We were off – at last – after long drives, long flights and a long semi-sleepless night. The rain had slowed down so we had to settle for splashing each other with carefully practised, incredibly mature puddle displacement techniques and moves. A couple of exciting downhill racing sections, slippery clay mud and we were invincible.
Then it struck – an instant flat tyre – and worst of all – mine.
Nine eager consultants hovered around poking and prodding, advising and chirping. Bossie was in his bag for his chain link remover – and then we saw – the tyre sidewall had been chafed right through. No chance of a plug or even a tube with a gater. This was bad. Suddenly Charles the Bike Whisperer whipped a brand new racing extra light tyre out of his kit and proffered it with absolute generosity. All mightily impressed, we had it onto the rim in a flash, with plenty of loud advice on the precise tyre pressure required. Richard rode back a little way just to show us his swan dive into the mud - some heady stuff.
We headed into the mountains, the road dwindled to a track, the gradients steepened, both upwards and downwards and we made good cheerful progress. There was some testosterone burnt – just to feel each other out for a likely pecking order and we quickly settled into three camps – the Racing Snakes ably led and motivated by Clean Bike Ettienne, four old Buffels including me and then Don’t Wait For Me Malcolm who suddenly discovered that he wasn’t well. That was his story and he stuck to it for four days.
The Karroo filled our senses with post storm smells – sour and pungent, cold and also steamy. A fast downhill to the Grootrivier, a wet crossing, and the first big five hundred metre climb started. Granny gear, steely resolve and – a flat tyre. Damn! Ettienne and the snakes flew upwards and off – just the kindly Hou Gou Vas Janneman stayed with me to pump, and pump, and pump. We climbed and pumped, climbed and pumped, climbed and pumped – all the while assuming that the new tyre had not seated on the rim properly. Our testosterone filled friends tore into the Osseberge leaving us to our fate as we leap-frogged the ailing Malcolm who was the only one grateful for our troubles.
It rained some more, the path deteriorated further into a stony, slippery, puddle-filled obstacle course and we soldiered on. Janneman had the bright idea for us to look for tyre leaks using a large puddle – and so we determined that there were two sidewall punctures including a little tear. Out came the plugs and we speared away – confident that our problems and delays would soon be something of past. Our team mates were long gone.
The holes in the sidewall simply tore further open and the air gushed out. That was the second brand new tyre within two hours. Instant decision – tube time. Tube came out, tyre off, valve out, tube in, tyre on and pump. Again. Then Janneman commented – “Miles – here comes a bakkie.” It was still away in the distance, bumping along in the rain and gloom at a snail’s pace – the first other vehicle we had seen all day. “I wonder who drives around up here?” Then we saw a handful of miniature cyclists also making their way back towards us. About time.
The bakkie pulled alongside us and the steamy window wound down. I was expecting to exchange polite pleasantries with a random rugged farmer – and then, “Hello Miles, Hello Janneman – what are you guys doing here?” He knew our names.
Anton “I Pop Up Anywhere” Wood from Nelspruit climbed out of his bakkie and Marianne, his amused wife climbed out the other side.
“We are fixing tyres,” I explained helpfully. “In fact we have been fixing tyres all day. We just move a few hundred metres every few minutes to change the view, and then we fix tyres again.”
“Well why don’t you just take my bike?” offered Anton, “Then you could stop fixing tyres and you could ride.”
“But then we would have to try to keep up with the Racing Snakes and we might lose Malcolm completely and forever,” I explained.
The other breathless, soaked, muddy engineers arrived by bike – more warm greetings. “Kobus, Abbey – what are you doing here?” asked Anton.
“We are mainly waiting for Magic Miles and Hou Gou Vas Janneman.”
We compared wheel skewers and cluster configurations and declared total compatibility for a wheel transplant. Off with the old and on with the new. No more excuses. A few rowdy farewell greetings, claps on the back and Anton and Marianne lurched off into the sheet of rain and mud and they were gone. We were once more alone.
“So Magic Miles – how did you arrange that? There isn’t even cell phone reception.”
“That is my secret. It happens all the time. And I needed a new wheel.”
We packed our spares, shouldered our packs and set off up a steep slippery slope. The rain abated somewhat and we tackled our route with fresh energy. We needed to catch up to the rest of our party. The view revealed itself around us. The path climbed ever upwards and we could see to infinity. Our jaws dropped at the sheer space, isolation and vastness of the Osseberg. We had planned to turn off and drop down four to five hundred metres in altitude to the Grootrivier and wend our way along the windy track making multiple river crossings. We gazed over the mountains and saw Mordor itself bearing down towards us. We could see and hear the mother of a storm swirling in and it wasn’t going to wait for us or for anyone else. I had a brief thought about Anton and Marianne and hoped that they would be safe on the road. At least we had our trusty bikes.
And then it arrived.
We pedalled hard and put our heads down. We swam upstream like cycling salmon and then the hail pelted down without mercy. It stung our legs, the backs of our necks, our arms and pinged on the backs of our ears, flicking them without mercy. Thunder and lightning flashed and crashed. At least I didn’t have a puncture.
We climbed to the top of a rise and there to the right was a ramshackle shelter – something that the original voortrekkers had built hundreds of years before no doubt. Rusted and leaking and creaking in the wind – and there sheltering underneath it were Clean Bike Ettienne, Bossie and Dry As a Bonehead Wayne. Their bikes weren’t even wet. They had cheated in the most treacherous way, they had not even been back down the hill to look for their maaitjies who were pumping and fixing tyres. Well, now we knew exactly how the pecking order stood.
We regrouped and told our tales and almost forgave our three wise men, standing in the shelter waiting for a sign. The rain abated, the hail stopped.
“So did you know that when Janneman pumps he counts?” I asked. “He can go to one hundred and fifty without stopping once – and I reckon that is about three bars.”
“Does Cathy know that he counts when he pumps?” asked Oom Abbey – ever the family man.
“Ja, but I bet that he never gets past ten at home,” concluded Kobus.
Janneman simply smiled and chewed on his nuts and raisins. “I always count,” he said. “It is very important.”
We conferred with Gimli Son of Gloin Richard who had unilaterally concluded that his charges were not happy. He had witnessed the punctures, the pumping and counting and he had watched “Don’t Wait for Me” Malcolm labouring through the floods. He was the only one who knew what lay ahead and after a brief one-sided conference, he declared that we would take the high road to our destination. He did concede that it would be slightly further – but that was nothing compared with the avoidance of crossing some thirteen swollen rivers – some of which may well have burst their banks exceedingly dangerously. He clearly did not yet trust these shifty Gautengers who were unlikely to know the difference between a vygie and a protea.
Richard bravely took the lead and we followed.
The track snaked left and right, up and down. There were farm gates at which we all dutifully gathered to wait for each other. There were firm resolutions never to leave each other for dead again and Clean Bike Ettienne was obviously devastated at having missed out on some bike repair operations.
Eventually the road tapered downwards and soon we were hurtling along like kamikaze pilots as the altitude dropped and dropped. The track broadened into a district road and the rain evaporated and the smells enveloped us. We burst out into the outskirts of the bustling town of Patensie and within a few hundred metres we found Johan and Sanel with our vehicles – parked outside a rustic coffee shop. The surprised proprietors had lit a fire since it was National Braai Day and she was sacrificing cheese and tomato broodjies on her embers. She declared that these were a treat for her staff at the end of a hard day.
Her day was only just starting – for we bustled into her shop to drink all of the cokes and all of the cappuccinos she could muster – and Kobus shouldered her aside in a manly manner and assumed the braai position. He sent her for dozens more broodjies with cheese and tomato, soon the wors was alongside the broodjies and we were feasting on the poor woman’s staff’s food without a care in the world. All the while Kobus “Bring Another” Burger declared that this was his best day ever.
We learnt that shortly after Johan the Destroyer had dropped us off in another world in a previous life, the whole bike trailer had disintegrated. The top section had sheared off and the rack bolts had shaken loose. Johan was dragging a demolition site behind him. He needed professional help desperately, in the rain on National Braai Day. He limped into the hospitable hamlet of Hankey and set about on a quest for a helpful man with a welder. That was easy. Within a short space of time our trailer was back in one piece, the rack bolted back on, and the kind nameless soul refused to accept even one cent in compensation. After our experience of conjuring up Anton and the spare wheel on the very top of the most remote mountain in the world, we knew that greater forces were looking after us. We thanked them silently.
A hose pipe was unrolled, tap was turned on and we quickly cleaned our bikes for the next leg. We said goodbye to the Braai Tannie and her coffee shop and hit the tar road at great speed. We tracked alongside the Gamtoos River past extensive fields of orange trees and got up some momentum. The edges of the flood plain came closer until we were speeding past curious pock-marked cliffs that leaned in on us – conglomerates of ancient riverbed boulders held suspended in cement like walls. We sped up a bit just in case the prehistoric building inspector had been a bit lax with the cliff-side building regulations. There was enough debris on the road to tell us that a flimsy cycling helmet was going to act as a mere irritant to a descending boulder.
The tar road gave way to dirt, the famous geological folds of the Baviaanskloof towered above us on both sides and we turned our attention from the Gamtoos River to tracking the Groot River, stopping several times to take in the splendour of our new surroundings. The road got windier, the little hills became bigger hills, we crested a rise, found our turn-off and climbed that last couple kilometres to our new home for the night just as the sun was setting. We had covered about 85km, climbed about 1900m, had punctures, borrowed wheels in the wilderness, had an impromptu braai, been rained on, been hailed on (well some of us), been shone on and also trashed a trailer. A very good day in the saddle.
We washed bikes, except for Ettienne and Bossie who stripped, scrubbed and polished theirs.
We found the showers and a bed each. Johan and Sanel cooked delicious burgers and then Oom Abbey conducted the prize-giving. Malcolm reluctantly surrendered his pink top and fairy wings, so deservedly won the day before. The Oom Abbey kangaroo court unanimously awarded the pink fairy paraphernalia to me for breaking the world record for punctures and pumping and also for obtaining a new wheel from nowhere in the middle of nowhere. I knew that they were just feeling a little inadequate so I graciously accepted my award and tried it on. The slinky pink top was not made for one of the Buffels – this was not going to work.