BY Regina Manyara
I didn’t want to get back on that bike. We hadn’t had a cloudy morning in a week and so like the days before this one, the morning sun filled our tent with a cool green hue as it filtered through a blend of synthetic materials. But all of this was quickly ruined as my brain began to remind my body of the aches it still had from yesterday’s ride, as one more bike ride still needed to be completed today. I heard a groan from the other side of the tent as Amy propped herself up in her sleeping bag. “Reggie, I don’t think I can do it again, my legs really can’t take it anymore”.
“It’s daylight torture and they know it”, I laughed, “I’m ready to just be killed off now”.
Laughing, she threw a pillow fashioned from a bundle of clothes at me and then crawled up to my side of the tent so that we were laying next to each other. After 20 days of early morning wake ups, our bodies had gotten used to rising as the sun rose in the sky. There was something about those mornings out in the middle of the Eastern Cape, all that seemed to stir was the sun gently stretching its rays across the sky and into the crooks between the branches in the trees and through the nylon fabric of our tent, breathing consciousness into the new day. It was the third and final day of cycling and the second last day of Journey, the three-week hiking trip which had us lead from the source of the Great Fish River towards its mouth, where the trip would end. We were now only a two-hour drive away from school which was thrilling. I was glad to know that my dorm-room was all packed up. Once the trip was over we would head back to school and the very next day the boarders would disperse themselves across the continent heading back to their respective homes. It was a comfort to remember I had already taken care of most of the stressful preparation for that before leaving for Journey. The thought sparked a conversation of all the things we would do once Journey was over and all the things we missed while being away. A long hot shower was top of my list. Amy missed her mum the most. As a day-girl, she was not prepared to be away from home for so long, like many of us boarders were. But funnily, as I lay there chatting with her, I could also tell that mornings like this were what I would immediately miss.
Despite the aches of the bicycle seat, the cycling days were some of the best. We were released from the burden of carrying our backpacks and tents as they were taken along behind us in a trailer as we cycled ahead. When I was cycling, I could get lost in the world that zoomed past me and my thoughts did not feel like they were piling on me like the bag on my back as we hiked. As Amy and I packed up our tent and had a breakfast of instant oats and cold water, the dread I had felt waking up this morning was quickly mixing with excitement as I thought about flying through the trees once again.
Like many things on Journey there were things the leaders would do to make it safer or easier for us. A day of hiking was once cut short as we had not managed to beat the blazing November heat and so we all waited under the shade of trees for the sun to pass from over-head. Cycling also had such precautions. On hills that were particularly steep to descend the group leaders would wait for everyone to gather at the top, then one by one we would go down, to avoid any accidents. This hill was not one of them. Approaching the ascent, a path led us through a forest where the hazy afternoon sun crept its way through the leaves and onto the forest floor and the wind rustled gently through the trees. Noticing there was no one behind me or ahead, I slowed down, wanting to embrace the warm sun, the wind and leaves crunching under my wheels just a little longer. In the beams of light, specks of dust and pollen danced upwards in the air. When I was little, I used to think I had found fairies illuminated in the sunlight. Confidently and earnestly, I would explain to my younger sisters that the fairies were always there but were only ever visible when the sun was angled just right.
The path slowly started to incline, drawing my attention away from the fairies of the forest. This was a hill I could make. I forced myself to push through, lowering the gear on my bike. Something told me I would be rewarded and sure enough the incline plateaued and then began to decline ever so slightly but increasing gradually. A smile began to creep along my face as the wind brushed more and more aggressively against my cheeks. I peddled just a little bit more to pick up speed. The path was covered with sticks and small rocks which kept me from skidding too quickly and I increased the gear back to where it had been, just to be sure. I was in control. I looked back at the surrounding forest, now a blur of greens and browns and yellow. I could go a little faster, I thought. Instead of peddling more, I leaned my chest towards the handlebar. The wind began to rush against my ears, the hairs on my neck picking up just a little. The sting in my eyes was delightful. I thought about leaning back up and taking my arms off the bike and to the sides of my body. I thought about how I would feel like I was flying. But I did not trust myself to be able to pull back at just the right moment. Instead, I continued down the hill, chest just barely touching the handlebar. I could go a little faster. Slowly I raised myself off my seat and lowered my body to get a little closer to the top tube of the bike. That was it. The wind took over my ears and stung against my eyes. The sun’s warmth struggled to get to me as the cold air rushed over and around my body. In the distance I could see the end of the hill, where the path began to flatten so I started to pull my body back to my seat. And then a rock.
As I was falling an image flashed into my head. A week or two before, my group had heard the news that one of my friends had been sent back to school. She had fallen off her bike and her braces cut through her lip. My mind could not help but think of her lip gashed open, blood gleaming against the metallic sheen of her braces, protruding through her lip. The thought brought my hands out in front of me as my body hit the ground and I tried my best to keep my face away from it and my braces in my mouth.
Between the sound of my heartbeat in my ears, I could hear my name being called from behind me. Someone saw that. The realisation made me laugh a little, the embarrassment of it all. I ran my tongue along my braces and under my lip. Everything was still in place, that was a good sign. Pull yourself up and dust yourself off, I thought. I pushed my body off the ground but when I tried to take a step, pain shot up my left leg. I heard a bike drop to the ground behind me and felt a hand wrap around my arm pulling me up. I looked up to see Geir bringing my arm around his neck to support my weight. He began leading me to a rock lightly off the path where I could sit. “Wow Reggie, are you alright? I saw you go down the hill like one of those Jamaican bike riders you see cruising low and fast on their bicycles”. I laughed a little. What an odd comparison to make.
“Well, I’m sure none of them ate dirt like the way I did”, I said. Geir and I laughed as he helped me down to sit. When I went down to try and brush off some of the dirt from my legs, my hands came away with a mess of blood and soil and little rocks. I looked down and almost laughed out loud. I had really hurt myself, more than I had expected. My left knee was bleeding and was almost numb to the touch. I had a series of cuts, spaced out evenly on the side of my right leg which I would later come to realise came from my leg being caught in my bicycle chain.
Geir had continued down the path and I was left on my own to wait for the medic. The wait seemed to stretch a little more every time another one of my group members passed me on their way. I was slowly turning into an exhibition for people to stop and look at. They would ask me what happened, if I was alright and then as if they did not care to hear the answer went on their way as soon as a response had left my lips. It was the most interaction I had shared with some of them despite us being in the same class for the past three years. Journey had truly brought us closer together. The sun was still warm, and the wind rustled enticingly. I wanted to be back on my bike and back with the sting in my eyes. When the medic arrived at “Exhibit Regina”, he laughed kind-heartedly as I explained what happened, while he brought out surgical spirit and bandages. “Shall I wait with you while the car comes? You don’t have to cycle anymore”. I tried to extend my left leg, testing its mobility. It felt like two separate pieces of wood, but it stretched out, nonetheless.
“No, it’s ok I think I can carry on” I said, realising the statement seemed a little misplaced with the amount of blood stuck to the hairs on my leg.
The medic looked at my knee one more time and then said he also thought it should be fine. “Just stop if you ever feel too much of a strain, the car is not too far away”, he added.
With my bandaged knee, being back on my bike after most of my group had passed me on their way, felt like a rebellion against my injury. I began to peddle my bike down the path. My left leg felt heavy with the movement, but with every push down I felt a surge of energy urging me on. The goal was the front of the group. I wanted to be back where there was no pressure to catch up. I stood up, pushing my body from my seat and down onto the pedals. Up and down and up and down. The rhythm increased as the path dipped ever so slightly, and I began to gain momentum. I was quickly passing more and more of my group mates. We had left the forest now and were riding through the vast, expansive plains that define the landscape of South Africa. The seizing I felt in my leg every now and then seemed so miniscule as I looked around at the short, brown grass turning golden in the late afternoon sun. The wind was still with me and as I worked to gain more and more speed, the rush in my ears drowned out the world, my panting and the pain in my leg. Nothing felt better.
When I reached the front, my friends looked quizzically at me and then at the at my bandage stained with dirt, blood and sweat. “Shouldn’t you wait for the car and rest” Amy suggested, “I think it’s going to start swelling”. I smiled gleefully. As I tried to catch my breath, I got off my bike and stretched my leg out as much as I could handle.
“Don’t worry” I said, “I can rest when I get home”.