Tramping the road, again

2012-04-30 00:00

MY colleagues had asked me whether I felt safe walking the route of the Comrades Marathon alone.

“I just make sure I look a bit like an umalale payipini (the one who sleeps in the pipes (read tramp),” I told them.

Not having experienced anything nasty over three days, in spite of warnings by well-meaning passers-by, I don’t know whether any others might have considered me not worth robbing.

But there is a reference to my being an umalale­ payipini when someone peers over a garden wall and asks: “What are doing here? Are you a hobo?”

Fortunately, it takes only minutes before the person in question and I end up in deep conversation. I am invited in and we have lots to talk about, people we know in common and interests we have in common, including the books of Irish travel author Dervla Murphy.

But back to the beginning of the day before starting to walk — looking at a map, which turns out to be a bit old, I decide to park my car at the Inchanga Caravan Park.

It’s nowhere to be found.

Eventually I think the Inchanga Hotel will do.

There, the security guard says, “Sorry, it’s no longer a hotel. It’s now a hospital.”

I end up finding the Inchanga Park Country Village, a retirement village with a Moths Shellhole, where manager Vince O’Connor allows me to park my car.

It turns out that it was once the caravan park.

Security guard Patrick Umfanafuthi Mpembe is the complex’s latest Comrades hero. Having grown up on the route, he’s watched the race every year for as long as he can remember.

“I always thought it would be too hard to do,” he tells me.

“Now I have found that it would be possible as long as I train.”

A relative of someone in the complex helped him compile a timetable and he’s abided by it, running 15 kilometres three times a week, on weekdays, and 35 km at weekends.

“Sometimes I do it with my friends, Walter Mbandla and Mpumlane Phungula.”

They’ll be running the Comrades Marathon with Mpembe, but as part of different teams.

Mpembe (35) qualified for this year’s run last month by completing the 42 km Postnet Marathon­, in Pietermaritzburg, in three hours, forty-five minutes.

“I’ll be happy to finish the Comrades in eight hours,” he says.

On June 3, when he takes a left turn in front of his workplace, he anticipates he’ll be hearing the cheers of the folks from the retirement village, and their families who trek there from Durban and Pietermaritzburg for the vantage point.

Minutes later he’ll expect to hear cheers from his own family further down the road.

I go down that stretch in perfect walking weather.

The sky is overcast, threatening rain and clouds hover on the slopes of the Valley of a Thousand Hills. It’s also pretty cold.

Solar-heating panels gaze up to the sunless sky. I hope the residents have hot water.

Further along, a sign outside the Nondlini Community Centre announces that it has the support of Comrades Marathon organisations.

Lucky “LZ” Mhlongo, who works there, speaks of five-a-side soccer and netball taking place there.

“Also wheelchair athletics. The children come here from Ethembeni School.”

“And weddings,” he goes on.

“We had one this Saturday.”

Down the road Phumaphi Virginia Ngcobo hoes a patch of ground beside a her home made of mud, stone and poles.

“We love watching Comrades,” she says. “Especially­ when the runners get hot. They take off their jerseys and leave them for our children to pick up.”

A dog guards the property of someone on the opposite side of South Africa’s income scale to Mama Ngcobo. As it growls at me I relate to what life is like for the pedestrian class.

Then I look up the hill and see people on a contour path through the veld, parallel to the road. It’s a more sensible way, but not for me as it’s not on the route of the Comrades Marathon.

Drummond, deep in a valley between an uphill and a downhill, is the halfway mark. A railway line snake slithers through a world of plots.

A plaque, set on a block made from bricks peeps out from the uncut roadside grass. It’s part of the gantry of an old sawmill and mentions that, around 1906, timber went by chutes to railway trucks below.

Kathleen Mack, a retired social anthropologist who lives in Drummond, tells me how, in past years, the local community gathered together to run a park and ride shuttle for spectators to keep access to and from the valley clear should there be an emergency.

“We would get up at 3 am to organise traffic. We had two places in Drummond to which we’d shepherd people to park.

“It was huge fun and greatly appreciated. The youngsters came to help and much of the work was done using the light of torches.”

The rain has set in when I reach Arthur’s Seat, the favourite resting place of the legendary five-times winner Arthur Newton.

I obey tradition by doffing my beanie and saying the ritual greeting: “Good morning, Arthur.” Never mind that it’s afternoon.

Soon I’m at the Comrades Marathon Wall of Remembrance where hundreds of small plaques — some green, some yellow — bear the names of runners.

Standing in the rain, I scour the wall in vain to see if there’s one representing my friend Dave’s sister, the late Isavel Roche-Kelly.

She was the first woman to win a silver medal, breaking a record by one hour and 20 minutes, during the uphill run in 1980.

Back in Pietermaritzburg, the Comrades office staff tell me it is indeed there, in block B, row four and that the Comrades Museum, in Scottsville, has an article about her permanently on display.

I walk on in the mist and drizzle, soaking in the smells and the sounds of the roadside bush.

I feel a bit like Anatole.

He was the main character in a picture book I had as a schoolboy that described the passing world through his eyes, in captions in English and French.

Introducing him, a line read: “Anatole est un clochard — Anatole is a tramp.”

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