Leaving Cape Town wasn’t as easy as we had expected in the end. After ten months on the road with the south-westernmost city on the continent as our goal, we couldn’t quite tear ourselves away once we got there. After a few days of wandering, we felt right at home, and even found ourselves whispering to one another: “This looks just like New York!”
And of course we realize that Cape Town probably doesn’t look like New York to anyone but two cyclists who have come down through Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and the Northern Cape just to get there. The city is different from any other we have passed through since we left London: small street-side cafes, art galleries, vintage clothing shops, tons of outdoor stores and bike shops, and all the while this huge mountain a sort of axis mundi in the middle, the city resting around its feet.
Part of traveling well is being able to feel at home wherever you are, and we are definitely getting into the swing of it. Though of course in Cape Town this was easier because we had such great couch surfing hosts, because we got led up Table Mountain by friends we had met in Botswana, and because people we had never met before and who had no reason to be so kind to us took the time to repair all of our broken camping gear and to offer us tea and advice and even a new used cell phone.
This country is unbelievable sometimes!
But then get on the road we did, following the southern coast past bays swarming with whales and beaches packed with penguins and along some of the most spectacular riding of the trip so far: rocky mountains looming to our left and crashing straight down into the sea to our right, with just a narrow road somehow carved out of their side.
At Cape Aghulas, we reached the southernmost point of the African continent and then finally got away from the traffic onto some dirt roads to reach the “Garden Route” – a stretch of coast so named since it was once apparently so beautiful that it was considered a sort of Garden of Eden.
No more, however. Pine and eucalyptus plantations have taken the place of the indigenous rain forests; only 15% of the forest cover from the 1960′s still remains. That last bit is struggling to hold on, with fast-growing invasive species like acacia morensii crowding out the slow-growing indigenous fynbos. Billboards at the entrance to every town tell us that there is a massive drought going on, that reservoirs are down to 12% of capacity in some cities. With all that deforestation, is this such a surprise?
This then is the other side of the familiar western world we had found in Cape Town; “Civilization” is what we have been told to call it. Since Zambia, passing travelers and locals alike have been using that word to describe what we would find south of them, usually with a sort of glowing admiration in their eyes: “You’ll like South Africa, it’s really civilized…”
South Africa is what Africa dreams of being. “Modern,” “developed,” “civilized,” whatever aggrandizing term you want to apply, this is the western world in Africa. For two cyclists of course, this is not without its upsides: we pass supermarkets daily, the tap-water is drinkable, there are nice municipal campsites where we can end our days – it’s some of the easiest riding we’ve had since our trip to the Netherlands.
At the same time though, the western world comes with its usual set of problems. Beyond just the destruction of the garden route, we spend entire days biking through man-made deserts: over-grazed pastures, thousand-acre monocultures, ranches of homogenous cows and sheep, and everywhere signs of desert encroaching on the massive industrial farms.
The contradictions of the western system seemed written on the land and people all around us; abundance and scarcity walking hand in hand. In a typical day we bike through at least one township, and at least one luxurious stretch of enormous country-houses. Perhaps most telling, one-third of South Africans suffer from obesity; having escaped the trap of under-nourishment, South Africa now joins the wealthy nations in suffering from problems of over-nourishment (or really, just another form of under-nourishment).
The other day, we watched a slide show of our photos from the trip up to this point. Looking back at all the dirt roads and villages and all the endless streams of children who chased us along all those roads and through all those villages, we were nostalgic for “Africa.” We almost had to remind ourselves that we were still in Africa, that the road we are rolling our way slowly along runs all the way to Kasama and to Dar es Salaam and to Mfangano Island and all the places we have been to so far, all those places who wish more than anything else that they were this place.
And of course I don’t want to say that Africa doesn’t have its problems, that everything is just perfect up north, but I can’t help but wish a different future for Africa than this one – one that feeds more people without destroying the land; one where greater living standards doesn’t mean greater inequality; one over-nourishment doesn’t replace under-nourishment.
But then… Is such a future even possible?
Though maybe I can think of all this so calmly because we’re sitting here at Wild Spirit, a hostel that is a sort of island of peace amidst all the madness. With a serious ecological approach to preserving the land, the forests here are thriving and the people as well. We came for just one night, expecting to move on in the morning; we were welcomed like family though, and exchanging work for food we have been here for a week. We spend our days helping in the kitchen and pulling out those acacia morensii that are sucking up the local water and crowding out the local vegetation. At night, we eat local vegetarian meals on the balcony with a group of people who have become friends.
We move on again tomorrow though, heading back to Cape Town for a 10-day silent meditation retreat and then another family visit. We hope you are all well, and of course we always welcome comments, questions, anything else people have on their minds…