Rides, Rallies and Events Recap

Two Wheels to Africa - Part 1 of 3

Written by  January 31, 2011

It was late July the last time I saw my bike in Seattle where I had dropped it off awaiting our next adventure. Now it’s October 13 and I’m in Cape Town South Africa at the shipping yard reconnecting the battery and checking the bike out getting it ready for our next trek. We’re here with a group of 15 other bikes on a GlobeRiders Tour of southern Africa. The tour consists of a 6000-mile counterclockwise loop going through six different countries and ending up back in Cape Town 36 days later.

I have a window seat during my 12-hour flight from Amsterdam to Cape Town. It turns out that Cape Town is almost directly south of Amsterdam. I’m amazed by the vastness and desolation we pass over. If you have ever flown across the western US you’ve probably noticed the lack of highways and towns, but Africa makes that part of the US look developed. For hours at a time there are no roads, towns, villages or even tracks indicating that someone has been there. This is truly one of the most remote uninhabited places on earth.

Cape Town consistently makes it to the list as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is a modern city surrounded by mountains and, of course, the ocean. My wife, Debbie, and I riding 2 up, along with Randy and Tom scout out the town in search for the road to the top of Signal Hill where a cannon shot heard throughout the city is fired daily at noon. From the top we can see Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for many of the 27 years he spent in prison. The traffic is congested and scary because here you drive in the left lane and not the right.

We all get our required GPS units loaded with the necessary maps, routes and waypoints for the trip. We don’t travel as a pack, so the GPS is an important tool to make sure we all end up at the same hotel at the end of the day. On several of the days there are optional routes that are longer and more scenic than the direct highway to the next stop.

It’s Day 4, our first real day on the road, and everyone’s anxious to get going. Our destination is Swellendam South Africa which, according to our itinerary book, is 150 to 255 miles away depending which route you take. Everyone takes the long route which follows the coast with a stop at the Cape of Agulhas has for the photo opportunity of being at the southernmost point in Africa and the point where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. So far we’ve driven on mostly paved roads with some light intermittent showers and temperatures ranging from 55°F-65°F.

Day 5 has us going on 317 miles of mixed highway and gravel roads through some really cool canyons and mountain passes on our way to Knysna. The scenic route is almost twice as long as the direct highway path and well worth the extra miles and gravel roads. You know you’re not in the US when the wildlife along the road is ostrich and baboons. The route winds through the mountains with little or no traffic until we get close to Knysna. On the hills above the city, which lies on the Indian Ocean, there is this huge shanty town with thousands of shacks built right next to each other. There are people and animals everywhere. This doesn’t look like a good place to stop. On down the hill near the ocean, we find our gated hotel complete with security guards and guinea fowl to watch over our bikes.

Today’s map shows only one route that heads east following the coast to Port Alfred. It’s a pleasant day, sunny and around 70°F with good highway and not much traffic. The only down side is that the road is just far enough inland that for most of it we can’t see the ocean. Along the route we pass over the Bloukrans River Bridge where the kid, Ben, our 31-year-old adventure rider, makes a bungee jump off the bridge which is the third highest in the world at 216 meters (708 feet). Just to make sure it’s documented, he wears his motorcycle helmet, complete with helmet cam. We’ve been on the road a long time and haven’t seen any buildings for quite some time, and then we come upon a building surrounded with a tall electric fence. We come to find throughout the trip that electric fences are quite popular to keep out both 2- and 4-legged creatures. It’s a little shop/restaurant where we have a grilled ham and cheese and real ginger soda as well as Kudu jerky. We arrive at the Royal St. Andrews Lodge where real English Royalty has stayed. Let’s just say our room was really nice, and the bar had ample supplies of cold beer for about 14 rand or $2 US.

I’m awake at 5:30 a.m. with birds singing outside our window. Like most days it’s breakfast at 7 and on the road at 8. Debbie and I and the other two-up couple, Roger and Emily, will split up today with the girls riding in the chase truck with Andrew, so Roger and I can take the rougher scenic route that is 364 miles of mostly rough gravel road. When you get away from the cities in Africa it is very remote. No utilities, no fences, no buildings, pretty much nothing. Every once in a while you come across a small village with shacks and no visible utilities. I have no idea what these people do there. There aren’t even fields with crops, although every once in a while you see a clinic that I suppose is there to treat the huge HIV/AIDS problem they have. The rough gravel road winds back and forth and up and down when on a sharp right hand turn Roger goes down ripping off his right pannier but he’s OK. We get everything put back together and just as we are getting ready to take off the film crew comes by.

On this trip Sterling and Helge are making a film documentary of the trip and members of the group take turns on given days to ride with the film crew to get footage. Some of you may have read Helge’s book '10 Years on 2 Wheels,” which tells of his journeys around the world. Basically he sold everything he had, bought a motorcycle, and spent 10 years of his life exploring the world on a motorcycle.

Roger and I are back on the road with Roger in the lead. We pass the film crew who has stopped to get some film footage. About 15 minutes later we are passing through one of those remote shanty towns when I see Roger’s bike violently bottom out and his right pannier come flying off and cartwheeling down the road. His bike then goes into a series of crazy oscillations followed by a high side crash with his bike flipping a few times in a cloud of dust before coming to rest. He hit a big pothole and bottomed out while going about 40 mph. Luckily Roger had a cell phone that works in Africa, and I call the chase truck with the GPS coordinates. Roger asks me to tell Emily that just his bike is broken but I don’t think she believed it. The film crew came by about 20 minutes later, followed by the chase truck, and about one hour after that, an ambulance took him to a hospital in Queenstown. The result is his bike is out of commission, he has several broken ribs, his collarbone is broken in two places, and he has a collapsed lung. Sadly to say, this was the end of the trip for Roger and Emily.

We take a slight detour from our intended route, and after about another hour on the gravel we hit N2, a paved major two-lane highway that heads up the East Coast. Traffic is congested with big trucks going slow due to the curvy mountain roads. Due to delays because of Roger’s accident, we need to get going. One of the things we were told is if you get caught out after dark, get off the road. This I believe, as most of the country’s livestock lives on the road, and I don’t think very many of the cars and trucks on the road have working lights. We take many chances passing where you normally wouldn’t, but the power and acceleration of the bikes allowed us to get by where normal vehicles couldn’t. Remember, we are driving on the wrong side of the road here. It is common here for a slower vehicle to pull to the shoulder and let you by. For a bike, this usually is just enough to split lanes with oncoming traffic. At times I wished my panniers were thinner.

Going through the city of Mthatha had my anxiety in a heightened state. Four of us were in a congested market part of town crammed with people and trash, and let’s just say it was not the safest looking place I’ve ever been. Our GPS’s were sending us in circles in stop-and-go bumper-to-bumper traffic, elbow to elbow with the menacing crowds. Andrew, the chase car driver who is from South Africa, and Debbie wouldn’t even stop in that town to get gas. I was relieved when we got out of town and back on the highway. Finally, just as it’s getting dark we pull into Kokstad at the first gas station we see and fill up. It turns out our hotel is right behind the gas station, past the gate and guard. After a day like this I could have used a cold beer, but alas, due to drinking problems and crime, this town has outlawed liquor.

It is Day 8 of our journey and today’s scenic route will take us briefly into the country Lesotho while our final destination is a suburb of Durban, a mere 260 miles away. Lesotho is a small land-locked country consisting of mostly mountains and not much else unless you’re a goat or a goat herder. One of its main features is the Sani Pass. The pass is a 4X4 road that climbs up 1330 meters in just 6.5 km and you have to go through two border stations. Only about half of the group try and make the assent which includes a visit to the highest pub in Africa. The road was so rough none of us dared to have a drink. My legs are sore from standing on the pegs through the previous day’s rough sections, and they are on fire standing through all the rough switchbacks climbing the pass. Passing up the pub at the second border crossing, I continue on another eight miles to the top of the pass before turning around and heading back down. Going down steep rocky switchbacks on a big heavy bike really gives you a feel of how much gravity there is with the rear tire locking up and skidding on the loose rocks. After about a four-hour side trip up the pass, we are back to the bottom and then again on paved roads as we head towards the coast and Durban. The closer we get to Durban, the traffic is getting congested and we find ourselves on a multi-lane interstate at rush hour with everyone racing somewhere at 70-80 mph. About 30 minutes before dark we pull into the hotel’s secured parking area. The hotel is very nice and located just a few blocks off the ocean.

The next day is a down day, so it is time to do our laundry in the sink, charge up all the camera batteries and relax my sore legs from the previous day’s adventures. We take a walk through a very nice area down to and along the boardwalk that follows the ocean. Apparently this is a big surfing area as there is a plaque dedicated to all those surfers who have died here. After a quick stop at a grocery store we secured some wine and cheese for lunch. A day of relaxing was very nice.

Today there is only one short paved route of about 159 miles up the coast but near the end of the route we stop at DumaZulu Cultural Village where we tour a replica village and see how the Zulu people used to live. The first thing learned upon entering is that the men go first and the women follow. The reason isn’t dominance but protection from wild animals. It is interesting that unmarried Zulu women go topless. I wonder how that would go over in our society to have all the young ladies going around topless. We are treated to demonstrations on weapon-making, food preparation, medicine (witch doctor), and other facets of how they live. A man can have several wives but they cost five cows each. After dinner at our hotel a group of nearby high-school kids gave us a demonstration of their traditional song and dance while we relaxed poolside. Accompanying them, a couple of peacocks in nearby trees added real jungle background sounds.

We are awakened on Day 11 with more sounds of strange bird calls outside our room. Today’s route will take us into the country of Swaziland. At the border crossing we are asked for our carnet. Basically, a carnet is a money-backed guarantee that you will not sell your vehicle and leave the country with the money. None of us have one as we were told we wouldn’t need one, so we’re stuck. At least this border crossing is air-conditioned. A few phone calls later, Harry contacts the bike shipper and has them fax the information needed to the border-crossing staff, and we are allowed to continue on our journey. It’s on down the highway with temperatures hitting an unpleasant 103°F before arriving at our next hotel in Mbabane.

It should be a short 150-mile ride today, so Debbie and I leave early to look for a geocache located not far off our designated route. Turns out our little detour sends us on a 2½-hour wild goose chase down some really remote dirt roads that somehow take us back to where our trip started that morning. In these remote areas some items are transported on a wooden sledge pulled by donkeys or oxen. In America this would be called a sled. In this instance it is nothing more than some pieces of wood being dragged down the road by oxen. Stopping beside the road near a little creek, there is a woman washing clothes surrounded by a few kids. Debbie and I have brought a big bag of peanut M&M’s to hand out, and the little kids are in heaven. Back on track, we pull off pavement again and onto more winding dirt roads that travel up and down in the mountains, through a security check-point and past a huge logging operation. At the remote Bulembu/Josefdal border crossing our paperwork is checked quickly and smoothly, and we are soon back in South Africa and back on a paved road on the way to the next hotel in Hazyview.

Everyone is up early on this special day. A trip to the famous Kruger National Park is on the agenda for today. All of us load up in two Toyota Safari vehicles and arrive at the park only to find that the gate-keeper has lost the key to the gate. About 45 minutes later the spare key arrives and we are soon driving past warthogs, mongoose, cape buffalo, elephant, zebra, kudu, impala, crocodile, hippo and a huge assortment of different birds. Two white rhinos sleeping under the shade of a tree are spotted about 75 yards from the sand road. We eerily drive for miles past short bushes and trees with no leaves. Turns out the many elephants have eaten almost everything, which is evident by the never-ending piles of elephant ca-ca. This park was cool but our guides tell us it is just a hint as to what is coming on down, or is it up, the road.

Around 1900 the second Boer Wars was taking place and our first stop is to take a look at the Long Tom cannon that was used in that war against the British. After a quick trip to the top of a 7000 foot pass just west of Sabie the road takes us north towards Tzaneen South Africa. The mountains still surround us, and you can see rows of newly planted trees where the loggers have previously applied their skills with saw and axe. The road breaks to the left with a little side trip to the old 1873-1971 gold-mining town of Pilgrim’s Rest. The town was declared a national monument in 1986. If you are very, very lucky, you have in your possession one of the 986 Veld Pond gold coins that were made here during the Boers War. Just past Pilgrim’s Rest the road turns from tightly twisting pavement back into a red dirt road that roams between the scrub brush-covered hills.

Debbie and I continue down the dirt road while some of the other less adventurous riders double back on the paved section. Debbie hates it when I do this, leaving the group and wandering off by ourselves down roads that who knows where they go. After about an hour of a scenic ride down this lonely dirt road, we get back to the main paved route and continue on to a couple of scenic overlooks in the mountains. From one lookout, through a gap in the mountains the flatlands of Mozambique can be seen. The road continues its uncertain path wiggling through more mountains until it comes to a tunnel. I’ve learned that when coming to a tunnel if you close one eye before you get there then switch eyes as you enter you don’t lose all your vision due to the change from bright light to dark. After the tunnel, the road drops into a valley at the temperature gets to a blistering 104°F. Going through a small town one of our group gets clocked by the cops going 96 in a 60 km/h zone. The cop informs him he has to pay “him” 2500 Rand ($350 US). He tells the cop he has no money and pulls about 17 Rand ($2.40 US) in coins from his pocket. The change changes pockets, and the cop lets him go. Debbie sees some giraffe along the route today, but I miss them. I’ve learned it is very important here to stay focused on the road and what might wander onto it. As we continue further inland, civilized things are getting sparser and we feel like we are going back in time.

By Jeff Hower