Little did we know it at the time, but we were kestreling (looking for and watching kestrels). We had planned a few days’ cycling in the Berg, from Swinburne (also known as Montrose) to Underberg. Conveniently we could be dropped off from the N3 and then pick up our car at Underberg a few days later.
Most people know Montrose as the last place on the N3 to buy petrol at KwaZulu-Natal prices (it’s more expensive in the Free State). It also has a pub that serves meals of the non-Wimpy variety and a dirt road that seemingly leads nowhere.
We booked to stay at a few places overnight. Our supplies consisted of bike spares, a medical kit, a change of cycling clothes, food, drink and rain jackets.
We looked for a pass between Van Reenen and Oliviershoek; it is not named on most maps, but is called the Middeldal or Middledale Pass on others. The pass was a collection of large potholes joined by bits of tar.
There were great views of impressive peaks and the valley below as we careered down the Drakensberg into KwaZulu-Natal. The farms were lush. The cattle were particularly impressive, with the bulls sporting huge balls that hung loosely at their knees.
The bird life was abundant and we soon spotted the famed white stork (Ciconia ciconia) — the one that brings the babies.
There was also this sparrow-like bird, at least to my untrained eye, which sat by itself on the telephone lines. When you approached, it soared away and settled further down the road. There were hundreds of these creatures, but more on them later.
Our first stop was Geluksburg, which some see as becoming the next Dullstroom, or worse, Clarens.
Geluksburg can be described as off the beaten track. It has magnificent views of the mountains, but no town council, no bylaws and no services such as water, sewerage or refuse collection.
The town consists of a petrol pump — which didn’t seem to be working — no shop, only two accommodation options, no pub or restaurant and no school or police station.
It appears to have far more empty plots than ones with houses. A while ago you could get a house here for R35 000, but Pam Golding has been there (or at least her agents) and large plots now start at about R100 000 and homes at a bit more than R1-million.
“The great thing about Geluksburg,” one resident told us, “is that there are no rules.” She added quickly that this was also the most challenging thing about the place.
We cycled on to Bergville. Our plan was to stay off tar roads as far as possible, but ended up cycling about one-third of the 300km on tar. For most of the trip traffic was few and far between. But by day two, cycling through the rural townships at Loskop and Draycott, busy taxi traffic ferried people home for the New Year’s weekend.
The overall impression of these areas was one of relative prosperity. In places where we stopped at bars or spaza shops to buy coke to refill our bottles, there was no indication of the young unemployed hanging around as you might see in urban townships.
But many of these areas are badly degraded from a soil conservation point of view. Trevor Manuel could well be advised to sell up the billions the government holds in the now-listed Vodacom and spend the money rehabilitating these areas.
We pushed up a steep hill out of Draycott on a forest road that some of the maps advise you stay away from because it is so rough. There was a large overhang with a great view of the surrounding area. Most of the surface area of the overhang has cracked and fallen, but a small panel contains the work of Bushman artists. A human figure and that of an eland were discernible. The eland looked at me from the rock wall, a reminder of a time before the pastoralists and colonists arrived.
If residents are investing in their properties, so too is the hospitality industry. I asked the proprietor at one establishment how business was. She said it had picked up because of the lower petrol price. Then added: “Not that this applies to you.”
Our second night was spent at White Mountain. The B&B rate varies between R280 and R390 a night per person, but the way we were travelling meant we had to book supper as well and arrange lunch stops or have our hosts provide us with sandwiches.
The next morning we cycled past the turn-off to Giant’s Castle. A dozen maidens plastered in white and wearing only their panties hung about at the intersection. One was wearing a pair of lurid pink panties and hair extensions right down her back.
This ritual dress for initiates has age-old origins, according to some observers, who believe that the white figures shown in the Bushman art in the area are those of initiates.
That afternoon we moved through the Kamberg, along the way settling down to watch a breeding pair of wattled crane. The mountains were our constant companions for days. Passing through the Kamberg Reserve, we spotted some black animals feeding in the distance but could not make out what they were. We left our route near the end of the day because there were few accommodation options available.
Our hosts at the four-star Bramleigh Manor, in the mist of the midlands, kindly agreed to give us a lift the next morning 18km back to where we had left the route.
About 15km along the road we ran into Russell Hobday, an enthusiastic environmentalist, who offer accommodation at The Spinney. He told us that eland, the creature that had looked at me forlornly from the rock a few days back, are so abundant now that they can be a menace to local farmers, who have their fences pushed over by herds up to 200 strong. A herd of this size can decimate a mealie field, Hobday said.
We were assured that the area teemed with these 1 000kg beasts, but sadly we didn’t see any.
We filled up our water bottles religiously when we could, but on the last day we ran out of water and started dehydrating in the hot conditions. Fortunately a passing motorist stopped and gave us a bottle of water each.
Cycling into Himeville, 5km from our destination at Underberg, we saw cars near the Himeville Arms, which were there for the birds. The next night we went back for a better look.
At dusk 3 500 Amur falcons arrived to roost in two large eucalyptus trees. These were the same birds that were checking us out as we slowly made our way through the Berg.
These birds were known locally as the eastern red-footed kestrel, but recently they have given their native Siberian name, the Amur falcon. They spend the summer in South Africa after an improbable journey over the Indian ocean.
Their days are solitary. Just before nightfall they rejoin the flock. They put on a fantastic show, swirling, swerving and swarming above their roost in their thousands before settling down for the night.