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The Johannesburg Diaries - A Cycling Immersion

Updated: Jun 22, 2022

It has been a wet summer, early autumn in Johannesburg. Clouds and dampness hug the low-lying areas, especially along the spruit. Bronkmanspruit is what I think of as a creek, a shallow river that runs through the city of Johannesburg surrounded by leafy, tree-filled parks, thanks to the early city planners. The parks are frequented by the full spectrum of city denizens. Dog walkers, cyclists, walkers, joggers, and picnicking families enjoy the parks by day. Street surfing recyclers with their carts overladen with recyclables and the homeless take up residence in the greenbelt. On weekends, the cascading waterfall over the dam at Delta Park pours less than sanitary blessings over the righteous who come to petition god for favors.

In the mornings and evenings, I bundle up against the damp chill in the air and remember that altitude contributes to rapid changes in temperature. Johannesburg sits at an elevation of 1753m/5,751ft above sea level. Darkness falls like a curtain and when the sun goes down the chill kicks in.

I am a temporary visitor to this sprawling, polarized, epic city known as Egoli, the City of Gold, Johannesburg, and affectionately Jozi, Joburg, and Joey’s. Only 136 years ago, in 1886, gold was discovered by white farmers. Miners swarmed to the area, setting up tents on the granite earth, scrabbling for veins of gold along the prominent ridge. The City of Gold sprung up around this mining industry. The once sparsely inhabited landscape is now densely populated, making Johannesburg a massive, contemporary, urban metropolis.

My history in South Africa began in the early 2000s when I began my studies with a South African-born spiritual teacher who was based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Through the years of study and spiritual development, she often referenced South Africa. I found myself mesmerized, frightened, and catalyzed by the dream of South Africa.

As a lay herbalist, I became interested in a South African medicinal plant, Lessertia frutescens (formerly Sutherlandia frutescens) which was being used as a treatment for HIV/Aids before the rollout of ARVs (Anti-Retroviral medications). I traveled to South Africa in 2005 to shadow Anne Hutchings, a prominent ethnobotanist who developed a compassionate and scientific trial to determine the benefits of Lessertia/Sutherlandia frutescens for the increasingly impacted population. Based on my interest in the use of medicinal plants in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, I was invited to return to South Africa in 2008 to visit Credo Mutwa, a much-esteemed South African traditional healer and icon of African spirituality.

Fast forward to 2018 and my third round of visits to South Africa. This time I came to South Africa with a dual purpose. I came to support my South African born spiritual teacher, who after 30 years in America, opted to return home to the landscape of her birth for a better quality of life as her memory began to recede. She came to South Africa with another friend/care provider, and I followed within the year.

I also came to be part of Seeds of Light, a non-profit organization started by this spiritual teacher and friends over 20 years ago. The mission of the program has remained consistent and aims to uplift the community, primarily through art, reading, education, leadership development, and gardening. I brought my passion for reproductive health and sexual education with me and volunteer with Seeds of Light.

Since 2018, I have lived as a neighbor with semi-permeable fences to the Kruger Park in the scrubby, thorny, seasonally dry, bush of South Africa. I lived amongst Big 5 game reserves and a rich farming area with a climate and soil suited for mangos and citrus.

As my beloved friend and teacher required another level of care, it became clear that a move to Johannesburg in early 2022 was in order. I have joined her for a few months as she settles into her new life and home. These months in Johannesburg have me continuing to orbit around my friend and her needs. However, now that she is in a facility where her physical needs are met, the days open up before me and I am able to add in adventure and exploration.

After years of relatively cloistered life in the bush living in a round building known as a rondavel, with a thatched roof surrounded by African wilderness; this shift into the city feels electric with possibility. For a few weeks, I nearly forgot that Johannesburg and the Lowveld hub of Hoedspruit are only 5-6 hours away by car. I had forgotten that it is possible to drive between the two. I experienced the move to Johannesburg as a dimensional shift.

When I am not visiting my friend and teacher, I am busy exploring this metropolis. My preferred method of transportation is a bicycle. I map out routes and set challenges for myself. I ride certain streets from one end to the other. I am mapping the geography of Johannesburg in my body. I haven’t completely figured out north from south. I can’t navigate by the sun or the stars. I am creating my own internal map by learning the potholes, the beggars, the ladies who wait for their taxis, the guys who perform the robots/traffic lights, the street surfing recycling collectors, and the roadside vendors. I know the scent of Johannesburg in the autumn as the alliums bloom and give off an onion/garlic scent. I know that the spruit and Juksei River reek primarily of laundry washing powder with an undertone of sewage. I watch as the deciduous leaves change from yellow to red and blow dryly through the streets. It tickles my fancy to see the red, autumn leaves of an oak tree nestled next to the thick, evergreen, rounded, latex leaves of a rubber tree. Johannesburg is considered to be the largest man-made urban forest with over 10-million trees.

I revel in this odd intimacy with the city and people. At my local robot/stoplight after a few days when I didn’t cycle, one of the vendors greeted me warmly, having noticed my absence. The guys often cheer for me and yell, “go Mami” when I catch a green light and sail through their bardos, a no-man’s land in the middle of rushing, chaotic traffic. I also find myself at a standstill at times in traffic, vulnerable and exposed in the middle of an intersection while I wait for the light to change or for the line of cars to pass so that I may proceed. I am recognized and am woven, temporarily into the warp and weft of life on these busy streets. I have a weekend warrior cycling friend who texts me when he spots me on my bike in the city. One day he spotted me in front of a Korean restaurant in Benmore Gardens. Another day he spotted me in Linden. I asked directions in Melville from a young street beggar with a blind man who, in my story, is his grandfather. A few weeks later, I came across them 10km away in the suburb of Bryanston. We laughed with mutual recognition.

I ride with the hipsters in the inner city. With a mix of youthful pride and practicality, the hipsters ride single-speed bikes with joyous abandon. The bikes are works of art and are as beautiful as they are functional. Fashion counts. The bicycles are personalized with color and glitz to match the style of the owner. We ride across the Nelson Mandela Bridge. We cycle up Constitution Hill, a former prison and military fort where big names in social reform, including Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Winnie Mandela, Joe Slovo, Albertina Sisulu, and tens of thousands of others were incarcerated. Constitution Hill currently houses South Africa’s Constitutional Court, representing the rights of all citizens. We cycle through the markets of Yeoville and do laps around the circle at Ghandi Square. We do call and response in the roughest, most desperate areas of Hillbrow and find ourselves greeted with surprise by the local residents. We amble through tree-lined suburban neighborhoods and past homes on the historical register. Bicycles allow us unfettered access across socio-economic boundaries.

I cycle with a more senior, but equally welcoming crowd, the Cycloplaths. They mostly ride full-suspension mountain bikes and cycle religiously through the spruit trails when they are not off in the farthest reaches of the country. The Cyclopaths have an enviable comradery and an extensive knowledge of the cycling routes around South Africa. One beloved cyclist experiences age-onset memory loss. His wife and the group communicate about his arrival and departure to and from the group rides. The Cyclopaths create a container that allows him to maintain a sense of sovereignty and his cycling passion. I can only imagine that his quality of life is enhanced tremendously through this arrangement. The Whatsapp group announcing rides shows an obvious, longstanding commitment to one another through copious birthday wishes and updates from members cycling far and away.

On weekends I ride at the mountain bike trails/reserves in the wilderness areas outside of Johannesburg. The rocky, granite, grassland highveld offers a fabulous array of trails, vistas and opportunities to connect with the landscape and other cyclists. Each of the outlying cycling areas has its own appeal. At Thaba Trails, it is possible to cycle within a reserve with zebras and all manner of highveld antelope. The Cradle of Humankind is exactly that, a World Heritage Site where some of the world’s oldest human ancestral fossils have been found. At Northern Farm, the trails wend below the flight path of Lanseria Airport and offer views of arriving and departing airplanes’ underbellies. At the end of summer indigenous cosmos, Cosmos bipinnatus bloom in shades of pinks, purples, and whites. Trails wend through fecund fields of cosmos. And then there is the bain of the trails, the colonizing, invasive blackjack, Bidens pilosa that leaves cyclists covered in dart-like seeds. Rather than knitting or crocheting at night, I find myself occupied in the equally satisfying activity of picking blackjack seeds out of my socks and clothing.

I have a tentative and alarmingly alluring connection with the Freedom Challenge cyclists. The Freedom Trail, a 2150km mountain bike route traverses the remote landscape of South Africa from the western to the eastern coast following the historic wagon routes of the early settlers. During the Freedom Challenge’s Race Across South Africa, cyclists have 26 days to complete the length of the trail. Top finishers forgo sleep and push their limits to finish in less than 10 days.

In Hoedspruit, my dear friend Angela has spent the past two years regaling me with heroic stories of endurance and hardship that make up the Freedom Challenge. Angela and I have been on countless adventures allowing her to practice orienteering in preparation for participating in the Freedom Challenge. I am always happy to support Angela in her learning, but, up until now have felt quite smugly satisfied with the belief that those skills are not relevant for me as I hope to never do any of the Freedom Circuit events. I have been simultaneously enthralled and terrified of these characters and their commitments.

On one of the weekend group rides, our group had a chance encounter with a legendary Freedom Challenge endurance racer, Mike Woolnough. We crossed paths on the trail and again over coffee at Wimpy’s. I had a brief introduction to Mike and was struck by his vitality and distilled enthusiasm. Mike stood out as a person of interest and I found myself curious about what makes him tick. Through mutual friends, I learned Mike is a pretty accessible guy. I took a risk and messaged him, asking if he was available for a ride, letting him know that I would like to interview him and that I find it easier to talk from the saddle. We agreed to meet. We rode and chatted and laughed and shared.

Mike shared the challenges and rewards of endurance racing. Navigation is at the heart of The Freedom Challenge. Mike is able to navigate by the sun by day and by the stars at night. He takes inspiration from cows, who find the easiest route in challenging terrain. Mike reminds himself when the going gets tough, to think like a cow. Mike’s superpower is to keep moving forward. At around 40 hours into racing, because of the physical duress and sleep deprivation, the “sleep monsters”/hallucinations start to show up. He tends to find them companionable. Mike reminds me of zen master. I don’t think he is superhuman in his physical capacity, but his accomplishments are. I suspect that Mike suffers as much as or more than other competitors. He just doesn’t let suffering stop him. He writes compellingly in his blog about this relationship with his body and mind, “My body was tired but I've come to realise that it's a serial liar—always wanting to stop, always wanting to sleep. I lead with my head understanding that we are so much more capable than we give ourselves credit for. When you think you're done the truth is that you still have a few days left in the tank. Head space management is the secret ingredient.” Mike has an infectious enthusiasm for life that includes but is not limited to cycling. He has a quality of presence that charges and electrifies the space around him.

These two and a half months in Johannesburg have a similar tonality to my early days at the University of Washington. I had a lot of time on my hands then and now for exploring. Sometimes, especially in the rain, Seattle and Johannesburg blur in my awareness. The sound and feel of rain in the city evoke Seattle for me. Riding a bicycle is central to both eras. A love of people, a need for connection, and a seemingly contradictory desire for independence are shared markers. In both eras of my life, I experience painful isolation. My superpower is the ability to connect with people across cultures and economic statuses. I have an innate love for people. And, I have an equal and opposite aspect of self that loves solitude and my own company. I love to wend my way through neighborhoods and imagine families sitting down together for dinner or parents helping children with homework. And then, I sit alone in an Italian restaurant nursing a glass of wine and scratching thoughts into a notebook. Cycling and writing are two constants in my life. Of all the relationships that I nourish, these are my closest.

I weave my way through the streets of the City of Gold, sometimes with a purpose and sometimes just to wander and to see where I end up. I am witness to a complex, breathing, polarized, living landscape filled with people and their hopes, dreams, and struggles. I stop for food when I am hungry and have eaten many a meal in a parking lot. This has given me a chance to study license plates up close. Johannesburg lies within the heart of the Gauteng Province. On the Gauteng license plates, the motto written about the crest of arms is, “Unity in Diversity.” That rings true for me. We are each here to fulfill our own specific role and to bring our gifts to the world. In this, we are unified. How we express our unique qualities is diversity. It feels like the perfect motto for Johannesburg, a rich and roiling drama of diversity with an underpinning of unity.

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Mike Woolnough
Mike Woolnough
May 05, 2022

As a resident of Jozi I’ve allowed myself to be blinkered by the fault’s I choose to focus on. This is a reminder that we live in a vibrant and diverse city that heaves with life. Thank you Kathleen for reminding me to take moments to stop and breath in the good that is all around us.

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Thanks for being part of the story, Mike!

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