A Cure for Clutch Ails You: Oubones to the Rescue

The Katse Lodge’s credit card machine wasn’t working and paying villagers for help had tapped nearly all of my money. I had just enough cash to pay for my room with breakfast before I’d need an ATM. From what I could see, I was the only person staying there. The parking lot was completely empty. I hauled my luggage and pannier into my room to take stock of it all and make sure the contents weren’t too damaged by all the damage. Each step hurt extra carrying the additional weight. I got undressed to take a shower in the communal bathroom in the dorms and marveled at the multicolored and lumpy tapestry that was my legs. After the shower, I ran to the ATM so I could afford to eat. When I returned, I limped back to the lounge, snapped some requisite photos of the beautiful scenery, and ordered lunch and a much-needed beer.

After filling my stomach, I grabbed my laptop and took advantage of the WiFi to get some work (read: this goddamn endless blog) done. Before I got too far in, a couple in motorcycle regalia walked in. I flagged them down and introduced myself. They were a pair of South African motorcyclists, and they were friendly. Perhaps, too friendly. The guy bought me beer after beer after beer. I told them about my ordeal, and he mentioned a big map of Lesotho at reception. We walked over so I could show where I crossed. On the map, the entire route was labeled “4×4 Track.” This explained some things to me.

We ended up chatting and getting more than a little drunk, eventually eating dinner together at a table. Afterwards I limped back to my room with my laptop, too drunk to get any more work done. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow despite my aching body.

Despite an early night, I slept until 8am. In the morning, I ate middling breakfast. Then I had some work to do on the bike, bending my seat mount and topbox latch back into something resembling working order, and other various things. One of the handles to my topbox mount fell off when I looked at it wrong. Ugh.

I was moving absurdly slowly. It was just after 10am when I had my things loaded again. When I checked out, the receptionist informed me they’d under-billed me for breakfast and I had to pay more. Total bullshit. I paid it anyways and hit the road. I once again crossed over the top of the dam, which meant another security checkpoint. The guard there had seen me the day before, and was crazy excited that I was an American. He kept telling me how happy he was to see me and how welcome he hoped I felt. It was adorable even as it was annoying he was keeping me. My clutch was dying and I was concerned about how long it may take me to get to the Wild Dogs National Bash in Ladybrand.

I made it back to the main highway and started my long slow path back to South Africa. The first stretch of the road hugged the reservoir, winding crazily along the receded edge. I passed the intake tower, rising lonely many meters above the water level. The wild curves continued for a very long time, as I the road worked its way up to what seemed like the most ridiculous mountain pass I’d ever witnessed, and then spent dozens of kilometers snaking down into an endless mountain plain. On every uphill, I fought my failing clutch to maximize my power while avoiding the worsening slipping.

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This is not the view from the mountain pass, which was too crazy to stop and shoot photos of.

After the mountain pass, things leveled off substantially, much to my relief. I was heading to a border crossing in the Lesotho capital of Maseru, and every kilometer brought more and fancier development. The cars became fancier. More industry appeared. The mountainous craziness I’d seen initially had been replaced by a vast and substantial steppe. Things were a slightly brighter shade of green than the muted landscape of before. I passed through town after town, many clearly organized around a single industry; the most memorable was dotted with small-scale quarries, the entire town built out of and selling white stone blocks and bricks. Huge dusty white towers of the stuff lined the roads, with the more creative citizens displaying tiles, sheets, and handicrafts made out of the stuff.

I couldn’t go more than around 58mph in straightaways and, taking the playbook from the overloaded trucks, I struggled to get up even the slightest inclines. I played leapfrog with huge diesel-belching buses that would fly past then immediately pull over to pick people up, only to repeat the process until I pulled off to stretch. At one point, a fancy SUV with tinted windows and a police escort screamed past me at around 100mph (160kmh). I wondered if it was the King.

Eventually, the lumpy landscape of Maseru appeared on the horizon. Pulling into town, I ran into the first stoplight I’d seen in days. I marveled at traffic control, traffic, and pedestrians everywhere. For what it’s worthy, the pedestrians seemed to marvel back. My good friend Marc had once lived in Maseru, and I took a brief jaunt off of my journey to stop by his old elementary school. Getting there involved climbing up from the hustle and din of the city proper and up to a more affluent neighborhood. I parked in front and took some pictures. A security guard scoped me out, then chatted with me. I explained why I was there and he seemed excited. He told me it was a good school.

There once was this boy named Marc… and he went to the school in the sky.

From Maseru Preparatory School I headed to the border. Lesotho stamped me out in minutes. South Africa gave me shit because someone had messed up on one of my many entrances and they were confused about how many days I had left in the country (one can only spend 90 days in South Africa before they need to be stamped back into their own country, apparently), but they eventually got their shit together and let me in.

Things were calm on the South African side of the border. I was back on a beautiful highway that’s endemic of South Africa, down to the obsessive signage. I passed through a handful of kilometers of farmland and was eventually rolling into Ladybrand, home of the Wild Dogs National Bash. Google Maps routed me to the campground they were at down surface roads pocked with potholes as if they’d been recently bombed, down a dirt road, and finally into the gated driveway of a campground. As I entered, I saw adventure motorcycles scattered absolutely everywhere interspersed with tents and riders. It looked jumping. After checking in and being told to camp wherever I wanted, I rode into the din to waves from every stranger that set eyes on me. It seemed like a friendly crowd.

I parked my bike in an uninhabited spot in the middle of the campground and wandered around on foot looking for the folks I’d met in Himesville. It was a large area, and I was about to give up (there were just too many adventure bikes to be able to pick out the ones belonging to the folks I’d met) when I heard a voice call my name. My friends had found me! I asked if I could camp next to them and they waved me into a spot. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Camping with new friends
Surrounded by tons of large adventure bikes

 

I set up camp while chatting with some of the folks I’d come to see. While still setting up, a guy approached me and introduced himself. His name was Hennie, aka Oubones, and he was the first person to send me a message on the Wild Dogs forum offering his help and a place to stay if I happened to be in his area. I said ‘hi’ and told him about my clutch situation. Within five minutes, he’s phoned someone, and with one call, located a brand new clutch for my bike near him hometown. He told me I could come with him and his family and he’d give me a place to stay until I could get my bike fixed. I was in awe. Before I had too much time to revel in my luck, I was pulled to the bar, where I met dozens of ridiculously friendly and kind adventure bikers. My new friends shared their dinner with me, and I ended up having numerous drinks bought for me, many new friends made, and a sweet Wild Dogs hat from the previous bash gifted to me.

It was a dangerous place. When I’d hit my alcohol limit, the drunk folks remained persistent. Eventually, I ghosted on the crowd and headed to bed before they could peer pressure me into more. I awoke to Hennie giving me a wake-up call. Him, his wife, his son, and two female friends were heading to a town called Clarens, that I’d heard was a big motorcycle destination, for a night before heading to their hometown of Hammarsdale. I’d asked to tag along. We packed our things. Hennie had a diesel van with his BMW F650GS on a trailer on the back. His son was riding a Honda NC750X. Their friends had another car in tow.

After a couple bumps in the road out of the bash (Hennie’s van needed a jump, and a trailer with a BMW 1200GS that was being raffeled needed to be picked up and dragged out of the way of some obstacles), we hit the road. With my clutch, I struggled horribly to keep up. Within 30 minutes, a cover from Hennie’s BMW flew off and I stopped the van. It had already been ran over, but Hennie asked about how I was going with my clutch, and brought up that I may end up shedding clutch pieces into my oil and damaging my engine. He offered to exchange my bike for his on the trailer, and let me ride his BMW to Clarens. I was flabbergast by the trust and generosity, but I accepted. We swapped the bikes out on the side of the road.

My ride gets a ride, and my gas mileage improves dramatically

We caught up to Hennie’s son at a farm stall/restaurant along the way, and I rode the remainder of the way to Clarens with his son on the NC750X. The kid was a speed demon, and it was all I could do on the F650GS to keep up with him. It was a scenic, if windy, path, with buttes and mountains lining the largely green path. Clarens itself was a super cute touristy town arranged around a large square central park and nestled serenely in the mountains. We took a brief trip around it before heading to an adorable backpackers where we could set up our tents to camp. After we got settled, Hennie and his son ferried the rest of us to town (picking me up and riding me there on his son’s motorcycle) where we hung out, walked around, and drank fancy craft beer. The town was totally jam-packed with South Africans who head there for the weekend, many of them on motorcycles, including many of the same folks who’d been at the Wild Dogs bash. After a few hours of that, we headed back to the backpackers where Hennie’s son (also Hennie, and AKA Bones) braaied up a feast. We ate, drank, and chatted. I also met some pretty cool folks also staying at the same Backpacker’s who were there for a Lada (a cheap Soviet-era 4×4 car) meetup.

The greeters at the backpackers

It rained in the night. and things were pretty soggy the next morning. While we let things dry, Hennie, his wife Rodene, and I went for a hike along a trail behind the property while things dried in the sun. There were remnants of old stone fence posts, a pump house, and eventually a great view of a levy and water-carved landscape.

The old Levi/Hennie-Selfie

As we got back, it started to rain again, and there was a mad dash to get all the gear back under cover and out of the rain. The rain let up, but the forecast called for loads more as well as plenty of rain later that day, so the family decided we’d load all three bikes up, two on the trailer, and Hennie’s in the back of the van. It took awhile and some physical Tetris to get everything loaded, but we pulled it off.

Do you see the motorcycle in this van?

After we loaded up, me in the van, we hit the road. The wind was totally insane; I was super happy to not be on the bike. Hennie had plans to show me some nice scenery. We passed through the appropriately named Golden Gate Highlands National Park, which wraps a beautiful mountain pass. Hennie took us venturing onto a scenic side-route along a small paved road up the side of a mountain I’d have never found on my own. Multicolored painted cliffs dotted the landscape, with occasional large mammals grazing away. Lightly colored vegetation that has seemed like a staple through water-parched southern Africa covered everything not devoid of dirt.

 

Descending out of Golden Gate Highlands we passed through huge swaths of burned charred grasslands. In some places, a dramatic waving line between green grass and black char was visible. Wisps of smoke and ash still rose through the air, and the smell was one fresh wildfire. The landscape flattened out, but the specters of the Drakensberg mountains haunted the horizon. For my benefit, Hennie led us out of our way to Royal Natal National Park, where a famous land formation known as “The Amphitheater” is located. It was hazy and sprinkling rain, so while the photos didn’t pan out perfectly, I got a good feel for the impressive mountain range.

I wish we’d had time to stop at this Cannibals restaurant for a bite to eat…

A final rainbow sent us out of this last national park. After dinner, the weather deteriorated with the setting sun. The last couple hours were wet, windy, and miserable. Around 9 o’clock, we rolled through a gate on a hilly country road in Hammarsdale and into the family home. With many hands, we made quick work of unloading the motorcycles and all the gear from the van. Hennie Jr. once again cooked us a great meal on a BBQ, and I was set up in a central room in the house.

I was the late riser in the family waking up at 7:30am. Hennie’s brother was coming in later and escorting me to the motorcycle shop, so I went to work getting some work trying to repair my bike before he showed up. We were headed to the workshop of Derek “Mad Murdoch” Graham, a former motocross star who was injured racing, and subsequently crippled after a botched surgery. Of course, he was also a friend of Hennie and his brother. When I arrived, Derek directed one of the mechanics along a vast hall of parts, plastic pieces and mufflers hanging from the ceilings, motorcycles in various states of assembly arranged neatly in lines. He pointed out a box labeled DRZ400. Inside were wiring harnesses, various doodads, and a pile of individually wrapped clutch parts.

“Mad Murdoch”s many awards
And a brand new clutch!

The mechanic was a soft spoken chap who showed me photos of the two DRZ’s he’s had in the past, and he made quick effective work of the task. I once again needed to address a failed weld on my rear rack, which was becoming something of a recurring story, so after the clutch I pulled the top case off and he went off to weld it back together for me. In the meantime, I was also able to source a half-decent replacement mirror for mine that was smashed in the night in Lesotho.

Hennie’s brother meanwhile was working in a crazy workshop on diesel fuel pumps using large ancient Bosch machinery. He walked me through a bit of how it works over a beer, and then we went to lunch down the street. Aside from making a pretty decent pizza, the restaurant was a sort of half-way house for troubled folks, like Delancy Street in SF. Our waiter told me about how he’d walked all the way around the continent of Africa. When I asked him about some troubled borders, he responded with stories of being smuggled between Morocco and Algeria, and advised me that I needed to stop thinking “like an American” to get through them. It actually seemed like pretty sound advice.

Fun with diesel fuel pumps!

When my bike was back together and I’d paid (Mad Murdoch was nice enough to give me a discount on parts, but clutch plates in SA don’t come cheap!) I headed back to La Casa de Hennie. I spent the next two hours with a hammer, a wooden plank, some vice grips, and my panniers, smashing and bashing away until they were made out of something even remotely resembling straight lines. When I placed them back on my bike and they *fit*, I was overjoyed!

Hennie was the last of the family back from work, and we’d decided to go out to dinner. The poor guy was out of work so late that the first couple spots we tried weren’t serving dinner. Eventually, we ended up at an Italian Mafia-themed restaurant. I drove everyone crazy by managing to buy dinner and only order a salad. Mission accomplished!

The word on the street was South Africa was expecting massive protests the next day organized by South Africa’s largest labor union (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party, which had threatened to “shut down the country.” After talking to the family about what this meant (supposedly roadblocks and potentially tired full of petrol burning in the streets), I decided it was probably best to stick around another day and avoid trying to make it through Durban during all this. I was also sold by the prospect of tasty coffee, working WiFi, and some scenic rides if I swung by Hennie Jr.’s work. I settled on a day of taking it easy.

In the morning, I lazily prepped and hopped on the bike. It was a leisurely and scenic ride through sugar cane fields and past logging trucks out to the small one-horse town where Hennie Jr. managed the one store in town. Once there, I was setup in the break room with power, internet, pod-cappuccinos, and even beef with gravy on rice. I sat around and worked for awhile, meeting the mayor, some cops, and various other folks who cycled through. Hennie Jr. then gave me advice on a ride that took me through parts of the Valley of a Thousand Hills, through more fields and forests, small towns, and curvy hilly dirt roads. Eventually I circled back before more rain struck.

That night, the family went all out to get me back for the dinner (and because they’re a crazy kind and generous bunch) cooking up a huge steak meal in the style of Spur (an American-themed steakhouse chain popular in South Africa that mystifyingly uses a feathered headdress-wearing Native American as its mascot). The steaks were massive and delicious. The forecast called for another day of rain and misery the following day, and they once again tried to convince me to stick around another night, but the time had come. It was time to move on. Next stop: Durban!

Holy fucking shit, Lesotho.

Update Oct 7 2017: I’ve finally managed to get all the supporting photos uploaded for this post.

I awoke in the well-furnished confines of my Himesville Arms digs ready for an epic ride. I’d downloaded the offline map of Lesotho to Google Maps (the entire country fits in one downloadable region). I had a few points of interest I wanted to swing through, and a rough plan for how I’d get to them. I packed my things and hit the road.

The day was warm and clear, perfect for enjoying the broad mountain vistas of Lesotho. As I finished the first handful of kilometers of tree-lined pastoral landscape to get to the turnoff for “Sani Pass Rd.” my excitement was nearly bubbling over. The first 20km or so of the pass road are perfectly paved. The mountains seem to pull in around you as you begin your ascent. Then, abruptly, the pavement ends, and a decent gravel road begins. For the first few kilometers, you ride up and down, around bends, hugging a rock-choked stream. Towering light-brown/green ridges encompass most of your view. Despite changing elevation constantly, you don’t really seem to be rising much. You can’t get much of a view in front or behind yourself at any given moment. The struggle of maintaining the road is ever-evident. Every few turns is a huge washout with a construction crew. Elsewhere, huge concrete tunnels are being installed beneath the road. Luckily, the few 4x4s and construction vehicles on the road mean you’re waved through with little ado.

Then the road starts to change. It takes a decidedly upward trend. I passed some small un-labeled buildings and began to worry, as I’d heard the South African border checkpoint is at the bottom of the pass, and I didn’t particularly want to get to the top only to be sent back down to get a stamp. Then a small paved ramp appeared to the left — a sign of development — and further on, the border post appeared.

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I parked, and a few moments later, a very odd couple showed up on an adventure motorcycle behind me. Excited, I tried to chat with them only to be uncomfortably rebuffed. No matter. I headed to the immigration office, and had a brand new stamp within seconds. I bid farewell to the weird pair of bikers behind me and headed off to the pass.

Sani Pass is gorgeous. Hugging the mountain, the dirt road quickly angles up and up, cutting a path to the sky. Across the winding river, huge stone pillars rise up from the mildly-grassy mountains like sentinals watching. The sun glints off of small rivulets of water running down near the top of the ridge producing the appearance of patches of snow. Sheer rock faces tower above the mountain slope, menacingly. The road continues to meander, the drop to the water becoming more pronounced, the surface becoming less dirt, more pebbles and shards of shale. The road is narrow and rarely flat or straight, so turning off to take photos seems like a poor idea. Instead, I ride slowly and deliberately, taking in as much of the scenery as I can. Finally, I come to the first of the tight steep turns that’s made the road famous. My spirits are up among the mountain tops.

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I begin to make my way up through the curves. They’re steep and covered in loose rocks, but thoroughly do-able. My motorcycle was built for roads like this, and it shows. The odd folks behind me at the border come flying up past me in a hail of rocks, but my only thought is they’re missing out. Where possible, I stop, take off my helmet, and feel the not-insubstantial wind in my hair as I look out across the valley below, marveling at the snake-like path I’m on. From the middle of the curves, you seem to be sitting on a precarious spot, with a steep rock face to one side, and a perilous dropoff to the other. Maintaining the speed to continue up the mountain, but still make hairpin turns, made my palms sweaty and the hair stand up on my neck. I imagined the madmen who take this road in the winter, then quickly tabled the thought.

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Part-way up the bends.

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The last few curves are the steepest, and as I climbed up, I had to pass around a pair of massive BMW R1200GS bikes and an RV on their way down. Giving my bike enough power to overcome gravity, the horizon leveled off to reveal a broad steppe, border post, and 100 meters ahead, pavement! Off to the right, just beyond the border fence, the famous pub at the top of the pass could be seen. With only 17-or-so tight turns, the road to the top seems to stretch on forever, but I still felt a twinge of disappointment when it’s over, and that I couldn’t ride something so crazy and awesome for another hour or two. These thoughts rattled around the back of my subconscious brain while the rest of my conscious mind rejoiced in a sea of feeling accomplished.

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The road went from this…

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I was excited.
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Very excited!

I parked my bike and headed to the border post for a perfunctory stamp and to pay the small toll. Then it was off to the highest pub in Africa for some requisite photos, a pint of the local beer Maluti, a chicken wrap, and a hell of a view of Sani Pass. I reveled in the cognitive dissonance of the place’s WiFi, and after unnecessarily sharing on social media that I’d friggin’ made it to the top of the world (and highest African border crossing), I sipped my beer and planned my next step.

Lesotho is a small country completely situated in the mountains. As such, it gets a substantial amount of snow fall and is treated as a giant water supply for much of South Africa. There’s a lot of complicated history there that I highly recommend as reading for those curious, and that history has a non-trivial role in the political tumult Lesotho continues to struggle with, such as a top general being assassinated there the week before I arrived.

With all this water, the massive Katse Dam was built to harness it (proposed by a South African engineer and organized by the World Bank. The damn thing cost $8 billion dollars!). Situated near the middle of the country, the second largest dam in Africa, as well as its highest, this seemed like the next logical destination. There are a small number of paved highways through Lesotho, and Google Maps advised a rather straight and boring route there along one of them. I instead zoomed in and found a more direct, but substantially smaller and curvier option that I wanted to try. I was going to live dangerously. No matter how you look at it, this was an amazing decision. Depending on how you look at it, it was amazingly good or bad.

I paid for my meal in South African Rand and got my first of the local Lesotho currency (conveniently equivalent and interchangeable within the country with Rand, just like Namibian dollars) as change. The highway was beautiful in nearly all senses of the word. It was perfectly paved, relatively well labeled (aside from sudden, insane corners), full of beautiful views, and also super curvy, occasionally steep, and nearly desolate. In other words: it was a perfect highway for motorcycling.

Immediately after Sani Pass, my path down the highway swung again upwards, to an even higher mountain pass. No matter how many times I describe a beautiful mountain vista, no justice will be done to them, and this was no exception. The mountains of Lesotho felt a bit like the middle of the Andes, as if the mountains east of Santiago had grown grass that then were left to dry nearly to a golden brown, that is to say, they lack the jagged edges of the Rockys but maintain their impressiveness. It took a couple surprise curves to realize a little “>” or “<” sign took the place of a massive billboard with flashing lights that you’d see in the States for the types of curves placed on the highways here. The roads rarely had a speed limit marker, because there’d be no point. You could go as fast as you wanted… it was pretty damn slow if you wanted to live.

I followed Google Maps down the highway, passing a fast cadence of tiny mountain-side settlements of small round stone huts with pointed thatched roofs, goats, sheep, cows, donkeys, and horsemen. Lesotho (pronounced ‘Lih-SOO-too’) is the established homeland of the Sotho (‘SOO-too,’ obviously) people, traditionally mountain herding people. The prevalent dress out in the mountains is a thick heavy blanket fastened by a giant metal clip (similar but different to a safety pin) worn over the shoulders, and frequently a thick woven balaclava around the head, even in mid-day when it’s warm. Nearly everyone in the country older than mid-teen years carries a stick, riding crop, or whip, even when there are no animals in sight, an uncommon occurrence.

I’d heard that fuel was few and far between, so when I passed a set of ragged-looking pumps to my left on a flat bend in the road, I doubled-back and pulled up to them. A guy wearing (what I ignorantly consider) the traditional garb sans-balaclava was standing nearby, and stared at me with a slack-jawed wonder. The pump said “paraffin.” I asked if there was any petrol, and he tightened his jaw long enough to say “yes!” then loosened it again, continuing to stare directly at me, immobile. I was unconvinced. I pointed at my tank and again inquired about gas. Again, “yes!” Eventually, someone else came out of the attached store and said there was no petrol. I asked where I could find it, and he pointed back the way I’d come. I still had over half a tank plus my reserve, so I figured I’d carry on. The slack-jawed man continued to marvel at me in silence until I was out of view.

I took the first turnoff Google Maps recommended started in the village of Tlokoeng. The grass-covered road descended immediately and steeply downward into a river, with deep ruts and the occasional boulder. It looked brutal, and I second-guessed myself after only about 100 meters. On the insane road, I once again referred to Google maps and found another pathway to the road I was aiming for just a few kilometers up the road at Mapholaneng. I turned around on the steep and narrow grass path to odd looks in the village and again hit the highway. When I got to the second version of the turnoff, things looked far more promising, so I figured Google had just routed me on the worse of the pathways to the main cross-country route. Once again, I’d had a sign, but ignored it.

The road I’d turned onto was hard, but it was beautiful and totally do-able… at first. About a kilometer down the road, in a stretch clinging to a mountain and quite bumpy with stones, a large flatbed truck with a picker arm attached was slowly making its way towards me. I pulled to the side to allow it to pass, and it pulled up next to me. The driver leaned out the window and asked me where I was going. I told him Katse Dam. He asked if I was by myself. I said yes, and asked if the road was bad. He said yeah, parts are bad, but he looked at my bike, said I “could make my own path,” and that I should be fine. He continued off towards the highway, and I continued my poor choice.

Decent roads were common… at first.

There was no such thing as straight and flat, and instead I bumped up and down mountain pass after mountain pass, with little but small Sotho villages of more round huts for signs of human development. Dodging goats, horses, cows, and donkeys became part of the adventure. From the tops of the mountains, I could see the road etched into the dry muted landscape. Up and down I went, mildly intimidated by the whips and sticks the locals were armed with. Kids waved and held their hands out for money or sweets. Old women stared silently and questioningly as I passed by.

The first 41km passed just as such. I was enjoying myself. Then there was a fork in the road. I was using navigation and as such, failed to notice (in fact, I only did just now re-tracing my steps) that on Google Maps, the side of the fork I was taking was identified in smaller strokes, indicating a different grade of road. But I’m being generous. What I turned onto became something altogether separate than a road. It was just around noon when I turned right onto a waking nightmare.

Perhaps the wreckage should have been a hint…

Ignorant of what I’d done, I marveled at how the “road” devolved so quickly. Huge water-cut ruts began to appear and wind through the steepest parts. The dirt was replaced with rocks, nay, boulders! Eventually, I stopped at the foot of a mountain and just stared at the gnarly pile of rocks climbing up to the summit that I was intended to cross. I dismounted and walked the path all the way to the top, trying to identify the best course up to avoid tragedy. I went back down to the bike, rode up to what I’d thought was the top, only to find the path continued. I hiked again. And again. And again. Up and down, the path was so insane I couldn’t confidently ride many of the stretches without pre-planning.

I can’t remember the first time I dropped the bike. The times blend together. I’d be riding up and over huge boulders, bouncing literally from one to another, and my front wheel would hit at an angle and I’d be thrown off like I was riding a bucking bronco. Down was even worse with the additional effort of needing to ride the clutch and brakes to control speed, combined with the less forgiving additional weight on the handlebars. My panniers and handlebars absorbed hit after hit, gaining new scratches and dents. At one point, a massive rut was running through an incline I needed to pass. The majority of the road was on the right, but the water had also washed all the dirt away, leaving jagged and broken rocks loose and imposing. On the left was a mildly-less treacherous path, but one that was narrowly winning against the mini-canyon to its right. I chose the path on the left, terrified of the bike ending up in the ditch. Luckily it didn’t. Instead, when riding off a ledge and onto a pile of loose rocks that caused my bike to come to a crashing halt, the bike stayed up on the path. I, however, when rolling sidelong into the hole. I picked myself up and dusted myself off. The fall didn’t hurt at all, but looking at the surrounding situation, I couldn’t help but begin hysterically laughing. It was just too absurd.

A remarkably common sight…

I passed tiny village after tiny village. I hiked a huge portion of the road twice, scoping things out and returning. I rode through small rivers. The road frequently disappeared in a pile of rocks with no indication of where it was and where it was going, but Google Maps had a pretty spot-on path that kept me oriented. Occasionally the road passed right through what seemed like someone’s yard. The road didn’t improve. It only got worse. The first 6 or so times I laid it down, I picked it back up and continued on, but after that, I was getting tired, and I started recruiting the locals. Invariably, before they’d help, they’d demand money. No matter what I gave them, afterwards, they wanted more. Not that it’s an excuse, according to Wikipedia, “about 40% of the population lives below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day.” I was paying far higher prices for a little bit of help.

Shit got intense. The roads were one step up from impassable. The worst of them I was too shell-shocked to photograph. There’d been no potable water supplies, and I’d run out of drinking water (I hadn’t brought as much as normal, expecting South Africa’s water bowl to provide with the aid of my water filter), I’d been on hard roads since the morning, and I’d picked up the more times than I was singularly able. I was exhausted. When I’d hike up and down the mountains to find a path, sweat poured out of my helmet. I could feel bruises growing and stiffness setting in in my legs from repeated tumbles.

On a particularly treacherous stretch of road, I took a tumble. I tried repeatedly, but I no longer had the strength to right the bike. I sat down on the side of the road and worked out my plan. Looking around, other than the “road,” there were zero signs of civilization. I was truly alone. I needed a break. I was completely exhausted and worn down. I didn’t want to keep going; I wanted to give up and just leave. I dreamt of another huge truck passing and just carrying me out of there. Looking at the path ahead and behind, the unstoppable notion in my head was just that I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t want to fall and crash. I didn’t want to struggle and find paths that failed. I wanted a break, a respite, a nice meal and a warm bed. I thought about my GPS transponder and what it would mean to hit the help button, but then I thought of the plan I’d made up with my genius friend Michael. He’d assume far worse than my situation, and my loved ones would be terrified. I wasn’t emotionally prepared for the fallout from that.

No. I would camp there on the steppe, next to the bike, and try again in the morning. I There was still an hour or two of daylight, so there was no rush. It was finally starting to get cold, which was a blessing. I’d try again in the morning. I’d persevere. I wouldn’t be beaten by Lesotho. I wasn’t personally convinced, but as I’d been all my life, I was stubborn. Then I spotted a figure on the horizon.

I watched from my high vantage. The figure wasn’t quite on the road, but was following it more-or-less. I waited, hoping they’d be kind and sympathetic. I felt vulnerable… because I was. As the figure approached, I made out a woman wearing nearly western-style clothes. When she approached, I asked for water and made the sign for it, but she either didn’t understand or didn’t want to (this ended up being a particularly confusing recurring thing). Instead I asked her for help picking up the bike. She set her coat down and helped me right it. Unprompted, I handed her 30 rand, so thankful for her help given my location. But the road was still a nightmare. I made it another 40 meters or so, then ended up back on the ground, a new bruise swelling in my right leg. The woman was subsequently making her way along the road, and again came to my aid. Together, we righted the bike, and this time, I crested the mountain.

On the other side lay misery. I was looking down on a field of stones, at at least a 30 degree angle. The path was inconsistent and dangerous. I hiked a bit of it, checked Google Maps to see my remaining distance to tar (26km), set my jaw, and  decided to try and escape this cursed place. I made it about 100 meters before the impassable landscape once again claimed my upright status. When I achingly got up, I paced and cursed. I couldn’t do it anymore. I was too beaten, sore, exhausted, thirsty, hungry, and demoralized. The sun was about 30 minutes from dipping below the mountain tops. I looked at my steep and barren surroundings and I made up my mind: I’d set up camp here tonight, despite my lack of adequate rations (I have emergency dry food for these situations), pick up the bike, and continue on in the morning.

The woman who’d helped me out previously was still trekking, and in my direction. After contemplating my shitty situation for about 10 minutes, she trundled over the top of the mountain and came to my meager new home. She looked at my bike and me, her expression showing sympathy and saying “that’s some shit you got yourself into!” In Sotho I could understand (by context alone), she asked what my plan was. I held my hands up to my head and tilted it sideways in the universal sign of “sleep” and pointed to the brush off the road. She was having none of it.

My savior!

In English, she said “no no no,” followed by “village,” followed by pointing, followed by her immediately trying to pick up my backpack to carry it for me. I stopped her and told her I could carry it, even though it was awfully tempting to suddenly acquire a porter. I was nervous of the massive cultural disconnect I was entering, but I shouldered my backpack, grabbed my helmet and tank bag, and set out down the mountain, following the woman.

We hiked in alternating silence and failed conversation. She had a handful of English words, but they seemed well practiced statements. She couldn’t tell me how far we were going. She seemed confused and just laughed when I asked her if she had water. But she told me in no uncertain terms that I’d stay tonight, and that she had to go to work tomorrow. It wasn’t clear, but it seemed she worked on a farm several kilometers away, and that she would walk in the morning. We hiked over two more peaks, my motorcycle disappearing completely from view, which made me very nervous. Then we rounded one last lump of earth and a small village of less than a dozen huts came into view. We’d came about 2km.

The woman walked up to the first hut on the right and went in. The base was round and made of stone, with a thick pointed thatch roof. A short wooden door stood in the singular opening, open. In the dwindling hours of the day, the inside was completely occluded. There were no windows. A minute after the woman popped in, she popped out again and gave me an annoyed look and signal: “come in you silly foreigner” she seemed to say. I ducked my tall backpack through the entryway and into the swept-dirt-floored hut and into another world.

There was another woman inside. I’m a terrible judge, but I’d wager they were both in the neighborhood of their mid-30’s. The woman threw my things on top of enormous bags of dry goods and gave me a tiny stool to sit on. She lit a match, then a small oil candle that provided meager light. It sat on a small table covered in various things. Inside, the thatched roof was dark and oily with soot. Dry goods and odds and ends ringed the structure. A group of very young children came inside and joined us and stared unabashadly at me. I tried to make myself small and respectful. Without words to indicate my appreciation, and with my attempts to convey it seemingly misunderstood (in retrospect, I think they just thought it would be rude to accept it), it was all I had. Outside, a rotating crew of locals passed by, taking turns getting a peak at the weird foreigner in a motorcycle jacket. They didn’t come in and talk. An older man came in and took a seat near me. I prepared to show my respect to what I assumed was the patriarch of the house, but he barely even glanced at me, simply sauntering in, hunkering down, and lighting a hand-rolled cigarette.

Presently, an older woman showed up with a large round metal can full of sticks and open at the top. She placed it in the middle of the hut. Another match was lit, and soon we had a full on blaze. In minutes, the scene became a haze of choking smoke. There was no ventillation except the open door. One of the kids gave a cough that sounded serious. He would go on to repeat it on occasion the rest of the evening. Everyone got low, as if gravity had increased two-fold. The children were on the floor. The women were toiling, one hand-washing clothes in a soapy yellow plastic tub, another messing with goods on the table. Two short pieces of rebar were thrown on top of the can. A pot was loaded with water. I was dying of thirst and again asked for a drink. This time, an enormous metal mug was produced and filled with water. Before it made it to me, a paper sachet was also produced, and its contents emptied into the mug. The red substance tasted like extra-sweet gatorade, but I didn’t care. I quaffed it with reckless abandon, downing a quarter of the big-gulp-style mug in a single go. I drank a full half before I reasoned I should share. It would be ages before the mug made it back.

The crew huddled around the fire, all wrapped in thick heavy blankets. The night was still warm. As a large saucepan was lowered onto the rebar over the fire, and some eggs were cracked into it, I moved to the floor next to the kids. Immediately, the woman came up to me with two large thick blankets, presumably assuming I was cold. Unsure how to handle it, I draped them over my shoulders. The kids and women all watched and laughed to themselves. I was happy to be amusing. As the meal cooked, I showed the kids how I can whistle by clasping my hands together and blowing into them. As anticipated, they repeatedly unsuccessfully began blowing into their hands.

Eventually, a plate materialized and was loaded up with the contents of the saucepan. I was served first, followed by the older man. I saw no other plates. In the meager light of the cookfire, I could hardly make out the concoction, but my mouth knew the truth: fried eggs and pap (a cornmeal porridge very common here). I greedily began to eat as soon as the man took his first bite. As I continued to eat, I waited for the others to be served, but nothing seemed to be happening. Before I was totally full, I was uncomfortable about this fact, and began to eat much slower. Then the man passed his plate to the women. I immediately passed my plate to the children. As an act, it went nearly completely un-acknowledged, as if it was neither expected or noteworthy. It just was.

After I’d passed on the plate, I pressed 100 rand into the old man’s hand. I wanted to be clear that I didn’t expect to just be fed for nothing. Though the women noticed the action, it passed without comment. I repeatedly thanked and praised my hosts, but it continued to produce little intelligible results from my culturally disadvantaged vantage.

After dinner, the woman who’d brought me slipped out without me noticing immediately. Ten minutes or so later, she re-appeared and motioned for me to come outside. I began to follow but she stopped me immediately, indicating I should bring my things. I complied. She led me about a dozen meters to another hut. Approximately the same size, from the outside I could see this one had a pair of windows worked into the stones. She led me in using an old Nokia candybar phone as a torch. Stepping through the entry, it took my mind a full second or two to process what I was seeing.

Inside the hut was a full bed frame with a mattress. The bed was made up, with a duvet and pillow. In the middle of the hut were more massive bags of dry goods, mostly corn meal, but also whole corn kernels. There was a wooden chair by the head of the bed set up like a nightstand, and a dresser with a mirror on it at the foot. Old calendars covered the windows. A tiny rug laid next to the nightstand/chair. She was about to walk out again, but still worried about faux pas, I asked her what to do if I had to pee using the lease uncomfortable sign language I could. She brought me a yellow plastic bucket and shut me in the hut.

My home for the night! Fancy!

It was still quite early, not quite 9pm. I climbed in bed with my book for a bit, then drifted off to the incredible silence of the surrounding village. I awoke at 6am to the sound of acticity. The village was already bustling. I found the woman who’d brought me in, and she immediately filled a tub with hot water, then got out soap and lotion. I washed my hands, face, and neck. She watched. It was an odd feeling. When I was finished, she motioned for me to get my stuff and to head back to the bike.

Village life.

We began the hike back to the bike with three of the kids in tow. As soon we we left the village, I handed money to the woman and once again tried to communicate my appreciation, but to little reaction. We passed the same mountains, and eventually my bike became visible on the top of another. As we approached, it became apparent that something had changed with the bike: the seat appeared to be flying from the top like a flag. I got nervous.

When we got to the bike, once again my heart sank. The seat was at a 90 degree angle to the bike, its mounting bracket twisted wreckage. The right rearview mirror was smashed to bits. Next to my top case sat its padlock,  a huge dent had appeared in its side, and the clasp that fastens the lid on was badly mangled. Something serious had battered my poor motorcycle. It looked like something had literally ran over it, but I couldn’t really be sure.

I got the bike upright and managed to reconnect the seat more-or-less. I checked the boxes. It turned out two of the padlocks had been ripped off, but none of the contents were missing. The lower strap for my tank bag, which connected only via the seat, wasn’t so lucky. It couldn’t be found anywhere. The woman left to go to work. The kids gruffly demanded “give me money!” with angry intonation. Looking down at the brutal landscape, I told them if they could help me get the bike to the village, I would give them money.

We had to get pretty creative to work around the stone wreckage in our path. With my cadre of village children, I trundled through a ditch, and down a long 300 meter animal path that circumvented a large part of the worst of the road. With much pushing, pulling, and careful riding, I made it to the village and paid the kids, and took stock of my situation…

I had an early start and 24km left to go. The road looked no better than what I’d been through. My legs were bruised and aching horribly. Despite the hour, it was already hot and I was on my way to being drenched in sweat. I hadn’t seen a single vehicle pass by since the truck I’d passed at the beginning of my trip off-road jaunt the day before. I considered hitting the help button on my GPS transponder and hoping for help, but I was dissuaded by both the panic I’d cause, and the knowledge that my issue would probably be misinterpreted as more severe than it was. I didn’t want another day of painful falls and bike brutalization. I wanted to rest. I wanted to put my bike on a truck and let it do the work. But I also didn’t want to give up. It took me a minute to steel myself, even taking a moment to pray to a god I don’t really believe in, both before and after painfully mounting my twisted ride. I hit the road.

Fuck
This
Shit
Sideways
And this a little, too

The scenery and the mechanism I wound through my chosen path (frequently dismounting and walking the route to pick the best way forward) stayed the same. The folks along the path became somewhat less accommodating. I became numb to the phrase “Give me money!” I heard it from group after group after group of children. When they’d approach me on my steep jaunts, and thus have more time to try their luck, it was invariably followed by “Give me sweets!” Each time, the tone of voice was one of indignant demand. It was frustrating.

But it wasn’t just the children who had taken to asking for money. On one jaunt, I was staring at a particularly treacherous stretch of road, and a woman perched at the top tried to point me in another direction, but demanded money for the luxury of the advice. I refused. Also, her advice was woefully wrong, and led to another crash. It would be one of many. Throughout the course of the day, I would see young adults (17-29-ish) sprinting at full-tilt across the mountains on an intercept course to hold out their hands or even try and bar my path across the road. In the most terrifying of these interactions, a pair of hooded herders who had been perched on a bluff over the road jumped down and stood next to each other, both extending their arms and legs into the air, blocking the road and making threatening gestures. I stopped but kept the bike running. They were clearly pleased I’d stopped, and immediately broke ranks and made for the right side to (presumably) demand payment. Instead, I put the bike into gear and took off to the left around them. They briefly raised their hands and made threatening gestures with their whips, causing me to think I may be Indiana Jones-whipped off my bike while making my mistake, but they demurred. About 800 meters down the road, I again ran into a huge and scary decline. When I dismounted to take a look, I saw in the distance the two, who had once again perched upon the bluff, were sprinting down the street to get to me. I ran back to my bike, jumped on it, and took off sight-unseen down the mountain. I stayed upright and considered myself lucky and blessed.

I rode through the middle of villages. I lost sight of the road and found it again. I took a wrong turn and spent 30 minutes arguing with children about the best way back to the road, ultimately ignoring all their terrible advice and making it back in one piece. I talked to farmers on mules who were smiling and amazed by my presence, but who also just wanted to hang out and stare at me. I hiked up and down mountains. Sweat poured from the top of my helmet so much I had to take my sunglasses off and squint through the salt.

I had two low moments. In the first, I was confronted with a ludicrously steep decline full of boulders and spent minutes contemplating how I could possibly descend it. Eventually, I found a group of villagers and offered to pay them to help me walk the bike slowly down the mountain. For 15 grueling minutes, we panted and sweated down the path, nearly losing the bike on numerous occasions, but coming out safely at the bottom. On the second, on a particularly heinously steep section that would have been easy had there not been huge boulders randomly dispersed in the roadway, I was intentionally going fast enough to make it up the steep terrain when a huge sound like a gunshot rung out, and the bike jolted hard to the left and crashed heavily on the right side. When I stood up, I figured out what had happened: my left pannier had collided with a boulder and sat, ripped from its frame, mangled about a meter behind the bike. When I got up the energy from my sore, exhausted, and profusely sweating body to right the bike, it came up with the right pannier also too mangled to sit on its mount. I emptied the boxes on the roadway and used a rock to bash them into enough shape to carry on.

IMG_20170922_094854.jpg
Fuck this in particular!

I can’t possibly communicate the depths of my morale that day. A dozen times, I stared at what lay ahead of me and wanted nothing more than to give up. It seemed too hard. I knew more painful crashes were ahead. My legs were bruised and swollen. My arms hung loosely, burned out from trying to keep a heavily loaded bike steady through a constant rock assault. I thought longingly about the GPS transponder, and how at a moment’s notice, I could plop down next to the bike and cook my emergency rations, confident I’d be on my way home to comfort and simplicity. At times, I laughed like an idiot into my helmet at the absurdity of the path I was on.

After getting stuck on a pile of rocks and needing to gun my engine and drop the clutch, I noticed after that it wasn’t nearly as responsive as it had been. I then had to perform the same operation about 3 more times in the next 300 meters, and before I knew it, I had to be gentle with the throttle or my engine would continue to rev, but my motorcycle wouldn’t be going anywhere. I considered hiking to the road.

I made a point not to watch the kilometers tick down on Google Maps. Whenever I did, I couldn’t believe how slow my progress was. On occasion, I’d be locked neck-and-neck with local pedestrians, and they’d win. With my morale scraping the barrel, the road passed through a dusty mountain town and became something remotely resembling a dirt road (90% of the time). With 6km to go, I rode in awe as my knuckles weren’t white, and every fiber of my arms and legs weren’t braced for impact. In the last 2km, I passed good looking 4×4 trucks that looked like they’d been recently cleaned. I passed a fenced-in school, something I hadn’t seen in well over 24 hours. Eventually, I climbed a super steep (but blessedly short and well-traveled) embankment onto gravel. Shortly after that, I hit pavement.

I wanted to leap from the bike and onto the surface, embracing it. Kissing it. Taking a silly photo to document my happiness. As soon as I stopped to stare in awe, much like the guy at the petrol station before I started my misadventure stared at me, a group broke off of a throng of people who were hanging out around vehicles (actual working moving driving vehicles!!!) and asked me for money. I figured it was better to move along.

It was nearly noon. It had taken the better part of 6 hours to escape the last 24 hours of my personal hell. I was dumped onto a small intersection in a small town stuffed with traffic, but once I made it out and climbing up to another high mountain pass, there was nearly no traffic. The pavement was perfect. I was running out of gas, and at the top of the pass was a petrol station. I felt like a million bucks. My grin was from ear to ear. Inside my mind, thoughts that rarely cross through my mind held a raucous party “Holy shit you made it! Holy shit you’re tough! Holy shit you’re a badass! You never gave up, even though things were crazy hard!” The thoughts were unstoppable. For the rest of the day, my modesty was put into a corner and told to shut the fuck up.

The station looked like a bomb had gone off. There were only two pumps: one petrol one diesel. After filling up, I had to guess which of the three doors in the bare concrete building went to something resembling a store. Building materials, trash, and other detritus covered the floor, but they had a working fridge. I ordered a 2-liter of coke and sat out front looking at the torn-apart cars and pallets of empty glass bottles in their yard. I drank my coke and alternated between shuddering at the thought of what I’d been through, and rejoicing at the break that was upcoming: there was a lodge overlooking the Katse Dam that looked fancy, and I didn’t care. I was staying there.

From the petrol station, I descended down the winding, perilous, and beautiful highway. I could make out the deep blue of the reservoir behind the dam. The reservoir level was clearly very low compared to its capacity. Eventually, a gigantic concrete dam appeared on the horizon, and the GPS directed me to turn directly onto it. There was immediately a fence, the guard asked me a lot of questions about why I was there, and threatened to charge me a fee for crossing (which I had no intention of paying), but eventually told me he’d let me cross for free because I was by myself. I had to fill out a form, and I passed over the top of the dam, rubbernecking all the way.

Katse Dam

On the other side, I followed signs for the Katse Village, and once again found myself filling out a form in front of a guard. I followed the road to its terminus and found myself at a modest hotel. I winced as I dismounted, all my joints and tendons tightened from injury and inflammation, and found myself limping as I walked into the reception. I don’t think the receptionist knew what to make of me between my filth and excitement (especially when I learned they had cheap dorm rooms!), but I had a key to a room in my hands by 2pm. I limped my things to my room and collapsed in bed. I’d fucking survived.

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