Monday, October 11, 2010

Stories from the trail continued : View from the back

As the weeks roll on, we still have memories of the great week of riding from Magoebaskloof to Swaziland.  Our medic, Glenn (don't call me unless you are unconscious or not breathing), had a different view:

Doug, Fiona and I got together on the Wednesday evening for a preview of the proposed route on 1:50 000 maps as well as Google Earth. The proposed route was thorough and once we had established the routes for each day, the logs were downloaded to the gps and we were ready to go.


Met with Fiona and the rest of the cycling party on Saturday morning north of Pretoria. The group travelling to Heanertsberg consisted of two vehicles, A medical vehicle (myself) and a support vehicle. Nine of us travelled up arriving in Haenertsberg in the early afternoon. We were booked in at Lamei Lodge, a wonderful off the beaten track overnight stop surrounded by plantations. The rest of the afternoon was spent in the little town wandering around their spring festival. The group that would be doing the mountain bike route were all battle hardened veterans of the sport and everybody was very comfortable with each other and got on well. It has to be said that Fiona picked the overnight stops well as the food at each and every place, although different each time, was truly amazing.


Up at 5 am. Breakfast at 6 am. On the road at 6:30 heading for Makutsi camp in the Legalameetse Nature Reserve.  We weren't sure whether the vehicle would be allowed through at Wolkberg onto the Makutsi trail so the medical vehicle circumnavigated this region. It was a 100 km round route to the Legalameetse Nature Reserve’s main entrance and another rocky drive to meet up with the group for lunch at the bottom of Orrie Baragwanath Pass. It was a difficult and tough route to navigate as the route took us through stunning sections of mountain ravine along sheer cliff edges. At this point the clutch on the air conditioning compressor decided to pack up so no more air con. Took us all of twelve hours to complete the route.


On the road +/- 6:30 am heading for Crystal Springs near Sabie. First two hours was extreme 4x4ing as I wound my way through a very narrow ravine crossing the same river 15 or 16 times and then a steep climb up out through some nice 30 degree angle rutted tracks. Just the thing to do to get your blood pumping early in the morning. I was then sent on a reconnaissance mission to recce a possible alternative route down the mountain to the Olifants river. Turns out the cyclists went the long way around and followed my tracks down the mountain. By midday I was convinced I had lost the group and I was now in a small rural village and there was only one way out – southwest towards Burgersfort. Nobody spoke English or Afrikaans so after searching the area for tyre tracks and trying out various amusing styles of animated sign language with the locals, I figured I had come out ahead of the group. I decided it was time for coffee. While indulging my favourite passion under a huge Indaba tree, the group caught up with me, in straggled bunches. They had clearly had a physically testing ride so far.

Refreshed we set off for Burgersfort and beyond to my biggest challenge for the trip - crossing the Oliphants River. With no obvious road and no other vehicle to pull me out if I got in too deep, I approached it with some trepidation. and walked back and forth for half an hour looking for a spot where I wouldn’t leave the undercarriage behind. After a few rather enthusiastic locals waded through to prove the depth and stability of the soil, I decided on a spot. I was half way through when I came up onto a silt bank which didn’t like the weight of my car and decided to give way. I bogged down and thought for one frightful moment
that I was in for a two kilometre hike to the Alverton mine ahead to get a front end loader to come and pull me out. The cyclists of course had all scurried on ahead so no help from them. Aaaah  - the wonders of diff lock combined with low range and really good mud terrain tyres (no better combination) I hit the diff lock and dropped into low range and literally ploughed my way through, up and out the other side.

The group had split to try different routes up a valley and I was to follow the more tricky route but there was absolutely no way a vehicle could get through. I used the mine road to drive the six kilometres
to the top of the valley. I spent over an hour searching for the explorers before leaving to drop the lunch packs off with the rest who had opted for the district road. Temperatures were extreme (well above 40C) and distances far for that day.

Eventually cell signal kicked in and I got a message from Fiona to say that they had also turned back out of the valley and were on the same route as the rest. It was already nearing 3pm so Fiona rode with me to Burgersfort for a meeting. The group was exhausted so loaded up in Burgersfort and drove to Crystal Springs arriving around 6pm. Great rooms and the food and beer wasn’t bad either.


Day 4 was a leisurely ride for the riders, Up at 6:00 am. Breakfast 6:30 am. At the main gate and cycling by 7:15. Dennis Lawrie had joined our merry little group the night before to guide us through the next two days. This gave me the opportunity to sleep late and only get up at 7:30 am. Well not quite, my early body clock decided today was no different. I had to meet the riders at Misty Mountain at 12:30 pm where the gps tracks exited the forestry plantations and ride the remainder of the route with them.

I checked out Pilgrims Rest before heading to Sabie for a well earned cup of coffee and a waffle. (one of the unfortunate perks of this kind of special event work).  While waiting for the riders, a branch from a Bluegum tree detached itself about fifteen metres above my vehicle and paid my bonnet a visit depositing two lovely prize dents that I really didn't require.  We arrived at about 2 pm at Gunyatoo Lodge - a pristine trout farm complete with dams, hatchery and lovely stone and timber accommodation.  We rounded the day off sitting around a big table having dinner and chatting. A couple of penalty drinks were also issued to team members.


Up at 5am. Breakfast at 6am. On the trail by 6:30 am. The cyclists were in for an easy days ride and kept mostly to private and state owned timber plantations. It was an easy wind along plantation roads, marsh land until we arrived in Kaapsehoop. More beer and waffles for lunch and off to the local backpackers accommodation where we would be staying for the night.  I took a two hour hike up onto the escarpment where I had a breath taking view down into the lowveld.

Kaapsehoop was established in the 1880’s as a result of the gold rush and is a most beautiful little town complete with original mine managers house and jail that has been well preserved. The rock formations on the way up to the escarpment and the sheer 1000 foot drop off’s on the escarpment into the lowveld made this a stunning place to overnight.


Another relatively short day, +/- 50 kilometres. Up at 5:30 am. Breakfast at 6:30am. We set off around 7am. A new member of the team joined us the night before, Glenn Harrison, a well known extreme mountain
biker holding the record for the fastest time to finish the freedom challenge on a single speed mountain bike. Glenn was our guide for the next two days as he is local from Waterval Boven. We started on the edge of the escarpment at a lookout point and then made our way along the escarpment ridge. 

We ran out of driveable road and had to do a bit of bundu bashing and vehicle trailblazing. The riders were waiting for us at a series of steep sand road switch backs that dropped us down into the lowveld again. The rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent traversing tea plantations, pine and bluegum forest. We arrived at Queens Rose Youth centre around 2 pm for our penultimate night. The centre is no longer used as a youth centre but is used as an overnight stop for hikers. It was quiet remote and reminded me of veldschool. Wim and Mari who were our host for the night splashed out a dinner fit for kings. Off to bed early.


A long day to finish the route. Up at 5 am. Breakfast at 6am. Set off for Bulembu at around 6:30 am. We followed the cyclists for the first 5 kilometres down through plantations and natural forest with a beautiful
waterfall cascading down the mountain side until we where once again forced by forestry regulations to circumnavigate and wait for the riders on the (R40) road, 25 kilometres from the Swazi border.

This meant a huge route east to Barberton where we were forced again to have coffee and waffles at a lovely little English tea garden right in the centre of town. After a Fuel and toilet stop we headed up the very steep winding mountain pass along the R40 over the mountains to Swaziland. We arrived at our co-ordinates well before the cyclists and spent the next hour and a half wondering around the hillside taking photo’s of the old cable way that was abandoned which used to transport asbestos into South Africa and coal back out.
Eventually the guys arrived and we all had a fantastically packed lunch once again courtesy of Wim and Mari. The last 25 kilometres where to be done on tar road in absolute baking conditions and our little procession moved along slowly. Ben, however, could not contain his excitement at seeing his wife again and shot off into the distance not to be seen again until we actually arrived at the Bulembu Lodge in Swaziland. The border post was really friendly and I even entered Swaziland without having to fill out a customs form for the car (had to pay the R50.00 though). Good thing I came back out through the same relaxed border post the following morning.

The last two kilometres were all down hill into what seemed at first a ghost town. Bulembu is a mining town that was established here in the forties when asbestos was discovered. It flourished during the fifties, sixties and seventies. Then in the Eighties it fell on hard times as South Africa went through its changes eventually closing down in 1992. It opened for a short period again in the late nineties but eventually went into bankruptcy under the new ownership and closed around 2002. A couple of years ago it was bought up by a Canadian welfare organisation and was converted into an orphanage aiming at catering for 2000 orphans by 2020.

When you arrive you feel like you have stepped back in time to the fifties. It still has the original cinema at the old exclusive mine members club complete with original cinema seats and movie projectors. In it’s heyday, the mine housed more than 600 families and came complete with its own first world hospital and very own power station. I spent the afternoon exploring the old buildings and chatting to some of the old residents who were there for a reunion, about the history of the place. I had one small cut knee to attend to as Ben had fallen off on the initial descent out of Queens Rose in the morning and had decided now was the time for TLC. We had a wonderful dinner at the Lodge in the evening and later we sat around a huge steel brazier obviously salvaged from the old mine with a roaring fire and some of those old locals I mentioned above playing the guitar and singing. Sleep was wonderful at the end of such a long and busy trip.


We all agreed to a late start Saturday morning. Breakfast at 7:30. Didnt help, I was still up at 5 am. (Damn fresh air and beautiful countryside to blame) A great continental breakfast was laid on for us and eventually the vehicles were packed and everyone was set for the return trip. We reluctantly crossed back into South Africa although wishing we could all have just kept on going. We all arrived home late Saturday afternoon in Pretoria where we said our final goodbye’s and I arrived home around 6 pm.


I didn’t realise at the start of the trip, just what beautiful countryside I would be driving through. I have never actually been up to the North West part of South Africa which is strange as I have been all over the rest of the world including Africa. Sections of the trail follow the renowned “African Ivory” 4x4 trail which in itself is magnificent. More importantly I soon realised that large parts of the route we where following are not open to the public and very few people other than hikers get to appreciate it. Thanks to Fiona’s drive and determination, cyclists will now have this opportunity too.

1 comment:

  1. Glenn

    This is a fantastic report, great to read something that written from support point of view. Looks like you had far too many coffees and waffels, time to get on your bike. Thanks for your support and being there.