Cold Nights, Long Rides and a Donkey Boiler
I make the drive from Badplass/Emanzana to Waterval Boven/Emgwenya. I keep traveling short distances between campsites and realize that I could have done the whole trip, to date, by bicycle. Distances between my camps are usually less than 100km. I am grateful to have the little car, though. I love efficiency and order. The contents of the car overwhelm me and resist organization. I am hauling around a lot of stuff so that I can be prepared for interesting eventualities. I have all my camping gear, basic climbing gear, an inflatable paddleboard, and bike gear, along with a few changes of clothes for temperatures ranging from hot to freezing. Oh, and notebooks. I have notebooks and maps. The notebooks are transient. I write daily and copy the highlights into my annual calendar. When a notebook fills, I burn it. It makes a good firestarter. I have to trust that the experiences live in me as body memory. Also, I transcribe a distilled version into my Moleskine calendar. As far as maps, I prefer the simplified tourist maps with color coding and highlights of what the area offers. They feel a bit remedial, but also accessible. I have been to Waterval Boven a few times. I gravitate to Tranquilitas Adventure Camp, up on the mountain, a few kilometers from town. I drive in the back way through Machadadorp and am pleased to find that the gravel road has been graded and the little car manages just fine. At Tranquilitas, I am met with a broad smile and warm welcome by Irene. We remember each other from years past. Tranquilitas is adventure central. Accommodations are available to meet every budget from camping to a well-appointed farmhouse. Tranquilitas is a destination for climbers, cyclists, hikers, runners, and nature enthusiasts. People come from all over the world to test their wills on the quartzite/sandstone rock faces. Mountain biking trails developed by Glenn Harrison extend beyond the Tranquilitas boundaries onto private forestry land providing incredible views and plenty of variety. The area is skillfully developed, but also has the feel of a place that is waiting to be discovered. I am reminded of traveling to Moab, Utah in the late 1980s to mountain bike, just as the sport was opening up. I recognize the hard work of visionary frontrunners who follow their passions and open an area for others to join. At the campground, I meet a German couple from Hanover who have hired a full-on camping setup on a bakkie with a rooftop tent and a fully equipped kitchen. They climb for a few days and then camp in Kruger Park to rest and then return to climb. They get up early and come back to camp late. Tranquilitas is located at a high elevation. Winter is setting in. The days are warm and pleasant, although there can be a slight chill even during the day. Night comes early and the sun drops behind the mountains around 16:30 and doesn’t rise again until 06:45 the next morning. That means that the nights are very long and cold. I often wake to a sheet of frozen dew on the outside of my tent. I am not great with cold temperatures. I am happy to be here, but it takes a lot of energy to manage my daily life in the short daylight hours. Things take more energy when I am camping. In a way, things are simpler, but daily living takes coordination and focus. I can manage the difficulties of the long, cold nights thanks to my very favorite feature at Tranquilitas. There is a wood-fired, “donkey” boiler that heats the water for showers and dishes. A massive metal drum sits atop a concrete brick inferno furnace. A fire burns all day and night to create on-demand, scalding water. When the sun is down, I am either in front of the fire or in my tent. The donkey boiler is my hearth. All of my cookware can go directly into the fire and onto coals. My kitchen is comprised of two De Buyer forged skillets, a camping kettle, a finjan, an Italian Moka Pot espresso maker, and a jaffle iron. The finjan is a brilliant, small, deep pot with a long handle. It has an hourglass shape that allows the contents to boil without boiling over. I learned the traditional use of finjans for making coffee from my Israeli son-in-law, Shani. I use my finjan for one-pot soups and stews as well as for making popcorn! The jaffle iron is another unique, useful bit of camping cookware. It is an ancestor of the modern panini maker. It makes fabulous hot sandwiches shaped into a pressed circle with a concentric circle design. Jaffles offer a homey sense of a hot meal and well-being. I remind myself that when I settle someplace that I’d like to be able to cook over a fire. And, I know that my camping set-up will be central even when I add in more kitchen amenities. I feel the elemental joy of fire and am so grateful for all the donkey boiler offers me. I warm my freezing hands. I get hot water on demand to fill the kettle for endless cups of tea. I re-arrange the fire and create zones for cooking and heating my food. I feel as though I am standing in front of an iron forge. I melt the soles of my shoes trying to warm my feet. I would crawl inside if there were a way not to immolate myself. I think about the communal ovens in Turkey where the fire is stoked and then removed so that people can bake their bread. Afterward, the neighborhood dogs crawl in and sleep on the warm bricks. I think how nice that would be to lie on heated bricks as I walk off to my nylon tent. I have arrived at Tranquilitas anticipating cycling with a friend of a friend. My friend Mike Woolnough of the Freedom Challenge notoriety has become my informal tour manager. As long as I was in the neighborhood of Waterval Boven, he suggested that I connect with his friend, Glenn. And, “Oh, and by the way, I just called him to let him know to expect your call.” Just the nudge I need. I might have let the connection slip through the cracks rather than go through the awkwardness of cold-calling a stranger. Glenn stops by shortly after I have set up camp. He is soft-spoken, tall, and lanky with elegant, refined features. We arrange to meet the following morning once the day warms up. I look forward to spending time with Glenn. Glenn is one of the most respected MTB trail builders in South Africa. Which says a lot. He has a longstanding history with the Freedom Challenge as a participant, record holder, and organizer. In 2013 Glenn and Mike completed the 2150 km race together on a tandem. Sheer insanity, but they did it! And, they still respect and enjoy one another. Tandems can make or break a relationship. Their tandem adventure seems to have bonded them in a good way. Glenn and I cycle from Tranquilitas Adventure Camp up through forestry areas, interspersed with trout dams, grassy areas, and a commercial charcoal kiln. Wood is burned in a low oxygen environment, which allows the finished charcoal to burn at a much higher temperature. Charcoal from the area is sold to a local smelter to stoke the fires to extract metal from ore. Glenn and I discover a shared interest in soil health and remediation through bio-char and beneficial microorganisms. We ride through a pine forest and Glenn tells me that under the right conditions he finds bolete and other edible mushrooms. The forest dwelling bokkies/deer like them, too, so the flushes don’t last for long. We drop down to a remote waterfall at the top of a deep, indigenous forest ravine. I am astonished by the beauty. The water pools at the top of the cliff into a natural infinity pool before cascading down the sheer cliff. It is a place of immense natural beauty. We eat our snacks and chat amiably in the sunshine and then head back up the hill and across to another private waterfall. This waterfall is more of a swimming hole with deep pools and I can imagine lounging in the watery world on hot, dry summery days. We get back on our bicycles and Glenn drops me off at camp and then rides down the mountain to his home in town. The next day, I am on my own and opt to ride one of the routes Glenn has developed for Tranquilitas. The 42km Boven Mountain Traverse/Yellow Route is the longest of the routes and offers a “top of the world” feel. The Yellow Route has a bit of everything that the area has to offer including grasslands, forests, massive vistas, gentle flowing single track, and some solidly technical trails. There’s plenty of climbing and then an exhilaratingly challenging 5km drop before climbing back up to camp. I drop into stillness and presence as I focus on the track ahead. At this point, I need to resupply and take a rest day. I cycle into the town of Waterval Boven to get some groceries. A formerly booming, working-class town servicing the railways, Waterval Boven is now a shadow of its former self. Climbers, Alex and Gustav Janse van Rensburg, owners of the local climbing shop, Roc and Rope promote tourism in the area. Mike and Ruth Behr who own the Tranquilitas Adventure Camp have created a base for visitors as well as an events venue. Glenn Harrison has developed a comprehensive set of world-class mountain biking trails. In spite of all the dedicated effort, tourism has not filled the gap to offset the financial decline due to the loss of railway traffic. I stop by a few shops and am able to find the basics, but not a lot else. I visit the butcher shop that looks like it has seen busier days. There is a little dog bed next to the desk. I am pretty sure that three years ago when I visited, there was a small dog occupying the bed. I ask the taciturn butcher if there is a dog that sleeps in that bed. He smiles, gives a sad, awkward, little nod with his head as if I have just asked if Santa is real, and says, “No. There is no little dog.” It feels like Waterval Boven is a place where time passing is synonymous with loss. I am not seeing a spark of a hopeful future in the butcher’s eye. I decide to sample the drywors (dried meat sticks) and make an impulse purchase. He asks, “The drywors are good, no?” ‘Yes, very good. They will give me strength.” He allows a smile to grace his face and the somber mood drops away for a moment. The following day, I meet Glenn in town to cycle for a round trip cycle from Waterval Boven to Dullstrom via backroads. Dullstroom sits on the highveld plateau at a significant elevation. It is a popular holiday destination and the town hosts a variety of festivals throughout the year. The local dams stocked with trout make for premier fly fishing. I expect a lot of climbing (1500+ meters) and a long ride (100km+). It will be a big day for me and I always have a little anxiety riding with someone new, especially when I am afraid that I won’t be strong enough to keep pace. My previous ride with Glenn gives me a bit of peace. He seems very relaxed and I just have to trust that it will be fine in whatever way the ride plays out. We head out of Waterval Boven and climb up to Machadadorop on a beautiful, winter’s morning. The roads are lovely and we ride through farm lands and past trout dams. It is an idyllic route. The wind kicks in and makes for a harder effort. When we get to a tar road section, I tuck in behind Glenn, hoping for a bit of a reprieve from the wind, desperate to hang on, even as we are crawling along in our easiest gears. Glenn’s lanky frame provides a much-appreciated sliver of a windbreak. We cycle into Dullstroom and have a lovely lunch and a lot of conversation over steaming bowls of butternut soup. Glenn walks me through the ethos and pathos of the Freedom Challenge/Race Across South Africa. The 2150km, unsupported mountain bike race from Pietermaritzburg to Wellington is a theme that keeps popping into my awareness. Racers meet time cut-offs along the way and have 26 days to complete the trail. Racers stay in family home stays along the route. The top racers finish in less than 12 days. The event allows participants to step out of daily life and enter into a deeper relationship with self, community, and nature. As I listen to Glenn, I understand that the event is an initiation that strips participants to the core and offers the possibility of profound self-awareness grounded in humility. He speaks of the race with reverence and respect. He shares that as a race organizer, much of his role involved creating a container for the racers to meet themselves without outside interference. Finishers receive a Basotho blanket, honoring their courage and effort. The race isn’t just about physical strength and endurance. Racers meet the harder and darker aspects of their emotions in the epic landscape. For many, the integration back into daily life comes with its own challenges. The sun gets lower on the horizon. We head back to Waterval Boven, hoping to arrive at dusk. We head down the road we came and turn off after a while to make a bit of a loop. We climb, we descend. We enter a forestry area and cycle through tunnels of tall trees. We take a little detour to a small, well-kept cemetery populated by both Boers and Englishman who fought for dominance in the Anglo-Boer War. We do a final, rocky descent just as the sun drops over the horizon and the chill sets in. I have enjoyed my visit to Waterval Boven and Tranquilitas. I am grateful for the chance to connect with Glenn and explore more of the area. I am glad to have these memories of people and places. I am ready to be warm and to sleep in a bed. I make arrangements to visit friends in Johannesburg and regroup and plan the next phase of my journey.