South Africa : Yes, the Country

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30 July 2016 by Justine

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Cycling in Mpumalanga, Kwazulu-Natal and Free State provinces, South Africa – February and March 2015

Setting foot (and wheels) in South Africa means a lot for us. We finally get to discover this country that we have been hearing from since day 1. South Africa… Let’s try a brainstorm coming from a North American like us : Apartheid years, Nelson Mandela, Oscar Pistorius’ trial, Mike Horn, Cape Town’s wealth, Jo’burg’s violence, townships, Kruger National Park, good and cheap wine and Rodriguez’s Sugar Man. Here we are, entering our 10th African country with “Armed Response” signs at the entrance of country houses and fences e-ve-ry-where (with signs to announce a non-fenced area too!).

After all the warning about South Africa’s high crime rate, we’re not too sure what to expect of Piet Retief. It feels like a huge city but only holds 57 000 souls.  The city welcomes us with a huge (actually normal size) supermarket with all sorts of products. And then, a cyclist’s irony : we still buy the same shit as we would in little tok shops (oatmeal, instant noodles, pasta, peanut butter, curry powder, sugar, tomato paste, tea and milk powder) for our day-to-day meals even with a thousand times more selection. Truth is : it’s still that shit that is 1. cheap 2. light 3. fulfilling. JP then leaves in search of particular items. I stay where we are, between a KFC (yes, I had at least two ice cream cones), the supermarket and a payable WiFi hot spot (!?!). While I reconnect with family and friends, the night is coming. Three different persons come to check on me… “What are you doing here alone?” “Do you have a place to go?” “You shouldn’t stay here!” While I’m a bit annoyed to see that these people are relieved to know that I have a boyfriend somewhere , I start to wonder where JP really is… Night’s here, the supermarket’s closed, I go through a whole box of double chocolate cookie with the lady night guard. Little panic – and here he comes. “I ended in the township by accident. Some guys were kind enough to tell me to leave if I wanted to keep my stuff, and to never come around after sunset… Wow! We really are in South Africa!” What can I say. We have been in criminality free rural areas for too long. We couldn’t feel more like total tourists. We are 100m away from a four-star caravan park. Equipped with WiFi, an espresso machine and real decent clean modern hot showers, I forget about waiting two hours in my first South African parking lot. This is pure luxury, even if we sleep in our dirty stuff – on a beautifully maintained square of comfy grass, and our normal tomato pasta dinner is upgraded to a tuna-parmesan-cheese-cream-penne meal, plus beer. Life is good.

We are on our way to Wakkerstroom when a truck slows down in front of us. The driver gets out, and walks towards us. We are just finishing climbing an endless hill under a big 30 Celsius sun. I’m soaked with sweat, my face is boiling, the guy’s intentions are unknown… I really don’t feel like socializing. There’s nothing around – just fields. He asks us the typical questions while his partner is still in the truck. That trucker is the first of a succession of very generous and fascinated South Africans. He shakes our little burned hands whit his gigantic mitt as he opens his wallet and hands a 100 Rand bill (10$CAN at that time). In Wakkestroom – a real South African Knowlton (a small charming rustic quebecer village where JP’s parents have a house), we meet with Hadrian, a passionate man who spends hundreds of dollars in cellphone credit a month for the village’s kids. He sends us to that burger place in town where we will happily use our sponsorship.

At that burger place, we both get a full local beef, fried egg, fried bacon, double cheese, fried onion burger that strangely gives us stomach burns as soon as we get back on the saddle (…). We have not eaten any meat for a long time and somehow my tummy is stronger than JP’s… He screams while we cycle the 24km and the long gentle hills to get to Volksrust in an hour and few minutes. “I think that I’m gonna throw up!!! AAAIiiiiiieeeee!!!” “HEY! You ate that 1kg burger in TWO minutes! SUFFER, you pig!” This is one the of few circumstances I’m allowed to cycle in front. Thank god, because JP is freeing toxic vapors from both ends. As soon as we set wheel in Volksrust, a man literally jumps on us. His name is Francois, he’s a cyclist himself (he points his cycling cap) and he wants to know everything about our trip – but mostly, he wants to share all his knowledge to prove his passion for cycling.  He follows us to the supermarket, shows us his road bike in his trunk (as he points again his cycling cap), sends us to the caravan park (his enthusiasm scares us off his offered courtyard), gives us the spare speed cable we need and wishes to join us for a beer.

. . .

We are now cycling in direction of New Castle, unfortunately on the highway, but only for fifty kilometers. We take a break along the highway on our beloved chairs. A car suddenly pulls over in a cloud of dust as we calmly drink a cup of tea. His name is Stefen and he wants to know everything about our trip, but most importantly, he wants to help us in all possible ways. He recommends us a bike shop in New Castle when we tell him we might have a problem with the bikes, and writes us a note in Afrikaan we suspect says to send him the bill of our repairs. He gives us his Garmin GPS ship with South Africa’s maps when he learns we have no data in our GPS (indeed, since Uganda, we only use paper maps and use our GPS for calculating kilometres). He gives us his contact, apologizes for not being able to welcome us in New Castle, and jumps back in his car as fast as he got out of it 8 minutes and a half ago. We get back on the saddle and few minutes later, another car pulls over ! What’s with South Africans and cyclists ?!? A couple introduces itself as Stefen’s friends. The guy had already called those guys to ask them if they could host us. “We are in the cycling club of New Castle just like Stefen. You are more than welcome to stay with us. Now that you have a working GPS, here’s our address… ” !!! Far from saying that other countries weren’t hospitable, we weren’t expecting that much from South Africans !

We stop in a small liquor store in New Castle before getting to our host’s house. The owner hears our story and hands us a case of Stout beers… Is it that easy?! We then cruise through neighbourhoods, guided with our GPS… What a great invention. As we enter Pieter and Marty’s house, Marty asks us exactly what my mom would : “where is your dirty clothes and what would you like to eat tonight?” … Yeah. I think I can take a bit of that. We take their long-gone-daughter’s bedroom and a shower while our clothes are being washed in a machine for the first time since we left home four months ago. Marty screams : “Justine! Come seeeee!!!!” I think for a moment that we left something compromising in our pockets, or that she can’t handle JP’s deadly socks, but no. She points the dirty water coming out of the machine. It’s black. She’s amazed by the efficiency of her machine, probably disgusted by the state of our hygiene, and will most likely tell all her fiends about the two dirty French Canadians that stayed at their place… Our luck keeps shining : someone in the cycling club repairs bikes! We drop two sad and bruised Surly, and pick up, two days later, shining like new, ready to go Long Haul Truckers. The mechanic can’t believe we were still able to cycle… “How many kilometres you said you cycled since your last check-ups?” There was mud e-ve-ry-where, thanks to some nasty muddy tracks in Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi… In the reparations, three hubs were good for garbage.We are now good to go ! In 48 hours, we get our first very South African Braii (BBQ), our stuff get cleaned, our panniers get filled with home-made biscuits, Powerade drink concentrate, and left-over chocolates from Christmas, our bikes are back on tracks and 5kg of unused gear is sent to Cape Town. Our batteries are 100% charged and the morning we leave, three cyclists from the club join us. Pieter rides my fully loaded bike, Romain, JP’s. I cycle a light mountain bike for the very first time and I feel I could cycle for four hours straight without a sweat. I’m in that great shape at this point, and that much well-rested. Amazing. But Pieter and Romain are the most amazed… “How many kilometres you said you were cycling every day with this?!? Since when?” They now get what’s touring about (or could be), only after those 15km of gravel road on our 55kg-bikes. We get to a junction, it’s time to go each our way. We have many possibilities to get to Harrismith. We choose Mullerspass.

(Suggestion for tourers : take the dirt roads in direction of Ultrecht from Wakkestroom and then the difficult but beautiful Normandien Pass before heading for Harrismith)

Steep gravel hills, farmland, little traffic, farmhouses every 15km. The type of landscape is unexpected and gorgeous. We have a blast for a couple of days on those roads, and make finally use of our GPS. We camp on farm lands, we bother no one, and no one bothers us. We witness crazy dark clouds in the sky, announcing storms that will never come.

On the second day, I get one of those stupid series of punctures. No less than four in 4km !!! It drives me C-R-A-Z-Y and JP can’t stop laughing. You son of a… He lays there, in the comfy high grass on the side of the road, eating Marty’s biscuits, watching me watching him while changing my stupid tire for the second, third and fourth time. Stupid tires with stupid pointy shit that pokes my stupid tubes. Arggg! A forty sheep herd isn’t impressed with my fury and keeps chewing and pooping as I throw my pierced tube as far as I can – not far at all. It’s just one of those days… And I secretly hope JP’s going to get a series of flat tire himself – which he won’t, of course.

In Harrismith, we try the “we are very nice cyclists who need a very nice host for the night” card to a couple of people outside the touristic information but it doesn’t work, so we keep on going – because it never does work when you try too hard. Outside the city, there is one of those little agglomeration with a dozen of  shacks, probably workers of a close-by farm. We ask them to pitch the tent but a big lady screams that if we stay, the police (who, according to her, comes by every day at 8PM) will give us and them problems – in short, we can’t stay here. It’s the first time we are literally refused for the night, but it’s probably best this way. We continue for few kilometres and pitch the tent along the road. Looking for safe camping spots close to people, or far from people… Always the same dilemma.

. . .

Golden Gate National Park. Beautiful rocks, impressive pass, all sort of animals, big sun, no shade what so ever, no traffic – it’s gorgeous. We would show pictures of the park and say it’s in the States, and it would be very probable – except for the antelopes in the background (Golden Gate shelters wildebeest, blesbok, common duiker, eland, grey rhebok, mountain reedbuck, oribi, red haartebeest, springbok and steenbok)*. We could reach Clarens today, 25km away, but we’re pretty tired… And what about those blue and pink energy pills Pieter gave us in New Castle? As complete virgin drug consumers, we are quite intrigued with those colorful pills. What could it be? Taurine? Caffeine? How strong could completely legal energy pills be… We give it a try – and cycle effortlessly to Clarens in one stretch. Colors are bright, muscles are energized, the bikes feels unloaded. Wow.

Our GPS sends us to the Clarens Lake Guesthouse where Big Bruce welcomes us. We play the broke cyclist card and it works: he offers us a gorgeous room for 10$CAN each. We accept for three reasons : 1. He has a picture of himself with Brad Pitt on the wall (!!!) 2. He has microbrewery beer on draft for 3$CAN the pint and 3. He has a breakfast buffet in the morning with home made bread, muffins and yogurt. Oh, and the bed looks soooo comfy… We log on the Internet, talk to the parents, and my dad asks me if I would like an appointment with his hairdresser the same day as him, after I’m back and before heading to our work contract in Saskatchewan… Quick thinking : yes, that would be a good idea. I take a hair brush for the first time in four months, and I cut few dreadlocks. We have exactly two months left, but the “worst” seems behind us – at least, that’s what we think… The next day is the beginning of a new chapter.

Next Stop : The Kingdom of Lesotho !

* For more info about the Golden Gate National Park, South Africa : https://www.sanparks.org/parks/golden_gate/conservation/ff/mammals.php

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