Fat Bike South Africa

Fat Bike SA 7

Riding the Pugsley in South Africa confirmed its bona fides as an unmatched roughest conditions touring bike. It remains my favorite expedition wheel.

For me there are just two paramount traits in a bikepacking bicycle. Firstly, it should be forgiving to ride under all conditions of my own fatigue or reverie. On tours I’m sometimes hungry, exhausted, at high altitude, with attention that’s broken and elusive; I’m not shy about fourteen or sixteen hour days.

Secondly, there should be no terrain whatsoever that could stymie it. If a track or path or bushwhack can be ridden by bicycle at all, I want a bicycle that won’t be stopped. Over thousands of kilometers and places, the Pugs been capable, reliable, ready for anything. And the 10% of routes that a fat bike can do that other bikes can’t is the percent I remember most.

Notes: The pair of Everything Bags is excellent. In one I carried a dry bag with clothing and in the other a 64 oz. (1900ml) Kleen canteen (and flip flops). All the rest of the carriers are, of course, Revelate and have proven their quality time and again. The frame bag had food and miscellaneous gear, while the saddle bag had a sleeping quilt, puff jacket, tights, and mittens. The harness supported a tent rolled in the center of a thermarest mat. The gas tank usually had snacks, the Jerrycan had some electronics, and the front bag had my camera gear, rain/wind jacket and hat. I don’t ride with a backpack. The entire kit list was very similar to what I had at the end of touring South America.

I rode on versatile Larry tires converted to tubeless—absolutely essential for South Africa riding—with gorilla tape, a stan’s valve, and stans sealant. Anton and Jacques were kind enough to sort that out. All punctures sealed straightaway.

There are dozens of obvious ways to make this rig lighter. I’m an ex* weight-weenie, after all. But that’s only for hobby amusements. So, changes? Nah.

* Well, maybe not entirely ex.

Baviaanskloof II

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Creek flooding over trail.

163k on dirt with three big climbs ahead of us so the consensus is for a 3am wakeup and rollout soon after. I stay on Axel’s wheel as long as I can, then lose the thread on the first long pitch, his lamps jerk and flicker into dark ahead. This is the coldest time of the night, hands fisted in the mitts, hood up giving me a disembodied enclosure. Sweat soaked base layer now stabs me betrayal, but it hardly matters or registers. The ridge with the silhouette of the Earth falling away on both sides, galaxies frosting the edges and vacuums between uncountable stars.

From curlicue line on the map in my headlamp I know to expect a long descent. Much of it is along a narrow dirt road, cliff clung but mostly I can’t see the edge. Two strips of concrete—a symbol of steepness and the struggle motored vehicles have coming up. I shift and drift and weave fro and to, nothing to recommend one or the other, just the need to generate some intention or other to emboss attention at high speed, the alternative is dangerous mesmeric haze.

As if the proportion of sensory input shifts from hearing to sight with the lifting magenta day so that by the time sunlight is on the treetops it’s almost deafness. This is just the second of the nearly fifteen hours that I will spend in solitude, the boys behind me that Axel and I passed will pass me back after urgency vaporizes into the canyon. Moving for these days at a racer’s daily pace has given me so much, but the gift is in the freedom to now sweep and unhurry, get blown along by some other force than a plan, and instead just expand.

Jeep track unravels, the lower bits are flooded so I ratchet the cranks to keep my ankles dry. With the contrasty above reflecting in the water, looking up I can almost capture the calm of floating down a river. Moist acacia branches; clicks and echo; rhino dung; a donkey walks the same path that I pedal, wary. At some point I am out of the canyon proper though the walls are always close. Farms on both sides interleave the wild. Late in the day I enter a sinuous cleft in the rocks, a waving streamer of a faith and an onward.

Baviaanskloof I

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Alarm cracks 4am, tug the headlamp up from where it was around my neck like a necklace in sleep. From under blankets pull on tights, shell over base layer, on and off rain quieted. Kettle, pack a few last things. Leon is on the same drill, speak in low voices in the semi lit kitchen dining area of the main house, hosts are asleep but for the dogs and cats.

We scouted the first few k yesterday because we knew there were some turns coming out of the workers’ shacks area, now we’re steaming into darkness heads bent. We wait for the dawn light where it will warm touch first, on our shoulders as an encouragement to press west. There is mist and the wet desert smell, soft sand in the washes shushing wheels. We navigate quickly and smoothly, calling out and confirming features we expect, reporting  some of our internal monologues, “okay, there should be a fork with a cattle guard left… .” A couple of places Leon takes out the compass, my style is more to memorize landscape markers from map detail so we’re a fine team. The trail swells and crests rhythmically, a section that we’ll remember as flat but that isn’t, really.

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Gawie, Axel, Dani and Francois are behind us, they’ll have started later. We want to be sure that we are in contact when we enter the Baviaanskloof. A wilderness canyon, overgrown quiet, we’ll pick our way along the river bottom to the far end, hugged by the red blonde walls. This is a section of the Freedom Trail that I’ve been hearing about for days. Its beauty, its iconic serenity belying the geologic violence of the kloof cut, hardly spoilt backcountry. Jeep tracks that we’re linking together to enter the park have long since fallen into disuse. When we scale the do not pass sign, we’re gleeful in the knowledge that it’s not for us, nor even for a now, since the terrain has its own forbidding for anyone not under human power. There are buffalo, rhinos, and more. We’ve been advised to vigilance.

Just after dawn the boys catch us and we get on their hauling ass train. The sky tumbles and rolls into a rare grey day. We’ll still sweat and stutter while lifting bikes over deadfall or up small ravines. The once double track but now rickety barely single flumps down to the bottom—rutted, cracked orange gravel, prickly pears and harassing thorns. I’m on Dani’s wheel and we’re manic abandon, adrenaline and drunk, we circle around at the river bank enthusiastically baffled until Gawie figures out the crossing. Before then I step up to my hip into some creature’s den, it doesn’t seem to mind. Some wade barefoot, D and Axel put on shitty flip flops and Crocs, respectively, I take off my socks and put my shoes back on. Slip perilous muck under the fresh water flow, I’m tracking the colors of the jerseys and packs ahead of me through the seven foot high reeds. There is a footpath here and there, sometimes not. The sensation will be of remoteness and better not that something should go awry. It’s at times a proper bushwhack and cross the streamlets and the river itself multiple times, thigh deep without much current or drama.

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Can’t tell if it’s shadows or the bottom of my hunger that I’ve dropped. I eat a body warm cream cheese and jam sandwich, a peach, and a juice box that is left over in the frame bag from days ago. I feel like a kid on a school field trip that hasn’t gone nearly the way the chaperones had imagined. G pointedly avoids using the word “lost” in spite of convincing appearances. I don’t reveal the substantial part of me that hopes we spend the night here for the entertainment of it; I perceive that there might be tension over my one man tent for the six of us if it rains as hard as the overcast suggests that it might.

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A tunnel opens through the brush and we’re pushing through it, it spits us on to an open path and just like that we’re free. We pedal in the gathering drizzle, get to the last obstacle, a tall game fence. In near silence all the bikes are over, whisk ourselves to camp before dark.

IMG_9932Getting the Pugsley over a game fence. (Photo by Leon Kruger)

 

South Africa Postcard

Picture a little south of Tucson with no people but with giraffes and vervets. Route finding marginal vigilance, keep the valley at 2 o’clock, trail curls ’round presenting seductive wrong ways. This place so many abandoned farms but the reclaimed ruins right here are older, a more ambitious transience glorious during its seventy years ago.

Levitating atop the smallest gear, clingy traction, absorption into modal blue. Mean little sheep feet have obscured any tracks from the racers ahead but sure as sure that this is the way. Now super-G winding drop, wind from behind, body cowering back of the riser bars, tears breath leg shake over berms clip ruts loose stone into broad hazed distance.

Town in a pattern: ordered dirt grid shacks near the edges, then the road paved and painted bright concrete houses, ringing quiet to a creaking stop sign. Grandmother grandson are crossing, she’s supernova smile to my some small things and hello, directs me to the corner store. Tweeners and younger hanging about, I pass around the Doritos bag, now a bigger crowd and one of the taller ones is translating for ones who don’t speak English though half do. Someone twists up the courage to ask to ride the Pugs, there’s clamor and full press spectacle, we’re howling as some of the less coordinated boys wobble and threat, the teenage girls don’t elect to descend into this fray but hang around venturing a coolskool question now and there. One boy, half sized for his age and bent up a little differently abled but they all treat him with complete nonchalant respect and we chat, he can’t ride the bike but I put him squarely in my attention and the others get it that he’s as much as they are and he gets my first clasp with that in crowd flair where you hook your fingers and do handshapes that finish the handshake.

A bit later. The guy heads toward the fridge, says, “do you take Coke with it?”
My eyebrow up, “oh! Are you German?”
“No.”
“No.”
I’m the kind of dehydrated sun scorched spent that has me whirlybird teetered onto my ass after two local pissbeer bottles. Smiling.

Freedom Challenge

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Giddy chaos that comes in to fill the vacuum of spent effort, racers milling about, bicycles haphazard on the ground. This, one of the overnight stops in the Freedom Challenge race from Pietermaritzburg to Cape Town as well as the endpoint for the riders doing the intense Race to Rhodes. Last night Jacques and Caren were the heroic two of their group still pedaling, others leveled by the flu, Flippie and I watched vigilantly from Naudes Nek into the dark for the telltale wobble of their beams. They red rim eye exhausted arrive with 30k to go to town. Coffee, sweets. Off. We’ll see them down below in a few hours, for tales and decompression.

The Freedom Trail was scouted and refined a dozen years ago to traverse South Africa across remarkable physical and cultural landscapes. The race on that trail is demanding, adventure style with map and compass navigational challenges, massive portages, unpredictable high desert winter weather, a rough track, big climbs. Rest stations—villages and traditional farms alike—provide a respite and incredible hospitality. In a cheery and evidently unusual coincidence of two Americans on the course, my pal and top adventurer Jill Homer is up ahead, locals call her “Alaska Jill.”

A tourist on part of the route near the back end of the race, I plug into the smooth running infrastructure. I get an enviable immersion into this beautiful place and enjoy the familiar speed zealous companionship of the competitors. I’m momentarily irrationally envious of Gawie’s titanium belt drive 650b single speed, just about the opposite of my Pugs.  I accept baffled astonishment at the weight of my load, it’s acknowledged that I am on a different sort of go in having everything with me.

Laughs boasts travails on the trail, everyone embraces an earnest grace before each shared meal, thankful for the food and the safety on the ride, shuffling noises and inevitable snoring in the bunk rooms. Sometimes I cheekily aim to keep up with the torrential pace, whirring the fat disapproving tires, but I’m more often alone, will see the gang later as I arrive at the next station hours after they do. We wake each other in darkness, suit up, murmur breakfast then bolt away edged freeze by headlamp. Once a flock is startled to flight from a lake by our light, once or twice I go full dark to gaze up at Andromeda and the Milky Way.

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Freedom Trail South Africa

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Somersault windmills implore along gravel, lifting into sunrise met to maximize the short light of day. Fracturing cold so clouding breathing and shiver and fingers curled in gloves until the rising temperatures expand me across veldt. Midday will be a dry steady comfort even if not heat. The route crosses over cattle fences, heavy rig lift requiring leverage and conviction, for a welcome time lost in the hills seeing the saddle where I’m headed, chest cresting into wild sage, footfalls to holes and mud. Soon through sandstone cliffs and formations, exultant sky with the scale of Africa dismissive of the hints and relics of impermanent human intervention.

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The bokkie tells me that I’m on the right way, but here—in wind silent floating dream—there wasn’t another.

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