Day 32: Matatiele to Maclear
Start 07:30 End 14:00 Distance: 111km Average: 18km/hr
The first 70km of the ride today was relatively easy. There were still constant hills but all within Buffalo-riding range. We make excellent progress to Mount Fletcher where we stop for early lunch. Mount Fletcher is a rural town set upon the side of a mountain. The main road is one straight steep schlepp uphill. I think that maybe once this bit of climbing (walking) is done, the road will flatten out and we can continue at our excellent pace. It doesn’t, there’s a long pass following Mount Fletcher that has us both walking. We found out later it is called Moordenaar’s Nek (Murderer’s Pass). Appropriately named…
The last 40km of the cycle is much more strenuous than the first part. We slow down considerably and have to push up several hills. Cycling is like that sometimes, throwing the biggest challenges when you have tired legs. Life too, actually. What matters is how you respond to it. We respond by slogging away until we meet our target for the day.
It’s been a pleasant day’s ride, overall. The scenery was some of the best we’ve seen and much to my surprise, the Eastern Cape has the best maintained roads of our journey so far. Even the roadside picnic stops which have fallen to ruin and more closely resemble rubbish dumps in most parts of the country, are clean and routinely maintained.
Day 33: Maclear to Elliot
Start 07:30 End 14:00 Distance: 86km Average: 14.9 km/hr
The first third of the road features the same hills as we ended off with the day before. Eventually the road levels off (somewhat) but what should be enjoyable roads is marred by a mild headwind. It’s annoying as what would have been an opportunity to do some recovery riding is turned into a general slog.
The only moment of excitement is spotting a secretary bird prancing up the veld next to the road. They are bizarre birds. Eventually, the town of Elliot rears into view. Actually, it doesn’t really rear into view. Due to our grinding pace and some spectacular mountains to the opposite side of the road, Elliot kind of stumbles and trips into view.
There were some great roadside features however, the Gatberg was particularly noteworthy. I have made a mental note to hike up there one day; the rock formations must be magnificent from the top.
On a trip like this, one makes lots of mental notes. “Must remember to come back here someday with more time.” “Must remember to lubricate chain when we stop for the night.” “Why, why, why am I punishing myself like this? Will the frakkin’ wind just let up for two bloody minutes?” That said, Maggie in the support vehicle missed the Gatberg apart from the sign which shows that travelling by bicycle has many benefits, one of which is more time to admire the attractions, as I have mentioned before. It also makes you wittier and better looking .
We set up camp early and brace ourselves for the anticipated cold front. We all have our thermals on and eat dinner before the sun sets. Once the sun does go down, we are not outside much longer as the temperature drops sharply. We retreat to our tents for some reading by headlamp and an early night.
Day 34: Elliot to Lady Frere
Start 09:00 End 16:00 Distance: 95km Average: 15.3km/hr
We wake up and find that the temperatures did indeed drop below zero, as there is a frost and the few bits of gear we did leave outside are frozen. We wait for the sun to rise fully and put some warmth into the air before we leave, so it’s late when we start.
Today there was headwind. The only variation was that it got progressively worse as the day went on. We were headed in the same direction the whole ride so there was no alteration in course to provide relief. The roads were again were great for cycling so I was getting increasingly frustrated at the weather’s determination to not allow us to enjoy them. Although I am aware the weather is an inanimate phenomenon which results from measurable scientific variables, out on the road when there is a constant headwind, it feels like a malevolent being, determined to thwart your efforts and suck the fun out of your endeavours.
Cala Pass was a highlight. It is one of the few passes that go down into a valley rather than over a mountain. We descend slowly and gawk at the rock cliffs.
It is a rule of cycling that what goes up, must come down. I will state that the opposite is very true as well on long distance rides. Once through Cala, we meet the descent’s nemesis, an unnamed pass out of the valley back up into the hills. It’s a 4km walk, bicycles in hand.
The headwind has become so bad in the last 20km, I can barely keep going at front. The road surface has also become slightly cobbled which adds to the resistance. The result is like cycling through pudding – if yesterday’s headwind was custard, the closest approximation now is Moire’s Instant Chocolate pudding which is just not quite set. Every pedal stroke feels like it is being actively resisted. Our average speed on the flat is 11km/hr now. I am working as hard as I would on a moderate climb without the benefit of being able to stand. To stand and pedal in a wind is to make your life harder due to increased resistance. As I am about to give up, we ride past a secondary school which has just come out for the day. There are teenagers lining the road on both sides and as we struggle past, they start cheering and clapping. For a few moments, we feel as if we are charging along in the peloton of the Tour de France. I smile and wave back and keep pedalling. The boost is enough to keep us pushing away, alternating 5km at the front, until we reach Lady Frere. I am relieved because the wind was about to reach jelly stage.
We are all glad to reach our accommodation for the evening, which Colin plucked out of his travel atlas. However, the joy soon becomes dismay when we notice how shoddy the accommodation is. Old and poorly maintained, this place is obviously where contract workers come to stay. My room has two bunk beds and smells of tobacco. The bathroom bears the evidence of 20 years of use without much care for maintenance. I shower with exceptional care to not touch any of the surfaces. The water is hot but the shower head leaks and directs half the stream of water onto the water-damaged ceiling. After some fiddling, I fix it by allowing the whole thing to break and the shower head to fall on the floor. I have a quick shower in the now unimpeded jet of hot water. I decide to ask my dad to get my camping gear out of the trailer so that I can sleep on that rather than the questionable bed. As I get dressed, I hear a knock on the locked door (no way I was showering with that unlocked allowing Norman Bates to get in with a pointy object). It’s Maggie, come to tell me we are leaving and seeking alternate accommodation. Hastily, we chuck our stuff in the car and drive off to somewhere far more agreeable. I wonder about the owners of the guestfarm who will find the used showers and unused beds in the morning and wonder about the maniacs who paid overnight fees just to have a wash…
Day 35: Queenstown
Start 08:30 End 13:00 Distance: 67km Average: 16.7km/hr
Catch up kilometres day. We mooch around Queenstown for a bit. There are a lot of churches for a small(ish) town. There’s a lot of variation in their architecture too. The NG Kerk is a sandstone building with a spire; it looks oddly new for the design. The Anglican Church could have been plucked straight from an English village – a typical cathedral with a tower made of grey rock with a pointed metal spire at each corner. The Baptist Church looks like a barn, painted fresh white. The Catholic Church is an imposing edifice of brown concrete, all right angles and hard surfaces, with a modernist minimalist cross on top. Colin says it reminds him of a Russian power station. To me it resembles the Ministry of Truth from 1984 that I have built in my head. I didn’t get a chance to count but experience from other towns in South Africa show that the ratio of churches to bottle stores is about 1:2.
You also know you are in a small(ish) town when the fourth and fifth best restaurants on Trip Adviser are The Spur and Nando’s.
There’s still a headwind today, slightly better than yesterday (it has gone back to custard rating). Reports of snow have been coming in from the remaining peaks. The air is cold and the wind chill a major factor out on the bike. Layers are key but there is a limit as to how much clothing you can cycle comfortably in, particularly on uphills when it’s easy to overheat.
Day 36: Queenstown to Cradock
Start 08:30 End 14:30 Distance: 95km Average: 18.9km/hr
Headwind rating: Evaporated milk
Cracking start to the day. It’s slightly warmer (I abandon my YSKJ at 10km), the headwind is mostly non-existent, only picking up in a few sections, and the road is ideal for Qhubeka cycling. Spirits and cadence are high as a result. On a touring cycle, one knows there is a big climb coming if one is cycling towards a cellphone tower, radio tower or major water reservoir. The first tower we pass today is on a moderate hill which we manage to cycle without too much difficulty. I comment to Colin that if that is setting the tone for the day, we should have a good ride.
Descending that hill, we suddenly arrive in the Karoo. Gone are the endless green mountains of the last few weeks, replaced by pointed taupe koppies in a sea of flat semi-arid scrub. The river beds are mostly dry or pools of mud only. Quite a contrast from the berg areas and again, I feel as if someone drew a line on the floor and declared that the scenery must change at that point.
The cows have been replaced by sheep now; another feature of the Karoo. We pass a herd of perplexed blesbok, including another white blesbok (I say perplexed because they were nonplussed by cars passing by at 120km/hr but the bicycles clearly freaked them out). A lone kudu crossed the road at one point and casually hopped over a 1.4m fence. If I had tried to get over that fence the same way, I would probably still be dangling upside down with my socks entangled in the barb wire. Fortunately my ability to survive does not rely on my ability to trespass.
We average just under 20km/hr for the first 60km and then we stop for lunch. After lunch, the first hill we encounter is a short pass which we end up walking. I can’t remember the last time we rode a full day without pushing. If I am getting fitter/stronger on the bike, the result is not reflected by my ability to cycle continuously up every hill. The rest of the road to Craddock is hilly but manageable. The ascents take a chunk out of our excellent average speed but it’s still the best day of riding we have had for several days. I am glad because the last few days have been physically and mentally exhausting, with the elements determined to oppose us.
Day 37: Cradock to Nieu Bethesda
Start 09:00 End 16:30 Distance: 99km Average: 15.5km/hr
Headwind rating: Custard to Moire’s Instant Pudding
The cold morning forces yet another late start to the day. We are entertained at breakfast by the feeding shenanigans of the local birds. The early bird may get the worm but also the crust of bread that drops on the floor (might I mention, for habitual early risers, that it’s the early worm that gets eaten?).
The odious headwind has returned and is present from the start. Despite the few cars passing us, today’s road feels the most isolated since our trip began. Miles of farmland on both sides but no cattle, sheep or other signs of life. The farmhouses near the roadside are derelict. We pass a school. I look around for homesteads – nothing. Who goes to school here? Whoever they are, they must travel far to get there, and be in need of a bicycle from Qhubeka. The only people we see are the workers operating the stop-and-go roadworks. Incidentally, it takes about 3 people to operate a waving flag and 6 to operate the barrier. I have written it off as job creation.
Yesterday we cycled past a sign for a pass on this road, which is noteworthy in that there was forewarning of it and also that SANRAL felt it necessary to mention that the pass was currently OPEN. We ride today in trepidation of this pass.
Eventually it rises up over a distant mountain. We’ve walked worse. I think Wapadbergspass would have been rideable on the Buffalo had it not been for the headwind (or my massive personal delusion). It is about 6km to the top and over 300m of ascent. There’s a flat 4km ride over the plateau then a 5km ride back downhill. After this, the slog into the headwind continues (after a belated lunch is consumed).
Nieu Bethesda is our stopover for the night – it’s a quaint pretty town dominated by the white tower of the NG Kerk. There’s a lot to be explored here but unfortunately we are out after breakfast to climb our eighth peak. Bicycle touring is great but I wish we weren’t on a schedule. I could spend a year or more just drifting from town to town, staying for a few days where it’s pleasant and moving on when it’s not.