Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Playing in Phalaborwa

A few weeks ago I saw a note about a half marathon in Phalaborwa. I immediately thought of ARer Sakkie van Wyk, who lives there. He has been wanting me to come play for years. I rallied a few AR friends – Tony, Tommy and Izaan – to join me. We left Jo’burg on Friday afternoon for the northern tropics.

At Sakkie’s place, which we reached late at night, we were made to feel completely at home, taking over the flat on his property, which is the best and most organised AR toy room I have ever seen. I am totally impressed. After years of AR, Sakkie has collected loads of gear, which he uses to get local friends into AR.

We were up early on Saturday morning for the Marula Festival half marathon, which started at a gate to the Kruger Park. The first three of so kilometres took us slightly into the Park – I only saw two warthog just before we exited the gate. The rest of the route ran to the North-west of town; a pleasant route with the scent of the bush on all sides. I met up with a chap from Sakkie’s club at about 11km. Turns out Kevin is the guy whose wife received my old Salomon pack a few years ago (I was given a newer version of it so I passed mine along) – the pack is still going strong. ‘Dis world is be small.
Tommy, Tony, Lisa and Sakkie at the half marathon start

After showers back home, Sakkie took us to visit The Home of Amarula, which is the place where they process marula fruit for this renowned creamy liqueur. The visit includes a tot over crushed ice and a tour of the factory. As the Marula Festival was in full swing on this weekend, the factory wasn’t running. Marula trees are not farmed; locals collect from trees in and around town and they’re paid by Amarula for the fruit. After processing, the pulp is trucked to Stellenbosch where it is made into a spirit. This is blended with cream to make the liqueur, which is exported worldwide.

Lisa & Izaan drinking Amarula Cream (at ten-thirty in the morning!)

'Freak of nature' is a Mopani-Marula tree. It is naturally occuring and probably resulted when an elephant bashed over a marula tree, which injured the mopani tree. The marula branch grafted on to the Mopani trunk.

We then went through to the Phalaborwa open cast mine – yes, this was a Where is it? location on www.ar.co.za some time ago. The pit is impressive, as seen from a nearby towering dump. We spent some time up here eating ‘Lisa’s overflow sandwiches’ and learning about the things we could see around us; mining and materials, environmental issues, the dams and reservoirs, the land slump/avalanche that has cost the company millions and the new mining developments. It is absolutely fascinating.

The diameter of the pit is an incredible 2.5km. They no longer mine the pit, which is too unsafe and the foot is too small. There are tunnels under the pit.

We also got to see (from a distance) the monster trucks that carry tons of rock to the plant for crushing and processing. From up on the dump they don’t look very impressive. And then a regular double cab came driving along – looked like a Lego car in comparison. Cars drive around with an orange flag on a tall pole protruding from the rear. The reason? The monster truck drivers can’t see anything ahead of them for something like 60m. They have driven over cars before. These flags, which are raised to their eye level are vital on site. The roads driven by the monster trucks are separate to the regular roads. The scale of this place is astounding.

The top of the monster truck's wheel is taller than Sakkie

Our next stop was the airport, which is a cool place to visit. Sakkie was involved in the building of the new section. It has cute animal tracks leading to the baggage collection point and taps in the bathroom that are totally different to anything you’ve seen before. Metal animals add decoration and the ‘zebra skin’ floor is striking.

Our final stop was the golf course, which is absolutely beautiful. There’s a hotel and other stuff on site too. We had some cold drinks while looking over the greens. Wildlife often visits golfers – everything from little bokkies to crocs, hippos, ellies, lion, giraffe and leopards are seen.

We headed back. I was so sleepy that I crashed out, tv blaring, on a mattress on the floor for about an hour. Needed to recharge. We then took off for the Marula Festival to get our hands on Marula beer. The Festival area was crazy! Tony and I made like the locals and pushed our way on to the fields. We were directed by a tourism guy to a tent, where we found people swarming around some women with large plastic ‘vats’. They were helping themselves to the milky looking beverage. It seemed to be a ‘bring your own container’ affair. An old woman had a long and thirsty drink from a calabash container – there were certainly going to be lots of people on their ear.

We went back to the tourism guy in search of a cup or bottle – he gave us a 2l cold-drink bottle. We went back to the tent. The chaos had died down and we couldn’t see how to get or ask for some of the beer. A local offered me a 500ml water bottle filled with the beer saying, “Take. Take. For free.” He had a big slurp from the bottle before passing it to me.

Back at the house we gave it a try. Nasy stuff – barely drinkable. Well, at least we’d tried it. A braai and two hours later it was lights-out – we needed to be up by 04h30 to go riding with Sakkie and his mtb buddies at five. The locals have adapted to Phalaborwa’s heat and humidity by training either very early in the morning or at night; during the day is not an option.

What an amazing mountain bike ride! Sakkie and his buddies have cut kilometres of trail all over the place. Lovely smooth and winding trails. They’ve even put bridges across streams and over fences. ‘Sakkie’s Bike Park’ is an absolute wonder!

En route we saw a young hippo. He turned tail when he saw us, jogging down the road towards the river. When hippos run they have helluva cute hips and bottom – as seen from behind. Not wanting to have a close encounter, we climbed up an embankment and over the railway lines to a parallel dirt road.

Three hours later we were back at the house to chill and chat. Sakkie is a whiz with bikes and we learned so much from him in the time we spent there. We all learned the most amazing way to clean our bikes and Sakkie quickly showed us neat techniques for setting out gears and lubing our chains and moving parts. A week there and I’m sure he’d have me building a bike!

Shortly before we left for Joburg we headed out to collect Marula fruit. I’d seen a bunch of fruit on the ground while we were riding (there isn’t much fruit lying around because it is collected by the locals to take to the Amarula factory). Sakkie remembered me squealing when I saw it so he took us right to the spot. Marula fruit is fun to eat - I don’t get my hands on it often - and it has more vitamin C than oranges. My neighbours are now eating the fruit too!

Sunset from the car on the way back to Jo'burg

This was the most wonderful weekend and a lovely opportunity to get to know Sakkie, who I’ve known from AR – also from rogaines and orienteering - for many, many years. But with the rush of events we haven’t had the chance to spend much time together in any chunk. Such is racing. And lovely to meet his wife, Sarie, and son, Pieter-Ben, who are both avid mountain bikers. My weekend companions from Jo'burg, Tommy, Izaan and Tony, were super company ;)

Although this weekend of running and biking in such a wonderful setting was probably fairly routine for Sakkie, it was a really wonderful experience for us, especially with the balance of activity-but-not-racing and some time to chill and do touristy things, which you just don’t get at races.

Sakkie, Sarie and Pieter-Ben, thank you for having us with you this weekend. As Tommy says, “I can't get over what an amazing weekend we had in Phalaborwa, it feels like it was a dream”.

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