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


T.C. O'Rourke said...

"If I listened to all the negatives I've heard, I'd have spent my life in Chicago and have some lousy house in a suburb and a fat bank account."


Julian Bloomer said...

Great trip George and nice posts.

I'm in Nigeria and enroute to southern Africa.

Best wishes