• Six Weeks in Southern Africa: Part 2 August 12th, 2014

    Stunning waterfalls beside the Sani pass

    The steep descent down the Sani Pass provides some of the most stunning natural scenery on the continent. Fortunately the skies were clear when I began the descent on Christmas Day morning, with plenty of waterfalls, wild flowers and mountain streams along the way.

    Waterfall on the Sani Pass Looking back up the Sani pass

    Happy cyclist

    Very happy to be going downhill! Some sections of the descent have gradients of 20%.

    Welcoming sign

    Back into South Africa. No wild camping here! A lot of South Africa’s land is fenced off to prevent unwanted intruders.

    Sugar cane fields Small roads en-route towards Durban. As I approached the coast the heat increased and sugar cane became a popular sight along the roadside.

    Camping at Ermelo Farmer's club

    ‘You will be more comfortable down there at the Farmers’ Club’, were the words said to me by a Petrol Station attendant as I sought permission for a place to pitch the tent for the night. ‘Your people are down there’, he went on, pointing me in the direction of the setting sun. And so I rolled up to a very quiet Ermelo Farmers Club, met the white-skinned caretaker (one of my people) who kindly let me pitch my tent above the Cricket pitch. Durban was 70km away and the coastal heat and abundant greenery meant mosquitoes were out in force!

    Remembering Mandela at Durban's beach front Durban beach front with a sand sculpture of Nelson Mandela who passed away a few weeks before. It was December 29th and the place was heaving. Unfortunately there was no other way to leave the city than cycle north on a very busy highway.

    Wild camp

    The plan had been to camp in the small coastal town of Ballito, but all campsites were full and despite my pleas to pitch-up behind the shower block, the owner turned me away in the dark. A complete asshole. I cycled 6km to a Police Station, assuming I could camp there, only to be turned away again (first time ever at a Police station). At about 10pm I ended up on the side of the main road hoping no-one would see me. I only enjoy wild camping when I feel safe. Here I didn’t. At 5.30am I was packed up after a quiet night and soon back on the road thinking that South Africa wasn’t the best place to be cycling at this time of year.

    Climbing to Eshowe The coastal roads were too busy and full of drunk drivers so I turned inland and headed into the hills of KwaZulu Natal. It was a good decision to make, although the heat and humidity made the climbing a real sweat.

    Wild camping in Kwazulu Natal A much better spot to wild camp. Kwazulu Natal was refreshingly free of fenced roadsides demarcating private property. For several days I rarely saw a white face as I pushed north through Zululand, pitching the tent one night between the towns of Melmouth and Ulundi.

    Clear blue skies through Zulu country Road to Ulundi. Beautiful blue skies and green lushness – also very hot and humid!

    Rural Kwazulu Natal Rural KwaZulu Natal. It was as wild as South Africa got.

    Road sign in Kwazulu Natal

     Perhaps it was the time of the year, but I came to the conclusion that South Africa has a drinking problem. This extends to the road, where smashed beer bottles and empty cans filled the hard-shoulder. It rarely made for a relaxed ride knowing that a drunk was driving almost every vehicle that went by. I wasn’t sure if this is what the sign here was warning against? If you are drunk you shouldn’t walk because you are more likely to get hit by someone driving who is also drunk. Would you be better getting drunk and then climbing into a vehicle driven by a drunk driver?

    Stoney break

    It was a very pleasant discovery to find that my favourite soft drink in Tanzania is very much available in South Africa. Only by cycling for hours in 35C heat would I consider drinking 1.1 litre of Ginger beer in one go. Blissful!

    Swaziland bank note After a week or so back in South Africa over Christmas and New Year I happily crossed into Swaziland, famous as much as anything else for King Mswati III, who has something like 50 wives. No wonder he looks so happy on the banks notes!

    Roadside shop in Swaziland

    All of Swaziland felt quiet and rural. I wished the country were bigger and that I had arrived earlier.

    Dead Mozambican viper in Swaziland

    On my first morning in Swaziland I spotted three fresh snake roadkills. This one here a Mozambican spitting cobra. I’ve lost count of how many dead snakes I’ve seen in Africa. Live ones are much harder to spot.

    Road kill: Mozambican spitting cobra Entrance to Hlane National Park

    Entrance to Hlane National Park. It’s always nervously exciting to cycle through a National Park in Africa. Most of them you can’t. The optimist in me assumes that if Lions, Elephants and other wild animals were a real threat then cyclists wouldn’t be allowed to cycle through the park. I’m not sure applying such logic in Africa is all that sensible….

    HIV awareness

    Swaziland has one of Africa’s highest recorded rates of HIV. Many bus stations are painted with educational murals such as these.

    Bus shelter art in Swaziland Swaziland bus shelter

    Sibebe: Swaziland's National beer

    Swaziland’s national beer. I think Lesotho’s Maluti edged this one out, but I was still very happy to find it being sold in 660ml bottles.

    Toll-gate on the N7 to Joburg

    Back into South Africa I decided to use the N7 highway to lead me towards Johannesburg. The road was surprisingly quiet for most of the journey, even if bicycles are prohibited (I think?). No-one said anything at the many toll booths I rolled through.

    Storm approaching

    Dark clouds had been following me all afternoon and there was nowhere to take shelter. I raced towards the town of Bethal, but moments after taking this photo the rain started. No wet-weather clothing was going to prevent a total soaking from the downpour that ensued.

    Identity crisis

    A curious sight. Bit of an identity crisis taking place here.

    Bike in a box

    Back in Johannesburg it wasn’t difficult to find a new bike box to package the bike for the flight back to Tanzania. As usual I removed the front wheel, handlebars, pedals, saddle, front rack, and deflated the tyres. Bubble-wrap or any plastic to prevent moving metal inside the box is always ideal. Fastjet charge $20 for sports luggage (which includes a bicycle) weighing up to 20kg. Great value, although with the weight of the box, a roll of duct tape and some string it meant I couldn’t put much more than the bicycle itself in the box. I think I got away with an additional few kg.

    Bike on the plane

    Another flight takes me from Dar es Salaam back to Mwanza. Somehow reassuring to see my bike box on the plane before I board.

  • Six weeks in Southern Africa: Part 1 July 8th, 2014

    In December 2013 I flew with my bike to Johannesburg. I had 6 weeks of leave and decided it was a good time to explore Lesotho, Swaziland, and see some more of South Africa.

    Ethiopia had been the original plan. I hadn’t cycled there before and it was high on my list of countries to visit on the continent, but flights to Addis Ababa, despite being closer to me in northern Tanzania, were significantly more expensive than the return fare offered by Fastjet, (East Africa’s new budget airline) from Dar-es-Salaam to Johannesburg.

    Aside from that, the weather promised to be significantly warmer in Southern Africa than when I cycled through the northern and western Cape in June 2012. I also realised that the British pound, then worth around 11 Rand, would now get me over 17 Rand. Bad luck for South Africans going on holiday to the UK….

    And so here is Part 1 of a much-delayed photo-blog of that tour – about 2250km altogether. All pictures here were taken with either my Nikon D90 or smartphone (Samsung S4).

    Looking down on Joburg city centre.

    Johannesburg was the starting and finishing point for the tour. Leaving the city by bicycle wasn’t as bad as I had expected, although it quickly became apparent that very few people cycle here. In terms of road safety South Africa is one of the most dangerous countries I have cycled through.

    Long flat road in Free  State

    The first few days south from Johannesburg take me through the Free State – a fairly flat monotonous expanse of agricultural land. The road is well-paved, but it’s a shame the hard shoulder isn’t.

    Campsite in Heilbron

    My first night on the road is spent at the municipal camp-site in the small town of Heilbron – 135km south from Johannesburg. For £1.50 I have the place to myself, a hot shower and a lovely view. This tent has been with me throughout Africa. It’s still strong,  but that rain-sheet is not nearly as water-proof as it once was!

    Free room for the night

    “I own a Guest House down the road. You’re welcome to a free bed for the night”. There aren’t many countries in the World where a random stranger would greet you on the roadside and make such an offer. South Africa is one of them. In the small town of Reitz I happily took up the offer and slept very comfortably in this room pictured above.

    Approaching Lesotho

    The landscape starts to provide a taste of what’s to come as I approach Lesotho (mountains in background). My bike was fully-loaded for this tour, but the panniers were half-full. Rear panniers alone would have sufficed, but I like to balance out the load and leave space for throwing in food. This was morning of day 4 out of Johannesburg.

    West from Clarens

     A short distance from where the picture above was taken. Quiet roads, blue skies – happy days.

    Campsite in Ficksburg

     Ficksburg is known for its Cherry Festival, but I’m 1 month too late and the municipal camp-site is more or less empty. I pitch the tent and pack it away the next morning without paying. The border with Lesotho is less than 1km away. Altitude is 1750m here and the temperature perfect.

    Map of Lesotho

    The map of Lesotho clearly shows it to be the Kingdom of Mountains. It’s hard to choose a route, but from the capital, Maseru, in the west I decide to cut straight across the country. Paper maps will always accompany me on my tours, despite having a GPS and a smartphone with google maps.

    Morning coffee

    A day of cycling should always start with coffee. Proper coffee. Before leaving Johannesburg I buy a cheap Espresso maker, which sits well on my Primus stove and fits perfectly into mug and cooking pot, as pictured below.

    Perfect fit.

    New country, new flag.Before leaving Maseru I’m able to find a small flag sticker of Lesotho to join the many other African ones on the bike.

    East from Maseru

     The landscape in Lesotho is never dull. Mountains loom on the horizon as I head east from Maseru.

    First day out of Maseru

    Fortunately the road is paved to begin with and traffic very light. Lesotho has some of the steepest climbs in Africa so it’s a good thing my bike isn’t too heavily loaded. This picture, like many others of me on the bike, is taken with camera on mini-tripod and set to self-timer mode, leaving me to free-wheel downhill, turn, then pedal back towards the camera while counting to 20, at which point I hopefully pass the spot upon which the camera was focused. The process would be much simpler with a cycling partner!

    God help me pass

    Most passes in Lesotho are between 2000-3000m in altitude. The summer months here are the best time to tour (day time temps  20-25C) unless cold weather cycling is your thing.

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    Sweat-breaking climbs were frequently rewarded with stunning vistas from the top. This is just before descending to Setibing, where I would camp on my first night out of Maseru.

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    Leaving Thabo Tseka

    The tarred road ends in the small town of Tsabo Tseka, giving the landscape a wilder feel as I continue east through stunning mountain scenery. Lesotho ranks as one of the most scenic countries I have cycled in Africa.

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    The long and winding road

    Slow gravel climb

    The road is more or less free of vehicles and surprisingly well-surfaced. The terrain is never flat and I’m happy to cover 70-80km on most days.

    Above the Malibo Matso River

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    Up in the mountains the weather could change quickly. It added to the wildness and made for some great changes of light in the sky.

    Shepherd boys

    I was rarely alone on the roads of Lesotho. The sight of a foreign cyclist slowly inching his way up 10%+ gradients provided plenty of excitement for roaming shepherd boys to leave their cattle and race to the road. Wrapped in weathered blankets it was never long before calls of ‘give me sweet’ and/or ‘give me money’ were heard. The demands were never aggressive and I usually had little energy to do more than just ignore or reply with a simple ‘yes’ to everything that was said, which usually created great confusion.

    Lush Lesotho

    Shepherd boys

    Shepherd in Lesotho

    Shepherd boy

    Village church.

    Under darkening skies and strong winds a village church makes a good place to rest during one night.

    Bed for the night

    Safe and dry. Once permission was sought from a village elder I slept comfortably knowing I wouldn’t wake up in a puddle of water the next morning. Village churches and schools make for good overnight camp spots in Africa.

    Lesotho's National beer

    Lesotho’s one and only national beer, Masuti, comes in sensibly-sized 660ml bottles.

    Road towards Sani The further I went into the country the more dramatic the landscape became. This is en-route to the Sani Pass, which marks the eastern border with South Africa.

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          There is little motorised traffic on the high roads in Lesotho.

    Lesotho in the rain

    Sani pass sign.

    The Sani Pass divides Lesotho from South Africa and marks one of the highest points in Southern Africa. The skies are kind to me on Christmas day morning as I receive my exit stamp from immigration and prepare for a steep but stunning descent back into South Africa.

    Descending the Sani PassDownhill all the way! A stunning view over South Africa’s Drakensburg mountains before a very steep descent back into South Africa. The tour still had some mileage in it yet.

    http://yellowzebrasafaris.com/destinations/botswana/ http://yellowzebrasafaris.com/destinations/botswana/

  • Almost there now June 20th, 2012

    Almost there now. About 120km separate me from Cape Town and the end of the Big Africa Cycle. Or is that the end? Surely I should pedal to Cape Agulhas? That after all is Africa’s southern most point, and doesn’t everyone else who overlands the length of Africa finish here? Except I won’t really be finishing there as I will have to cycle back towards Cape Town, which is kind of less appealing. Apparently Cape Agulhus does have a good Fish and Chip shop though – surely worth cycling another 350km for?

    I left Springbok some 600km plus ago with a full stomache under beautifully clear blue skies. When I heard that South Africans braai all year round I wondered how that could be done when it can be so cold in the winter. My hosts naturally had a braai inside.

     

    The Northern Cape appeared almost as wild and unpopulated as much of Namibia as I headed south from Springbok on the N7 highway. The sun was shining, but it was still too cold to stop for long, and I remembered how frustrating it can be to cycle when you’re constantly putting on and taking off layers of clothing to deal with the uphill sweating and downhill free-wheeling. In Spring this part of South Africa is ablaze with wild flowers, but now the veld is a rolling boulder-strewn expanse of greens and browns.

     

    The municipal campsite in the small town of Garies looked like the cleaner had taken winter leave and only a desperate fool would camp here at this time of year. The average ‘white’ South African would have been disgusted at the dilapidated brick braai areas and state of the shower and toilet blocks, but piping hot water was still running in the ladies, and the only person I saw before leaving without obviously having paid the next morning was an overweight white local testing his quad-bike out between the sites.

     

    It definitely isn’t camping season anymore in this part of South Africa, but without wishing to part with 200-300 rand (£16-25) for a room, I camped again the following night beside a B&B in the equally quiet village of Nuwerus. The elderly Austrian owner placed a cup of tea next to my tent the following morning and asked if it wasn’t cold camping at 3 degrees Centigrade? Thanks to PEP, which is perhaps the South African equivalent to Peacocks in the UK, I now possess striking white long-johns, a ridiculously thin fleece jacket, skiing gloves and a woolly hat. When I realised that cycling in sandles might be a thing of the past, I ditched my well-worn imitation Teva sandles in Springbok, which proudly lasted all the way from Ghana, and now cycle in a pair of cross-trainers that have spent 75% of their time on this journey at the bottom of a pannier.

    First time Ocean views always raise the spirits when you have been away from that blue expanse for so long. Mozambique Island is where I last had a sea view from the saddle, but it was Limbe in Cameroon, almost some 18 months ago, where I was last next to the Atlantic. There it was uncomfortably hot, humid, and the sea was relatively calm. Here in the northern Cape as I crested a hill heading west from Lutzville, a cold south westerly wind bit into my face, and I had no ambitions of running into the suicidal surf.

     

    It was missionaries that hosted me that night in the holiday town of Strandfontein. The invitation came over a speed bump, as I slowed down to enter what seemed like a private resort and they were driving out to the shops. Within a matter of minutes I had been given keys to a house and told to make myself a “lekker bath”. “I’ll tell you all about the Amazon” when I’m back”, said Glen.

    A few hours later as another braai was in the making I listened to Glen tell me all about his prior two trips in the Amazon, and his ‘calling’ from God to reach tribes that are still untouched. “These people need to be saved” was the general consensus, but as I was asked how I liked my meat cooked, I refrained from opening a lengthily debate beginning with “No they don’t.”

    Strandfontein has a stunning wild location, with Atlantic breakers crashing into the rocky outcrops and cleansing a wide empty beach, at least during the winter months. Glen was quite happy to host me a second night, but I was also quite happy to push on south to Lambert’s Bay.

     

    Here Western Cape hospitality reached out to me again in the form of a free bed for the night in a 3-star Guest House, and a meal on the seafront. This act of generosity was a little overwhelming, and I wasn’t entirely sure who was paying for it. Was it the elderly woman I met and talked with for 10 minutes in a restaurant in Springbok, who had given me the number of her friend living in Lamberts Bay? Or was it this friend, who unable to host me because of her sick husband, had called ahead to this Guest House and reserved me a room? I only met her for 5 minutes the following morning before heading off to explore an island full of Ganets, and learning that bird poo was once referred to as white gold in this part of the World for its economic importance as a fertiliser.

     

    The landscape became greener as I pushed on south under clear skies, the sea close in view and the wind either warm on my back or cold in my face.

     

    In a town I had trouble in knowing how to pronounce – Dwarkersbos, I pitched my tent in another empty campsite. Here the proprietress took pity on me for cycling alone all the way from England – “Oh Shame. You poor thing”, she exclaimned, before telling me I could camp for free. The word ‘Shame’ seems to be frequently used amongst white South African females when explaining some aspect of hardship, which obviously includes travelling alone and by bicycle.

     In all of the two weeks I’ve now been in South Africa I’ve hardly interacted with any South Africans who aren’t white. The western and northern cape’s ‘other’ inhabitants are predominantly coloured, but outside greetings in shops I don’t seem to have really chatted with anyone who isn’t white. It could possibly be a language thing. My Africaans is very limited, and the level of English amongst coloured communities is lower than most whites. Aside from that, the population density in this part of South Africa is generally low and there isn’t a whole lot more human interaction cycling through here than there was in parts of Namibia. ‘You’re not really seeing South Africa at all’, was Glen’s remark. That will have to wait for another trip…

    Continuing the thread of hospitality and free accommodation in South Africa, it’s nice to have some English company just before I reach Cape Town. Here in Langebaan, which is located on a beautiful stretch of coastline next to the West Coast National Park, I’ve been staying with Nick and Vick, a couple who spent a year travelling by Land Rover from the UK-South Africa, and maintained a blog of their journey here. Over maps, beers and naturally another braai, it’s been relaxing to share stories from the road in places far removed from the tranquillity of a very western setting.

     

    On Friday (June 22nd), weather permitting, I will cycle from here to Melkbosstrand, just 30km north of Cape Town, and thereafter into Cape Town itself. Should you be reading this from Cape Town and feel like getting out on the bike this weekend, I believe there is a cycle lane from Melkbosstrand into Cape Town? It would be a pleasure to have some company on the road.

    My flight back to the UK is still some 20 days away and I plan to spend the remainder of my time in and around Stellenbosch. If you are close to Cape Town and would like to meet up, or hear me give a talk about my journey, just get in touch through the contact page.