Monday, March 16, 2009

Cape Town (finale)

Friends: If the Argus had been held this past Sunday rather than a week ago, it would have enjoyed such perfect conditions it would have been heralded as the most idyllic bicycling event in the world. The praise would have been unrestrained glorifying its incomparably beautiful route. Those riding the Argus could have savored every one of its 69 miles from its start in the heart of Cape Town, then circling around Table Mountain and going for miles and miles along the coast past exquisite beaches and along rugged, spectacular cliff sides. It would have given all South Africans another opportunity to gloat over the greatness of their country.

Riders would have been so energized by the sunny, cool conditions there would have been a record number of personal best times, rather than a record for the fewest. The times of all finishers were published in Friday's "Cape Argus," the newspaper that sponsors the event. They filled 22 over-sized pages, six columns to the page. One page listed the 1,000 top finishers and the rest listed the times of the finishers alphabetically along with their age and sex and overall place. Among them were the Damon brothers, Kyle and Matt, aged 40 and 38, with a time of 6 hours 40 minutes and 28 seconds on their tandem, placing 22,558. The headline on the story read, "Cycling times gone with the wind." Only 111 cyclists came in under 3 hours, compared to 1,781 last year. The number of those finishing under four hours was 4,467, down from 12,844 in 2008. The wildest statistic of all, and one that will be hard to beat, was only two of the 73 start groups managed to avoid a crash in the first 100 meters.

Yesterday's glorious weather kept me on my bike most of the day meandering about Cape Town and beyond seeking out a few sites I had yet to visit and returning to some of my favorites. After climbing to the top of Table Mountain a few days ago, I haven't been able to stay off it, biking along the ridge where the cable car and various trails to its summit start. I finally biked up to the magisterial Rhodes Monument on a shoulder of the mountain just above Cape Town University. A fairly modest-sized bust of the man who owned the largest gold and diamond mines in the country and served as one of South Africa's first prime ministers resides under a huge pavilion garnished with pillars and guarded by several pairs of lions on pedestals along the walkway below it. Chiseled into the wall over his bust is the inscription, "To the spirit and life work of Cecil John Rhodes who loved and served South Africa. 1853-1902."

Love for country is a strong attribute among South Africans. Rhodes came to South Africa from England as a 17-year. He was devoted to South Africa and also the English Empire. It was his goal to build a railway from Cairo to Cape Town through English territory all the way. If he had lived longer, this might have been achieved and Paul Theroux would have had another train ride to write about and travelers would have it much easier traveling the length of the continent. Rhodes was successful in establishing British control beyond South Africa, including Zimbabwe. Up until 1980 it bore his name--Rhodesia. His name now is best known outside of South Africa for the Rhodes scholarships to Oxford, funded by his fortune.

An outdoor cafe, just a short stroll beyond the monument, is a popular place for Sunday brunch. From the monument I descended a couple miles to Main Road, and then over to Newlands Stadium, where I watched Cape Town's professional rugby team, the Stormers, wallop the Johannesburg Lions 56-18 the evening before. It was a big win for the Stormers, as they were struggling and were about to embark on a three-week trip to Australia. The 14 team professional league consists of five teams from South Africa, four from Australia and five from New Zealand.

The 40,000 seat double-decked stadium was packed. I had my choice of a 95 rand reserved seat or a 40 rand standing section seat. Those of us standing were relegated to one of the end zones. It was perfectly adequate for me. It was an enthusiastic, blue-flag waving crowd, but well-behaved. The match started at five and was completed before seven, well before dark, so I could have a safe five-mile bike ride home. There were many couples and children accompanying parents. The stadium was in a residential area. The sidewalks leading to the stadium were lined with vendors with barbecues selling all manner of sausages. My first impression was that the game was a controlled brawl until I began to see the sense and order to it. Someone compared it to American football, saying that American football is a game designed by gentlemen played by savages, while rugby is a game designed by savages played by gentlemen. Rare is it for a fight to break out or for a player to dispute a referee.

Rugby is the favorite South African sport and a great national passion. One of the themes of Riaan Manser's book "Around Africa on My Bicycle" was his quest to find a television to watch a match. That tied in with his great national pride. He was very proud to be a South African and proud to bring glory to his country for being the first person to bicycle the perimeter of Africa. When he returned to South Africa in 2005 after being out of the country for two years on his ride through the 32 other countries that form the perimeter of the continent, he was struck more than ever by what a "land of milk and honey" it was in comparison to the rest of Africa. But his eyes were also opened to its great economic disparity. He recognized "discontent and even hostility" from those less well off. He doesn't dwell on it much, as he is too much of a patriot to more than passingly criticize his homeland.

He was attacked and preyed upon in quite a few countries and was lucky to escape with his life on a couple of occasions. But he was mostly treated well and had more mechanical difficulties than difficulties with people. He was a big guy and was continually breaking spokes on his rear wheel, frequently having to hitch hike to a bike shop to get more spokes or a new wheel. He never thought, nor did anyone give him the advice, to take some of the load off his rear wheel by getting front panniers, or upgrading from a 36 spoke wheel to one with 48 spokes as I did long ago. He was a first time bike tourer who only bought his panniers the day before he left and never test rode his bike with a load. He spent more time trying to raise money from sponsors, before and during the trip, than in adequately researching what it took to tour. Still, he had an incredible adventure, a lot of which he brought upon by his inexperience.

He passed through one area in South Africa notorious for attacks on tourists, but is told that the attackers aren't locals, but are illegal immigrants from neighboring countries where they have it much worse than even the poor of South Africa. That is one excuse for the high crime rate here, but not entirely viable. The South African poor don't welcome the poor from other countries coming in and vying for work, making it difficult for outsiders to melt into the country. The tribal people of South Africa are not hesitant to turn violent on rival tribes. There is frequent vigilante justice, locals killing someone who has raped or killed before the official authorities can get to them. This propensity to violence can be unleashed on anyone.

There are many South Africans simmering and seething over how little they have and how much others have in this country. Robbery is such an accepted part of life it is referred to as a "redistribution of wealth program." There are many desperate and dangerous people that can strike out at any time. One has to continually be vigilant unlike anywhere else I have traveled. I've been in places much poorer than South Africa--Bolivia, Laos, India, Cuba and elsewhere--but there was just a fraction of the level of crime. It's obviously extreme when a supermarket has to have a security guard frisking everyone entering a store to make sure they don't have a weapon, and frisking everyone who leaves to make sure they haven't shoplifted anything, even though there are security guards standing in every aisle making sure people don't steal or gobble down food on the spot. There is a lot of latent hostility in this country, some a residue of apartheid and some relating to the economic disparity.

South Africa is the only place I've been that my bicycle didn't automatically earn me favor and goodwill and defuse any ill will my skin color or nationality might otherwise ignite. Being a bicyclist didn't matter at all. I was still someone to prey upon. The bike didn't melt frowns or hardened looks as it has everywhere else. I was white and a "have" and that was all that mattered to many. I'd been warned before I came that this was a dangerous place. I'd heard that about other places I've traveled, but being on a bike invariably won over all I encountered. In some countries I have been regarded as extremely poor to be traveling by bicycle, not even able to afford a bus ticket. It took me awhile to fully realize that the magic of the bike did not apply to South Africa. Thinking back on my first week or so in the country, I was fortunate not to have been victimized any sooner than I was. For once all the warnings I was given were not without merit. If anything, people were restrained in their warnings, not wishing to overly alarm me as to how careful I ought to be.

Peru was a very dangerous place when I biked its length in 1989. Its the only other place I have been robbed, though I was separated from my bike when I was robbed there. It happened on my second day in Peru, forcing me to continually look over my shoulder for the month I was there. I didn't realize how much tension I was under until I crossed into Chile and could relax. It was much more of a relief than I could have imagined. I don't think I will feel a similar sensation when I board my plane home tomorrow, as I haven't been as tense here as I was there, even though this is a much more dangerous place. There's not only the danger here that someone will rob you, but also that they will do you personal harm. That danger has been counterbalanced by the many, many overwhelmingly kind and generous people I have met who have been genuinely concerned about my well-being and gone out of their way to be nice. They love their country and wanted to make my experience as positive as they could. When I've been asked if I've had any problems, it is always with a wariness, hoping that I haven't had any, but knowing that I most likely have. Any could top my bad experience with ones of their own, but they generally resist. All hope things will get better, but many fear they won't.

Listening to the radio at night I hear callers, black and white, lamenting the racial divide and wondering if they want to remain in the country. "I don't feel as if I belong here," one said. Another lamented, " How long are we going to have to live with this racism?" A prominent South African writer and friend of Mandela wrote him an open eight-page letter in the December issue of "Harper's." He said he was sorry, but he would have to advise any young person who wanted a future to leave South Africa. The newspapers have ads offering assistance in immigrating to Canada or Australia or the UK. People seem equally divided on wanting to leave out of fear and for moral reasons.

I don't know what I would do if I lived here. This is an extremely beautiful and prosperous and developed country with many exceptional people who truly believe in the country and who want to make it as good as they can. But there is a horribly wide chasm between those who are doing well and those who aren't. Anyone with a conscience has to be troubled by the huge percentage of the population that live in extreme squalor in shanty towns just a few miles from those who live like kings. And anyone with a conscience ought to have concern, too, about how long the deprived can tolerate such conditions.

This has been a most memorable and fulfilling trip with more challenges than most. I have seen and learned a lot. I have many people to thank for making it such an exceptional experience, foremost Ian here in Cape Town as well as his business partner Charlie and of course Mark and Nicky in Matatiele and countless others who lent me their support along the way--the woman at the airport who stored my bike box in her closet, the young man who offered me a ride to Pretoria, the campground owner who worked on my bike and didn't charge me for camping, the various people who stopped to give me cold drinks, the motorcyclist who gave me 200 rand and on and on. I can understand why so many South Africans take such great pride in their country and their countrymen.

Later, George

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cape Town #4

Friends: When I descended from my hike to the summit of Table Mountain, there were three police cars, two police motorcycles and a police dog at the trail head. Literature on hiking any of Table Mountain's 450 miles of trails advised traveling in groups of four--safety in numbers. I had hoped to meet up with others on the trail, but the ranger stationed at the trail head said that I needn't be concerned about linking up with others today on the Platteklip Trail, the most direct and popular trail to the summit, as there had been a fair number of others preceding me and would likely be more to come.

I quickly discovered it would be hard to find others hiking at a compatible pace, as this trail up a spectacular gorge was staircase steep . I passed as many people as passed me and only briefly hiked with one other, an elderly marathoner who was huffing and puffing, surging ahead, then stopping to recover, surging ahead and stopping. There were enough hikers that I didn't need concern myself at all about someone jumping out of nowhere, demanding my camera and money. So it came as a shock to see all the law enforcement officials amassed at the trail head.

"Has there been an incident?" I asked the lone white officer.

"A woman suffered heat stroke on the trail," he said." A doctor has gone up to check on her."

She must have been one of those taking a break under a tree about two-thirds of the way down in one of the few shady spots on the trail. It was another fiercely hot day in Cape Town. I was feeling a bit faint and wobbly myself. It had been two hours up and an hour and fifteen minutes down for me after spending an hour-and-a-half wandering around on the summit over to the cable car and a cluster of shops and restaurants. I had been on my feet about the same amount of time as I had spent on my bike riding the Cape Argus three days before, but I felt more spent from this. My legs weren't conditioned for such exertion. Those non-cycling muscles in my legs were letting me know that they had been neglected. I was further depleted from the heat.

The trail is only two miles long, but nearly straight up, gaining over 2,000 feet. It is a virtual staircase of rocks, with many steps two or three times higher than the usual and not very even. It was even steeper than Mount Fuji and much more difficult without a chain hand rail to pull up on. Going down wasn't as demanding as going up, but it too took its toll on the legs, especially with the day heating up.

There were swarms of people at the summit, most paying $15 to be whisked up on the 65-passenger cable car. It was a 15 minute stroll over to the cable car and the mini-village from the top of the trail. I wasn't expecting such amenities. I had brought three water bottles, drinking just one on the way up. I was able to refill it at the public rest room. The views were as sensational as could be hoped for down into Cape Town and out to Robben Island and out along the coast line on the backside of Table Mountain. One could see dots of people on a beach nearly straight down. There was considerable plant life up there amongst the rocky terrain. It was anything but table top flat.

I thought it might be a half-day outing and that I could check out the District Six Museum that afternoon, but I had no energy for anything else except to go to a movie after a couple hours of recovery. It was Wozo Wednesday at one theater chain with all tickets just 15 rand. One of the theaters was at the Waterfront Development, Cape Town's version of Chicago's Navy Pier catering to tourists. Its multiplex had mostly fairly current Hollywood fare that didn't much interest me, but also Clint Eastwood's "The Changeling," something I managed to miss at Cannes even though it had been in Competition and when it came through Chicago.

When I showed up at the theater for the 5:30 screening, only the eight p.m. screening was listed above the box office. I feared the earlier show had already sold out. I wouldn't have dared to wait for that show and bike home after ten p.m. through down town Cape Town. The ticket seller told me tickets for the 5:30 show were sold upstairs and around the corner by the theater where it was being shown. All seats were reserved, so I had to pick a seat. Otherwise the film-going experience was no different than in the U.S. though the previews weren't cluttered with commercials. The South African audience may have evacuated the theater even faster than an American audience though, on their feet and out the door the instant the credits appeared on the screen.

I had a few moments to read the day's paper before the movie began. There was a prominent story about a plan by Cape Town's mayor, Helen Zille, the white party's candidate for president, trying to get the private sector to fund extra law enforcement officials for the city. Cape Town seems relatively safe, but there's been a recent spate of robberies at the downtown's most prominent intersection of Strand and Adderly where people queue for taxis.

One paper posts the number of weeks until the World Cup (the Soccer World Championship that comes along every four years). It is 64 weeks away. There is great concern that tourists will be afraid to come to South Africa for the Cup. There are regular comments from government officials that the media ought to go easy on negative stories until then. Many homeowners are hoping to rent out their homes to tourists during the World Cup, including Ian. Ian doesn't expect his company to receive any World Cup work though, as he would need to have partial black ownership to qualify.

Later, George

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cape Town #3

Friends: It looks as if I just might wind down my final week in South Africa hanging out in Cape Town taking advantage of all this city has to offer. It justifiably turns up on many lists of the ten greatest cities in the world. It has a spectacular setting at the tip of the continent with many great beaches and the flat-topped Table Mountain overlooking it and a vibrant population and many museums and cultural events.

Initially I thought I'd take a final five or six day mini-tour up the Atlantic coast through the wine country and to one of the two largest penguin colonies in Africa and have a few final nights of wild-camping, but after the Cape Doctor blew itself out Monday morning, the ovenish heat returned. There are fires raging in the wine country, making the temperatures even more scorching. And not knowing when the ferocious winds might stir up again, I wouldn't want to be too far away to get back in time for my flight next Tuesday afternoon.

I don't seem to be imposing on Ian. I'm staying in the guest bedroom at his company's office in a residential area at the foot of Table Mountain, a mile from the down town, a perfect place to be. Ian lives 15 miles away over a ridge on the opposite coast, right along the Argus route. His business partner lives just a couple blocks from the office, but he's off in Jo-burg for the week working on a project and Ian is busy on one of his own. Their company, Action Safety, provides stunt co-ordinating and rigging for the film and entertainment industry.

Ian felt great sympathy for the Cape Argus riggers. Many of their signs and structures had to be taken down before they were blown down. There was no finish line banner for everyone to pass under and have their photograph taken this year. The start of the Argus is in a down town plaza that is a popular place for film projects. Ian has had many assignments there and has frequently had to say no to directors when the winds were too extreme.

Sunday's winds were about as extreme as they get. Only 26,500 of the 35,000 race registrants even started. The number who finished won't be revealed until Friday when all their times will fill a special section of the Cape Argus newspaper. I met a 45-year old woman the day after the race who quit after 15 miles. She had ridden the race the year before and intends to return next year. She was most frustrated that she had to wait two hours before she was rescued by a support vehicle, as there were so many people needing rescue.

There were quite a few crashes. The newspapers were full of photos of riders in different degrees of being blown down. There were far fewer serious accidents than usual though, as people were going so slow and there were so many fewer rides on the course. There were 71 accidents requiring medical attention, with 32 sent to hospital and 19 held over night. One cyclist lost his bike when he was blown off the road and his bicycle went tumbling down a steep cliff into the ocean.

When I went to bed Sunday night, the winds were still howling. Fortunately they died down so I could take the ferry out to the prison on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and thousands of political prisoners were incarcerated during the '60s, '70s and '80s. It was assembly line tourism, but a required trip. The nine a.m. ferry was near its 250 passenger capacity. During the half-hour, seven-mile journey we were shown a video that gave us a history of the island. It was an early safe haven for the Europeans in the years after the Portuguese sailor Bartholomeu Dias was the first European to reach it in 1487. The Europeans feared the inhabitants on the continent were cannibals. There were many seals and penguins on the island for food. It was initially called Penguin Island, but the Dutch were more impressed by the seals and renamed it Robben (seal in Dutch) Island. The penguins were soon wiped out, but they were reintroduced in 1983. There are presently 60,000 of them on the island, the third largest colony in Africa.

In time the island became a prison. It was also a leper colony for nearly a century and also a place to isolate mental patients. When we arrived on the island five buses awaited us, each with a guide. We were taken on a 45-minute tour on a portion of the 7.5 mile circumference of the island, the guide repeating much of what we had learned on the ferry. We paused at several sights, but there was only one stop where we were permitted off the bus, at a vantage looking back at Cape Town. Many were disappointed we couldn't wander around and photograph the limestone quarry where Mandela and many of the prisoners labored for eight hours a day in extreme heat, many, including Mandela, suffering damage to their eyes from the glare and the dust.

After the bus trip we were handed off to another guide for a 30-minute walk through the prison, culminating with Mandela's cell where he slept on the floor for 18 years and wrote his autobiography, "The Long March to Freedom." All the prison guides had been former political prisoners. He reveled in telling of his release in 1990 after the recently elected prime minister FW de Klerk decided to end apartheid and free all the political prisoners. The video had shown a group of them on a boat taking them back to Cape Town singing and dancing triumphantly. The prison was closed down to all prisoners in 1996, as it became too expensive to maintain, and then was turned into a shrine shortly thereafter. In 1999 it was designated a World Heritage site. Not far from the ferry were several hundred of 18-inch tall penguins, some swimming, some hiding in the shade of the trees, and many just standing on the beach looking out towards Cape Town.

There were no seals to be seen around Robben Island, but there were a few swimming in the Cape Town Harbor. The waterfront had dozens of outdoor cafes and shops selling trinkets for tourists. One plaza had statues of the four South Africans to have won the Nobel Peace Prize--Albert Luthali in 1960, Desmond Tutu in 1984 and de Klerk and Mandela in 1993.

My Tuesday outing was a test ride out to the airport to verify the route and to verify that my bike box was still there. Ian used the google aerial map to provide me a better route than the tourist office had. I managed to go astray, taking the wrong artery out of a roundabout and was forced to ask several people for directions. I was on mostly four-lane wide roads with fast flowing traffic, so even when I ended up passing through a township I wasn't concerned. I stopped at a supermarket when I saw four fairly well dressed young black men standing along the road. Very often when I stop to ask a black for directions, they are initially stunned that a white is approaching them for help. Most quickly warm up and are most cordial. But not always. And that was the case with these guys. They gave me that mean menacing stare as if they were wishing that this wasn't such a conspicuous spot, otherwise they would wring my neck on the spot. Not a one responded to my query if Viking Road was up ahead or if I had passed it. They snuck quick glances at each other as if expressing disbelief that this sucker had stopped to talk to them, not realizing what dangerous hombres they were and looking for a signal that they ought to do this guy in. Ian had earlier warned me that when I went hiking on Table Mountain to join up with others, but if by chance I couldn't and came upon any lingering blacks, if they "looked Nigerian turn and run." I wasn't sure what Nigerian looked like, but it would have been something like these guys, so I didn't persist, and quickly made my getaway.

I feared Ian might take me to task for mentioning too often the dangerous side of South Africa, but he acknowledges I have experienced it as it is and have seen a side of South Africa that most tourists are protected from. A couple guys tried to break into his house the day before he returned, but a neighbor scared them off. He doesn't want to put a fence around his house, but instead will put in lights with motion detectors. His office has an alarm system. A sign on the building says it is protected by Armed Response. I see their trucks drifting around the city at all hours on patrol, ready to respond.

A story in Sunday's paper had a litmus test to see whether one was a true South African. Several were crime related. According to the test, one is a true South African if, "When you're a victim of a crime, you say, 'At least I'm still alive,'" and "You consider it a good month when you only get mugged once." South Africans are rugby fanatics. One is a true South African, "When you know the rules of rugby better than any referee." Mini-van taxis are a scourge all over the country and are reviled by all. I was nearly side-swiped several times on my way out to the airport during the morning rush hour. A true South African knows enough "to wait when the light turns green for a taxi or two to go through the red light."

I was happy to have scouted out the route to the airport, as I won't make any mistakes next time. And I was thrilled to see that my bike box was still in the closet I left it in. The young black woman who allowed me to leave the box with her immediately recognized me and lit up with as much delight to see me as I did to see my box. That wasn't the only good news for the day. Ian sent me to a camera shop that was able to open my camera and save a roll of film that I had only been able to half rewind when the plastic rewind cylinder broke. They might even be able to repair it.

I was also able to spend three hours in a small suburban library reading a book about a South African who cycled the perimeter of Africa from Sept. of 2003 to Sept. of 2005, passing through all 34 coastal countries. The library had no air conditioning or fans, but I was able to sit in the cool shade of its garden with Table Mountain looming over. It had no drinking fountain. Instead it offered a pitcher of water with a bucket of ice cubes along side. There was also a pitcher of orange juice. The water was free. The orange juice was 30 cents a glass. The library is only open from ten to twelve tomorrow, when I'll be climbing Table Mountain, so I'll have to wait until Thursday when it is open from two until 7:30 to resume my reading.

Later, George

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Riding the Cape Argus

Friends: From the very moment I slipped in amongst the Cape Argus riders a couple blocks beyond the official start line in downtown Cape Town I could tell this was being treated as a race and not a recreational ride by its participants. Everyone was hauling ass, trying to get out to a quick start. All focus was on pushing the pedals, not having a chat with friends or strangers.

Rather than one huge mass start, groups of about 500 cyclists each were released every couple of minutes, enabling them to settle into manageable mini-pelotons. The first group set out at 6:15, even before the sun had risen. I lingered at the start area for an hour letting myself be boggled by the amassing thousands of cyclists, all seeking out their designated, high fenced-in starting pen. Each looked like a corral in a huge stockyard crammed with animals awaiting the slaughterhouse.

There was consternation on the faces of many, as the Cape's legendary gale force winds had blown in during the night and were whipping about with a vengeance. Gusts of up to 55 miles per hour were recorded. As I talked to a helicopter rescue worker at the start line, we had to brace ourselves against the fencing to remain upright. I knew such winds, known as the Cape Doctor for their cleansing effect on the air, are a fact of life in Cape Town, near where the Indian and Atlantic oceans converge, coming up from the Antarctic, but these seemed extreme. These winds would make it nearly impossible to hold a line when coming from the side.

I wondered what it would take to cancel or delay this event, if this wasn't enough to do it. The director of the event later admitted that these conditions were his worst nightmare, and there were those who advised him it was too dangerous to ride. He did send out some early test riders. As luck would have it, the first few miles of the course were directly into the wind, so it would just drastically slow down and spread out the field. By the time riders reached portions of the course where the wind came from the side, they would be spread out enough that they weren't so likely to be blown into each other.

Even if riders wished to be sociable and get off to a relaxed start, it was impossible in such conditions. It took an all-out effort to push into the wind. At the finish line the announcer kept congratulating the riders passing by for completing "the hardest Argus in history." The winning time was two hours and 46 minutes. Its usually around two hours and twenty minutes.

The wind was like a wall of air, blowing through and around the riders. Drafting hardly made a difference. I was having a helluva time keeping anyone's wheel. My heavy touring bike with fenders and racks and handlebar bag and extra durable wheels and tires was like being astride an oxen compared to all the super light-weight stallions all around me. I was a most blatant interloper riding such a beast and without a number on my back or Lycra for shorts or jersey. It was over an hour before I saw another "bandit", a guy wearing a pink T-Mobile jersey who blended in much better than I did. The rescue worker warned that I'd be evicted from the course, so I was under pressure to keep up with and blend in with my fellow riders, as there were marshals all along the course and on the course patrolling it on motorcycles.

But bandits such as me were so uncommon, the marshals must not have been on the alert for them. It would be inconceivable for most South Africans to unofficially ride the Argus, as they wouldn't receive an official time or have their name listed in the newspaper. Only three or four riders gave me a tsk-tsk and just one along the course, who observed, "Uh-oh, no number." I received many more passing comments of "I like your bike," not only from riders, but from people along the route. Someone even blurted, "I love your bike."

There were assorted announcers along the route, entertaining the riders and the spectators. I provided fodder for them, as my handlebar bag and attire captured their attention as I approached. I was in my usual touring uniform of button-down, long-sleeve, cotton/polyester shirt with the sleeves rolled up and somewhat baggy polyester shorts. One jokester asked, "Where's your riding outfit?" Another quipped, "He's on his way to work, that guy." Someone else commented, "Great power on that old bike." My bike is only four years old, but with over 40,000 miles on it, it is aging fast. The owner of the Revolutionary Cycles bike shop in Cape Town, who sells shop t-shirts with the image of Che, also commented that it looked like I needed a new bike.

The Cape Argus newspaper posted a set of signs along the route offering encouragement to the riders and also emphasizing that this was a race and not a recreational ride. "Feel the Burn" was posted on the climbs and elsewhere. "No pain, no gain," was another. And "Let your legs do the talking" was a sharp reminder to shut up and ride.

It wasn't until two-thirds through the ride that I had more than a two or three word exchange with another rider. When someone directed a comment towards me, such as, "That's the first rack I've seen," I thought it might be an invitation to a conversation, but each rider just sped on by, intent on having a respectable enough time to put them in the upper 10 or 25 per cent of riders, or whatever their goal might be. Everyone has a year to stew over their time, knowing that if they had just ridden two or three or ten or twelve minutes faster, they would have finished ahead of another 500 or 1,000 riders.

When a guy on a mountain bike with slick tires asked, "Where's your panniers?," I replied, "I nearly brought them, but I feared they'd make riding in this wind even more dangerous." "You're right about that," he said, and suddenly I was engaged in a conversation. He said he mostly rides off road and that this is about his only ride on pavement or with a group all year. He added that he didn't share or care for the gung-ho attitude of just about everyone else on the ride. This was his fifteenth Argus. He was the first rider to tell me these were the worst conditions he had ever ridden in on the Argus, worse even than 2002 when the race was halted at two p.m. with the temperature over 100 degrees. There were times when the wind was so strong we were nearly brought to a standstill or were forced off our bikes because it threatened to blow us over. There was no faking it or coasting along on this ride. Either your legs had it in them or they didn't. He said he saw quite a few petite women riders at the start who decided to bow out. Usually about 15% of the starters fail to finish. He expected it could be twice that today.
One of the reasons I contemplated bringing a pannier, even though it would have made me even more conspicuous and could have been enough of an insult to all these serious riders to rally them against me, was to harvest water bottles. I could have easily filled all four of my panniers with discarded water bottles along the route. It was overcast and cool, so people who started out with two bottles weren't reluctant to toss one aside after they'd drunk enough from it, rather than refilling it at one of the many refueling stations. Many bottles jar out of a rider's holder and others end up along the road when riders too hastily return them to their cage and miss. The road is generally too congested with riders for anyone to safely stop and retrieve their bottle. But with the riders spread out in groups, I could ride at the back of a group and stop for a bottle if I wished. The temperatures were mild enough that hardly anyone was stopping for drink at the 18 aid stations. There was so much drink to spare, riders could fill their bottles from the two-liter jugs of Coke, Orange Fanta or a blue Powerade drink that lined the tables rather than just grabbing an already filled paper cup.

Many kids along the route were scavenging water bottles. I had room for just four, one in my third cage on my frame and three in my handlebar bag. I succeeded in finding bottles from South African bike shops or companies as I was hoping for, including the Absa Bank, the largest in South Africa, and the Ryder bicycle part company. They could well be my favorite souvenirs of this trip.

On the final two mile climb, the Suikerboissie, ten miles from the finish, my conditioning from riding 3,000 miles this past month-and-a-half let me shine. On all the climbs I more than kept up with the flow, unlike on the flats or descents, but on this one I was passing literally everyone and without really trying, just maintaining a comfortable tempo. It was in an urban area, unlike the previous climb, Chapman's Peak along a rugged cliff side that had such a strong danger of falling rocks that it was otherwise closed. This climb was thickly lined with picnicking and partying spectators, as if it were the Tour de France. I had been receiving extra attention and hoots all along the way, but even more pronounced here, making my legs spin even easier.

I still had a touring cyclist's mentality on the descents, pretty much coasting down, conserving my energy for when it mattered, while everyone else attacked, putting it in their biggest gear, pushing hard. I was proving that I am more of a climber than a rouleur.

As we neared the finish, through affluent suburban seaside towns, a new set of signs emerged--"Come On--You're Almost There." All day long people along the road shouted out "Well done" and "Keep Going." After the finish line there were "Well Done"signs posted just about anywhere a sign could be strung up. It is a popular South African refrain as an expression of respect accorded those who have accomplished something out of the ordinary similar to the "Bravo" of the French and "Good on ya' mate" of the Australians. Being told "Well done" has been one of the highlights of my time in South Africa. South Africans are not wimps. One has to be tough and brave to live in this country. They like challenges and admire anyone who does something that takes guts or fortitude and are not bashful in congratulating them with a "Well Done."

Beside all the pre-printed signs there were a few home-made signs along the route as well, encouraging a friend and also several directed to Matt Damon asking "Matt Damon Stop" of "Matt Will You Marry Me?" He's in town starring in a Clint Eastwood movie about a legendary South African rugby team. He rode the Argus on a tandem with his brother.

I diverted from the course shortly before the finish line to avoid a clash with officialdom. I pulled through just after noon, less than five hours after setting out, shooting half a roll of film along the way. I hung out by the lively announcer at the finish for nearly an hour, listening to him congratulate the passing parade of cyclists and interview people involved with the event. He'd acknowledge certain club and significant jerseys and odd bikes (a lone fold-up and a couple of recumbents). There were quite a few tandems. He observed the hand clasp between a man and a woman on a tandem just as they passed the finish line, adding that he thought he saw a tear in the woman's eye. When he had nothing else to say he'd once again congratulate those passing for completing "the hardest Argus in history" and telling them not to be concerned about their times.

It was two miles back to the start line and another mile to where I'm staying into the still strong wind that hadn't let up in the least. I overheard a few people suggest, "Let's go to the start and ride it again." On a day of less severe conditions that would have been very very tempting.

Later, George

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Cape Town, South Africa

Friends: If Cape Town's airport weren't so distant from the city and out a slow-flowing, clogged commercial road, I would have biked out just to watch the spectacle of thousands of cyclists and their bikes pouring in for tomorrow's Cape Argus bike ride. An estimated 10,000 cyclists and bikes were expected to pass through the airport Friday and Saturday. Special provisions are in place to accommodate them all.

This is the 32nd staging of the event, so the city and the airport are well experienced at handling this huge influx. Only about one-third of the 36,000 participants are from Cape Town. Many drive in from all parts of the country, many from Johannesburg, about 1,000 miles away. There are 2,000 "Internationals," half from other African nations and about 600 from the U.K. Matt Damon and I will be among the handful of Americans, though I will not be an official registrant. The number of participants has been capped at 36,000 for quite a few years, though there is always room for another International. The registration fee of $50, however, is a bit out of my budget. It means I won't be encumbered by a computer chip that will give me an official time nor will I have to puncture my shirt with pins for a number on my back or paste a sticker to the front of my helmet, nor earn a certificate of accomplishment if I complete the race. This is considered the world's largest timed event. The elites set out on the 110 kilometer course at 6:15 a.m. They will finish in less than two-and-a-half hours, well before many have set out. There is a huge corral in downtown Cape Town for the thousands of cyclists to funnel through, each with their specific starting time, some not until after ten a.m.

The course heads out of Cape Town around Table Mountain and then south down one side of the semi-mountainous Cape Peninsula and then back up the other side, following the coastline much of the way. It is said to be as spectacular a route as it is large. The ocean will be very enticing, as Cape Town has been experiencing an extreme heat wave. It was over 100 degrees when I arrived two days ago, hotter even than the Kalahari with all the concrete retaining the heat. The temperature has been subsiding somewhat and it's possible the temperature might cap out at 90 on Sunday. There are 18 refreshment and support points along the route.

Rather than making a two-hour, mind-numbing ride out to the airport Friday for my final training, I opted for a preview of the first third of the route and a visit to the U.S. Consulate, located 18 miles from the city center on the other side of Table Mountain. My host, Charlie, business partner of my friend Ian, who arrives today from Colorado, plotted a fabulous route for me along the shoulder of Table Mountain, the 3,000 foot high mountain that forms the backdrop of Cape Town and is as much its emblem as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris. I'm staying in the guest room of their business, just a few blocks below the last row of houses before Table Mountain turns too steep to build on--a great location less than a mile from the race start. Charlie is another of the many South Africans who have showered me with unrestrained goodwill. When I'm with such people, it is easy to forget how much I have to be on guard otherwise.

His route took me through Cape Town University and past the botanical gardens along Rhodes Street through a thick shady forest full of baboons that occasionally break into people's homes. There were a few other cyclists out on this narrow, winding road, getting a last few miles into their legs before Sunday's ride. As I closed in on the suburb where the U.S. Consulate moved to a few years ago, I came upon a couple of cyclists stopped alongside the road. They were fiddling with one's cyclometer that was malfunctioning. I asked them if they knew where Redden Road was. They said they were from Durban, 500 miles away, so had no idea. When I mentioned I was looking for the U.S. Consulate, one of them had been there and could tell me how to find it. It was another three miles away, just beyond a Pick n Pay, the supermarket chain that is a co-sponsor of the Cape Argus along with the "Cape Argus" newspaper.

The Consulate was a huge, several story complex standing on its own with lush green grass and fence all around. With all my border crossings in and out of South Africa and into three other countries in the past month I had nearly filled my passport with stamps. Only one of its 24 pages remained empty. My passport was valid for another three years. I didn't want to get a new one, but knew that I could have pages added. I hoped it would be a simple operation and could be performed on the spot, and figured it would be a lot easier to do it here than in Chicago. When I arrived, a security guard told me the Consulate is closed to normal business on Fridays, but she picked up a phone to check to see if they might handle this. Fortunately they would. It took less than ten minutes for someone to sew 24 more pages into the middle of the passport.

I was two-thirds the way around Table Mountain. I continued on around, but after eight miles I was stopped by a road block. A section of the road along the coast had been suffering from fallen rocks and was closed. It was fully blocked by a high fence that I couldn't get around. I had gotten by an earlier barrier and nervously continued on, realizing it would be a perfect place for an ambush. I kept hoping I might come upon another Argus cyclist out training. As I came upon the final fence there was a lone black guy. I had passed another a quarter mile before just below the road with a mountain bike. Such is the trauma of biking in South Africa. One always has to be worried. If either of them had looked friendly I would have stopped to ask what the situation was, but my only choice was to get out of there quick and hope they didn't have accomplices. When I got back to the main road I encountered a young woman. She said that the only way back to Cape Town was back around Table Mountain, including back up a several mile climb that I had just descended. She offered to give me a ride, but I wasn't minding riding my pannierless bike, even though the temperature was near 100.

My route back to the city took me right past the Good Hope Center, the huge convention center that was the headquarters for the Cape Argus. I joined the parade of thousands of cyclists flocking in, picking up their race numbers and attending the Expo of sponsors. There were over 300 exhibitors on three floors. Most were bike-related including Specialized and Trek and Cannondale, but there were also several wineries from the nearby region and a travel agency for Namibia and other regions. There was an excess number of companies selling eye wear and energy supplements, but only one that was giving out samples. It was close to 100% white. I've barely felt that I've been in South Africa my two days here in Cape Town.

My token Saturday ride was with 150 others on a memorial ride for cyclists who have been killed the past year. There have been four recent deaths in Cape Town of cyclists training for the Argus. We rode single file through the downtown of Cape Town ending up at the race start. There we hung four wreaths. I rode along with a Dutch guy who has lived in Cape Town for six years. He carries a bullet embedded in his shoulder from a robbery here.

I rested my legs at the library for three hours, reading a book on the history of the Argus. The inaugural race was in 1978. It was meant as a protest to gain more rights, respect and better facilities for cyclists. There were 550 people on that first tide. Until 1990 the race was held on Saturdays, observing the "Never-on-Sundays" prohibition of organized sports in South Africa. It was moved to Sunday so it would have a less of an impact on Saturday's commercial interests. Phil Liggett, the famed English race announcer, rode in the event in 1996 and said, "I suffered all the way round." A young Alexandre Vinokourou, the Kazathan who was a force in the Tour de France until he was caught blood-doping the year after Floyd Landis was caught for using testosterone, finished second in 1995, the first year a non-South Africa won the race.

The library had another book I hope to be able to read before I leave--a 700-page book published two years ago by a South African who spent two years bicycling the perimeter of Africa. There are a handful of museums to see as well as Robben Island, a World Heritage site where Mandela was incarcerated.

Later, George

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Springbok, South Africa

Friends: As I sat in my private six foot by six foot patch of shade under an open-sided shelter at a pull-over in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, forcing 100-degree mango-flavored water down my throat, a bolt of lightning in the corner of the sky interrupted my reading and eating. I had noticed a dark gathering of clouds in a corner of the sky when I stopped at this shelter, the first I'd come upon in 17 miles since a lunch break in Kakamas, but it was too much to hope that they might be coming my way, as the wind had been at my back and those clods were up ahead. But indeed they were.

My digital thermometer registered 97.3 degrees in the shade, ten degrees cooler than out in the sun. I was baking. At least the light breeze at my back enabled me to average nearly 15 miles per hour. The miles were coming fairly easily, thanks in part that my legs were fresh after spending the previous day on the bus from Pretoria to Upington. As the clouds neared, a stronger side wind began whipping my shirt dangling and drying on the bike. The sun was still shining bright when I felt a first drop of rain. I quickly gathered up my bread and peanut butter and book so I could get out and enjoy the cool of what rain there might be. The first few scattered drops instantly sizzled to oblivion when they hit the scorching hot pavement.

After a minute I could tell that this was going to me more than just a light drizzle. The dark clouds were closing in fast. I quickly dug out my Gore-Tex Jacket just as sheets of cold water and a fusillade of marble-sized hail began pelting me. The hail stung. The wind was so strong I had to dismount my bike, lest I be blown off it. It would have been no use to retreat to the shelter, as the rain was coming at a 45 degree angle and it would have provided no protection whatsoever. It was a struggle to remain upright as the wind and hail pummeled me. There were soon puddles of water on the road. The temperature had plunged 30 degrees, but the road was so hot the water that sprayed on my ankles from the puddles was bath-tub hot. It took the storm just five minutes to vent the worst of its fury, but it was a long five minutes. I was able to remount my bike and start riding as the rain and wind lessened. Within 20 minutes it had stopped and the sky was clear and the temperature was back up to 100, but that half-hour respite did wonders, cooling my core and reinvigorating my legs.

Fortunately the storm did not steal my tail wind. I could continue along at a fairly brisk and effortless 15 miles per hour. Despite the heat, this was the least demanding and most leisurely cycling I had enjoyed in South Africa on a road so flat and so straight a sign just beyond the town of Alheit cautioned, "Only authorized testing of speed allowed." There was so little traffic, it had to be hard for any motorist to resist putting pedal to the metal and if pulled over using the excuse, "I was just testing how fast my car could go."

I didn't set any speed records other than for my best average speed for a full day on this trip and by nearly two miles per hour. The miles were coming so easily, I was tempted to ride through the night and go for a double-century, knocking off the 233 miles from Upington to Springbok in one go. I feared the wind turning on me at any moment, suddenly making the Kalahari a torturous ordeal. But as dark settled in, the slightly less than quarter moon wasn't providing quite enough illumination to safely continue, so I began searching for a place to pitch my tent after I'd come 125 miles. Even out in the vast empty desert the road was lined by barbed wire fence on both sides.

Twice I thought I detected a break in the fence, but it was just an illusion. After a couple more aborted attempts on possible campsites where I thought a bend or dip in the road might provide me some seclusion, I settled on passing my gear and bike over a gate to a dirt road that led to a few scattered bushes that offered protection from the road. It was a risk pushing my bike through a desert of scattered shrubs that could be shedding thorns, but I got away with it. The wind was with me the next day up until the last 15 miles, enabling me back-to-back centuries for the first time on this trip, doing in two days what I anticipated would be a three-day trip. Riding the Kalahari was one of the things in South Africa I was most looking forward to, and it didn't disappoint me. It wasn't as desolate as I anticipated. There was scattered vegetation, enough for an occasional flock of goats or sheep. Huge bird tests, hosting colonies of up to 200 weaver birds, small as sparrows, dangled from the tops of telephone poles.

My lone campsite in the Kalahari was seven miles outside of Pofadder, the last town before the final 100 mile stretch into Springbok. I'd only used half of the two-and-a-half gallons of water (20 pounds worth) in the 87 mile stretch from Kakamas, but I fully restocked. The young black woman who served me wondered if my ride across the Kalahari was a "competition." She's not the first person to ask such a question in my travels here. It's hard for people to realize that someone would want to do such a thing simply for the pleasure or adventure of it. She also asked, "You are not afraid?" That too has been a common question along with, "Have you been robbed?"

Just outside of Pofadder was another sign warning motorists that only authorized vehicles were allowed to test their speed. Twenty miles further there was a surprise water spigot alongside the road. It was only nine a.m. and not too hot. I was in no great need, not even to top off a water bottle, but I did take advantage of it to soak my head and shirt and give myself a wash. No one had mentioned the spigot, not the bus drivers or tourist offices or anyone else I asked about shade and water between Upington and Springbok.

I almost wished there hadn't been one, as it had me hoping I might come upon another later in the day when the temperatures were extreme. I was debating whether I wanted a car to pull over up ahead, as it could mean either someone stopping to offer me drink or someone who wished to liberate me of my valuables. If they meant me harm, it would have to be extreme, as it would be too easy to identify them from their license plates. I cringed when a car with two young black men pulled into a rest area I was stopped at. But they had stopped to scavenge parts from a recent nearby car accident. For fifteen minutes they walked up and down the road one hundred yards in both directions looking for debris.

At the last rest area, 23 miles before Springbok, at about three in the afternoon, a car pulled in. It was a white woman who didn't speak when she got out of her car, but rather went directly to her trunk and popped it open. After rummaging around for a minute or so, she approached me with a bag of ice and a cold sports drink. I was so amazed and startled, I didn't know what to say other than asking if she was a cyclist and if she had ever ridden the Argus. Her son was an ardent cyclist and had left that very day to go to Cape Town for the big ride. She said she hoped to do it next year. After she filled two of my water bottles with ice she said, "I have some food for you too." She returned to her car and brought me three hot dogs, four sticks of beef jerky, a peach and a pear. This was so overwhelming I didn't think to ask if this was just a coincidence or if she had seen me earlier or heard about me and sought me out. She was a good Samaritan of few words and didn't ask a single question of me.

I had been reveling even before this miracle offering. With only 23 of the 233 miles of the Kalahari remaining I had as well completed it. Even if the winds turned on me, I knew I ought to be able to survive those final 23 miles. But despite the cold drinks and bonus calories, those last miles weren't as easy as I had hoped. The heat had finally gotten to me and I was feeling faint and weak. Then the terrain turned into a prolonged climb and at the same time the wind switched, forcing me to truly earn those final miles. I was ready to collapse when I arrived in Springbok shortly before six p.m. I went straight to a supermarket and bought a two liter bottle of Guava juice and a bag of ice and drank and drank and drank, first the juice, then water, until I had used up all the ice. I barely had energy to respond to the several beggars who came by, one from Namibia who said he needed money to return home.

I wondered how much of a struggle it would be to stay awake for six hours until the midnight bus for the final 500 miles to Cape Town arrived. But the drink revived me, deterring my body from going into total collapse as it had threatened.

Later, George

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Upington, South Africa

Friends: I've had some tough, unpleasant stretches in these travels riding rugged roads and in the rain and amongst dangerous, ominous characters, but perhaps the most agonizing and least enjoyable segment of my 4,000 mile circuit of South Africa so far was a 14-hour, 550-mile bus trip from Pretoria to Upington via Johannesburg, to the heart of the Kalahari Desert.

It was no fun being off my bike and confined to a bus, reduced to looking out at my surroundings rather than being a part of them and fully experiencing all they had to offer. I was a mere passenger, no longer a traveler. I felt little more than a corpse, barely alive, being transported from one place to another. I don't travel to be a piece of cargo, but rather a living, vital part of where I am.

Very rarely in my travels do I resort to bus or train or automobile. It was a necessity here if I wished to make it back to Cape Town in time for the Cape Argus bike ride, an annual 69-mile ride/race that attracts some 35,000 cyclists. It is one of the largest cyclist gatherings in the world. Its organizers call it the largest timed event in the world, somewhat of an exaggeration as Chicago's marathon attracts over 40,000 runners, who are all timed.

The bike ride hadn't been on my original itinerary, as it was being held nine days before my flight home. I intended to stick to my bike and arrive in Cape Town two days before my return, but after meeting so many cyclists who had ridden the Argus, some multiple times, who all raved about the experience, making it sound as if it was one of those 100 things that every cyclist should do before he dies, I decided to sacrifice a week of rural cycling, and do the unthinkable, take a bus, to get back to Cape Town a week earlier than I planned. Ian, my friend from Telluride, who returns to Cape Town the evening before the ride, was another who had been strongly urging me to hurry back to Cape Town for it and had a place for me to stay.

It is such a national event that Robbie Hunter, the lone South African to win a stage of the Tour de France and will be riding The Tour again this summer for Team Barloworld, was on a Pretoria radio station promoting the ride a couple of nights ago. He has won the race the past two years, and will be riding it again this year. With so many participants, the riders are seeded and sent out in staggered bunches over several hours. Hunter will have crossed the finish line before some riders have even set out.

From Upington I have 230 miles more of the Kalahari to enjoy to Springbok, including segments of 80 and 100 miles without food or water. The temperature will be in the 90s with a chance for it to go even higher. There have been some recent rains, so there is greenery in the desert. The 100 miles preceding Upington was another stretch without any services. I was truly longing to be out in it on my bike. It wasn't as forbidding as I feared, although I'm told the terrain turns more rugged and the temperatures more intense beyond Upington. There were pull-offs with an awning providing some shade over a concrete picnic table or two every 20 miles or so that I looked upon with great longing from the bus, knowing how welcome they would have been had I been cycling. The bus drivers told me I could count on such places of refuge all the way to Springbok. They will be my mid-day habitats and saviors.

We arrived in Upington at 8 p.m., two hours late and about half an hour after dark. It was very upsetting to arrive so late, as I had been eagerly looking forward to salvaging my day on the bus with at least an hour of cycling into the setting sun and, possibly, more if the moon was providing enough illumination and there was a minimum of traffic. I was very very tempted to start riding anyway in the dark, though I knew it could be an act of suicide.

A quarter moon and not much traffic offered some encouragement, though the road had no shoulder and wasn't very well-maintained, even though it was a National Highway. The bus drivers and the staff closing the bus depot all strongly advised me against riding at night. "This is Africa," they all said, as if that was all they needed to say. No one even drives at night if they can help it. Still, I couldn't resist giving it a try. If I listened to all the warnings I've heard over the years, I'd likely not have ventured beyond the borders of the U.S., and rather than possessed of a rich store of travel adventures I'd have some lousy house in a suburb and a fat bank account and perhaps a couple of offspring to justify my existence.

As I reached the fringe of town and the street lamps were about to give out, I saw a couple of ominous guys sauntering along the road. "No way," I groaned, and made an immediate u-turn to head back to the campground along the Orange River that several had recommended. I'd had a terrible fright a couple days before when two guys walking down the road towards me suddenly separated, with one guy stepping into the middle of the road to wave me down. I was distant enough to brake and look back for either an escape or the possibility that a car might be approaching to run interference for me. There were none ahead and none behind either. "Not again," I moaned as my heart plunged. I was on a slight decline, so I could accelerate and possibly plow past them if they attacked. In the instant after waving me down, the guy put his fingers to his lips, indicating he wanted a cigarette. I flew by, shaking my head and saying, "I don't smoke, sorry." But that instant of terror left me limp and weak-kneed for a couple of miles afterward.

I bought a thick Sunday paper for the bus ride. It saved me from finishing off the last of the five books I brought along, this one by E. O. Wilson, but it was an unwelcome dose of current events. I learned that the world's economy is no better off than when I began this sojourn from that reality, and continues its slide into oblivion, making me all the gladder for being detached from all that news. South Africa's banking system and economy isn't in as dire straits as much of the rest of the world, or so say government officials, who even refuse to acknowledge that South Africa is experiencing a recession.

But there were plenty of other local stories that made for depressing reading. One can't read a South African newspaper without coming on stories lamenting the country's "culture of violence" and the appalling inhumanity of the apartheid years and its aftereffects. There is a presidential election April 22 and there isn't a respectable candidate among the multitude of parties. Mandela's party, the ANC, which has held the presidency for 15 years, is in such disarray that many of its stalwarts have left the party and started another--COPE.

There was great outrage when the ANC flew Mandela to a big ANC rally to endorse its candidate, Zuma, a man who faces charges of corruption. Mandela is very old and frail and rarely goes out. He can barely walk. Everyone thought forcing him to do this could have been the death of him. His death is so imminent that a movie production company has taken out insurance in case Mandela dies during a shoot, as it knows there will be days of mourning when no work will be accomplished It has been a very vicious campaign with all sorts of mud-slinging and violence. ANC and COPE thugs frequently disrupt each other's rallies with violent attacks.

My bus ride was somewhat redeemed by my seatmate--a young lawyer by the name of Muzi who works for a trade union. He was going to a town 100 miles before Upington to defend a worker who had been wrongfully fired. Like many blacks I have spoken to, he was initially very soft-spoken and I couldn't always understand his accent. I had to do a bit of surmising about what I thought he said or asked. He had lots of questions for me. After I told him I was a bicycle messenger and explained that we were like the special services of mail services, called upon in emergencies when a message had to be delivered immediately, he asked me if I had been in the marines. He had to repeat the word "marines" four or five times before I could understand in. That wasn't a usual question.

He also wondered if I had served in Vietnam and if I saw much American influence upon South Africa. The biggest influence I saw was the proliferation of Kentucky Fried Chicken, by far the most ubiquitous fast food franchise. They advertise heavily on the radio, promoting themselves as a place for "manly men." Their billboards advertise themselves as a "safe place to take a rest." He thought the American influence was much stronger, but then of course I don't watch television. Oprah is very popular here. Her magazine is on prominent display in libraries and at news stands. When Muzi got off the bus, he gave me his cell phone number if I had any problems. He advised me to report to the police before setting out from Upington.

We both napped a bit, and tried to tune out the two 90 minute DVDs that were inflicted on us. I had to get up at 4:30 to make it to the bus station for my early morning departure. The half-mile bike ride to the station in the dark was a harrowing ride. There was another cyclist on the bus ride, a 6'5", 250 pound South African who was just hopping down to Johannesburg, 50 miles south of Pretoria. He too said his morning ride to the station had him unnerved. He was quite incensed that the baggage controller wanted to charge us 100 rand for our bikes. He takes his bike on the bus three or four times a year and had never been charged. The guy trying to charge us had told me the evening before when I bought my ticket, the fee would be 150 rand, quite high considering the ticket was 390 rand ($39).

The baggage controller had the look of a thug, someone who would have curdled my blood if I had passed him on the road. The hefty guy was a very autocratic sort who looked as if he might have served in South Africa's special forces and back in the apartheid days would have made mincemeat of the baggage controller trying to extort us. He made quite a scene. He explained that one has to stand up for one's rights and not be bullied, though he had certainly resorted to being a bully himself. He was clearly a man who was accustomed to having his way.

This was a very eerie confrontation in post-apartheid South Africa. A young black man in a menial job standing up to an authoritarian white man 15 years ago would have been in a heap of trouble. Both of them knew this. The stand-off was not resolved before we left the station, though we got our bikes on the bus without forking over a cent. The white guy placed a call to an official at the Johannesburg bus station and said the issue would be sorted out there. The young black man buckled to that, losing out on his scheme to illicitly charge us for our bikes. I wouldn't have known that I was being scammed if it hadn't been for this other cyclist.

I had earlier been the beneficiary of more great, good fortune as I closed in on Pretoria. I had been advised by many that it would be foolhardy, if not suicidal, to bike anywhere near the sprawling Pretoria/Johannesburg concentration of population of over 15 million people. Johannesburg is considered the most dangerous city in the world. There are some ten car-jackings a day there. Marauders were on the loose everywhere. If they spotted me I would be easy pickings.

Since I knew I was going to have to take a bus eventually, I thought I would grab one in Nelspruit, 200 miles to the east of Pretoria. I arrived at Nelspruit late in the afternoon, hoping to get a bus to Pretoria or Johannesburg that would connect with an evening bus to Upington. But the last bus had left Nelspruit a couple hours before, as all were timed to arrive in Pretoria or Jo-brg well before dark. Rather than waiting until the next morning for a bus, I decided to keep on biking and catch a bus in the next big city, Wateraal Boven, 70 miles away. When I arrived there around noon I was told the bus didn't stop there, nor at any city between there and Jo-burg. I was told I could catch a ride in a communal taxi/van such as rescued me when I broke my derailleur, but I couldn't count on one of them dropping me off at a safe place, so I was forced to keep pedaling.

My efforts were rewarded the next day when I had closed within 75 miles of Pretoria. As I was having lunch at a large gas station/restaurant complex on the four lane national highway leading into the metropolis, a young man in a pick-up truck stopped for a chat, then offered a ride the rest of the way into the city. It was an offer I couldn't refuse, even though I had a sensational tail-wind. I had knocked off 47 miles in less than two-and-a-half hours and hardly felt winded. I had a good chance to make it to Pretoria before dark. I was romping along on the flats at over 25 miles per hour. It was going to be a thrilling 125 mile day if the wind prevailed. But it was a risk, so I shelved it. I sat in the cargo hold of the pick-up truck with my bike, as there was only room enough in the cab for the guy and his wife.

My benefactor drove me straight to the magnificent Voortrekker Monument on a hill overlooking the city, a monument he was proud of and wanted to make sure I saw. It was a virtual cathedral, 120 feet high, celebrating the Boer settlers of South Africa and their heroism. We arrived two hours before dark, giving me ample time to tour the monument, find the bus station, purchase my ticket for the next morning's bus to Upington and then check in to a nearby hostel and even to do a little exploring of this capital city. All was well with my world.

Following is an email from Edwin, the young man who gave me the ride, offering more commentary on the allure of bicycle touring and further confirmation on how dangerous a place South Africa is.

Hi George

Its Edwin (I gave you a ride to Voortrekker Monument) if you don't recall. I must say it's been a real pleasure meeting you, and it definitely made a profound impact on my way of seeing things in general. Cycle touring has been a forgotten dream of mine since I finished school, and deep down I guess I didn't believe it being possible. Until I met you. You showed me it is possible in every way.

After we spoke I went straight home, and read through your 2009 blog. I was hooked. I will definitely read through all of them soon. All my cycling friends think bicycling through the South African countryside is suicide and have a lot of safety concerns, when I tell them about our meeting, and what you're doing, as we have all been a victim of theft, high-jacking and farm murders (one of my friends last week, and my wife's grandfather 4 years ago).

Me and my wife are expecting a baby in July, so naturally my priorities are with them first, but I will definitely give cycle touring a try. I'll probably arrange a group, for there's always safety in numbers, and start off on weekends first, then gradually go for longer trips, and we'll see from there. I can't wait.

I also want to ask you for a list of your inventory, if you don't mind, as your experience would be a great advantage to any and all who are interested.

Looking forward to your reply


And that's how it is here--great friendliness, but also much to be wary of.

Later, George