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

1 comment:

Yonder Vittles said...

george i have always trusted your journalistic integrity, but i am concerned that your mind - in its weakened and dehydrated state - may have just conjured up that desert fairy princess wizzard lady quietly doleing out icy drinks and salty meats along the roadside in the middle of the desert. sounds like your vision quest is going well. keep riding, a.