Friday, 10 July 2015

Masakala to Queens Mercy - Scribbling through the dark.

As I stood on the threshold of Masakala with favourable weather forecast for the next few days I was eager to get on with the days riding. Little did I know, I was about to make 3 navigational blunders in the space of no time at all. When nav skills are supposedly your "thing" nav errors sting no matter how insignificant they may seem. Janine got to experience them first hand and had a part to play in fixing two of them. I knew there had to be a reason for keeping her around. That reason was about to play out in my favour. 

I hadn't anticipated riding out of Masakala in the dark. I planned to be passing through there 14 hours earlier so had never bothered processing the finer detail required for seamless nighttime navigation ahead of time. Dave Bell had set the getting out of Masakala "Blunder Bar" very high a few years ago when he zigged at the precise point when he should have zagged resulting in a predawn phone call enquiring how to get out of Matatiele. I remember my initial response to that call. "Where?" Followed immediately with "How?" For those who don't know, Matatiele is not on the race route - it is a one hour 'detour' in the wrong direction. You could do it in half an hour if it was on purpose but when unplanned the uncertainty kicks in and it drags  out the agony as you ride slower and slower. 

As I zagged where Dave had zigged all those years ago I felt quite smug - too smug. Reaching the place where I  normally picked up a track that led behind the school and down to the river I found a newly erected fence blocking my path. Unperturbed I kept going until the fence ended and it looked like we could skirt around it and pick up the track I sought on the far side. The fencing and building business must have undergone a boom in the last year. I picked my way through the maze of new dwellings, some with and some without fences. 

Having cleared the last of the houses I had no idea which direction I was headed. I stopped, looked up at the lights on the horizon and was filled with navigational uncertainty. It is not a feeling I am familiar with and as a consequence, not comfortable with. I scanned the lights in the distance desperate to see car lights which would give me a sense of where the main Matatiele road was. If I could get a fix on that then my brain gyro would reorientate itself and all would be good. Murphy, of Murphy's Law fame, intervened and not a single vehicle could be seen which wasn't surprising as it was only 04:30. I guess that if I had waited long enough I would have seen a car moving along the road. To add to my woes, the sky overhead was obscured due to the light pollution of the nearby town. Besides, the stars that I usually rely on had dipped below the horizon so were out of play. 

I don't subscribe to the saying "when in doubt stop". I would rather be moving. I proceeded to make my way down the nondescript and featureless grassy slope in the direction that seemed right. Janine didn't like my line and headed off almost 90 degrees to my right. After a few seconds I heard her calling out to me. She had found the track. Once on the track and heading down to where we would cross the river I looked up at the lights scattered across the horizon and everything fell into place. It was hard to believe I had been so discombobulated - I chastised myself for taking my eye off the ball. Obviously not enough - more muddlement was to follow in short order.  

We moved quickly and an hour after leaving Masakala we had made our way to the point where we were obliged to leave the main Queens Mercy district road and start our trek across the flood plains. The route I follow does not follow the suggested route as marked on the tracking system. It was also a route that Janine was unfamiliar with. I explained my intentions and she was skeptical and that skepticism was scribbled all over her face. To her credit she shrugged and followed me. A kilometre or so in I turned right at what I thought was the T-junction in front of the school. After a minute I became concerned because there was no school on my left hand side as expected. I stopped. Janine said we had turned too early. Huh? How can you turn too early at a T-junction? What I did know for certain is we had come the wrong way. Riding back I found that what I had interpreted as a T-junction was in fact a small kink in the main track. Somehow, under the glow of my lights I had missed that small detail and assumed the road had ended. Riding on a short distance we reached the school and I proceeded to wind my way through the various dirt tracks that lead in the desired direction. 

Reaching the end of the dirt road we had simply to loop around the last house and pick up the track that would carry us over the first section of the flood plain to the village beyond. Simply? I had never scrutinised this part of the route in detail. In daylight the track is simple to pick up. Where it gets a bit scribbly near the start it is easy to see where it resumes a hundred or so metres ahead. Just by scanning ahead you can see it. In the dark that didn't work. I stopped at a junction in the track. The left track seemed to peter out so I continued on the right hand fork. After a short distance it turned and headed off in the wrong direction. To cut a long story short I traipsed up and down in the grass looking for the right track. When that yielded no result I headed off through the thick grass on foot towards the lights of the village that were visible up ahead. After some while it became apparent that I was heading toward the wrong village. The village I wanted was about 20 degrees more left. Not a big error but sufficient to assure we didn't intercept the track we were looking for. So we spent the next 20 minutes plodding through the knee high grass that covered the cattle pocked dry mud beneath. 

As darkness yielded to light we tweaked out final approach to the first village. Riding through the bush we were reunited with the elusive track 50 metres from the village. In the light of day we made short work of getting across the rest of the flood plain and by 07:20 we were sitting outside the old Queens Mercy store. It had taken us 2 hours to cross the plain so my T-junction fail and our fumbling through the grass cost us about 30 minutes. Janine made some comment about my "awesome" route choice which I chose to ignore. I still believe it's the fastest and simplest route - if only I had zigged instead of zagging. 

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