and hardened the road. It was almost enjoyable riding. I took one lone half hour sandwich break and managed to arrive in the small town of Memel by 11:15, too small to have much of a supermarket or Internet.

As the temperature turned ovenish on the descent to Newcastle, I was in the situation once again of looking for a spot of shade to stop to rest and eat. I had to settle on the concrete gate of a hacienda. I was forcing myself to eat as often as I could as I discovered the night before when I put on my lone pair of long pants to stay warm, that I had to go to a notch I had never used on my belt, one down from what I had used in Lesotho, the only other time I have needed the pants since my flight over. I always lose weight on these trips, but this is the most in the five years I've been using this belt. That further explains why I have felt so run down since Lesotho.

I continued fifteen miles past Newcastle before finding a place to camp behind an abandoned one-room house. I resisted putting up my rain fly so my mesh inner tent could grab what little breeze blew. Whenever I awoke during the night I checked the moisture on my poles to see if the dew had begun settling in. When it did, I put on my fly, but by that point it had cooled enough that I could crawl inside my silk liner rather than just lay on top of it.

The scenery had turned into Montana with large fields of wheat and grazing cattle and mountain ranges and plateaus in the distance in all directions. It was terrain similar to the Battle of the Little Big Horn where Custer met his end. An even more storied battle in South African lore, known as "The Battle of Bloody River," was fought in this region, though it was the indigenous people who were slaughtered here. On December 6, 1838, 470 Boers defeated 12,000 Zulu warriors, killing 3,000 of them while suffering only a handful of casualties themselves. The battle is a seminal event in Afrikaner history. The victory was taken as proof that the Boers had a divine mandate to conquer and "civilize" Southern Africa, and that they were a chosen people. There is a huge monument, The Voortrekker, in Pretoria, the country's capital, commemorating the event.

I had read of a Carnegie library in the region, in the town of Vryheid. I would have altered my route to seek it out, but I didn't need to. It was no easy task though finding the former library in the town. It was a Sunday and the visitor center was closed. No one I asked knew anything about it. I even tried asking at the police station. An officer suggested I go to the visitor center. He said there was a large map posted outside the visitor center of sites to see and the library might be on it. If not, he thought, there might be an emergency telephone number posted. If so, he'd call it for me. And that's what I ended up doing. They reached a security guard who knew exactly where it was. Of all things, it was now the tourist office. It wasn't a classic stone Carnegie library with pillars, as is common in the U.S., but more in keeping with the South Africa country-mansion architectural style. Like Carnegie libraries elsewhere, it was a gem of a building. It was one of twelve Carnegie libraries built in South Africa, compared to just four in Australia, but over 1,500 in the U.S.

From Vryheid I continued to descend and have entered the region of the country with game reserves. I have been in Africa for a month and have yet to see an elephant or giraffe or lion, only an occasional handful of small monkeys scampering across the road and one man-sized baboon. I was told to be on animal alert, as it was possible to see elephants out and about along the way.

It's just twenty miles to Swaziland.

Later, George

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