Slowly, I put my parents weeding ring back on my finger, my mother had fused my father’s to hers when he died and I had worn it since she passed away in 2003. Three months earlier, as I entered South Africa I had taken it off alarmed by the comments about crime in the country. The ring is one of my most precious posesions and I would be devastated if I lost it.
Fuelled by conversations with South Africans I met along the way, safety was upper most in my mind. The response to a post in The Solo Female Traveller Network, a Facebook forum for women travelling on their own was not reassuring either. I had posted to find out about the experiences from other like minded, independent women. My post received more than 120 comments, the overwhelming majority pleading for me not to cycle in South Africa. With responses like “Stay away” – “Please don’t do it, it’s not safe here. Sadly you’ll be risking getting raped and killed” – “I wouldn’t do it” – Please don’t do it if you value your life”, it was time to find a way that felt safe to me to still cross the country, get to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa, and back out into Namibia to begin my way back home.
Where to spend the night each day was a start. In other countries I never quite knew where I would end up, improvising as I went along but in South Africa I would be more cautious and very clear where I would be putting my head down at the end of the day. I also planned to stay with a Warmshowers host soon after entering the country, hoping that cyclists with local knowledge would help me with a safe route through. Armed with a plan and ringless I crossed the border.
Everything around me reinforced the image of an unsafe country. Properties were surrounded by electrical fences and threatening signs like “trespassers make sure you have ID on you so we can contact your next of kin” or “Is there life after death? Make my day, come in and find out” (this one had the picture of a very fierce dog). Threats and fear oozing out from every corner. I had never been in a place like this before. I wondered what it would be like living with these feelings every day of your life?
The cycling community took me under their wing and followed me every step of the way. Messages were posted in social media and family and friends were contacted with requests for a bed for the night and the response was overwhelming. I experienced the most amazing warmth and generous hospitality everywhere I went. Even at campsites, once the owners heard about my trip they would let me stay for free or at a very reduced price. Soon, I was able to relax, let go of anxiety and really enjoy my daily rides though this incredible country.
I crossed Free State’s mining country, mine shafts littering the landscape. Some of these mines are the deepest on earth. Agoraphobia filled me when, by the side of the road, a miner told me how five days a week, he walks into a cage with his work colleagues and packed like sardines begins the descent to the guts of the earth. A second cage, two chair lifts and a 20 minute walk take him more than 3,500 mt deep where he begins his 11 hour shift digging for gold. With a smile, the miner told me about the unbearable heat and noise he experienced down there and how by now he is used to it. Wishing me safe travels he walked towards the township that is his home.
Free State is home to huge thunderstorms in summer. For days I’d been listening to the loud rumble of thunder. One early afternoon, I didn’t pay any particular attention to the dark skies looming and to the sound of thunder, I had been there before and the storms had passed me by. This time it was not to be, the wind picked up fast and was so strong that nearly threw me off the road, hail stones the size of big marbles bounced off the tarmac, I could see lightening falling all around me and the sound of thunder was deafening. I lay down my bike on the ground and moved away from it, crouching I made myself into a ball to wait for the storm to pass whilst the hail was pelting me mercilessly.
My route was taking me to Lesotho, the Mountain Kingdom of Africa. As I’d been going through Africa several people had mentioned the Sani Pass as something challenging and not to be missed. It is my ‘policy’ that if the name of a place comes up more than three times I’ll try to get there. Sani Pass was one of those places and although Lesotho wasn’t part of my original plan it didn’t matter, now it was.
What was even better was that I would have company to the border. Alwyn and Werner would cycle with me and Leonie and Marietje would drive to take them and the bikes back home. Leonie and Alwyn had given me a roof a few days earlier and Alwyn had serviced my bike including the rear hub, given me lots of information and a pepper spray. Werner having cycled Sani Pass told me about places to stay.
After a day of laughter and comradery they left me at Camelroc, a campsite/lodge right on the border. I was delighted to hear that they had decided to cycle Sani Pass the following weekend. They would be doing in three days what would take me a week to cycle. Now I had a fixed plan: beers in the highest pub in Africa with my new friends.
Lesotho was challenging and wonderful. It rekindled my deep love of mountains, a feeling so strong that brought tears to my eyes. I will never ever tire of looking at those beautiful giants, listening to their sounds and to their silence, watching light and shadows change their look, being in them and part of them, like those humans that millenia ago had left their mark behind.
Maybe those humans had a better quality of life than current Mosothos (person from Lesotho). With more than half of the population living below the poverty line and the second highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the world, estimated at 24% of the population I saw terrible poverty as I cycled along.
With no jobs available in the country, men used to go to work in the South African gold mines but with mines closing down, gold prices falling and immigration policies becoming tighter, less are able to do so. With fewer jobs around men will sit for months or years waiting for work in a stone village near the Letseng mine. The mine at 3,100 metres it is the world’s highest diamond mine and is 70% owned by Gem Diamonds Ltd with headquarters in London. I just wondered how much of the cash stays, in Lesotho and helps its desperate people.
In the higher ground shepperds wrapped in blankets looking after cashmere goats stopped in their tracks to look at me in amazement as I went by. With gradients of 1:6 (17%) they had plenty of time to examine me and my bike as I painfully pushed my way up he steepest of hills.
Just before a curve on the road, I saw the dreaded sign of 1:6 and at the same time an acrid smell hit me. I couldn’t identify were it was coming from. I had nearly reached him when I saw the shepperd sitting very still on a rock, covered in his grimmy grey blanket he was undistinguishable from the stone he was sitting on. I greeted him and he responded in what seemed a friendly manner. I pushed the bike up the steep slope and he too began to walk up the hill. I stopped, he overtook me and then stopped and it was my turn to overtake him. This leapfrogging game went on for over one hour. I was getting more and more uncomfortable. Any time he was behind I was wildly zig zagging across the road to check on his position. It was a very quiet road and I hadn’t seen a car for hours but as I was getting close to the highest point I knew that as soon as the downhill started I would get away from him so I pressed on. Once more I stopped to rest and this time I got the pepper spray out. He overtook me, his grimmy grey blanket was open and he was sporting a huge erection. Walking in a funny way, he was thumping his penis with his thigh at each step, looking ahead like a zombie. Then, he came off the road and sat in a rock.
What was I to do? I couldn’t possibly stay there forever. With the spray at the ready I continued to climb. I was aware that he knew these mountains like the palm of his hand and could approach me from any direction. I resorted to walking right in the middle of the road to give myself the best chance to react should he come. He didn’t.
It was just wonderful to enter the safety of the Sani Pass Lodge where I could relax and wait for my friends. When they came there were celebrations all around and plenty of beer!
Once more we had to say goodbye. Alwyn and Werner were going down Sani Pass to the South African border, then heroically climb back up again and go home. I would be leaving Lesotho to go west towards the Wild Coast and from there to Port Elisabeth where I would be meeting my dearest friends Kath and Mariaje and with them cycle on to Cape Town.
I had cycled 10,000 km since I last saw the sea at Hurghada in Egypt and it was a wonderful feeling to look at this huge expand of blue and listen to the sound of the waves crushing on the shore.
The road follows the coastline and although enormous dunes prevent you from seeing the sea, you can’t miss feeling it’s powerful presence. The road is a constant roller coaster down at each river mouth – and there are many- and up again. Hopping from seaside town to seaside town and taking it easy because I had plenty of time before the arrival of my friends I arrived at Port Elisabeth.
Port Elizabeth closed my first chapter in South Africa. I had cycled nearly 1500 km to get from the Botswana border and had enjoyed the most wonderful South African hospitality.
At long last Mariaje arrived and four days later Kath landed. It was a wonderful reunion full of smiles and energy. Part two was about to begin.
Merryl, the warmshowers host with whom I’d stayed until my friends arrived joined us for the first few days. It was great to have local knowledge and thanks to her we were able to find and cross the Vans Stadens Gorge via the highest narrow gauge railway bridge in the world taking the back route to Jeffreys Bay.
After three days Merryl left and it was the three of us. On our very first day we were reminded of the deep divisions running through South Africa when we stopped at the village where we were hoping to spend the night. Neat rows of single storey houses were bathed in the golden light of the evening and children were playing in the sandy streets. We asked some men in a car for directions to the guesthouse we’d seen in Google maps only to be told there was no guesthouse in the place and that we should go a few kilometres down the road to a farm shop “where white people go” We didn’t know how to reply and pushed on.
Time flew by when I was with them. Each day we cycled, laughed, cooked, stretched, laughed again, talked, drank wine, shared thoughts, hugged, stood in awe looking at the beauty around us, swam…
Cape Agulhas was a huge landmark for me. It was the point at which I turned around to go back home and I can’t think of two nicer women to reach it with.
At Cape Agulhas the Indian ocean and the Atlantic ocean meet and I was ecstatic and moved. Looking at the inmensity of the ocean, knowing there was nothing between me and Antarctica, being with two friends I love deeply stirred in me feelings difficult to explain. As a way of celebration, wine was drank as the sun was setting.
We had some stunning rides between Cape Agulhas and Cape Town. Kath and Mariaje with their fresh eyes helped me appreciate even more the beauty of our surroundings. When I’m on the road for a long time it gets a point when I get what I call ‘beauty saturation’, a point when the extraordinary becomes ordinary, when a stunning sunset becomes ‘just another sunset’. Seeing things through my friends eyes was like pressing the restart button in your computer.
More celebrations were had in Stellenbosch and Cape Town and then Kath left. Mariaje stayed to celebrate my 61st birthday with me. It would be my fourth on the road, I’d welcomed my 58th in Armenia, 59th in Vietnam and 60th in Egypt. With her eyes still half opened, Mariaje gave me the best of birthday presents, she wished me “Zorionak” (happy birthday in Basque) and gave me a big hug and a kiss.
It was Mariajes’s last day and we made the best of it. We climbed Table Mountain in the mist, walked for hours in Cape Town and went for dinner.
Bereft, I was on my own again to begin my third and last chapter in South Africa. I didn’t have time to dwell on my feelings though, with only 13 days left on my visa and over 800 km left to get to the border I had to get on with it.
I left Cape Town behind with Table Mountain always in the background and four days later I turned my back on the sea once more. I would not see it again until Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. The greenery slowly disappeared to give way to a pretty desertic landscape with a few scattered farms and ‘towns’ where I spent the night.
I got to the border with one day to spare and entered the safety of Namibia where I could put my parents ring back on. After nearly 2000 km on the saddle, I had survived South Africa unharmed.