Words & Photos: Sean Fraenkel
‘Wannabe’ adventure man, Sean Fraenkel, is at it again. This time with his biggest challenge to date - Barking Mad: an unsupported cycle across South Africa and Lesotho with his two dogs for charity.
Photos by: Sean Fraenkel
“Oh no! What have I got myself into?” I ruminated under my breath, as sweat dripped from my furrowed brow and I pushed my bicycle, loaded with more than 50 kg of gear, up yet another loose, gravel gradient. Besides the personal gear in my panniers, I lugged a custom-built trailer (courtesy of Holdfast) so my two Jack Russells (Turbo and Tequila) could join me on my latest, crazy adventure.
As the reality of my daunting task set in and my legs screamed in protest and a spittle-flecked whimper escaped my lips, I prayed for malaria, hijacking, anything as an excuse to go home - and this was only day one. I cringed at the thought of what lay ahead!
Starting from Musina, I followed a gravel road that runs parallel to the Limpopo; wet earth, washboard surfaces and rolling hills tested my fitness to the max. My body’s dissent was occasionally forgotten, as I watched my dogs chase after baboons, vervets and strange six-legged critters that were completely alien to us city boys from Cape Town.
Fortunately, the day was cool. Grey clouds loomed overhead as I focused on my pedal strokes - push, pull, push, pull! Signs of recent flooding were evident. I had been keeping an eye on the news up until then, “Limpopo, 80% chance of rain, flooding and closed roads can be expected,” the weatherman said nonchalantly as he skipped to the next slide.
On two occasions I had to find alternative routes, as the low-lying sections were completely washed away, but fortunately, the heavens held back their sluices for the day.
During one of my frequent pit stops, while making a brew along the banks of the Sand River, a tributary of the Limpopo, I contemplated a dip to cool down. Thankfully, a farmer warned me from his bakkie’s window, “Pasop! There are groot crocs in that river.” Fair to say, I kept my dogs and myself far from the muddy banks after that.
A little later, a close encounter with the four-legged, flea-bearing kind really freaked me out. A pack of dogs, two of which were pit bulls, joined me for a couple of kilometres as I ground along. They seemed friendly enough, until the big, white male turned on my dogs, who were fortunately resting (albeit yapping incessantly) in their box. He attacked the trailer so violently that he left spatters of his own blood on the side of my pet carrier. Luckily, I was able to chase him away without having to resort to my only protection; a small canister of pepper spray. Imagine if my pooches weren’t in their mobile home at that particular time? My girlfriend, Tracy Breeze, gave me strict instructions: “Don't even think of coming home if anything happens to our dogs!”
I was planning on camping most nights, but when I arrived at the veritable oasis that is Popallin Ranch, ten hours after leaving Musina, it took little coaxing into taking out my credit card and spending a night in luxury. Monique did give me a discounted rate in support of my trip, for which I am exceptionally grateful for.
The four white lions patrolling the road from their enclosure, on the way to reception from the gate, are an amazing sight. I did notice a lioness lick her chops as my dogs scampered passed rather sheepishly. Even Turbo shut his trap for once! The lodge’s restaurant hugs the bank of the Nwanedi River; a flowing brown waterway that's filled with crocodiles and hippo. I made sure I kept my dogs close, which was now becoming a habit on this trip with all these predators about. After a delicious meal of true boere proportions and a healthy dose of carbohydrates in liquid form (i.e. a beer), I crashed on my bed under a thatch roof, with the sound of the overhead fan, chirping insects and the roar of lions lulling me to sleep.
The following morning’s silence was shattered by vervets chattering above my chalet. Turbo and Tequila were highly agitated by these noisy creatures, barking frantically as the monkeys mocked my mutts with their high-pitched chatter and aerial antics.
Day two was another cry of anguish and fear, “How am I going to reach Cape Town?” The terrain started off relatively easy, with only a few undulating hills. But as my dogs had run so much the first day, I had to rest their paws and let them ride in their mini chariot most of the way. In true African spirit, I moved at a snail's pace, as I headed south towards my ultimate goal - Cape Point.
The 'Big Tree' or Sagole Baobab is definitely worth a stop. Regarded as one of SA’s biggest indigenous trees, measuring 10.47 x 22 x 38.2 m, it truly is spectacular. Being about as religious as a brick, even I found the place to be spiritual.
A raw, natural energy filled me after I clambered up her knotty, elephant-sized limbs and rested in her branches, while enjoying my packed lunch. Even my fury companions were able to saunter up her arched bows. Run by the local municipality, it costs R21 to get through the gate to see this mighty baobab. As with most municipal officials, you will be lucky to find them at their post doing their job (if the state of our roads are anything to go by). So if you are passing through, there is a chance no one will be there to let you in.
My day ended with a three-hour slog up a gradual 10 km climb. Despite being on a busy road, I had to let my dogs out of their box, as I had to push my loaded steed most of the way up. I tethered my little friends to the front of my bike and repeatedly said, “Right doggies on the count of three, one, two, three, now pull!” to no avail.
Broken, I reached the village of Gundani. My goal was to leave the tar road and travel another 5 km on a 4x4 track to the community campsite of Gundani Mutsiwa. According to my guide book, you have to arrange your booking in advance. So instead, I decided to knock on the door of a Venda lady’s (Angelica) home and asked if I could camp in her garden. What a humbling and peaceful experience. Angelica welcomed me onto her land. She gave me water from her 25-litre drum, which she had to go and pump from a well some distance away. Feeling guilty (as I am too lazy to refill the water jug at home from a running tap), I apologised profusely as she repeated, “No problem, no problem,” and filled my bottles to the brim. Amazing!
Thanks to a full moon, my little green tent glowed inside. The surrounding village’s small homes, with misty, orange halos, reminded me of fireflies as the light from cheap, single incandescent bulbs marked their location. African drumming vibrated from a neighbour's yard, dogs barked in the distance, cows mooed and their bells clunked as I snored deeply on my inflatable mattress.
Much to my relief, the next three days were far easier going and I finished my mileage by lunchtime. My dogs and I had found our rhythm; I would alternate between focusing on my pedalling and yelling, “Turbo! Please … Shut … Up!” every few minutes, as he is an extremely vocal mutt. If he’s not whining, he’s barking for no particular reason.
It is days like these that draw me to cycle touring; the hum of tyres on tar, controlled breathing and miles of flat road. The hills in-between make the easier parts even sweeter. All locals en-route proved to be super friendly. I would wave and greet them as I cycled past. At first, a look of utter disbelief would cross their face, as they tried to make sense of my rig, then big smiles and cheers would follow. When I was quizzed about my destination, “Hey, you are lying,” with jaws agape, was a frequent response when I replied, “Cape Town,” with a fat smile on my face.
Photos by: Sean Fraenkel
Fig Tree Lodge's owner and manager, Rudi, was kind enough to offer me a discount in support of my cause. The rooms here are basic, but clean. The food is not extravagant, but big portions are served. Perfect for the cycle tourist passing through Thohoyandou. Middle Letaba Dam Resort, where I spent my fourth night, is far from a luxury establishment, but the chalets did have electricity to charge my gadgets and air conditioning to cool me down. It's definitely a 'room by the hour' kind of place; there were more free condoms handed out than even Tiger Woods would know what to do with. I saw four vehicles leave with happy customers an hour after arriving. I slept in my own sleeping bag that night, for obvious reasons. Another warning: this is army ant HQ. These little buggers are everywhere. They did leave me alone in the chalet, but maybe it had something to do with two days of cycling and no shower in-between.
Day five was a big push of 80 km, so I left Fig Tree Lodge early to avoid the midday heat. My breakfast comprised of half a packet of lemon creams, plus some bananas and crisps along the way. By the time I reach Sunland Farm, I was famished. I had been imagining a green salad, potato and a fat steak for the last couple of hours only to find out that there was absolutely no food available, except for beer. Drowning my sorrows by the bucket load, I had to settle for pasta and sauce mixed with baked beans until I could scavenge some food from the owner's son, Dean, who only returned later that evening.
The Sunland ‘Big Baobab’ is in Modjadjiskloof, near Tzaneen, and famous internationally for being the widest of its species in the world at 22 m high, with a circumference of 47 m. It is carbon dated to be around 6,000 years old. This tree has even made the front page of the Wall Street Journal! After chatting to Dean that evening, more modern testing can only accurately pinpoint the tree as not being younger than 1,700 years.
When baobabs become a thousand years old, they begin to hollow inside as the core rots away and that’s why dating this particular species is fairly inaccurate. In the ‘Big Baobab’, this has resulted in wonderful caverns and caves, and is also where you will find the world-famous Tree Bar. The owners have squared off a natural vent to make a door and installed a railway sleeper pub inside the trunk, complete with draft beer, seats and a music system. One party managed to fit 60 people inside her bark walls! A wine cellar was installed in a second hollow, with a constant temperature of 22°C, and is ventilated by natural vents. In 1993, when the family cleared out the hollow centre of the tree to uncover the floor, they found evidence of both Bushmen and Voortrekkers about a metre below ground level, attesting to the historical importance of the tree.
One easily forgets how wild and untamed South Africa can be when living in the city. Travelling so far north through Limpopo, I could easily have been in another African country. The generosity of strangers was absolutely overwhelming. A security guard gave me some of his pap when I had no food and refused payment. A hardware store owner assisted me with some technical issues. An elderly couple and Americans gave me money in support of my cause. Three out of the five places I stayed at gave me a substantial discount. The only time I felt in any danger was walking close to the lion cages and when I found spiders under my pillow.
Day 1: Musina (Baobab Inn) to Popallin Ranch - 69.7 km
Day 2: Popallin Ranch to Gundani - 58.4 km
Day 3: Gundani to Thohoyandou (Fig Tree Lodge) - 57 km
Day 4: Thohoyandou (Fig Tree Lodge) to Middle Letaba Dam - 53.1 km
Day 5: Middle Letaba Dam to Sunland Farm - 76.6 km
Total distance travelled in five days - 314.8 km
Know before you go:
1. The Baobab Trail is stage one of the Dragon's Spine; a mountain bike tour from Beitbridge to Cape Point through Lesotho. The guide book ‘Riding The Dragon's Spine’ (by David Bristow and Steve Thomas) is an essential read if you are planning to do the trip yourself.
2. GPS and laptop make planning your daily route far easier. You can download the suggested GPS tracks from www.dragontrax.co.za. I use an 11” Mac Book Air loaded with BaseCamp and Tracks-for-Africa in conjunction with my Garmin Orgeon handheld device.
3. There are loads of creepy critters and mozzies in this part of the world. After getting two mosquito bites under those plastic-type bracelets, I now stick to Tabard only. Malaria is a concern so take precautions.
4. Topeak make awesome cycle touring equipment. Take care though when doing off-road touring because although the Pannier DryBag DX is waterproof and durable, you need to make sure the metal clips are bolted onto the rack. This prevents quick removal, but I was going nuts as my bags kept on bouncing off on rutted roads. Topeak gear is available from Trail and Tar in Tokai (www.trailandtar.co.za)
5. When travelling with dogs, make sure you carry ample water and try and keep them on their usual diet. Rest often! Graze and Weeping Wound Powder, from Herbaforce, is gentle enough to use on the navel of infants and works wonders on dogs paws. Make sure you inspect them every day, as their pads can wear down quickly.
I hope to use this unique experience to raise funds for the animal welfare group Pet Empowerment in Townships (www.pets.org.za). You can find out more about my 'Barking Mad charity cycle' on #BarkingMadSA or visiting www.seanfraenkel.com/barking-mad/ •
Holdfast - www.holdfast.co.za
Poppallin Ranch - www.popallin.co.za
Gundani Mutsiwa - www.krm.co.za
Fig Tree Lodge - www.thefigtreelodge.com
Sunland ‘Big Baobab’ - www.bigbaobab.co.za