Friday, February 27, 2009

Komatipoort, South Africa

Friends: On occasion I am boggled by my present reality, lost in a euphoric state of wonderment that I am where I am. So it was my two days in Mozambique. It seemed an unimaginable place to be pedaling my bicycle. How did I ever end up here, I kept thinking. This wasn't one of those distant places that had long allured me, but here I was and it was a superlative joy.

From the moment I crossed into Mozambique, I felt enamored. A festival was going on at the border town. The streets were teeming with happy, beaming people. They reacted to me, the unlikely site of a white on an overloaded bicycle, with delight, as if I were part of the festival. And such was my reception the 120 miles I biked through the bottom corner of this lengthy coastal country. No one regarded me with suspicion or malignancy, only glee.

I wasn't even sure if I would be allowed into the country. It was advised to get a visa ahead of time, but I would have had to detour 50 miles to the capital of Swaziland for it. I elected to take my chances at the border. If I were turned away, I'd just have to backtrack twelve miles and return to South Africa by a different route. Visas cost $25, something I was reluctant to pay as South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland had all been free. And it would also be the first time I would have to use a currency other than rands. Changing money is never a happy occasion. Eight of those twelve miles to the border were up steep hills. I was certainly hoping my efforts wouldn't be in vain.

A sign on the counter by the customs official priced visas at 172 rands or $25. That was double good news--visas for sale and my option of paying $17 in rands or $25 in greenbacks. I didn't have to think long making that decision. From the border it was a gentle fifty mile descent and then mostly flat to the coast and the capital city Maputo, past largely unfenced terrain dotted by short bushy trees of the low-veldt, idyllic for camping. It was a shame I wouldn't be able to take advantage of it. My one night in Mozambique would be spent in a hotel, though I had been hoping to find a seaside campgrounds in Maputo. Unfortunately, there was no such thing, not even beaches. Mozambique has miles and miles of fabulous beaches, but none in the port of the capital.

It caused me considerable pain to be wasting the near infinite number places to camp. It was a marked contrast to South Africa, a land of barbed wire fences that made camping much much more of a challenge than I like, just about the most challenging I've encountered. South Africa offered similar great landscape, but it was mostly fenced off, another version of apartheid. Among other things, South Africa is a country of barbed wire. It comes in many varieties and patterns and is strung in many imaginative and threatening ways, frequently in circular loops. Never have I seen so much of it, nor in so many different places. It is another symbol of hatred and fear.

I will forever associate Mozambique with mangoes. It provided the most succulent mangoes I've ever encountered. I was looking forward to indulging in one of the red-hued, softball-sized gems that went for 35 cents at least every ten miles on my ride out of the country from roadside vendors. Unfortunately the sixty mile route from Maputo back to South Africa was a recently built toll road all the way to Pretoria, 300 miles away, through unsettled countryside. I'd had a couple of the mangoes on the ride in to Maputo and I couldn't stop thinking about them. I was lucky to come upon one lone mini-cafe selling cans of coke for 25 meticals--27 to the dollar--on the steamy ride out of the county. It was a great rip-off, considering small stands everywhere else sold bottles of coke for 10 meticals. But I needed to escape the scorching sun and heat and humidity and drink something cold, so I didn't hesitate in paying a buck for a can. I spent my 120 remaining meticals at the border on mangoes and cashews.

A young man at the border took charge of me, grabbing my passport and taking it to the head of the line. I feared his hand would be out afterward, but he was another Mozambican simply trying to please. Not too many travelers or tourists visit this country, so few in fact that most of the travel literature at the tourist office was in Portuguese, not in English, that the few who do are treated as guests to be looked after and tended to. It was the same in Swaziland. Many South Africans go to Lesotho since it is so distinctly unique, but they don't bother with Swaziland, as its not much different than the surrounding South African countryside. The kids there hadn't been corrupted by sweet-giving tourists, so they didn't associate whites with gifts and didn't come running making demands. Rather they were just happy to receive a wave in response to their waves.

Kruger National Park is just to the north of here. It is the largest national park in the world, the size of Israel. I thought I might take a day trip in and take a gander at some of the big game. The owner of this Internet outlet called three of his local friends who offer such a service, but none had any trips on schedule. This isn't the best time for it, as the animals are hidden and lethargic in the heat. The Internet owner said he knows many people drive the length of the park, a couple hundred miles long and hardly see anything. He lives on the fringe of the park himself. It'd been a week since he'd seen an elephant. I passed a giraffe grazing along the road and saw zebras and buffaloes and antelope in the Swaziland game reserve I was allowed to bike through. That will have to do. I was hesitant anyway about being confined to some safari vehicle with a bunch of tourists driving through terrain similar to that which I've biked through.

The giraffe is big, but it isn't among the Big Five--the rare more glamor animals that everyone wants to see. They are the elephant, black rhino, Cape buffalo, lion and leopard.

Later, George

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Maputo, Mozambique

Friends: I was startled to see the road signs in Mozambique written in Portuguese. It may have been a Portuguese colony, but they still drive on the left hand side. Another surprise was the size of Maputo, its capital. As I turned onto its main boulevard I thought I was in Manhattan with tall buildings lining the traffic-clogged avenue. I arrived during the evening commute, hoping to stumble upon the tourist office before it closed, as I needed directions to a campgrounds or cheap hotel.

There were no signs for it and no one I asked knew where it was until I stopped at one of the bigger hotels.  It wasn't in the heart of the city.   I didn't find it until half an hour after it had closed, but a lingering worker from another governmental department in the same building did his best to help me despite his minimal English. At least he gave me a map, so I could get some bearings of some sort. He was one of many people who went out of there way to try to help me. It had been that way ever since I had crossed into the country. The people in Swaziland were very welcoming, but even more so in Mozambique. This was more what I was hoping Africa would be. It was enough to make me want to return.

Mozambique wasn't included in my Lonely Planet guide so I was on my own searching for a place to stay. It turned into a monumental challenge. There were expensive hotels, but no one wanted to direct me to a cheap locals place. I saw no backpackers or whites to ask. At last a porter at a $40 hotel suggested a place a couple blocks away. His directions weren't precise, nor his name of the hotel. He called it the Carton Hotel, when it was in fact the Carlton. Several people within a couple blocks of it didn't want to send me to it, as it turned out to be a whorehouse. When I finally found it, just as dark was settling in, there were four skimpily dressed women out front.

Two women at the front desk asked me three different times if I really wanted to stay the night and not just for an hour as is customary. They didn't even know what to charge me. I told them I was very tired and desperate and not so rich. One took me upstairs to show me a bare bones room, figuring that would send me fleeing. The room had nothing more than a bed and an overhead fan. The bathroom was just a cold shower without a toilet, but that was more than adequate for me. The price was $12, more than I was hoping for, as I'd only changed $20 at the border for my two days in the country, but I didn't have any choice. I tried to bargain down to ten dollars, but they held firm.

The room turned out to be even more bare bones than I realized, as it didn't come with a light, just the residual light from outside, illumination enough for its clients. When it got fully dark I sat by the open door using the light from the hall to eat by and to pump water through my purifier for my six water bottles. The four women from downstairs each took a turn coming by hoping I might take an interest. It was early for them so they had time to spare. One was bold enough to come in and sit beside me as I pumped the water and insisted that I must need a massage. She thought my legs were very muscular.

They were each ebony beauties of some sophistication, speaking a little English and not without some charm, not the typical hardened, desperate stereotype. I had been reading Paul Theroux's African novel, "Jungle Lovers," about an American insurance salesman in African who partakes of a different prostitute each night at the local bar, being nice to all of them, before settling on one as a wife. Theroux writes in several of his memoirs how he too found it perfectly natural and acceptable and fun to enjoy the company of prostitutes when he was living in Africa in his early 20s. I could see these women were of a different class and temperament than the prostitutes I have been solicited by in other third world countries--Cuba, Mexico, Morocco and elsewhere--but I also knew that Mozambique had a stratospheric rate of AIDs, making "no" the only possible answer to their solicitations.

I politely told each I was exhausted and ready to collapse. I didn't even have the energy to go out and eat or search out the Internet. I had bought six hard boiled eggs from a street vendor and still had some bread and peanut butter and baked beans to finish off. I would have liked to have gone wandering, but I'd had two hard days and needed to rest my legs. There was an abundance of street life. Vendors took over sidewalks. Dozens of shoes lined up in pairs filled several squares of sidewalk on nearly every block. Little girls stood in the street with bottles of water on their head and a glass in hand for thirsty motorists. Young boys clutched three rolls of toilet paper waving them at motorists. It was a lively place. One of the main streets was Karl Marx Boulevard. It was intersected by a Ho Chi Minh Street. I had taken such a liking to Mozambique I was sorry I needed to swing back to South Africa the next day, just getting a small sampling of this large country with one of the longest coastlines in Africa.

I was at least able to cover the length of Swaziland, as it is just 100 miles long, before crossing into Mozambique. It is one of the smallest of Africa's 54 countries, half the size of Lesotho, with half the population, but twice the average annual income. Sugar cane is its leading export, but it also has some industry, unlike Lesotho. It has five game reserves and unlike South Africa allows bicyclists to ride through them, though there are warning signs specifically for cyclists to be on the alert for lions and elephants.

As I passed through Hlane Game Santuary in northeast Swaziland, it was the only time I felt a twinge of fright in this otherwise safe haven of a country, feeling a sense of wariness that four-legged predators lurked. It was nothing though compared to the ripples of panic sent up my spine to the bottom of my throat that also contorted my heart with fright when I spotted a pedestrian or two up the road in South Africa, reminding me of my assault. At this Game Sanctuary in Swaziland I welcomed the sight of a pedestrian as something to celebrate, not dread, meaning it must be safe.

I felt as if I had crossed into some dream world when the first pedestrian I passed in Swaziland brightened with a luminous smile, raised his hand and greeted me with a hearty wave and "Good morning." It was so unlike any encounter I'd had in South Africa or even Lesotho, I eagerly anticipated the next pedestrian hoping for a similar reaction. It was a woman carrying a young child strapped to her back. She too erupted into a shiny beacon of welcome. And so it went, one after another.

Their kindly demeanor emphasized all the more how surly and sinister so many of the South African blacks could be. If they weren't glum or grim, they could be mean and menacing. It was no act. The blacks were greatly abused during the apartheid era and many are still pissed. Many blacks grew up fearing and hating whites and wanting to kill any and all. Their anger has been tempered with time, but a strong residue from that time remains. The inequities and discrimination are no where near as pronounced as they once were, but South Africa still remains largely a country of whites and a country of blacks, and the whites have it pretty good and the blacks pretty shitty.

I'm not particularly looking forward to going back and having to be continually on guard and subjected to searing looks of hatred. At least it is somewhat tempered by the overwhelming friendliness of the whites to one of their own.

Later, George

Monday, February 23, 2009

Pongola, South Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's just twenty miles to Swaziland.

Later, George

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Harrismith, South Africa

Friends: "Is he dead?," I heard a woman's voice ask, awakening me from an afternoon nap. I glanced at my watch and was shocked to see it was 4:30. I had been zonked out for four hours. I thought I might snooze for an hour or so and then go explore the artist and British ex-pat community of Clarens, but I was much more exhausted than I realized.

My initial plan had been to spend several hours in Clarens and then continue on to Golden Gate National Park 11 miles away and camp there. But I barely had the energy to make the final climb into Clarens, depleted from my week-long ordeals in Lesotho, completed less than 24 hours earlier. So I sought out the backpacker hostel/campground in Clarens for the night. I unrolled my tent beside the only spot of shade in the mid-day beside a camper unit. I didn't even have the energy to immediately erect it. I put down my sleeping pad and collapsed for a few minutes before before putting it up. I hadn't been this utterly depleted since I came down with hepatitis in India. I had slept 12 hours the night before, but that wasn't enough.

Every day in Lesotho had been a killer, demanding an utmost effort with very little relief, and I was now paying the price. There were very few flats to recover on and the descents on the rocky roads required considerable braking and mental energy. I was continually on edge, not only from the difficulty of the ride but also from my concerns of the people along the route. I was assured that the people of Lesotho were kindly and welcoming, and they generally seemed so, but the chasing kids were a torment and some adults as well. I passed many lonely shepherds tending to sheep or goats who could see me coming and would jog to meet me asking for a cigarette or food, some saying,"I'm hungry."

I had a similar experience in Morocco. Just about everyone along the road came running asking for something, but the people there weren't as hardened or desperate-looking or as many of these shepherds, and they didn't ask for food, just cigarettes. Some shepherds in the distance who didn't have the time to catch up to me would gesture and pat their stomach. I had to wonder how desperate they might be. They could see for miles that no one else was around. If they cared to they could assault me with the two or three foot long stick, many ornately-decorated, that they all carried. Lesotho has a dramatically lower crime rate than South Africa, but still the large supermarket in Mokhotlong was guarded by a guy cradling an AK-47, something I hadn't seen in South Africa.

When I was awoken by the woman's voice in Clarens I realized that the camper unit I was camped beside was occupied by a young couple. I apologized to the woman and then asked if there was another quiet place I could move my tent to. I was shown a spot a couple hundred feet away along a creek and beside a fence that gave me complete privacy. It took more effort than I realized to take down my tent and move. As I was about to push off, the woman said she had made a big batch of potato salad and would I like some.

I couldn't have asked for anything greater. I had seen some in the local supermarket, but it was grotesquely over-priced, as was most of the food in this tourist town. I was too tired to eat it right away. I slept another four hours until nine and then made it my dinner at nine p.m. I slept another four hours until one a.m. and then ate a peanut butter sandwich and read a bit. I didn't awaken again until 7:30, sleeping nearly 18 hours straight. I didn't feel fully rejuvenated and began a long debate of whether to linger all day in Clarens or bike 15 miles to the campground in the park and continue my recovery there. I awoke to a cramped and sore left calf that I had strained in Lesotho from the odd effort of pushing my bike up 20 per cent grades. It had me limping a bit there and even worse now. I tried to sleep some more after eating another peanut butter sandwich. When the sun began heating up my tent, I decided to push on to the park.

Golden Gate Park takes its name from a pair of sandstone buttresses that mark the entry to the park. In the evening light the sandstone turns golden. It had been a spectacular ride since leaving Lesotho with the dramatic Drakenberg mountains to my right marking the border of Lesotho and through towering bluffs and kopjes reminiscent of Monument Valley. The national park was even more spectacular. The road was up and down, but the grades were gentle compared to those of Lesotho. I was in no hurry, so I could ride in an easier gear than I might otherwise and just loll along and revel in the beauty. My legs were rubbery, but they managed. The scenery wasn't much different than much I had passed through since leaving Cape Town, though I was at a higher altitude here, over 5,000 feet.

The campground was across the street from a visitor center and gas station. I was shocked to learn that it cost $20 to camp. Just as I was learning this a guy traveling by motorcycle, who had followed me into the visitor center, joined me at the desk. He too was appalled, saying that one could stay at a hotel for less. The motorcyclist was stranded there because the generator for the gas station was out and couldn't pump gas. They promised it could be fixed at any moment, but he was worried about having to stay there too. The motorcyclist was a retired park ranger. He had just bought his motorcycle and was on the second day of a circuit of his country. He had never been to the Kalahari and was particularly looking forward to that. He told me that I could easily camp anywhere in the park. It was just past noon, way too early for me to be wild camping, especially since the park was pretty much treeless. I would have to disappear over a rise and camp behind the tall grass, but I didn't want to be sitting in the direct sun all day. I'd just hang out here in the shade and rest for four or five hours and then go camp. The park had baboons, but the ranger assured me that they wouldn't bother me.

The ranger was another of those most genuinely friendly South Africans I've met who was sincerely interested in my travels, past and present. We plopped down in the shade and talked. We were shortly joined by anther motorcyclist, a guy who lived 40 miles away who loved the tranquility of the park. He raised white lions that he sold to zoos and private hunting reserves. He invited me to visit, but it wasn't the direction I was going. He was a cyclist as well and had recently bought a $6,000 Italian racing bike. When the ranger told him it cost $20 to camp there, he too thought that was ridiculous. After hearing of my robbery and my exhaustion from Lesotho, he offered to pay for me to camp. I refused, but he pulled out 200 rand and forced it on me, saying he'd like to contribute to my trip. If he hadn't told me he had just spent $6,000 on a bicycle, I would have been more insistent in refusing it.

He, like others, said I was lucky that they guys who attacked me hadn't killed me. I said that I thought robbers knew enough that the police let a simple robbery go, but if they went further, then they'd be pursued. He said that the robbers aren't that smart, plus they don't care if they go to jail. All their needs are met in jail, he said. "They even put the lights down for them," he added.

The ranger too said that I was lucky to get off without any physical harm. He said that every South African, if they haven't been victimized by a violent crime, has a close friend who has. Both his sons left the country after a violent assault. One now lives in Italy and the other in Canada. One of his sons left after a robber tried to cut off his finger to get his wedding ring. He gestured towards the canyon wall and said, "We live with the sad fact that there are hoards of thieving blacks just over that ridge. And they'd as soon assault a black as a white."

Later, George

Monday, February 16, 2009

Butha-Buthe, Lesotho

Friends: Water is the prime resource of the very poor country of Lesotho. With its high elevation, perched like a giant bubble the size of Belgium in the middle of South Africa, it grabs a considerable amount of moisture. The country is in the midst of a large scale development of dams. One project includes a tunnel to funnel water to Johannesburg, nearly 200 miles away.

The moment I reached the Ramatseliso border crossing at over 7,000 feet elevation, I was greeted by Lesotho's prime resource, as a hard cold rain began pelting down. When I walked into the South Africa border post in shorts and a short-sleeve shirt, over-heated from the hard, steep climb on an abominable rocky dirt road that forced me to push my bike through some of the more perilous and steeper sections, the pair of border officials practically ordered me to go back to my bike and put on my rain jacket before they'd stamp my passport and allow me out of the country. I was certainly a most unlikely site in such flimsy wear with the temperature not even 60 and they bundled in jackets barely keeping warm.

I was relieved that anyone was at the post, as only two vehicles, a pair of trucks in tandem coming from the opposite direction, passed me in the three hours after I turned on to the road to Lesotho after nearly 30 miles on back dirt roads from Mark and Nicky's ten acre rural homestead. Nicky topped off their incredible hospitality by riding the first twelve miles with me, leaving their home at 6:30, making sure I didn't go astray, as none of the roads were marked. Mark passed us in their SUV 45 minutes into our ride with their two sons to make sure all was okay. Nicky is a prolific reader as well as cyclist. She was the one who introduced Mark to the bike, who'd been more of a rock climber and kayaker until he met her in their Cape Town college days. Nicky mentioned a handful of books on South Africa I will be eager to dive into when I return or at libraries along the way if I exhaust my stock.

After we parted ways I had to rely on assorted landmarks that Mark had mentioned to keep me on route. There was virtually no traffic or people to confirm my way. I was on the alert for a kopje (a small flat-topped hill) with a lone tree atop it for my first turn. Then I had to turn again after a cattle guard. There were two t-intersections where I had to make sure I went the correct way. This gave me an early sample of the unpaved and virtually traffic-free roads of Lesotho, though this was mostly flat and smooth.

After entering Lesotho, I continued along a ridge that skirted the border. There were as many ups as downs and not gently graded. I had some more pushing to do, not only on the ups, but on the downs. I had never pushed my bike as much as I had done this day. The road was only slightly better than it had been climbing the pass. That was easily the worst road I had ever cycled, but it was only a small taste of what awaited me. I wondered if Mark had purposely sent me this way to take that distinction from a 300 mile unpaved stretch I had ridden in Bolivia that culminated with a climb up "The World's Most Dangerous Road." The hard, cold rain certainly contributed to the difficulty of this road, but at least it was still rideable, unlike a muddy stretch in Bolivia.

The rain was coming down so hard I was concerned about finding ground for my tent that wasn't saturated. I would have stopped riding long ago, perhaps as soon as crossing into Lesotho, if I didn't have such a deluxe Gore-Tex jacket that kept my torso perfectly dry. The exertion kept me toasty warm, even though my legs and shorts and shoes were drenched. It was 12 miles from the border to the small village of Sekokoaweng. I kept thinking of an experience Mark told me about from one of his annual Lesotho Thin Air Challenge Tours (lesothothinairchallenge.co.za) that he takes thirty mountain bikers on. A storm caught a dozen of his riders before they had reached their destination. They sought refuge in a village where they were put up for the night. The storm was so sudden and severe, with visibility reduced to less than 100 feet, Mark was unable to go back in search of them. He didn't have a great amount of sympathy for them anyway, as they were all dawdlers, late starters and hadn't adequately trained for the ride. Mark said there is an Afrikaner expression that applied to their predicament--"If you are stupid, you must bleed." I was hoping I wasn't stupid for attempting this ride on a road bike carrying 50 pounds of gear on roads meant for mountain bikes. My ride could be called the Lesotho Thin Tire Challenge.

I didn't think I had enough time to make it to Sekokoaweng before dark. I was barely managing four miles per hour. If I cycled non-stop I'd arrive there right at dark. But I was near exhaustion and needed to eat and rest. I contemplated stopping at a flat, solid-grounded clearing where a handful of sheep were clustered with their backsides into the wind, but I had only come five miles and I wanted to at least get halfway there. A mile later I checked out another meadow, but it was too soggy. Half a mile further I came upon a flat rise that had decent drainage and hadn't been turned into a bog.

After settling into my tent I immediately unbundled my sleeping bag to wrap around me for warmth. I was horrified to discover that it was soaked. I knew it was likely to be a bit damp, as the plastic bag I had wrapped around it wasn't perfectly waterproof, but I didn't expect that much rain to have penetrated. Even more disastrous was that water had infiltrated both my panniers. Not a great deal, but enough to dampen all their contents, meaning I had no spare dry clothes. I had inadvertently sealed my less than full panniers by folding their tops towards the bike, rather than away from it, allowing a slight depression atop each to form where a small pool of water had gathered that managed to seep in during the hour-and-a-half of our drenching. If I had folded the panniers in the opposite direction, the water would have rolled off rather than gathered. I had never ridden with my panniers not full in such conditions, and didn't realize that even though the tops had been folded over a couple of times, that water could find a way in if given such a chance. It was a brutal lesson to learn, and a possible life-threatening one. The temperature was 57. It would fall into the 40s. I had to take down my tent and continue on. But first I downed a can of spaghetti. The slight rest and nourishment revived me, but I had less than an hour of light to bike six miles to the small village in the continuing rain.

The moon was full, but it didn't penetrate the thick clouds. The pools of water on the road reflected the waning light and helped keep me on course. Not a single vehicle passed me after I resumed riding. After five miles it had finally gotten too dark to continue riding and I had to walk. I kept looking in the distance for the lights of the village. There was a lone light that seemed miles away, but it was at least a hopeful sign. After about 15 minutes of walking a pick-up truck passed me but didn't stop. A short way further it turned off the road and came to a stop. I assumed it had stopped to open a gate. I started frantically whistling as if my life depended on it, hoping it would wait for me. It did wait, but not because of me. It had actually stopped at a small general store at the village I was looking for. It was such a small village it had no electricity. I might have cycled right past if the truck hadn't pulled in.

At the small general store there were two candles on the counter and a small cluster of customers all wrapped in blankets. I asked if there might be a place where I could spend the night. No one responded as none of them spoke English. As I lingered, hoping someone would take sympathy on me, a woman school teacher appeared who spoke English. She told me there was a lodge at a national park about 20 kilometers away that the truck driver could take me to. I said that would be nice, but if possible I would prefer to sleep here. All I needed was a blanket and a dry corner to curl up in. She thought I didn't trust the driver. She pointed out the writing on the side of the truck's door, that it was part of the country's water conservation department and that he could be trusted. Another English speaker showed up, a man. After a little more discussion, he said it would be all right to stay at the village. He said that a man had offered me a bed. The woman was still concerned that it would be too rustic for me and that the lodge would be preferable. After debating for several minutes, with the conversation sometimes in the Lesothon language, I assured all that it would be an honor to stay in this small village, and that I didn't wish to inconvenience the driver. The school teacher finally gave her approval.

The bed was in the back corner of the local cantina. It was surrounded by milk crates full of alcohol. It too had no electricity, nor heat. When I entered there were four young men huddled in the middle of the concrete building sitting on plastic chairs. There was no table, just a counter off to one side. My bed was behind it and the lone wall in the building. Several minutes later the school teacher, Grace, returned with a clean sheet, two blankets and a pillow and made the bed for me. I was ready to collapse, but we three English speakers stood at the counter and chatted for half an hour. I showed them the map Mark had drawn for me of my route and confirmed with them the handful of local phrases--greetings and food. They also provided me with a primus stove for my alcove, which provided more fumes than heat.

The male English speaker, Maphasa, was a part-time school teacher. He turned into my guardian, sleeping on a plastic-coated mattress behind the counter. It was still raining in the morning and continued raining all day. The temperature remained below 60. There was no drying my gear. I couldn't risk continuing on until it had dried. I spent the day sitting in bed with two blankets wrapped around me and a wool cap on my head as I read. Maphasa remained with me all day, also wrapped in a blanket, as was everyone's garb in this community. There was no running water, other than a town pump. I bought a couple of cans of baked beans and a tin of spam at the local store at three times their cost in South Africa. Maphasa brought me a plate of the local cuisine for dinner, beef and a corn dish called pap that looked like mashed potatoes. He said the local women didn't think I would like their food, but it was delicious. Grace stopped by to check in on me. She assured me that they weren't criminals in this town. I was happy to have a couple of my Obama Inauguration newspapers left over to give both her and Maphasa.

The wind blew hard all night and the rain continued until about four in the morning, finally letting up 36 hours after it had started. But it was still heavily overcast in the morning with no sign of the sun. There was a significant enough breeze, though, that I could drape my sleeping bag on my bike on the porch and it dried. I also draped my clothes on chairs and they too dried quickly in this thin air. By ten a.m. I could be on my way. I was happy to have finished my book the previous day so I could give it to Maphasa. It was "Kaffir Boy," the autobiography of a black South African who grew up in the harsh poverty of Alexandra, the worst of the townships outside Johannesburg. He earned a tennis scholarship to an American University thanks to the American tennis pro Stan Smith. When I asked Maphasa what I owed him for my two nights of accommodation, he refused any compensation.

My next five days in Lesotho were a series of extreme challenges that I survived thanks to more of the generous kindness of the locals, along with my ever-present companion, a healthy dose of good fortune. Less than ten miles after resuming my ride the road was blocked by a swollen raging river. It might have been possible to ford it carrying first my bike and then gear, but it would have been quite perilous. Instead I parked myself beside the river hoping some four-wheel drive vehicle might come along that could manage it. A woman came to the river with a couple of buckets for water. She told me that it could be days before the river waned enough to cross. If that was the case, this would be quite a scenic place to spend a few days. At least there was a grocery store a couple miles back, and that lodge I declined a few miles beyond. It was a little after noon and I was in need of eating, so I plopped down and waited. Not a single vehicle had passed me all day, but 45 minutes later a pick-up truck came along. No need to wave him down, as he had to stop to survey this raging river. He was driving a small Toyota, but he had no doubt he could cross the river. He agreed to give me a lift, but told me there were many more rivers along the way that would be impossible for me to cross. He was willing to take me past them all, including over the 9,000 foot pass that Mark said would be more spectacular than the Sani Pass. It was a tragedy not to be able to bike it, but I didn't have much of a choice.

The man's truck was loaded with goods he had bought in South Africa for his small general store in his village all covered with a tarp. There was just enough room to squeeze my gear under and lash my bike on top. Then I joined him and his wife in the front seat of his Toyota. He made the trip twice a month, but it was rare for his wife to accompany him. He knew the road as well as anyone. The second river we came to his truck stalled in the middle of the swift current. I feared we were sunk. He nonchalantly took off his boots and rolled his pants up to his thighs and then went out and checked under the hood. The truck started up but stalled again. But the third time got us through. One of the rivers he had to stop and carefully plot a course. There was a ledge like a mini-waterfall. If the current took hold of us it was curtains. But he knew what he was doing. There were six such crossings on the climb up the mountain and three on the backside. It took us three-and-a-half hours to drive 25 miles over this 9,000 foot pass, and not another vehicle came along.

He dropped me off at 4:30 at a fork in the road where he turned to go one way and I the other. I was sorry I wasn't able to accompany him to his store and help him unload his cargo. I biked until dark at seven without encountering another vehicle. It was a horrible sign that the road ahead might be blocked by another swollen river. None of the locals I passed though said anything. Kids from all the small villages descended upon me as I passed screaming "Give me some sweets," or just "Some sweets," and sometimes "Give me some money" with an insistence that was most unnerving. At my slow pace they could easily run along beside me and some did for as long as 15 or 20 minutes. Some pointed at the three water bottles I had on my bike, and demanded, "Give me a water bottle," as the woman did at the river where I was first marooned. One of the boys tried to snatch a sock I had on the back of my gear drying out. It happened at a spot where the road had turned bad and I had just dismounted to push my bike, so I luckily caught him in the act. But I feared these kids were just looking for the opportunity to reach and grab a water bottle. After this stretch I kept only one bottle on my bike for the remainder of my time in Lesotho. The sock-snatcher stuck with me longer than any of the other kids. When he finally gave up, his final act was to throw a rock at me, just missing.

While I camped that night I kept straining my ears hoping to be awoken by the sound of a vehicle chugging along the road, but all I heard was the clomp of a horse in the early morning light. It was four miles to the town of Sehonghong, the only significant town labeled on my map for nearly 100 miles. There was a final 20 percent grade into the town that I doubt I could have ridden even on an unloaded bike or if it had been paved. At this town the road finally turned smooth and somewhat flat. I felt like I had been saved. A few miles beyond the town a mini-convoy of jeeps with rafts on top passed me coming from the opposite direction, brightening my spirits even further. Little did I know that they had set out from a nearby lodge and were not proof that the road was open.

Fifteen miles further I came to an intersection with a couple of small stores that didn't sell much. From one I bought a bag of nuts and from the other some freshly baked bread. It was there that I learned that the road in both directions was blocked by raging rivers. One person said, "The river is full. You can not cross." I had to see for myself. It was three miles to the river. There were a couple of vehicles on the opposite side waiting for the water to come down, but none on my side. There was a bridge over this river, unlike any of the river crossings from the day before, but it had no railings. It was a basic concrete slab with three markers on each side indicating the depth of the water. It was about three feet above the bridge. It was two in the afternoon. I set up some rocks at the water's edge to monitor the height of the water. It did go down a few inches in the several hours I sat there reading, but not enough for anyone to attempt to cross. I waited until nearly dark before setting up my tent a quarter mile back up the road safely above the river. At six the next morning I was awoken by several cars passing by. I quickly broke camp. When I reached the bridge, a guy was warily leading his horse through the still knee high rushing water. I tested it without my bike confirming I could maintain my balance in the current and then took my bike through. The water pushed strongly against my panniers, but I was able to hold it firm. If nothing else, all these delays of the past several days were giving my legs some much needed rest.

That was the last of the over-flowing rivers, but then I had two days of high passes over 9,000 feet to negotiate on rough unpaved and inhumanely graded roads. I wasn't sure if my legs had it in them, but the enforced rest did them considerable good. I finally came to pavement at Mokhoklong at 3:30 Saturday afternoon. I had 110 miles of sweet pavement to South Africa, but with some more demanding passes, including one of over 10,000 feet. It was a prolonged torturous climb to that final summit. Several times I thought I had reached it, but each was a false summit. It was ten miles further from that first false summit, on an Altiplano of a sort. It was almost a relief to have a somewhat flat stretch, but the strong headwind up there, made it still feel like I was climbing. For the first time I had to pull out my water purifier, as there hadn't been a village for over 50 miles in this inhospitable terrain, and pump some water out of a stream that was most likely pure, but with life stock grazing in the vicinity I didn't care to take any chances. The only settlement was a squatter's camp outside the world's highest diamond mind. The next day one of the South African managers of the mine stopped his car along the road to offer me a cold drink and have a chat. He told me the mine employed 800 men. They were provided with accommodations at the mine. Those in the squatter's camp were hoping for a job opening. He said he would have gladly given me a tour of the operation if we had encountered each other nearer the mine.

I began my great descent less than an hour before dark as ominous clouds were moving in. I knew of a lodge down the road that served as a ski resort. I was less than a mile away when the heavens unleashed. It was coming down so hard and blowing in my face I took refuge behind the lone out-house sized building that remained in the ghost town of Oxbow. I set up my tent behind it protected from the gale force winds and driving rain. But an hour after I had set up my tent, I was flooded out. Once again I had to take down my tent and push on, hoping that there was indeed a lodge down the road. It was nearly dark. This lodge was well-illuminated. The cheapest room went for $35. I asked if I could set up my tent somewhere. She said she would give me a discount and let me have a room for $20. I told her I was on a $10 a day budget and that I had been camping. "Aren't you afraid?" she asked. At last she sent me off with her assistant to look for a place to set up my tent. There were a couple of dozen bungalows with nice grass all around that were ideal. There were only two parked vehicles there. She let me camp for $5 and also gave me access to a hot shower, something that was utterly unthinkable half an hour earlier.

Two South Africans staying at the lodge told me I had just a three kilometer climb ahead of me and then it would be all down hill the next 60 kilometers to South Africa. I was cursing them unmercifully when another long strenuous climb turned up after the first one, with a warning sign of 14% grade. My legs had been pummeled by the strain of the previous days. I was able to tack back and forth across the road lessening the grade, but when I came to an 8% grade into a fierce wind after that, I couldn't manage it and had to push my bike for a kilometer until I came to a switchback and had the wind at my back. That was the final switchback to the final descent.

Lesotho has been an incredible adventure. Much of the country's two-and-a-half million people still live traditional subsistence lives in small villages. I will have some sensational photos. It was after my descent that the mine manager and his wife stopped me along the road holding up a bottle of a cold drink. They altered my route to Swaziland telling me about a national park and a town with lots of retired English women that might try to nab me. They said that would be the first place where I could find Internet, not knowing about this place in Butha-Buthe that just opened in December. The husband had biked Morocco and ridden a big Cape Town ride many times. Their great friendliness, as I have frequently encountered, had me excited to be returning to South Africa. But I also return with great wariness. It is 300 miles to Swaziland, another safe haven.


Later, George

Monday, February 9, 2009

Matatiele, South Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later, George

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Queenstown, South Africa

Friends: This April will mark the fifteenth anniversary of Nelson Mandela assuming the presidency of South Africa, a little more than four years after he was released from prison after 27 years of being incarcerated. His release marked the beginning of the dismantling of apartheid. It did not happen easily. There was extreme and widespread violence preceding and during this time.

Racial prejudice and institutionalized racism do not instantly dissolve. For decades whites treated the blacks of South Africa as virtual slaves and the blacks regarded the whites with fear and hatred. It was so deeply rooted, the aftereffects still linger. I can see it in the demeanor of the blacks I pass along the road who do not deign to recognize me, looking right through me. When I'm plopped down on a step or against a building taking a break in a town, about the only blacks who approach me come asking for money. The occasional black who engages me in conversation is generally mystified by what I'm doing, as it is beyond their cultural understanding. One asked if I was part of a competition. Another told me, "I wouldn't want to be you."

The whites on the other hand can relate. I've had countless whites approach or stop me, intensely interested in what I'm doing, having done something similar or wishing to do such a thing. A Belgian immigrant about my age joined me at a picnic table at a rest area. He was an ardent cyclist, but had never toured and wouldn't dare to wild camp here as I've been doing. Some have fears that are hard to give up. A young man saw me stopped at a rest area and pulled in for a chat. He'd ridden 7,500 miles a year ago from Cape Town to Ghana up the west coast of Africa. He didn't encounter another touring cyclist the entire way. This afternoon a couple in their 40s pulled over on the road and flagged me down. They were cyclists enough to know to stop half way up a steep hill, rather than on the descent, knowing I wouldn't want to give up my momentum. It was just after noon. If it had been in the Karoo, we would have been wilting in the heat, but we had a pleasant 15 minute chat.

This past fall when Waydell and I biked through Alabama and Mississippi there was still a strong residue of white paternalism towards blacks nearly 150 years after the end of slavery. It is foolhardy to think the strong prejudices in South Africa on both sides could dissipate in less than a generation. Less than 20 years ago cops walked around with whips along with guns to keep the blacks in line here. The stark contrast in living conditions has to cause resentment, the vast majority of blacks pretty much confined to shantytowns of single room huts while the whites live in neighborhoods with yards and trees and swimming pools.

I may be instantly regarded as a white oppressor when I pass a black on the road, so when I stop to ask them directions many react with wariness, but they generally soften up and treat me cordially. Still, many I've had conversations with remain glum and restrained and not particularly cordial. In towns where they predominate, I can see them naturally and casually going about their business and not on guard and harboring not necessarily unwarranted resentments. The country has come a long way in the past 15 years, but the healing process from the nightmare of apartheid still continues.

My Lonely Planet guidebook includes chapters on Lesotho and Swaziland, two all black countries pretty much contained within South Africa. Both are said to provide a stark contrast to South Africa. Of Lesotho Lonely Planet says, "After spending time in South Africa, it's a real relief to visit a country that isn't suffering the after-effects of apartheid. You'll meet a lot of friendly, self-assured people who judge you not by the color of your skin." Of Swaziland it says, "Swaziland comes as a breath of fresh air after traveling through South Africa. Few of the animosities between the races so evident in post-apartheid South Africa are encountered in Swaziland."

I'm 300 miles from the legendary Sani Pass into Lesotho. I'll spend several days riding through Lesotho. Then it will be five days to Swaziland. I know there will be aspects of South Africa I will miss. I look forward to experiencing the contrast and putting this unique country in full perspective.

Later, George

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Stutterheim, South Africa

Friends: South Africa has turned pastoral, as I've fully left the semi-desert of the Karo. The countryside is green and there are genuine trees, even forests of pines in enough abundance for logging and a sawmill in this town. And the temperatures have moderated considerably. I don't know how long that will last as I head north towards the tropics, but I'm enjoying it while it lasts.
The winds were so ferocious in East London, the beaches were all vacant. There was no campground in town, though I could have pitched my tent at a surfer's hostel just across from the beach for 50 rand. I was fully prepared to do so if I had to stay overnight to have my camera repaired. Unfortunately, neither of the significant camera shops in town could fix the broken plastic rewind spool. Instead I spent 129 rand, about twelve bucks, on a new basic 35 millimeter camera that has just one setting. The quality of my photos won't be the best, but at least it is something. That is by far my biggest expense so far. The closest was my 100-page atlas of the country for 65 rand. Even with those expenses, I'm well below my budget of $10 a day.

I met an ardent cyclist at each of the camera shops, one who had actually passed me as I was heading into town. I spent a good half an hour at each shop chatting with the cyclists and various customers. One woman commented, "I hope you're keeping an eye on your bike. They're quick around here." Whenever someone came into the shop, whoever I was talking with would blurt, "This guy has biked all the way from Cape Town," as it is a big deal for any of them to even drive to Cape Town.

One of the cyclists had done a 1,200 mile tour about South Africa 15 years ago, but hasn't had another since after falling into the clutches of matrimony. He suggested I take a different route than I had intended to Lesotho, heading north out of East London rather than east. The route east had a lot more traffic and trucks as it connected with Durban, South Africa's second largest city after Johannesburg. "I'm not a racist," he said, " but that route takes you through some mostly black towns that aren't the safest. And there are known to be truck hi-jackings along that road." The alternate route he suggested is about 100 miles longer, but he said it wouldn't be as hilly and that it would take me through some very picturesque farming towns.

I was hoping East London would be appealing enough to entice me to stay over. I have yet to take a rest day and my body could use it. But it wasn't a very attractive city and the hellacious winds would have forced me to lay low. It was a most perilous final 15 miles descending into East London on a four-lane highway as gusting side winds made it hard to hold a straight line and threatened to blow me off the road. The final five miles through East London's urban sprawl were not much easier, as I battled the wind gusts trying not to be thrown into the curb or out into traffic. I had pushed it hard to reach East London by mid-afternoon before the camera shops had closed. I arrived at three after 81 miles. When I left at 5:30, I thought I had a chance for my first century of this trip, but it was a steady climb back up to the interior, and though the winds weren't in my face, they weren't helping much either. If I were truly obsessed by a 100 mile day I could have pushed on, but I quit after 96 miles with 45 minutes of light remaining when I came upon a rare place too good for camping to pass up--through a glade of trees on the fringe of an overgrown field. I had to climb over a barbed wire fence, but I felt fully isolated. The camping has finally improved enough, that I would be thrilled to have a friend along to share it with.

My diet has consisted mostly of meat pies for a little less than a dollar and baked beans for less than 50 cents a can and yogurt and canned spaghetti. I've only committed two food faux pas so far, buying something that wasn't what I imagined it to be. Both were drinks and neither was a disaster. The first was a liter of what I thought was strawberry milk. It came in a tall cardboard container just as milk is packaged in back home. I had a choice or strawberry or banana, but surprisingly not chocolate. Strawberry and banana milk were two of my favorite foods in New Zealand and with the prominence of sausage rolls and meat pies there as here, it was a natural to assume there would be flavored milk here too. I didn't bother to look closely at the container other than to confirm there was a hefty amount of calories. I was so eager to start guzzling the milk, I opened the container and took a gulp there it the aisle. I was startled by a granulated texture to the drink, as if it had gone bad and was beginning to coagulate into cottage cheese. Before I could gag, I realized it didn't taste sour or unpalatable, just a little different. Examining the container I discovered it was a corn-based beverage called mageu. It wasn't exactly delicious nor was the strawberry flavor strong enough to dominate the corn flavor, but I was able to down the whole liter, though I haven't had the desire to have another since.

Not so with my other faux pas. It turned out to be a great discovery that I've been enjoying immensely ever since I stumbled upon it. It was a three-quarters liter bottle of passion fruit. For 50 cents it was a bargain, and even more so than I realized. My first gulp was almost as disappointing as my first gulp of the mageu, as it was very strong and thick, almost syrupy. I sipped some more and then added some water, thinking it needed diluting. I noticed the bottle had a one in ten indication on it. I assumed that meant it was 10% fruit juice, but on closer examination I discovered it was a syrup that was meant to be mixed with water at a ten to one ratio. This was like a gold mine, as in the hot temperatures I desperately need to flavor my warm water to make me want to drink it. I have tablets for that purpose, but since I only brought fifty I've been trying to ration them to one a day, though I'd been trying to resist using them at all, as I know I will most need them for the Kalahari when the temperatures could be over one hundred. I can buy packets of Tang if I'm desperate, but they are a bit too sugary for my tastes.

Later, George

Monday, February 2, 2009

Fort Beaufort, South Africa

Friends: Now that I'm well into the second week of my two-month circuit of South Africa and am over 700 miles beyond Cape Town, the locals are not as emphatic in telling me to "watch yourself", as they assume that by now I should know well enough. But it is still an issue, almost the theme of these travels, something that distinguishes South Africa from every where else I have traveled.

The owner of a small grocery store, one of those with all the items behind the counter, in the small town of Pearston, told me, "The fellas around here will leave you alone. They're okay. But I can't say the same for the Natal where you're headed. And I know, because that's where I'm from."

The Natal is one of the smaller of South Africa's nine provinces and is my next destination several days away, though I'll only bike through a couple hundred miles of its southwest corner on my way to Lesotho, a small country on a high plateau known as "the roof of Africa." Lesotho is entirely surrounded by South Africa. The lowest point in Lesotho is over 4,200 feet high, the highest low point of any country in the world. When I enter Lesotho I'll truly know I'm in Africa. Since the white culture dominates South Africa, I often feel I'm in Australia or the American West, except when I see handfuls of disheveled blacks loitering about who are prone to ask me for money. I doubt the blacks of Lesotho have been programmed to address whites as "sir." That is the case with only a small percentage of the blacks in South Africa, dating back to the apartheid era. It may be 15 years since the end of apartheid, but its effects are still felt. The blacks are slowly recovering their dignity and self-respect, but all too many still seem broken and miserable, down-trodden fourth class citizens that one must be wary of. I am told that in Lesotho I can relax and won't have to be so on guard and concerned about leaving my bike unattended when I go into a store. I've never had to be so theft-conscious other than when I was in Peru in 1989.

People go out of their way to invite me to bring my bike inside their store, even at the large supermarkets. Many shops and museums and even tourist offices have fully barred front doors that won't open unless buzzed. When I brought my bike through such a barrier to enter a book store, the owner didn't think it safe for me to leave my bike near the door, fearing someone might reach through the bars and grab something off my bike. I passed up one grocery store because all those lingering outside who offered, "Watch your bike sir," all looked like someone they ought to be on guard against. Maybe I'd be a tad less wary if I hadn't already suffered a near robbery. But it could have been the best thing to happen to me.

Nearly all the shops I enter have very hands-on owners. They warmly welcome me and ask what I'm looking for. Even in the large supermarkets there are very conscientious and alert managers in the aisles keeping an eye out. If I'm the only customer, they are eager to have a conversation. One owner of a small grocery store took a look at my bike and thought I needed a large reflective triangle on the back to make me more visible. Nor did he think my light tan shirt was bright enough to attract attention. I told him I ordinarily wear a much brighter orange shirt, but I was presently wearing this one because it had long sleeves and I was protecting my arms from the sun until later in the day. Then I pulled out my orange shirt. It met his approval. I told him it was my good luck shirt, as it had been given to me by a friend who had worn it while serving in the Peace Corps in Africa over 30 years ago. He was shocked that the shirt was that old, as it is an ordinary cotton/polyester button down shirt.

I told him I was a little surprised myself that my friend still had the shirt, but this friend was known for keeping stray items, knowing that eventually they could have some use. I told him my friend is famous in the Chicago cycling community for his bicycle shop, Quick Release, for having the widest assortment of old, odd parts in the entire city, as he throws nothing away. When other bike shops don't have some long out of fashion part or can't figure out how to repair some not so new bike, they all send them to Joe. It is no wonder that "Chicago" magazine named him the best bike mechanic in the city in their "best of" issue. Though, of course, Joe does not have the article posted anywhere in his shop.

I told this shop owner that Joe was very similar to many of the shop owners I've met in South Africa, who take such a strong, personal interest in their shop. Like many of them, his is a one person operation. Customer relations really matter to him. I told him how lucky I was that Joe's shop is just down the street from where I live, and that he likes to make certain my bike is in tip top shape before I take off for a trip. When he asked me when I was going to bring my bike in before this trip I told him I didn't think he needed to look at my bike as it hadn't had any problems on my most recent trip, a mere 850-mile ride to the Deep South of the U.S. But I thought better of it, and knew that I would be a fool not to let Joe give it a quick glance. He noticed that my derailleur hanger was slightly bent, explaining why I'd needed to do some double-handed shifting for certain gears for at least my last two trips. I just assumed that with 40,000 miles on it, it was simply showing its age. Now it shifts once again as if it were new. I'm constantly thanking Joe. Not only for that, but also discovering a few other minor defects that needed adjustment, including twisting together a frayed brake cable. He warned me to avoid scratches in Africa, as they can easily become infected and attract flies and other insects.

I've nearly put the Karoo semi-desert behind me. For the last 75 miles, since Somerset East, I have been amongst trees and cattle and some agriculture. Last night I came upon an unlocked gate leading to a field of head-high shrubbery-type trees that made for a fine secluded campsite. I was able to stop over an hour before sunset. I would have liked to have continued on, but I was being blasted by a ferocious headwind blowing in off the Indian Ocean. It was a sister to the notorious winds of Cape Town, known as the "Cape Doctor," for flushing all the particulates out of the region, and stirred up by the clash of cold air currents from the not so distant Antarctic and hotter temperatures of the Karoo. The wind had me in my small chain ring even on the flat. It took all my effort to even go nine miles per hour. It was the third straight late afternoon that the "Cape Doctor" type wind had suddenly materialized, putting an end to my designs on a big mileage day and leaving me utterly exhausted. I will continue heading due east for another 80 miles to East London, a large port and also prime surfing area. Then I will turn north and might have an assist from the winds.

One nice thing about these head winds is that they carry with it a hint of cool. Now that I'm leaving the Karoo, the sun is less intense and the temperature has moderated, though I could be in store for humidity. One of the delights of the Karoo was the occasional service station that stood alone in the middle of nowhere might have a free shower in its washroom. It brought Waydell to mind and her request on our last trip together that she get a shower at least every other day. I wondered if such a shower would have qualified. I almost hoped not, as it would have meant that we might have been able to stay at one of the enticing bed-and-breakfasts or small classic motels. I did pay ten rand (a buck) for a shower at a camp ground in mid-afternoon, but pushed on and wild-camped 25 miles down the road.

Later, George