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Buffalo Herder’s Diary: The Last Bus of the Season

The privilege of the last rider’s escort through the Baviaanskloof Reserve for RASA 2023 was assigned to me – a 6 am bus on a Wednesday. Relatively new to the Buffalo Herding team, I had gleaned all I could from the experienced Mike and Elton, and I was determined that no-one is injured on my watch. Subsequently, I had herded a few uneventful transits and was just getting comfortable and into the stride of things.

But this last bus of the season was rather eventful.

Well, it actually started the previous night when Nigel’s rear derailleur, one of those new-fangled electronic jobbies, was stuck in single speed. Batteries were swapped, Q20 was sprayed, pieces of copper wire were strategically coaxed into position, and this did get the electrons to flow to enable seamless gear shifting.

However, the following morning the bike was steadfastly a single speed again. The Baviaanskloof section of the trail is not the ideal stretch to test one’s single speed capabilities: there is a fair amount of climbing and the riders must stick together in a group for safety due to the presence of buffalo in the Reserve. Further, this bus of riders had clear intentions of getting to Willowmore that night, some of them even wanted to get there by dinner time: a swift, efficient transit through the kloof was required. The pressure was on Nigel, and one could see him prepare himself mentally for a tough day at the office.

Escorting the riders through the kloof is a balancing act – should the BH vehicle go in front of the riders? Or behind? This is a breathtaking, beautiful part of South Africa. The vehicle behind the riders enables the cyclist a pristine riding experience, but protection from buffalo is better if the vehicle is in front – but then there is the risk that diesel fumes are spewed into the riders. I try to explain this to the riders in my safety briefing at the boom gate before departure and how I will juggle things depending on circumstances.

On the stroke of 6.00 am we set off from the boom gate, climbed up and crested Bergplaas. The rising sun greeted us on route, unfurling an amazing wide view of the tall mountains and deep, steep valleys that never cease to impress me. I was following the riders who were diligently keeping together in a group. Compared to a vehicle, mountain bikes are highly efficient when travelling downhill, so I passed the riders after Bergplaas and rushed ahead of them before the treacherous downhill concrete strips to get a head start to enable a swift transit. I am very wary of these concrete strips – they have sharp edges that could easily puncture a carelessly placed tyre, and there is a steep chasm on the one side. I kept my eyes glued to the track, but halfway down this pass I noticed that the riders had not caught up to me as is usual. They still had not appeared when I reached the bottom. So, I scanned the pass with binocs and still could not see them.

Possibilities ran through my mind: they had a puncture, someone fell hard on the concrete or, God forbid, one of them had gone over the edge!

With a knot in my stomach, I turned the bakkie around and retraced my steps. Thankfully, halfway up, I was very relieved to meet all the riders – two of them had punctures at the start of the concrete strips. Bruce’s responded to TLC whereas Nigel’s was more obstinate – two plugs and a bomb did not resolve the issue, so they inserted a tube. Whilst calming myself down, I directed them to continue down whilst I would go to the top to turn around. Fortunately, before reaching the top, I found a gully with a large boepens where I could do a ‘ten-point turn’ and raced back down after the riders.

At the bottom I collected everyone together, weaselled myself to the front and swept for buffaloes. But I soon lost the riders again, turned around to discover that Nigel’s single speed was now experimenting with automatic mode – it jumped up a gear, then down a gear, then up etc. which made pedalling frustratingly difficult for him. Adrian (his brother) did a nifty figure of eight bandage with electrical tape around the knuckles which seemed to improve the situation.

We carried on again. But the group was breaking up: Bruce’s tyre wanted more TLC whilst Nigel was using every opportunity to keep forging ahead on his single speed.

I started to get that: ‘this is going to be a long day’ type of feeling. I decided to herd from the back of the group and allowed Nigel to pioneer ahead with strict instructions that he stop if he encountered any buffalo. Well, a few corners later, we found Nigel stopped dead in his tracks: he had startled four buffalo (one of which was pretty close to him) and they had subsequently beetled down the road. So, we got into the buffalo formation: the vehicle in front with the riders behind in a tight group and a clear invitation to the riders to drop their bikes and clamber onto the roof of the bakkie if they felt at all threatened. We forged ahead like this for a few hundred meters but thankfully the buffaloes had melted into the bush.

Smitskraal could not have come any sooner to stop, have a rest and a picnic. On the menu was cheese, tomato and bacon saarmies made with Tannie Helene’s fresh home baked bread, coffee, rusks, Romany Creams and Zig Zag’s freshly squeezed orange juice.

Refreshed, the riders set off again with me herding from the back.

Up that third steep climb, the riders were pushing their bikes and peacefully entered one of those sharp cut back gullies with thick vegetation on either side of the road. When they emerged on the other side, there was a marked increased urgency in their pace. One of them turned around to me and gestured frantically to the gully. Mmm….maybe an interesting bird I thought as I reached for the binocs. I inched the vehicle forward in anticipation.

Skrik my dood! There, not 10 to 12 meters from me, half concealed in the dense foliage of the tight kloof, was a large buffalo giving me the hairy eyeball! Flip it! My riders, the people I am charged to protect, had walked past this buffalo and there was no way I could have prevented any injuries if this beast had any malevolent thoughts! I felt so feeble and ineffective. I let out a great sigh of relief that this buffalo had kept to itself. In that moment I realised that it was impossible for me to guarantee a safe passage to my charges; all I could do was minimize the risk, but never remove it.

Not long thereafter, the single speed started to play up again with its automatic trick. In frustration, Adrian fiddled with every screw that reared its head on the derailleur until he got a response, and against my expectations, there was some improvement.

But our nerves were pretty rattled by now – this bus had had more than its fair share of troubles and we still had a long way to go. The Payne brothers were doing their best to not hinder the pace: Nigel was pumping his legs; his cadence was so high that his knees were almost hitting his chin. Adrian would cycle alongside his boet and push him as best as he could.

We continued in such fashion without mishap and were only too pleased and grateful when the exit gate from the Baviaanskloof Reserve came into view and everyone was through safely.

Bruce and Justin had a quick coke, bid their thanks and farewells, and shot off for Willowmore. With more time at our disposal, Adrian could examine the derailleur in more detail and spotted a possible solution to the automatic tendency. We cut a coke tin into strips, folded it repeatedly with a Leatherman to make a spacer and taped it into the innards of the derailleur. Adrian expectantly cycled the bike in the carpark testing the handy work. The gears were true, there was no hint of automatic changes, and he was ecstatic to reach 13km/hr. “You don’t need more than that Nige!” he shouted to his brother.

More farewells and thanks and they were off down the road chanting their mantra “We want more……..2024……..we want more…….2024….” and disappeared from sight.

All was quiet. My riders were through. All the riders for the season were through.

I sat down at the wooden picnic table in the shade of an Acacia and let out a long slow exhale whilst slowly peeling a nartjie. Sjoe! An immense feeling of relief flooded over me. The BH team had done 12 buses this season, we had got all our riders through safely, but this one, the last bus of the season, really had me going.

Yes, I agree with the Payne brothers, looking forward to 2024.

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