The dog did not bark

The last time a group of us cycled from Badplaas we took the Chrissiesmeer road which runs south-west. This time I am on a more southerly route, heading down the Mkhomazane valley.

There are massive land claims in the Badplaas area. I did not try and get my head around the details because it is so endorphin charged that I do not always think as clearly as I’d like to. Besides, I have one job to do here, and it is not to find out about the land claim process.

From a cursory glance, though, it appears that there was an ambitious programme, which stalled. The farmers have stopped farming while the beneficiaries are still waiting to be allocated their land.

I rode through many farms which are not being farmed. The grass, shoulder-high in places, is not being eaten. There are cows in places, but the general feeling is that the area has been deserted.

A guest farm, now community owned, was waiting for guests. Here too there was no sense of a thriving business.

I took the road south from Badplaas, about 3km out looking for a farm road that would take me into the valley.

The farm was recently sold and must be outside of the land claims process as the new owner is white. He told me he is no good for directions as he is new to the area. I asked if he knew which was the Mkhomazane river. This one, he said pointing to the dam in front of his house. I had to follow this valley to the next farm.

Increasingly, though, things did not make sense. I took a GPS reading and found I was about 5km from where I should be. A close inspection of the map showed that the river on his property is not the Mkhomazane, but a tributary.

Five hours later, in all, I was on my way to the next farm. Still, I thought, as I made my way up the valley, if you wanted to think of a good place to be lost for five hours, this stunning valley would be a good pick.

There are only two farms in the valley. There is no through road. There are great camping spots along the river. I was beginning to see more and more that the one thing I really needed on the trip was a bivvy bag, one designed for South African conditions. Mike has suggested the army bivvy may be the best for the job as it is tested under SA conditions. I will be looking into this.

With the bivvy I would have been a happy camper alongside the river with a bed of soft sand, fresh water and waterproof in case of rain. Without, I needed a place to stay in an area which just seems to have no accommodation for the traveller at all.

This gets more and more serious as you go into the forestry belt. Vast areas are almost completely depopulated as the land has been turned to forestry where large landowners run operations at huge scale.

A farm worker told me there was a Motel Panbult. I got there after dark just after the only shop had closed for the day. There was no motel, no B&B and no hotel. As I think about it now, I don’t think there were even any houses where you could knock and tell your sorry story in the hope that you may be accommodated.

I stopped at a facility owned by York Timbers and asked if there was accommodation there. The security guards said no.

I asked if they knew of Dennis Lawrie, a mad-keen mountain biker who is employed by York. Dennis organises the Sabie Experience, a four-day mountain biking extravaganza and is a font of knowledge on the best routes and tracks in the area.

I phoned Dennis. Within five minutes he had organised for me to stay with Ed and Chris, two firefighters who live on the property.

So ten minutes later, showered and squeaky clean, I was talking big stories with the two of them, looking at dramatic firefighting pictures and eating a wholesome salad which seemed to have just about everything you’d want to have in a salad. Except chilli.

Fire is a big, big story in these parts. Ed showed me pictures of the Venus fire of 2007 with smoke billowing up many storeys high. He said that the flames can get equally high, as high as the Central Bank building in Pretoria.

I left at first light after eating three boiled eggs and taking three apples as padkos. I cycled through the forests to Lothair which I had been warned was a one-horse town. I found it to be quite busy.

The lingua franca for the huge swathe of countryside I had cycled through is Setswati. At the shop I tried to find out the Setswati name for the mountain which divides SA and Swaziland. Four of us, a customer, the shop owner and a staffer, had an animated discussion, but came up with no answer. I will do more research but my guess is that the Drakensberg is actually a linguistic construct. There is no name in pre-settler times to identify it as a continuous range.

A sign outside Lothair warns that it is a high-crime area. I cycled to Amsterdam where a box with maps and provisions was waiting.

A police car, with no concern at all, did an extravagant U-turn, causing a cyclist to swerve and knock me. It was the gentlest of taps, but I would have hated my trip to come to end and an injury to myself or bike through such stupidity.

The area sees itself is known as Little Scotland because a Scot years ago had an ambitious plan to settle it. There are many Scottish names. I had lunch at the Robert Burns restaurant.

I continued south, as previously, almost never finding any landowner who actually lives on the land. There is no one at home.

I had expected to find the odd farm and to pitch and ask, in the old-fashioned way, for hospitality. I have done this reasonably often in the past while cycling (I would not think of doing it if I was in a car) and have met some excellent people this way.

But there are no farms to stop at here, just more and more plantations. I think I will hitch into Piet Retief and get accommodation there. I phone a B&B. She says I should speak to Hans who used to have accommodation nearer to where I am.

I call him. He does not rent out the place anymore. We talk a little more. He says I should call him back if I do not get a solution. I call him back. He drives a 50km round trip to pick me and my bike up.

Hans has 14 farms and a restless energy. He employs over 400 people. While many of the smaller landowners are getting out because of the economic downturn and uncertainty around land claims, Hans is growing his business.

As with many whites in this area, the home language is German. We eat braaied meat from some the famous butcheries in the area. Fire is never far away.

The two-wave radios crackle all the time. There are guards throughout the area in 100m-high towers who monitor for fires 24 hours day.

And Hans and his two teenage children tell me awe-inspriing stories of the sheer spectacle of a massive fire.

In the morning Hans dropped me where he had picked me up. He was on his way to Durban to watch the rugby.

I cycled past the Heyshope dam. Where I came to expect every house operating a shop, today I would find a single place which sold Coke and not one shop. I had three slices of bread for breakfast and three apples as my only real food for the day. The rest was energy bars and supplements.

At one place, as close to paradise as I can imagine, a structure has been built, I imagine to house a shepherd. It is the sort of dive you find in those Texas movies. Really cheap, really badly put together. Next to it a large catering cart stood, wheel-less.

Whoever lives, or lived here, has tied the carcass of a small animal, hanging from the front door. You would brush past the dead animal to get in or out. A tap had not been switched off. The dog did not bark.
I settled down to take it all in. A mountain reedbuck part-pranced, part-danced as it raced away.

I was seriously running on empty on the way to Wakkerstroom, arriving in the cold and dark. Fortunately the restaurant at the Wakkerstroom Country Inn was still open. I had steak, egg and chips, a Black Label, a Fanta Grape, a banana milkshake and a coffee.

This morning I have delayed leaving to make sure I am well fed. Danny runs the hotel. I am typing this on his laptop. He is in early to make Yorkshire pudding for lunch today. Sounds good enough to hang around for.

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