Black mambas and Fanta Grape

I was in a bit of a state of disbelief when I reached Ohrigstad. The day had been so hot and one or two sections took so long that I was surprised to be there.

Early in the day I had come across a soccer field, red and barren. There were just two goal posts, no players and no spectators.
The wind seemed to sense the opportunity and began a lazy whirlwind, pirouetting across the field towards the goal mouth.

I took out my camera as it neared the goal, but, as though tiring of the game, the wind purposely missed and dissipated into nothing.

The previous day at around sunset I came across another game, also on a barren, reed field. The players were decked out in yellow in the one case and yellow in the other. The late afternoon sun was casting its special light on proceedings—the visual effect was striking, with the intensity of the yellow and purple as the players chased the ball.

My camera came out, at that very moment the sun dropping behind a peak and the scene was transformed again into ordinariness.

There were three donkeys in the half-shade of a tree in one village. Two girls were using a barrow to collect water and had stopped to rest. Their dog lay in the shade of the barrow.

The girls and I set off more or less at the same time to trek the 6km or so to the next village. I was pushing on the hills and freewheeling away on the downs. It got hotter and hotter and I sought out a tree to rest.

Presently the girls came along. The one had taken her top off, partly exposing a bright green bra. She was using a scarf to cover her head and catch what little wind there was.

“Why are you lying here?” she wanted to know. “Why are you lying here?”

Such was the intensity of her concern that I got up and carried on.

When three of us cycled from Ohrigstad to Pilgrim’s Rest a few months back we took the Caspersnek road. This was at one time the main route for the trekkers to the sea in the days when Ohrigstad was the Boer republic’s second-most important town.

Today I am using a route recommended by Dennis Lawrie, a mad-keen mountain biker who lives in the Sabie area and co-organises the four-day mountain-biking extravaganza, the Sabie Experience.

I follow the railway line south from Ohrigstad to avoid the unpleasantly busy regional road. The fine old house of a tobacco baron is deserted and derelict alongside the track. The stoep would have been a good spot to watch your product go the market, but those days are long gone.

Crystal Springs teems with life—wildebeest, warthog and lots of kudu families. A warthog races me down the hill, getting up to 40km/h.

Around a corner, two giraffes stop me. We seem to have a mutual fascination in one another.

Crystal Springs is very impressive, with upscale accommodation overlooking massive ravines and gorges.

I am just 30km from Sekhuneland, but one change is noticeable. There are no more isiPedi speakers, the dominant language now is setSwazi but Tsonga/Shangaan and Sotho all being in evidence.

My map shows I need to follow a line south, but in practice it is not entirely clear which tracks I should follow. Once or twice I have to regain altitude. Some of the farms are private and locked. I am told I will not get through. This causes some concern as I hardly want to retrace my path.

The dirt road becomes a track. I am up on the escarpment with fantastic panoramic views. I ask some forestry workers where the track goes and whether there is a route through. They don’t know. They’ve never been along the route.

Now I am in front of an electric gate and fence, about 2,5m high. I will climb over and ask the farmer if I can pass through. There is no farmer, no farmhouse, just a few deserted buildings and a vast space.

I cycle for 30 or 40km. I am alone with many, many herds of blesbok, some about 100 strong.

The afternoon is wearing on as I see that my only option seems to be to go down the mountain. This is the only route I can find.

I come across one of the huts used by hikers on the Fanie Botha trail. I check my location using the GPS, fix where I want to be, drink a cup of coffee made by three girl hikers, and I’m off.

There are few tracks here and once you’ve lost altitude you will not easily re-make it.

I come out in the dark at Sabiehoek, well below the top on the Long Tom pass where I was aiming to be.

It is 7pm. It will take me two hours to get to the top, so I decide to stay at Horseshoe Falls, a self-catering spot. My host, Magriet, arranges for pies, Cokes and beers to be brought from the Engen garage in Sabie.

Breakfast, an omelette with everything, is at Misty Mountain, where I chat to host James, overlooking the magnificent Rhenosterhoek below. Lunch, a hamburger with two Cokes and a coffee, is at the Sudwala caves.

I’ll now need to get to Kaapsehoop, about 800m higher than Sudwala. Two off-road routes are possible, but both are a lot less than direct. I check my map. I will cycle 8km down the tar road to the junction with the N4 and then try and cross the Crocodile to join a road which runs alongside. Fortunately, this is possible.

I have come to realise that many, if not all of the rural homes which I pass, are actually also shops. You stop and ask if they are a shop, even if there is no signage, and they are. At one stop they give me Fanta Grape because there was no Coke.

I have since developed an addiction for it. I must take a closer look at its ingredients.

On previous trips up to Kaapsehoop we have found that all roads lead to the top. The track I follow gets tantalisingly close to the top and then goes back down the mountain. It gets dark. After hours of trying to find a way up I check on my GPS position. I am about 20km from Kaapsehoop, meaning I will arrive at midnight.

I will sleep the night on the mountain. I put on all my clothes and get out the emergency blankets. I have a tolerably comfortable night and a deep sleep.

It is a long trudge up to Kaapsehoop and breakfast at the Salvador pub. Glenn, a fellow trail rider who completed the Freedom Challenge this year, has kindly pitched to give me coordinates to follow through the Nodgwana valley to Badplaas. His route is sublime but I struggle the last 30km or so into Badplaas. This is on a back route to avoid the main road which has no shoulder.

I have run out of liquid and badly dehydrate. At a pub I get two Fanta Grapes, on the house, it turns out.

One fellow tells me to watch out for mambas. They are now finishing their hibernation. The other snakes will get out of your way, but not the mamba. He tells me he lost his white alsation yesterday to a black mamba.

I am in Badplaas, a place where Swazi royalty used to hang out when this part of South Africa was part of Swaziland. The Swazis no longer have political control here but the language certainly still proliferates.

Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie is M&G's business editor. A journalist for more than 30 years, he has worked in senior positions at most major titles in the country. Davie is a Nieman Fellow (1995-1996) and cyberspace innovator, having co-founded SA's first online-only news portal, Woza, and the first online stockbroking operation. He is a lecturer at Wits Journalism. In his spare time he can be found riding a bicycle, usually somewhere remote. Read more from Kevin Davie

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