On April 1, 2013, I left my temporary home in Cape Town, South Africa and began a near two-month long bicycle tour across the country and through the neighboring countries of Lesotho and Swaziland. Rather than cycle straight out of Cape Town, however, my friend Anthony offered to pick me up in his car and drive me to nearby the nearby city of Paarl. This would not only get me out of the worst traffic, but it would save me nearby a day’s worth of stressful cycling.
Anthony and I ate lunch at a Wimpy’s in Paarl and then we said our goodbyes.
After having spent the past several weeks traveling with other people as part of the African Bikers mountain bike tour, and after having spent so much time with Anthony in Cape Town, it felt weird to once again be setting off on my own… and to know that for the next two months or so, I’d have no one to rely on but myself.
Not long after leaving Paarl I ran into my first major climb. I took it slow, stopped along the way to take a few photos, and before I knew it I was at the top of the pass. This was, however, just one of many long climbs I would make on my touring bicycle over the next several months as I slowly cycled across South Africa. This climb, however, was one of the more memorable simply because of the views that it provided.
As I was coming down the other side of the steep mountain pass, I saw a man coming up the road in the opposite direction on a mountain bike. Sweat dripping from his face and body, he stopped to talk to me for a moment and then invited me to come and stay at his home, which was located several kilometers south of Worchester, South Africa. I told the man, whose name was Stephen, that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it that far, but that I would try. We shook hands and then both continued on our way.
Coming down the valley, it started to get dark and rain. I began looking for a place to camp for the night, but I couldn’t see any suitable spots. Even though I never really planned on taking Stephen up on his offer for a free night’s lodging, the increasing rain made me think that trying to find his house using the verbal directions he gave me might be a good idea. So that’s exactly what I did! I managed to find his house (which was huge, had a swimming pool and a tennis court and several outbuildings) just before dark. Unfortunately, Stephen wasn’t home when I got there. So I just sat and waited out in front of his house, still not entirely sure I was in the right place. Once the sky turned black and the mosquitoes started biting, I decided to set up my tent in the grass near the tennis court and wait for Stephen in the safely of my mobile home. About a half-hour later, Stephen pulled up to the house in his truck and welcomed me inside.
After showing me to a spare bedroom, I took a shower and then met Stephen in his living room, where we sat down for some food and conversation. I told Stephen about my travels and he asked questions about how he could so something similar for himself.
In the morning, I let Stephen take a spin on my touring bicycle around his garden and he was surprised at how easy it was to handle the bike. “I can imagine how with just a little practice, this would be very easy to control,” he told me.
After thanking Stephen multiple times for his generosity, I said goodbye and made my way north to the N1 highway and then turned east.
I had been told that this stretch of road (the N1) was terrible, with lots of traffic, big trucks, and no shoulder to ride in. But as is often the case with bicycle touring, pretty much everything I had been told was not true. There were some big trucks on the road, but the traffic was really rather light (a lot lighter than many of the roads I’ve cycled in North America, for example) and the shoulder on the N1 was gigantic. It was big enough for an entire car to drive in. There was really very little to worry about!
My second day on the road was cold and windy and I didn’t cover a whole lot of ground. I passed through several vineyards, saw baboons running along the roadside, stopped to stock up on food and drink in the small town of De Dooms, and then made camp in the bushes just off the side of the road at the bottom of a large pass that would take me the following morning from South Africa’s wine properties and deliver me into the South African Karoo.
I woke on the morning of day 3 with a rainbow over my campsite. After packing up camp and climbing back onto my bicycle, I slowly made my way up the large hill in front of me. Half-way up the hill I looked back at where I had been camping the night before and realized just how difficult it would have been for a passing vehicle to have seen me.
Dropping down the other side of the pass, I could instantly see a difference in the landscape. What was only the day before, green and lush, was now brown, dry and barren. While some people would look at the South African Karoo and say, “That looks so boring,” I actually kind of like these types of environments. Looking back on it now, the Karoo was probably one of my favorite areas in all of South Africa.
The problem with cycling along the N1 is that finding a place to camp for the night can be tricky. There are barbed wire fences pretty much everywhere in South Africa, so in order to find a place to sleep you have basically one of four options:
1. You can camp outside of the barbed wire fence. This means basically camping alongside the road somewhere. I did this only two times during my entire bike ride across South Africa.
2. You can try and find a place where there is no barbed wire fencing to camp. This is difficult, but not impossible. As I said before, the barbed wire fencing is almost everywhere in South Africa.
3. You can jump the barbed wire fencing and then camp on someone’s private property (which is what I did almost every single night while cycle touring across South Africa).
4. Or you can ask a property owner if it would be okay for you to camp on their land for the night. I never once did this.
During my third night on the road, I was able to find an incredible campsite by first turning left on a dirt side road that took me off of the N1. I cycled up this road for about a kilometer and then found an open gate, which I let myself into. Inside this gate was a well where water was being pulled out of the ground for sheep to drink. I washed my face in the well, however, and filled up my water bottles. Then I pushed my bicycle over a nearby hill and found a nice, flat, isolated area to pitch my tent for the evening. This turned out to be one of my best (if not the very best) campsite I had during my entire bike ride across South Africa.
Before I left Cape Town I had replaced the disc brake pads on the back of my bicycle, but for the first several days of my ride, the brakes weren’t actually working like they should. So I took some time on day three to adjust my brakes and get them working properly again. This is one of those things (taking the time to fix your brakes) that I really don’t enjoy doing on a bicycle tour, but once you make the time to do it, it makes a big difference in how the rest of your bicycle tour plays out. In other words, it is worth taking a small amount of time to fix your brakes versus not taking the time to do it and have non-working brakes for the entire rest of the tour. Obvious advice… but I still don’t enjoy doing these sorts of things.
The next day I had just a short 15 kilometer ride before cycling into Laingsburg. The streets of the town were overflowing with people… and I got a lot of attention on my fully-loaded touring bicycle.
When I stopped at the local supermarket to get some food, a man with an obvious deformity chased me through the street and my guard instantly went up. I quickly realized that the man was offering to guard my bicycle while I went into the supermarket, but the truth was, he was the only person around that I was nervous about stealing my bicycle. And that was often times the case in South Africa. The person offering to watch my stuff was the person I was most afraid of stealing it.
The man offering to guard my bicycle didn’t speak English, and I tried to tell him that I didn’t want his help. I locked my bicycle to the railing right outside the front door of the supermarket and then walked inside. Before I had even stepped inside the supermarket, the man had his hands on my bicycle and I jumped back at him, yellowing at home to get away from my bicycle. “Don’t touch my bicycle!” I screamed at the man, with an angry look upon my face. “Don’t touch!”
I ran inside the supermarket and did my shopping as quickly as I could, while running back to the door every few seconds to see what kind of action was going on around my bicycle.
When I stepped outside the shop a few minutes later there were several men surrounding my bike. I placed the food I just purchased inside my panniers, unlocked my bicycle and put away my lock… and then the man who had been “guarding my bicycle for me” asked me for money.
“No!” I told him. “I didn’t want your help. I’m not giving you anything.”
The man looked upset and the people around him laughed at his misfortune. The man chased me down the street until finally he could see that I wouldn’t be giving him a thing. I rode on down the road for a while, upset at the man, upset at myself, and knowing that this was a situation I was going to have to face time and time again during my travels in South Africa.
That night I scored another incredible campsite. Once again, I found a dirt side-road to cycle down, and then pushed my bicycle up onto the top of a small private hill where I then set up my camp.
That night I was treated to a spectacular desert sunset… and when the stars came out that evening, I had never seen anything so glorious. Never in my life had I been able to see this many stars in the city. The Milky Way was plainly visible as one solid streak in the night sky. I took some photos of the stars with my camera… and took a few more photos of my tent in the dark.
The next morning I packed up camp and then pushed my bicycle back out to the main road.
Back on the N1, I cycled for several hours before arriving at a tiny roadside gas station with a restaurant inside. I ordered a cheese and tomato sandwich, french fries, and a chocolate milkshake… and downed it all while watching my bicycle outside through a large glass window. Sunburned, dirty and tired, the food tasted wonderful!
Back on the N1, I cycled for hours with my headphones in, listening to music and enjoying the desert landscapes.
At this time of year in South Africa it gets dark around 6 PM, so I’d usually start looking for a place to camp between 3 and 4 in the afternoon. On this particular evening I found a side road on the south side of the N1, took it for a kilometer or so, and then turned right on a dirt road that paralleled the train tracks. I cycled down this dirt track for another kilometer, then crossed over the train tracks and then let myself into a fenced off area where a small cemetery and adobe ruins could be found. It was here, near the adobe ruins, that I would make my camp for the evening.
When I woke up the following morning, I was super excited because I knew that in just a few hours I would be arriving in Beaufort West, South Africa… and in this small desert city I planned to find a hotel and take a shower. If I liked the city, I might even stay there for 2-3 nights. So I packed up camp and hit the road, retracing my steps back to the N1 highway and then cycling east toward Beaufort West.
The sign below says “If tired, stop/rest” in Africans. I was a little tired after riding my bicycle for so many days, so I did as instructed and snapped a photo or two while I was at it.
While bicycle touring on the N1, I spent a lot of time at the various rest stops that litter the roadside. There seemed to be a rest stop every 10 kilometers or so.
After about a week of cycling, I had successfully made it from Cape Town to Beaufort West, South Africa. My time on the N1 has been surprisingly pleasant, but now it was time for a short rest, a shower, a new road and a new adventure.