Three weeks and counting

"I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride it where I like."

- Freddie Mercury, Queen, Bicycle Race

I’m sitting in Aliwal North at a bicycle shop where my bicycle Stewie is getting some much needed love and attention. One day when I stop cycling, I might find a quiet place and write the book called “Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance”, but first I need to learn something about Zen and something about bicycle maintenance. Through strange serendipitous ways I’ve been lucky to meet the right people at the right times to help me keep Stewie on the road, and slowly but surely I’m also learning about the difference between a benevolent creak and a threatening scraping sound – even though if you’re on a dirt road 50km from the nearest town you just pedal on and hope for the best! Luckily I was referred to Wiehan and Cedric at Berg Furniture in Aliwal North, and they’ve been kind enough to give the little beast an overhaul.

I’ve been on the road three weeks, so I thought I would give you a summary of my favourite moments, as well as some things I’ve learnt along the way.

The first photo I took was about 15km from my parent’s farm. Barely on the road, but the feeling of freedom was dizzying! See that ditch? That’s what the roads look like in Mpumalanga. It was through one of those that I bent my back wheel’s rim – my tyre was deflated and I only discovered on the road that my pump had worn out and didn’t work any more!

Lesson #1: Check all your tools and gear before you leave. (I’m not great at planning and preparing, but tour cycling is teaching me how to pay attention to the smallest things before they become a problem!)

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I spent my first night sleeping in a chapel in the small village of Val. It's quirky, it's peaceful, it's so very interesting. Val Hotel owner Rita gave me a small gift to pass on to my next hosts, and I've been carrying small gifts from one place to the next ever since! I've given and received key chain holders, bangles, seeds and white board markers - little souvenirs for the wonderful people who have been generous enough to give me a shower and a bed (and always a meal!) for the night.

Lesson #2: Always be willing to give and share, even if it seems like something insignificant, it will help you so much along the way!

The photo below was taken outside Villiers, as I was crossing the Vaal River into the Orange Free State. Rita gave me someone to contact when I got to Villiers, and my words to him were: "I just cycled from Val and I would like a cold beer and a large plate of food. Where can I go?"

This is me an hour (or two...) later.

Lesson #3: Know what you want. Say it. And you will most probably get it. (But sometimes you will have to wait. Luckily one of the things you learn on a bicycle is patience.)

The photo below was taken right outside Frankfort, crossing the Wilge River. I was lucky to be in Frankfort when some heavy thunderstorms occurred - I met a fellow cyclist who gave me a place to shelter from the weather, and we spent hours talking about cycling, extreme sports and living life to the full.

Lesson #4: Don't worry about unexpected circumstances - you will be at the right place at the right time and probably meet amazing people on the way!

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Over the next few days I cycled via Tweeling to Kestell. On the way I was spoiled with spectacular sunsets and scenery, quiet peaceful roads and giant furry friends!

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While I was in Kestell staying at Karma Backpackers, I heard an old familiar tune... The ice cream truck! I ran out the gate and chased after the sound for about two blocks when I saw the white and orange kombi turn a corner. I've heard that money can't buy happiness but it can by ice cream, and it's kind of the same thing.

Lesson #5: Spend your money well. Spend it on what makes you truly happy (and in this case it only cost me R6!).

The next day I headed from Kestell directly south towards the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. The way the landscape changed from rocky outcrops to sandstone cliffs was just breathtaking, and again I had the road pretty much to myself the whole day. Another thing that was (quite literally) breathtaking, were the steep climbs over the mountains into the park. A steep descent took me all the way down to Klerkspruit, and then up again. And again. And again. It was probably one of the toughest cycling days so far, but so worth it!

Lesson #6: Take the chance, do the work, and life will reward you!

I camped in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park with four young students whose spirit and enthusiasm for life really gave me new hope and optimism for the future of our generation and the planet. One of them showed me this lighter which had been passed on from one of their parents, and the message was so striking of my own journey as well as the whole meeting that I just had to take a picture of it. 

While I was recovering staying  in Clarens after cycling through the mountains of the Golden Gate, I was spoiled with this view at Ash River Lodge for two whole days while getting a chance to get my clothes washed and doing some work on the website. Owner Mike Botha was more than willing to help me with everything I needed - I just had to ask!

Lesson #7: Sometimes it's good to shove your pride in your back pocket and ask for what you need - watch this Ted Talk by Amanda Palmer for more on the Art of Asking.

After cycling from Clarens to Fouriesburg (if you know the area, you'll know that Fouriesburg sits on top of a hill, with one hell of a climb to get there!) I was starving for a beer. Or some juice. Whatever I could find. What I found was this:

It's like Amarula and beer had a love child and it lives at JenLee's Country Shop and Bistro. Best part: it's non-alcoholic, so no hangover! While in Fouriesburg I decided to quickly hop over the border for a stint in Lesotho, which I did the next morning. These images were taken at Caledonpoort border post - a beautiful route and efficient crossing!

Lesotho is a beautiful country, and the Basotho people are some of the kindest, most gentle and generous people I have had the privilege of meeting. I was planning to cycle from Butha-Buthe to Maputsoe in one day, exiting Lesotho at Ficksburg border post, but as usual, my plans failed. I fell in front of a small shop in Hlotse in the Leribe district - about 30km from Maputsoe. I realised that I was too tired to finish the day and get back to South Africa. Luckily, an amazing woman called Machelane (or Chilly) found me - bruised and tired - at the little shop and offered me a bed and a meal at her house. 

The visit to Chilly's house, meeting her family and all the people from the village has undoubtedly been one of the highlights of my trip so far. Chilly has an extensive vegetable garden where she grows all kinds of vegetables, including Maroho, a staple of the Basotho. The village has breathtaking views of the Caledon river and mountains of the Free State - but no running water. Lesotho is a water rich country, but large quantities of the water is dammed in the Katse Dam in the mountains and then used in South Africa, while many of the locals don't even have taps and have to fetch water from boreholes for drinking and cleaning. Even under such circumstances, or maybe because of it, people in the villages manage to lead healthy and happy lifestyles that is closely connected to the cycles of nature and also value strong family and community ties. Here is a picture of the spectacular sunset over the mountains of the Free State, and me helping Chilly's sister Mathulo pick some Maroho to make lunch for a class of school children the next morning.

Selfies with two of the most beautiful human beings: Chilly my host on the left and her sister Mathulo on the right.

Lesson #8: The world is full of the beauty of common humanity, all you have to do is reach out and find it.

From Lesotho I cycled past Ficksburg and Clocolan where I spent a night wild camping. In Clocolan I was told about Oldenburg Lodge and Game Park outside Ladybrand, and when I saw the Modderpoort turnoff I decided to give them a call and ask if I could camp there. One of the best decisions ever! Even though the 6km dirt road from Modderpoort to Oldenburg is tough cycling (uphill, loose rocks, uneven terrain with a heavy bicycle!) the farm is a hidden gem well worth visiting!

Owners Hannes and Uline Pienaar are welcoming, warm and humble people who are creating a haven for the nature lover on their piece of paradise - you can see ancient rock art, go on a game drive, hike or cycle through the mountains or simply enjoy the lovely view.

Lesson #9: Sometimes the hard road leads to the most beautiful destination. You'll never know until you get there!

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This post is already longer than it should be, and this only covers the first two weeks of cycling. Keep an eye on my social media accounts for regular updates, and please connect through the comments or via email at maria@smalltracks.org I really love hearing from you! Also, remember to sign up for the newsletter for full moon and new moon inspiration.