South Africa: South Africa is a huge country and you could probably spend a year cycling around it if you want to experience everything. Your time would be well spent, each province is a different world, with its own ethnic mix, its own history, and its own challenges.
If you’ve heard anything about South Africa recently, it’s probably been about security. If you are in South Africa, you’ll hear about the subject on a daily basis. The concern doesn’t come from nowhere – SA has the world’s second highest murder rate (it is also the world’s most unequal society as of 2010, but I would say we had a hundred conversations about theft for every one conversation about poverty). At the same time though, a few caveats are in order:
1. The main victims of crime are poor blacks living in townships. This is the same all over the world: those who can least afford crime are its greatest victims, not tourists on bicycles.
2. Rural crime, things like farm attacks which you will hear about from almost every white farmer you meet, are often the result of long-standing tensions with a lot of history behind them. As one farmer told us: “If you treat your workers well, then you shouldn’t have a problem.” To which we would add: if you’re just a passing cyclist, you shouldn’t have a problem.
3. A little street smarts go a long way. Don’t go to townships at night. Ask locals if there are particularly dangerous areas you should avoid, and then avoid them (don’t listen to safety advice from people who have never been to an area, they don’t know what they’re talking about and will invariably fill you with paranoia). Don’t walk around cities with a huge camera hanging around your neck. If an area feels unsafe, don’t go there.
The end result is that you will in all probability have a perfectly safe visit to South Africa. If you’re white, don’t be scared to tell people you’re from abroad – we found often that blacks and coloreds would open up to us more easily when they realized we weren’t South Africans. And of course, never underestimate the power of a smile and a handshake and a calm friendly demeanor – there isn’t a lot of that to go around between races in SA, so a little will go a long way.
We biked in South Africa from September to December 2010. This was the rainy season in Western Cape, where it rained occasionally but usually a drizzle and never too bad. This was also the spring and beginning of the rains in the eastern parts of the country; the Eastern Cape in late November was already getting seriously hot, and this was just the beginning.
Route: We entered at Vioolsdrif in Northern Cape and took the N7 until Western Cape where the traffic picked up and we switched to smaller roads down to Clanwilliam. From there we picked secondary roads through Paarl, Franschoek, and Stellenbosch and then into Cape Town. Leaving Cape Town, we passed by Muizenberg and then followed the coast – note, the first part of this road passes alongside Khayelitsha township, one of the worst in the country, it is not a place to stop and have lunch – in any case, a police officer will probably tell you to move along if you do stop.
Following the coast the riding is beautiful through Betty’s Bay, Hermanus, Gaansbai, all the way down to Cape Aghulas, the southernmost point of Africa. From there we headed on to Mossel Bay and the much-renowned Garden Route, riding the N2 through till Plettenberg bay.
We took the bus then for a variety of reasons. The best option for cyclists in SA is the Baz Bus, which goes backpackers to backpackers but which is nice because it takes bikes for free, no need to put them in a box. With the price that the bigger companies charge to take your bike, the Baz Bus tickets are competitive.
Back on the road in East London, we picked our way along the Wild Coast (the old Transkei) to Bulungula and then on to Coffee Bay. This is an area we had been told was dangerous, but invariably by people who had never been there. Locals seemed happy to see us and were very friendly and welcoming, we never felt the least danger. We camped at clinics and missions which are pretty regular along the way. There is an excellent map of the area available in East London that is an essential for any cyclist. The hills here are no joke, so be ready to climb. In Coffee Bay we had some technical problems and had to Baz Bus again into Durban.
In all it sounds like we didn’t peddle very far, but SA is big and even with our bus detours we wound up doing over 2000km in the country. It’s big.
Roads: Tarmac roads are in good shape but busy. The national roads can be full of trucks and buses and SUV’s and South Africans are hardcore drivers not to be toyed with. Even if these roads have a shoulder, be aware that this is considered a driving lane in SA and so you may think you’re safe, but you’re not. We had more close calls with cars in SA than in any other country in Africa.
Dirt roads are okay, no better than anywhere else in Africa. In the Eastern Cape especially dirt roads (and even the rare tarmac ones) are in rough shape.
Dogs: Most whites have dogs which they treat like children. On farms, these dogs are usually guard dogs, but as long as your skin is white you shouldn’t have a problem. There are lots of strays in the Eastern Cape as well, but we never had a problem.
Food: Supermarkets abound, so no difficulty finding stuff to cook for yourself. As for restaurants or being invited over, South Africans are not vegetarians (unless chicken is a vegetable) and so expect a lot of meat.
Sleeping: There are backpacker hostels all along the garden route and the whale coast from Cape Town to Aghulas. We were also welcomed by local people who saw us on the road on a few occasions. Another nice discovery for us were the municipal campgrounds. Use your nose to see if they’re safe or not, but along the coast and in northern cape they were generally clean and well-run and often dirt cheap – less than half the price of camping at a backpackers. Those places deal with foreigners and so everything is ten times more expensive and you won’t meet any South Africans staying in them.
Things Shouted at us Along the Road: “YOU’RE NOT SAFE HERE!” Would probably be number one. Along with ‘Don’t leave your bikes here, they’re not safe.’ This can get tiring, but you have to just zone it out, it usually comes from people who are really quite scared of their own country and who are living behind houses retrofitted into fortresses. It’s not hard to feel compassion for them.
There is also a lot of racism in South Africa. It presumably goes both ways, but as whites we were only privy to the white side of it. You have to decide for yourself how to deal with it, but be aware that if you are white, white South Africans will consider you to be on their side and to share their views and they’ll let loose with some really offensive things. Not all white South Africans mind you, there are plenty of open-minded and kind people in this country – but many others will just let rip. Good luck dealing with it!