PANAFRICAN CYCLE PROJECT
This was to be the last stretch of our journey, the home run of a yearlong voyage through Africa. It was (if somewhat sad) definitely exhilarating, and the thought was palpable in our legs which seemed to be lighter, to have extra spring as we pedaled out of Keetmanshoop on our way to the Fish River Canyon. Until, that is, the road turned Westward, and directly into a joy-arresting headwind. These first 30km of the day were to be on tarmac, along the B4 that ends at the popular tourist destination of Luderitz, and therefore an easy start enabling us to quickly clock the kilometers before turning onto the slower rough roads towards the canyon. We found ourselves struggling, though, to go any faster than 12 km/hour, and it soon became evident that this would be the challenging part of the day, not the gravel roads which themselves led southwards and away from the wind. As usual, my heart lifted as our tyres exuded the familiar crunch as they transferred off the tar and onto the gravel: freedom from the busy road and headwind, wide, quiet and exciting spaces ahead. Let the adventure begin.
Manni Goldbeck of the Gondwana lodges had helpfully photocopied an acutely detailed map of the area and highlighted in purple his recommended route. A shortcut here, a beautiful detour there, a don't-miss-this-turn-off-whatever-you-do purple star. (Importantly also, he underlined the two lodges he'd booked us into for a night, or "as long as we wish".) We diligently followed his purple-lined route, aiming to reach the first lodge by early afternoon the following day. Meanwhile, we would pass by the Naute dam, a small hamlet, and stop for the night at the workers' accommodation of a huge vineyard some 5km later. We were no longer shocked at the huge discrepancy that exists between the white settlements and the black ones, having been accustomed to the glaringly unequal quality of life between them already in Namibia. In fact, the hamlet we'd just passed and now this workers' accommodation were the perfect example of this. In the first (where we'd been made to feel so intimidated from the outset that we didn't even bother to knock on a door or ring a bell), white houses stood upon hilltops surrounded by tall fences complete with vicious barbed wire, and even more vicious fang-baring dogs. And where the second would probably be the last place anyone would want to go to camp for the night (neither the rows of dirty concrete purpose-built homes nor the large groups of young men hanging out around bonfires in front, shouting over the music blaring out of boom-boxes, were particularly inviting) we were eventually accepted into their little community, received a staggered welcome from various curious parties, and many volunteers helped with finding firewood and even a grill to cook upon.
We were happy, on the second day, to turn off the "main" dirt road onto a more minor one that led to the canyon, the quality of the surface having declined and bumpiness hence increased. Turning provided the additional advantage of putting the wind behind us, and we glided gradually and effortlessly downwards to our first target on this stretch: the Canon Roadhouse. Manni is a very creative guy who obviously takes great pleasure in accessorising and creating a special vibe in each one of his hotels (one of the previous ones we'd stayed at us was themed according to the Shebeen, the illegal liquor houses set up in shantytowns during the apartheid). This particular one celebrates the history of the automobile and the dining room is filled with old classics - some having been transformed into fireplaces - and the walls are covered in vintage road paraphernalia. The manager was expecting us and with the delicious complimentary meals and the comfort of a bed and warm shower, we found it hard to resist the temptation to stay a second night. We eventually tore ourselves away and got back on the road for a short day of cycling, 25km to the canyon then 20km to the second stop on the Gondwana route (the Canon lodge). The road to the canyon was on a progressive downhill, though the land rose and fell, occasionally giving us glimpses of the long, dark fissure carved out of the earth in the distance. The final few turns were on an uphill, keeping our imminent arrival the edge of the abyss a surprise as we rose over the last crest. There before us lay a convoluted system of gorges winding impossibly this way and that, gouged out of the seemingly unsuspecting surrounding land. It was awe inspiring and really very beautiful. I mocked Reza who suggested the land had "fissured apart", my explanation being that the river at the bottom would have eroded its way down over the years. It turned out we were both right (ok, so maybe he was a bit more right than me) as this second largest canyon in the world was indeed originally created by tectonic forces and later further deepened by the water flow. Happy ending to the argument (sort of).
We backtracked a frustrating 10km to the road along the sandy, corrugated path, only to find that the road itself was not in much better shape. Sharp little dips and rises in the terrain tempted us to gather speed on the way down, but we invariably hit severe corrugations at the bottom which violently shook our bikes and bones, so that it was a surprise that neither had broken by the end of the ordeal. Thankfully it was a short one and we soon reached the turn-off to the Canon Lodge where we swooned at the glorious setting and elegant architecture of the complex. Situated amongst huge red-coloured boulders and with a view of infinity, individual little stonewalled cottages were huddled in the nooks and crannies of the large rocks. Some distance away from the cottages lay a pool with a fantastic sunset view, and with its own little honesty bar this is where we spent our first evening. That night we met the vibrant crew of staff who knew just how to corrupt our fragile wisdom with the oh-so-decadent "prickly pear", a home made spirit of unknown alcohol content which invariably whirlwinds the consumer deep into the night. Needless to say our intended departure the next morning was considered with weak enthusiasm. Thankfully the manager was sympathetic to our case, and so we enjoyed another day in paradise.
The next leg of our journey was to be an exciting one. We were, in particular, looking forward to what had been dubbed "the most spectacular landscape in Namibia" by Manni, and was to be seen along a small road labeled D207. But first, we were to follow the road which goes down the Eastern length of the canyon, and which itself affords amazing views. The countryside had become more mountainous and while the flora remained the same - sandy grounds with sparse but colourful lichen (khakis, rusty oranges and maroons), bushes and the occasional Quiver tree - the scenery gained more depth, as the different layers of mountain in the distance translated as graduations of blue to our eyes. We bypassed the hot springs at Ai-Ais and headed straight south, flying down a 15km long smooth hill to a valley below, where trees disappeared altogether and even bushes were shy. We hid our tent behind one such bush, which barely rose above the level of the tent. The precautions were unnecessary though, as not one car passed on the nearby road until the following morning.
The D207 fulfilled its promise. It followed a tributary to the Orange River which we would soon reach, and so was on a downhill, and we didn't see a single car for the entire time it took us to rejoin the main road. It carried us through a valley of purple: the small ground-level flowers responsible for the colour covered each and every surface of the landscape, from the roadside up the mountains on either side of the narrow valley. It was a view that made each breath we took feel more fulfilling.
We were surprised to find tarmac as soon as we joined the road on the northern bank of the Orange river, but perhaps more surprising was the strange temporary-looking huge settlement pitched on the top of a hill overlooking a vineyard estate. The shacks were made of grass, were tiny, and most tilted to one side. The town was populated by black Africans and both of these facts made it look oddly out of place in this desert region, where the indigenous population is fairer-skinned and no houses are made of grass. We found out from the till-worker at the local, brand-new, shiny Spar (looking equally out of place here) that people are literally flowing from the North of the country to work on the labour-intensive vineyards. In any case, it brought a feeling akin to nostalgia for the Africa we'd known earlier on our trip.
We crossed the border and the Orange River at an altitude of 250m and immediately faced the mountains that would lead us back up to the 1000m we'd been accustomed to. It was hot so low down, but we were soon to be bitterly cooled down by a Southerly wind whistling down the valley on the South African side. We met an Indian cycle tourer coming towards us at the bottom who proudly told us he'd just cycled 60km in 2 hours. It should have been an early warning - an hour later, when we'd finally made it past the steepest ascent, we still found ourselves struggling against the head wind combined with a deceiving uphill. When we pitched our tent that night in a completely exposed field at the entrance to a mine, we watched, powerless, as it was blown sideways to a ridiculous angle, then sheltered behind it, and rapidly cooked our meal with freezing fingers. Luckily the tent was still standing by morning time, the wind had died down, but we remained nonetheless battered and called it a day at the next town, some 25km away. Friends we'd met in Namibia had been very excited about us traveling south at this time of year, because, they said, we'd hit the flower season. This is when, at the end of the South African winter, wild flowers spring up everywhere, covering fields and hillsides with brilliant colours. They started to appear just before we reached Springbok, where we would spend a day resting (in a converted oxwagon!). First orange, then red, yellow and purple, they appeared fluorescent the more thickly they covered the ground. One night we delighted in finding a beautiful red field to camp in. The next night we slept in a scrapyard behind a gas station.
Since the border we'd been cycling on the N7, the main road from Cape Town to Namibia, and it was full of trucks and busy with fast, uncaring cars. To make things worse, the road was narrow and there was no hard shoulder, instead there was a step down to the rough roadside. If you've ever cycled on such roads, you'll know: they are the worst. Needless to say, we were very keen to get off it, and took the very first opportunity to do so. Straight after Bitterfontein was the first turn-off that could take us to the coastal route, which in turn would lead us all the way to Cape Town without having to rejoin the N7. It was a rough but well maintained road, and from it, we caught our first sight of the open sea since Alexandria in Egypt. We treated ourselves to a room in the next town, Lutzville, and hid away from the rain we'd feared would come. We improvised a next stop in Doring bay, a sweet coastal town where we indulged in the local fish as well as wine tasting at a cellar located down at the docks, where we had the option of savouring a glassful in a little private cabin on the end of the jetty with waves crashing around us.
We'd received insiders knowledge of a private road that went alongside the railway tracks and could save us from a massive detour inland to the next towns of Lambert's Bay and Eland's Bay. It mostly followed the coast and one afternoon, we found ourselves adjacent to a beautiful stretch of white beach. The sun was coming down and the beach was deserted, so we hopped over the rails, and set up camp in this luxurious setting. Our illusion of isolation was to be broken the following morning, when we woke to find ourselves surrounded by fishermen out for an early catch of fish along the shore.
After a short ride that morning, up and over some cliffs, we joined the main coastal road to Cape Town. The railroad route had become a bit tedious with increasingly frequent patches of soft sand and corrugations, though we would soon miss the tranquility of those traffic-free paths. These were the last few days of the journey... The landscape ahead was flat, but casting an eye over to the East, we could see the mountains we would have had to cross had we stayed on the N7. To the West the ocean remained constant. The number of houses was increasing, towns became bigger the further South we went, and the stretches of complete solitude seemed to be over. We struggled to find anywhere to camp wild so that night, we aimed for the town of Velddrif where we hoped to find a decent campsite or reasonably priced room. After circling around town, unable to find anywhere suitable, we finally saw a sign for "self-catered accommodation" (these are usually at the lower end of the price range). Though full, its owner invited us in for a cup of coffee and proceeded to calling the other (unlisted) cheap places to stay in town, then to guiding us there (it was further than we thought) by car, then surprising us later by turning up with an armload of energy drinks, fruit, snacks, and thrusting a 100 rand note in Reza's hand with firm instructions to "have a nice lunch tomorrow, on her". Thank you Sandra for such kind generosity!
The road got busier and busier over the next day. Still over 50km away from Cape Town, we started to see the famous Table Mountain in the distance. Soon the city appeared huddled its base, just across the bay from us. 30km to go. Cycle paths started to appear - a sure sign of metropolitan sophistication. A puddle, which could only have originated from sewer overflow, was sprayed upon me from head to toe by a vehicle passing at close range. Aaah, civilisation. We realised we were heading towards some sort of ring road around the city, so removed ourselves from the traffic flow, and stopped by a tile shop to ask for directions: follow the railroad tracks and join the cycle lane that will lead straight into town. Tall buildings surround us. There are roundabouts, there are traffic lights, and they are operational. Cool shops line the streets. People dress self-consciously.
We find Long street. We find a backpackers. We've reached Cape Town.
We quickly make friends at our backpackers hostel and improvise a night of celebration in the less-than-glamorous bar next door, after calls to reassure parents: we are here, we are alive. But it doesn't feel like the end. There was no sign at the entrance of the city to welcome our arrival, so no good "we've done it!" photo opportunity, we'd slithered into the city, there'd been no "bang!". And so it could not be the end. We'd decided previously that we would do the final push to the Cape of Good Hope, and though it would take some resuscitation of dwindling enthusiasm, it would be the right thing to do. First though, reunions. The day after our arrival, friends start to turn up: Sam, an old university friend, and Emmie and Ben, friends from London and Brighton, come to celebrate with us.
The following day we all ambitiously set off on bikes (ours plus rented ones) at 2pm on a fabulously gorgeous day in the hope of reaching the Cape of Good Hope together. Local Capetonians, though unsure, convince us the distance would be 40 to 50 km. Plenty of time then, before sunset (at 5.30pm), as we are riding without our usual panniers. Champagne and plastic cups are packed in a rucksack, and off we go. We follow the coastal route around and out of the city and lap up the stunning views of blue sky, blue sea, dramatic cliffs and perfect white sand beaches. We cycle 35km before we hit the first problem: a puncture on Emmie's rented bike. We have no spare innertubes the right size, so pull out a patch and the remains of our glue. We squeeze out the last sticky, dried up glob and miraculously, it works. It does mean, however, that we can't have any more punctures the rest of the way. It shouldn't be far, but by now, we’ve realised the promised 40 to 50km were a serious underestimate. According to our (free, tourist info-) map, we are still less than half the way there. It’s 3.30pm and it still feels possible, so we continue South. 1km further: the derailleur on Ben's bike (also rented) snaps off, the chain wraps itself around the cassette and breaks. Reza and I remain optimistic. We take off the derailleur, shorten and reassemble the chain. Now Ben can cycle, but on a single speed. We look up ahead at the 5km long hill and mountains after mountains. And we turn back, downhill, to the nearest pub at the bottom.
After an amazing dinner on the Saturday night where we gorge ourselves on oysters, lobster and various other local seafoods, we bid Emmie farewell on the Sunday. That night we meet up with the elusive Steve, the English cyclist and doctor we've been following or preceding for the past 10 months since Sudan. He's cycling the 6 continents over 5 years, starting with Africa, moving on to South America next (www.cyclingthe6.com). It’s great to finally meet him after missing each other on several occasions, and sharing our stories of the road.
Monday is our last day before we fly back on Tuesday. Hangover or not, we have to make it to the Cape of Good Hope. Ben drops us off in his rented car at the spot where we'd had to turn back two days previously, and Reza and I continue the final stretch on our own. It’s not the clear-skied day we had on our Saturday excursion, but is slightly overcast with occasional rays of sunshine piercing through the clouds. It is cool and refreshing, there’s an energy in the air, and it feels strangely appropriate. It turns out the distance from the city to the cape is around 85km, not 40. It’s hilly. We cross over from the West side to the East side of the peninsula, over a mountain pass, and carry on South along the waterside, spotting some penguins resting on some rocks some 100m out at sea. Up, up a hill again, to take a drink at an ostrich farm before turning into the national park. 3, 2, then 1 km to go. We come to a roundabout: Cape Point one way, Cape of Good Hope the other: but which way is The End of Panafrican Cycle? We head to Cape Point first and find Ben waiting for us there. There’s a huge parking lot, a hell of a lot of tourists, and a cable car transferring them to and from the lighthouse at the top of the hill. It all feels very disneyland-like: is this where we end things? We take a few half-hearted photos under a sign saying "Cape Point" and get papped by opportunistic Japanese couples. Looking out to the West though, and down the hill, we spot what must be the Cape of Good Hope. A few cars are hovering around, but nothing like up here, so we head down, hopeful for the final epiphany.
When we arrive there are only a handful of tourists, a great sign to jump off, and a wild, wild sea crashing on the rocks beyond. It's perfect. There is nowhere else to go: ahead is just one big mass of water as far as the eye can see… This is the end of the road. After many attempts at taking the best mid-air picture, we retire to a dry spot on the rocks with a bottle of champagne and look out at the crashing waves. Here, we discuss our trip, its best and worst moments, life, beauty, and the perfection of the present moment. The champagne gets finished, Reza writes a note on the back of a card, rolls it up, replaces the cork on the bottle and throws it out at sea.
It’s getting late and the sun has dropped in the sky. When it falls below the level of the clouds, the narrow strip of sky glows a hot red. We stare at it until one of us turns around to find, directly opposite in the sky, an almost full, 360 degree rainbow.
13/09/11 KEETMANSHOOP TO CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
- Distance cycled : 1096 km
- Number of cycling days: 14
- Average distance per cycling day: 78.3km
- Total distance cycled from LONDON to the CAPE
OF GOOD HOPE: 14590 km