The Iron Crown in Haenertsburg seems a good place to begin a perambulation by bike from one end of the Drakensberg to the other. If I get to the other, the end for me will be the Dorper, which holds sway in the main street of Dordrecht.
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This is a concrete version of the sheep with black head and white body which gives in some sense the reason for the area’s being. But that Dorper is a long way away now.
The Iron Crown pub is at the centre of the Haenertsburg community. It is in the shadow of the actual crown which dominates this part of the range, the Drakensberg’s last big statement as the range disappears into the surrounding area. On many an early morning you will not see the Crown, just the pub below it. The mountain is not known as the Wolkberg for no reason and we cannot see it as I pose for an obligatory picture.
My plan today is to ride 150km to Ohrigstad. Those who have joined me in riding sections of the Berg know that I have a tendency to underestimate what has to be done. This time, though, I have used one of those little wheels to better work out the distance. This comes up at 150km, a long way for one day.
I have ridden more than this once, about 230km in the TransBaviaans, but then had to sleep most of the rest of the next day to ward off its effects. On the Freedom Ride I once rode 160kms from Willowmore to Prince Albert. This was mostly flat, but the head wind in the afternoon made it rough going.
But the basic story today is that there is no time to be wasted. I have timed my departure to arrive at the Wolkberg park headquarters at 8am to get a permit. I get there closer to 9am. Shadrack, the official and I are soon on first names terms. There are two forms to be filled in. He fixes these while I eat an egg sandwich.
Two bits of yellow paper come out. It will be R10 for me and R5 for the bike. I look over at the bike, waiting outside the office. It is nice and clean having just come back from a major service. It also has two new tyres. But I know it does not have the R5 Shadrack wants, so I will pay it.
Shadrack, truth be told, was a little surprised when I arrived. This is a splendid park but few people come here, only about 20 or 30 a month, he tells me. Today I will be myself.
I take the jeep track to the Mohlapitse River and move along it at a good speed. At one point I have to swerve to miss an animal skin in the tracks. This is a complete skin, sans the animal. At first I think it is a baboon, but on reflection a little later I think not so. It is a cat of sorts which only comes out at night. I will recognise it in a book of mammals.
I was too spooked by the incident to stop and take a closer look, thinking it best not to hang around in case whatever had done this to the animal could do the same to me. The next cyclist through would find me lying there, sans insides, just a flat rider with flat bike next to him.
Five baboons run away from me. Now two, really big ones. Now there are three poachers standing in the track surrounded by about 20 dogs. I am about to indicate that they should move aside with their dogs when the tallest of the three sees me. He is off in a second running on the track with the other two poachers and the dogs. A dog which had been on a solo enterprise joins in. When I thought about the incident today, a day later, I think the number of dogs could be an exaggeration. There may have been only ten.
I make a half-wave as if to say, ‘hey, it’ s okay, this area is big enough for three poachers and one rider’ but they have gone into the bush. I keep a police-like cadence to my cycling and carry on.
Around the corner there is a herd of cattle which were not expecting me. And I them.
They stampede breaking branches, running more or less parallel to me. I slow down. They cross in front of me and all’s well.
The track at present joins the Orrie Baragwanath pass. A man has been hunting birds with a catapault and has one, a pathetic little thing you’d hardly think was worth eating. A bit like the little morsels that Bear Grylls comes up with. I wonder if people here are so impoverished that they are hunting with dogs and killing birds with catties, but many of the houses are distinctly middle-class with impressive front gates.
The locals tell me that the three men live nearby and probably thought I was a policeman. My guess is that they had earlier caught the other creature and left its skin there after taking its carcass for themselves and the dogs.
I head towards the Oliphants River, the navigation proving more difficult than I thought it would be. My information on which roads are tarred is also wrong and it is getting very hot. Near Mafefe I stop and pull out the maps.
Strangely, there is a grave more or less in the road. It is as though whoever is buried here was interned on the spot, where he or she died.
Turns out from people who come out of the houses that I can follow the Oliphants from its north side along a dirt road. They are a mine of information but I cannot get out of them why this person is buried in such an unlikely place.
I ride towards Dublin. Here I see my first baobabs, perhaps four of them. I will only see six or so on the whole trip.
A bakkie comes up from behind me hooting and cuts me off as though it was a cop car stopping me for some serious transgression. I neatly swerve out and ride on.
There are three people inside the bakkie, two young adults and an old adult, sharing a quart of beer.
As I ride past the driver says “Hey boss, where are you going?”
“Hello Sir, I’m going to Penge.”
“Let me help you.”
“Come,” I gesticulate. The road is going down to the Oliphants and I career off. They do not follow.
Later I realise that they wanted to offer me a lift, but just had a somewhat aggressive way of going about it.
The Oliphants is a great river and it is terrific to cycle along it. I will need to cross it and will head in the direction of Penge. I do not want to stay there though as it is an environmental disaster area, contaminated by asbestos.
So I need to get past Penge and then navigate a single track section before dark.
The locals are very helpful with advice but the way to Penge is either back where I came from or ahead, or I can cross the river and go directly there.
I realise that the day is ending. I am not going to make Penge nor get beyond it. I need a place to sleep.
I have been looking for the place to cross the river but give up and decide to go back. I jump on the bike and my left calf cramps. It seizes up, the cramp being the size of a 50-cent piece. It takes several minutes to relax. I need water and salt.
At the nexy house I ask for water. A little girl, about eight years old, is happy to help.
She washes my two bottles and fills them up, carefully washing the tops too.
I ask for salt. More kids arrive as does a man who turns out to be mute. I gather that he likes my bike but will not help with salt translation. Mary goes into the kitchen and comes back with salt. We put a tablespoon in each bottle and a teaspoon in my mouth. I am good to go.
I ride back and cross the Oliphants. The water, at a crossing everybody uses, is about ankle deep. Are there crocodiles here, I ask.
Yes, a group of girls tells me. At this level you would see them coming, but when the water gets higher, I wonder what the locals do?
I ask three girls. They are eating sugar cane and have been partying for much of the day, it seems. Each question produces more hysterical laughter, but no answers.
I make my way to an andusalite mine. I know that some mines offer accommodation in areas where there is none. I ask the security guard. No, everything is locked. We speak very broken Afrikaans.
It is clear I can stay here. I will share half the security guard box with him. It is big enough for both of us. I also ask him for water. He produces a ten litre plastic container of water. I realise that he had hardly anything but he is prepared to share what he has with me. If I was a secret billionaire I’d buy him the mine.
I push on. I need a place to sleep.
At the next village I ask a group of women if I can stay there. They work out who has a spare bedroom. I follow my host. One of the women despatches her daughter, Precious, to help with the arrangements.
Precious is 14 and a wiz with her cellphone. There is only MTN here. I ask her if I can make a phone call and pay her R5. She says it costs R3.
I take the phone and start walking, but no, you have to stand dead still and hold the phone at a certain angle. Precious sorts all this out and then I go back into the position to make the call.
Precious will be a doctor, she says, when she finishes school. Both her parents are unemployed.
I leave before six and head for the next village, where I will pick up the single track across in the direction of Ohrigstad. Annatjie shows me where the shop is. It is opened early especially on my behalf. Annatjie will show me a short cut. She cannot stop yawning. “Why are you yawning?” I ask.
“There was a wedding last night and I was dancing.”
I ask if there are baobabs here? She has heard of them, describing them as having a stomach and legs and if you go near it, “you get pregnant”.
I had thought the single track would take an hour, but it took three. There was very little opportunity to ride, most of the time being spent carrying the bike and ducking the thorn bush.
Much of the terrain is far more reminiscent of the Kalahari than what you expect as South African terrain. It is incredibly harsh, dry and hot. The rivers are waterless. There are rocks everywhere, lots of sand, striking succulents and lots of thorn bush.
It gets very hot. In January it can get up to 56°, I am told as a fill up my water bottle for the umpteenth time.
“How hot is it today? Thirty degrees, I ask?”
“Could even be higher.”
My ride becomes a trip from spaza shop to spaza shop, trading store to trading store. At each store I buy a 1,25 litre Coke, put half into one bottle and drink the rest. At one store I drink the best Coke I have had in my life.
The store has somehow worked out how to run its fridges so the coke is just frozen, the perfect temperature for the traveller in Sekhukuneland. When Heston Blumenthal hears about this he will want to know how it is done.
But the going is very slow. I stop twice to take a short nap under what shade I can find.
At 4pm it starts cooling down and I can ride again, getting into Ohrigstad at 5pm. I have ridden 193km in the two days.
I have somehow neglected until now to adequately explore Sekhukuneland. I would like to know more, particularly about the Pedi, their language, architecture and customs.
I’d also like to understand the mighty Oliphants, a river which clears a vast area, but is possibly our most challenged river in the sense that increasingly more amounts of water are taken from it and it flows with less and less water.
But this for another time. Tomorrow my bike takes me into the forests.