I stretched lazily in my very comfortable bed. We four Buffels had a cottage to ourselves. We were over the road from the Racing Snakes and the innumerate cartographers. We packed up, sneaked over for porridge and yoghurt and other exceedingly healthy things that Sanel was inflicting on us and heard that Gimli Son of Gloin was swopping out for the day with Johan the Destroyer. Day 3 was the big one and our guides and map-makers were arguing about the distance and elevation – and also the route. We would backtrack a very swift twenty kilos and turn off at a specific farm, then we would engage granny gear and grind out a 500m climb or something and then we would apparently see where the road took us.
Johan, our guide for the day, had never completed this route before, and Richard from Hobbiton who knew exactly where the cycle route went, would drive the vehicle on a 200km detour and meet us somewhere in the Karroo. This made absolute sense. Malcolm “Don’t Wait For Me” Anderson would ride shotgun with Gimli to ensure that all of the kit got transferred safely, and also to make engaging conversation with our woodsman from Saasveld to keep him focussed. Sanel would follow them in the bus.
After the last minute customary bike repairs (Kobus discovered that the gremlins had mysteriously loosened his headset during the night) we set off. Our elated peloton weaved and swerved in and out through the gorges and canyons, over the low level bridges and under the overhangs. We back-tracked at a cracking pace and arrived at our farm turn-off, ably led by Johan the Destroyer looking very cute and dainty in his pink fairy wings and silly smile.
We waited in the general farm implement junkyard while Johan went in to politely engage the property owner and Charles the Paparazzi Bike Whisperer made friends with an ostrich whose legs blazed red with testosterone and wild romantic thoughts. Charles scurried back to the safety of the group and Johan returned to inform us that the farmer had not been available to chat. No-one was surprised with this. Abbey made the observation, “He probably hid when he saw you coming in that fairy outfit and in this part of the world the man grow barbed wire on their chests.”
We set off in great ignorance – blissfully unaware of the true sadism of Richard the Great. His election to drive the vehicle for the day should have been a dead giveaway. We could see the looming mountains ahead of us and their sheer scale made it unlikely that the little farm road would go around them. We started to climb, curling around into a kloof. The road snaked around switchbacks and corners and some helpful soul had been on the track with earth moving equipment. He had dug erosion prevention ramparts every fifty metres or so. This meant that every fifty metres there was a gradient of about 75% to climb over. The first few were no problem. As it turned out there were hundreds and they gnawed away at our thighs, calves and lungs.
The racing snakes climbed ahead, killing the slope. We Buffels formed a protective laager and brought up the rear. Five hundred metres altitude gain in one remorseless climb. Johan the Destroyer’s fairy wings were creating extra drag and he was wishing that Abbey had rather given him the fairy’s wand. We all pulled away from the ailing Johan – except for Janneman who announced that he would very thoughtfully hang back to ensure that Johan did not fall off a cliff or plunge down a ravine.
All good things must come to an end. We reached the top of the world, took in the sweeping views and found the Racing Snakes relaxing against a water reservoir. We waited for the sympathetic Janneman and the puffing Johan. Eventually Janneman arrived.
“Hey boys. Johan has turned around. He started getting bad cramps and he realised that he would be a burden. He said it must have been something he ate. He gave me this miniature GPS which apparently shows the route through this extreme wilderness area that is completely new to all of us. He said he would be able ride down the hill to the farmer with the chink in his curtains and then onto the main Baviaanskloof track, and from there he would hitch-hike around to Uniondale to make our supper. He said not to worry about him because he has his phone and anyway people like fairies.”
This was the longest speech that any of us had ever heard Hou Gou Vas Janneman make – he was clearly moved and feeling the weight of responsibility. Briefly.
Kobus dived across and took charge. This was his chance since he had been relegated like the rest of us to mere spectator when it came to mechanical repairs.
“Pass me the GPS. I am clearly by far the most qualified to accept this great responsibility out here in the wilds.” No-one argued.
We set off again, all present and accounted for, but now fairyless.
We drank in the sheer space and vistas around us. Paparazzi Bike Whisperer Charles darted excitedly ahead and ambushed each of us at the best viewpoints. His camera clicked away, hopelessly inadequate as a tool trying to capture the vast scale of the surrounds. Scratchy fynbos clutched at our handlebars and hands and loose stones spun as we muscled our way over the hills and mountains. Periodically we paused to regroup, and gaze ahead at the infinite ribbon of track as it weaved its way forward into the distance.
We conquered climb after climb only to peer into the glare and see another monster beckoning.
“Look at that one,” I said, “it must be several kilometres long. That is f... all. Let’s go. I can’t wait.”
Then Bossie’s repaired crank fell off and Bench Press Paine declared another sidewall cut. There were brief half-hearted offers to superglue external patches onto Bench Press’s paper-thin racing tyres – but the superglue brigade had bigger more complex repairs to attend to. They glued and bolted Bossie’s crank back on and set off to get ahead, wanting to avoid delaying the group. That left the way open to getting a tube into Bench Press’s tyre. Clean Bike Ettienne nevertheless strapped the tyre with duct tape and Abbey squirted some muti into the tyre so that we were able to get maximum involvement and contribution. We were also not taking any chances.
The new hybrid group comprising part Racing Snake and part Buffels mounted bikes and set off in hot pursuit of Bossie, Bonehead Wayne and “I Wasn’t Always This Big” Johan. We rode into a clearing with signs of cattle, and also a gate which led to what appeared to be the better defined track. There was another minor track off to the side and it went downhill which was very attractive to all of us.
“So which way did the Cranky Three go?” asked Ettienne.
“They clearly went through this farm gate and pressed straight on – without even a thought for their languishing buddies,” added Clear Weather Trevor, “I suspect that they will run into stormy weather.”
“Well then we need to follow them boys,” guided Abbey.
“You can all do that but I am going to follow the blou vlaggies on Johan the Destroyer’s GPS,” declared ‘Bring Another Burger’ Kobus. “We have to meet Gimli Son of Gloin along the road and we have the dreadfully slow and unfit Buffels with us – so we should follow the prescribed route.”
I weighed in. “Paparazzi Bike Whisperer Charles also has millions of photos of the missing guys – so it will be okay if they get lost and we never see them again. We can get big blow up photos of them for their families and loved ones.” I was quite focussed on the track that seemed to go more downhill.
The deal was done. Even Oom Abbey and Clean Bike Ettienne who normally like to keep their flock in order could see the common sense of heading more downhill and were quite happy after Paparazzi Charles promised them personal copies of the photos of the missing guys. “Also Abbey,” I reminded him, “we are less likely to run out of hot water in the showers tonight.” That seemed to clinch it.
“And Ett,” whispered Charles, “just remember that we have already lost Johan, so a few more won’t really make that much difference.”
The road curved around like being inside a stadium, swung back and revealed a deep long kloof with sides covered with striking aloes. Down we plunged, hanging on again for dear life, brakes heating up and burning. The fynbos gave way to thorny undergrowth and trees and we found ourselves breathless, adrenalin pumping, flying alongside a burbling river. The track swept up and down, in and out and we were kids on the roller-coaster at the fair. The canyon sides towered above us and we ducked under clutching branches – all the while crying out to each other in sheer pleasure.
The roller coaster hit rock bottom and we suddenly found ourselves in ultra-granny gear, panting up a path. Within minutes we were cautiously peering over the edge down at the stream – now silent in the distance. We dived down again, hung on grimly and glanced up to our way snaking up, carved into a cliff side.
“Look at that – that is f… all.” We ground it out.
We walked a bit.
Eventually we descended into an oasis of green, the track became a farm road and we flew through shallow river crossings, through glades of shady trees, fences and even a working tractor. We must be nearly home.
“Kobus – wat se die vlaggies?” we queried. “Are we there yet?”
“Not yet boys – just around this corner.”
“But that corner seems to go very steeply uphill,” we stated, rather obviously.
“That is f… all,” I added by way of psychological assistance and motivation.
The road seemed to bore into a dead end cliff side. I looked up to the left, craning my neck skywards and there I saw Ettienne, closely chased by Blou Vlaggies Kobus, miniatures on their ledge towering above us, climbing back against the flow. We Buffels followed as fast as we could. There was clearly yet another mountain to climb. Luckily I had already given the team my motivational talk – we kept moving. We rode on forever, into the sky. Again we had fynbos and views forever. We could see Kareedouw in the distance – a mere fifteen kilometres as the crow flies according to my own GPS. Between us and Kareedouw we could see gorge after gorge, which meant climb after climb. We ploughed on – by now perfectly fearless. In the space of one day we had lost our leader and our companions, we had broken bikes, we had drunk most of our water, we had eaten our paltry rations, we weren’t even sure that our fearless newly appointed leader knew the way.
“Are we still in South Africa?” asked Bench Press Paine.
“I think so,” answered Hou Gou Vas Janneman, “I saw a sign back there in Afrikaans.”
We regrouped, discovered that Paparazzi Bike Whisperer Charles had snapped Clean Bike Ettienne answering a call of nature. This seemed a bit extreme, even to us.
“Does that make him Poeparazzi Charles now?” asked Kobus, “and Clean Bowel Ettienne?”
The road dipped downwards, curved around and below us, in the distance, we saw the shining river – very far below. We released our brakes and gave way to the full force and thrill of gravity. The road was eroded, full of ruts. We flew over the rocks and bumps, laughing and trusting, the wind and tyres making such a roar in our ears that we couldn’t hear anything else – not even our thoughts. We squinted our eyes and chose our lines from the average of shaky, chaotic images as they flashed by. Our arms and hands received smashing blows from the heaving handlebars and we hung on for survival.
There was a blurred vehicle, crawling up in the opposite direction – tiny in the distance. We had to slow down – brake as much as possible without causing the wheels to skid. The others were slowing right down.
It was Middle Earth Richard, closely followed by “Fix Anything” Sanel and co-driver “Don’t Wait For Me” Malcolm. We had found them. And in the bus were our three missing kinsmen. Found.
Delight and relief. There was now no need to negotiate every single gorge and canyon all the way to Kareedouw. We arranged to meet at the river at the bottom. We scorched down the last piece of road for the day, light and fast with relief, and pulled up on the wide concrete bridge over an idyllic river – complete with viewpoints and a sandy beach.
The vehicles found a spot to park and we started to load the bikes onto the trailer – a laborious process as we packed rags around the tyres and strapped them on tight. There were some most welcome cool drinks in the bus. We drank the last of our water and gave the last few of our rations to “Yet Another Burger” Kobus. Nothing wasted.
“So Bossie and Johan and Bonehead Wayne, where were you? Looks as if you three were the light duty brigade?”
“Well first we expertly fixed a broken crank with an old buff. Then we climbed and descended the biggest and steepest hills of the whole event, and then a kindly farmer picked us up.”
“So you managed to fix a crank, climb all of these hills, flag a farmer down, get a lift, get to the end point, flag Gimli and Sanel down, strap your bikes on and meet us on our way down the hill. And after all of this you allege that you rode further, climbed bigger hills and were not on light duty? Yeah right.”
“Indeed,” asserted Bonehead Wayne, “and what is more we put Bossie in the back of the bakkie with the pieces of his bike, and his shredded buff and more than a dozen loose gas cylinders. He is lucky to be alive. He nearly got bludgeoned to death.”
“How did you come to choose Bossie for the death defying gas canister trip?”
“Well he was obviously the most annoying what with his broken crank and trying to fix everything with a buff,” explained Wayne and Johan.
Eventually all was ready. We were all together again, except for “Fairy Mampara” Johan who was no doubt at that moment still wending his way towards our eventual rendezvous in order to prepare our supper as he had promised.
Richard drove ahead with Malcolm riding shotgun – towing all of our bikes – bouncing along the rocky road – so delighted to have found us all in one piece. Sanel gunned the bus to stay in touch with Richard – Ettienne in the front seat alongside her to provide light conversation and direction. The rest of us were happily ensconced in the back, dreaming of a hot shower, a beer, a glass of wine and a hearty meal. The vehicles lurched around corners and switchbacks.
“Janneman – you can take your helmet off now – we have finished riding,” suggested Trevor.
“No ways. Not yet,” he retorted.
“LOOK AT THE BIKES!” screamed Clean Bowel Ettienne, “THE TRAILER FRAME HAS BROKEN OFF!”
Twelve bikes, all tied tight to the trailer’s framework, vertical against the piping, were lurching and see-sawing backwards and forwards – somewhat gracefully even. Gimli Son of Gloin was in a race, he floored the vehicle and lurched off, bouncing over a bridge and up the next steep climb. Our precious bikes were being buckled and twisted and flung around en masse like Christmas decorations in a windstorm.
“HOOT, HOOT!” screamed Kobus from behind Sanel.
“FLASH YOUR LIGHTS, FLASH YOUR LIGHTS!” screeched Ettienne from the front seat.
“CATCH HIM! GET CLOSER! GET CLOSER!” yelled Bossie.
Sanel floored the pedal, the vehicle skidded and almost broad sided as it gamely lurched up the hill, closing in on Richard.
Ettienne climbed out of his side window and screamed and waved, “STOP, STOP, STOP!”
Kobus dived over from behind Sanel and took over the steering wheel so that Sanel could apply herself exclusively to the hooter and the light flasher. We were instantly transformed into a howling, hooting, hell raising, low flying bus, skimming over ditches and rocks, teetering on the edge of a chasm. We came crashing like a banshee to within twenty metres of Richard and the by-now-semi-destroyed bikes.
Richard “Son of Gloin” Muller is made of stern forester stuff. He geared up, let the clutch out with a lurch and tore off again at even greater speed. The road levelled out, he changed gears again – no time to waste.
“FASTER SANEL, FASTER!”
“HOOT SOME MORE! FLASH SOME MORE!”
By now Sanel was completely smothered by Kobus who had taken over leadership of our bus completely. Janneman tightened the strap on his helmet.
“Abbey is your bike insured?” I asked, harking back to an old in-joke. I was drowned out. No-one wanted to discuss insurance or compare brokers right then.
Sanel was down on the floor working the pedals with her hands. Kobus grimly kept us on the road. Ettienne screamed instructions and encouragement. Wayne Bonehead Rebello had by now also dived over to punch the hooter and yank at the light switch. Kobus swerved to the right to semi-overtake Richard. “FASTER SANEL, FASTER!”
Then Richard saw us, or possibly even heard us or both. He slowed down and then stopped.
He stepped out of the vehicle – showdown at ok corral. “What is up boys?” Laconic.
The bus emptied, Ettienne sprinted to his precious cargo and caressed it – promising that everything would now be okay, now that Richard had grown ears and eyes. Everyone was a leader – which is wonderful of course. All those Boy Scout and Youth Brigade coaches and motivators would have been proud of their protégés. Not a single follower.
“Just tie the whole thing on tighter,” offered Wayne – you could see that he lives in a forest.
“Are you mad? The leverage is multiplied through the fulcrum of the pivotal point,” shouted Kobus – our engineer and mathematician.
“Who has pliers to cut the cable ties?” asked Abbey – ever the practical one.
“Let’s just throw the framework into the bushes,” from some wasteful soul, “it is just rubbish now.”
“I knew that this trailer was useless from the moment I saw it,” added Ettienne helpfully.
Richard, ever the strong silent woodsman type started slicing through cable ties and throwing bikes aside. My job was to catch them and stack them in the bushes on the side of the road. A new framework was fashioned without throwing any pieces away.
“Where are you going with that clean little bike Ettienne?”
“I’m going to put it into the bus with us,” he responded. “I counted the wheel slots and we are one short. One bike will have to come in the bus with us.”
“That sounds fine Ettienne – but that will have to be my bike,” I countered. “I have a borrowed wheel and cannot afford to see that buckled.”
“My bike is the smallest and the cleanest,” retorted Ettienne. He was brooking no argument. After his heroic acrobatics out of the window no-one had the heart to argue. And he was quite right about the size and hygiene factors.
We eventually gained some consensus on the best way to load the newly fashioned trailer. Straps were tightened, rags were inserted and more cables ties were found. It fell to me to scout around the scene to see that nothing valuable had been left behind.
“Janneman – I’m sure that you can take your helmet off now.”
“No way. I like my helmet. It is very comfortable. Is Kobus going to drive again?”
“Well that depends. If Sanel needs help I am sure that he will chip in again.”
“Then my helmet stays on my head.”
We arrived on the outskirts of the bustling metropolis of Kareedouw and immediately pulled up at a little coffee shop invitingly named The Sweaty Dutchman. We took it by storm, rearranging the furniture and ordering every single cappuccino that the little kitchen could muster. Toasted sandwiches were made and consumed with relish. Bossie charged off to find the biltong shop, giving the buxom lady with the gap in the teeth her biggest order of the year. "Fank yous so mush," she whistled gleefully.
Hans, the actual Sweaty Dutchman arrived and after a brief unionist gripe that we had kept his shop open past closing time, he cheered up and regaled us with his life story. We left in great cheer, with fresh insights into how Hans had become so sweaty.
Back into the bus, Hou Gou Vas Janneman donned his helmet again and we hit the road for the northern foothills of the Outeniquas, a drive of a couple of hours. This time "Let Me Help a Bit" Kobus assumed the formal co-driver position alongside a nervous looking Sanel.
"Boys, I will just chat to Sanel a bit to make sure that she has stimulating conversation and stays wide awake. I will also give her occasional advice on when to overtake and when not to. And maybe one or two other little helpful tips." We all felt greatly reassured knowing that we were in good hands, even if it was all four of them.
The sun set, clouds sank low and we pulled in to our resort for the night after dark. "Even Fairies Get Cramps" Johan was waiting for us, eager to get a change of clothing. We were now all reunited. Raucous greetings followed. "So Johan, where have you been? How did you get here?"
"I made it back to the farmhouse, sneaked past the randy ostrich and found the main Baviaanskloof road. I flagged down a farmer in his bakkie and he gave me a lift to a coffee shop in Uniondale. I phoned my father who was only two hundred kilometres away and he came to fetch me. There were some extremely friendly Buffalo Rally motorcyclists in the Uniondale coffee shop who expressed more than a little interest in my fairy appearance, and also in my relatively clean and unused bicycle."
"What did you tell them Johan?"
"I told them that I had a whole bunch of visitors from Gauteng and Cape Town. That seemed to satisfy them. Then I phoned my old man to come and fetch me as fast as possible, all the way from George."
Bottles of wine were cracked, what was left of Clean Bike Ettienne's alcohol free beers were put on ice, real beer was popped open, supper was served and we crowded into a warm lounge to swap stories and create new legends. Bossie was declared the worst mechanic on tour, every time he touched his steel-frame-rigid-luminous-green-bike it more or less fell to pieces. “Destroyer” Johan very easily won a repeat Mampara Award, “Clear Weather” Trevor declared that he had never had such fun and “Poeperazzi” Charles clicked and snapped away. We prised the helmet off “Hou Gou Vas” Janneman's head, Ettienne disappeared to strip and clean his precious bike. Oom Abbey was chairman, I took notes. “Light Duty” Malcolm made excuses with Gimli about not really being deaf. “Die Skim” Ben suggested that he was a reluctant member of the Buffels – only because his wife would not allow him to trade his 26er in for a proper 29er like everyone else. “Bonehead” Wayne was mumbling something about flying gas bottles and “Weighless” Johan was threatening to join the Buffels for the final leg. “ER24” Sanel peeled the potatoes and tossed salads. “Co-driver” Kobus ate them.
There was much debate about who would guide us across the Outeniquas for the final leg and Johan was unanimously de-selected and Gimli reappointed. Soon we were all asleep, ready for the last climbs.