Road to Bethlehem

I’d said goodbye to Linda and Jan the night before, so early in the morning I set off cycling away from Piet Retief. The day began with rolling hills, before beginning a long consistent climb.

I slowly rode up, and into a headwind. The road topped out at around 2000m, higher than I’d been for a couple of months.

I then rolled along to the town of Volksrust, and stopped at a ShopRite. It was the busiest supermarket I’ve been to in ages, and the queue was probably close to half an hour. Many people parked empty trolleys or children in the queue to save their places, then went off to do the shopping.

Once I was finally done at the shop, I resumed riding. Not far out of town, I turned off onto a dirt road. There were dark clouds overhead, and I could hear thunder. Though it was a little earlier than usual, I decided to stop and camp at the next decent-looking spot.

As I was looking for a campsite, a car coming the other way stopped. The driver asked where I was going, and I have the name of a town about 40km ahead. “No, no, that’s too far – you must come and stay at my house. It’s just over there” he replied, pointing at a nearby farmhouse. Well, alright then!

The two men who’d invited me to stay were Jan, a farmer, and Les, his brother-in-law who was visiting. Not long after we’d reached Jan’s house it started bucketing with rain so I was very grateful.

I spent an enjoyable evening chatting to them, and later to Jan’s son and his girlfriend as well. The scale of farming here is a bit different to where I’m from. I grew up on a 25 hectare farm. Jan owns 15,000 hectares and rents some more besides.

Jan lives alone so his sons moved in to the bigger house and he moved here, which he called the small house.

Not far away from here, there are apparently gangs of sheep rustlers operating. Jan says they typically have 3-4 sheep stolen a month, which doesn’t bother him as in those numbers it’s just hungry people. But other farms have had 200+ sheep stolen in a night. As those farms set up security systems, the thrives move to the next farm. Jan’s son had been at a meeting of local farmers where they were planning to preemptively establish surveillance cameras to deter the thieves.

Jan had hosted a few other travellers over the years. He’d saved a couple news articles about them, which he had stored inside a Bible. This bible was the biggest book I’ve ever seen. Printed in 1812, it had been handed down through his family since then.

I set off cycling again in the morning. Jan had given me directions to another of his son’s houses on the farm but I must have missed the sign as I never saw it, so I continued on.

The road condition was variable, but mostly ok. There was one section of particularly sticky mud but thankfully it did not last long at all.

There were a few kilometres of paved roads around the village of Memel and then it was back to dirt. The road climbed up over 2000m again, at times going quite steeply. The steepest sections had tarmac, which was nice.

The tarmac resumed shortly before Verykerskop, a hamlet that seems to mostly exist as an auction for livestock. They had a restaurant there where I stopped for chips. I ended up chatting to Peter and Marlize, who own a farm nearby. They invited me to stay with them, but it was early in the afternoon so I decided to keep riding.

They wanted to take some photos of me with the bike

The tarmac continued down to Harrismith. I was going to go to a supermarket there but after seeing the queues, decided I had enough food. I’ve been told the supermarkets here are very busy at the end of the month as that’s when people are paid, and they come a long way to stock up.

Past Harrismith the road was bigger, and a bit busier. As usual for South Africa fences lined the road. I couldn’t see any alternative but to make my way through a fence to camp. The fence here consisted of 4 lines of barbed wire. At one fencepost, one of the lines was not attached, leaving a gap big enough that my bike and I could fit through. I camped behind some trees the other side of the fence.

I only planned to ride a couple of hours the next morning, so I set off a little late, at around 7. The sky was cloudy, and there was a strong headwind. These made for a rather chilly morning, even before it began to rain. As the rain worsened, I stopped to get out my rain jacket. I’ve not cycled wearing that in months!

Before the rain

Ahead of me I could see lightning arcing down, and heard thunder booming. Thankfully, though, the storm passed before I reached it. The wind lessened and, eventually, the rain stopped. It was starting to get sunny by the time I reached Kestell.

I’d been feeling for a while now that I wanted to have a bit of a longer break, and there were some cheap guesthouses in Kestell, so that’s what I did. I stayed there for nearly a week, not doing a great deal but enjoying the rest.

Finally I did set off again. Under clear skies I cycled along rolling hills towards the town of Bethlehem.

I made my way to the area of the hospital, and to a lab which offered Covid tests. They took my sample but the testing is done elsewhere. A driver collects the samples just once a day, and he’d left about 20 minutes earlier.

I had a look but I couldn’t find anywhere cheap to stay in Bethlehem. I’d have been fine with a stable, but I couldn’t find any of those on booking.com. Instead, I decided to ride on toward the border and hope I received the digital certificate.

Before leaving Bethlehem I went to a bike shop and then a supermarket. By the time I was done it had begun to rain. Since I didn’t have far to ride, I decided to just wait it out, and sat around for an hour or so. When it dried up I got back to cycling.

I rode on to the town of Fouriesburg and checked into a guesthouse for a couple of nights to await my result. It came through the next afternoon – negative – so I was ready to set off for Lesotho the next morning.

Feb 28: 138 km

Mar 1: 141 km

Mar 2: 35 km

Mar 8: 96 km

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