On a cold morning in late April I found myself on the field of a beef farm near Heidelberg, with 800 other men and women, all unknown to me. Included among us were 190 riders from 30 countries. Each person had a reason for being there, a story, a mission. By MARK HEYWOOD.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more …
One of my philosophies about life is that you must extract from it everything you can. Feel and think into each moment. It won’t return. Once that second is gone, it’s gone for ever.
Linked to this, always be aware of life’s unpredictability. While you are healthy and fit, relish it. Unforeseen illness, imprisonment or war may rob you of autonomy and freedom; steal your powers to exercise your body and mind.
With some of these things somewhere in my mind, about a year ago, I resolved to ride the JoBerg2C, a 900km nine-day mountain bike (MTB) race that involves riding ascents of over 12,000 metres, from the outskirts of Johannesburg to the seaside at Scottsburgh, a beach town just south of Durban. In fact, I didn’t just resolve. I borrowed the money and paid for my registration.
I was drawn to the romanticism of a 900km challenge, a personal odyssey to the C. Other private mottos floated into play: Seek out the unknown. Do something different every day. Don’t slump into the familiar.
Thus it was that on a cold morning in late April I found myself on the field of a beef farm near Heidelberg, with 800 other men and women, all unknown to me. Included among us were 190 riders from 30 countries. Each person had a reason for being there, a story, a mission. But at that point they were just a mass of helmets and shiny bikes, some probably costing as much as a small car.
At 08:00, to the sound of the starter’s gun, I pointed my bike towards Durban and set off over the first of many hills with a steaming, heaving mass, leaving a trail of dust in its wake.
Nine days later, I cascaded down ‘single-track’ paths cut through sugar cane fields over the last rolling hills, the sea slowly lifting itself into the horizon, and eventually onto the beach and into the sea.
What does riding the beloved country do to you?
It is stating the obvious to say our land is incredibly beautiful. All riders agreed the route was breathtaking. Words might be put together to give you something of it, so might the photos we took along the way. But the experience of anything is different when you throw your body and soul into its mud and dust, when it is your efforts that push you up ancient and unchanging mountainsides. When you smell it, hear it and feel it on your skin.
There is a beauty to mountain biking. The best riders achieve the grace and fluidity of skiers. Except they do so around a constant run of obstacles, treating each placid rock with respect, knowing its power to throw and injure. In those nine days we must have crossed millions of rocks and stones, each one of them having been in the area for as long as the cragged cliffs they have detached themselves from.
As the miles passed and the experiences piled upon each other, the question I constantly asked myself was how would I describe a trail of such infinite variety? From my 58 hours of riding what would I select as being of the most outstanding beauty?
Was it the vertiginous descent of 1,000 metres down the side of the Umkomaas valley to reach the banks of the wide river that runs through it?
Mist lacing the hills of the Umkomaas valley.
Was it the first sight of the Drakensberg mountains, rising suddenly beyond the endless mielie fields of the Free State?
Was it the roller coaster like track down and around the contours of Spioenkop, through indigenous forest and undergrowth, into Emseni?
Was it the electronic sounding chatter of unseen birds beside a lake or the sounds of frog life?
Was it the wide rivers we crossed by innovative bridge forms or the smaller streams we splashed our way into?
Or was it the human geography that came into shape as the miles passed?
Was it team Seeing is Believing; John Mwangi and Douglas Sidialo, his blind companion, two riders from Kenya on the only tandem MTB in the race? Every day I wondered at how a blind rider could navigate such treacherous and steep paths, at their fortitude, courage, tenacity … it was beautiful to see.
Or Hlubi Mboya and Letshego Zulu, two young women, on their #Ride4Gugu; a tribute and fundraising effort for Letshego’s late husband, Gugu Zulu, who had died tragically on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Team Seeing is Believing, John Mwangi and and Douglas Sidialo.
Whichever it was, the whole history of recorded poetry, drawn from any ‘nation’ in the world, will teach you that you cannot separate land and natural beauty from conflicts over private ownership or politics.
I knew that. On the spur of the moment I had decided that I would be a flag-bearer in this race, the bearer of the South African flag. I attached it to my helmet on the first day. This was my own private demonstration, a stigma I would attach to myself which might draw love or loathing or just plain questioning.
It did all three. Generally, it brought out patriotism and pride in almost everyone I passed. The response of (mostly) children and adults was to shout Nkosi Sikeleli i’Africa. Approval. Affirmation. Energy!
The JoBerg2C cuts a path across hundreds of kilometres of private farm land. As we rode across farm after farm I could not but notice how big the land question is … and how big the land is. Our land is rich and yielding. The farm owners were almost all white. The labourers and rural poor all black.
This journey helped me to understand how deeply felt and enduring is the indignity of the indigenous people’s loss of land. It called to mind the descriptions given by Sol Plaatje in his seminal Native Life in South Africa of his own journey by bicycle in 1913 across the then Orange Free State, over the Vaal River and into the then Transvaal to witness the effects of dispossession on the black families he met en route.
The consequences of the 1913 Land Act endure in patterns of ownership, poverty and the indignity of dispossession.
Yet, as I said in one of my Facebook posts, the land question can’t be resolved if it is seen as an all-or-nothing issue. I could see the operational and economic support systems that are needed to facilitate cultivation of the land, systems put in place over many years by white government to support white farmers and withdrawn by the democratic government just at the moment when they might be needed to support new generations of black landowners and farmers. Judging by what I saw and heard I felt some farmers are misunderstood, lumped together as a homogenous mash of racists. Talk to them in a language of necessity, equality, constitutional duty – and above all our common future – and I would hazard to say we could make some real progress.
As the miles passed under my wheels, something else patently obvious struck me: The urban jungles most of us crowd into, ravaged places, are but a fraction of our land surface. Because this is where we “live” we tend to think that real life is urban.
But that is a fiction we have embedded ourselves in.
South Africa’s vast land has huge resources that we are not exploiting. They include the human resources of our rural areas who we currently treat as marginalised people just waiting to get to the cities. Consequently, millions lie idle and unsupported. Yet, each person has ingenuity, potential, possibility. Initiatives like the JoBerg2C (and there could be so many more) show there is a way to live on the land that could mutually reinforce human beings and their environment.
These ideas lie at the edges of our thinking. We should be pulling them in towards the centre.
On Freedom Day, 27 April, as I pedalled between the Sani Pass and Ixopo (Stage 7), words from Bob Marley’s Redemption Song kept coming to mind “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but our selves can free our minds …”
As usual, Bob was right.
We have all become slaves of habit. Our circuity is wrongly wired: What we think we know shapes how we think and what we think about. Think about that. This leaves great tracts out of our experience, unprobed by thought. If you don’t journey into a new space you won’t think about it. Think about that too.
But not everything we cycled past was beautiful.
In the midst of a deep rural peace I felt upset by the pathetic-ness of the little children, their hands outstretched at passing riders, asking for “swe-eeets” or “choc-o-late”, apparently unaware of their own loss of dignity.
One afternoon I even felt afraid of these children. Somewhere on the 100 kilometres between Emseni and Clifton Preparatory School on Nottingham Road (the destination of stage 5 of the race) we had ridden past a rural primary school. There the children were hungry and rowdy. They jammed the side of the single track, tempting fate as riders rode past within their reach.
One young boy, separated from the crowd, launched himself at me in an almost successful attempt to rob my flag. I was winded and wounded, my flag downed but not removed.
I wanted to be angry. But couldn’t be.
What, I wondered, will happen when these children want more than sweets or more than to cock a snook at a silly flag carrier?
If we allow these inequalities to fester, future routes for the JoBerg2C have to be altered to circumvent “hostile” – read hungry – communities. Do we want that, or do we want events like this to revive Ubuntu, to shift wealth into economically poor areas and to rally us against inequality? (On one day, we did in fact ride through a service delivery protest … showing how widespread the discontent at corruption and maladministration.)
I straightened my flag, regained my composure and rode on.
Witnessing the children and schools in the rural areas struck me with the magnitude of the constitutional duty that faces our government to ensure every child has a basic education, an equal education. We should not sniff at this task, seek to find fault. Every one of us should be putting a shoulder to that wheel.
Because the rural schools where millions of children access education are mostly pathetic affairs. They stink of inequality and inadequacy. They insult our pretense to be a people of Ubuntu.
They should not be in the state they are.
That evening the race camp was in the school grounds of one of the most expensive primary schools in the country. Autumnal oaks cast a romantic auburn into the dying light, yellowed oak leaves littered the last mile as we turned our wheels into the protected grounds of the private school. That night the tents were on a splendid rugby pitch, we dined in the school’s great gymnasium, took long warm showers, were welcomed by their Marimba band … and a teacher playing the bag pipes.
We were out of Africa and into little England.
The riders’ camp on the rugby field at Clifton Preparatory school.
So what sense should we make of all of this?
At its core the JoBerg2C is as much about human imagination as it is about physical endurance. The race organisers and owners had an idea … and they put it together. Their efficiency is legend. The spirit they generate among the riders is uplifting. But what is also important is that the race is organised in a way that is not just about the pleasures of the privileged. It simultaneously involves and benefits disadvantaged communities along the way, raising money for schools and communities.
The JoBerg2C is an example of how we can knit social fabric and create social cohesion as something more than just a slogan. Our land and people are rich – but we make both poor. There are many, many ways to build on richness to generate income and improve equality in far-flung places, through activities such as endurance sport or eco-tourism.
South Africa could be creating employment and opportunity that does not have as a prerequisite that people move to the city. To do this requires several things. A mindshift on the part of the privileged, to seek out and support opportunities; willingness to do things differently by the government, and finally, involvement of the communities in these areas.
There are models, there are embryonic projects, there are possibilities. We just need the will.
Treat the earth and its people with respect and you will be amazed at the fruits it will yield. DM
Part of what drives Mark Heywood is encouraging people to support the work of SECTION27 to keep doing the work it is doing. Become a friend of SECTION27 today. Invest in social justice, the rewards are life-changing. http://section27.org.za/donate-to-section27/
Main photo: The author with Letshego Zulu and Hlubi Mboya (team #RideforGugu) at the official end of the race.