After our meditation course and then family visiting, we got back in the saddle outside East London. It had been a while since we had last biked, and we were ready to get back on the road and start moving again. Sure we’d put on a few pounds since we were last in the saddle, but we had come down from Kenya, we had been on the road for a year, we could take anything a sissy country like South Africa could throw at us for sure!
Or so we thought before we reached the Transkei… Crossing the Kei river, we entered one of the former ‘Bantustans’ created under apartheid to serve as pseudo-independent countries for the blacks – if they were all citizens of different countries, the reasoning went, then when they came to work for the whites they would need visas and work permits and could be more easily controlled. Only South Africa ever officially acknowledged their independence though.
All of this is similar to American history of course, and having driven through Indian reservations in New Mexico and Colorado and Montana and South Dakota, I had some idea of what to expect – dispossessed native people are never resettled onto beautiful expanses of fertile land. What I didn’t expect though was that the Transkei would be basically un-bikeable.
Not that there aren’t roads or shops or places to camp – just the endless endless hills! There is not a stretch of five meters in the whole area that is not on some kind of slope, probably at close to 90°. Along the coast this makes for some spectacular scenes, with waves breaking along stretches of remote beach and tidal pools mixing with the mouths of the dozens of rivers that cross the area. Inland too we had some of the most beautiful campsites we have had all trip, a few nights with our tent pitched just on the edge of a ridge looking out over green valleys with more hills rising in every direction.
We inched our way along the first week of cycling though. We pushed a lot, and were grateful to make it just 50km a day. The hills combined with the summer heat left us dehydrated and fighting off heatstroke – we definitely weren’t ready for this when we left East London. We camped at night at clinics and missions.
Every province in South Africa is like a separate country. There was the desolate Northern Cape, the totally westernized Western Cape, and now the thoroughly African Eastern Cape: no more cattle fences lining the road, the houses were thatch-roofed homesteads, children were chasing our bikes along shouting “sweets! sweets! sweets!” until we thought we’d go nuts. Ahhh Africa, we’d missed it actually, and the Transkei felt like something of a homecoming.
Though this is still South Africa; elsewhere in Africa, if you stop along the side of a dirt road in a beautiful rural spot with a view over a green valley and sit to drink some water and rest your legs, passing cars will probably ignore you, or just stop to ask where you’re going or where you’re from. Not so in South Africa. In South Africa, passing cars stop to tell you you’re not safe.
“It’s not safe here! What are you doing here? This is a wild place, it’s not safe!” was the greeting that interrupted our rest on several occasions, invariably coming from rich-looking drivers in brand new SUV’s and pickups. We would look around ourselves after they drove off and wonder – maybe they’re right? It sure doesn’t look dangerous though… And that hill up ahead looks super steep…
Now, the subject of security and paranoia in South Africa could get me going on a ten page rant, and so I’ll try to be brief. Anna and I are not total idiots. No matter what you think of two people who quit their jobs to go live in a tent along the side of the road in Africa. We’ve been cycling for over a year now without any problems, I’m from New York originally, Anna was a criminal lawyer in Brussels – we’re not completely naive on the subject of crime.
And so, when we’re sitting on the side of the road in a scene so idyllic it looks like it’s cut from The Sound of Music and someone tells us we’re in danger, we just don’t see it…
We decided then to ask local people what they thought – is it dangerous here?
“Here? No!” They would invariably say, laughing at the idea before becoming serious and adding, “But South Africa is very dangerous, you really need to be careful everywhere else. Here though, it’s safe.”
Again and again as if we were biking along under a bubble of safety through the Transkei, from shop-owners, from security guards, from taxi drivers or from women selling food along the side of the road: “South Africa is very dangerous – but here it’s safe.”
All the way until Coffee Bay, where we checked at the local hostel. Asking for a quiet spot, we were directed to pitch our tent fifty meters away from the rest of the hostel, blocked from sight and sound by a stand of thick trees, on the opposite side abutting a dried out river bed with almost no barrier between us and groups of young men wandering back and forth all day trying to sell us drugs. Camping along 125th street couldn’t have been less appealing than this spot.
Surely this, we thought, is dangerous!
“No no no,” we were told though when we asked at reception: “Here, it’s safe!”
Here it’s safe? When we thought we were in The Sound of Music it was dangerous, but now that we’re in New Jack City it’s safe?
We moved our tent closer to the rest of the guests anyway. So much for listening to the locals.
Anyway, suffice it to say that the more time we spend in this country, the less we understand it.
And then our cycling came to an end. We rode out of town a few days later for what became the shortest day of our trip – 1.5 km outside town my back wheel derailed and after a spectacular slow-motion fall while climbing another vertical Transkei hill (with of course a small audience of people watching and laughing at me), we found the rear gears were wobbling on the wheel. Nothing to it but to head to the nearest decent bike shop, in this case in Durban. We tossed our bikes on a bus, bidding the Transkei a reluctant farewell. It had been a beautiful stretch of riding, a whole new side of this incredibly complex country, and some of the best cycling we have had the whole trip.
It was a good time to head to Durban though – that night I started coming down with odd flu-like chills and a pounding headache. Tick-bite fever was the diagnosis – my first mysterious African fever! It felt like a rite of passage somehow, and we took it easy over the next few weeks as we crossed the country by bus to meet our friend Megan and then head to Lesotho to do some hiking and renew our South African visa.
Lesotho is a country which merits far more than two weeks’ visit. The mountains are spectacular, reminding us of Mongolia or Central Asia. The ubiquitous horses help too of course. But ten days in the end was all we had. With Megan shipped back to the US, we headed back to South Africa, taking minibus taxis to northern Kwa-Zulu Natal where we WOOFed for two weeks, milking cows, making cheese and butter, and launching an epic battle of wits with a band of pigs that just didn’t want to be fenced in. The pigs won in the end, and were last seen happily eating Emu food as we left the farm to head back to Durban.
Which is where we are now, reunited once more with our bikes. We spent Christmas with some other travelers and on the 27th we are taking one last bus – to Swaziland this time. From there it will be back on the bikes for real, no more public transport, and hopefully no more fevers or broken wheels.
It has been almost four months now that we have been in South Africa, and it will be bittersweet to leave. We have met some wonderful people here and have made many new friends. South Africans of all colors may well qualify for the friendliest people in Africa (and that is really saying something). Not a day went by that we weren’t offered assistance, even when we didn’t need it. And once you get into people’s homes, there is a sense of hospitality that I would guess few countries in the world can match.
At the same time though, the fear, the racism, it wears on you after a while. While many of the people we have met really do represent the “Rainbow Nation” image of post-Apartheid South Africa, going about their lives with no concern for skin color – there is still a shocking amount of fear and hatred in the air on both sides of the racial divide. Just the moment when you’re sure that South Africa is the most wonderful country in the world is invariably the moment when you meet one of those people. You’ll be walking down the street as Anna was in Durban and an old white man out for his evening walk struck up a conversation with her and in less than a minute said “I know you’re a foreigner, you think all people should have equal rights and all that. But the African man is different you see…” and whoosh, all that love and kindness is a distant memory.
After four months, we’ve hit our limit I think. It has been a great time here, we can see why this is the “Beloved Country,” but we need to move on.
And we have to move on in fact. We’ve bought our plane tickets out of Africa – now just to push on up to Malawi, where we catch a plane back to Europe on March 6th before moving on to continue our biking in South America…
We wish everyone a happy new year, and thanks as usual for all your comments and support. Feel free to sign up for our Google Group if you’d like to get an e-mail when we post – or become a fan of our page on Facebook (just search Permacyclists) if you want the occasional little update on our progress.