"Tales from the Saddle"

Newsletter #23, "South Africa to Swaziland"

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Sending BIG LOVE, massive enthusiasm and holiday greetings from Tofu, Mozambique where I’m finally going to slow down after months of planning and the first two countries of self documented Peace Pedaling.

We left off on Lesotho waaaaaaay back in April 2006 (my how time flies!) After the wet, mountainous terrain of the Lesotho Highlands I took some much needed rest in the holiday town of Underberg, South Africa. My butt and legs needed some serious time to recoup. I then made my way to Pietermeritzburg where I was told the National Mountain Bike Championships were going on. I got word that the mountain biking in that region was the best in the country so I had to check it out for myself.

The trails were everything I was promised and I was excited to discover that they had amateur class race openings for both cross country and downhill races so I decided to enter them both. I met up with the #9 and #12 rated South African down hillers, two brothers from Pretoria Chris and “Quivers” (my rendition of his very Afrikaans name I could never pronounce), and we spent a day riding the long, steep, technical downhill run to practice for the race the next day. I had a great downhill run and ended up finishing in the top 5 using the single mode of my Black Sheep Tangle-Free and did okay in the cross country race but my steel full suspension slowed me down a bit.

Petermerizberg treated me nicely but I was ready for some more touring and decided to take the mountainous route back to Scotsborough via Ixopo. Just as I was setting up the bike for the long 75km hilly ride I met a Canadian traveler Natalie who had done a lot of bike touring herself in Asia and she immediately accepted the last minute invitation to join me for the day’s adventure and planned to take a bus back the following day.

As promised by the locals, the climbing started right away and was supposed to continue most of the way up Ixopo. My legs had grown stronger from Lesotho and Natalie has some serious pedal power as a skier and cyclists so we were motoring up the hills and having great conversations. Our goal was to make our way to a Buddhist monastery that we were told had accommodation and nice scenery. We made our way up, then down, and then up then down the breathtaking road with stunning scenery of endless mountains and native trees and bushes. But even with out early start and over six hours in the saddle, the hills and afternoon headwinds slowed our progress big time.

When we were up at about 7,000 feet the weather started getting chilly and the winds quite fierce. We kept hoping the monastery sign would show up after each turn in the road, but it became frustrating for us both as our tired bodies were in need of food, water and rest. Just as Natalie and I hit our “wall” of riding a guy Ian showed up in a pickup truck asking where we were heading. When we told him, he said we were 8KM from the turnoff, then if was a rough dirt road climb of 5KM to the monastery and there was no way we would make it before dark. He could tell we were crushed as we both were hoping to get some good rest there. But what about that South African hospitality?

Ian offered to take us to his farm and we loaded up the bike in the truck as the cold wind began to chill us to the bone as our body temperature dropped. He cranked up the heat in the Land Cruiser and before we knew it we were sitting in a hot bath while Ian cooked up a mean meal and poured us glasses of yummy South African wines. We were in heaven. I spent the rest of the evening sitting by the fire with the dogs getting to know Ian and Natalie and we each had our own warm bed to sleep in to rest our tired bones.

The next day Ian took Natalie and I to Ixopo to find her a safe lift back to Pietermaritzburg and I would begin my 110KM ride back to the beach town of Scotsborough near Durban. Natalie really wanted to do some more riding so I told her we’d try to connect on the way to Swaziland and she could ride with Vanessa on the other tandem.

This brisk morning I was in the mood this for a fast ride with my Ipod on, no guest riders, just checking out the scenery and hammering the pedals. I managed to ride over 100KM in about 5 hours on the hilly terrain from the pine covered mountains down to the sugar cane fields and eventually arrived in time for a swim in the warm ocean before sunset. I passed dozens of potential guest riders through the mostly Xhosa villages but enjoyed the freedom to just wave, smile and hammer on.

I spent an evening at with my friends Ali and Kim, a lovely couple who run an ocean view resort called Vulamanzi and gave me super Peace Pedalers pricing for a little ocean view bungalow. I had left some gear there to lighten my load in Lesotho and it was time to get sorted up again for the run to Swaziland via Zululand and St. Lucia.

I met up again with Vanessa the next day, who had been spending the last 10 days or so back in the Transkie region of South Africa. After some research of the roads around Durban, we decided to bus out of the busy city to a new starting point of St. Lucia. We were able to hitch a free lift for our bikes on the Baz Bus (www.bazbus.com) to St. Lucia where were met up with Natalie again. We spent a few days in St. Lucia checking out hippos and crocs in the wetlands and did a one day Safari in the Hluhluwe Umfolozi park where we were blessed to spot cheetah, leopard, elephants, giraffes, rhino and more in one day! It was unforgettable.

On our ride through Zululand towards Swaziland Natalie piloted the second tandem with Vanessa in the rear. I would ride solo to search for Zulu guest riders. We hit the road the day after our safari and it did not take long for Vanessa and Natalie to flow together as a team, nor did it take long for me to find my first guest rider. My first guest in Zululand was waiting for the bus after his shift as a construction worker. He barely spoke a word of English so we just pedaled along and made due with smiles, giggles and the connecting power of the tandem.

Our goal that first day was a rustic guesthouse about 80KM from St. Lucia. We were moving along well but decided to take a dirt back road to see some more rural scenery. I picked up another rider Thelo and we had a total blast. He loves soccer and was sporting a France jersey when we met. He had legs of steel and had no problem pedaling as hard as he could every second of our journey—even to the point that I had to slow him down so we did not leaven Vanessa and Natalie in the dust too much. Even with the language barrier we were able to have some nice chats and I captured him a lot on video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqjE7Tp3_5Y .

The dirt road started to get thick and sandy just as darkness started to set in and Natalie and Vanessa even took a crash towards the end of the ride. We were pretty exhausted and had no idea where this guesthouse was so we decided to ask for directions. We were immediately told that we were crazy trying to cycle there before dark and we must get off the road for our own safety. Our only option was to ask them if we could pitch our tents near their house. It did not take long for this group of total strangers to cheer with joy to have guests at their house and we made our way to get permission from the grandma.

We immediately became guests of honor for this family and the friends in the village. We had a dance fest in our cycling clothing while we took turns bathing in a bucket of water behind the house. After our wash and dance fest we were served a homemade meal of chicken and pub (a corn meal with the consistency of mashed potatoes), and we felt at home as ever in this one horse village in Zululand. It was unforgettable—check the photos as they speak for themselves. I even managed to recruit a guest rider Joseph, one of the many grandchildren staying there from Durban for the Easter holidays.

We all had a horrendous night sleep due to the dogs barking at us all night in our tents. They were okay with us when we were dancing with the kids, but once we wanted to sleep they did not take kindly to our mysterious tents pitched in the front of the house. Needless to say, we got up way to late. They were insistent that we eat a huge breakfast prepared with love from Grannie, and hit the road for a 2 day ride to the Swaziland border in the late morning heat. To make matters worse, it was a hilly, sandy, challenging dirt road into a mean headwind. The day was off to a rough start.

By the time we made it to the tar road, we were super hot and dirty. There was another 20KM into a headwind to our lunch stop of Hluhluwe but we managed to make it with a few stops in the shade to cool down. I treated my guest Joseph to a nice meal of fried chicken and bought him a bus ticket back to his village. We then contemplated our situation—50KM more to the next town, midday heat, headwinds, and the highway traffic. We decided to have a go at it and figured we would stop to cool down if needed.

The heat was relentless. It was not so bad if we were on the flats, but as soon as a slow going hill showed the cooling headwind disappeared and up our body temperatures soared to scary levels until we were forced to seek shelter under a tree to cool down. Add to that a mean headwind and little sleep and you have the ingredients for some irritable cyclists. Even at 4:30PM it did not cool down much and the winds only got stronger. We finally decided to take care of our bodies and hitched a ride in a truck to a small truck stop hotel where a cool pool was a true blessing.

The next day we woke up to much the same—headwinds, busy highway and an African heat wave launching the temperatures way up even in the morning hours. We opted to hitch a ride with a tow truck driver Jacque to the turnoff to Swaziland to ditch all the traffic and allow us to ride in the game reserve before the scorching heat hit. It was a wise decision as we were able to ride the last section of South Africa in the game park checking out the animals with no traffic, manageable heat and breathtaking scenery all the way to the border of Swaziland.

By the time we made it through the border the temperature had soared as we were now in one of the hottest regions on the entire African continent. From the border to the next town of Big Bend in Swaziland the terrain is flat, dry and hot—really hot. By the time we considered riding after some lunch the temperature was sizzling well over 40 degrees (over 100 F). After the previous day’s lesson learned, we hitched yet another ride up to Manzini where the higher altitude kept the heat to a barely tolerable level.

From Manzini we pedaled the steep hills out of town and up towards the Malkerns Valley towards the Swaziland Backpackers. Just as we made the turn to head up the hill we met a lovely Swazi woman with a huge smile Martha. She was quick to jump on the bike and soon informed me that she had NEVER pedaled a bike for her entire 28 years on the planet and was dying to try it. Never fear, Peace Pedalers are here!

It was a pretty short ride of about 5KM to the backpackers but when I looked in my rear view mirror at the huge smile on Martha’s face I knew she was sucking up every pedal stroke on the tandem. She had surprisingly strong legs—likely due to the fact that women do all the work in almost all of Africa. I took her all the way into the backpackers and lubed her up with tons of water before we sent her on her way smiling ear to ear.

Swaziland Backpackers became my “Base Camp” for the rest of my adventures in the country. From there I took a guest rider Rich from England into the Milwane Park and we rode side by side with Zebra, Warthogs, Wildebeests, Crocs and other indigenous, yet not dangerous, animals. Milwane is one of the few game parks that allow you to ride your bike all over without a guide. After we parted ways I decided to just ride whatever direction the wind was blowing and see what adventures Swaziland had in store for me.

I sent Rich back on a bus, grubbed some barbeque corn from some street vendors and proceeded to follow the wind up a steep hill towards Malkerns. The sun was setting, the hills mellowed out, and people were in every direction walking home from work in blue, red and white uniforms from the local fruit cannery that employed hundreds of workers. As expected, whistles, giggles and yells came from every direction as I rode through the crowd but one of them caught my attention—a handsome, smiling, excited Swazi guy named Samson who ran behind me insisting I stop.

When he caught up to me huffing, puffing and sweating he was eager to help me up the mild slope to Malkerns and was stunned when I told here I honestly did not know where I was going but was letting the wind decide. I offered to pedal him back to his house and he accepted with no hesitation. We turned off the main onto a small dirt path where we chased dozens of chickens, pigs, kids, dodged barking dogs and waved to his neighbors who were laughing and cheering us on. I parked the bike at his one bedroom mud and tin roof dwelling and drank some water in the shade.

He showed me around a bit and I decided to share the fact with him that I needed a place to sleep that night. Maybe he knew someone with a spare room or place to pitch my tent. He quickly offered some floor space in his tiny house and I was just as fast accepting and unloaded my gear, which pretty much filled up the entire walking space in the abode. We decided to go have some food, play some pool and have a beer or two at the local pub and we walked together through the muddy streets where kids where laughing, animals of all kinds roaming, and an overall festive energy about. I trusted my bike and all my belongings to a total stranger, his neighbor Manzi, and surrendered to the people of Malkerns.

At the local bar I was indeed the guest of honor as I somehow got super hot at the pool table and was unbeatable. Everyone wanted to challenge the white chocolate champ of the table. It was there I met Samson’s buddy Colin who, unlike Samson, did not have a job and was able to head out on a spontaneous adventure into the highlands with me the following day—the way the wind was blowing, by the way.

After the bar and pool games Colin, Samson and I shared my cooking of a huge Tupperware container full of pasta I was carrying back at Samson’s pad. They had never had a garlic-rich pasta extravaganza and they loved it. Unfortunately, I think it was a bit too strong for Samson as he was burping up garlic all night long and the smell of this burps were horrible enough to wake me up several times in the night. We ended up sharing his bed after the food comma got in the way of finding and setting up my sleeping kit.

At 6AM Colin showed up the door and I gave Samson a ride to work and came back to fetch Colin to start our adventure. He was excited to take me to his house first for some breakfast of bread and some mystery sausage his mom sold to local butchers. Colin’s house was, like most Africa dwellings, quite basic in Western standards. But I loved the charm the entire family of eight infused into their 2 room house.

We rode out of town along the Usutho River with stunning views of green mountains, steep rock faces and tons of fresh fruit and flower stands that dotted the mid-veld area. As we made our way up the landscape changed to more alpine scenery with pine trees and a gushing river where we stopped for lunch and a swim.

After lunch the heat picked up and the hills came with vengeance. After the relaxing lunch I have to say these brutal hills were a bit unwelcome in the midday heat. But Colin pushed the pedals as we cranked AC/DC on the Ipod for some extra rock-n-roll power. After 2 hours of steep climbing we were soon looking down on the lush green Malkerns Valley as the puffy rain clouds filtered the bright afternoon sun just right.

I had read about a posh resort called Forrester Arms that was up in the town ahead and by the time we were on the plateau I considered treating Colin to a night of comfort. We really needed to get off the road as the clouds were getting darker and darker so I decided to make the turn onto their perfectly manicured property lined with tropical flowers of almost every color imaginable. I knew this place was going to be expensive but decided to try to negotiate a deal for Colin and me anyhow.

Just as we rode up the skies opened up with a huge dumping of rain and we scurried to the reception where I asked for the owner and explained what I was doing with Peace Pedalers and how I really wanted Colin and I to continue to enjoy our time together at their hotel. She blew me away when she not only offered a discount, but gave us a free room, dinner and breakfast! Thanks Forrester Arms! (http://www.visitswazi.com/foresters/index.html)

Colin had never really been out of his village; much less had a 5 course meal followed by port wine and a hot bath with my yummy essential oils. Needless to say, he was super stoked and grinning ear to ear. The food was divine, service perfect and the place had a real “country style” atmosphere was just what the doctor ordered as we ate watching a huge lighting storm come in and we were grateful we were not camping in it!

The next day our plan was to make a loop on an off-road logging road back down to Colin’s house and, based on the 1,000’s of vertical feet we climbed to get up there, it was going to be a ripper of a down-hill run! After an enormous breakfast and a great night sleep we pedaled our way to the turnoff. Before we knew it we were rocking down an empty dirt road at 60KM/hour and, like Colin says so well in the video “it’s like riding an airplane…”. We were flying and Colin was fearless. We hardly touched the pedals for 80% of the 62KM ride back to his place!

We hit the lowlands and rode along the fence of the Milwane Park where several Kudo and Impala had escaped the park and were running right in front of us! It was stunning. We eventually rode though some sugar cane fields and back to his house where we chomped down some more of his mom’s mystery meat and bread. We hugged farewell after playing with the kids and I was soon off to my base camp to get ready for the Easter celebrations in the Valley. DJ Fresh was coming in from South Africa and I was determined to get tickets and treat a local Swazi guy to the concert.

After a day of rest I packed up my gear and rode up the hill to visit an orphanage to deliver a stack of pens, notepads and crayons for the kids. I gave about 100 kids rides on the tandem and met some of the local volunteers who recommended the Sondeza backpackers as a new base camp so I planned to relocate the next day.

On the way to Sondeza there is a famous live music venue called “House on Fire”. I rode all my gear up the hill towards Sondeza and I took a break in the shade after a long climb where I met a cool kat name Bheki who agreed to pedal up the hill to his house in Malkerns. Bheki, like most of the folks I meet in Africa, is unemployed but looking for work of some sort. He knew DJ Fresh, South Africa’s #1 DJ, was coming in and loved his music so I decided to stop by the venue and buy us some tickets. I ended up meeting the manager and, once again, the Swazi people pulled in for the ole Peace Pedalers and he hooked up Bheki with a FREE ticket to the show!

Bheki was beyond stoked when I ran out of House on Fire with a ticket and a smile so we made a plan to meet up before the concert and have some drinks and chat more. We had a lovely 10KM ride together up to his house and I made my way from there back into the Milwane Park to set up a new home in my tent at the breathtaking Sondeza backpackers where I had met some of the volunteers from the orphanage the day before.

Sondeza is more like a resort than a backpackers and included a lovely pool, endless views, a perfect tent spot and great people. The Easter Weekend brought tons of other travelers and volunteers from various NGO’s so it was a perfect spot to take some time off pedaling and enjoy the festivities.

I spent the next 3 days catching live music with my Swazi buddies, re-connecting with ½ dozen of my Swazi guest riders and their families, taking a wild kayak ride down the Usuto River with Swazi Trails, mountain biking the endless single track amongst the wildebeest, zebras, warthogs, impala and crocs all over the park—just to name a few. An excellent Easter weekend indeed 

The day after the Easter weekend a huge rainstorm came in the morning I was planning to make do a two day ride over Piggs Peak to meet my friend Mohamed back in South Africa before making my way to USA for my brother Nick’s wedding. I had a plan to meet him in two days and needed those days to ride so I muscled myself out of the tent onto the soggy grass and packed up everything in the rain. It was tough to get back into “touring mode” after such a luxurious weekend but the kilometers were soon clicking away as I climbed the long, steep hill up to the capital Mbane.

I met up with the Swazi Times newspaper to write an article and made my way to Piggs Peak. The rain and headwinds were relentless and it started to get dark so after 60KM of tough riding I met a chap in a timber truck who was kind enough to take me up the rest of the hill before dark. We had a lovely chat about his family, life as a timber truck driver, and his ancestor’s life in India. We bid farewell at the top of the summit and I searched for a place to stay.

I found a cheap pad to rest my legs that night and the following morning had the ride from heaven with mostly sunny skies, endless mountain views, a perfectly paved road, a downhill trend and almost no cars. The area around Piggs Peak is either timber companies or tourist facilities so the locals were slim pickings for guest riders.

I decided to toss on my Ipod and rock down the curvy road to the South African boarder. After crossing the boarder I was met by Mohammed and his two beautiful daughters Khadeeja and Juwayria who were glowing from their sighting of a lion in the Kruger Park on the way to meet me. Mohamed had contacted me after stumbling across the Peace Pedalers website and offered this home and enthusiasm to do some riding with me.

I spent the next few days with his wife Nasreen and kids enjoying amazing hospitality, mountain biking the local trails and having my very first experience living with devout Muslims. They were nice enough to allow me to leave all my gear at their house while I went to the states. Before I knew it I was hopping a bus to Johannesburg to meet up with Vanessa, who was flying out to Korea the same day I was flying back to USA for my brother’s wedding.

After a few amazing days in Johannesburg with Vanessa’s family and some friends I met in Swaziland I was soon saying goodbye to the African Continent, but was eager to return to continue the exploration. I was just getting started and could not wait to dig into the adventures up north. I only planned to be in the states for a few weeks, but ended up staying 6 months to seize some exciting opportunities for Peace Pedalers with Panasonic and my new executive producer Les Stroud to film the rest of the expedition.

As I close this journal from the true paradise of Tofu Beach, Mozambique, I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming…nope, I’m here. This is my new “career”—riding, filming, recording music, capturing the true spirit of humanity worldwide. It’s tons of work, but I love it.

I’ll be resting my bones here for the holidays for two weeks scuba diving, surfing, dancing, sunning and hammocking (my new word) with a lovely friend Rachel from the UK before heading to Zimbabwe early 2007.

Wow, so much has happened since what you just read happened. I even went back to Swaziland AGAIN a few weeks ago so more stories coming! I’ll catch up one of these days 

Wishing you all Merry Christmas and a super duper Happy New Years! Big love and hugs from Paradise 



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