A hell of a lot has changed since we wrote the last blog. For a start we began to cycle downhill for the first time, I’m therefore spending far less time toiling at the back of the group, coming up with elaborate excuses as to why my bike is definitely twice the weight of everyone else’s. More importantly, we have started the documentary in earnest, and it really feels like what could easily be seen as a fool’s errand might actually come together to create something special.
I am currently sitting at the top of a hill in Balule Nature Reserve, the home of the Black Mambas all female anti-poaching unit; one of the most important locations we will film on this trip. I will get to them in a minute, but what strikes me most is that the stories and characters we have come across on the journey here are just as significant and relevant in the conservation story as what we are learning here on the reserve. The first of these characters is Paul.
We stumbled upon Paul in the ‘Lamb and Ale’ pub, where we were replenishing our bodies and brains after a relatively long day’s ride from Mishishing. It was quite an eventful one, not least because of our first potential robbery that ended in us choosing the latter of the ‘fight and flight’ instincts. Secondly, we had forgotten to each lunch… again, and were recovering from the mother of all sugar comedowns. Anyway, Paul stepped into our lives for a short while and taught us a lot about one of South Africa’s favoured approaches to conservation; trophy hunting. Paul has been around the block, and in comparison to a large number of the white South Africans who we have met along the way, is extremely open minded. Paul was an ex-Ranger, with years of experience in conservation, thus his support of trophy hunting came as something of a surprise to us, however it was later backed up by the majority of people we asked on our route for the following few days. I would not go as far to say that we were persuaded by him, but it certainly made it clear that there are hugely varying views on conservation that can all be persuasive in one way or another, and this journey is exposing us to people on every level of that spectrum.
We met Paul in Ohrigstad, a town that ended up becoming a base for a couple of days due to political unrest up the road that would have resulted in us being ‘set on fire’, according to some relatively racially biased Afrikaners. Not only did Ohrigstad provide us with stimulating content for the documentary in the shape of Paul, but we also stumbled upon Delia and Pieter who became our parents in residence for a couple of days, letting us pitch camp in the garden of Delia’s bar and taking us on a day trip to see the worlds second largest canyon and a number of epic tourist spots. Pieter is a legend. He manages the roads that we have been cycling on for the last few days, so whizzes up and down them in his siren topped hatchback and even brought us Lucozade on one of our toughest days, a 90k ride in 37 degrees and a mountain thrown in for good measure. He popped up out of nowhere, directed us to a swimming pool where we could hide from the midday sun, and to top it all off was waiting for us with cold beers at the end of the day! Pieter is a particularly special person, but I have to say that he is not that much of an anomaly in South Africa. They have a totally different attitude to new people, compared to what I am used to in the UK, in the sense that they are very quick to trust and keen to help. We have only paid for one night’s sleep so far; in a B&B that felt like a horrible throwback to plantation America, maid’s outfits included. Other than that, we have slept for free in places provided by the kindness of people’s hearts, and that is something we are hugely grateful for.
Back to The Black Mambas… almost. The night before we arrived in Balule to film the Black Mambas, we stayed with one of Pieter’s friends. They were extremely welcoming, giving us beds to sleep in and a literally undrinkable supply of Jaegermeister… to quote ‘eighteen bottles must be in the house at all times’. They were very generous, and their taste in booze and big game trophies provided quite a perfect contrast to The Black Mambas, the all female, all-black anti-poaching unit that we are spending the next few days with. We pulled into Balule, the home of the Black Mambas, after a very misjudged ride through the middle of a lightning storm, and were almost instantly won over by what is clearly a very special and unfortunately quite rare project. Craig, the head Warden, has started an un-armed team of women who are tackling poaching through community building and preventative methods. They are already proving incredibly successful, winning over local communities, providing infinitely better protection to the Rhinos than neighbouring parks’ armed patrols, and empowering black women who in turn become incredible role models to the next generation of young men and women. Craig himself is an inspiring character, an absolute eccentric, but one with the kind of intelligence and devotion that can really lead to change. I think he represents the balance between community and conservation that we are looking to promote on this journey.
We are about to spend a few days getting to know and filming the Black Mambas themselves, and we will let you know about some of their stories in the next instalment.
Johnno started a little list in his blog of things that we are learning along the way, so I thought I would contribute:
Crocs are not socially acceptable footwear.
South Africans are extremely welcoming… and extremely drunk. There might be a scientific correlation worth researching.
People we meet seem to be far more nomadic that those from Britain, and they try loads of careers. Our circles are far more restricted.
We are getting quite fit!
Waddi sees burgers as dessert.
Drones don’t like potholes.
Johnno’s clothes look like Victorian rags.
In South Africa 4pm is too late to start drinking.
Elephants are big.
The Black Mambas are seriously cool.
We are heading north at last!