The 10-hour flight over the big blue expanse of the South Atlantic finally gave way to land. Gazing out my left-side window seat, from 35,000 feet, nothing but a barren Southern African desert, as far as my eyes could see.
Arrived by taxi into central Cape Town, only a small duffel bag in tow. Quite a contrast to Latin America: Nearly as many mansions — and Ferraris, Maseratis, Bentleys — as Beverly Hills. Yet at the same time, aggressive street hustlers coming at me like zombies, many wearing rags, here from the poverty of any one of the nearby townships.
This is a new and thoroughly bewildering world. The motorcycle is now tucked safely away in a long-term garage in Uruguay. I’m here to pedal a bicycle through Africa.
One arrived in a large cardboard box, all the way from Boise. Frank Leone and the team at George’s Cycles clearly put their heads together. Brainstormed all their collective cycling experience, every realistic road contingency, and assembled this machine. Everything perfectly adjusted, plus some compact tools and lots of critical spare parts, like spokes, a chain link, a tire, some shifter cable, sprockets, and so much more. Each sensitive dial, tested and set.
This bicycle is ready, but I’ve been on a motorcycle for 10 months in Latin America. Am I ready?
The final night in Cape Town, at an Irish pub, a woman with a beachball-sized Afro and a comely face caught my eye as she passed. She strolled in and sat near me at the bar. I offered to buy her a drink and she accepted. Then she said we should move to a table and we did. We had some pleasant conversation; her name is Khanyisa, she speaks Afrikaans, which is similar to Dutch but even closer to the Flemish of northern Belgium. On top of that, a third native language, I cannot remember, had a lot of “click” sounds, I even learned some curse words but I forgot those, too.
After about an hour she offered some of the services from the “oldest profession.” I wasn’t interested but I also didn’t want to lose her, so I offered her a few South African Rand (official currency of South Africa) just to stay and keep talking, and she obliged.
This was my opportunity to ask questions, anything I wanted to know. Life is different on that side. Hard, to put it mildly. Among my more innocent inquiries, I asked if she’d rather be an unattractive white woman or the beautiful black woman that she is, here in this country with the sad history of Apartheid. The answer came easily for her. It’s perfectly clear that attractiveness inequality can be even more harsh than centuries of colonial abuse, with its compounding economic inequalities.
She was strikingly honest and worthy of respect. Steely, too, seemingly afraid of nothing except not having the funds to pay her son’s school dues. That right there is something to ponder.
Many people here, including Khanyisa, take a sincere interest in my travels. Every South African without exception is generous with their time. This is on top of all the bottomless generosity of Latin America. I often sense some human trait, as universal as a simple “wave hello,” an embedded respect for “the traveler” that seems to transcend religion, nationality, race, and culture.
Unceremoniously, I began pedaling late in the morning of Friday, Feb. 7. With no real effort I managed 80 miles through the rolling hills of South Africa’s west coast road. Not bad for a guy who’s barely sat on a bicycle seat in the past 10 months.
What’s interesting about that 80 miles number … it happens to be 1% of the 8,000 estimated miles to Cairo.
My rear end was sore, though. Legs, too. I could hardly walk, so the next day went to rest and recuperation.
Glamorous as it was, it’s good to flee the circus of the greater Cape Town area. South Africa averages 57 murders per day. On a per capita basis, roughly the same as Mexico. It doesn’t faze me, because I’m logical. People freak out about it, tell me they admire my “courage.” I just wish they’d shut it, so I can ride in ignorance and peace.
Further north, though, it’s known to be safe. The next country, Namibia, its border still another 400 miles ahead, is also placid.
Riding past gas stations is a pleasure, by the way. Don’t need to buy that gross stuff anymore. I’m liberated.
Old-style steel windmills creak away at working ranches out here in the arid steppe country, dusty scenes reminiscent of “Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck’s masterpiece of America’s Dust Bowl. Ostriches, springboks, goats, salty sea views all day. One notices a lot more from the seat of a bicycle.
Doringbaai is a reminder of why I usually don’t plan, I flow. Just an accidental discovery, those last 25 miles on sand and washboard that day, when a tall white lighthouse and a church steeple and some trees came on the horizon, arriving at last like an oasis.
I pulled in pretty knackered, sunburned, a little dizzy, greeted by friendly waves as I rolled slowly ahead.
The vast majority of this seaside settlement are people of color with one handsome shade or another, living in weathered homes, all faded, rough around the edges. Around 10 percent are white, and they live in the shinier cottages on another corner of town, the corner with the best seaside views.
Power was out that afternoon. South Africa has scheduled blackouts, almost daily. There’s some problem with the coal-fired electric plants. Underinvestment, a legacy of some past corruption, I gather.
There are two pubs, both clean and orderly, and, well, sober. Like the road signs, the barkeeps always speak Afrikaans at you first, but they’ll switch to English without missing a stride, and no doubt out here there are plenty of people who could switch to the Zulu tongue without missing a beat. Gulp down a bottle of Castle for 20 Rand, or about US$1.35, and admire the rugby team flags and posters on the wall.
Those hulking men, smashing into each other like gladiators, bloodied. Me, speechless, oblivious to the passion of this sport. I just know all that rough action means everything to some people.
Over at the high school there’s a rugby pitch in view of that enchanted lighthouse, positioned right above the fishery, which is obviously Doringbaai’s main employer. As far as I could see, a hundred people of color working there, all hard at it.
Just over, two workhorse boats sucking up seabed, harvesting diamonds. These coastal areas, from here and well north into Namibia, are rich with diamonds, I’ve learned.
Next step, Doringbaai to Nuwerus, is only 55 miles. It was supposed to be my easy day.
The first 25 miles was paved, slight tailwind even, although the absence of any morning sea mist should’ve been a warning. I feel I’m getting stronger, fast, so what’s the worry. I’m carrying five water bottles but filled only two for this short day.
Then came a junction. The road to Nuwerus was more of that energy-sapping gravel and sand and washboard and sand. This road also turned inland, and started climbing.
I was chugging up a hill having already chugged almost all my water when a big work truck approached from behind. Skinny kid leaned out the passenger seat (the steering wheels are on the right side), friendly face, enthusiastic, he mimed “drink water” a few times. He shouted over the diesel engine, “You need water?”
I politely waved him on. It’s only another 20 miles. That’s nothing. I’m getting tough, right? He shrugged and shook his head as they sped off.
Then came more climbs. Each one followed by a turn and another climb visible to the horizon. Within 15 minutes I started to become thirsty. Desperately thirsty.
A dozen sheep were huddled under a shade barn. Cistern and water trough nearby. Am I thirsty enough to climb the fence, then see about drinking the sheep’s water?
Later, a house. A pretty good house, all gated up, nobody around. I wasn’t thirsty enough to break in, yet, but that breaking and entering even crossed my mind was alarming.
Dust devils twisting out there. Nothing but barren, dusty nothingness. How hot is it?
I had a strong urge to pull over and pee. As it started to flow I gave thought to saving it, to drink. So little came out.
I was losing my grip. Fast. Things were getting intense.
I plunged into a mess of sand, my wheels went out and I actually toppled over. No biggie. Felt good to stand erect. I glanced again at my phone. Still no service. Anyway, even if I had a signal, does one dial “911 for emergency” out here? Surely a car will come soon … .
Some clouds came along instead. Clouds in the classic size and shape. Just having one or two pass over for a few minutes makes a difference. Precious mercy from the sun’s laser rays.
Creeping insanity. I caught myself uttering some jibberish, out loud. I knew it was getting bad, but I knew the end can’t be too far. But what if I’ve made a wrong turn? What if I get a flat tire?
A bit of a tailwind kicked up. You’ll notice the tiniest gifts sometimes. Another cloud rolled over. At last, I heard a truck approaching from far behind.
I stopped and dismounted, miming “water” as it drew nearer. A goofy South African at the wheel of an old Land Cruiser hopped out and looked me over, then reached into the cab and handed over a half bottle of cola.
“You crazy idiot, you made it! Nuwerus is just over this hill!”
At last, so it was. Not much to Nuwerus. There’s a store. I practically crawled in, past the counter and onto the concrete floor in the cool stockroom. The gray-haired shopkeeper lady brought me pitcher after pitcher of water. The kids in town, took wide-eyes peeks at me from around the corner.
It was 104 degrees out there. I’m not dead, hopefully no kidney damage, but lessons learned. Pack surplus water. Study the weather and the altitude changes. If water is offered, TAKE IT. Make these cavalier mistakes again, and Africa could send me off to eternity. Remember, I’m little more than a meat sack, suspended by bone and filled with precious water.
I didn’t need to stay in Nuwerus. After hours of rehydration, I slept well. I just figured I’d hang out in a desolate town, fart around for a day. The town name is Afrikaans, it means “New Rest,” so why not.
A few handsome structures, like the school. Corrugated metal roofs, neutral colors with bright pastel trim around the windows and eaves.
The flora, everywhere I look, is quite striking. All kinds of hardy desert plants I couldn’t name. As for the fauna, well, I found a field guide for Mammals of Southern Africa, which featured several dozen awesome beasts. I couldn’t have named more than a few of the most obvious ones. Who’s ever heard of a Dik-Dik, anyway? Kudu? Nyala? Rhebok? I did identify the roadkill I’d spotted the other day, with the bushy tail and giant ears. That was a big ol’ Bat-Eared Fox.
Belinda over at the “Drankwinkel” saved my butt. I wandered over to the store again to say thanks for looking after me. She said I looked pretty bad, then. Bad enough she almost called the medic in town.
It’s not much of a store, by the way. Liquids in glass bottles, mostly beer and wine, and a cache of Jägermeister. The cool storeroom in back, where I had rested on the floor, really isn’t storing much more than some old junk and empty beer crates.
There is one other store nearby, it doubles as the post office, offers some household items. This town must have five hundred residents. I gather once a week they carpool over to Vredendal for supplies. There’s virtually nothing for sale here.
The Hardeveld Lodge, where I chilled my boots, has a little round swimming pool, masculine dining room and adjacent lounge with lots of posh wood and plush leather. Fey runs the joint. Her husband died a few years back. She’s nevertheless got this place whipped, every nook, immaculate, every meal, succulent.
Back to the grind, the highway crossing into Northern Cape, South Africa’s largest province, greets with a sign in four languages: Afrikaans, Tswana, Xhosa, and English. South Africa actually has 11 official languages, nationwide. This 85-mile day was much better cycling conditions. Tar road, moderate climbing, cloud cover, lower temps.
The high season is August and September, springtime in the Southern Hemisphere. That’s when the landscape explodes with flowers. There’s even a flower hotline. Like a snow report might tell you which ski slopes are sweetest, there’s a number you’d dial to get the freshest on the flower scene. In that season, the hills are filled with 2,300 varieties of flowers, I’m told. Now, in the peak of summer … absolutely barren.
“Desert rats” live here, older white folks, doing crafts and projects on their property, almost all with a mother tongue in Afrikaans, many of German descent with long ties to Namibia as well, all will tell you about that and more. They’re industrious people, Christians, north European to the core. There’s a sign in Latin where I stayed, “Labor Omnia Vincit” (“Work Conquers All”), which sums up their attitude toward life.
I wouldn’t be honest if I neglected to mention the strain of white supremacy I’ve encountered, especially out here in the desolation. Too many to be an anomaly; some were openly sharing crackpot neo-Nazi propaganda. Of course not every white person, many seem content and engaged with their neighbors of color, but there were enough for me to fairly conclude those dark ideas run strong in Southern Africa, and to feel the responsibility to note that here.
This flower region is known as “Succulent,” it lies sandwiched between the Namib and Kalahari deserts. It’s also extremely hot. People seem to think it’s strange I’m here, now, during the most inhospitable season. This is what happens when there’s too much “flowing” and little or no “planning.” The upside: I’m the only guest, virtually everywhere I land.
One afternoon it rained for about five minutes, fairly hard, enough to turn the gutters of these steep streets into raging channels of running water. All of it was exciting enough that some locals stepped out on their stoops for a photo. They’ve been in an extreme drought for years.
Lots of homes have pipe systems channeling rainwater down from metal rooftops and into cisterns. This cloudburst was a chance to raise the levels a tad. Wherever I stay, they ask that showers stay short. Turn on the water and get wet. Turn off and lather up. Then turn on again to rinse.
This is an unrelenting and unforgiving arena. One day I carried four full water bottles for one 65-mile segment, and I was already completely empty with five miles to go. There were no alarm bells going off, like last time. No creeping insanity. Enough traffic around to give me confidence that I could hail a ride, or at least some water, as the temperatures climbed to 100 degrees as I struggled uphill and upwind.
Sometimes on the long uphill drags, into that headwind, it feels like I could run faster than I’m pedaling. Once I arrived in Springbok, I pounded a two-liter glass bottle of Fanta, and then jug after jug of water for the balance of the day.
Further on, there were two glorious rest days spent at the Vioolsdrift Lodge, at the border. Here, I explored the massive desert bluffs and picturesque grape and mango farms on the Orange River, which forms the squiggly border between South Africa and Namibia. As you might guess, the river is running low. Too low.
A vast desert nation of only 2.6 million people, Namibia is the second most sparsely-populated country on earth, only behind Mongolia. The yawning gaps between watering holes become long, typically about 100 to 150 miles. The first few days, uphill. I’m not above hailing a ride to the next junction. If that happens I’ll report it here, on the honor system.
This Africa ride is not principally about athleticism, by the way. It’s about wandering. On that theme I am completely dedicated.
Like a catchy song can take us back to a feeling in some place in time, getting forged through strenuous cycling takes me back 30 years, to my youth in the Treasure Valley.
The way a little suffering, repeated regularly, gets me high. I can feel the drug, endorphin, a naturally-produced opioid, starting to kick in now.
More than these physical sensations, I go back to discovering the sensation of freedom. When my teenage legs were strong enough to carry me 100 to 150 miles in a single day, on loops or point-to-point through towns out in the hinterlands where I grew up, places with names like Bruneau, Murphy, Marsing, Star, Emmett, Horseshoe Bend, McCall, Idaho City, Lowman, even the four-summit challenge to Stanley. And so many more.
Escaped all the churches and church people, escaped most of the silly school stuff, the teeny parties, escaped a part-time job and all the petite bourgeois traps like cars and car payments.
Bicycle was about strength for sure, but more than that, it’s how I first found independence, and for me, a more expansive idea of “freedom.”
Namibia brings it all together. Finally, starting hours before dawn to beat the heat, I pushed north, steadily uphill in blazing temperatures and headwind with absolutely zero services en route. After 93 miles I coasted into Grünau, in Namibia’s ||Karas region. (Yes, that spelling is correct.)
It’s like another planet out there. Deserts from your wildest imagination. Get a little delirious and the mountaintops look like the swirly tops of soft ice cream cones.
Only a trifle of traffic but almost everyone gives a few friendly toots of the horn and some fist pumps as they pass. I know if I were to hit the wall again, they’ve got my back.
Along the road, there’s just a bit of shade available at some occasional refuge stations. These are just a round concrete table centered on a square concrete foundation, with a square metal roof overhead, supported by four slender steel legs. My hammock fit perfectly inside, diagonally. I climbed up, legs elevated, chomped apples, chugged water, snoozed and listened to music for four straight hours, sheltered from the midday sun. There was something wonderful about the day. I would say there won’t be another like it, but I’m guessing I’ve got dozens more ahead.
After a feast and a night camped at the railroad junction at Grünau, I rode on. Immediately there were signs of life along the road. Some trees, one with the biggest bird’s nest I’ve ever seen, yellow flowers, thousands of thick black worm-like centipedes crossing the road. Then, a brilliant orange “Padstal,” just a roadside kiosk housed in a corrugated metal box.
Not needing a drink, I stopped anyway and approached the window. “Is anyone here?” A young woman appeared from a dark corner, sold me a cold soft drink for 10 Namibian Dollars (US 66 cents). “Where do you live?” I inquired. She gestured over her shoulder, “the farm,” I glanced around, nothing there. Must be over the hump. She spoke in the most regal English accent, like a princess, a sound that could only come from a lifetime of exposure to her native African tongue, probably Khoekhoegowab, plus, surely, Afrikaans.
“You good day,” she smiled as I saddled up and pedaled on.
That afternoon, dark clouds arrived. Temperatures fell. The sky broke. For nearly an hour, a sustained downpour. Having already arrived at a roadside guesthouse, I rejoiced together with the farm workers, their faces beaming.
That hypnotic tune from the 1980s band Toto, “Bless the Rains Down in Africa,” now makes more sense than ever.