It wasn’t supposed to be like this – lungs burning as I gulped ragged breaths of oxygen starved air, face stinging from the garden pea sized hailstones ricocheting off my skin through the open, mud spattered visor, rivers of sweat coursing down my back and legs, all the way into my socks, my left foot sliding inexorably away from the stationary bike in the ankle deep, red, primordial ooze.
I took stock.
I was on the approach to “Naude’s Neck” pass – at 2,587m above sea level, it is the second highest unpaved (dirt) road in South Africa and things had turned very bad, very quickly.
The day had started out well. Leaving the B&B in Kokstad after a fabulous breakfast, I had made good time through Matatiele and I had turned off the tar road just after Mount Fletcher onto the dirt road that would take me over Naude’s Neck and onto the remote village of Rhodes, my planned overnight stop.
It was a beautiful day – sapphire blue skies with the occasional puff of a cotton wool cumulus cloud to add some interest. The road surface was good and I reveled in the gentle undulations through the rolling emerald hills and over sparkling rivers where local women busied themselves washing brightly colored clothes in a veritable rainbow of colours. Children whooped with glee at the passing roar of the big beast and adults wore face splitting grins of dazzling white teeth and waved in greeting. This was the Africa of my youth, a vibrant display of life in a magnificent countryside, untainted by politics, race or religion. This continued for kilometers on end without a single vehicle to be seen in any direction. I had the whole place to myself, well except for the frequent herds of cattle, sheep, goats – fill in your flavour of meat and it was there, occasionally strolling nonchalantly across the road as I rounded the corner, a reality that required constant vigilance.
I was about 60km into my 99km of dirt road adventure where the scene before me changed abruptly. As I rounded a corner, I was confronted by roiling black thunderclouds, pregnant with rain, angrily shedding their load in the distance – right where the road led. I pulled over to change into the wet weather gear (complete with new wet weather over trousers which I had recently bought following on from my Romanian experiences). The photo at the top of the page gives some idea of the scene as the mirror shows blue skies behind and a line from Irving Berlin’s 1936 hit “Let’s face the music and dance” popped into my mind :-
There may be trouble ahead
I set off cautiously and within a few kilometers the first drops of rain dampened the dust on the road and I wondered if that’s all nature had in store for me …………..and then …….
Like a scene from a horror movie, everything happened at once! The heavens opened with a deluge of rain that turned the fresh road surface into an instant quagmire. The Bavarian Bierfrau might as well have been wearing ballet slippers as she lost all traction and slithered ungainly off the previously stable middle part of the road into the slick sludge of the surrounding ruts. I came to a natural stop as the traction control couldn’t find any purchase and as I whipped up the visor of my helmet to assess the situation the hail was added to the mix.
I continued to take stock. I was now about 35km away from Rhodes, about 10km away from the nearest farmhouse behind me and 10km away from the next guest farm in front of me. I was basically in the middle of nowhere and no other idiot would be stupid enough to be out in this weather to assist me. I was on my own. It was then that I realised that I couldn’t feel my fingers on my left hand, as a matter of fact I had pins and needles running up my left side! Oh no, was I having a heart attack (I’m of the right demographic after all)? Ahhhh – I was gripping the handlebars too tightly. I relaxed my grip and was rewarded by the slow sensation of feeling returning – well at least I could knock heart attack off the list 🙂
I prayed fervently for a few minutes while my heartbeat returned to a semblance of normality. I prayed for the road surface to change, for the rain to stop, for me to have the strength to handle the bike and the knowledge to know what to do next. I gingerly slipped the clutch a little and thought that God must be having afternoon tea as my efforts were rewarded by the back wheel sliding viciously towards the 1m drainage ditch on the side while lightening celebrated the victory of Mother Nature over machine to thunderous applause. I knew the only way was forward. I redoubled the prayers and slipped the clutch again, keeping the bike at an idle and paddling with both feet in the sticky ooze. The back of the bike dug in axel deep in the red slime and the front did a merry dance of its own accord. I struggled and sweated and prayed even harder (how long can a cup of tea take Lord?). I was oblivious to the pelting rain which fell with such a physical force that I felt I was being crushed under the weight. At least the hail had stopped.
I went on relentlessly. Praying, paddling, pushing and heaving. I stopped again, heart rate elevated to eardrum splitting levels. I looked down at the clock – it had been 20 minutes of torture. I looked back and estimated my progress – about a kilometer …………
Almost imperceptibly, my prayers were answered one at a time. The road surface began to change into a rocky mix that allowed the ballerina slippers to take hold. The rain eased into a cooling drizzle and the thunder and lightening abated save the occasional far off chuckle. I managed to stand up on the footpegs and ease open the throttle just a tad – I started making progress.
The road wound up and up into the clouds, ceaselessly higher and higher while I concentrated on nothing more than the next 10 or so meters in front of me. The surface now consisted of ragged tooth shark teeth rocks, strewn with the occasional bowling ball boulder for added fun.
I didn’t notice the rain stop. But I did notice the sign that said “Naude’s Neck”. I had made it! I pulled over to the side on the summit and got shakily off the bike. The light breeze was welcome as I took off my helmet to survey the route I had just ridden below. It was over an hour since the start of the storm. My muscles ached in places that I never knew I had muscles and my head was pounding from dehydration.
I rewarded myself with a chocolate and a can of RedBull, washed down by about a liter of water before taking the obligatory “selfie” in front of the sign at the top of the pass.
As I took one last look at the road behind, the tribulations of the afternoon melted away and I was struck by the thought that anyone that views us bikers as a Godless bunch of heathens should try taking a big bike along the Road to Rhodes in a flash flood and see how quickly they get to meet their maker :-p