Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The first mountain bikers

Arthur Walker appears as a linking figure in Pawns in a Larger Game. He and his friends were among the earliest pioneers in long distance cycling over rough country and they did it on penny-farthing bicycles! This story, which does not appear in the book, is about some of their exploits, which took place more than 125 years ago.
The eighteen-eighties were the heydays of the penny-farthing bicycle, named for the relative sizes of front and back wheels which resembled the two coins of the day. highwhel.gif

It was a fearsome machine. The front wheel had a diameter of about one and a half metres and was directly driven by pedals fixed to the axle. The rider sat directly above the front wheel. It did have rubber tyres but they were solid; John Dunlop only invented the inflatable tyre two years later, in 1888. The safety bicycle awaited the invention of a suitable chain to drive a rear wheel and only became widely available in 1890. On a penny-farthing the centre of mass of rider and bicycle was only just behind the point at which the front wheel made contact with the ground so that an encounter with an obstacle meant that the rider was pitched forward in an uncontrollable fall.
In 1886 Arthur, then 19 years old, was training as a lawyer in Port Elizabeth. He was a keen sportsman and prominent in the Port Elizabeth cycle club, which had been founded in 1881 as the first cycling club in Southern Africa. He was at that time vice captain, and later captain of the club, and an enthusiastic participant in its regular race meetings.
That was the year of the grand cycle tour throughout the Eastern Cape Colony. The roads were rudimentary sand and gravel tracks. They were worn into ruts by the only traffic - heavy iron-tyred wagons drawn by teams of up to 16 oxen, lighter horse-drawn vehicles, and mounted horsemen. The land was, and is, rugged, rising rapidly up the escarpment from the coastal plain to the first plateau and then to the mountains - the Amatolas, the Winterberg, and Katberg.
Bedford is a small village at the foot of the Winterberg. On Friday 12th March 1886 the local inhabitants were going about their business, farmers were loading ox-wagons with supplies, townspeople were shopping, or at their places of work, idlers stood in the street making conversation. The buzz of activity died away as people looked up at the unusual sight. At the west end of the main street, approaching from Cookhouse and Somerset East, were two stately figures, towering above the onlookers, mounted on penny-farthing bicycles.
They dismounted (place your left foot back on the step, transfer your weight to it, bend the left knee, swing your right leg over and place it on the ground) and a small crowd gathered. They were Arthur Walker and his friend W. Skead (first names were not public property). That day they had cycled from Cookhouse. The direct route was about 35km long but they had got lost and had been as far as the drift (ford) across the Baviaans River which runs into the Great Fish river well north of Cookhouse and had added about 10km to their journey which had taken six and a half hours. It was part of a round tour from Port Elizabeth and include many falls, some appalling roads, being mistaken for Satan, and an encounter with an ostrich. This was one of several trips during the year, but it pales into insignificance in comparison with one taken during October of that year by Walker, Skead, and a third club member P. Loesch, shown in the photograph (l to r: Walker, Loesch, Skead).
The N2 highway from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown is flanked by a number of places with names evocative of the past - Swartkops, Coega, Sunday’s River, Kinkelbos, Nanaga, Leeubos Forest, Seven Fountains. The route chosen more or less coincided with the modern road; the topography dictated it.
Their story is best told in their own words, quoted in the Port Elizabeth Telegraph:

We left Port Elizabeth at 11:30 on Thursday night with luck against us, there being a head wind, cloudy sky, and no moon. At 12:30 we reached Zwartkops Bridge, where we dismounted, wheeled the bicycles for a short distance, and then rode up as much of Coega hill as possible. On arriving at the top we found the road to Hughes’s sandy and stony, so the hotel was not reached until 3 a.m. A start was made from here at 8 a.m., and as far as the railway crossing we were able to ride with moderate comfort, but then the wavy and rutted thoroughfare ahead made it absolutely necessary to dismount and push our machines up a long hill. On reaching the top we were able to ride every now and then as far as Sunday’s River ferry, where we arrived at 10:15. After a rest of 40 minutes, during which the tyre of one of the bicycles that had come off was put in its place at a smithy’s shop, the tedious uphill journey in a broiling sun was commenced. We plodded on, however, in fairly good spirits until 12.30, when the sight of Kinkelbosoh hotel was hailed with delight. After a good dinner a start was made for Nanaga, but after going about 100 yards a heavy shower fell, which made the usu­ally bad road almost unwalkable. However, we reached Nanaga at 3.30, and after ten minutes rest resumed our journey. The rain now came down in torrents, and did riot cease until midday on Sunday, so that the toil up that steep long hill was, perhaps, the most unpleasant part
of the trip. We had been informed that our work did not begin until after leaving Nanaga, and bitterly did we experience the truth of the statement. Hill after hill was climbed in the rain with wet clothes and depressed spirits. We had intended ~pushing on as far as Riet Vley that evening, but could not manage it, so we stopped at a place called “Three Vleys,” where we arrived just in time to get a good supply of warm milk. On resuming our task we found it impossible to push on for more than a mile further, for we could not see a yard ahead, and the rain had made the roads in such a state that our machines would riot wheel, even when pushed, so we left them under a bush, and walked back to Three Vleys. We applied to a .native living there for shelter and fire, but the only place available was an old kitchen where pigs had taken refuge, and it was necessary to drive the porkers out before we could do anything. But this was easier said than done. The hogs were tractable enough, but a venerable sow with half a dozen young ones was inclined to dispute the tenant right of the place, and it was only by the combined exercise of force, cunning, and entreaty that Madame Sus and her family evacuated the shanty. We then got a large fire to dry our clothes, but misfortunes never come singly. In the process of “airing” the garments we managed to burn holes in a boot, two shirts, and unmentionables. At 6 a.m. we emerged from the pig stye, and pushed on to Leeuwbosch, where a breakfast was obtained. Then came another fearful march up and down hills, and on reaching Bushman’s River we were obliged to take shelter under the bridge in hopes of being able to stop there until the thunderstorm had exerted its fury; but as it did not seem inclined to subside we had to abandon our shelter and continue the journey. After wading through mud and strearits, climbing and descending hills, we arrived at Dassie Klip at 11:45. At 2:40 we started again, and walked the whole of the way to Seven Fountains, where we arrived at dark. But Mr. and Mrs. Butler, who reside on a farm there, treated us most hospitably, and gave us beds for the night. At 9:20- the following morning it was still raining, but a start was made for Kariega. Here we had some slight refreshments and then pushed on to Grahamstown, arriving at the Drostdy at 3:30 on Sunday afternoon far from sorry that the journey was over. From bitter expeeience we would not recommend anyone to try the trip again. A certain Town Councillor once said that “a-bicyclist was a lunatic,” and well might that remark have been excused had he seen our journey into the City of the Saints, for a more unlucky bicycle journey I think has never been made


Contemporary newspaper accounts from Grahamstown Star, Grahamstown Journal, Port Elizabeth Telegraph, Eastern Province Herald, and a press cutting from an unidentified paper.
Photograph from the author’s private collection.
Line drawings from an unknown contemporary source. In the public domain.

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