DAY 77 MONDAY FEBRUARY 23rd 2015. GORDON’S BAY, SOUTH AFRICA
A glorious day today. This part of South Africa is justifiably famous for its setting and scenery. Tonight I am within a stone’s throw of Cape Town, in the corner of famous False Bay, the ‘inside’ bay behind the Cape of Good Hope and Table Mountain. Across the bay, filled with rollers from a strong gale – a feature of the weather here – as I ate supper at a restaurant by the ocean, I could see the Cape peninsular on the horizon, the other side of the bay. It’s a short ride to the ‘Mother City’ from here. I didn’t relish arriving at evening rush hour and searching for affordable accommodation. Spotting an information office in nearby Somerset West, I appealed to the very helpful tourist officer to find me a room within my budget. This she did, here in Gordon’s Bay. I will stay for two nights, maybe for four, although I will search for a room in Cape Town itself tomorrow. I’d quite like to be in the city…
Always do things while the iron is hot – like taking my tourist pictures at the bottommost point of Africa last evening. I awoke to a dull morning. But slowly the skies cleared and the day was magnificent. This is late summer now, and the weather a bit more changeable. My ride was very fine.
After breakfast in a cafe in Struis Bay, I set off to revisit Elim, a small a remote village I remember from 2002. It is some twenty miles by gravel roads from Struis Bay, and a place so unusual that I wanted to see it again. It is a small village of thatch and cob cottages along a couple of wide streets and very distinctive. It was a mission station for the German sect of Moravians. To this day, to live in Elim, you must be a member of the Moravian Church, and your livelihood must come from the earth, so most people living there are descendants of the original population. It has, not surprisingly, a dwindling permanent population, although for festivals – of which there are many – and social occasions, many people return from their exiles in Cape Town and around. The village is now a national monument but a large gift from the government is now providing new roads and paving the streets, complete with tidy flower beds, walls and all sorts of ‘tidiness’ that is detracting from the rather natural, dusty place I remember. Soon a tarred road will reach the town so that the people may ‘benefit’ from Tourism…
Set up by a missionary, Bishop Hallbeck on 24th of May 1824, the town grew to about 2500 inhabitants, all Moravian Christians, a puritan but obviously cheerful and sociable people, to judge from the many old photos in the rather amateur but enthusiastic museum. At the head of the street stands the large thatched T shaped church, with a simple white interior and no adornments. Now there are only a few hundred permanent inhabitants, many of them returned retirees.
In 1834, on December 1st, to be accurate, the British Government abolished slavery in all its Empire, but – somewhat bizarrely – all slaves had to work a further four years as an apprenticeship to ‘prepare them for their freedom’. In December 1838, a number of freed slaves were accepted into the community, on the understanding that they adopted the religion. Elim contains the only monument to the end of slavery in South Africa.
Elim was quiet today, as were all the roads I used later. The church had to be unlocked for my visit. I rode out of the village on more gravel roads directly to the south, where the tarred coast road ends at a beach and a few cottages at Die Dam, where startling white sand dunes sweep down to a completely empty beach with turquoise rollers beating the sands. Riding those thirty or more miles on remote gravel roads was delightful: rolling hills, small cottages now and again and a large nature reserve, all with the deep blue ocean sometimes visible in a dazzling sea wrack of an ocean haze.
The R43 road follows the coast, increasingly pressed between steep mountains and the very blue ocean, the road snaking round headlands and outcrops above the surf. Where the mountain slopes pull back, there are villages of second homes set amongst the bushy coastal growth. The flashily expensive (white) town of Hermanus could be any upmarket European resort. I swept around the scenic coastline for many miles, deciding that Somerset West might be a good stopping point, only to retrace a few miles to Gordon’s Bay on the advice of the tourist officer, who arranged my accommodation in a self-catering place between the blue bay and the high mountain behind.
My supper (Cape Malay lamb curry) was good, taken on the terrace of a restaurant looking over the windy sunset bay to the outline of the Cape of Good Hope peninsular, and the back of Table Mountain a few miles away. I was served by a handsome young fellow called Gift, who introduced himself as still learning to be a waiter.
Now the wind is buffeting and beating noisily into the big bay, sweeping up the steep face of the mountains behind my guest house. It is noisy, but not unusual, for this place is known for its winds. It is, after all, the notorious Cape of Hood Hope, where the two oceans meet in disturbed waters, warm and cold, a place of many shipwrecks over the centuries. But also a place into which ships put after long voyages, a chance for fresh water and victuals. Many is the sailor who has rounded the Cape in winds such as this from one ocean to the other, watching the familiar landmarks slip by on long voyages between Europe and the East; long hazardous journeys full of perils and unknowns, out of touch with home and family for months, sometimes years on end.
Now I can sit and gaze across the bay at the Cape of Good Hope and engage in an email exchange in real time with Leslie, bored in her office in Florida! How the world has changed. How small it has become. And much of that reduction has been in my lifetime as the pace of change increases.
DAY 78 TUESDAY FEBRUARY 24th 2015. GORDON’S BAY, SOUTH AFRICA
Of all the cities in the world, surely Cape Town must be one of the most splendidly situated? Dominated by that oh-so-recognisable flat topped mountain, it really is like every picture you have ever seen. It’s such an exciting city in which to arrive. I still remember my first view of Table Mountain, thirteen years ago, when I almost fell off my bike as I rode the elevated highway and turned to look over my shoulder. There was Table Mountain, ‘tablecloth’ of wispy cloud and all. One of my big travel moments. Today, I had that ‘I’m here!’ moment too as I rode beneath that wonderful mountain.
My lodgings at Gordon’s Bay are inexpensive, but about forty miles from Cape Town. So I rode into that fine city and looked for a tourist office to investigate accommodation options. Result? I am staying in Gordon’s Bay. The most economical option in the city was exactly twice the price of this place and, while I am richer these days, I am still the same obstinate old bugger that doesn’t like to waste his cash! Backpackers dormitories were more expensive than my room here, which is slightly larger than the upper floor of Rock Cottage. Apparently, this is the ‘conference’ season in Cape Town – for which I cynically read: lots of jollies before the end of the financial year.
Riding round foreign cities is fun and convenient on a motorbike. I can park at will – on any pavement I wish – do U turns as required, keeping a wary eye for policemen, and on occasion shoot up the odd one way street the wrong way or nip over a pedestrian island! There’s always an element of the anarchist in bikers, never more so that when biking like a dispatch rider round a big foreign city. It’s a great way to explore cities too. I found, accidentally, a few of the Cape Town sights as I weaved about the city in the morning.
I stopped to visit the Slave Lodge with its interesting museum on slavery, housed in a building that was converted from the original slave prison into colonial courts of justice and is now given over to remembering that slavery was an institution on which this city prospered under the Dutch East India Company in particular and prolonged under colonial rule for another fifty years or so until 1838. The majority of slaves to South Africa came from the east: from the Indian states, Ceylon, Indonesia and from the coastal regions of East Africa. The story is well told in this national museum. It stands next to the Company Gardens, a green lung in the centre of the city, and a place full of history, around which clusters much of original Cape Town. The garden, now a formal park, was set up by an enterprising shipwrecked mariner in 1647 while he waited, with 60 fellow sailors, for rescue. Five years later a permanent refreshment station was set up at the Cape for ships using the Spice Route to replenish stocks of water, fruit, vegetables and meat. The land was seen to be fecund and the station grew. The rest is history – and Cape Town.
Central Cape Town is a colourful place. It doesn’t feel at all to be in Africa. It is cosmopolitan and developed, with every European influence. There is a huge white population. Africa seems remote, sadly distant, black skins a definite minority.
High above the streets rise the steep slopes of Table Mountain, shrouded today in swirling cloud. This has been another gale-swept day, tiring indeed on my bike. So windy was it that Table Mountain was closed as well as cloud-shrouded. So I rode south to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point, the curved finger of land that swings south from the city, a range of contorted and steep mountains, wreathed in swirling clouds and dominating a fine seaboard of bright turquoise and ultramarine waves and blinding white surf. The mountains rise semi-vertical from the sea, impressive curling roads carrying the traffic of this most touristic and scenic extremity of Africa. It really is fabulous; one of the sights of the world. Chapman’s Peak Drive is a toll road only a few miles long, but carved from improbable cliffs, where great steel fences cantilever out above to collect the debris of rocks dislodged from the heights. For several hundred yards the road runs in a slot cut from the almost vertical cliff faces.
Various towns and villages are set along the finger of the Cape wherever the slopes flatten out to allow it. There are fine bays and inlets of sparkling blue-green water and white sandy beaches – today all wave-whipped to froth and spume by the capricious gusts of gale force winds. It made for tiring riding along those exposed shelf roads and out onto the moorland of the final cape, in a national park visited by millions. I rode almost to the end, but seeing the hordes of people heading for the final lighthouse, I decided to give it a miss – I was there in 2002 anyway – heading instead for a quiet side road with fabulous views over False Bay, around which I rode yesterday. Later I found the park visitor centre and had it entirely to myself as the buses and traffic swept past to the Point. The visitor centre was perhaps the most interesting part of the Point, with excellent interpretation of the history and flora, shells, birds and wrecks of the park. Pity everyone else seemed to be racing by… It was out of the wind too. And a decent cup of coffee!
The ride back was wearing, weaving through the city rush hour and out onto the N2 highway that would bring me directly back to Gordon’s Bay – and Durban if I carried on for several hundred miles. As I write now, at 10.00pm, the wind is still buffeting noisily around the guest house. Tonight I feel windswept and blasted after a fresh but satisfying day at the bottom of the continent.
The security guard at the ‘Kingfisher Hollow’ guest house is Vitalis, a well-spoken Zimbabwean, here in South Africa to earn enough to support his family back in Avondale, Harare – where Phillimon the bead and wire craftsman works in the craft market. Here Vitalis sleeps in a bare room next to the garage, doubtless better educated than most of those around him, but grateful for the fact that he has finally won a permit to work here for three years as a refugee from his lovely, economically defunct country. So many hotel and guest house staff in South Africa turn out to be Zimbabwean, preferred workers for many South African employers for their work ethic, education and honesty.
With the wind roaring and beating outside I must sleep. Tomorrow I might pay a little homage to the vineyards and wine producers of the inland valleys where the wind may be lighter.
DAY 79 WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 25th 2015. GORDON’S BAY, SOUTH AFRICA
Africa, where are you? I might as well be in Europe. This is not Africa and the divisiveness of South African society is making me irritable. I want to get back to Africa, away from this bizarre white, imperial imposition. On friday I shall begin my journey back to Lesotho. I don’t want to remember this trip as being amongst privileged white people. The only black people here are doing menial tasks, service, repairing roads, cleaning and looking after white people – earning the minimum wage, an achievement of the post apartheid government. This is colonialism – and not far from apartheid. In fact, it IS apartheid in all but law. There are as many, or as few, black people here as I would see in any European seaside city. This is utterly bizarre – and not why I travel in Africa. I am embarrassed to be white-skinned. This unthinking privilege offends me to the core. Where SERVANTS are the NORM..! “Come here and live like a millionaire!” said Yvonne, summing up, ironically, EVERY possible thing to which I object in this fractured, unequal, offensive society. I could not live in comfort AS A RESULT OF so much of the population living in need…
I am sitting in a restaurant in which completely, 100%, white people are eating. I mean, EVERYONE of the customers. This, in a country in which only 8.9% of inhabitants have white skin. OK, so add a few thousand European tourists, but even then, the ‘eccents’ I hear about me are almost all Seouth Efricin… Apart from a Scottish trio whose every third word is ‘feckin’ this and ‘fookin’ that… Oh, I want to be in Lesotho or Zimbabwe – or any bloody-where but this divided land.
Sorry, rant over – briefly. I’m afraid it may return unless I get away soon though. Since I am here, I shall spend tomorrow in Cape Town and then head for Africa to end my journey.
Apologies, reader… Sometimes it just gets too much.
My poor old motorbike – and it IS a 1999 model with 110,000 kilometres, 35,000 of them mine – will be better prepared for Lesotho now that I spent a couple of hours finding a new rear tyre. I got 7500 miles from the last one but was getting nervous on gravel roads far from help as it got thinner. I could have got back to Bloemfontein and the end of my journey on that one, but the confidence of a new tyre, and a knobblier one too, will make the journey easier. Rather a good tyre: a MITAS, half road, half trail. It will be much better than the one fitted in Durban, although I asked them for something with more tread. £80 well spent.
Trouble is, you see, after that rant in the previous paragraphs, the Afrikaans people here are exceptionally helpful and friendly! It took only three enquiries to be sent to a place that could fit me just the tyre I wanted while I ate breakfast in a nearby (mall that could have been in America). But, of course, the dealership was white-owned and operated – but the donkey work of fitting my tyre was done by a black African.
Equipped with new tread, I decided to take a pleasant tour of the wine country around here, taking in four rather fine mountain passes and some terrific views on my journey. Undoubtedly, this is a beautiful region, and fertile too. The first grapes were grown here in the early days of the Dutch East India Company in the 1680s and the idea soon caught on, aided by the popularity of getting a drink or three of wine when passing the Cape in those sailing ships. In due course, the Dutch entrepreneurs moved inland to the valleys behind the mountains and established fine mansions and estates, many of which exist to this day, charming historic buildings with whitewashed Dutch gables in the neat valleys and pretty towns, now largely given over to rampant tourism, as owners (white, of course!) realised that wine tasting boosted profits.
All lost on this beer drinker.
Now, were there some brewery tours… But all South African beer is pitiful, factory made, thin and generally unpleasant. There are a few signs of craft breweries gaining a little ground, but generally, a few big beer factories have a monopoly.
‘…tropical fruits and aromas on the nose, hovering fruits and honey and vibrant citrus, lemon-drop zest on the palate…’, ‘…whiffs of ripe figs, lemongrass and capsicum on the nose, tropical fruit, nettles and cut grass on the palate…’, ‘…hints of rotting vegetation and a vibrant tang of cat’s piss on the nose, a lingering delicacy of old ponds and soft tones of dead dogs on the palate…’ I copied two of those off the menu in front of me. It’s bloody white wine, for god’s sake, fermented grapes! ‘Lemon-drop zest!’ What the bugger’s that? It sounds like washing up liquid.
Lost on me, a beery Philistine. The beer I have just drunk had ‘…a complexity of chemicals and metals on the nose and a lingering taste of 99% water from the public chlorinated supplies, infused with delicate bubbles from a gas cylinder…’
Perhaps I am just not in the mood tonight!
At least the vegetable and red bean curry was good. Such a relief to have a meatless meal for a change. The quantity would have fed a family, along with most of the extended relations in any other part of Africa. So much plenty and privilege – and people complain that the country is going to the dogs now it’s no longer run by white people. Bah. My waiter was the only black in front-of-house. The kitchen staff were all black. His name, he told me, was Brian. “No, your real name,” I urged. Well, it was one of those names that starts with a click of the old Khoi San language, the Bushman. He comes from Johannesburg and has lived down here in one of the ‘townships’ for eight years. I guess he travels back to a basic two-room dwelling in a minibus at night, probably to water from a street standpipe and light from an oil lamp.
The gales are still blow: trying weather. Clouds still cloak the mountain peaks behind sunny Gordon’s Bay, a wall of grey rock that rears impressively up from the populated slopes. The main N2 highway can be seen from my guest house, snaking across the mountain face, raised on pilings out from the mountainside for a mile or so. The end of my ride brought me down that pass into the great bowl that contains Gordon’s Bay, Strand and Somerset West, with the Cape Flats spread out in front and the mountains of Cape Town on the horizon.
I stopped for a while in Stellenbosch, the oldest town in the region, established in 1679 by Simon van de Stel in the need to bring more land under cultivation to supply Cape Town and its passing ships. By 1683 thirty families had settled in the valley and Stellenbosch was on its way to being one of South Africa’s most famous tourist towns, full of art galleries, expensive boutique hotels and dozens of buildings preserved within an inch of real life, in fact, many of them recreated after the periodic fires that have ravaged the thatched town over the centuries. There are fine buildings: Dutch, Georgian, Victorian and even modern. It is a university town and a major cultural centre, as well as being the hub of the wine country with its hundreds of vineyards and wine makers, many of them in antique buildings too. The Village Museum is good, made up of four of the best houses in town, furnished at various periods and at the height of each house’s grandeur.
But I gave Franschoek a miss. It has sold out to Tourism in a big way, two rows of largely reconstructed antique buildings selling souvenirs, mainly on themes of wine, sentiment and nostalgia and polyglot ‘African crafts’ of no discernible provenance.
Vitalis is in his bare room next to the garage again. He will bicycle home in a gale to a township in the morning, probably while I pay minimum wage equivalent for breakfast in a white-owned cafe in town…
DAY 80 THURSDAY FEBRUARY 26th 2015. GORDON’S BAY, SOUTH AFRICA
Cities are all very well – for a day or two now and then. Imagine that commute (well, that’s the best you can do, reading this), from Cape Town back to Gordon’s Bay. Not bad, as world city commutes go, I suppose. At least it’s scenic, with Table Mountain and its attendant peaks rising above the traffic chaos. Happily, from watching other bikers, it seems that traffic rules are lax, so it’s actually quite a sport riding the commute at rush hour, as I did this evening.
It’s about 35 miles from Gordon’s Bay to Cape Town, it transpires. About 40 minutes. Here I have a pleasant place to sleep and plenty of off-road parking, always a problem in a crowded city.
The wind dropped for a few hours today, although I hear it returning tonight, blowing about the buildings of the guest house. Clouds were still thick on much of the mountain range above the city, but the corner of Table Mountain that rears above the city keeps generally clear by a trick of the air currents. The mountain was open to tourism once again but I didn’t take the expensive cable car journey (about the price of a night’s accommodation), for what was it but a view from the top – a bit higher than the views I could get from all the mountain roads along the foot of the high cliffs, for Table Mountain is a wall of vertical rock above a steep slope. Where the two join, which is where the sandstone sits on the underlying granite, are curling roads that provide pretty damned fine views of the city below. Why wait in line? I did consider walking up; somehow that way you earn the view, but the tops were shrouded much of the time in thick swirling cloud and likely to be chilly too. I went to Kirstenbosch instead!
Kirstenbosch botanical gardens are surely some of the finest gardens in the world. Their situation is spectacular, spread at the foot of the rock wall of the Table Mountain range. The gardens are lovingly maintained, full of interesting flora and have been growing for a century and a half. In my experience, only the gardens of Sri Lanka come close to Kirstenbosch. Here are represented all the climatic zones of southern Africa with flora from the exotic to the extraordinary. High up the slope of the mountain, on well made paths, you can look down on the distant city below. Above, clouds sweep and tumble over the knife edge ridges of the mountain. Bird life is abundant, attracted by the flowers, shrubs and trees. A giant, eighteen inch tortoise chewed the grass unconcerned about the bizarre hats of the Japanese tourists. Once again, the setting is wonderful.
Down below, back in the busy streets, I wandered and drank coffee, dropped into museums and the national art gallery, browsed the shops and galleries and watched the people, many of them tourists too. It is an international city, cosmopolitan and colourful with only the slightest suggestion that we might be in Africa at all, walking about on a rocky spit of land at the end of the continent. It is a lovely city in a terrific setting. But, as I say, fine for a day or two… With just a couple of weeks left of my trip, I would rather be somewhere more African in flavour.
The one thing I didn’t do is repeat a visit I made in 2002 to one of the most remarkable museums I have seen: the display at Groote Schuur hospital in the theatres in which the first heart transplant operation was carried out by Christiaan Barnard in December 1967. I remember that the artificial heart machines that kept the patient alive throughout the operation were like mechanical washing machines. When you consider the development in my lifetime in surgery, you could see from that exhibit just what an adventure those first operations represented. I didn’t find out the details in time today and missed the tour. It is one of my main recommendations for visitors to Cape Town.
DAY 81 FRIDAY FEBRUARY 27th 2015. DE RUST, SOUTH AFRICA
They say that when you fall of a bicycle you should get straight back on. So I am back in De Rust – by a few ironic twists. For De Rust, was where Nellie, as I now find is her name, sank two teeth into my leg a week ago… Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to have got the taste – but I shall still ask for her to be locked up when I leave tomorrow.
How do I come to be here? That’s where the odd chances come in.
It was my intention to head for the area to the north of Cape Town. But I have become so sick of blustering gales that I decided to leave the Western Cape area and head back to the Karoo Desert. Those winds were cold! Even today I ended up riding with my waterproof jacket just to combat the chill on my chest from those blasting easterly winds. It was not until I got north of the coastal range and back to the edge of the Karoo that I was warm enough to strip back to my usual rising jacket.
Managing to find a route that retraced only about 100 kilometres of last week’s journey, I headed east on the main southern highway, the N2. This is the main road from Cape Town, round the bottom of the continent and up the east coast to Durban. Yet it is quiet: long stretches of open road on which I can hammer along at a steady 70mph, passing the few trucks, old bakkies and cars. It’s easy – boring – riding, mile after mile. At last I was able to turn northwards onto lesser roads, through a couple of fine passes to the northern side of the mountains. In a very short time the landscape changed from fertile, late summer stubble and new seeded blushes of green to the dry desert-scapes of the Karoo, dry river beds, cycads, aloes and succulents taking the place of the agricultural lands and the fynbos-covered rocky landscape of the southern mountains. Fynbos is the typical vegetation of the southern mountains, a low, hardy greenery that has adapted to the harsh, hot, parched conditions and thin soils. It is a very particular flora with interesting characteristics: tiny leaves that have little area for releasing water, water storage abilities, ways to survive periodic fires by storing their forces below ground; some of them, indeed, requiring those fires to clear the old plants and make way for new seedlings to flourish. An interesting and very individual botanical region.
Away from the coastal region the weather warmed up and the clouds dissolved away and my mood improved. But I was getting tired; my neck ached from the force of the wind and I was rather bored. I decided to stop at Oudsthoorn, the ostrich capital of South Africa, a place in which I have stayed on several occasions. I knew just where to find the tourist office and, at only 3.30, hoped they could find me a suitable room and save me the long, tedious search.
But there is a major marathon in Oudsthoorn tomorrow! Every room was booked. “Well, I suppose I will have to move on to De Rust,” I said with a little reluctance. De Rust is the next small township, only forty kilometres from Oudsthoorn.
“I can recommend a really nice farmstay!” said the young woman tourist officer, brightening up at the chance of finally finding me a room. “It’s just on the edge of De Rust. Really nice! Shall I see if they have a room?”
Well, if there was one place that I was diffident about returning to… I told the tourist officer the story – and asked her to arrange that they keep the dogs inside when I arrived! Ironically, this is one of the best places I have stayed on this journey…
Pieter and Elbe are farmer and wife here. They welcomed me like a returning warrior and have made me feel comfortable – as well they might, their dog having left scabs on my leg. I have another delightful room, in the house this time, at the side of the large covered stoep, an old Victorian room of grand proportions with a big brass bedstead and some good heirloom furniture, original door latches and an adequate bathroom (all for a little over £12 now that I am away from the heavily touristic Western Cape). Pieter’s great grandfather bought all the property – about 1000 hectares of it, long before the town existed. In fact, the farm IS the town, just about. Only about 100 hectares is productive because of the necessity for irrigation. He farms ostrich, cattle and onion seeds, the latter having taken over the profitability of the waning ostrich value. He used to get about £100 for the meat of an ostrich, then more for the leather and feathers. Now he gets a fraction of that, largely owing to the scare of bird flu, which means that exports, mainly to Europe, have died, despite extensive culling and testing. It seems that the risk was minimal and despite a vast, largely symbolic cull a few years back, confidence in the West never renewed. The media has so much power.
I ate tonight at the Blue Elephant, a no-frills place down the village (I walked to avoid dog chases!). It’s a basic restaurant behind electric gates. It is so common here to have to be admitted to shops and businesses through electrically operated and locked gate screens – even central Cape Town has them. You can imagine a jewellery store or electronic shop might fit them – but a basic restaurant in a small village..? ‘Rights of admission reserved’, say signs on every business door in South Africa. It does, I regret, smack rather to me of ‘whites only’, or is that just my hypersensitivity? But you do wonder if it’s a security gate to keep the ‘blecks’ out when the only people INSIDE the restaurant yard are completely white…
The menu was typical Afrikaans: no vegetables whatsoever! Not one. Since I am in the Karoo, I opted for lamb again: three chops with a beef sausage just to be sure I get enough protein – and the inevitable chips and a tiny gesture of garnish, all of which, from the other tables, was going back to the kitchen bins.
On the menu (in Afrikaans with some odd translations into English) was a particularly repulsive item: ‘Fish Surprise’. What’s that, you ask? …Fish, bacon, egg, cheese and chips… £4.25 and probably enough to feed three of me.
I say no more. Fine dining, this was not.
DAY 82 SATURDAY FEBRUARY 278th 2015. PATENSIE, SOUTH AFRICA
What a GREAT day! One of those when everything went well and the smile spread across my face. I ‘faced some demons’ and succeeded. I am pleasantly exhausted, easily found a place to sleep and am just a little pleased with myself!
In De Rust, at the Voelgesang Farm – the name means ‘birdsong’ in Afrikaans – I slept as if drugged in the completely silent room, waking at 7.50 from a long way away. Elbe made me a coffee and sat chatting with me on the stoep for a while; gave me a warm hug of goodbye, commanded the dog, Nellie, to stay calm and waved me off. Afrikaans people are, I must credit them, very warm-hearted. Should I ever return to De Rust, I will be delighted to visit Pieter and Elbe again. Despite, or actually, maybe because of, the painful introduction (a week later, I can still feel the bruise from Nellie’s teeth), we seemed to bond on a pleasant, human level. It’s these links, however transitory, that keep me travelling.
Elbe is a teacher in De Rust, teaching teenagers at the secondary school. I was surprised the village had enough children to support a school at all. “Why, we have 500 in secondary and 800 in primary!” In classes of around fifty, Elbe bemoans the intrusion of Government in schooling, as I constantly hear amongst teacher friends in England.
Willowmore is a small town 100 kilometres from De Rust where I filled up again with petrol for the Baviaanskloof ride. Petrol has now dropped to only 55 – 60 pence a litre. It has been reducing in price since my arrival in early December.
Baviaanskloof… Since 2002 I have heard of Baviaanskloof, (‘baboon valley’) a remote valley in the Eastern Cape through which runs a ‘road’ famous amongst South African bikers, infamous, maybe.
Since I began biking in Africa, the lustre went out of trail riding in England, however much I used to enjoy off-roading in my early biking years. When you can ride off-road for 111 miles, of which almost 45 are serious trail riding, an odd half mile over a Yorkshire moor, or a muddy Devon lane just doesn’t hold the same appeal.
I’ve started writing early tonight, for I have a feeling I might fall over later. I am happily tired and now on my third beer. I could be up against time tonight… I’m in the noisy bar of the hotel, with rugby all around on screens, another manifestation of South Africa’s division: for white people are obsessed by rugby and black by soccer. Never the twain…
It was noon when I turned onto the Baviaanskloof road. It was 5.30 when I reached Patensie, not far onto the tarred roads at the other end.
It’s astonishing the difference a new tyre can make. My little red bike feels like a new machine. For the first time – in three years – I felt I bonded with it comfortably today. I even began to wonder if I should keep it longer and ride it up to Kenya on my next trip, taking in Uganda and Rwanda. New wheel bearings and the new tyre have made such a difference to my confidence in this machine. Maybe with a new shocker and a new front tyre, it WILL do much of what my old Elephant could do. Getting me, and me getting it, through Baviaanskloof, with full touring luggage, is not bad.
Sometimes it’s a real pity there’s no one there to take the pictures! Crossing the main river would have made good photos. It was about 100 yards wide, not deep, but rocky and slippery, a wet track between high reeds (behind which, for all I knew, drank rhinos and buffaloes…). It was a chance to cool my feet… I met a group of bikers at the entrance to the game reserve and asked them about the road I was about to take. “It’s TOUGH!” said several of them – to all of whom I could have given a decade or two. But have a feeling none of them had been on the A3 or the road past the diamond mine in Lesotho, for this WAS a rugged trail, but only because it is long. Almost fifty miles long. Wow!
But what made it special – and very edgy indeed – is the fact that it runs for most of those fifty miles through a reserve in which live large numbers of rhino and buffalo, Africa’s two most dangerous animals. And they are regularly seen in Baviaanskloof.
Sometimes I wonder just why I do all these things. I rode for two hours in a state of heightened anxiety and quite on edge. I suppose the answer is that I do it to prove something to myself – that I can, I suppose. How pathetic! But WHAT a sense of achievement when I get to the other end! On my own… Riding on my nerves, but of course, I saw no rhinos and no buffaloes. I saw a selection of supremely graceful antelopes of various sorts – big kudus, impalas – a lot of baboons, a vicious animal worth treating with great respect, a slick golden snake that whipped across the dust, a few wild guinea fowls, one of which nearly ended up as supper as it narrowly missed my wheel, and a tortoise! Neither of the possible ‘Big Five’. But I bet they were there, watching ME as I passed so nervously. There are also leopards, on of Africa’s rarest animals, in Baciaanskloof. My chances of seeing one of those magical animals was about as much as my chance of winning the Lottery. Maybe a little more, as I never bought a ticket, but still infinitesimally remote. Frankly, just knowing those animals were there was thrill enough for me, without coming across a killer beast on my narrow road.
At the bottom of the valley, between the mountain passes, was the most anxious parts of the ride. Here the bush pressed in on either side and hung closely above. Rivers had to be crossed. The track was rocky and curling through thick bush – amongst which, without doubt, grazed those very wild animals. I had just signed a disclaimer: ‘I, undersigned, hereby acknowledge… …could be subject to man-made or natural elements and where dangerous animals could be a risk. I understand and appreciate fully that there are risks involved… Signed by all persons in the vehicle, 18 years and older…’
The track was impressive. It was rough, high and wild. As I descended the final pass I had to ride within a metre of a vast void that dropped at least three hundred feet, without any barrier of course. It concentrates the mind as you bump and bounce over loose stones and rocky steps. Into the fifth hour I was becoming increasingly tired and it took more and more willpower to concentrate on the track, a froth of dust spiralling out behind me in the vast canyons and briefly obscuring the crumpled, rumpled, distorted and craggy mountains. It WAS a terrific ride, as good as some of those wonderful Lesotho trails – to which I am heading back right now.
A barrier closes each end of the trail, open for 4X4s only (or suitable motorbikes). I was happy to be checked out as well as in. Presumably, had I succumbed to a rhino, someone MIGHT have come looking, even if a little late…
One hundred and eleven miles after I left the tarmac at Willowmore, I reached the tarred road to Patensie, a one-horse town 75 kilometres from Port Elizabeth. By now I was absolutely exhausted – but very happy. Now, ahead of me, was the worst task of every day: finding a place to sleep. I rode into – and through, Patensie almost without noticing it. Turning round, I took the only side road and, lo and behold, there was the Ripple Hill Hotel! The sort of place I seek, sometimes with so much trouble! Basic, cheap, with a cheerful bar, a barmaid called Chrystal, who made me welcome, a decent room and a good tariff, to boot. Sometimes I have to search for an hour. Tonight I rode straight to the Ripple Hill. The end to a VERY good day indeed.
Now, if I don’t go to bed, I shall fall over. I am exhausted and at least half-pissed.
‘Not bad for a pensioner!’ I thought to myself at some point as I reached Patensie! “Oh, I thought you were younger than me!” exclaimed Pieter this morning in De Rust, stopping in for a cup of coffee before I left. He is 58. You’re as old as you feel. And right now I feel about the same as I did when I first rode in Africa in 1987!
(…and a bit drunk). Haha.