34 – 26th March 2006 – Grahamstown, South Africa.

Distance Cycled : 27,971km
South Africa!  For us crossing the border from Botswana meant the beginning of the end – though that makes it sound a bit gloomy!  We’ve been, well, absolutely caning it to try and get some distance done and give ourselves a chance of reaching Cape Town by the appointed date.  So by our standards, we’ve been speeding along, but on a bicycle that always means still going slowly enough to see the landscape change gradually, to feel the rain (lots of that!), to chat with the locals …and savour the local apple pie, of course…We left Palapye late on 8th March – the sun was already high in the sky after a frustrating morning in an internet cafe where nothing quite seemed to work.  The border lay 115km away and we thought it closed at 4pm so we left town like two bicycling bullets from a gun.  So fast, in fact, that we left behind a CD and it wasn’t until we had covered almost 50km that the incredibly considerate owner of the internet cafe caught us up in his pick-up truck.  Realising the photos on the CD might be important and knowing we were heading for South Africa having chatted to us, he leapt in his car and chased after us to hand over the disc.  We were quite overcome by this kind act but before we had even had a chance to offer him some petrol money he was back in the car and heading back to town.  As well as the CD, he gave us some useful info – the border post was open until 10pm!  So we slackened off the pace a bit and enjoyed the sunny afternoon.  By 5pm, we were waving goodbye to Botswana and crossing the rushing, weed-tangled channel of the Limpopo into South Africa.  The crossing was a small frontier post named after the bridge we had just crossed – Groblersbrug (you need a throatful of phlegm to pronounce it as an Afrikaner would) – but it was far more high tech than anything else we have found at an African border.  We got a sticker complete with barcode in our passports, the number being scanned in and various details entered using a gleaming new PC.  Then we were issued with a gate pass for our bikes and a few more things went beep and ping before we were waved on our way.  We couldn’t help laughing when we thought back to the day we entered Nigeria – this South African experience could hardly be more different to the comical inefficiency of two comatose khaki-clad officials, armed with rusting machine guns, a wooden desk, an antique rubber stamp and an ink-pad as dry as the surrounding sun-scorched earth…  We were relieved to find, however, that in some respects at least we still felt we were on the same continent – the locals were as friendly as ever.  That night we camped just a few kilometres inside South Africa at a place run by a very friendly quartet of Afrikaners.  The kitchen cooked up a huge “truckers breakfast” (not quite the right time of day, really) for Luke and a massive omelette for Anna and they even sold SIM cards in the shop so we were able to phone our parents and tell them we had made it to South Africa – a moment we’ve been awaiting for a while.  It was hard to keep the squeak of excitement from our voices!

We spent the next five days pedalling south towards Rustenburg, skirting Johannesburg, and passing through a landscape of dark red earth transformed over the centuries from wild bush rich in game into a neat patchwork of maize fields and grazing land.  Huge irrigation devices trundled across the enormous fields and tractors dusted the earth with fertilizer or drenched crops with chemical cocktails.  Again we were struck by all the technology – Tanzania’s hand-hoed plots and Mali’s riverbank gardens, where watering is done with a gourd filled from the channel, might have been from another planet!  The landscape of the Limpopo and North West Provinces is not without charm, though, there were plenty of snuffling warthogs among the untended plots and herds of high-jumping impala nicking the juiciest grass from inside cattle enclosures.  A six-foot fence may keep the cows in, but it’s no more than a moderate challenge for a springy-limbed antelope.

Further south, agriculture gives way to extraction and we passed through a rather grimy zone of mines – the underground treasures include iron, platinum and, closer to Jo’burg, gold.  Much of the ore is transported by rail but there was a fair amount of heavy traffic on the roads too – we were glad of the hard shoulder which was handy for evading lorries.  We are definitely impressed by South Africa’s road network – even the minor routes are usually tarred, the junctions are marked and there are signs warning you of the dangers ahead – potholes, warthogs and – shock horror – gravel!  In much of Africa you’d be lucky to get a warning if a bridge had collapsed or find a sign telling you if the capital city was around the next bend of the muddy track you were on!  Here, there are ATMs on every street corner, engineers with GPS units surveying roads, petrol stations with well-stocked shops, supermarkets which stock not only dreamed-of items like cheese and chocolate and muesli but a whole shelf of each!  There are also a lot of fat people.  Anna conducted a brief (and very unscientific) survey outside a supermarket in a town called Lephalale, while guarding the bikes and waiting for Luke to reappear with some food (and hopefully a bit of change).  About 80% of the white people were decidedly podgy and about half the blacks had eaten a few too many pies as well.  Elsewhere in Africa, extra pounds mean just that – only the rich can afford to be fat.  Here, a number of factors seem to have led to a loosening of the national belt – a diet that’s rich in fat, a fast-food culture akin to that of Europe or the US and a plethora of labour saving-devices – from hay-balers to washing machines to cars.  Doing her shopping mall survey, Anna was also suddenly rather aware that everyone else was quite well dressed.  She got the distinct impression the good burghers of Lephalale were given the scraggy tramp with the two bikes a wide berth and, hang on, was that someone holding their nose??  We almost feel as if we are home already in some ways – are we really still in Africa?  Just to avoid causing offence, we did capitulate and buy a bar of fragrant soap and a bottle of shampoo…

Actually, we can’t be all that repulsive.  Upon our arrival in Rustenburg – after a decidedly hot and dusty 145km – a lady approached us as we paused by another supermarket to ponder the culinary delights within.  She explained her husband was a keen cyclist who dreamed of a trans-African ride, and we were invited to the family home…slightly unsure whether our brief was to dissuade the would-be cycle tourer or convince him that exploring Africa on two wheels was the best thing since sliced bread (that’s another thing you can get in the supermarkets by the way).

We had a very relaxing weekend with the Coetzees, perched up in a hillside suburb of the city with a commanding view of the plains below.  Luke did his best to attain a new personal best in the “beef eaten in 24 hours” category.  Anna was saved from the usual hand-washing marathon by being given free reign with the washing machine.  Thank you!  It was a great chance to learn a bit more about South Africa, pick up some words of Afrikaans (we didn’t get too far, mind you) and get an insight into how life has changed since the end of the apartheid era – now over a decade ago.  We had judged by the spiky metal security fences, burglar alarms and armed response units, that security is a big concern in South Africa and we were right.  There is a real fear of violent crime and the statistics are certainly quite chilling, at least in the cities. / One of the reasons why many of our hosts contemporaries have opted to emigrate – to Canada, Australia, the UK and elsewhere.  Despite a strong sense of patriotism, many feel too threatened and unsafe in their home nation to remain.  Another concern is unemployment – since the mid-90s the ANC have pursued a policy of affirmative action, which essentially involves blacks being given preference for university places, job vacancies, contracts and so on.  You can’t argue with the motivation – to undo years of oppression and subjugation of the black community.  But it’s a blunt way of redressing the huge imbalances in South African society and many are understandably unsettled and bewildered by the change in the status quo.  It’s sad, but it seems to us that it will take much more than a decade for South Africa to become a truly multiracial society, and not merely a land where people of different skin colour live segregated lives.  Life in South Africa for the majority is better than in was under apartheid in terms of political and social freedom, but economic benefits have been harder to achieve.  Whites are quite simply used to a European standard of living, and that requires a big salary – certainly compared to the average earnings of a cashier, a labourer or a cleaner – all jobs invariably done by blacks.  The minimum wage is 1000 Rand per month (less than 100 quid) and that’s in the more expensive “Zone A”.  In Zone B locations it drops to 850 Rand.  Even though we’re still very much travelling on a budget, that’s about what we spend in a week – so there can’t be much to spare if it has to feed and clothe a family of twelve…  South Africa’s huge AIDS problem only adds to the burden, as many families have lost one or both parents to the disease.

pic361  As we travelled south through the Afrikaaner heartland of the Free State, we experienced more of the friendly welcome we’ve come to recognise from Africans in general.  Several times people stopped to ask if we needed anything or to offer lifts when we looked tired, and there was always a warm welcome waiting for us at the campgrounds.  There is, it has to be said, a distinct undercurrent of almost unconscious racism though – Afrikaaner society is very staid and traditional, and ten years of political equality haven’t erased the combined feelings of fear, suspicion and superiority many whites experience towards their black fellow citizens.

Both blacks and whites are refreshingly direct in telling you what they think – comments such as “why are you torturing yourselves with these bicycles?” and “who is pressurising you into doing this?” always make us laugh, and are indicative of the bemusement our journey has elicited since Morocco.  Little old Afrikaaner ladies get the prize for “hardest conversationalists to escape from” – Anna was buttonholed by a dear old dame in the loos at a cafe and was gone so long Luke was beginning to wonder if he should investigate.  The lady at the campsite a few days later – a bespectacled septuagenarian with prim white blouse tucked into the (rather high) waistband of a pair of floral trousers – twittered on and on and on about anything and everything…but mostly nothing.  The drifts of autumn leaves, neat clapboard houses and scent of apple pie in the little dorps (towns) put you in mind of 1950s America.  As we said, our Afrikaans is limited, but we have managed to pick up a few key words like appeltert, roomys, sjokolade, slaggate and gruis.

The first three being, erm, apple pie, ice-cream and chocolate and the other two meaning potholes and gravel.  We encountered all five on an overcast day – crossing the Vaal River after a wet and windy 60km and treating ourselves to hot chocolate and cake in a cafe.  We must have sensed a hard afternoon was ahead (any excuse for a calorie binge) and indeed it was tough – the tarmac disappeared and for 70km we bumped and skidded along an earthy piste.  It wasn’t all that bad and it was lovely and quiet – with tall, pinkish grass, bales of greeny-blonde hay, windswept farmsteads with duckponds and grain silos and masses of hawks and songbirds.  We were even escorted for a few kilometres by a lone zebra (a captive one) – it cantered along the field boundary at cycling speed before whinnying farewell.

The rolling and slightly monotonous farmscape gave way rather abruptly to the delightful scenery of Golden Gate National Park – towering crags high above mossy swathes of green grass, dark clefts and high ledges where raptors soared and occasionally settled, overhanging yellow and pinkish cliffs streaked with black.  The air was fragrant with pines and the verges full of lovely flowers, including pink cosmos and papery purple statis.  It was also very, very, very hard work!  The road was unforgiving – tackling the mountainous landscape through a series of incredible hairpins.  We have climbed staircases that were
less steep!  Late in the afternoon, just as the sun was setting the sandstone ablaze, we reached the lovely campsite of Glen Reenan and pitched the tent in a beautiful spot beside a burbling stream and enjoyed a very long, hot shower to ease our tired limbs. : The next morning we woke early to the sound of rain and found, when we peered out of the tent, that the cliffs had disappeared!  In fact, the whole landscape was shrouded in a thick and soupy fog which look like it wasn’t going anywhere fast.  We donned our waterproofs and gritted our teeth and set off into the drizzle.  Less than an hour after setting out, we had a nice surprise – rounding the bend ahead and coming in the opposite direction was a fellow cyclist.  He brought his heavily laden bike to a halt and we all sat at a convenient picnic table to well, talk shop.  This was none other than Alvaro the cycling clown, an acquaintance of our friend Lorenzo with whom we had cycled in Malawi and, like him, a Spaniard.  He is not going to be back in his native land anytime soon, though – he plans to cycle all over the world for the next nine to ten years!  Alvaro is a professional and vocational clown and he is putting on performances for locals wherever he cycles, trying to bring a smile to a few faces

in areas of the world where many people have little to laugh about.  It’s a pretty big adventure – for more on his amazing journey, see www.biciclown.com.  Well, after all that chatting (and another 30km of hilly terrain) we were ready for a break when we arrived in Fouriesburg.  The rain stopped while we sat in a cafe and devoured toasted sandwiches but was good enough to restart right on cue when we emerged and resaddled – sometimes the weather is decidedly unsporting.  Still rather damp, we arrived in the pleasant town of Ficksburg and managed to get into the campsite after trying various padlocked gates.  We had a day off, cleaning the bikes and doing the washing in between rainstorms – the friendly lady who ran the place offered us use of her tumble dryer but in the end the sun managed to dry our stuff.  The rays are rather weaker in these non-tropical regions – back in West Africa we could string up a line, hang the washing and then start taking it down from the other end – it was literally dry in five minutes!  In Ficksburg we cooked ourselves a curry and sat in the tent in a warm fug as dusk fell – quite a contrast!

The rain was still falling next morning as we nipped across the border into Lesotho – a small, landlocked country that is known as the “mountain kingdom” – and with good reason!  We swooshed down and crawled up a series of punishing hills en-route to the capital Maseru.  It reminded us a great deal of Ethiopia – smoky huts, drizzle, soft-eared donkeys and men on horseback, bright green fields and hedges of cactus bordering neat little gardens where peach-coloured dahlias and maize grew intermingled.  It was refreshingly third world, if that doesn’t sound a bit weird.  After only a fortnight in South Africa, we had got used to supermarkets and superhighways, but this was a bit more mucky and real.  Tellingly, everyone was waving hello and returning our greetings, too.  It’s not that South Africans are unfriendly – far from it as we were to find out over the coming days! – but Lesotho’s inhabitants were more typically African in the way they went about saying hello.  More spontaneous, more genuinely happy to be seeing a visitor.  On the down side, there were a few requests for pens and sweeties too, but the tumbling throngs of kids halted abruptly at the roadside – something that didn’t happen in Ethiopia, where no slope was too steep to stop a child hurling themselves in our path or a stone in our direction!  Our sojourn in Lesotho was short, the 21st of March saw us re-entering South Africa!  It was another wet morning and one on which we succumbed to the lure of a shortcut…  We were misinformed by some locals who told us there was a tarmac road to a town called Zastron, and we abandoned our plan to cross the border some 45km from Mohales Hoek, where we had spent the night, instead crossing over at the bridge over the Makhaleng River.  The border guards laughed outright when we said we wanted to cycle to Zastron, then tactfully suggested that perhaps we should “attempt” it and turn back if it was too bad.  It was bloody awful.  In dry weather perhaps it would not be too bad, but after days of rain the mud was inches deep, our chains were soon clogged and our thigh muscles were on fire from trying to plough

through the gunge.  A man stopped his Landrover to tell us we had a hard ride ahead – no, really? – and apologised for not being able to give us a lift.  We said we weren’t about to start taking rides now, anyway, and doggedly splashed and cursed our way along.  It was only 40km to Zastron, but the appearance of that town on the horizon felt like a sort of deliverance.  When you are cold and miserable and making about 5km progress per hour, there is nothing like a sign of civilisation to spur you on.  It was civilisation indeed – half an hour after spotting the towering grain silos on the outskirts of town, we were gobbling chip butties and slurping tea at a cafe.  Which is where we were lucky enough to bump in to Gareth, an instructor at a local activity centre for schoolkids, who promptly invited us to stay at the centre!  A rough and muddy track led up to the place, 2km above the town and spectacularly sited beneath sheer crags and grassy slopes.  We cleaned off the bikes before cleaning off ourselves in the heaven-sent hot showers and cooking our dinner in the kitchen.  The sun won out and the last hour of the day was a golden delight – the cliffs turned pink and red and a small herd of springbok, shaking the damp from their coats, came down to nibble the lush lawns surrounding our little stone cottage.  It was a perfect end to a punishing day.

A considerably easier day brought us to Aliwal North, on the border of the Free State and the Eastern Cape, and then we had a mammoth 165km to cover to reach Queenstown the next day.  There were hills aplenty and a gusty wind, but we made it just as the sun was setting.  There was no campsite in the centre of down and we were facing the rather depressing prospect of backtracking to the outskirts to a caravan park we had seen, when a local man called Howe struck up a conversation with us, which ended in us being invited home!  We followed his car to the family home and his girlfriend Annette cooked us all dinner while their little girl, Zowe, shyly regarded us and played with her toys, not to mention giving up her bedroom for the night!  It was yet another generous gesture, and nice to feel, once again, part of family for an evening.  We waved goodbye early the next morning, heading for Fort Beaufort, another 135km of hilly road ahead of us.  It was a beautiful day of clear blue skies, cool breezes, wide vistas of the kind you usually associate with Scotland and not much more company than the woolly sheep and beefy cows in the fields.  Aside from the occasional vehicle, the clatter of wind-driven water-pumps and the clanking of cow bells were the only noises we heard.  Once again, the sun was pretty much setting as we rolled into town.  Once again, we assumed the info from the tourist office would be correct but we couldn’t find the campsite…  We asked at the Spar supermarket, only to be told that the site where the campsite was, had become the Spar!!  The family running the Spar came to our rescue, though, with Stelios immediately escorting us out to the Fort Beaufort Country Club, where we pitched our camp on the edge of the golf course and were introduced to the staff and the regulars.  The evening that followed was fantastic – there was a beer tasting, with the visiting brewmaster from South African Breweries taking us under his wing.  In fact, everyone kept on and on buying us drinks and offering us a bed for the night – it was embarrassing to have to turn down so many kind offers!  The town is in a big citrus-growing region and many of the members of the club were farmers, some supplying big British supermarkets with fruit.  So, next time you buy an orange from Tesco’s, look at the label – it might just come from the Kat River Valley in South Africa!

Yesterday was, therefore, rather trying.  Wine, beer, hot, bright sunlight, and mountain passes do not mix well! Once again, we had trouble finding the campsite, and it was pitch black by the time we put up the tent here in Grahamstown.  But here we are – at long last! – enjoying a much needed rest day in the rather genteel surroundings of Grahamstown, which is all leafy avenues and red brick buildings, churches with spires and quaint little bell-towers.  As a university town and host of an annual arts festival, the place seems to take itself rather seriously.  Well, with the exception of the students, who, it being the weekend, are busy clearing the supermarkets of beer and staggering through the streets with pizza boxes.  Aaah, they all look so young.  We must be getting old – perhaps the last 20 months have aged us somewhat!

Tomorrow Luke’s mum and dad wing their way to South Africa, landing in Port Elizabeth late morning.  All being well, we should arrive mid-afternoon at the Addo Elephant Park (about 115km from here) and meet them.  It will be the first of many long-awaited reunions, which we are looking forward to having over the coming weeks.  So now, we’d better hit the road for the final stage – it’s going to be a race for the finish rather than a gentle stroll into Cape Town so, well, pray for tail winds, please!


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