Day 11 – The N5 out of Bethlehem moved on through the wonderland of the rolling eastern Free State countryside. Dawn brought another magnificent sunrise, with crisp, bright air, with a layer of mist rising sleepily from the dams and streams in the valleys. It was a much cooler day. Cool enough to wear a long-sleeved top for the first time. The wind came up quite strongly from the south-east, so that it blew from the side rather than head-on which made the riding easier and allowed a slightly better pace.
This part of the country is clearly very fertile and the farms lying in the valleys are a joy to behold. Pink and white cosmos are to be seen everywhere and the Maluti Mountains (or are they the Drakensberg?) to the south present a wonderful sight.
This stretch of the N5 is very pleasant, with a nice wide shoulder, so that the traffic, although very heavy, was not as much of a threat as it had been on the approach to Bethlehem. There are plenty of ups and downs and there are climbing lanes laid out many of the uphills. I cannot recall the use of climbing lanes before and I think that this is the first time that we have seen them since the tour began, so all in all the route is a pleasant one.
About 45 kilometres from Bethlehem we passed the turnoff to the town of Kestell, but there were no other towns along the road before we reached Harrismith.
Ten kilometres outside Harrismith, while I was enjoying quite a long downhill stretch, I passed, climbing up the gradient, the first sports cyclist that I had seen since leaving Port Nolloth! I gave him a cheery wave and shouted a greeting, which he returned with less enthusiasm and the breathlessness born of the long uphill. He may have been puzzled by the friendliness of someone he had never seen before, but I felt like shouting “Snap!”. Fourteen hundred kilometres is a long way to cycle without seeing another of a like breed.
A few kilometres further on I met his partner – stuck at the side of the road with a punctured tube. I stopped to see if I could be of any assistance. To his dismay he had discovered that his carefully packed spare tube was without a valve. I told him that his partner, long out of sight, was blissfully unaware of his plight and was pushing ahead to the top of the hill. I gave him the spare tube from my saddlebag and wished him well before I pushed on. What goes around, comes around, I thought. Maybe one of these days I will be stuck and a stranger will stop and offer assistance. Besides, being in a position to play the benefactor made me feel good.
The early sighting of the Platberg outside of Harrismith brought back pleasant memories of the occasion, more years ago than I care to remember, when I ran the 16km Harrismith Mountain Race. The course of this famous cross country event comprises a tough 600 metre climb to the top of the Platberg, a run along the crest and a descent along an ancient bridle path that zigzags its way to the foot of the mountain. Very challenging. And made more so on the day I ran it by a dust storm that had all the runners covered with a thick layer of sand by the time we finished. Dirty brown figures with bright white eyes.
Bethlehem to Harrismith proved to be a rather easy ride and it would have been nice to press on beyond Harrismith. However, we needed to be assured of a place to stay – shuttling the bike by car is a bit of a bind and for this reason we decided to stop. We found a caravan park convenient to the N3, but across the most atrocious one-way bridge over the Wilge River, with potholes just waiting to savage a cyclist’s wheels. Pot-holes on a bridge?
The park itself lies on the banks of the Wilge River, in a very pleasant setting, and seems to be home to several permanent caravanners. One of the more interesting groups who arrived shortly after us were two middle aged women in a Land Rover, complete with two roof-top tents. They were extremely well equipped and made themselves comfortable with a practised ease in no time at all.