David Moseley

The sounds of South Africa

2014-05-13 14:36

David Moseley

When we were younger my brother and I spent a lot of time at our grandparent’s home. Outside the house there was a tree. In that tree there was often an owl.

The owl didn’t live in the tree, but it was a regular enough visitor for me to become accustomed to its querying call. “Who?” it asked, night after night.

Eventually the forest nearby was thinned out and so the owl stopped flying by to ask its rhetorical question.

Like all wise owls do, it left behind a lesson. It taught me to listen while looking. Now, wherever I go, home or abroad, when enjoying the beauty around me I try to listen to it too… appreciating the chugging, honking sounds of the ferries on the Bosphorus, for example, and not just the shimmering silver water. Or taking pleasure while eavesdropping on trees that talk in melancholic creaks in the forest, and not just the view from the top.

Recently, I had the opportunity to look and listen in parts of South Africa I’d barely heard of, Frankfort, Reitz, Sterkfontein, the Underberg and more.

Earlier this month I completed the Old Mutual JoBerg2c. It’s a nine-day, 900km mountain bike race that starts in Johannesburg and finishes in Scottburgh, KwaZulu-Natal.

It’s a long, tough ride that never seems to end. Your mind and body are both tested, so the relief of making that final pedal stroke over the sand of Scottburgh beach is quite overwhelming.

The last crank of the pedal is also the one moment in the nine days where all the background noise is blocked out.

In that instant of success and glowing self-worth, all you can think of is crossing the last finish line of the event. The sounds around you mute themselves, similar to when you’ve dunked your head under a full bathtub to escape what’s come before and what might come next.

The sound and the furious pedalling

During the nine days, though, riders are exposed to some truly unique sights and sounds.

The first three days of the race, which take place primarily in the Free State, are accompanied by cornfield after cornfield.

You haven’t experienced creepy until you’ve cycled past 4 000 000 mielies swaying menacingly in the breeze.

When the wind picks up the corn waves from side to side, whispering malevolently as you ride past, sending chills down your spine on the more sparsely populated sections of the route. It’s a relief to look around and see your partner beside you.

Thankfully the sinister sounds are interrupted by the always comedic moos of grazing cows, certainly the friendliest looking meat on the planet.

Another sound I became familiar with over the nine days was the plaintive tone of my race partner, Jonathan. Something of a scatter brain, as I discovered on this ride, Jonathan would wake every morning at 5am and fire off a series of questions to which no one in the tent had an answer.

“Have you seen my socks? Where is my helmet? What time is it? How far is today? Should I wear my jacket?” and so on. In tents throughout the camp similar conversations could be heard, one partner enquiring forlornly, the other simply sighing.

The most common question of the entire nine days, however, came from the unique nature of the JoBerg2c. There are very few route markings on the course.

Major or tricky turns are sign-posted, but for the bulk of the ride you simply navigate via GPS, causing many riders, when approaching splits in the road, to cry out, “is this the right way?”

On one such occasion Jonathan insisted it was when it wasn’t, and so he enjoyed an extra two kilometres of climbing while I waited patiently at the foot of the steepest hill we’d come across all event. If it were not for a friendly farmer at the top, Jonathan would be herding Lesotho ponies for a living by now.

So where to?

A ride such as this also provides moments of great silence (a sound which is not a sound, I guess), followed by intermittent bursts of excitement.

For many kilometres you ride through quiet district roads or along hushed singletrack or on old ox wagon trails that provide a path ahead and a path to the past. There’s nothing to hear but the rush of wind in your ears.

One minute you’re barreling down the escarpment, teeth chattering uncontrollably on a violent descent. The next you’re cycling in respectful silence up a hill that just gets steeper with every pedal stroke.

Below, a babbling river that was crossed what seems like hours ago, and above only sky and the looming peaks of the Drakensberg.

And then, raucous activity breaks the stillness. Whoops and cheers from villagers and questions from enquiring kids, laughter too when you fall in the river, abruptly and vibrantly punctuate the chattering of teeth and soft clattering of bike chains. “Sweeties? Sweeties?” ask the kids, offering to push your uphill, but keeping one eye on your Jelly Babies.

Jonathan managed to also rouse a number of sleepy locals who were watching us from the banks of a slowly meandering river, their day progressing at the speed the river’s ox-bows were forming.

As we whizzed past, he raised his fist to the air and let out a mighty cry of “Amandla”, to which everyone on the riverbank jumped to their feet and excitedly replied, “Awethu”.  It was a moment of fun fervour on an otherwise serene section of cycling.

Thinking the small crowd had asked “where to?” I shouted back, “just over that hill and then we should be done.”

They looked on bemused as Jonathan and I whooshed, swished and zoomed to another night in a campsite that brought its own natural noises to the proceedings; the perpetual zzzitt of tent zips opening and closing, the bleeps of a thousand smartphones tweeting race updates and comrades in cycling sharing their concerns for the days to come.

In the end, it finished with a cheer on the beaches of Scottburgh for me, and a dip in the lagoon for Jonathan as he completed the race with two final distinct JoBerg2c sounds, a panicked yelp followed by a splash as he cycled off a floating bridge and into the water.

Send your comments to David

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