Comrades on every corner

2012-04-16 00:00

THERE is no trademark rooster cry as I set off from the Pietermaritzburg City Hall under an overcast sky — perfect weather to start a walk along the route of the next Comrades Marathon.

The call of hadedas, with their anomatopoeic names in both English and Zulu (inkankane), make up for the symbolic rooster’s crow made at the beginning of each race.

Hadedas are keeping watch over the old graveyard in “the dead centre of town”.

Walking gives one the opportunity to develop an eye for small details, such as hadedas’ habits, which one can easily miss while driving. Or running.

It gives one time to meet and greet interesting folks, like S’bu Dazela, from Imbali, who is walking up Chief Albert Luthuli Street carrying a fishing rod, but sadly for him, no fish.

“I come here to catch barbel and carp in the Msunduzi,” he tells me. “They’re bigger down here in town than at Imbali.”

When I cross the river, it’s coffee-brown from recent rain. Then I follow the route up Alexandra Road, past Alex High and the Alex cop shop.

“Who was this Alexandra?” I wonder. Something to look up back home.

A huge Great Dane does its job, barking at me shortly after Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School.

On a grassy verge off Washington Road, pensioner Fanie Greyling sits selling small tables he makes from pine.

I expect to hear a story of how hard life is, but his outlook is quite the opposite.

“My customers look after me. They often give me extra money to buy some smokes or a pie,” he says.

Fanie followed in his dad’s footsteps, working as a railway shunter at Mason’s Mill. He started the job, aged 16.

“I was there 18 years, then I went to join the Fidelity Guards. It was dangerous working with money,” he says.

“You must keep your eyes open for robbers, but I wasn’t robbed in 17 years.”

He lives in Oribi with his two brothers, both of whom still work. “I sit here until about 3 pm most days, then I go home and cook.”

The only time Fanie has ever lived outside Pietermaritzburg was as a conscript with the air force, in Pretoria.

Further down the road, and a few metres up Emily Road, Freddie Singh also makes a living trading along the Comrade’s Route. Like Fanie, he’s 62 and also Pietermaritzburg born and bred.

“Comrades!” Freddie announces to me. “I’ve done seven Comrades. They’re spiritual experiences.”

Between serving customers, he tells me what it’s like being on the trot, while spectators braai, listen to music and enjoy their day.

“I ask myself — why am I killing myself? Then I see a runner with one leg shorter than the other, two guys running with a blind guy, another runner with one arm a stump.

“I look at this and I ask myself — what am I moaning for?

“At the end of the race, I am very emotional. I realise I have 100% perfect body.”

Freddie has had his shop in Scottsville Extension for 13 years.

“Sometimes, I think running the Comrades is easier than running a business.”

Hanging on his wall, among his marathon memorabilia, is a piece of his writing, titled: “What no one can steal”.

“Everybody has a goal in life. You work hard to build your dream home: it can be taken away from you because you have not paid your rates for a valid reason. You buy your dream car: it can be stolen from you. But running the Comrades Marathon is an achievement nobody can take a way from you, bringing an everlasting joy and honour.”

I leave Freddie after wolfing down three juicy samoosas. They’re rumbling in my stomach when I reach Polly Shortts.

There’s quite heavy traffic on the scenic pass, where bushveld trees from opposite sides of the road sometimes touch one another, creating something of a tunnel.

One vehicle has canoes on its roof rack. I think back to an old April Fool’s joke The Witness apparently ran many years ago, reporting that the Duzi would follow the form of the Comrades — one year an up paddle, the next a down paddle.

Polly Shortts is a notorious stretch for the up-run. Walking up it in the opposite direction to me, walking downhill, is Themba Bhengu.

He is on his way home from inquiring whether an Ashburton farmer could keep his three cattle, currently in Underberg.

“It’ll be too expesive to have them in his feedlot,” he says sadly.

“Do you ever watch the Comrades?” I ask him.

“I’ve run it five times,” he beams.

He confesses that he had, on occasion, walked part of the way up Polly Shortts.

“Those hills at Westville and Inchanga hit your muscles. By the time you get here, you’re tired.”

Still, Themba prefers the up runs.

“Too many blisters going down.”

Rain clouds over Ashburton threaten to burst any minute. But they don’t. Later it’s as misty as Hilton, and the sound of farm animals carry far.

“Cock-a-doodle doo.”

Maybe this is just the beginning.

• Duncan Guy is editor of the education publication www.learn and newsroom coach at The Witness

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