The first day, we learned about water. That night, despite having been told by several people in Windhoek that there would be “plenty of farms” along the way where we could fill up our bottles, we ran out of water. The problem wasn’t that there were no farms, but that the farms there were were all either behind locked gates or so far from the road that cycling up to them was out of the question. In the end, after the sun had set and before the moon, waning but still almost full then, had risen, we were saved by a group of farm workers returning home at the end of the day who showed us where there was water and where we could pitch our tent.
Water was a worry for most of the ride, and though we made an effort to always carry enough, we ran out once more later in Namibia, after a ninety kilometer stretch without even a locked gate or a distant house, and then once more on our first day in South Africa, when a sudden wind storm blew so strong we couldn’t keep our bikes on the road and had to get off and push before the sun set and the sand started blowing in our eyes.
Both times though, we were saved again by the kindness of the locals. In the first, we happened to find a distant homestead where we could fill up our bottles; in the second, we camped without water, but the next morning were invited to stay and eat and drink to our heart’s content in Steinkopf, the center of the kingdom of Manuel, a Portuguese immigrant and businessman who has such a reputation for welcoming passing cyclists that he has been written of in several books, and that we had even heard of him all the way back in Zambia.
All of this just leads to what we learned our second day cycling out of Windhoek: that people in this part of the world are about as welcoming as any people anywhere could possibly be. The second day was when we were finishing our lunch break on a dusty dirt road and a truck pulled up with a group of farm workers bearing a note for us: an invitation to stop at the farm down the road for a cold drink.
Such an invitation is nothing to laugh at when cycling in the driest desert in the world. We were on our bikes and on the road in a flash, but in the end, Joachim and Adele’s hospitality was such that no matter how fast we arrived at their place, we were hard-pressed to leave, and had to reluctantly tear ourselves away after a cold drink, dinner, a shower, a bed, and breakfast. Two days later we were welcomed once more by friends of theirs, eventually returning to the road with a bag full of olive oil, olives, spinach, broccoli, carrots, and seven kilos of oranges. The string of hospitality continued from there on out; with invitations every few days, we were eating well and living the good life for most of the ride down, even up to just outside Cape Town where the wonderful Fauré family invited us in for yet another good night’s sleep and even our first South African braai (picture it as a sort of BBQ on steroids).
The nights sitting and talking with our hosts, clean and warm inside, were particular treasures since the days on the road were about as hard as any we’ve yet had. We took dirt roads most of the way, and between the corrugations and ruts and sand patches and the 40°C winter heat, there was rarely a day we didn’t end up pushing and sweating and earning every kilometer. The recompense came at the end though, when, if not invited by a local farmer who took pity on us, we would camp along the side of the road in the crisp cool silent desert night. The stars were almost bright enough to read by, and the traffic so light that we could have pitched our tent in the middle of the road and not had a problem.
Though most of this changed in South Africa. Since the night camping in the bush during the sand storm, we have been sticking to campgrounds when not invited, and doing a little couch surfing along the way as well. All is just as well though, since our gear has been wearing down these past thousand kilometers. We snapped a tent pole, our tent fly has developed innumerable small holes, our stove is broken, our camera lens is broken, and I burned through two pairs of sunglasses.
Which I suppose gives the impression that we limped our way into Cape Town, but the truth is far from it. With all the wonderful people we have met these past few weeks, we are actually enjoying ourselves as much as we ever have, and if our things are broken, our spirits are as high as ever. Riding into town at last, cars stopping next to us at lights to ask us where we had been biking from, Table Mountain finally looming above us after so many months on the road was a real reward. For ten months now, when people asked us where we were going, “Cape Town” was our answer, eliciting laughs or grimaces or grunts of disbelief eventually yielding to “It’s all downhill from here” (never true) and “You’re not far!”
And now here we are!
We’ve spent the past days getting our gear back in working order, which in this wonderful country has meant even more welcoming people going out of their way to help two wandering cyclists. If there is a more friendly part of the world, then I don’t know where it is.
This past weekend was national heritage day in South Africa, a national holiday also known as “Braai Day.” Desmond Tutu himself, in a radio message, urged the whole nation to celebrate South Africa with a braai and we were happy to oblige.
And now when people ask us where we’re going?
We say: Kenya!