Archive for October, 2009

Bulembu arrival

Friday, October 23rd, 2009


23 hours after getting into the taxi in Sunninghill, Elizabeth was able to start her shower in our room at the lodge in Bulembu. It took us about 6 hours to get here from Johannesburg.

47 members of the International Community Church hopped onto a flight at Heathrow last night, arriving in South Africa this morning. After collecting our bags, and having some fantastic coffee at the Woolworth, we sorted ourselves out into 5 large Toyota vans (with small engines). 4 of the vans pulled small trailers (small, covered trailers are ubiquitous here), and by putting a few of the suitcases in the back of the vans, we were just able to squeeze all our luggage in. After some consultation with the staff, 5 white vans pulled out onto the motorway, following the bright red pickup truck belonging to LeeAnn McPharland, the woman our church supports here in Bulembu.

Heading directly east towards Maputo, Mozambique, the first half of the trip was a very modern and large motorway through relatively uninteresting scenery. We stopped once for lunch, and a second time to tank up and empty out. On the other side of Middelburg, the road narrowed from a highway into a 4-lane with no median. As the terrain became hillier, and the mountains were visible, the road narrowed to 2-3 lanes. We left the Maputo road at Nelspruit, turning directly south, and heading into the mountains on a twisty 2-lane. We were climbing into the clouds, and had to put the wipers on intermittent, and our little vans started to struggle with the grade. They not only couldn’t make it up any of the hill in 4th, but a couple times, I had to downshift into 3rd. I’ve driven stick all my life, but never with the shifter coming out of the dash. There must have been a long and tortuous linkage between the shift knob and the gear fingers, because it was not always easy to find 4th on my way back down.


We passed through miles and miles of tree plantation, apparently servicing the local paper mill. Reaching Barberton at about 3pm, and were concerned that we wouldn’t make the Swaziland border before it closed at 4. This last 46km was a steep and twisty road that switchbacked up and down a mountain range, most of which was pasture. At least the road was in excellent shape, being relatively wide and recently paved. We spent a lot of this part of the trip with the vans struggling to make it through the steeper parts of Saddleback Pass in 2nd gear. We finally reached a sort of quaint and African-looking border crossing at 3:50PM. It seemed to take forever for South Africa to process us back out of the country that we’d only arrived in earlier that day, but Elizabeth is convinced it was less than 15 mins. Having left the headlights on, it was enough time to run down the battery. I couldn’t start the van, so we pushed it backwards to the road, and I bump started it in 2nd.

I kept the engine running when we briefly stopped at the Swazi border crossing, which consists of a woman and a long red & white pole that she lifted to allow the vans to enter the country. The road was much narrower on this side, mostly only a single lane. Where the South African side had been cleared and grazed, this side is forest. After about 10 minutes, we pulled into the outskirts of Bulembu. Carefully threading our way through the steep, narrow and potholed streets, we reached The Lodge. I backed the van into a parking spot so that if necessary, it would be easy to push it to a steep hill.


Bulembu was a company town built for the Havelock Asbestos Mine. One of the 5 biggest asbestos mines in the world, it closed in 1991 after a 10 year decomissioning process, turning Bulembu into something of a ghost town. A group of Christians (mostly from the US and Canada) essentially bought the town in 2006, forming Bulembu Ministries Swaziland. The plan is to make the town self-sustaining by 2020, at which point it should be supporting 2,000 orphans. With the highest AIDS rate in Africa, such support is desperately needed. The Lodge contains tourist accomodations, the former golf course now supports dairy cattle, and former company warehouses are now used in the production of honey. The Christian school in town is considered one of the best in Swaziland.

A GoogleEarth map showing the final part of our drive into Bulembu appears below. You can zoom in, and also see the satellite view.

The Free Beer Bike Ride

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

Free Beer

Just a few miles from my house, there are some lovely parts of Surrey for an evening or afternoon bike ride. Feeling the pressure of our upcoming departure from England, I’ve been trying to squeeze in some last few rides in the part of the local countryside most familiar to me.  This ride on the last Sunday of August turned out to be an especially memorable one.

I filled up my water bottle and put my Canon G9 into my handle bar bag, and took off for the wilds of north-western Surrey.  It takes about 3 miles of riding through traffic before you get to a more relaxed place.  Although surrounded by motorways, railways, and suburban sprawl, Windlesham is a nice little community.  Church Road is a quiet and wide street that includes the Half Moon pub and Saint John’s Church.   Crossing underneath the busy M3, the countryside starts in earnest with Hook Mill Lane, a very narrow uphill through the hedgerows. Taking a right on Burnt Pollard Lane quickly brings you to the tidy suburb of West End.

Garden Allotment in West End

I stopped at the northern end of West End to wander around the allotment. Allotments are public areas that have been set aside for the use of gardeners, and they are a common scene in England. They are also very common in the German-speaking lands, where they tend to be much, much, much more regimented and formalized. English allotments, although they can have some very elaborate fixtures, tend to be ‘organic’ looking, tending towards the sloppy.

Charles George Gordon statue

Gordons School is located on the other side of the road from the allotments.  Originally sponsored by Queen Victoria, the school is named after the extremely colourful British army officer, George Gordon. Known as Chinese Gordon, Gordon Pasha, and Gordon of Khartoum, the school features a statue of Gordon and his camel.  Portrayed by Charlton Heston in the somewhat romanticized flick, Khartoum, Gordon was killed at the fall of Khartoum in 1885. Although he was probably in over his head, Gladstone could arguably have saved him by sending relief forces earlier, and Victoria never forgave the PM for Gordon’s death.

Dry Wash Road

Riding through West End and then taking Pennypot Lane back north, I crossed the A319 and went looking for Watery Lane. Featured in several guidebooks, it is apparently the status of a byway, connecting Clappers Lane with the very posh pseudo-rural neighbourhood along Ford Road.  The road is certainly accessible by horse, and possibly by a very fit and ambitious mountain biker, but I chose to walk my bike along the narrow path that parallels the perpetually flooded and well-named lane.

I turned East on Windlesham Road, crossing the B383 along the northern end of Chobham.  Past the Red Lion Pub, the road changes its name to Gracious Pond Road. Much beloved by local cyclists of all skill levels, this long and smooth road skirts along the southern edge of the Chobham Commons, passing through lovely birch tree stands.

Gracious Pond Road, Chobham, Surrey

On the other side of Gracious Pond, I headed back towards Chertsey. Riding about 1/8 of a mile East on the busy A319, I crossed over to Philpot Lane. A beautiful little arched masonry bridge, crossing a burbling brook, is one of my favourite sights on these nearby trips.

By this point, I was getting tired and ready for home.  I almost didn’t stop when I saw the huge handwritten sign, “Free Beer,” in Chertsey. Then I remembered that there had been a beer fest the day before, and realized that they must have some left over that they would be throwing away.  I immediately turned around and headed for a large tent with a large Pimm’s banner drooping along one side.

After the Beer Fest

It was like beer heaven.  They gave me a pint and congratulated me on arriving just before they shut down. I bought a sausage and downed my pint, hoping for seconds. That’s when I noticed some well-pickled locals who were filling up soft drink bottles at the bar. I poured the water out of the bottle on my bike, kicked myself for not having brought two bottles, and filled it up with the lightest ale that they had (why overdue it, right?).  It looked like I was bringing home a urine sample, but I figured it was a worthy experiment.

About a mile and a half down the road, I heard a little pop sound, and noticed a stream of foam, volcanoing away from the nipple of my bottle. I stopped, took about an inch off the top, pushed the nipple back down, and headed for home without further incident. I put it in the fridge, and had it with my dinner a couple hours later, after church. It was flat and sour–just like it was when I got it out of the tap. Perfect!

Several other pictures from my rides around Surrey can be found on my Cycling Surrey photo gallery. The map/satellite image below shows my route in blue, and it can be zoomed in so you can see some of the places from my trip.

Kewpee is alive and well in Lima, Ohio

Monday, October 5th, 2009

An authentic Art Deco throwback, Lima’s Kewpee Hamburger joint has been astonishing diners for over 70 years. Kewpee Burger

During a recent business trip to Ohio, I had a chance to detour to Lima (pronounced LYE mah) and  visit a historic bit of American pre-war kitsch to see if the food lived up to its reputation.  A sleepy town that is still coasting from its pre-war prosperity, it has some very attractive buildings, so after having an excellent slice of cherry pie and a decent cup of coffee, I took an hour to explore downtown.

Kewpee Doll

There is something inherently creepy about dolls in general, and something extremely creepy about the androgynous Kewpie character in particular.  The large Kewpee standing watch over the building’s facade was removed several years ago for restoration, apparently creating a minor controversy in this quiet county seat.  Restored to its post of eternal vigilance over North Elizabeth street, it has a distinct crinkliness not shared by its smoother-complexioned interior sisters/brothers, two of which quixotically gaze out across  a roomful of hungry diners from their temple-like perches in two opposing corners of the white-tiled and stainless-steel trimmed Deco interior.

Authenticity is a very subjective thing, but in a post-modern era characterized by failed attempts to evoke nostalgia and emulate historical style, its important to note that this little Art Deco gem is essentially originally.  Their slogan, “Your grandpappy ate here” is true enough, and I wouldn’t be  surprised if my own grandfather did, given that his sales territory covered the once thriving industrial areas of western Ohio.   Stepping out of the step-backed orange and white building, my camera and I took a quick 45 minute swing through downtown.

Allen County courthouse

Every county seat in the US has a courthouse. Usually built in the latter half of the 19th or early 20th century, they all have a certain judicial sort of look about them, even though architectural styles vary. The Allen County Courthouse is no exception. Designed by Architect George H. Maetzel, this Second Empire Empire style municipal structure was built between 1881-1884.

Domes Nut Shop

Every town seems to have a nut shop, and Lima’s is a dandy. Like Kewpee and several attractive office buildings, Dome’s Nut shop has been operating since the mid-1930s, although the family run business, now in its third generation, has only been in the current location since 1975.  Unusually blessed with two camera stores, some clothing stores, a couple boutiques, and multiple restaurants, but a lot of service offices–public and private round out downtown, which centers on Town Square.

Lima Square Entrance

A particularly tall (in Lima terms) and ornate (ditto) office building nails down the south west corner of the square.  A pair of brass double doors are flanked by elaborate iron lamps, and the lower windows are surrounded by elaborately decorated iron panels.  Apparently, the ground floor was once used as a bank. Dozens of crumbling teller windows are faintly visible through filthy windows from the side walk on Market Street.  I still had a long drive before my lunch appointment in Columbus, so I reluctantly left the rest of Lima for a future visit.

Thunder Road Drive-In

I wasn’t planning on stopping, but when I saw the 57 Buick, painted up like a police car in front of this brand new 1950’s style takeout, I had to stop for a quick photo or two.  Refused financing for his dream, Leroy Roby built this burger joint by hand, taking almost 4 years to do it, opening on Memorial Day, 2009.   It certainly wallows in nostalgia, but it’s a contemporary take on the classic American drive-in.   Maybe 70 years from now, one of my grandkids will happen upon this place and decide that its a fine example of early 21st century kitsch.

Additional photos appear in my Lima photo gallery.  The GoogleMap below can be zoomed to taste.

London Thames Cycle Route Part 3: Gravesend to Richmond

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

The trail heading east out of Gravesend was in horrible shape, threading its way through a mostly obsolete industrial area.Lousy Trail

(If you want to follow along on this trip, a larger version of the map below, including mile markers and elevation, can be found on the Mapmyride site.)

Just after mile 41, the path crossed a bridge over an inlet into a small marina that turned out to be the former basin of the Thames and Medway canal.  The path went down a sort of dark alley formed by abandoned warehouses, and then took an apparent turn to the right. As it turned out, it did turn right, but not where I thought it did. Unable to find any more cycle route signs, I doubled back, and finally found a very narrow path behind an old fence. 3 feet wide at best, it made a right angle around the end of a building (not the first blind and narrow right angle turn on this cycle trip) and continued down the most convincing example of an abandoned cycle path that I’ve ever seen on two continents. The photo above shows a spot where the path actually widened enough that someone thought it a good place for fly tipping. Carefully avoiding the broken class, the path went across what was apparently the floor of a demolished factory or warehouse, an area strewn with tire-sized blocks of concrete.

Cycle Route along Thames and Medway Canal

Happily, the character of the trip changed entirely at mile 42. For the next  mile, a private and smoothly paved road followed the filled in bed of what had once been the Thames and Medway Canal. The pavement gave out, but the dirt was very smooth, and I could see for miles across the Shorne Marshes , which were mostly filled with salt grass, an MoD shooting range, and a lot of cows.  A 19th century fort was visible in the distance. At mile 44, I stopped to let a pair of oncoming bikers pass a motorbike barricade, and we got into a long chat. He recognized that I was riding a vintage Bianchi Volpe, and I wasn’t surprised to learn he’d been a bicycle mechanic (deja vu all over again, remembering the meeting with Alan far up the Thames in Richmond).  He showed me where you could just make out a fort on the far side of the Thames. At mile 45, in the village of Lower Higham, the path started following public roads again. There were mostly very quiet, and it was the only rural section of the entire trip.

Higham, Kent

At mile 48, the cycle route entered a former MoD area, making a steep hill climb through Chattendon, followed by a gloriously long and fast downhill into the charming village of Upnor (there’s a Lower Upnor, so why not an Upper Upnor?).  This looked like a great place to stop for a pint, with a charming little buildings all bunched together on a steep hill with a view of the Medway Estuary in the distance. I didn’t stop.  After 49 miles, I was ready to head for home.

A short offroad section dumped me out onto a dual carriageway and a confusing array of bike paths. I chose wrong, but doubled back and found the path, which soon took a steep left up a hill past an old oast house.  I stopped at the top of the hill to admire a view of Richmond’s bridges and castle, and what appeared to be a WWII submarine.

Rochester and castle

The narrow path made a steep and dangerous downhill towards river level. When I arrived at Commissioner’s Road, I couldn’t find a route sign, but right seemed to be the best choice. This was the last climb of the trip, and I was starting to drag. A little bright orange car buzzed me, spraying me with wiper fluid. At mile 52, I passed the Strood Rail Station, and decided to keep pushing on towards Rochester. At the intersection of Station Road and High Street I still hadn’t located a cycle route sign, so I asked someone to confirm that I was headed in the most level route towards the Rochester Bridge.

There are actually 3 parallel bridges leading into Rochester: a rail bridge, a newer bridge that had 2 lanes of incoming traffic and a bike path, and the older bridge with the outgoing traffic.  I stopped on the side of the bridge to take a photograph of the castle.  The last mile through Rochester was a busy one along the A2, taking me past a remnant of the medieval city wall. With both a Norman castle and a cathedral, I’m sure that Rochester is worth a longer visit, but it was after 5pm and starting to get dark, and I was ready to head back for home.  According to Mapmyride, I rode 53.17 miles between London Waterloo and Rochester Station. According to my GPS software, it was 53.75. I’ll add that to 1.5 miles round trip from my house to the Ascot rail station and take credit for a 55 mile day.

It was a fascinating trip, with a lot of interesting sites that were totally different from what I usually see on a bike ride. Very little of it was attractive, but much of it was highly interesting. Surprisingly, there multiple spots in the trip where I went several miles without seeing another person, and other stretches where I only saw people in the far distance. It wasn’t a particular fast ride, with much of the trip across rough stone, pavement, or gravel, and there were a number of barriers that required stopping, and even dismounting. It wasn’t really physically strenuous, although there are far more hills during the final 25 miles than I had anticipated.  I did the trip on a touring bike with 32cm tires, and I wouldn’t recommend trying it on anything less sturdy, or with narrower tires. 35cm would have been more comfortable.


London Thames Cycle Route part 2: Thamesmead to Gravesend

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Earlier this summer, I’d led a photo club visit to the Crossness Pumping Station, a Victorian sewage treatment plant with a lavish interior and a beautiful restored steam engine.  Located at mile 19, it was very quiet. Just downstream from it was the newer facility, with a much more modern building and its waste burning plant.Sludge Burning Plant

I rode along the Thames for several miles without seeing another person–not another biker or walker, not a boat, not someone in a nearby building, nor anyone on the opposite shore, which was increasingly farther away.  The path was relatively smooth, but not especially scenic, scrunched between a metal railing and an industrial fence, sometimes topped with barbed wire. It passed through the meadows of Thamesmead, surrounding the sewage plant, and then went past the site of a former power plant, no some sort of industrial estate, and at one point climbed a steep little hump next to some sort of factory.

Aggregate conveyors

At this point, the Thames was giving off a very nautical sort of oceany smell. The tide was out, leaving several hundred feet of mudflat, punctuated with pieces  of abandoned dock, and strange sorts of garbage, including television sets and an old bathtub. For unknown reasons, shopping trolleys head for the Thames to die.  On the outskirts of the town of Erith, I first glimpsed the suspension bridge at Dartford, still 6 miles ride ahead.

Low tide at Erith

The path diverted from the Thames, and at noon, I took the opportunity of stopping for lunch at Running Horses, one of the few functioning pubs I passed on this trip.  Sold out of their only real ale, it was not a memorable meal.  The path headed through an extremely unsightly industrial area, and just before mile 23, I went through an (ineffective) motor bike barrier and entered a flat area of pastures, scrub, and scrap metal yards. The next 3 miles were uncomfortably rough riding on dirt with heavy gravel.

Heading East from Erith

At mile 25, in Slade Green, I passed a large dirt bike track with a race in progress (Google satellite view of the motocross track). The view was all dead grass, a narrow brown river, the Littlebrook Power Station, high tension wires, repair yards, and scrap dealers.  The path emerged into a charmless industrial estate, where I took a wrong turn at a roundabout. Doubling back, I continued along the A206 (essentially the same route I was in in Rotherhite, 20 miles earlier), and rode into Dartford.  Just past the rail station, I should have taken a left at Central Road.  Cycle Route 1 actually took a right and then, following a relatively direct route into Gravesend along the side of Watling Street. This didn’t seem very interesting, and I wanted instead to follow a different trail that went closer to the river that was shown on a Sustrans map. If it was marked, I missed the sign.  I continued up a steep hill into Dartford.

To make a long story short, after fruitlessly asking directions several times, and finally resorting to the GPS-enabled map on my Blackberry, mile 31 found me back on a bicycle path alongside the M25, headed towards the Dartford Crossing. The path followed the map and then suddenly disappeared. I stopped and asked a guard at the entrance to the tunnel, and he promised me that the path shown on the Sustrans map underneath the Queen Elizabeth II Thames bridge didn’t actually exist. I eventually proved him wrong, but instead of finding the path immediately (the narrow green thing in the middle of the photo below), I backtracked, crossed over the M25, and came into Greenhithe from a different direction, rejoining the marked bike path.

The Dartford - Thurrock River Crossing

Just past mile 34, at the Greenhithe rail station, the cycle route turned directly south through a mildly interesting residential area, and turning East on narrow Mounts Road at mile 35. With a 2% grade, this turned out to be the steepest climb of the trip.  Swanscombe was much prettier than Dartford, with a nice park and a traditional English church. I missed a turn, but after taking a wrong turn, I found the entranceway to a bike and cycle path across an area that had been extensively quarried for chalk.  The narrow path took a screaming downhill, followed immediately by a metal barrier, and then climbed a bridge over 7-8 rail high-speed rail tracks (its worth zooming in on the Google map image at this spot–the bridge is marked ‘A’). As shown on the photo below, the Ebbsfleet International Rail Station is located here between St Pancras and Paris.  A Eurostar train went past at speed when I was leaving the bridge.

Ebbsfleet International Terminal

At mile 37 I went through a short tunnel underneath another train track and then quickly became confused by the bike route signs and ended up riding down the charmless Northfleet High St until I noticed a bike route sign pointing off to the left. A steep descent provided a view of the last of what had once been several dozen cement plants, all of which left huge holes in the surrounding chalk hills.  Riding through a lonely and broken down industrial area, I finally ended up in the middle of Gravesend at mile 40. I took a quick ride up and down its High Street, a pedestrianized hill perpendicular to the Thames.

Clipper Aya and Tilbury Power Station

Returning to the Thames for the last time, I stopped at a local riverside park. It had a cafe, a band was playing in the bandstand at the fort park, and it offered the first public toilet I’d encountered on the entire trip (to be fair, there is supposed to be one in Woolwich).  I admired the view of the river traffic, and called Elizabeth.  It was now 3:30 in the afternoon, and I wasn’t sure how far it was to Rochester.

A larger version of the map below, including mile markers and elevation, can be found on the Mapmyride site.