Riding with eland, white-out in Mcambala

Cycling alone, I have often been asked if I am not scared to be out by myself. Coming into Wakkerstroom at night I frightened something large in the thick grass just next to the road. It made quite a noise, giving me an even bigger fright than the animal got.
I cycled away in haste.

But I have been only truly scared on this trip once and that was crossing Mcambala while heading for Naude’s Nek, the highest point of my trip.

Mcambala is a huge flat-topped mountain, about 1 000 hectares in size on top. There are no distinguishing features here. It is dark and the area is completely misted out.

I have the co-ordinates of where I need to be and a tracker device telling me where I am, but I am walking around in circles, making no progress. The forecast low temperature is -12°, so I cannot spend the night here. I must get off the mountain.

But I have run ahead of myself, my last report being from Underberg.

I used my two-day break to wash clothes and bag, get new equipment such as a map container and new speedometer, stock up with energy supplements and trail food.

I visited a nursery, which has a selection of bike spares, to get more lube for the chain. Doug, the proprietor, was ready to jump over the counter and join me on the trip then and there. His real aim is to cycle from Cairo to Cape Town but he cannot get away from his shop.

He put me in touch with Mike, a farmer who is also a keen mountain biker, who could help with the route. The suggestion was to take the Bushman’s Nek road from Underberg and then head through three farms, coming out at the Umzimvubu valley. Mike also mailed me contact details of the farmers.

The route would take me through a massive spur which runs off the main range at this point. There was a monster climb up the Ndwana valley and then down into the Umzimvubu valley. Near the top I spotted four eland, three adults and a youngster. Coming down the other side an adult male appeared to my left and then my right. For a moment, I was riding with eland.

A large fat adder was making its way across my path. The path was covered in pine needles and my stop was not as quick as I’d like it to have been, but I was still about two metres away and I took a pic.

The creature was trying to get out of my way by going up a small bank on the side of the path, but the pine needles meant that it was three slithers forward and two backwards, so progress was slow. It was actually a touch embarassing to watch such a fine creature struggle with such a simple task and a small part of me wanted to help by offering my foot behind its tail to help it on its way, but a much larger part of me said no, this would not be a good idea.

At the bottom I found a general dealer but with no coldrinks of any kind. The stocks had been flattened and there would be no replacement until tomorrow. I asked the one shop assistant what language most people speak in the area. isiXhosa, she said, looking at me as if I was stupid to ask.

But on the other side of the mountain I had crossed, it is a different story. The answer would be isiZulu. I had crossed yet another linguistic divide.

The day was ending and I needed a place to stay. I made my way towards the St Bernard’s Peak hotel. It had been fully booked for the long weekend which was now ending, but a room would be made up for me. St Bernard’s offers clean and comfortable accommodation, attentive staff and a good bar where big stories are swapped.

The rain woke me up in the night and I went outside to rescue some of my clothes which were supposed to be drying. The roads in the morning were muddy and it was raining hard, so I arrived at Matatiele with my face covered in mud. I pulled in at the Pollis, a coffee shop.

The forecast was for snow, the manager told me. I had packed and prepared for a spring/summer trip and was not prepared for snow.

I had found during the morning that the cotton gloves I had bought in Swinburne, with plastic outers used for preparing food, weren’t up to the job.

I would need waterproof gloves, an additional jacket and a compass, having stupidly left mine in Underberg. The manager assured me I would not find long-fingered gloves in Matatiele, and offered to loan me a pair which belong to her son.

I visited four or five likely stores. A guy came up to me and asked if he could help. I said I was looking for gloves. We both looked at the rack next to me, seeing none. He said that he had seen some in the next shop and that I should follow him.

Along the way I asked if he worked at the first shop. He did not.

We went into the next shop and there was a rack of real leather gloves. I know they were real leather because the label said so. R10 a pair.

I also bought a lined jacket, spending R99 on the two purchases.

One store had an electronic compass costing R399. Compasses should not be electronic, they should be magnetic. I had a strong feeling that I was wasting my money but did not want to be in the situation where people come up to me and ask, ‘Are you the guy who did not spend R400?’, meaning that helicopters had to be called out, etc, etc. I negotiated the manager down to R230 and bought the compass.

I also got some surgical gloves from a chemist as added back-up for finger warmth, as well as food to take with me.

Fellow mad mountain bikers Mark and Nicky appeared and we lunched together, talking about the trip and possible ways to Malekhonyane, my next stop.

The clouds were low and it was threatening to rain as I left for Malekhonyane, one of the stops on the Freedom Challenge. A guy stopped in his bakkie and said that the forecast was that if it was going to snow, it would be this afternoon. I was hoping it would. There is nothing which adds colour to a cycling trip than being able to tell people you cycled through snow.

Malekhonyane is run by a trust and apparently doing well, based on what the staff told me. Tourists are visiting a beautiful but little-visited part of the country to hike, bike and ride horses.

Nhlanhla and Duma welcomed me, Duma very sweetly washing my bike even though I had not requested this. Siseko, a guide for the trust appeared. He has a few months back completed the Freedom Challenge, the 2 300km ride from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl. As fellow finishers, we had a lot to talk about.

I said that if the range of mountains behind us was called Drakensberg in Afrikaans and Maluti in seSotho, what was the isiXhosa name. Siseko had the answer which he wrote down for me: Intaba Zokhahlaba.

It was cold as I left Malekhonyane. The gloves seemed great except I could not for a time get my thumbs in properly. Then this self-corrected and my hands were toasty for the bargain price of R10.

It rained periodically. The roads were getting more and more sloshy. I made my way higher and higher in to the mountains towards Vuvu, a village used by the Freedom Challenge as another of its stops.

I phoned David Waddilove, the founder of the Challenge, from the school at Vuvu. I basically had three options, to stay at Vuvu even though I could still fit in a few hours more of riding, to go up the foot track up Lehana’s pass, climbing a vertical kilometre in about five kilometres, or use Mcambala, which is a climb of several hundred metres before dropping back to the road which climbs to Naude’s Nek, at 2 400m the highest road pass in the country.

The blanketed men I spoke to in Vuvu said I shouldn’t even think about Lehana’s since it was not remotely visible in the thick cloud. I knew this to be correct.

David sprung into action, immediately checking the one-hour forecast for the region. He arranged accommodation with a local farmer, Bertus, at the top, gave me detailed directions on how to proceed and the coordinates for where I needed to be.

As I started up the mountain the shepherds in the area were bedding down for the night in their rock shelters. It is quite hard to comprehend that people still live in South Africa as these shepherds do. They have blankets for clothing, gumboots, a few pots and not much else besides their sheep.

I asked a shepherd for directions. He gave me a long explanation in isiXhosa, the only word I recognised was zig-zag. I started out upwards. After about ten minutes I was obviously not zigging or zagging enough as he called out to me, this time in Afrikaans, that I going the wrong way.

Towards the top my foot slipped on some grass while I was carrying the bike. I fell down face first with the bike on top of me. A few steps later the same thing happened on rocks. Down I went with bike on top of me.

Very near the top I could see it was misted out. Visibility was down to a couple of metres. As noted at the beginning of this story, this was by far my most scary moment of the trip. I know that humans have no innate sense of direction, but this was the first time that I was experiencing this as acutely at this.

Whichever direction I thought I was working, I was making no progress as reflected by the Tracker. A bleak and even life-threatening night seemed likely.

There was really no second prize, I had to find the cattle station at Mcambala. I came across a derisory track and started following it, hoping that it might lead me to the cattle station.

Happily, the track was going in the right direction, as reflected on the Tracker. More tracks joined, it became a jeep track and then a graded road.

I then found the deserted police station at Phillipsrus and my nightmare was over.

I pushed in the mist down to the farm of Bowden where Bertus told me that when it snows people often die on Mcambala. Unhappily, one his workers was a recent victim. The worker was understood to have gone to visit someome on the mountain top and was probably inebriated. The person was not at home and his shelter was locked. The worker’s body was found the next morning.

I go up Naude’s Nek in the morning, the savage, cold winds telling me that more bad weather is on the way. Lunch is at the village of Rhodes. I make my way along the Freedom Challenge route to Bottleneck. I have done this section before, but was too sick on the day to appreciate these beautiful valleys and idyllic farms.

I stop at the Kromdraai farm that night. Farmer Christo has moved to town and his son, Theens, is now in charge. Theens was not expecting me, but makes me a sandwich and a cup of coffee. In the morning. On his suggestion I check out a cave about 30m off the road. Bushmen once lived here as is obvious from the paintings, which include a white eland.

I head for Kapokkraal, another high point in the area. The sky is black and the clouds are louldly banging together. Lightning dances in the sky.

Now there is a massive bolt which completely lights up the sky.

I decide that this is no day to be making yourself an attractive target on the skyline for lightning. It is drizzling as I turn. Now it pours and then turns to hail as I retreat down the road.

I turn in at the first farmhouse, which is locked up, even so early in the morning. I put on waterproof trousers. The curtain opens, someone is at home.

Here is farmer Robert, an 1820-settler descendant. We talk about the Drakensberg. He tells me that this is not really the Drakensberg which is in KwaZulu-Natal. I think that if I had called him in the first case I could have saved about 15 days of a 18-day cycle trip.

I will take the tar road to Barkly East and then back roads to Dordrecht, where I aim to finish. I have toured this area by car but still manage to mess up and ride an unnecessary 20km, some in driving rain.

David had recommended I go via Moordenaar’s Poort to Dordrecht as this is the site of the famous ambush of Jan Smuts by British forces. The navigation error, bucketing rain at times and the muddy road, have all slowed my progress. I aim to stay at Moordenaar’s, a recognised stop on the Freedom Challenge.

I can see the tiny village of Roussouw below me. Now follows a long descent as I begin to leave the Drakensberg.

At the only shop in Roussow I chatted to the shopkeeper about my ride, the Freedom Challenge and where I am going. I am leaving town as he appears in his car to tell me I missed the turn to Moordenaar’s.

I make my way in the dark through Moordenaar’s Poort, named after an incident in the Frontier wars where the Khoi shepherd of settler farmers was killed.

The Schoemans are not expecting me, but welcome me anyway. I sit in the kitchen at a small table, eating butternut soup with four slices of toast, meat and stewed fruit as Daantjie tells the story about how a servant opened the kitchen door in front of me, which is made of yellow wood and is in barn style, to find the wounded Scheepers outside.

He had been in the ambush with Smuts. Smuts, barely escaping with his life, had gone to the main house where he had arrived horseless, hatless and, I think, weaponless. He took a hat.

In the morning I visit the ambush site with Daantjie, who has pieced it all together and explains the whole story on a blow-by-blow basis. Smuts had brought a commando into the Cape in the hope that the boers there would rise up and the battle could be taken to Cape Town.

Smuts had come to the Moordernaar’s homestead with three of his key men and insisted on seeing the top of the mountain himself as the way forward.

The four were spotted from the top of the mountain, the Brits ducking behind the mountain and then lying in wait below a naturally fortified rock overhang. The four walked directly at the overhang, being no more than ten metres away when the Brits opened fire, instantly killing one of two Scheepers brothers, wounding the other two men. Only Smuts escaped unharmed.

Smuts was shot off his horse, a bullet breaking the cord which holds on the saddle. He fell into a donga and was able to escape behind the dust from the rifle fire.

The whole incident showed that Smuts had taken unnecessary risks. Not clear is how many were on the British side as they were mainly made up of farmers from the area and were never keen to acknowledge their role in the incident. It also seems that most of them may have been shooting to wound, not to kill, as most of the injuries were in the leg.

The wounded men were arrested and taken to jail in Dordrecht where they died of their wounds.

I read up about the incident in On Commando, Denys Reitz’s celebrated account of life with Smuts as they ducked and dived their way through the Drakensberg while being pursued by the British forces. The incident rates a single, albeit long paragraph, part of which says:

” ... shortly before midnight Smuts walked in among us on foot and alone. He had been ambushed by a Britsih patrol who had killed all three of his escorts and all of the horses, he alone escaping down a nullah. Had he been killed I believe that our expedition into the Cape would have come to a speedy end, for there was no one else who could have kept us together”.

I asked Daantjie where the Drakensberg has its end in the region. He said that his farm is the last part of the area which is flat and arable. The Drakensberg starts after his farm. This is good enough for me. It is the area where I thought the range would have its one end. If you don’t agree, you can argue with Daantjie.

You can’t end a trail on a farm. A trail end needs infrastructure, accommodation, transport and shops. A short 25km after leaving Moordenaar’s I was in Dordrecht. Three weeks (20 days, 11 hours and ten minutes) after leaving Haenertsberg, and after cycling about 1 850km, my trip was over.

I have much to reflect on, but this will have to wait for later. Right now there is only one order of business—getting home.

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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