To the Karoo!

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The winding road to Montagu passes by rock and water and long grass and birds. The town is colonial and quaint.

Our last stop before the Karoo, we stock up big. We don’t expect any services or pavement for three days. Three pounds of golden delicious apples, 2 large rounds of potbrood, a dozen school buns, a brick of mature cheddar, a brick of ladismither, an english cucumber, a pound of cherry tomatoes, a pack of viennas, coconut biscuits and eetsumore shortbreads, Kloof coffee and chicory, festive fruitcake chocolate, 4 avocados, safari peanuts and peri-peri sauce.

We’ve strapped 4 water bottles to our forks and fill them at the cafe on the way out of town. The owner Keith introduces himself as Mr. Mountain Bike. He eyes our bikes and offers to cart our gear up the pass. Nick is too proud, so I am too. He directs us to the road and promises to take his wife on an evening drive to check up on us. We thank him and head uphill.

I still have no idea what or where the Karoo is. I’ve heard from some that there’s nothing but ostrich farms and brush. Others speak of mountains, antelopes of all sizes and horn configurations, baboons, and the one time they saw a leopard. And then they say it’s hot. Everyone says it’s hot there.

Near the top of Ouberg Pass, Keith and his wife catch up with us. We talk a minute, they wish us well and we roll down as the sun sets. 

We sleep out and wake early to ride smooth wide dirt roads to jeep tracks in the Anysberg Nature Reserve. The sign at the unlocked gate welcomes cyclists and swimmers and smiley faces and indicates an office down the way. The previous days saw rain and we see nine stocky antelopes drinking from a fresh spring. They flee as we approach, but watch us from a hillside, their eighteen thick straight horns toward us. 

We continue to the nature reserve office, nearly the only building we’ve seen since Montagu.  There is a new kitchen and a swimming pool made out of a water tank. It’s time for shade and a little running and lunch. We pedal through the hot afternoon on sandy rocky jeep tracks and lift our bikes over a couple of fences that lead us out of the reserve to a white house and a windmill. I spy an older woman behind a fence and call after her, raising a water bottle. She responds in Afrikaans. I try again in English. She waves her arms at the windmill. A metal pipe pumps groundwater into a large tank under the mill. We fill nine liters and roll down a smooth county road to camp.

The next morning promises to be a cooker and we’re looking forward to hiking down The Ladder to The Hell.

For now, we’re following the Freedom Trail, a 2350 km dirt route across South Africa. Most people race the Challenge in the opposite direction in June. We’ve read a couple trip reports, but it’s hard to tell what’s what when up is down. The trail promises to be full of legends and adventure.

In the morning we smell the green onions and chives of Rouxpos before we see the fields. Distant laborers raise their arms and cheer us on. Vleiland has a town hall with a library.  There is a store. We drink cold Stoney ginger beer on the stoop out front.

The dirt road leads us to a private reserve and a gate identifying a 4×4 trail called to “The Hell and Back”. Nick calls the listed number. The man allows us to pass, but warns that the landowners down below “can get angry.” We chunk our way to the ladder. The Ladder is nearly a 2000 foot drop to The Hell. The trail used to be a donkey route to deliver supplies to the Afrikaans community below. They settled in the valley in the mid 1800s and remained nearly isolated until the road was built in 1962. I gingerly lower my bike down steep loose rocks. Actually, the bike suffers minor abuse.  The trail is extremely steep and loose and rocky.

Below, we cross a stream towards a couple of estates. A lady stands in our path. I wave and she crooks her finger at me, reeling me in. From farther than conversation distance, she recites:

“Who are you? Where did you come from? Who told you that you could come down here?”

I continue towards her. She repeats:

“Who are you? And where did you come from?”

I respond: “I’m Lael and I’m from Alaska.”

Perplexed by our bikes, she softens, asking about our ride and telling us we’re lucky we didn’t encounter the Mr. McGregor up above. He never would’ve let us come down. She asks where we’ll sleep and says she has a camp up and over the hill. We must hurry as we have to make a fire to heat the bath water. She assures us we’ll encounter Donald in a beat bakkie along the road and tells us the code to the electrified gate. As we pedal past she calls that we’ve a climb that’ll break our backs ahead of us. There’s a special word for it in Afrikaans.

Up and over we cross paths with a sunburnt bobblehead in a Datsun. It’s Donald. He says we must camp at his place.

“How much?”

He mumbles something about 200 Rand and interrupts himself to say that he must ask his sister and the camp is signed. We thank him and continue.

We pass a wooden pennant marked  “camp”. We still have an hour of daylight, so we continue down the valley. Soon we see another pennant for “Donald’s house”. The valley only really becomes Alice in Wonderland when we reach the electric fence. The code we were given opens a lock box that holds a key that unlocks the gate, which gives a gentle electric buzz through the handle. Mountains tower the quiet valley. It’s floral and sandy and smells good.

After hours, a sign at the visitor center tells us to inquire at the house around back.  She asks if we’ve just ridden into the valley, and are leaving tomorrow.  There is only one rideable route into the valley, which will be our exit. We agree, so as to avoid describing the semi-confrontation with the woman at the end of the valley. The kind lady there encourages us to camp at Donald’s and offers us the electric fence code. We smile and nod and keep going the other way to find an empty group camp down the road. I jump rope to the sunset and we eat the last of our hotdogs and cookies.

We get up at first light to climb steep switchbacks before the sun bakes The Hell. It’s worth it. We’re 2000 feet up and out in the cool air before seven. The road continues for the next 40K as a series of ascending hills, up and down. The brush and the mountains are beautiful, the climbs more challenging as the sun heats up. The recent rains flow though cool streams and we stop to submerge ourselves three times. 

At the top of Swartberg Pass is a descent all the way to Prince Albert, over 3000ft below. Baking hot with blazing arms from three days of sun I shoot straight down the mountain. Pink and orange and red rock tower along the sides of the steep gravel road, like the Mund’s track into Sedona. Flying down, I think about how I’d like to climb this canyon, to spend more time moving through it, to slow it down. For now, I have to get out of the sun. I’m pretty sure even my eyeballs are sunburnt.

Prince Albert is straight out of a Larry McMurtry novel. Wind whistles through flowering trees outside white-washed houses lining Main Street, except everyone drives on the wrong side of the road.   

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Good Greece

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Two weeks in Greece full of quiet and peace, so warm and calm you could soak in it.

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hello albania!

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Everywhere we go, we hear little voices and they call out hello! Sometimes we don’t see them at first and then we look, up hillsides and down valleys and sure enough, there’s a small small person or maybe two, smiling and waving.

Where are you from? How are you? What is your name?

Amerika?!

In Albania everyone wants to talk. Sometimes their English is just hello hello! Sometimes they sound nearly American. They all want to be friends.

Albania good?

Yes! Albania is beautiful!

Their faces light up. Their hearts are for Albania, their home, and they invite us in.

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Bird hands replicate the Albanian flag.

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Most kids over four feet ask to ride our bikes.

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This guy was too little to climb on the bike, so he spun the pedals with his hands instead.

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Христина

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We climb up and over a tall mountain and descend past paragliders and gypsies, blueberries and cranberries and cows– down down down, along a stream, to a little valley.

I stop at the third house I see. It’s wooden and yellow with paintings hanging on the outside walls.

Nick pulls up behind me. Looking at the house, we hear a voice behind us. I make to move on, not wanting to disturb her. Getting up from a bench in the shade, she walks over to greet us. 

Where are we from? Where are we going?

She is Христина, sounds like “Christina” starting with an H and rolling the R.

She invites us into the yard to eat mushrooms.

These mountains are full of mushrooms. We see mushrooms and mushroom hunters everyday. They bring them home and dry them and sell them by the roadsides. They offer them on every menu. They paint statues and pictures of mushrooms. In Ukrainian, mushrooms are груба  ” sounds like “riba” starting with a soft H and rolling the R. Христина calls them “gryba” with a growl.

She pulls another bench into the shade and offers Nick a seat. She motions me into the house to get the gryba.

I stoop through the entry way into the house, past steaming pots. All the floors are covered in knit rugs. I peek into the living room. Embroidery and photos and paintings adorn the walls. She’s knit and stitched everything by hand. Nick stoops in and she shows us pictures of family.

We collect bowls of stewed wild mushrooms and enameled metal mugs of beer, white bread and large soup spoons and head to the yard.

Prepared with a little salt and a little butter, the mushrooms are rich and slippery.

We talk of the Polonina we descended, about the Carpathian mountains, about the past. 

Христина was born in her parents’ house next-door in 1947. She was their only daughter. She had two sons and a daughter. During the Soviet era, she cooked for a large camp. She used to be a bartender.

Where will we sleep tonight?

Further on.

She insists we sleep there. The village has a store with everything we could need– beer, wine, bread. We must stay. She’ll cook us potatoes with salo and we can wash up in the stream.

It’s getting late, we accept and set up our tent in the yard. She brings us blankets and pillows and instructs Nick how to make the bed.

We walk to the store together. It’s in her friend’s house. Villagers sit in the garden on the front porch, drinking bottles of beer. We buy beer and a pepsi bottle half full of homemade wine and walk back to her house.

She waves us in and sits us in front of the televisor. Her favorite soap is on. She stands and explains who loves who and who’s brothers with who and who doesn’t know about it as she moves in and out of the kitchen making potatoes.

We carry everything out to the yard and picnic in the waning sun. Walking past, the post lady joins us for a mug of wine. The wine may be a few weeks old or it might just be funky– tastes like a cigar box poured out of an old boot– wood and leather and dirt.

We all laugh and drink it anyway.

It gets dark. The post lady goes home. We pack up and go to sleep in the tent in the yard.

In the morning, we drink coffee and tea and talk mostly about the same things, things worth talking about again.

Where are you going?

We’re going to Kolochava.

Where will you eat?

Kolochava.

Where will you sleep?

Further on.

And she waves us down the road.

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Pictured: her husband and son and husband.

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Pictured: Христина

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Mountain folk

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Summer festivals celebrate Slavic mountain culture in each nearby country.

Slovakia, July 2014.

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Moldova.

Romania.

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Poland.

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Poland.

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Ukraine.

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Romania.

Hungary.

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Wien-Bratislava…

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Flew into Vienna on Wednesday. Rode to Slovakia on Thursday.

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Anchorage-Seward-Anchorage

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On a sunny Sunday morning I borrow a bag from my dad and a bike from my mom and catch the train to Seward. The four hour ride passes mountains and glaciers and streams from one port to another. 

In Seward, I eat a pastrami sandwich and start pedaling into the wind at noon to begin my 127 mile ride home.

Two miles down the road, I ditch my pants and fleece by the side of the bicycle path for the climb out of town.

Thirty miles down the road I stop for coffee in Moose Pass. It’s early tourist season in Alaska; little traffic and roadside merchandise is sparse. The offerings are a mix of country and city. Homemade rhubarb pies share shelves with Little Debbie. Everything is monster sized. I pack a snickers and roll on.

Riding a road bike is fun, especially on a sunny day, even into the wind. I listen to music, sprint up hills, sneak nips from my flask and soar free.

I stop for a frittata and a bagel and a juice at a log cabin.

Chilled by sunset, I buy a sweatshirt at the gas station in Girdwood.

Ten miles out of town it is dusk in Potter’s Marsh– as dark as it gets this time of year in south-central Alaska.

I make it home before midnight, my skin soaked in sun and evening chill, my brain and legs a little numb, but happy.

I would do it again, even into the wind, especially on a sunny day.

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to the beach!

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Kincaid sand dunes

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Knik River beaver ponds

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Point Woronzof

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Tracks and Tracks

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Kincaid Bluff Trail, March 2014

There are tracks and tracks and tracks and tracks and tracks and tracks and tracks, all over the world.

Sung as a round. Second person begins when first person sings: “There are tracks and tracks…”.

Song almost never ends.

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Anchorage Coastal Plain

 

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Knik River floodplain

 

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Kincaid Beach

 

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Kincaid sand dunes

 

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Alaska RR to Seward, on the way to Resurrection Pass Trail

 

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Spenard Road, Anchorage

 

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Middle Fork Trail, Chugach State Park

 

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Arctic Valley

 

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Arctic Valley

 

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Kincaid Beach

 

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Middle Earth Trail, Kincaid Park

 

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Knik River

 

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Kincaid Point

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spring

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This weekend I slept outside and swam in the Knik River. In between, we rode to a glacier.

Earth and sky communicate through moisture. They write their stories in trees and moss, mud puddles and wildflowers, growth and decay. I spend weeks trail riding in the rain through the Belgian woods. My clothes and skin swell. My wool mittens become damp moss growing over my fingers and around my handlebars. Everything perspires. Like bathing in a creek, it is at once musky and fresh, cold and sweaty. They earth layers a story over my skin and into my hair.

Eastern Belgium, May 2013 

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