South Africa Tour- Piet Retief

Robert and I cycled in intense heat from near Nelspruit to Malelane and ended up in a beautiful, riverside inn with views of Kruger National Park. The river behind the inn had its own family of hippos. They snort and snuffle just like horses and their eyes blink in the folds of their eyelids and they must weigh about three tons. They look like dino-cows. We rode 50K, Robert wants to note, and a hellish couple of hours it was. We found out it had been about 43 degrees (Robert doubts it was that hot. Maybe 36 degrees). Anyway, it was really hot and Robert felt dizzy after the ride. We passed from shade to shade and could barely made the short distances in between. We stopped for lunch of fruit under a small tree by a farm. A woman and I met in a store said she had seen us and thought we were crazy. She was wearing a remarkable, ruby red top – the only other white in the “black” store. “the bleeacks” is what they say in south Africa with an Afrikaner accent. She told me that she was training for the karate world championships. She had an offhand, glittery manner that suggestd she wasn’t satisfied being the supply representative for a plastic bag company. The food at the black store was pap, and the neck of chicken in a delicious, oily sauce. Also fried egg on bread with spots of jam. Strange, but after the ride we just had, it tasted great (says Mira). The ride of the previous day was only 12k and we ended at a lovely compound outside Nelspruit. We swam late at night in the pool under a golden moon and talked to the host, Doug, about animals. The ride out came after a muggy, riting ride in a bus to Nelpruit. We were accompanied by three jocular Portuguese going to Mozambique. The most jocular kept referring to his woman as my future ex-wife. The bus attendants were particularly courteous. It was an efficient ride, unlike other service experiences where if you don’t catch the waitress or cashier, she’s sure to get tied up for an hour helping someone else. But that’t my American impatience. We rode out of our inn in Malelane for a half day tour in Kruger National Park. We saw an elephant- graceful, sensitive, with ears like huge flower petals, that I didn’t know that—and a white rhino, several giraffes, a hyena eating some prey and a leopard hidden in a bush. The leopard was watching the hyena angrily since the leopard had killed the warthog the hyena was pulling the guts out of. The hyena kept looking up a little guiltily. The leopard’s spots make it almost invisible in the bush. All the animals were beautiful but the overriding experience of being in thier landscape and seeing them all co-habitating makes nature seem very civilized. Our guide told us gruesome stories of how leopards kill humans and of a guide pulled up into a tree and made into a meal. Our fellow sightseers were a Spanish couple, Vicotoria and Augustine, stationed in Mozambique, working for the Spanish government. All of the talk and familiarity with Africa is exciting and I see one of the juvenile hippos now eating with his giant jaws along the river bank. He’s followed by a small gang of white herons who seem to be waiting on him for something, maybe seeds. I’m watching from the hammock here on the deck, living in luxury. To go from this to the crowded streets and strip malls and zooming cars is an unpleasant transition. No wonder whites love to vacation here. There’s no crowding and it’s all familiar at the lodges and inside the safari range rovers. But then you miss meeting up with some beautiful, precious things, like the high schooler I met on the road yesterday morning who was willing to smile to sweetly and tell me he wanted to be a journalist, or the two farm women weeding sugar cae who were sitting under a tree eating their lunch. We flopped nearby and when I shared some nectarines they opened both palms and thanked me so gratefully (does gratitude like that really exist?) One of the women said a prayer. Or Timothy, walking on the road with his mother, Emmaline, who drank most of my arrange flavored water and would have talked all day. Why is his mother wearing a knit hat in this heat, I wanted to know.Now two elephants majestically descended to the river as I’m sitting in the hammock, to drink and amble along the shore. Robert has come out of the room just in time, his mouth tastes of cookies, to take pictures. He’s relieved I’m keeping this journal, so we can post to our blog. We were facing an information jam since we hate paying a lot for the Internet here in SA. The elephants ears are like fans and one has large tusks. They take their time. When you look at them you see so much beauty. Beyond the 36 muscles in their tusks and the evolutionary interest in their size and features, they have a delicate beauty. Robert now wants to mention more about the cycling. We started this trip in Jburg where we stayed at the Backpaker’s Ritz. The city is like LA, with suburbs keeping things inaccessible. Moving the bikes around on planes, taxis and buses was not a big problem, and no more than it would be be getting them around at home. We had to negotiate/pay a bit for a big taxi at Paris and Jburg, but neither leg of the flight requird that we pay an excess baggage fee. The boxes each counted as one checked item, not to exceed 50 punds.By the time we got to Nelspruit, I was too tired to contemplate more travel with the boxes, so I put the bikes together right on the sidewalk in front of the bus drop off point. No problem, except the nagging realization that I had brought too much stuff. I’d get rid of some of it, but I don’t know what I will not need.The ride to Karino in the evening for our rist night in Katkop was a little scary after we took the advice to use the main highway as it is safer. We rode as it was getting dark, and the traffic is fast, but the dirvers seem to stay off the leftmost part of the road used by pedestrians and bicycles.Of course, the second day of riding was not fun in the heat. We found the river lodge in a suburb of Malelane, right on the crocodile river the other side of which is Kruger national park. We actually did not want to stay here because it is out of budget, but once the owner, Johan, saw what sad shape we were in, he gave us a double for 300R. On the patio we see hippo, elehpant and birds. I liked the giraffes in the partk. I say that ½ day in the park is all one needs. The guide kept telling us that it is not a zoo, but in all honesty it is not natural either. The animals come up to the cars and they maintain vegetation and water for the animals. It is a semi-natural experience (next to a golf country club).There is plenty of wildlife in Africa. You know how when you watch the National Geographic channel, you wonder how long they need to wait to get pictures of animals. Well, the answer is not long. They animal stuff happens all over the place. We are watching elephants play by the river right outside the back of our guesthouse. Cool.Sunday, Nov. 5It was a hard day of riding—90K through muggy heat, then a small squall that rained pretty hard for the space of a few miles. We rolled along over low hills, the verdant farmland of SA giving way to slightly steeper topography in Swaziland. We made good time until the heat and humidity made us seek some shade at a grocery. We were the center of the absolute and unwavering attention of two gangs of kids, one boys and one girls. The boys were interrogative—one bakkie driver cross-examined us on how we managed to take our holiday and why in the world we would take a bike ride to Cape Town. We are by now used to the incredulous looks this news produces. The gang of boys were very funny—they spoke to us familiarly and mostly wanted our stuff. Several of them studied us. We befriended a 14-yr-old on a rusty bike, he said his name was something that sounded like ‘Moose.’ He rode several K with us and showed us his karate moves. But when we got to the grocery some of the other boys teased him and he was cowed. The way they question—going straight to the matter or whatever interests them—would make anyone feel vulnerable. The woman in the store asked me about my ring and was very friendly. All the while kids came in for bread, dressed mostly in dirty, ragged clothes. Robert said it’s their day off, they’re in their cast-offs, but I wasn’t so sure. There is a common chorus from the little kids to give them money. Everyone wants to say ‘how are you’ but then their smiles make any weariness I feel disappear. We trundled along, had our adventure at the grocery store, and continued on, to eat lunch under a tree while the first raindrops feel, and I thought ‘an adventure around every bend.’ And then we hit the first 5K incline into Pigg’s Peak and it became extremely difficult. With the elevation it turned cool and then cold and we were out of water. I had shared much of it with Moose. My twin fears, thirst and cold, began to flare in my head. Around the 10th arduous kilometer, I became very angry. The wind, the aggravation of the loud, fast car, the cold, made me furious. Then I bawled. Robert tried to comfort me—I was a baby. My despair continued with another 5K of long inclines. Finally found an inn with camping and a hot bath fed by a wood-burning furnace. I’m trying not to think of the many other days ahead that will be like this. If we make it. We are feeling a little shaky. It’s a long route and difficult.But then I think about the little Swazi girls—about six of them—at the grocery store. They all crop their hair close and to see them smile is a gift. They wanted to hear me sing a song but I felt on the spot and could only think of “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” So we struck a deal: they would sing me one for an exchange. They sang a Swazi song and two Christian ones with a theme in one of them about soldiering for God. They were so sweet. So incredibly sweet. They all said they didn’t like boys. They said the clean and cook at home and all had five, seven, or ten brothers and sisters. They were the expression, in all their shyness and sisterliness and mischievousness, of loveliness.Robert would now like to tell the real story. The ride started at 5 a.m., which was great. We needed an early start in order to beat the heat and get in some miles before the sun got too hot.We crossed the SA/Swazi border after about four hours.During our ride, the children and adults all took notice of us and everyone wanted to say “Good Day” or “How are you.” Mira loves talking to the children, so that is fun.We stopped for tea and a snack by the side of the road and a snack by the side of the road and spoke with many children. Many cars honked their horns as they drove by. A kind of “thumbs up!”The ride went well and about 10:30 we stopped to wait out the sun at a grocery.Wednesday, Nov. 8Monday we rode 45K from Pigg’s Peak to the Hawane Inn outside Mbabane, the capital of Swaziland. Had Dutch company at dinner and slept in the Inn’s dormitory, made out of an old horses’ stable. Tuesday was a 90K day to the southern border. The worst day: steep, unending inclines and heat. Some hills so steep our front wheels came off the ground. Still in dramatic landscapes but marred by ugly wood mills and broad swaths of clear cutting. Had a rest on a peak where a woman asked me to send clothes for her twin boys. Rode 7 and a half hours—a record—and missed the border closure by five minutes. But the border officials were incredibly hospitable. Mr. Mbisis was the head and he brought us into the compound to set up camp. A couple of others—Patrick and Jamison—pulled out firewood and made a fire. Robert cooked up Pakistani pasta bought in Mbabane with a can of beans a fish and the pot went around. We talked a bit to Patrick and exchanged addresses. He was serious and less idly curious than the other younger people we met. He wants only one wife, he said, and two children.Then today, Wednesday, a relatively mild 63K through Amsterdam, where we talked to a shop owner about the alarming rise in crime and ate her tasty breakfast, to Piet Retief. A desolate kind of stretch—logging and logging trucks and bullet-fast cars and some chicken farms and, saddest of all, a heap of dead baby chicks by the side of the road (they looked so gentle lying tossed there)—am trying to cultivate gentleness in the way I say hello to strangers—and Piet Retief not much to spake of but a nice bedding-down at the L.A. B&B. Some chit-chat with the owner of a restaurant where we had delicious ice cream. We promised to send him a California flag.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.