By bike from baobabs to fynbos
There is a river between me and where I want to be. This is in southern KwaZulu-Natal, in the Drakensberg. The Tina River is normally just a stream at this time of the year, but now, swollen by days of rain, it is full and fast-flowing.
It is after 5pm and there is nowhere for me to stay unless I cross the river. I wade waist-deep against the flow, leaning into the current and floating the bike alongside me—and I am across. Now I am wet and need a place to stay. I stop at a group of rondavels and ask if accommodation is available. The head of a family instantly agrees and points me to their shop where I dry off and buy biscuits, apples, eggs, bread and, to warm up, a nip of brandy.
The eggs are boiled for me and I am made comfortable in a large rondavel which I will share with two teenage boys. While I sit next to a paraffin heater, four members of the nine-child family do their homework by the light of a single candle. There is no electricity.
With few exceptions, at 5pm each evening I do not know where I am going to stay. I have a sleeping bag, blow-up mattress and bivy bag and sleep out twice. About half the time I end up in formal accommodation such as B&Bs, but am also invited in by farmers and locals. My accommodation is both salubrious and humble.
I am never threatened in any way by anyone. On the contrary, people are keen to help with directions, water, drinks and padkos. Quite often I have been acquainted with someone for only five minutes when I am invited to stay over.
One night, in Limpopo province near the Olifants River, I stay in a room without a bed, behind a petrol garage. I share the room with three petrol bowsers. This is probably the toughest neighbourhood I will encounter on my ride, but no sooner have arrived than a burly fellow emerges from a tavern. He hangs around until I have locked myself securely in my room.
Along with others who I meet along the way, this protector calls me for the next few days to make sure I am still safe. When I finally get to Cape Point 3 500km later, he is one of the people I phone to thank for his help.
Progress through southern KZN was very slow because of four days of rain and mud. On one five-kilometre section near Underberg the mud was so thick that it was impossible to push the bike. I had to carry it.
The bike took a hammering and 2 000km from the start was in desperate need of a service. A friend, broken ankle and all, drove for more than eight hours from Johannesburg to replace the crankshaft, cranks, chain, rear cassette and gear cables, working until 2am to get the bike ready.
By Prince Albert I was out of spare tubes. Another friend drove 50km to bring me replacements. He sorted out the tyres while I sat in the back of his Landy and ate peanut-butter sandwiches, fruit and droëwors—and drank real coffee.
In fact, if I were to be critical, South Africa remains a place where it is hard to get a decent cup of coffee. It seems that you can ride 1 000km across the country only to find that Frisco still masquerades as the real thing.
I had two requests for money in 3 500km, for R2.05 in total. There were also two requests for cigarettes.
While land claims may be a headline-making story in newspapers, I made a point along the way of asking farmers if there were any in the area. Where there had been, they had long been settled; where one was pending, it was heading for an amicable settlement.
I was struck by how little drinking water comes from taps. This is not because there are no taps, but because the water in the taps cannot be trusted. At a garage in Jansenville I asked the attendant if I could drink the tap water. “Yes,” he replied, “but it will be like drinking Laxa [a laxative].”
Drinking water comes from a special container. It might have rainwater as its source. What happens in winter when it does not rain I do not know.
In some places in the Karoo there were settlements that had no public access to drinking water. The farms have water, the settlements not.
Near Willowmore I filled up at a farmhouse, but the way the drinking water is contained and dispensed feels more like a religious ritual than a simple act of getting a drink.
How you buy your Coke is one of the great divides of this country. Many spaza shops only sell 1,25-litre bottles but where there is greater affluence you get a choice of Coke in cans too.
I end the ride weighing six kilograms less than when I started, but I have been injury free and have had no serious falls.
The ride started in temperatures in the mid-forties and ended up in snow-covered mountains in the Cape. I had ridden from baobabs to fynbos, with the country’s numerous mountain ranges as my constant companions.
From Ceres I followed the “forgotten highway”—the route from the Cape to the interior before the discovery of diamonds—and rode along the age-old wagon route from farm to farm to Blaauwberg.
Here my off-road sojourn ended and I used the new cycle path and then took in the sublime vistas from Chapman’s Peak and Simon’s Town to Cape Point, journey’s end.