2 May 2021 – The Third World as seen from the saddle

First up and in response to a million requests, an update on the lady in the wheelchair who lost her husband in my last blog. For the sake of sensitivities, I will call her Thelma. (I had a kindergarten teacher called Thelma who was a loving, caring woman who didn’t shout when I coloured outside the lines.) Thelma is an apt name for a lady who looks after twenty dogs, five cats and a duck called Donald. N.B. The use of the word pensioner in my blogs is a misnomer in that it implies the payment of a pension, whereas most Zim pensioners receive not a cent. Thank God for the charities that we support.

Perennial do-gooders Steel Warehouse were the first to come to Thelma’s aid with an offer to repair gaping holes in her roof, another person said they would fashion a wheelchair ramp that will allow Thelma access to outside, and yet another has offered to repair Thelma’s fence, to keep dogs in and out. And the Blue Cross are dropping off a job lot of dog biscuits and dog blankets this week, ahead of an early cold snap.

I am happy to report that Thelma’s friends have rallied to her and visit often, taking her out for coffee. Ditto the counsellors from Pensioners Aid who are keeping a very close eye on Thelma. They told us that Wezborn, Thelma’s dreadlocked dog-carer, cooks for her in the evening, sits up with her watching TV, often until midnight, and then sleeps outside the front door, so that she feels safe at night. Wezborn told Pensioners Aid that he considers Thelma family, and he will do anything for her. I am visiting Thelma this week to drop off the Blue Cross donations plus a second load of chicken meat from the abattoir and will tell Wezborn thank you and well done.

Thelma’s story is what passes for a happy ending in the context of Zimbabwe’s pensioners, and we will do our best to make sure that continues going forward. But for every happy ending in Zimbabwe, there are other not-so-happy stories playing out.

I met another pensioner this week who broke his upper arm in two last places in March last year but can’t afford the $2500 corrective surgery. And so, he goes on about his life, uncomplaining and doing his best to ignore the pain, with the hand of his broken arm tucked away in the pocket of his jeans, so it doesn’t get too in the way while he tries to earn a living. He can’t put his arm in a sling as that would aggravate the break.

And then there is Herman. He was staying at the Salvation Army when I first met him, just before the first Old Legs Tour to Cape Town. Herman lost everything when his bank collapsed in the 2008 hyperinflation. He is proud man and living off charity rankles. He asked me if I could find him funding to start an agricultural project so he could earn enough to live off. I tried but failed. Would you believe funding for old white ex-farmers in Zimbabwe is hard to find?

Undeterred, Herman came up with a Plan B. He invented a solar-powered aeroplane and asked if I could find him investors for that instead. Despite the fact that Herman attended Allan Wilson, I was unable to land any investors for his solar powered plane project. Alas.

On to Herman’s Plan C. Could I find him a job instead? Maybe when you are 72, working for someone would be easier than starting up a new business. I lined him up with an interview, but alas, it didn’t work out, even though he got all dressed up smart for the occasion and looked the part.

Since then, Herman has kept in touch every couple of months, to check on the job market prospects, and I have continued as the world’s worst employment agent. Herman turned 75 a month ago. When he phoned to check in on possible vacancies, I finally summoned up the courage to tell Herman that at his age, maybe he was chasing pipe dreams, maybe it was time for him to park his ambitions.

A week later, he sent me a cock-a-hoop text message telling me he had landed a job starting 3 May as supervisor for a company doing walling, paving and driveways, and possibly road construction. He signed off his text with the phrase “Yabba, Dabba, Doo!” I told him well done for never, ever giving up.

But on Thursday last week, Herman sent me another text tell me his job isn’t going to happen. He has suffered blood circulation problems, and arrangements are being made to amputate his left leg below the knee. He worries about how he will pay for the operation.

People like Herman and the man with the one-year-old broken arm are why the Old Legs Tour ride to somewhere ridiculously far away every year. This year we are riding the Silverback Tour, 3000 km from Harare to Uganda, starting in just 10 weeks.
To see where we are at in terms of preparedness, Adam Selby and Laurie Watermeyer dragged us out on a two-day 170 km training ride, which they dubbed the True Colours ride.

We were 8 in the riding group with only Billy Prentice and CarolJoy Church absent, and a full support crew of 6, including Ant Mellon and Judy Richards, in 3 back up vehicles.
Rather than die on a bicycle under a bus on the main Harare to Nyamapanda Road, we drove to our staging point just outside Murehwa, 90 km east of Harare, and almost died under a bus anyway, after a white Honda Fit slammed on brakes in the middle of a high-level bridge, causing the thirty-ton truck behind him to take emergency evasive action, which unfortunately involved swerving in front of an oncoming bus, who was also forced into taking evasive action, which involved almost going over the edge of the bridge, swerving again, this time directly in front of Laurie’s car, swerving yet again before correcting, and eventually emerging unscathed. Move over, Lewis Hamilton. The standard of driving on Zimbabwe’s knackered roads is shocking beyond belief, apart from the drivers of the truck and the bus.

We all still had the shakes from the near crash when we got on our bikes just after 8. Our night stop was an obscure spot on a riverbed just past the middle of nowhere, somewhere in between Murehwa, Mutoko, Headlands and Nyanga.

Riding to nowhere in particular with best friends, under blue skies and on empty roads, with forever views and no cellphone signal, and with all day to get there, with Arno Carsten’s ‘Another Universe’ loud in your headphones, it just doesn’t get much better than that. I think Arno could well have been riding his bike through Murehwa when he wrote the lyrics.
‘Nobody needs to know where we’re off to
We’re invisible alive
We’re the whispers in the scream
We’re not living in the west
And we’re not coming from the east
From the galaxy of blues to a universe we choose
No more crying and just maybe somebody to hold…
Let’s play the metal music slow
Leave the car on the highway and go’

I do love Spotify. Unfortunately, so does Jenny. Even more unfortunately, I share my Spotify account with Jenny, and she has learnt how to ambush my playlists. There is nothing worse than grinding up steep hill and the Chilli Peppers make way for Nancy Sinatra, or worse still, some puerile Abba song about some bloody shepherd boy called Angelo. Because of Angelo, I now hate mutton and lamb.

Because my cellphone weather app had reliably informed that we would enjoy a high of just 23, and a low of 13 in Murehwa, I mindfully packed my winter woollies, including my beanie and my minus ten sleeping bag. Clearly, my cellphone weather app has never been to Murehwa before. We started our ride at 1386 metres above sea level, but within the hour, we’d dropped down to ilala palms, baobabs and mopane forest. It was like bumping into old friends unexpectedly. It was also bloody hot, as in low-to-mid thirties.

Like most Zimbabweans, the people in Murehwa were hugely friendly, especially when they found out we were a bunch of crazy old white guys riding 3000 km from Harare to Uganda. Stars of the show were Al Watermeyer and Marco Richards, both 1949 models, with people clamouring to be in selfies with them. It was like riding with the Kardashians.

I was able to help Alastair when his back wheel punctured by capturing his repair and pumping techniques on video, so that he has something he can refer to should he puncture again in the future. And judging by how red he went in the face whilst pumping, Alastair needs to improve on his pumping technique. I told him her should have used the foot-pump in the support car, instead of his hand-pump, because it was more efficient. We were going to take a swear jar on Tour but think we will have to upgrade to a swear bucket.

We arrived at our campsite in the middle of nowhere on the banks of the Malazi river and just 4 kilometres from the Nyangombe river with an hour to sunset. So, we had to hustle to set up camp. But first up, we had to track the headman down to request his permission to camp. Marco is fluent in Shona and handled negotiations successfully. The headman was a pleasant chap who rolled his eyes when he found we were riding to Uganda, clearly thinking we’d been out in the midday sun too long.

Once we’d received the nod to camp, we busied ourselves with our allocated duties. A team of lumberjacks with axes and machetes set about chopping out the undergrowth of spiky, horrible bamboo underfoot, that grew thick along the riverbank. It was hot, hard work, but they were able to chop out all the bamboo, apart from some few bushes hiding away under where Jamie and Aoife would later be place their inflatable matrasses. At two in the morning, Jaimie and Aoife woke up to include inflatable matrass puncture repair kits on their Tour packing lists.

Apart from the dearth of inflatable mattress puncture repair kits, ours is a very organized campsite, thanks to Adam, Linda, Jenny and Laurie, with tables and chairs, hot showers and disco lighting, and even charging stations for cell phones and cameras. Oh, and it also has two toilets.

Marco and I are in charge of digging toilets. Marco was in charge of erecting the privacy tents on top of the two toilet holes I dug in the sandy riverbank below camp.

Inspired by the fact that Al is often full of shit, I made sure my first hole was a splendid, extra-large affair, unfortunately, slightly larger than the Boskak 2000 toilet seat that was supposed to perch on top of it. But I thought it splendid nonetheless, and good to go. My comrades thought differently however and wanted the toilet seat on top of the hole, not in the hole. In instead of on top of, bloody semantics I thought, after seven hours in the bloody saddle, but I commenced excavating another two holes uncomplainingly, even though the first hole was splendid, albeit slightly oversized.

And let it be known that holes two and three were both splendid feats of engineering, deep and square, befitting an Allan Wilson boy, although the hole three also caved in a bit on it’s third outing, making the further use thereof rather hair raising, apparently. I say apparently because I was unable to enjoy the fruits of my labour. My bottom obviously belonged to a pampered person in a previous life and would rather hold out for the chance of porcelain sometime in the distant future, than crap in the woods. Just as well I am not a bear.

Going forward and in pursuit of improved efficiencies, for the Tour I’ve decided to do away with digging toilet holes after long days in the saddle and will instead, dispense Imodium daily all the way up to Uganda. I am sure the porcelain there is splendid.

I fell asleep under a full moon to the sounds of cattle lowing, a fiery-necked nightjar shouting ‘Good Lord, Deliver Us’, slow punctured matrasses, and no Great Danes barking in my head, and enjoyed my best night sleep ever.

We broke camp quicker than expected and were on the road by seven o’clock. But the day’s slog back up to our highveld start point was long, hard and hot, as in very hot, with even the baobabs wilting. I especially struggled in the heat, because I didn’t take enough liquids or electrolytes on board and was able to amuse at both the breakfast and lunch stops by cramping viciously. Even my cramps got cramps. Adam is especially unable to spell empathy.

Thankfully, I was riding next to Laurie Watermeyer when we crossed back over the Malazi River. If you are a Watermeyer, you are expressly forbidden to cross rivers on bicycles without getting off to wallow in the shallows like a hippo. Whilst I enjoyed lurking next to Laurie in crystal clear, refreshing waters, I worried about the intermittent warmth of the water. I also worried the warm waters coincided with a transient look of bliss on Laurie’s face, but he assured me he was just remembering something happy from his childhood. But I remain suspicious and have decided I will wallow up stream on our way to Uganda.

I was off my bike for a week recovering, but rode 90 kilometres with The Herd on Saturday, including 82-year-old George Fletcher. If I am half as fit as George when I am that age, I will be happy. Riding bikes around Harare is very social and you are expected to exchange greetings with pedestrians and cyclists passing by. Oscar was able to bring me up on the latest Shona street greeting. You shout Borlato with as much verve and nonchalance as you can muster, then the people shout back at you, Borlato, Borlato, with broad smiles and clearly delighted. I have no idea what Borlato means, but Oscar assures me it is cool like a verbal fist-bump and enhances street cred.

We have just ten weeks to go until we start pedalling. Unfortunately, it looks like we will have to axe Rwanda from our route. The squabble ongoing between the two countries doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon, which is pity because I was really looking forward to a thousand downhills. I think the problem is Kagame likes Wine, but Museveni hates him. Maybe he’s a beer drinker.

After further Covid delays, the Old Legs Tour Down Under finally got under way, on both the east and west coasts of Australia. In Perth, Peter Brodie, Michael Paul and Paul Cutler set forth on the iconic Munda Biddi Trail on Saturday, while Mark Johnson and Alan Crundall, locked out by Covid, embarked on their own thousand-kilometre Queensland Tour. Please support them as they pedal to raise money and awareness for Zimbabwe’s pensioners, including hopefully Herman and the pensioners with the one-year-old broken arm. And please follow us to Uganda on Facebook or http://www.oldlegstour.co.zw. Follow the donate prompts and help us help those less fortunate.

Until my next blog, survive and enjoy if possible
Eric Chicken Legs de Jong.

Pictures below – Thelma’s roof awaiting repair, our convoy of support vehicles in Murehwa, fans taking selfies with Marco Kardashian, forever views, a splendid toilet hole and some cows, a girl with a pumpkin on her head, Marco Kardashian reclining, wallowing in warm water downstream of Laurie.

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