Sunday, January 25, 2009

Among Elephants

Posted from Plettenberg Bay, South Africa
When Andras Kiss popped up next to us at the tourism information center in Riversdale, none of us could have guessed the adventures we would experience as a result.
Andras, it turns out, is manager of tourism in the Hessequa Municipality. He was intrigued by us and our journey, but I think what motivated him to help us out was a genuine belief that his community had something to offer, and a genuine desire to promote tourism in the region.
From Riversdale we traveled east between the mountains and the coast, assisted here and there by a network of tourism representatives. On Thursday, Orian received a call from Larry in the tourism department of Plettenberg Bay. He promised us a place to stay when we arrived on Saturday.
"We have plans for you," he said. We were told to go to the Knysna Elephant Park, just off the highway before we reached Plettenberg Bay, where we were greeted by Greg Vogt.
"Are you here to book in?" he asked.
Quinn, not quite expecting this, stammered a bit.
"You're the group of cyclists, yes?" asked Greg.
"We were sort of expecting to camp out," said Quinn, still thrown off.
"Last night we slept under a bridge," explained Orian. But they had two rooms reserved for us.
By two, I mean about eight. We were shown to two suites with separate bedrooms and kitchens. But these weren't just any suites. They were the 'elephant rooms.' For in between the suites was a lounge area and down below was the indoor area where the elephants sleep.
We relaxed in semi-darkness in the lounge with a bottle of Elephant Wine, made from grapes pressed by Harry, one of Knysna's elephants, while 13 elephants settled in below us for the night.
The next day we bicycled among the elephants.
Elephants have poor eyesight, said Greg, so they are easily startled by approaching objects and rely on sound to communicate when approaching each other.
True to Greg's word, as we approached on our bikes, Harry noticed us and moved towards me, menacing. Just as I began to get nervous, some staffers came over to distract him.
Once placated by a truckload of hay, Harry and the others calmed down enough to move about them, even with bicycles, and a photo session ensued.
The Knysna Elephant Park is a rescue operation. Tame and orphaned elephants are kept on a 200 acre ranch where the public can view them.
"We actively find other elephants homes," said Greg. "These guys just finance that."
To be in the presence of an elephant is an overwhelming experience. Their sheer size unnerves you, but they are gentle and their intelligence is apparent, especially when they explore you or your bicycle with their trunk. They are otherworldly, and more than anything I was left with a sense of awe at these great creatures.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Rock and Roll: Leaving Cape Town Behind

On January 13, 2009, I took my first baby steps. I stepped up onto a loaded bike - 50 kg worth, including the cycle - for the first time and pushed down. The contraption shuddered with my weight and lack of balance, but rolled down the gravel driveway of our generous host Alvin, and into the street.
You'd never know I'd been a boy scout. This bike had never been ridden, never even been completely put together until the morning I rode it out of Cape Town. But it rode like a dream, thanks to Ian and Chris at the Recyclery, who helped me build it. It's like I traded in a rusty, dilapidated Toyota for a tricked-out luxury Land Rover; with all-terrain tires from Schwalbe and mud flaps from Planet bike; luggage racks and cup holders; even a leather seat.
Before we'd ridden half a kilometer, four kids with BMXs ran up.
"Where are you going?" asked one.
"Cairo," I replied.
"Cairo," he repeated. "Whoa..."
Alvin led us out of town on his Haro mountain bike. It wasn't long before the houses gave way to sandy, shrub-covered hills and soon Alvin took his leave as we reached the seaside.
A ways up the road we stopped outside a shantytown ("informal housing," Alvin called the masses of shacks, common around Cape Town and South Africa). A sign proudly proclaimed "This project is brought to you by the City of Cape Town."
In what had already become a theme of curiosity, interest and friendliness throughout our journey, four kids with one bike came out to talk to us.
"Can I ride your bike?" asked Quinn.
"You have to ask him. It's his. Can he ride your bike?" said one of the kids.
He shook his head "no," then "yes."
"You have to let him ride yours," the other boy joked. But the boy was too small, so one of his friends took Quinn's bike, with full packs, up a bit and back while Quinn did a trick or two on the boy's BMX.
Soon we stopped to lunch on peanut butter and garlic sandwiches (garlic is another theme - it helps keep the bugs at bay). Three boys walked by and we said hello.
"Water?" one said, and motioned that he was thirsty. Orian filled a disposable bottle for them and they went on their way.
Everyone honks at us. Kids give us high-five, men give us thumbs up. We passed a group of three men, standing around a pickup at an overlook.
"Where are you going?" one said.
"Cairo," replied Orian.
"Egypt," Orian clarified.
"Egypt?" the man laughed. "Rock and roll!"

Thursday, January 8, 2009


About a year and a half ago, Orian first mentioned he was going to take a major bicycle trip.
  "You should come," he said.
  I immediately filed it away in the "that would be fun" category where ideas die a polite death and float around like ghosts, occasionally whispering to the conscious psyche about what might have been.
  About a year later, at his wedding, he mentioned it again.  He planned to bicycle from Cape Town to Cairo, starting in January.  Quinn was there and expressed his own interest, not committing yet but adding to the momentum that was then almost imperceptible.
  It may have been the presence of further confederates—Orian's wife Karen would be on the trip as well—or it may have just taken a reintroduction to the topic, but something stirred and the ghosts awoke.
  I could do this, I realized.
  It took months, but could gave way to should gave way to would, and the ghosts, at first teasing, became relentless.  The continent loomed in my mind.
  My life became like a snowball rolling downhill.  Obstacles arose and were mowed down or bowled over.  Africa and bicycles consumed me.  I spent less time at work, less time with my friends.  I haunted the Portland bike shops.  I read and took notes compulsively.  I built a bicycle.
  I moved out of my apartment, dumped all my stuff in my parents house.  I quit my job.
  The snowball has swept me up with it and it's picking up speed.  This week I met MinWah, our fifth accomplice.  We boxed our bikes.  Tomorrow we fly.  On Sunday, Orian and Karen Welling, Quinn Baumberger, MinWah Leung and I will meet in Cape Town, South Africa.