Riders set off from Empangeni.
South Africa’s Valley of Desolation doesn’t disappoint. As the bicyclists approach, the temperature soars to 106 degrees Fahrenheit. The bikers stare down a 160-kilometer road, unbroken by even a slight jog. The only sights along the way are a lone sunflower and a few bleached animal bones.
Their two-week, 1,500-kilometer ride, which traverses the Drakensburg Mountains and the harsh Karoo desert, isn’t all hard labor. The cyclists also cross the gentle green hills of South Africa’s wine country.
On 23 February, 33 bicyclists, most of whom are members of the Rotary Club of Empangeni, South Africa, start the fundraiser ride from their hometown to Cape Town. The 2008 Connection Ride, cosponsored by the Empangeni club and ABSA financial group, raises money for Rotary club projects and links clubs along the route. “Hard to believe this event is only in its third year,” says Rotarian Richard Fisher, watching as marching bands, choirs, and a cheering crowd herald the race’s start. Students from the Rotarian-supported Thuthukani Special School sing a traditional Zulu song called “Shosholoza,” now a popular sporting anthem. They’ve customized a verse: “You can go, sail away, ride away to Cape Town.” And with that, the cyclists roll through the starting ribbon and pedal toward the hills fringing the town.
Empangeni is in the heart of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, known as the Kingdom of the Zulu. It’s famed for its history – Zulus, Dutch settlers, and the British Empire fought bloody battles here – and its beauty. Washed by the Indian Ocean, the state’s subtropical coast is backed by mountains and dotted with golf courses. Inland, savannahs attract outdoor-loving visitors from around the world with nature reserves and game parks.
I’m spending four days just outside Empangeni at Thula Thula Game Reserve, which was once the private hunting grounds of King Shaka, founder of the Zulu Empire. Now, it is a luxury safari lodge, renowned for its Franco-African gourmet cuisine and close quarters with elephants, rhinos, giraffes, and other wild animals. In the early evenings, as the sun melts into the horizon, Thula Thula lives up to its name, which means peace and tranquility in Zulu. Sitting at the outdoor restaurant with other guests, I watch as families of vervet monkeys frolic in the trees and herds of impalas browse contentedly on the tree-shaded grass beyond the veranda.
The Empangeni Rotary club started the Connection Ride in 2006 as a fundraiser in memory of Rotarian Doug Rhind, who died while bicycling. As the riders pedal the first few kilometers, I hop into a car with Wally Brook, 2007-08 club president, and head for the MusaweNkosi home for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Escorted by director Elaine Charlton, we tour MusaweNkosi’s three buildings, which house children ages 6 to 16. The Connection Ride supports the orphanage’s school and the children’s medical costs and finances projects such as a vegetable garden, a well, and a chicken coop.
Across town, the Thuthukani Special School, started 27 years ago in a garage, serves 330 children with disabilities. Fifty more children are on the waiting list. As we tour the school, which is supported by the Empangeni club, Brook receives a call from ride director Mike Bunting, checking in from Melmoth Pass. “It’s hot,” Bunting reports. “The thermometer says 41 degrees Centigrade [106 Fahrenheit] as we climb.”
The cyclists ride through the mountains and out of KwaZulu-Natal, into the rolling hills of Eastern Free State, through the wine country, and into Cape Town. They overnight with Rotary clubs along the route and distribute funds for club charities. Supported by a team of 10 Rotarians in five vehicles, the group of riders includes 10 who bike the entire route. Over the most difficult stretch – 210 kilometers through the barren land of the Karoo – the temperature tops 109 degrees Fahrenheit. During this stretch, the ride is marred by an accident. Canadian rider Dorma Grant hits a bump and falls off her bike going 40 kilometers per hour. She breaks two ribs but resaddles to finish the final 200 kilometers.
Grant, a member of the Rotary Club of Cataraqui-Kingston, Ont., Canada, was a volunteer with a Rotary club project in Durban when she learned about the ride. An avid amateur cyclist, she went back to Canada and raised C$5,050. The ride supports about 20 area nonprofits, including the Hope Project. Rotarians and staff collect food from area markets early in the mornings, then cook and deliver lunch to about 2,000 orphans and families every weekday.
The Empangeni club has about 30 members. According to Fisher, Rotary’s recruitment efforts nationwide have been particularly challenging in South Africa’s postapartheid era. “We went from the utmost acrimony to peace under Mandela,” says Fisher, the 2007-08 governor of District 9270. “Rotary has to evolve to become relevant to the new generation. South African Rotary started in 1920 in Durban as a white man’s club,” he says. “And it’s still predominantly white. We’ve got to modify our approach, to show the black community how we are relevant to their community and culture.”
Next year, the Empangeni club aims to attract more Rotarian cyclists from around the world, each of whom is expected to raise ZAR10,000 (US$1,315) – an amount that will be matched by The Rotary Foundation. By the time the 2008 Connection Ride ended, the club had collected ZAR725,000 (US$95,000).
“Finally, we rolled into beautiful Cape Town, and it was over,” Grant says. “It snuck up on us. We arrived to a large crowd of people singing, ‘Welcome to Cape Town.’ Many of us started crying. It was very, very emotional.”
“I can think of no better way to get to know a country,” she adds. “I saw spectacular views, met people, and enjoyed local food and hotels. I definitely would not have done this on my own.”