I Might Have Killed a Man Yesterday…

It was Martin Luther King Day.  I had the day off work.  Even though Geoff and I did a 13.2 mile ride with almost 2,400 feet of gain just two days prior, I wanted to try to do the entire upper section of the Santa Ana River Trail (SART) bike path on my road bike today–39.1 miles–by myself.

At the parking lot behind the Hall of Records in San Bernardino, there was only one other car there before me.  I started getting ready just as the other guy was ready to go.  Good, I thought, I want to be alone…

The guy rides up to me and says “mind if I follow you and try to keep up?”  He’s got a $2,000 Fuji, I’ve got a $282 C.A.R.B. (cheap-ass road bike).  “I’m pretty slow,” I said, “but sure.”

Five minutes later I’m all situated and we take off.  As we slowly started off, we exchanged pleasantries and introduced ourselves.  He’s 70, retired.  He doesn’t look or act 70.  Not even close.

—–

He likes to play a little game: he says he’s going to try to catch some people in front of us, and off we go.  After a minute or two, I hear a “clunk”…something has fallen out of my backpack.  So I stop, turn around, pick up my stuff, then turn back towards him and spend a few tough minutes cranking like hell to catch up.   As if that wasn’t bad enough–it happened twice!  At a coupe points I almost just turned around and went back to the car, but I stuck with it.  And I vowed to buy a better cycling backpack online as soon as I got home.

He tells me how there was a 20-something year old wunderkid out on the SART recently that he hooked up with; the kid was really strong and had a really expensive bike, but my new friend was able to keep up with the kid and was really proud of that.  So at about mile 5 I make a move out front, taking the lead on a mile-plus long straightaway, crank it up at least a couple notches, and tuck down tight on my aerobars.

He struggled to keep up for about a minute, then I dropped him.  Ended up stopping and waiting for him a couple miles down the trail.

—–

My new friend hates climbing.  I’m a mountain biker and live to climb, so my challenge to myself was to try to climb the few and far between steeps on this section of the SART in the big ring.  This plan worked great until about 14 miles along, when I had to shift for the first time.  It was a killer hill and I waited at the top for about 2-3 minutes for him to catch up.

We made it to the 19 mile turnaround in Corona in 1:19.  That’s half the time it took me last time, when I was on a bulky MTB following behind someone on a recumbent trike.

About a half hour later, cruising along on a straightaway and chatting, he told me that on that one big climb around mile 14 he felt sharp pain in his left arm, under the armpit.  This is a guy who worked 40 years in the medical field and is VERY in tune with his body.  He was very concerned about this.

I let my new friend set the pace for about two thirds of the ride, in no real hurry to get back.  A couple times I took the lead and cranked it up one notch, not even tucking down on the aerobars or anything.  He kept up with me for a while, then dropped with some huffing and puffing.  Each time I slowed until he caught up, and he complained that his inner thighs were hurting like never before.  At one point I slowed until he caught up and said he’d meet me at the picnic table about a mile up.  I waited for him for a few minutes and he arrived, complaining even more about the pain between his legs.

“I’ve slowed you down enough,” he said.  “You go ahead.”

We shook hands, and I said “I’m sure I’ll see you again out here.”

—–

Despite going slower than originally planned because of my new sidekick, not to mention having to turn around twice to pick up things that fell out of my backpack, I had a very good day out on the river trail. Finally on my own, in the zone, feeling no pain, I was able to totally let loose.  Maybe it was frustration; maybe it was the ~34 mile “warm up ride”; but I flew past a whole “team” of road racers wearing matching uniforms that undoubtedly cost more than my bike. It was surreal.

I arrived back at the parking too quickly so kept going up to the end of the trail, turned around, rode down past the parking lot again, and then turned around about .6 mile past the parking lot then turned around and went back to the car.  Why?  I wanted to get at least 40 miles on the GPS, and ended up with 40.3, this being the second longest ride I’ve ever done.

Pulling in to the parking lot (2:38 moving time for 40.3 miles!, I saw my new friend over by his truck, kind of hunched over, a woman cyclist talking to him.  I rode over to check on him.

“I’m really dizzy” he says.  “This usually only last a few seconds, but it’s not stopping.”

“You might be dehydrated,” I say.

I tell him to sit down and drink something.  He gets in his truck and drinks some liquid.

“I’m going to go load up then I’ll come right back and check on you.”

A few minutes later, right as I’m done situating myself and am about to walk over and check on him, he drives up, rolls down the window, tells me he’s feeling much better, thanks me profusely, and we say we’ll probably see each other again out there.

—–

I just wanted to go have a nice quiet 40 miles by myself.  I keep asking myself, did you almost kill a man today?  Then I  keep telling myself, hey man, you were minding your own fucking business, it was his idea to follow along…

Trail drama.  I miss my mountain bike already.

The Great Road Bike Experiment

Even though my first spin on a mountain bike occurred at the ripe old age of 25, let me make one thing clear: I’ve always been a mountain biker.  Oh, there were several other bikes in my life before I bought my first cheap, heavy mountain bike back in 1987.  There were several models of the Schwinn Stingray (or cheaper knock-offs).  And then there was my final bike before adulthood: a cheap, ugly, dark brown, Sears-brand ten-speed, back when easy cycling for the masses for some odd reason mimicked European road racing.  But even though I put thousands of miles on that wannabe road bike, I was never a road biker.

If you take away two things from the above paragraph, they should be:

  • “I’ve always been a mountain biker.”
  • Repeated use of the word “cheap”.

So how, at age 51, did I end up with a road bike?  It was only after great internal struggle.  In the end, I sold my soul to the devil for a cheap-ass road bike (hereafter referred to as “C.A.R.B.”) and embarked on The Great Road Bike Experiment of 2013.

—–

There’s danger on roads.  When I hear about friends and friends of friends who are road or mountain bikers getting seriously injured or killed, there is a common thread amongst all the horror stories: they were all out riding n the roads.

For a short time, I road my mountain bike to work.  6.5 miles down hill in the morning, then a 6.5 mile grind uphill after work.  It wasn’t a lot of miles, but an interesting thing happened: after doing it for about 10 days, my pants started to fall off if I wasn’t wearing a belt.  Biking to work was good for me, and good for the environment.

My magical weight loss & earth-saving program was short-lived.   I quickly realized how dangerous it was out there on the roads.  The last straw came while driving my car to work one morning and seeing a coworker sitting on the side of the road, being attended to by paramedics, blood gushing from large gashes on his face, his mangled bike lying next to him.  Cars – 1, Bikes – 0.

Almost two decades later, with even more cars on the road, the last thing on my mind was road biking.  But my friend Mike found a way to make it work: the river trails.  In Southern California, we have a series of paved bike paths that follow along channelized rivers such as the Los Angeles River, the San Gabriel River, and the Santa Ana River.  They let you stay off roads but still get your road bike thing on.  The only thing Mike ever has to worry about is dodging homeless people/meth addicts/gang bangers, and an occasional run-in with overzealous members of the law enforcement community.  But any of those potential hazards is a better option that being plowed into the pavement by a 12-ton SUV piloted by a soccer mom on her cell phone.

—–

Clem and I had only ridden together a few times over the years–in fact, we rode our mountain bikes together on what had until recently been my longest ride, a 21-mile grind at elevation in the Eastern Sierra.  As time progressed, Clem was looking for a more user-friendly bike to accommodate his, how shall I say this, “decreasingly youthful” body.  He retired his trusty Marin full suspension mountain bike and settled on a recumbent trike.

A recumbent.  All I could think of was this George Carlin quote:

“What’s with these recumbent bicycles? Listen, buddy, if you wanna take a nap, lie down. If you wanna ride a bike, buy a f#*%^* bicycle!”

Clem wanted to test his recumbent on the Santa Ana River Trail (SART) and hooked up with a couple of recumbent riders.  He invited me along.  I was reluctant, as it wasn’t really  my thing.  But I went along for the ride–on my 29er mountain bike with a knobby 2.4 inch tire on the front and an almost-as-knobby 2.2 inch tire on the back.  Not exactly the ideal setup for long, easy miles on pavement.  But it’s what I had.

—–

“On your left!”

We heard that a lot that day, as we rode from Corona north to San Bernardino, then turned around and went back to Corona.  After 39.1 miles and a little under five hours of slowly plodding along the trail, we were done.  It was the longest ride I had ever done in my life, but far from the most strenuous.  More than anything, my ass was sore.  Five hours is a long time to be sitting on a skinny little bike seat, no mater how “ergonomic” and “prostate-friendly” it is.

A couple months later, Clem invited me once again, this time to do the lower section of the Santa Ana River Trail from Yorba Linda to Huntington Beach.  We stopped for a nice lunch in Newport Beach, then headed back, completing the 45 miles in 5 hours and 10 minutes.  My ass was once again sore, and that night I had dreams of a lycra-clad army chanting “On your left!” as they marched their way to the sea.

What, I imagined, must it be like to fly down the river trail on skinny tires?  With my mountain bike-trained leg muscles, could I possibly keep up with these guys and gals?  The curiosity was killing me.

Also, at 51 I was still mountain biking.  Would I be able to continue until 60?  65?  70?  At some point, it seemed that mountain biking would be less feasible.  The what?  Retire to the couch and a sedentary lifestyle of a large gut and clogged arteries?  Or might road biking on the river trails possibly a future phase of my active lifestyle?

So I took the plunge.  I ordered my C.A.R.B.

—–

The idea behind the C.A.R.B. was that I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on something that I might give up quickly.  I knew too many people who had decided on a whim that they wanted to try something new, dropped thousands of dollars to gear up, and quickly realized it wasn’t for them.  Better to lose a hundred or so dollars on a failed experiment that thousands.

The C.A.R.B. arrived on December 4th, just three days after ordering it–and a full week before I expected it.  After assembling it, I added a water bottle cage, an underseat pack to hold my tools and a spare tube, better (and even thinner) tires, strapless toe clips (because I’m old school like that), slime tubes (because I’m a mountain biker), and aerobars/triathalon bars (because, in the words of Ricky Bobby, “I wanna go fast.”).

2013-12-24 Highland - Bike

The C.A.R.B., in all it’s glory.

Total investment: about $400.  If the experiment turned out to be a failure, I could sell the bike for at least a couple hundred, or as my son said, just give it to a friend who needs a bike and be happy with that.

I’d give the experiment a month, then decide if this was something that was going to be part of my life, or if some luck friend would be the recipient of an almost-new bike.


First Ride

After assembling my C.A.R.B. and installing the modest upgrades, I was ready to take it for a spin.  Just a short one around the block, to see what this was all about.  And I almost didn’t make it out of the driveway.

I mounted the skinny little excuse for a bike and started to roll down the driveway.  After just a few feet, I turned the handlebars hard right to steer into the street.  The handlebars went right.  And the front tire stayed straight.

Ah, yes, I had neglected to tighten the stem while assembling and tuning the bike.

Idiot.

Luckily I wasn’t traveling too fast, and was able to jump off the bike, pull out an Allen wrench, tighten the stem, and get back on the road in less than a minute.

Then the real fun began.

The skinny tires and lack of any suspension meant that every little bump, crack, or pebble was jarring.  Incredibly uncomfortable compared to fat mountain bike tires with suspension.  On the road bike I really had to spend a lot more time looking for and avoiding micro-sized imperfections, whereas on the mountain bike I just had to be aware of the larger obstacles.

Oh, and the brakes: they totally sucked.  Guess I was spoiled by my hydraulic discs.


Second Ride

A few days later, after a few adjustments, I set out on my second ride  It was still a “shakedown” ride, but I wanted to actually put a few miles on the C.A.R.B.  I headed down the dedicated bike lanes over to Cloverhill, a steep pavement climb that really tested me on my bulky mountain bikes, and pretty easily set a new Personal Record on the climb–which was completely unexpected given the gearing on the C.A.R.B.

Turning to head down the steep road I had just climbed, I quickly became terrified.  These skinny little pieces of rubber, less than an inch across, seemed like a death which compared to what I was used to.  And my maximum speed was only 26.2 miles per hour.

In the end, the ride was just 5.3 miles total, with about 650 feet f elevation gain.  But the shakedown was now complete.  Time for something a little longer.


Third Ride

I decided to head back up the Coverhill climb to push really hard and set a new Personal record–which I did, but just by a few seconds–then headed down to Greenspot road to ride the dedicated bike lanes where many road bikers train.  I turned around where the bike lane runs out.  Coasting fast downhill on the glory ride home, two cross-fitters were jogging in the bike lane.  I looked behind me and a car was coming, but it was far enough back that there was enough time for me to swerve around the selfish crossfitters.  Between the traffic and the people, my brain forgot to keep a close eye on the road surface, and suddenly, BANG!  Flop flop flop. Less that 15 miles on the bike, and I had already completely destroyed it in a pothole.

Pulling over to the sidewalk, I saw the the tire was flat, but there was no damage to the rim (or anything else).  As I took apart the bike to patch the flat, it started to rain lightly.  I fixed everything as fast as I could, which was hard with frozen fingers on an unfamiliar bike, then pumped up the tire and it held.  Off again quickly, and a half mile later, flop flop flop…the patch had not held.  Pumped it up again quickly, ad this time made it only about 100 yards before the flop flop flop signaled total failure.

As I contemplated taking it apart and trying another patch, it started to rain harder.  I gave up.  I ended up walking the bike home the last half mile rather than try to patch the tube again in the rain.  I got home tired, wet, exhausted, and pretty frustrated with the whole road riding experience.  It was finitely one of the low points of my long, relatively hassle-free biking career. But I did manage to ride 10 miles with almost 1,100 feet of elevation gain.  Not a bad ride, all things considered.


Fourth Ride

A few days later, after fixing the double puncture from the pinch flat (correctly this time), I was finally ready.  Time to get off the damn roads and use the C.A.R.B. for its intended purpose–long rides on the river trail.

Unfamiliar with the best place to start on the north end of the Santa Ana River Trail, I went commando and parked illegally in front of a business near where the trail intersects Mt. Vernon Avenue.  Other than that inconvenience, it was a good ride of 20.6 miles–uneventful, thankfully, and most notable for what I didn’t hear once in 20.6 miles:

“On your left!”


Fifth Ride

After working a little bit on the brake lever positioning on the C.A.R.B., I headed back to the Santa Ana River Trail for a a lightly longer, but faster ride.

The first 10 miles flew by, in 33:30.  That’s 3:33 minute miles.  In a one mile stretch my GPS analysis shows that I averaged 19.3 mph.  I was pretty happy with that.

It was all going great until about 8.5 miles in, when the wind started.  Then at about 12 miles in I passed a controlled burn on the side of the trail.  With my asthma, smoke does to my lungs.  This wasn’t looking good.

When I finally turned around, the wind was worse, but it had effectively dissipated most of the smoke.  So I just hunkered down and got it done.  The last 5 miles was a little painful.

Twice I hit detritus on the trail pretty hard and thought “here we go, a blowout”.  But nothing ever came of it.

In the end, I covered 27.3 miles in about 1 hour and 45 minutes.  Even without the wind, I would have been very happy with that time.

The highlight/lowlight of the entire ride?  Out on my ride yesterday morning, down along the river trail where the homeless drug addicts roam, a homeless drug addict was calling her dog:
“Needles! Come here Needles! Come on boy! Come here Needles!”

You just can’t make this shit up.


Sixth Ride

After two weekend shakedown rides on the Santa Ana River Trail, it was time to see if I could work some quick mid-week rides into my work schedule.

We have a small but nice gym here at work.  I used it quite a bit many years ago, but eventually stopped because I’d rather be outside…

But they have showers there.

I got to work early, put in a few hours, then headed over to the gym to change on the way to the bike trail.  Opening the bag with my riding clothes, I quickly realized that I had made a fatal error–I had forgotten my riding pants!  Shit!  Intent on salvaging the ride, I put on my bike jersey and shoes, along with my faded blue jeans.  Yes, I looked like a moron, but whatever.
Other than my near-fatal fashion faux pas, the ride was pretty uneventful–8.6 miles south down to Riverside, then turned around and came back for a total of 17.3 miles in about 1:05.  After a little more tweaking, the brake/handlebar position seemed so much better, almost optimal.
Drove back to work, took a shower, then drove over to a Mexican place and grabbed a seafood burrito, and came back to work.
So this mid-day riding thing can work.  Just have to remember my pants next time…


The Future…?

After a little over 80 miles on the C.A.R.B, I’m finally starting to get the hang of it. It’s not what I would call “fun”–not at all, at least compared to mountain biking.  But it sure as hell  beats sitting on the couch eating doughnuts and watching Jerry Springer.  After all, it gets me some exercise outside–not in pristine wilderness, but in the sun.  And it’s definitely making me a stronger mountain biker.

I don’t know how long this fad will last.  Will I give it up in a few months, or take the plunge and upgrade to a much better bike?

Only time and a few hundred more miles will tell.  But one thing’s for certain:

I’m still a mountain biker.

Always have been.

Always will be.

Thank you, C.A.R.B.

You’re teaching me a lot.

P.S. Your brakes still suck.

Caves, Part II

I had come back to the bundu to get closer to nature, and I had certainly seen a lot of nature on my adventure.  What I wasn’t expecting was that it was also very much about people.  And nowhere did I see that more than when we hiked to the top of Eagle Rock.

We left early, driving up Mohave Highway and then wending through a twisted set of roads that on the map looked like a plateful of spaghetti.  We eventually reached a place called Eagle Junction, and parked in the parking lot under a tree.  Except that it wasn’t a parking lot, it was just an area where vehicles had occasionally parked before, where the grass had been beaten down ever so slightly compared to the taller, undisturbed grass next to it.  And the lone tree was hardly majestic; not big enough to provide even the slightest bit of shade for the vehicle, it acted more as a signpost saying “Park Here” than anything else.

We hiked along the rocky trail, stopping here and there to identify tracks, scat, and animal remains, before the path dropped down into a little valley below the outcrop that dominated the northern skyline.  After crossing a dry stream that had seen water fairly recently, we emerged on a beautiful plain covered with pastel yellow flowers, scaring off a few baboons who loved to eat them.  Before long, we were at the base of the rocky outcrop, and then ascended a steep path up to the southern ridge.

We emerged on a large, rocky plateau, the east side of which drops several hundred feet straight down to the Motloutse River.  This was Eagle Rock, possibly the most scenic spot ever in an area already known for its stunning beauty.

Off in the distance, across the river and in the mopane trees a mile or two away, we could see a lone bull elephant browsing.  To the right, on the plain below, a large herd of impala and a good-sized herd of kudu lazed comfortably near each other, some slowly grazing on the tall, fresh grass, but most just lying down and resting.  Directly below our feet, many colorful lizards came close to see what we were doing and to see if they could scrounge any scraps of food from us.  Far below, on the rocks next to the river, a family of rock hyrax nimbly jumped from boulder to boulder.  Above our heads, catching the strong updrafts caused by the abrupt rise of Eagle Rock, several birds of prey circled and dove and circled again.

—–

After enjoying the expansive view of the greater Tuli region from the top of Eagle Rock, we took a detour on the way back to the vehicle.  Andrew was looking for a brown hyena den he had seen in this area a year ago, and we needed to find out if it was still in use.

We wandered up several side canyons, boxed in by red rock cliffs, large trees gripping desperately at the steep canyon walls with twisted root systems that looked like something straight out of a fantasy movie.  In a place where I had seen so much beauty, and on a day where I had already been completely blown away by the landscape, it just seemed that with every step we took, every corner we rounded, every hill we topped, we saw something even more spectacular.   I was beginning to wonder how much more of this my brain could take before it exploded from an overdose of visual stimulation.

Andrew eventually found the brown hyena den in some rocks against a cliff hanging above a small plain.  As we walked up to the mouth of the den, walking single file behind him, he saw one of the hyenas dash into the den, but the rest of us did not see it.  So we decided to stand around and wait for a little while to see if it would come back out.

bones

Bones were scattered everywhere outside of the brown hyena den. Tuli Wilderness, Botswana, March 2013.

As I stood there waiting for the elusive hyena to emerge, a gentle, misty rain began to fall and I stared not at the opening to the den, but at the ground beneath my feet.  The ground around the opening was littered with skulls, horns, teeth, tufts of fur, and bones of all shapes and sizes.  Maybe it was just having come from the ancient settlement site high on Eagle Rock just an hour or two earlier, but for some reason I was suddenly struck by the resemblance of the hyena den to a rock shelter—a prehistoric home where early man would have spent his days.

At the opening of a small rock shelter against a cliff edge…

…elevated with a view of the surrounding rocky red hills and plains, ideally situated for spotting prey and defending against other predators…

…a small landing in front of the cliff making a perfect place to return from the hunt and gorge on the spoils…

…the rocks below littered with the debris from a thousand previous hunts…

…deep in the wilds of Africa.

After all of my studying of and fascination with ancient peoples, for the first time in my life, it was as if I was actually experiencing it.

This is exactly what it must have been like.

It mattered little if it was the home of a brown hyena in 2013, or the home of australopithecus robustus a million or two years earlier.  Man and his ancestors are just a few of the many species of animals to ever inhabit the planet, and we really aren’t that different from each other.

—–

This story is excerpted from my book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ].

Caves, Part I

There’s something so primal about caves.

Before primitive huts of grass and sticks forever changed the landscape; before endless rows of tract homes lined suburban streets; before glass-clad high-rise apartments pierced the indigo sky, our ancestors sought shelter in naturally-occurring structures: caves.

Caves were our first “homes”.  To this day, we humans continue to be fascinated by caves.  And it’s completely natural; it’s in our DNA. Caves provide us with shelter from the elements.  Caves provide protection from our enemies.  We humans have evolved to feel safe in caves.

—–

Fossils were observed in Sterkfontein Caves, a limestone cave complex on the high plains of South Africa, as early as the 1890s. The fossils that the quarrymen came across as they mined the limestone for sale were no more than a curious by-product of their primary plunder. Instead of ending up in a museum or at a university where they rightfully belonged and could have played an important role in the advancement of science and understating our origins, they were instead sold to local tourists as interesting oddities.

In 1924, these quarrymen discovered a fossilized skull at Sterkfontein which became known as the Taung Baby.  By blind luck and happenstance, it eventually found its way to a South African named Dr. Robert Broom, who took pains to describe it and share it with the scientific community.  But Broom’s efforts were met with much ridicule because of his lack of training as a paleontologist, his lack of affiliation with a respected research institution, and the audacity of what he was proposing: that the Taung Baby represented not a proto-chimpanzee, but a proto-human.

tickets

Tickets to enter Sterkfontein Caves.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that formal excavations at Sterkfontein Caves started by Broom and Prof. Raymond Dart turned up additional fossils and confirmed Broom’s assertion of the presence of a proto-human species, Australopithecus africanus. The series of finds rocked the fields of paleo-archaeology. The fossils from Sterkfontein were identified as a missing link between man and the apes, and the area became known as “The Cradle of Mankind”.

—–

Sterkfontein was relatively close to where we lived northwest of Johannesburg, so it was an easy place to visit. We went there on numerous occasions over several years.

The entry fee to the caves was 60 cents per person.  Tours ran every half hour, and it didn’t seem like a very popular place: we almost always got a “private tour”.  The sign on the heavy iron gate protecting the entrance to the cave read “No Entry / Geen Toegang / Ikona Ngena”, a warning in the three predominant languages of South Africa.  As the gate was unlocked and we crouched to descend down steep stairs into the belly of the cave, the light quickly faded, until we were surrounded by cool, dark rock, with a bright light overhead coming from the single slit of sky still visible through the crack in the earth which defines the beginning of the Sterkfontein cave system.  Before long, stalactites could be seen hanging from the ceiling, stretching almost all the way down to the floor of the cave.  It was like entering a primeval world.

gate

The entrance to Sterkfontein Caves.

Our tour guide pointed out fossils still sitting in place in the limestone matrix, as well as holes in the limestone where some of the world’s most famous hominid fossils had already been removed. It was incredible to be so close to such an important part of ancient human history.  But beyond the paleo-anthropological significance of the cave, the fragile ecosystem was also quite fascinating.

drop

Dropping down in to Sterkfontein Caves.

Inside the cave is an underground lake, it’s clear, cool waters stretching for more than 10 miles. According to notes written in my journal in July 1977 when I was 14 years old, the air and water temperatures in the cave and lake had equalized at a brisk 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

For some unknown reason, the water level of the cave was rising rapidly; between 1976 and 1977, it had risen by at least 8 feet. Indigenous to this lake is a form of albino blind shrimp, about half an inch long.  During my 1976 visit to the caves, I saw many shrimp in the lake.  Returning there in 1977, I only saw two shrimp.  At the time it was speculated that the rising water level was negatively affecting the habitat of the shrimp.

stal

Stalactites deep in Sterkfontein Caves.

Other than the shrimp and the few visiting humans, the only other life I ever saw in all of my visits to the caves was two pigeons and a single bat. The cave seemed to be habitat more suitable for dead things than it was for living things.

—–

I had always been captivated by history, and the older the better: thus, Greece was more interesting than Rome, but Neanderthals were more interesting than Greece, and Homo Erectus was more interesting than Neanderthals.  If older equaled more interesting, you couldn’t get much better than witnessing first-hand the birthplace of the Sterkfontein fossils.

In 1981, I enrolled at Pasadena City College. Because I enrolled late, the selection of available classes was limited: for my selected major, Drafting, all classes were already full.  I stood at the registration table, knowing that I really needed to go to college, yet not having any classes in my major available to take. So I quickly ran through the list of available classes.  I just had to take something.

The few classes still open were listed in alphabetical order, so it didn’t take long before I came across several Anthropology classes which were still available.

“Anthropology has always been very interesting to me,” I thought, “so I guess I’ll major in that.”

And the rest is history.

I worked as a tutor in the Anthropology Department, helping students to understand the intricacies of physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, and archaeology, while holding office hours in the lab surrounded by plaster casts of all the famous fossils of paleo-anthropology, including those found at Sterkfontein Caves.  Later, I transferred to Cal Poly as an Anthropology/Geography major, worked in the Anthropology Lab there, and participated in archeological field digs in southern California.  But wherever I went, when Broom’s finds at Sterkfontein Caves came up in lectures or discussions—which they did frequently—I marveled at my incredible stroke of luck having been transported halfway around the planet to live in a place just down the road from one of the most important paleo-anthropological sites in the world.

—–

One of my most vivid memories of my adolescence in South Africa took place deep in Sterkfontein Caves.  We arrived a few minutes before the next scheduled tour, and bought our tickets.  The man behind the counter tore a rough notch out of the corner of each ticket, handed them back to us, and then watched the clock.  We were the only ones there for the next tour, and if nobody else showed up in another minute or two, we would have a private tour!  Then, at the very last minute, a large group of black people showed up to join our group.

You must remember that this was apartheid-era South Africa.  Blacks and whites lived in separate communities, rode separate trains, used separate bathrooms and drinking fountains, and even swam at separate beaches.  In this carefully orchestrated environment of discriminatory separation, I had encountered very few situations like this where black people and white people interacted.

I may be anti-social, but I’m not racist.  I was upset that my hopes for a private tour had been dashed, but I was also very curious how a tour featuring a mixture of the two races would pan out, as I had never experienced anything like it before in South Africa under apartheid.

They appeared to be a church group of about 12 to 15 people, all approximately in their mid-twenties, about two-thirds of them male.  Everything seemed perfectly average until we arrived at the underground lake.  They began to chant what I thought sounded like a native religious song.  As they approached the edge of the lake, they each pulled empty bottles out of their jackets and started to fill them with the cool, pure cave water.

Was there a religious significance? Did they think the cave water had some sort of magical healing powers? As I pondered this, one of the men fell to the ground with a large thud and started convulsing violently.  I imagined that he was having a deeply religious experience, his body suddenly possessed by angelic and/or demonic spirits, and that his possession might have something to do with the mystical powers of the water being taken from the underground lake.

His friends gathered around him, lifted him off the ground, and tried to comfort him as they carried him back out of the underground cavern.  The cave quickly returned to a peaceful, calm silence, and I stood there wondering what in the world I had just witnessed.

Years later, I realized that this unfortunate gentleman had not been possessed by a god or a devil, but had simply experienced an epileptic seizure.

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This story is excerpted from my book Down to Africa [ Paperback | Kindle | iPad ].