I am the antelope
This Friday, April Fools’ Day, my bicycle and I will be at the Shell Ultra City at the Beitbridge border post with Zimbabwe. At 6am I will point my front wheel southwards and begin a month-long journey to Cape Point.
Within 100m I will leave the tar road to ride through an avenue of baobab trees on a service road alongside the railway line. If I was using the tar road my journey would be about 2 000km but I will be off-road, following our longest mountain ranges, meaning it will be nearly twice this distance.
For a month I will do very little besides eat, sleep and ride. My plan is to average 130km a day, riding from before dawn to sunset.
The ride will be based on one of the world’s classic bike rides, the 4 400km Great Divide, from Banff in Canada along the Rockies to Antelope Wells on the United States/Mexican border. Riders stay within 80km of the ridge line and keep the proportion of tar roads traversed to below 20% of the total. I will aim to keep my tar total below 10%.
Much of the northern part of the ride will be along a route of my own making, but from the Eastern Cape I will be riding large sections of the Freedom Trail, which stretches 2 300km from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl.
I am calling this ride “the ganna”. During the holidays I was in the area of Gannaland, the Karoo farm made famous by Olive Schreiner in her Story of an African Farm. Sadly you cannot visit the farm and it has been renamed as some safari lodge or whatever.
We were well off the beaten track when we came across a farm supervisor who we asked what ganna means. He said that back in his own home area of Beaufort West they used to talk of a certain bush as ganna bos.
A few days later, though, in the Baviaanskloof, we came across a document which told us that ganna was the Khoi word for eland.
How is it that you can?
When I tell people about my planned ride they invariably want to know why I would want to do such a thing. A smart answer, which long riders often give, is: “Because I can.”
The matter usually rests here, but the more interesting question is: “How is it that you can?”
What is it in the human make-up that gives us the extraordinary ability to keep going over great distances?
For Christopher McDougall, the author of Born to Run, the answer comes from what he calls the endurance-running hypothesis, the idea that, before we had spears and weapons, and in fact before we were even human, when we left the forests for the savannah as hominoids, we survived and thrived by literally running down our prey.
The hypothesis is that these pre-humans would use persistence hunting where, rather than outpacing animals, they would chase their prey over long distances until the animals would overheat and could be killed with a sharp object.
The process has been depicted in relatively recent times by William Cornwallis-Harris, an adventurer who put big game hunting on the map in his Wild Sports of Southern Africa, 1839. One of his classic drawings shows a group of hunters walking an eland into their encampment.
The text gives no explanation of how you tire out an eland so that you can walk it to where you want to kill it, but there are accounts by both academics and hunters reflecting that the eland, after being pursued for a number of hours, gets confused and gives up. It can then be shepherded by its hunters to where they want it.
More recently, in 2000, Craig and Damon Foster recorded The Great Dance, an extraordinary documentary of how the !Xo Kalahari Bushmen run down antelope. In the doccie we follow a group of three hunters, one of whom, Karoha Langwane, runs down a kudu.
To be able to do this, the hunters tell us, you have to be prepared to run all day. You should also choose a day that is hot, really hot. The hotter the better, as the animal will run out of energy before you do.
‘Sometimes you must run all day’
Lead hunter !Ngate Xqamxeb tells us that the running hunt is the most difficult of all hunts: “You have to run until the animal gives up. Sometimes you must run all day.”
The trio starts by chasing a group of six gemsbok. They run for six hours but the gemsbok have not weakened, they have not stopped. But their blood is hot. Now the gemsbok move into a wildlife reserve and have to be left alone if the Bushmen do not want to face a jail sentence.
The next day it is very hot. They see a group of kudu and the hunt begins. A kudu bull leads, three other kudus follow.
The sun is on fire. The sand burns underfoot. When the second hour ends, the Bushmen tell us: “The kudu is saying, ‘who is this man?’”
Karoba must out-run his thirst. He says afterwards: “When I was running I was really a kudu. When you feel the kudu is with you, you are controlling its mind. You are taking its energy.”
Four hours pass without Karoba stopping. A female kudu stops, dead on its feet.
Karoba throws his two spears from up close. Now he must help the kudu to die.
He sprinkles sand on the dead animal. “I have killed this animal when we were both running on sand. When she dies I must put sand on her body.”
The hunters celebrate by dancing the whole night. !Ngate likens hunting to dancing. He says: “When you are tracking you are talking with god.”
Endurance sport can have a similar quality. Steve Reifenstuhl wrote of running the 350-mile (560km) race to McGrath in snow-bound Alaska: “The edge with which I am dancing is where the mind can make the body perform beyond what is believed to be possible. It is spiritual, it is dreamlike, it penetrates to my core and when I come back from it, I know I was there, and it beckons for months afterwards ... At the finish line in McGrath the physical and the emotional unite in a crescendo of emotion, pain, elation. The ‘other’ becomes a memory. This unique reality has been reached by the passage of miles, time, physical exertion, psychological strain and sleep deprivation. It is so close to me, yet a world away.”
On day one, following the Sand River through a poort through the Soutpansberg, I will stop and take in Bushman paintings, including one of a man with an antelope head, probably a shaman in a trance dance.
On day two, as I make my way through the Strydompoort, I will reflect on the marvels of the nearby Makapansgat in a wonderful valley which is home to 70 caves. One of the world’s most famous australopithecines, Mrs Ples, lived here.
But 2,5-million years ago Mrs Ples was not a runner. An analysis of the hip structure of these pre-humans shows that they had not yet developed the ability to run buck down.
Also at Makapansgat you can see a hearth that has been dated at 200 000 years before now, said to be the earliest such example on the globe. Our guide told us that the fire was made by Homo erectus, making me wonder if they had cooked animals which they had run down at this very spot.
But few of us today, with the exception, perhaps, of the Kalahari Bushmen and the Tarahumara, the Mexican Indians studied by McDougall, have the ability to run down animals. Our diet is too rich and our lifestyles too sedentary.
Our minds may be up for it, but our joints will not allow it.
We do have, though, the bicycle, which some people say is the greatest single human invention of all. This is a machine that allows us to recapture a time when endurance had no limits.
A colleague asked me about my ride and wanted to know why I was doing it. I told him about the inner antelope and the persistent hunting hypothesis. “Ah,” he said, “I get it, you’re chasing the kudu.”
This is a good description but, no, I am not chasing anything. I am the antelope.