Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Bicycle Diaries

I lay on the ground, legs stiffened and face contorted in an ugly grimace. I massaged my thigh vigorously and finally managed to coax the muscles to relax. It was a good 10 minutes of cramps sitting on the road beside a highway and this was my most pathetic cycling experience yet.

Not much of a cycling fan, I only had a couple of cycling excursions during my travels. A nice summer jaunt in the rolling hills of Biei and Furano in Hokkaido; A wine-on-2-wheels cycling tour in Mendoza; An exploration of the Lijiang countryside in autumn; Here in Ezulwini valley in Swaziland, I joined a fellow backpacker on a cycling day-trip because, well, it sounded interesting.

We were to visit the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, and apparently, it could be visited on bike - perfect for folks without private transport. The idea of cycling through a wildlife park in Africa sounded refreshing. Of course, there is no Big 5 in this reserve, otherwise, I have doubts anyone could peddle away quickly enough with a lion hot on his back.

My years of inadequate usage of my cycling legs came quickly to bear after the 10km of tar-road, and 3km of off-road peddling to reach the park. But luckily in the park itself, the frequent stops for nature appreciation dictated a leisurely pace.

We knew we had our first encounter when we saw a group of people congregating around an area. In the middle of the river, like a personal small island, a huge crocodile lay basking in the sun. I mounted my biggest lens, and proceeded to find my angle. A jeep soon rolled by, with a family and their guide in it. The guide beckoned to me, and in a calm robotic manner, warned me off the water's edge. I did not grasp the full extent of his well-intentioned warning until he pointed to a ripple in the water. Barely 10 metres away was another crocodile lazily swimming across the water's edge!!

Huge crocodile basking in the sun
Only when I remounted my bike did I see the sign - "Do not stay too close to the water's edge"! On hindsight, that crocodile was really uncomfortably close, but well, ignorance was really bliss!

The rest of our encounters were alot less intimidating, though, no less interesting. In particular, we were chugging along when Sarka, my cycling companion, caught sight of movement in the trees just 30m from our cycling path. Almost blending behind a blind of trees trunks, grazed a couple of zebras, probably shying away from the open. We crept nearer steathily, but they moved away cautiously, easily detecting our intrusion.

I see you!
We caught sight of other wildlife - deers/antelopes of various kinds, birds of the ibis/heron variety. And then we came to the "Hippo Pond". Alas, the hippopotamus did not make their appearance. And it was one of those animals I had wanted to see in this sanctuary...!

I hovered around the pond area while Sarka went ahead to further explore the park. I knew my return journey back to the hostel would take twice as long, and so had decided to leave earlier. On the way out though, I again caught sight of the family of zebras (ok, it could be another set, but indulge me). This time though, they decided to come out into the open, and sauntered right pass me! THIS is what I call a zebra crossing! ;)

I finally managed to stand up, gingerly picked up my bicycle, and started pushing. Unless there was a downward gradient, I was literally walking and pushing my bicycle all the way back. It was indeed my most pathetic "cycling" trip..... but certainly one of the most interesting!

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