I could feel the pressure release almost as soon as I crossed back over into South Africa. I had been in Lesotho for less than three days, but I was beyond ready to leave the country. Being back in South Africa felt wonderful. As soon as I crossed the border, I no longer had massive people staring at me from a distance. No one came up to me and asked for money. I was on my own again and it felt wonderful.
The first thing I did in Ficksburg was find a hotel. Luckily, I stumbled across the one and only hotel in town almost right away. The man at the desk did a supremely horrible job of checking me (something I was getting used to in South Africa), but the experience overall was a million times better than what I had experiences in Maseru, Lesotho. The man checking me in was far from friendly, but at least I felt safe inside the hotel.
After taking a shower, I returned to the streets and walked around the city. I ate an soft serve ice cream that I purchased from a rusty red truck and stumbled across a street performance where a little person was singing and dancing in front of a small crowd. Of course, she was trying to sell a CD of her singing. It didn’t look like too many people were jumping to buy the CD, but plenty of them were circled around and eager to watch. After no more than 10 seconds of watching for myself, I could tell that the woman was lip-syncing. Couldn’t everyone else in the crowd?
I stayed in Ficksburg for two nights. I felt I needed a day or two to cool down after my experiences in Lesotho. I was still extremely upset and frankly, I wanted to go home. It was at this point that I felt mentally finished with South Africa – even though I still had about 1,000 more kilometers to travel.
When I felt Ficksburg, I cycled east. The weather was great during the day and it felt wonderful to be on the road again, without people staring at me all day long, running after me, asking for money, and bothering me every time I stopped to rest, eat or take a drink of water.
That night I camped 15 kilometers east of Clarens, South Africa. I didn’t jump a barbed wire fence that night, but instead pushed my bicycle up a steep embankment on the side of the road and pitched my tent in a flat spot at the hop of the hill where passing cars could not see me. It was a brilliant hiding spot for the evening. Unfortunately, this was also the night that the $16 air mattress I had purchased in Beaufort West a couple weeks prior stopped working.
During the night, I had to roll off my sleeping mat and re-inflate it about eight different times. The next night I had to do this more than 20 times. And after that I just kind of gave up. My air mattress was dead!
In the morning I cycled a short distance to Clarents, South Africa. I was expecting a city very much like the rest in South Africa, but Clarens really surprised me. The center of the city was the most touristy of any city I had seen in all of Africa (except for Cape Town). There were white people everywhere! There were men on motorcycles and families coming into town for the day. The fact that I was there on a Saturday might have had something to do with why the town was so busy.
In Clarens I bought a ton of bottled water, some ice cream, and some post cards to mail to friends back home. Then I hit the road again and cycled east for just 10-20 kilometers or so before hitting the western entrance gate to Golden Gate Highlands National Park. The man at the gate asked me where I was going, and I explained that I was heading straight through the park.
Unlike many other parks in South Africa, this particular National Park is not the home to any truly dangerous animals – such as lions, rhinos, hyenas, etc. Instead, it is simply the home of hundreds of wildebeest and antelope. The park is largely without gates, so I knew that there was a good chance I would see some large wild animals while cycling through the park. And frankly, I was looking forward to it.
Almost as soon as I entered the park I saw a sign saying that there was a high mountain pass. I thought the sign was telling me that the pass was up ahead, so I prepared myself for a long, uphill climb. But little did I know, I was actually already at the pass. Except for a few short climbs in the kilometers after the sign, I was already at the top. Once I hit the VERY top of the pass, however, it was a long windy downhill to the very bottom.
Once at the bottom of the hill, I stopped and looked back in the direction from which I had just come. I was glad that I had not entered the park from the other direction. Otherwise I would have had a very long day of climbing. Instead, most of my time inside Golden Gate Highlands National Park was spent either going downhill or cycling on the flats.
As I entered a large valley on the eastern-most edge of the park, I began to see antelope and wildebeest all around me. I stopped for several minutes to take photos, while passing vehicles honked at me and scared all the animals away.
Just two kilometers before I excited the park, I heard a rumbling noise on my right-hand side and looked over to see three gray and black zebras running along the ridge, no more than 20 meters to my side. I jumped off the bike and tried to chase after the animals on foot, but by the time I reached the top of the hill, the zebras were gone. It was the highlight of the entire day! Maybe even one of the highlights of my entire time in South Africa.
Near the park’s exit, there were hundreds of antelope huddled together under a giant rock formation. The animals were far from the road (as you can see in the photo above), but they could see me… and I could see them.
After exiting the park, I began looking for a place to camp for the night. In a tree-lined stretch of road, I pushed my fully-loaded touring bicycle down a short, but steep embankment and then hopped over a barbed wire fence before pitching my tent in the trees, right next to a giant mount of cow poop.
After getting my tent set up, I walked about 1 kilometer to a nearby well in hopes that it was working and I could use it to fill up my water bottles. I had almost no water on me at the time. Unfortunately, the well wasn’t function. There was some water at the very bottom of the well, but it was still, yellow water filled with mosquitoes and dead animals of all kinds. I returned to my tent, knowing that I would have to very carefully ration my water for the next 16+ hours.
I woke the next morning and cycled 20 kilometers or so before turning right on a gravel road that would take me to Bergville and eventually, Ladysmith and beyond. The first 10+ kilometers of the road had been stripped of its asphault, leaving a dirt and rocky mess of a road to be ridden on. There was only one lane of traffic, so I’d occasionally have to pull over for cars and trucks coming in the opposite direction to get past me. Other times, cars would fly up behind me without notice and honk or wave for me to get out of their way. The road was not fun, but the scenery was fantasic.
Sadly, I wasn’t able to enjoy the scenery or the ride as much as I would have liked to because I was totally out of water… and I was unsure when I might be able to get my next drink.
I tried running out to a few wells in the area, but none of them were working. There was a giant reservoir off to my right-hand side, but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to drink out of what was essentially a lake – probably filled with fish poop, dead animal bodies and who knows what else.
Eventually, I found a road construction worker and asked her if she had any water she could give me. She filled up one of my three empty water bottles and I thanked her profusely before continuing on my way.
It was a long, uphill climb on that broken down gravel road before the pavement finally returned to normal and I hit the top of the mountain pass. in front of me I could see a long road leading down into the valley below. Bergville (the city I was trying to reach by the end of the night) was far off in the distance. I couldn’t quite see it, but I imagined it was right there, on the edge of the horizon.
I set up my tripod and snapped these photos of myself at the top of the pass.
Before bombing it downhill, I rode my bike into a large lodging facility across the street, and seeing no one around to ask for water, went about filling up my water bottles on my own using a faucet near the restrooms. I didn’t ask anyone for the water. I simply took it and the continued on my way. I’m sure that whoever owned the place wouldn’t have minded.
There was a long downhill stretch before the road flattened out at the bottom of the valley. The scenery on the downhill section was quite spectacular. It was some of the best cycling I had experienced in all of South Africa.
Then the road flattened out and got a little boring. I put in my earphones and turned up the music. My destination for the night was just 20 or so kilometers away.
After stopping at a supermarket in Bergville and grabbing a large order of chips at the local KFC, I quickly went about finding a place to sleep for the night. The sun was already in the process of setting, so I needed to find a place to camp… and quick!
Just 1 kilometers outside of town I spotted a dirt road leading off to the right. And at the end of this dirt road appeared to be a large, open area where I was sure I could camp for the evening.
I cycled about 1 kilometer down the road you see in the photo below, before jumping over a barbed wire fence and pushing my bike through a field of tall grass. I eventually settled for the night in a bare spot under a large tree. I set up my tent, snapped a few photos, and then the darkness fell.
The next day I woke up early, packed up my camp, jumped the barbed wire fence I had jumped the night before, cycled down the dirt road and returned to the paved highway that would take me into Ladysmith. The plan in Ladysmith was to find a hotel and rest there for a few days. The real goal was to find a hotel with Internet access, but as you will soon see, that was not going to happen.
About 10 kilometers before entering Ladysmith I cycled through a large construction zone where half the street was torn up and being worked on while cars passing to and from town drove on the other half. I like cycling through construction zones, so this was a lot of fun for me.
Eventually, I made it into Ladysmith. I spotted a few hotels in town, but they were two or three times the price of the other hotels I had paid for in South Africa. At the local tourist beurou, the woman working the counter gave me a small booklet listing the names and phone numbers of every hotel, B&B, guesthouse and more in the city. Unfortunately, the prices of the places were not listed on the piece of paper and I didn’t have a cell phone to call and inquire about any of the places.
After cycling to one of the guesthouses printed on the paperwork and finding no one there, I decided to whip out my laptop and use my USB internet stick to connect to the Internet and call some of these guesthouses and hotels that were on the paper I had been given using Skype.
I found a spot in the city where I felt safe to pull out my laptop… and there was even a pretty good (not certainly not great) connection to the Internet here. I called a few guesthouses, but they were terribly overpriced. I don’t like guesthouses anyway, so I tried calling the two hotels in town that I had not already visited in person. The first was way overpriced and the other was within my budget, but it was located a little further out of town. I decided I was stay at the cheap, but far out of town hotel. I closed my laptop and then cycled over there.
A tall, skinny woman checked me in and gave me the key to my room. She had no problem with me carrying my bicycle up the stairs and wheeling it into my room. The hotel was not very nice.
I ended up staying in Ladysmith for three nights. There was no Internet at the hotel or hardly anywhere else in the city. One day I paid good money to use an Internet cafe, but I had to use their computer, which didn’t work for the type of work I needed to be doing. I needed to use my computer and the special web design software that I have installed on my device. The people at the Internet cafe didn’t understand this. They kept insisting that I could do what I needed to do on their computers, even though I couldn’t. The people had no idea what “software” was when I tried to explain it to them. They figured that every computer in the world was the same.
Realizing I was not going to get much work done in Ladysmith, I found a video rental store willing to rent me DVDs, so I watched a number of different films during my time in the city – the best of which was THE WRESTLER. I couldn’t get that film out of my head for days. The rest of the time I was in Ladysmith I just walked around the city, ate at the local KFC or gas station pizza parlor, and hung out in my hotel room.
One day while at the local KFC, I was approached by the security guard on staff and he began to tell me how he had been working at this job for nearly a month, but that he wasn’t sure how much he was getting paid. He went on and on for more than 30 minutes about how he had no idea how much money he was making or would make from this new position. I told him, “Maybe you should have asked that question before you took the job?”
He went on to explain, however, that he expected to receive somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 Rand for the entire month’s worth of work. I did some quick math in my head and realized that that was only $160 – 320 USD. This, of course, brought up a whole lot of other things for me to think about. For example, “How much do people in South Africa make per month? What is the average monthly income? Is there a minimum wage?” And a whole lot more!
The stretch of road between Lady Smith, Vryheid and Pongola was probably my favorite of all the roads I cycled in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. The roads were empty, the scenery was beautiful, and the weather was fantastic.
My first night out of Lady Smith I camped near a large utility tower. It was one of the best, most private campsites I had had in all of South Africa.
The next day I cycled into Vryheid, South Africa and quickly found a place to stay at the Vryheid Lodge – a small, noisy, run down hotel in the center of the city.
The hotel had wireless Internet, but no one working at the hotel knew what the password was. When I asked the woman working the counter (who later told me her name was Carol) if she could call the owner and ask him or her what the password was, she seemed unwilling to do it.
“I can give you a phone number to call,” she told me, “and you can ask for the password.”
I could tell that the woman didn’t know what Internet was, or why I would need a password of any kind. She was completely clueless… and she seemed frightened at the prospect of calling the hotel owner.
I didn’t call the hotel owner myself though, because I didn’t have a phone… and Carol wouldn’t let me use the phone that she had right in front of here at the hotel reception desk.
When I later asked Carol for her name, she said it to me once and I didn’t understand. She said it again, and still I couldn’t understand her. Finally, she wrote it down on a piece of paper and as she did so, she wrote the letter “R” backwards. I realized then that this woman could barely read or write.
My hotel room was small, but it had everything I needed – except Internet.
That night, I barely slept a wink. It was Saturday night and there was a party going on in the disco/club below the hotel. Loud music played until nearly 4 AM. When it finally stopped, I fell asleep and was woken an hour later to the sound of roosters.
I stayed in Vryheid for two nights. I rented DVDs from a local video rental store and before leaving town purchased a cheap 110 Rand blue foam sleeping mat from a small outdoor/hunting store across the street from the hotel.
Leaving Vryheid felt wonderful because I knew I was on the final stretch of road before riding into Swaziland.
The scenery in this part of the country was the absolute best. The roads were largely empty and the kilometers flew by as I cycled effortless to the music blaring in my earphones.
As I neared Pongola and the Swazi border, I cycled through a number of different game parks. All around me were double-high chain link or barbed wire fences with signs warning me that there were dangerous wild animals living nearby. As I cycled, I constantly scanned the landscape, looking for lions, giraffes or rhinos. I never saw anything like that, however. But I did see more wildebeest, antelope and monkeys.
I camped just off the road that night, at the base of a steep mountain pass, just a few feet from a tall fence that would separate me from the wild animals – hopefully. It was my first night sleeping on my new foam mattress, and even though it was far from being as comfortable as my original blow up air mattress, it seemed to do any okay job.
When I woke in the morning, I cut the mattress in half, so as to better fit it inside one of the rear panniers of my bicycle… and then I continued on my way.
Once again, I was almost entirely out of water, so when I spotted a small roadside stand, I stopped and stepped inside to purchase some water and a giant 2.5 liter bottle of Coca-Cola (it was all they had). I snapped this photo of the woman who was running the small stand.
Cycling into the city of Pongola, the landscape turned almost tropical. It was half Africa, half Hawaii. It reminded me a lot of my home in Camarillo, California actually.
I stopped for lunch in Pongola, got some cash from an ATM machine, and then made my way toward the Swaziland border.
The last 10 kilometers before reaching the border were nothing but farmland. Sugar cane was everywhere, but the landscape looked a lot like my hometown in South California.
Swaziland would be the 24th country I had traveled to in the last 12 months. It was also going to be the last new country I would visit before finally flying home. This was the final stretch. 4 days in Swaziland and then my bike tour in southern Africa would be over… almost.