The frost crunched under foot as we made our way across the frozen lawn to the restaurant for breakfast. The staff at the Old Orchard Guest House were already hard at work washing, or should I say defrosting, the outdoor tables with buckets of hot water. A mist rose like steam from the rooftops around us as the sun’s first rays began to melt the icy layers of frost. We were blessed not to walk out under the roof at the moment the ice water runoff began to, well … run off. No-one needed that kind of rude awakening.
Breakfast, as yesterday, was a sturdy affair of bacon, eggs, sausage and toast. Satisfyingly stuffed with fried meat we were a bit sluggish and rather tardy in getting on our way. Lucky for us, we only had a short distance to drive to reach our drop-off point on the outskirts of Kokstad on the road to Underberg. What a blessing to be off the N2!
What with 105km to go, we decided to again ride in relay. Not only for reasons of distance but I was feeling rather poorly. Having woken up with a stuffy nose and ‘glandy’ throat, I feared the worst … the flu! Bravely though, I dressed in my cycling gear and assured myself that I’d soon be feeling better … well enough, in fact, to take my turn on the bike. This reasoning saw me driving shotgun in my long tights, arm warmers and thick jacket … booted and kitted against the onslaught of the KZN cold. Suzann, strong like bull, was out front pumping the pedals in her shorts. Soon the morning sun would get me twisted into a pretzel shape as I tried desperately to rid myself of all my warm gear … and, of course, as soon as I’d finally got the seatbelt back on (and the bakkie to stop screeching at me for taking it off in the first place), Suzann stopped.
Convincing Suzann that I was indeed OK enough to take my turn, I pedalled off into a headwind. Feeling much better, I figured that it must’ve been an allergic reaction to the cleaning materials used in the rooms and bathrooms at the Old Orchard Guest House. I’ve always been sensitive to strong smells, causing my mother to always have to wait until I’m not home to clean the shower. Ammonia, chlorine, anything hectic bungs me up and makes my tongue feel all swollen up. Anyway, whatever it was … I was feeling better as I slowly turned the pedals past farmland and fields full of rather disinterested cows.
Lost in my own thoughts I pedalled through the beautiful landscapes of the Drakensberg foothills. Green farmlands lay cultivated between nature’s yellow grasslands, standing like ripe corn in the fresh breeze. The Eastern Cape drought clearly hasn’t extended to KZN as dams are plentiful, scattered between the undulating hills, reflecting the sun’s rays in glistening beams like laser lights, then blinding, then sparkling, then rainbows … So in my own zone I was that I got quite a shock when the others began hooting at me. Did I miss a turnoff? Is there a rogue cow on the loose … or a dog? What’s going on?
Unclipping my foot from the pedal I stopped, bewildered. Turning back towards the vehicle both Kevin and Suzann looked very worried. Apparently they had been staring at my rear tyre as it wobbled and wonked along for the past six kilometres. Spinning the tyre I could immediately see what they were so concerned about but, strangely enough, I’d felt nothing amiss. The rim couldn’t possibly be warped as the brake pads remained clear of the disc as we spun the wheel. After much deliberation, under the watchful eye of some local cows, we concluded that it must simply be the tyre that hadn’t ‘seated’ well when we changed it in Kokstad. Consequently, I carried on my merry way …
Just as suddenly as the wind had come up for Suzann, it dropped for me. Now I could pick up the pace as the midday hour approached.
With the sun baking down out of a cloudless, blue sky, I completed my 30km and slowly drifted to a stop just opposite yet another lean-to farm gate. Far in the distance lay the farm buildings, on the edge of yet another dam in the hollow of the surrounding hills. Since there was no-one around, not even the ever-present cows, we swiftly took a ‘body’ break just hoping the distant farmer wasn’t for some reason, panning the horizon with his binoculars. Expressing this concern led to endless hilarity and of course, we all know what happens when you laugh … the pressure just increases and you get to ‘wap’ your shoes, and legs, and … Having wiped the shoe spritz up, and tried to wet wipe the hands, we dived into the crackers and cheese wedges for lunch.
Deciding to call it a day at 3pm, we only had about an hour’s ride time left, so Suzann took us out after lunch for a half hour’s ride and then we swopped with me riding the last half hour of the day. We’d have got a great deal closer to Underberg were it not for an enormous hill that just carried on and on and on. I was grunting and gasping, spitting and sweating, gritting on my teeth and bearing down on the pedals but the hill was relentless. Even the logging truck that eventually passed me was having a hard time of it. But when I got to the top … bliss … I went whizzing down the other side, overtaking the logging truck on my bike! Looking ahead I saw yet another hill looming and I wasn’t going to take it on as well. Calling it a day I stopped below the Silverstreams Caravan Park signboard.
With bikes loaded, we made a spontaneous decision to stay at Silverstreams for the night. We were then right there at the access road, why drive on to Garden Castle, where we were supposed to stay? Big mistake …
First of all, the Silverstreams signboard (directing people off the gravel access road) could only be seen from one direction … the opposite direction from where we’d come. This meant that we missed the turn by about 10km, necessitating us backtrack to where we spied the signboard (now we were coming from the right direction for the board). Another few kilometres further down the road we spied the Silverstreams Trading Store on our left. Not sure of where we were actually supposed to be to find reception, we stopped a local man that just happened to be walking by at that instant, and asked him for directions. Assuring us reception was further down the road, he set off again and we drove on. Finally running a little sign to earth, we stopped at a weather-beaten building made of planks haphazardly arranged around the frame of an ancient caravan. Beside the open door another hand-painted sign saying ‘reception’ was nailed up, but no-one seemed to be inside. Peering into the gloom all I could make out was a half-eaten can of baked beans left on the grimy surface of a once white plastic table. This did not bode well. From across the grassy field came a security guard who promptly informed us that we had to check in at the trading store we’d passed earlier, even though this ‘office’ did say ‘reception’. Getting an awfully dodgy feeling we decided rather to move on.
Remembering Anita’s friend’s place just outside Underberg, we quickly reprogrammed the GPS with this new info and set off in a cloud of dust … Needless to say, we were all a bit frustrated by then. The GPS then decided to take us on a bit of a joyride … all along the gravel road to Underberg when there was a perfectly good tar road we could’ve taken instead. After we finally stopped vibrating … the after effects of the corrugated gravel road … we followed the errant GPS through the little village of Underberg. ‘… turn left’, says the awful instrument with the voice of a middle-aged British woman on Prozac … and we turn left, only to be faced with another, at least, 10km on gravel … again. Right there I called a halt to the madness, insisting that we backtrack and take the tar road (I knew it was tar) to Garden Castle … note, where we were supposed to have stayed, in the first place!
This little mishap had cost us hours of driving and we were, by then, not impressed, to say the least. Racing along the narrow, twisting 30km to Garden Castle in the quickening dusk, all we could do was laugh … otherwise we would’ve cried.
Arriving at the boom, Suzann was still muttering something about camping to the security, when I shouted from the back, ‘Nooooo! We’re staying in the hotel!’ I was not going to struggle to put up a tent in the dark, fighting with poles, getting entangled in guy ropes, dropping hammers, losing pegs … no!
With strobe lights still flashing our warning, ‘Caution cyclists’, we swept into the parking lot. Bubbling out of the vehicle, voices raised in irritation, water bottles falling out of doors, cycling shoes clip-clopping on cleats, we must’ve looked crazy. And then being ‘welcomed’ by the friendliest receptionist on earth (note the sarcasm!) we could be forgiven for shouting at the showerhead that just wouldn’t work!
Finally, with half the bathroom flooded, we were both clean again. The showerhead sprayed down on the edge of the bath which then created a perfect run-off for the water … all over the floor. But there was no mop to try and soak it all up with so we had to leave the sodden bathroom, well … sodden, while we headed to the only restaurant that still had space … the hotel buffet … for an 8:30pm seating. We should’ve known that by 8:30pm nothing much would be left but we mistakenly thought that they would keep replenishing the buffet. Ahhh, wrong … ding! Thank you for playing! We ended up scavenging for scraps to fill a tooth. Deciding to fill up on desert also turned out a bust as there was hardly anything left over … no baked pudding, no more carrot cake, only two crumbly slices of some unrecognisable tart left … but there was still trifle, fruit salad, and one or two odd combinations that we could load up on.
Disappointed, we left the dining room only to run into one of the managers who innocently asked us the wrong thing, ‘did you enjoy your dinner?’ Now I wasn’t rude or anything … by that time I wasn’t strong enough to be rude … I just expressed my disappointment.
With management’s apologies ringing in our ears we were off to bed … totally finished!
The following morning, after another buffet breakfast of eggs and bacon, I ran into the manager from last night and his wife. Both these people were amazing and so friendly, apologising for the previous evening’s mishap and presenting me with a complementary bottle of wine. A genuine gesture … and so I dropped the room keys at reception, and with said bottle of red under my arm, hurried to the bakkie where the others were already waiting for me. We’d considered staying another night in the campsite, but the gale that had blown up in the early hours of the morning was set in for the rest of the day … according to the friendly manager and his wife, so rather than struggle with a tent in a gale and risk taking off like a kite, we decided to move on to Monk’s Cowl in search of better conditions. Anyway, the gravel roads of the berg were just about as bad as those of the Transkei, and we’d have to take the so-called Midlands Meander if we wanted to avoid the gravel on the way to Monk’s Cowl … so we’d have to port that distance anyway.
Thank goodness we’d decided to drive to Monk’s Cowl since I began to feel odd. The further we drove, the odder I felt, such that once we’d got the tents up below a badly burned high Berg at Monk’s Cowl (ash floated in the air and random flames could still be seem burning in a ring around the high crags), I was quite ill. I had a fever and a headache, and my body was paining everywhere. The one bite mark on my abdomen (a tick had got me at Kob Inn) was red, swollen and tender to the touch. I was sure I had tick bite fever. We did have antibiotics with us (Kevin’s anti-malarial just happened to be the correct antibiotic for tick bite fever as well) and I could start a course immediately.
Cocooned in my sleeping bag with the cold shivers, I lay feeling a bit sorry for myself. Outside, Suzann and Kevin got supper started … between random drops of rain. The rain had just given us enough time to get the tents up before a shower came down. So cooking was a ‘between showers’ affair with Suzann having to move the table under our tent’s veranda and the gas stove with the pot of mince curry on, under Kevin’s tent veranda. But between the two of them they got supper done and I was presented with a mound of curry and rice. I must say, it was rather tasty … yum!
The next morning saw me dog-tired with aches and pains like an ancient crone with far gone arthritis. At least the headache was much better. Sharing the news of my illness with mom at home was easier said than done … the signal was sketchy, at best. But finally Suzann got through to the old girl, who immediately went into mamma bear mode and told, well … suggested, we return home to recover properly. I was reluctant at first but it didn’t take much to convince me. That was a testament to how bad I was feeling … that I couldn’t be bothered to put up a fight. It was however, too late in the day to pack up and get on the road, so we decided to wait and leave for home the following morning … and so it was.
Packing up the tents in the morning mist, I tried to lend a hand but just got more in the way than anything else.
Leaving the Berg, Suzann was all concern for me and proceeded to drive 1285km straight to get me home. We were forced to drive back via Golden Gate National Park and the Free State because of protests along the N2 at Butterworth in the Eastern Cape.
Dropping Kevin off in Port Elizabeth, we arrived in Plett under the cover of darkness, looking (to my mother’s horror) like two corpses escaped from the morgue. With just enough energy left to fall into bed, we slept like logs well into the next day, when Suzann took a turn for the worst and also came down with tick bite fever.
Now we are still home, recovering properly before taking on those 1285km back to the Berg, to pick up where we left off …