Molweni! ("Good day!" in the Xhosa language - ed.)
Our travels for the last weeks have opened our eyes to a country that is more beautiful than most, more wild than we expected, and without a doubt worthy of a visit by anyone looking for exciting outdoor adventures of all mnner. This country is South Africa!
Mary and I started out our time here with a World Cup mission based out of Pietermaritzburg. This city is a bit of a mountain bike mecca or at least the best place to head for any bike shop or equipment needs that you might have while riding in the broader area.
Our time surrounding the event was spent as it would be in any other country, dedicated to the race and in typical fashion we got our pre-ride on, dialed in the lines, worked out race day logistics and rested up to be on our best form for the big day. Unfortunately, this was coupled with some exotic bug that we both managed to pick up along our travels here, no doubt something to do with the two consecutive overnight flights aboard the germ tube.
We pulled all the stops in trying to get healthy for what was our first high priority race of the season and both managed to stabilize enough (or so our positive thinking allowed us to believe) to toe to the line, though without the type of form that is necessary to make much of a dent in the robust World Cup field. There is really nothing much you can do when arriving to a big race under the weather except ignore every possible issue and go like hell.
This less than perfect start to the World Cup season resulted in a 23rd and 83rd placement respectively and re confirmed the realization that this is indeed a tough sport at nothing less than the highest level. Mary and I let this one go without reading too much into the seasonal form. Mostly it left a feeling of looking forward to the next weekend's races and the long season ahead.
After competing in the World Cup, Mary and I had the opportunity to stay at the Dove House organic/biodynamic farm in the town of Howick for a few days and got to know the area.
Howick is a special little town in the the KwaZulu Natal region of South Africa that is surrounded by sparsely populated hills and valleys dominated by farms and forest service lands. Throughout the region, abundant mountain bike specific trails have been carved into the extensive monocultural forests where current policy tolerates the existence of their narrow, well signed perfection.
One downside is that the forest service is hardly shy about clear cutting the areas without regard for the impact on the hard working cycling community. Luckily volumes of sustainable trails are found on tracts of private land as well where farmers seem keen to out do one another on vying for the title of the best trails in the neighborhood - good news for local as well as visiting bikers.
The quality of singletrack we have seen in the area is direct evidence of a healthy mountain bike community that is not afraid to get involved with trail advocacy as well as get out with the shovel and rake to make a reality out of what otherwise would be just dreams.
Spending a few days on a family run organic farm was a great reminder that it is important to do what we can as individuals and consumers to encourage organic practices. Supporting organic growers is as simple as choosing to buy organic foods and products. The benefits for the body are documented and real and the environmental impact is something that is tremendously important over the long term.
Mary and I loaded up on Dove House organic produce and made the move west on the narrow dilapidated road that crosses through the Transkei region of South Africa. Tremendous open vistas showcased the Drakensburg Mountains while we passed through townships and villages composed of simple cement homes that spread out over wide tracts of land. Red clay hills covered with dry grasses and scrub brush reminding us at times of the deserts of the American South West, though here endless rivers sliced through the dry terrain forming wide valleys with steep gradients that often asked the limit from our weak little rental car.
Our next stop was the coastal town of East London that felt like nothing short of a haven after this long hot day in the car. Here we met up with Chris and Ilse Fick (who we had previously met on a far off cycling adventure in South America). These East London locals had promptly invited us to their home after they heard that Mary and I still had couple of weeks in the country on our hands.
Dr. Chris and his charming wife Ilse hosted Mary and I for half a week of luxury, riding local trails, kayaking the lagoon near their house, surfing and hiking the vast beach out their back door, eating and living the good life in general as they took us under their arm to make sure we enjoyed our time in East London to the fullest.
It seems that working full time as a general practitioner, raising a family and being involved in a host of other adventures was not challenging enough for Dr. Chris as he has currently upped the ante and taken his passion for cycling to the next level by designing and hosting his own stage race known as "The Lord of the Chainrings". This race is a three-day affair that will take place for the second time this November in the Hogsback Mountains. For good reason is an event that is now on the radar for Mary and I to return here to compete at sometime in the near future!
The village of Hogsback is one of those little places on the map that turns out to be something larger than life when you visit in person. The skyline is dominated by stunning mountains that tear out of the surrounding prairie jagged and unchallenged to some 2000 meters. These peaks help to create a special climate that feeds a thick belt of indigenous forests, and sets the stage for amazing hikes low alpine mountain biking and some of the most amazing views that we have had the opportunity to see in our travels.
Mary and I spent two nights at "Away with the Fairies" backpackers' and camping hostel when we really only had time for one as this place was far too rad to take in and limit to one day. Away with the Fairies is surely the place to stay for the adventure minded soul visiting the Hogbacks! Here we found an array of low key, comfortable and on budget accommodations, a kitchen where nightly meals are a five-star healthy treat and a unique bar/lounge that time and again encourages you to stay up well past bedtime. The staff here are capable of showing any sort of visitor a good time weather you want to explore the great outdoors on foot/ mountain bike or just chill out and enjoy the amenities of their unique set up.
Mary and I found ourselves immediately adjusting our schedule to spend as much time in the Hogsback area as possible, as it is amongst the most breathtaking and unspoiled areas of South Africa we have so far had the chance to see and holds some great training opportunities to boot.
Mary and I made it as far west as Port Elizabeth, where we took part in a South African national series C2 race that brought out the cross country talent from all corners of the country. Upon our arrival, we were a bit disappointed to see the sprawl and bustle of a typical port city. Mountain biking in our minds is typically something better done outside an urban setting however we were pleasantly surprised upon our arrival to the city park race venue. This small area of natural space within the city limits truly outlined the importance of the mountain bike and outdoor community in any city!
The local trail club "Fat Tracks" had prepared a solid course for the race weekend and more importantly along with other local cyclists and hikers are the long term stewards of this recreation area that provides that necessary bit of natural space for all who live in the area.
As traveling racers, there is little that Mary and I like more than to compete at the national level in new and different countries. It is often a chance for us to be the only Americans or outsiders of any sort mixing it up with the local talent. This brings a type of attention to our program that is otherwise not available when you are in effect one of the numbers in "normal" surroundings.
Being the token Americans in foreign surroundings brings a special element, including intense attention to our sponsors equipment and typically a special type of grudge match from all the national riders who are anxious to test their legs agains the invaders. We have found time and again that taking the time to race on the national level outside our own country is a great way to push the boundaries and make an impression for ourselves and our sponsors. We have found it to be one of the best ways to open ourselves (and again sponsors) to other markets and experiences where we have the chance to make friends and get involved in experiences that would otherwise have never crossed our minds.
South Africa is for sure a diverse country and the experiences you have here depend greatly on the people you meet and your immediate surroundings. It is a country that is emerging from a challenging and tumultuous past and clearly some aspects of the country are still suffering greatly. The general opinion that your personal safety depends on where you are and what time you are there is a pretty scary way to live in the day to day.
Mary and I haven't spent so much time riding and training together since our last stage race as we have been well advised it would be plain unsafe to go out alone. This feeling of insecurity was in the back of our minds throughout the trip both on and off the bikes and was a frustrating aspect of our South African experience. No doubt things are improving in most ways and eventually the diverse populations of South Africa will work out a way that can improve life for all as it seems few are truly happy with the current state of affairs.
With our typical travel preferences, Mary and I pretty much stuck to the quiet off the beaten path type of places where we have seen little in the way of negative issues and where South Africa truly shines. It's amazing to be in a place where game parks packed with exotic species are just an electrified fence away from many neighborhoods and opportunities for all manor of outdoor exploration are around every corner.
In general, the South Africans that we met had a high level of respect for athletes and athletic pursuits no matter the sport or discipline and because of this, we were very well received with our bikes and outdoor gear in tow. Clearly many of the South African people are dedicated to sports themselves or otherwise greatly value spending time outdoors in their beautiful country.
Friendly folks seem easy to come by and have been a tremendous help along our journey, many have helped steer us towards an experience that transcended anything that could have been planned or expected as visitors on our own. People here seem to have a moment to say hello and from there are likely to offer unsolicited advice to help things go smoothly for you regardless of being complete stranger.
For mountain bikers and the outdoorsy type of people, the lure of adventure is found in South Africa in full force. Though to fully enjoy your visit as is the case most anywhere wherever you travel, it is critical to listen to friends and friendly advice to help you figure out the best ways to enjoy your time.
Special thanks to all the people we have met along our travels in South Africa - Your spirit is what makes this country so special.
Mike and Mary