Making new comrades along the way

2012-04-23 00:00

THE roadside at the Lion Park off-ramp is like any other: littered with plastic bottles.

How different from home where, earlier in the morning I had battled to find such a thing. The one I’d used from the previous week’s walk along the first section of the route of the Comrades Marathon having been condemned.

I’d filled it with the most putrid water I could find. The reason: so that my son could do an E. coli test for the science expo that KwaZulu-Natal Grade 8 and Grade 9 pupils have been busy with lately. A few steps into day two of my Comrades Walk I relive a feeling I had nearly 15 years ago when Michael Mshengu cycles towards me, his face looking radiant.

“My first son was born this week,” he tells me.

Moments later, the next phase of childhood appears as a bakkie pulls up at the entrance to a farm. Children heading for school cram into the back.

At a T-junction, a group of impala in a patch of veld watch me on the road. A signpost pointing in the direction from which I have come reads “Ashburton 5”.

I’m convinced I saw “Ashburton 6” earlier on, also for traffic going in that direction.

I walk back to confirm this, wondering how it could confuse Comrades Marathon runners on an up run.

Sure enough, they’re out of synch.

Further on, I meet 25-year-old Goodman Ngubane wearing a fez.

“I converted to Islam in 2006,” he tells me.

“I have three of these hats.”

The Valley of a Thousand Hills comes into view.

Then, Zulu singing breaks the silence.

I ask the singer: “What is it you are singing?”

She removes her headphones and answers: “Gospel.”

I’m puzzled that the din of N3 traffic has disappeared, but I’m more interested in buying a cool drink.

I get one at the Manzezulu Tavern where 10 am beer drinkers advise me that I’m on the wrong track.

I had taken the wrong turn five kilometres ago at the T-junction with the “Ashburton 5” sign, so I have to return there by minibus taxi.

Forget the incorrect road markings, the joke is on me!

Once I’m on the right track, the Comrades route weaves from one side of the N3 to the other.

A signboard marks the highest point of the race: 870 metres above sea level and 19 kilometres from Pietermaritzburg, 70 kilometres from Durban.

Down the road, at Van’s hotel and garage complex, Ken Knipe runs the garage shop and the local post office.

He’s run 19 Comrades Marathons in his day and believes every runner who makes it through the finishing line is a winner.

“People like Bruce Fordyce may go home with the trophies, but every runner who gets that tiny medal — well, that medal’s a big, big trophy,” he says.

“Whether you’re first or last, when you cross that line you can scream to the world, ‘I’ve done it!’.”

Knipe’s best time was eight hours, 54 minutes, on an up run.

He’s been at Van’s for eight years now, having moved up there from Durban.

“When I drive along the route, I go down memory lane ... in the old days my family would follow me [in a car]. Then they [the organisers] stopped seconding and they could see me only at designated spots.”

After Van’s, I pass the many battery chicken houses for which this part of the world is known, then farms where goats are for sale.

One has an enormous sign, saying it’s “Kwa Botha”.

So, Bothas are represented more than once on the route, Botha’s Hill, which lies way ahead, being the other.

After Cato Ridge it’s Harrison Flats, a long flat stretch through an industrial area.

It’s late afternoon and people are beginning to head home from work. Cars, taxis and lorries all dodge cattle wandering in the road. It seems that all parties are used to one another.

My friend, Craig Elstob, who has completed six Comrades Marathons, tells me in an SMS that Harrison Flats is “deadly on the up run”.

Then he tracks me down between there and Inchanga, where I’ll start next week’s walk.

Sitting in the passenger seat of his Volkswagen Polo on the journey home is like ... paradise!

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


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