It was all nicely planned out. A sneaky holiday week in Cornwall with the family, nothing fancy, just a change of scene for a few days. Some walks, a dip in the sea, a braai (BBQ) or two, a few beers, just simple times. We didn’t bring bikes, but I’d firm plans to catchup on the blog. Plus T had been nagging me for ages to revisit some of the epic rides and publish them properly. Although obviously in T’s case, it was the Munga he really wanted to see expanded into an actual book. In fact we’d been exchanging messages about it not two days back, in amongst our usual everyday banter. To be honest, I was more interested in working on that rubber arm of his with a view to a future Tour Divide attempt. After the usual early resistance, it felt like I was making headway too. Aided by a couple of video clips that included barren, remarkably Karoo-like landscapes, I had a sense that the passion for an adventure was starting to flow through him again.
Then, from nowhere, as we were packing the car a confusing message caught my eye on the Wednesday group – something about having been proud to ride with Mr T. It didn’t connect at first, why would someone make a comment like that? And then Penny sent me a private message soon after with the awful reality. Theunis had died. Out doing what he loved, riding with friends, they’d stopped for coffee at 96 Winery Road, and he’d begun to feel unwell. I’m not clear on the exact details, but I believe he collapsed soon after. Despite the best efforts of all present (one of them a first responder himself), by the time the ambulance arrived it was too late. A wonderful guy, and the best friend and cycling partner that any of us who knew him could ever wish for was gone, too soon.
And so here I sit, with an unusual amount of time and space, but nothing I’d intended to write about seems to be relevant, or worthwhile. Last weekend’s wild camp and gear test on Dartmoor. The long planned upcoming adventure ride in Scotland. Their time will come, for sure, but right now my mind is overwhelmed with memories of the crazy rides and moments we shared together. And how, in a moment, all of that changes. That last time we stepped off our bikes in Clanwilliam would be just that, a last time. There would be no more chapters to write about going out and riding somewhere stupidly far on a bike, for no other reason than because we could. T always told newcomers to long distance rides not to overthink it – just to get on the bike and ride, like he had done when he took his first plunge leaping in at the deep end with an Audax 600km. But after all those kilometres together it isn’t, of course, the rides I will miss. It’s the man I rode them with – the irrepressible raconteur, who seemed to have a story about every corner of the Western Cape and beyond across which we rode.
I think it was riding through Bredasdorp where he first told me about his Great Aunt who ran away to the circus, and at some stage rescued a baboon who was too old to perform and sent it back to stay with her mum. This baboon would climb a tree at the edge of their property every day and throw stones at the postman as he pedalled up the road on his bike. Eventually, after a particularly vicious barrage one day, he managed to unseat the unlucky chap and sent him sprawling into the street. At this point the baboon’s real purpose became clear, which wasn’t a simple act of wilful violence. Much to the amazement of all watching, the baboon leapt out of the tree, ran into the street, grabbed the postman’s bike and rode off on it. You see that was the baboon’s job in the circus – to ride into the ring on a bike. The postman was clearly on his bike, and since the first time the baboon clapped eyes on him, it became the animal’s mission to get it back and ride it.
This wasn’t the beginning or the end of T’s stories about his Great Aunt either. The small and unassuming town of Aberdeen, just outside of Graaff Reinet in the Eastern Cape used to be home to the largest circus in South Africa. Thousands of people flocked from all around to this unlikely venue to see Pagel’s circus, and in particular the lions for which the circus was so famous. One evening, as I was telling T of our family stay in this quaint B&B called the Pagel Huis in Aberdeen, a flicker of amusement spread across his face. With a wry smile he explained that Pagel’s was the circus his Great Aunt had performed in. But more than that, it’s where and how she had met her untimely end too. One of those tamed lions, that were often see travelling the streets of Aberdeen in the front seat of Pagel’s Rolls Royce had taken rather too much of a liking too his aunt, and had eaten her. I think it was one of T’s proudest story telling moments – a deliciously dark and macabre tale, spun on top of our humdrum anecdote of a family stay in a now quiet backwater of a town.
But of all the stories I heard T recount, even this is not the one I will most remember him for. The one which speaks most to his character isn’t even one I can tell properly, because it was all in Afrikaans and whilst I understood it at the time, I could not begin to recall or translate the words in any way that would do them or him justice now. After 425km on the road, we were both knackered and plain out of luck trying to find a bed in the town of Roberston, which was enjoying an ill-timed (for us) public holiday weekend. With almost magical luck, Nico messaged us to say his aunt was house mother for the Herberg Kinderhuis (children’s home), just streets away from where we stood. In less than an hour, we had food, a shower, and a comfy pair of beds for a few hours sleep before completing our ride. But Marleine insisted we pay a price for our visit. She wanted us to tell the tale of what we were doing out riding at all hours of the night to the boys at the house. It was a daunting audience – a common room full of teenage boys, busy with a mix of TV and video games. Not exactly the sort of crowd you’d imagine would be interested in a story from a couple of smelly, temporarily homeless old blokes who had literally just ridden in from the street. But T was a master of a story, especially one told with the poetry of his mother tongue. I watched on as he wove his magic. He stood between the boys and their TV, but not one of the eyes strayed from him in the hope that the box would be turned back on. In fact long after he had finished recounting our tale they sat wide eyed, asking him questions. I’m not sure, but I think as we left and turned in to sleep the TV may not even have gone back on. I have a recollection of the lads sitting discussing this bizarre tale of these two mad cyclists. This is the Theunis I loved and will remember forever – a guy who could captivate with the simplest of stories, made magical through the power of his words.
God bless you T. Ride safe and long wherever you are now.
Footnote – Club Memorial Ride, 24th July 2020
As much as it was heart wrenching not to be able to join in person, it was wonderful to see the pictures from the club memorial ride held over the weekend. The turnout bore testimony to how loved T was by all who rode with him. The final picture was shared by T’s best friend Desiree – Wine to Wales in November 2019, the last event they took part in together.