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Barking mad: two dogs and a bike on the Dragon's Spine

Sean Fraenkel's picture
Sean Fraenkel cycling South Africa's Spine of the Dragon with two dogs. Cycle Traveller

“Oh no! What have I got myself into?” I ruminate under my breath as sweat drips from my furrowed brow and I push my bicycle, loaded with over 50 kilograms, up yet another loose, gravel gradient.

A 'wannabe’ adventure man, I'm at it again; this time with my biggest challenge to date – Barking Mad: an unsupported 4,000km mountain bike ride along the Spine of the Dragon that runs from the north of South Africa, through Lesotho to Cape Town in the south. If that's not enough, I'm cycling it with my two dogs – Turbo and Tequila – to raise money for the charity Pet Empowerment in Townships.

Besides the personal gear in my panniers, I'm lugging a custom built trailer so my two Jack Russell’s can join me on my latest, crazy adventure.

The Baobab Trail, Spine of the Dragon. Cycle TravellerDay 1: Musina to Poppalin Ranch – 69.7km

The reality of my daunting task sets in – my legs scream in protest and a spittle-flecked whimper escapes my lips. I pray for malaria, highjacking, anything as an excuse to go home – and this is only day one. I cringe at the thought of what lies ahead.

I follow the gravel road that runs parallel to the Limpopo River; wet earth, washboard surfaces and rolling hills test my fitness to the max. My body’s dissent is occasionally forgotten as I watch my dogs chase after baboons, vervet monkeys and strange, six-legged critters, that are completely alien to us city boys from Cape Town.

Fortunately, the day is cool. Grey clouds loom overhead as I focus on my pedal strokes – push, pull, push, pull. Signs of recent flooding are evident. I had been keeping an eye on the news: “Limpopo 80% chance of rain, flooding and closed roads can be expected,” the weatherman had said nonchalantly as he skipped to the next slide. Twice I need to find alternative routes as low lying sections are completely washed away, but fortunately, the heavens hold back their sluices for the day.

As I stop to make a brew along the banks of the Sand River (a tributary of the Limpopo, who’s rich, red water, gurgles and spits less than a hundred meters away), I contemplate taking a dip to cool down. Thankfully, a farmer comes by and calls out from his bakkie window, “Pasop! There’s groot crocs in that river.” Fair to say, I keep my dogs and myself far from the muddy banks after that.

A little later I have a close encounter with the four legged, flea-bearing kind that really freaks me out. A pack of dogs, two of which are pit bulls, join me for a couple of kilometres as I grind along. They seem friendly enough, until the big, white male suddenly turns on my dogs, who are fortunately resting (albeit yapping incessantly) in their box. He attacks the pet carrier so violently that he leaves spatters of his own blood on its side. I chase him away without having to resort to my only protection, a small canister of pepper spray. Imagine if my pooches weren’t in their mobile home at that moment? My girlfriend, Tracy Breeze, had given me strict instructions: “Don't even think of coming home if anything happens to our dogs!”

Turbo and Tequila the Jack Russels cycling the Dragon's Spine with Sean Fraenkel. Cycle Traveller

After starting in Musina near the Zimbabwean border, I arrive at Poppallin Ranch some ten hours later.

On the way to reception, the four white lions patrolling the road from their enclosure are an amazing site. A lioness licks her chops as Turbo and Tequila scamper past rather sheepishly. For once, even Turbo shut his trap!

My plan is to camp most nights, but when I arrive at the veritable oasis, it takes little coaxing into taking out my credit card and spending a night in luxury. Monique gives me a discount in support of my trip, for which I am exceptionally grateful for.

The Lodge’s restaurant hugs the bank of the Nwanedi River – a flowing brown waterway filled with crocodiles and hippo. I make sure I kept my dogs close, as is becoming a habit on this trip with all these predators about. After a delicious meal of true “boere” proportions and a healthy dose of carbohydrates in liquid form (ie., beer) I crash in my bed under a thatched roof to the sound of the overhead fan, lulled to sleep by chirping insects and the roar of lions.

Day 2: Popallin Ranch to Gundani – 58.4km

The following morning’s silence is shattered by vervet monkeys chattering above my chalet. Turbo and Tequila are highly agitated by the these noisy creatures and bark frantically as the monkeys mock my mutts with their high pitch chutters and aerial antics.

Day two is another cry of anguish and fear; “How am I going to reach Cape Town?”  The terrain starts off relatively easy with only a few undulating hills. But as my dogs had run so much the first day, I have to rest their paws and let them ride in their mini chariot most of the way. In true African spirit, I move at a snails pace as I head south towards my ultimate goal – Cape Point.

Sean Fraenkel cycling South Africa's Spine of the Dragon. Cycle Traveller

The “Big Tree”, or Sagole Baobab, is definitely worth a stop today. Regarded as one of South Africa’s biggest indigenous trees measuring 10.47 x 22 x 38.2m, it truly is spectacular. I'm about as religious as a brick, but even I find this place to be spiritual. A raw, natural energy fills me as I clamber up her knotty, elephant-sized limbs and rest among in her branches to enjoy my packed lunch. Even my fury companions are able to saunter up here arched bows.

Run by the local municipality, it costs 21 rand (AUD$2.15) to get through the gate to see this mighty baobab. As with most municipal officials, you will be lucky to find them at their post doing their job (if the state of our roads is anything to go by). So if you are passing through, there is a chance no one will be there to let you in.

My day ends with a three hour slog up a gradual 10km climb. Despite being a busy road, I have to let my dogs out of their box to push my loaded steed most of the way up. I tether my little friends to the front of my bike and repeat, “Right doggies, on the count of three; one, two, three – now pull...” to no avail.

Broken, I reach the village of Gundani. My goal is to leave the tar road and travel another 5kms on a 4X4 track to the community campsite of Gundani Mutsiwa. According to my guide book, you have to book in advance. So instead, I decide to knock on the door of a Venda lady’s home and ask if I can camp in her garden.

What a humbling and peaceful experience. Angelica welcomes me onto her land and gives me water from her 25 litre drum, which she has to go and pump from a well some distance away. Feeling guilty (as I am too lazy to refill the water jug at home from a running tap) I apologise profusely, but she says “No problem, no problem,” and fills my bottles to the brim. Amazing!

Thanks to a full moon, my little green tent glows inside. The surrounding village’s small homes, with misty, orange halos, remind me of fireflies as the light from cheap single incandescent bulbs mark their location. African beats vibrate from a neighbour's yard, dogs bark in the distance, cows moo and their bells clunk as I snore deeply on my inflatable mattress.

Day 3: Gundani to Thohoyandou – 57km

Much to my relief, the next three days are far easier going and I finish my mileage by lunch time. My dogs and I have found our rhythm: I alternate between focusing on my pedalling and yelling, “Turbo! Please. Shut. Up!” every few minutes. He is an extremely vocal mutt. If he’s not whining, he’s barking at the moving air for no particular reason.

Sean Fraenkel in a Baobab tree, South Africa. Cycle Traveller

I am rather impressed by how quickly they have learned to get in and out of the box on their own when I motion them to do so. Days like these are what draws me to cycle touring; the hum of tyres on tar, controlled breathing and miles of flat road. The hills in-between make the easier parts even sweeter.

All locals en-route prove to be super friendly. I wave and greet them as I cycle past. At fist, a look of utter disbelief crosses their faces as they try to make sense of my rig, then big smiles and cheers follow. When quizzed about my destination, “Hey, you are lying,” with jaws agape, is a frequent response.

I arrive at the Fig Tree Lodge where the owner and manager, Rudi, is kind enough to offer me a discount in support of my cause. The rooms here are basic but clean. The food is not extravagant but big portions are served. Perfect for the cycle tourist passing through Thohoyandou.

Day 4: Thohoyandou to Middle Letaba dam – 53.1km

Middle Letaba dam resort is far from a luxury establishment, but the chalets do have electricity to charge my gadgets and air-conditioning to cool me down. It's definitely a room by the hour kind of place; there are more free condoms handed out, than even Tiger Woods would know what to do with. I see four vehicles leave with happy customers an hour after arriving. I sleep in my own sleeping bag that night for obvious reasons.

Another warning: this is army ant HQ. These little buggers are everywhere. They leave me alone in the chalet but maybe it has something to do with two days cycling and no shower in-between.

Day 5: Middle Letaba dam to Sunland Farm – 76.6km

Cycling South Africa's Dragon's Spine with two dogs. Cycle Traveller

Day five is a big push of 80kms. I leave Fig Tree Lodge early to avoid the midday heat. My breakfast comprises half a packet of lemon creams plus some bananas and crisps along the way. By the time I reach Sunland Farm I am famished. I have been imagining a green salad, potato and a fat steak for the past couple of hours only to find out that there is absolutely no food available, except for beer. Drowning my sorrows by the bucket load, I settle for pasta and sauce mixed with baked beans until I can scavenge some food from the owner's son, Dean, who returns later that evening.

The Sunland Big Baobab is in Modjadjiskloof near Tzaneen and is famous internationally for being the widest of its species in the world at 22 meters high with a circumference of 47 meters. It is carbon dated to be around 6,000 years old. This tree has even made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. After chatting to Dean around the braai that evening, more modern testing can only accurately pinpoint the tree not being younger than 1,700 years.

When baobabs reach a thousand years old, they begin to hollow inside as the core rots away, that's why dating this particular species is fairly inaccurate. In the Big Baobab, this has resulted in wonderful caverns and caves where the world-famous Tree Bar now amazes visitors. The Van Heerdens squared off a natural vent to make a door and installed a railway sleeper pub inside the trunk, complete with draft beer, seats and a music system. One party managed to fit 60 people inside her bark walls. A wine cellar was installed in a second hollow, with a constant temperature of 22°C, ventilated by natural vents.

In 1993 when the family cleared out the hollow centre of the tree, removing masses of compost build up to uncover the floor about a meter below ground level, they found evidence of both Bushmen and Voortrekkers (pioneers), attesting to the historical importance of the tree.

One easily forgets how wild and untamed South Africa can be when living in the city. Travelling so far north through Limpopo, I can easily have been in another African country. The generosity of strangers is absolutely overwhelming: a security guard gives me some of his pap when I have no food and refuses payment; a hardware store owner assists me with some technical issues. An elderly couple and Americans give me money in support of my cause. Three out of the five places I stay give me a substantial discount. The only time I feel in any danger is walking close to the lion cages, and when I find spiders under my pillow.

Turbo and Tequila lead the way on the Dragon's Spine. Cycle Traveller

Know before you go

  1. The “Baobab Trail” is stage one of the Dragons Spine: A mountain bike route from Beit Bridge to Cape Point through Lesotho. The guide book Riding The Dragons Spine by David Bristow and Steve Thomas is an essential bit of kit if you are planning to do the trip yourself.
  2. GPS and a laptop make planning your daily route far easier. You can download the suggested GPS tracks from www.dragontrax.co.za. I use an 11 inch Mac Book Air loaded with BaseCamp and Tracks-for-Africa in conjunction with my Garmin Orgeon handheld device.
  3. There are loads of creepy critters and mozzies in this part of the world. Malaria is a concern so take precaution.
  4. When travelling with dogs, make sure to carry ample water and try to keep them on their usual diet. Rest often! Graze and Weeping wound powder from Herbaforce, is gentle enough to use on the navel of infants and works wonders on dogs paws. Make sure you inspect them every day, as their pads can wear down quickly.
  5. Topeak make awesome cycle touring equipment. Take care though when doing off road touring: The Pannier DryBag DX, is waterproof and durable but make sure the metal clips are bolted onto the rack. This prevents quick removal but I was going nuts as my bags kept on bouncing off on rutted roads.

You can find out more about my charity cycle across South Africa and my sponsors on the Barking mad website. I hope to use this unique experience to raise funds for the animal welfare group: Pet Empowerment in Townships

Images from top: 1. Turbo and Tequila in their pet carrier trailer. 2. The dogs at camp. 3. Sean Fraenkel. 4. In a baobab tree. 5. One the Dragon's Spine. 6. Turbo and Tequila lead the way. (Photos copyright Sean Fraenkel)

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