South Africa, my last country! I almost made it! I am only 700 km away from Cape Town, at the bottom of the continent. But let’s not celebrate yet, since plenty of things can happen. Not about the roads, since South African road infrastructure is among the best of Africa (probably behind Namibia, which is for example doing better than Iceland and much better than Mongolia for similar population density)(not having ice and subzero temperatures must help too), but about the people, since the country has lots of crime. I remember, when living in Johannesburg three years ago, being warned about carjacking: “keep your windows closed, always lock yourself in the vehicle, do not put your laptop/bags on the passenger seat, do not get out of your car out of a guarded parking or petrol station, and eventually, at night, you don’t have to stop at red lights if you see people nearby“. It was a bit exaggerated, but crime does happen.
So, how am I supposed to cope with that on a bicycle? How do I keep my windows closed? The fact is that someone sent to a new country for work or business will have to be “ready to operate” asap, and for this to happen, will effortlessly receive a package of safety guidelines, prejudices, colleagues, and characterless outing options. On the other hand, the traveler will have to figure it out on his/her own, will be more free to experiment, and will as a result gather more of a unique experience. Therefore, today I’m excited at re-discovering South Africa with a brand new eye.
Nevertheless, I still wouldn’t go roaming alone around Jo’Burg’s suburbs and townships on a relatively expensive bicycle loaded with all my belongings, and I doubt anyone sane who would try it. A parameter actually much more relevant than a “brand new eye” is that I will not go to Jo’Burg, but Northern Cape and Western Cape. These are the western provinces of South Africa, and can’t be compared with Gauteng, the province made up of Pretoria and Johannesburg. The population density in Western Cape is 45/km2. Northern Cape is at 3.1/km2, 300 times less than Gauteng (680/km2)! So basically, if you ignore the mining area of Kimberley and the farming region of Upington (far away to the east), there’s no more people here than in the Namib desert … . Lately, I have been asking South African tourists in Namibia about these provinces, and they all answered that safety is not even a concern: “Northern Cape is like Namibia“, they said, so it will be perfect for me. Yet, some Namibians who have been in SA for work find it dangerous, a bit like the many Beninese I met wouldn’t go to Nigeria, even if they were paid.
Namibia is one of the few countries in Africa that observe daylight saving time, and I have to adjust my clocks before entering South Africa. Actually, even before taking the first picture of the day, because it’s what it’s all about: my two cameras and phone-GPS must be synced for a proper geotagging of my photos. Each of my devices have options for time zone and DST, and it’s easy to get the settings wrong. I just hope my phone won’t change time automatically when it realizes it is passing the border. And I’ll sync my Swiss army knife later (it sounds weird, yes, but my knife is also an alarm and altimeter).
After a fantastic ride along the Orange river, I am leaving Namibia with a huge goodbye sign quoting the Bible, and the immigration procedure is straightforward. It would have been, if I didn’t have a special request: I want all my stamps, since the first one from Morocco, on the same passport. I had made a new passport for this trip and it should have lasted until the end, but because South Africa requires two blank pages for a small stamp, I had to renew it in Windhoek. So I am asking the officer to stamp both my new passport (because it’s the law) and my old one (because it’s a souvenir). He looks confused, and I know my request may seem incompatible with his duties, but he finally agrees. It’s not like in Guinea or in Congo where border officials have no clue how a visa works, and let me play with stamps, but my old passport has a corner cut and I try not to look like someone forging documents.
After Namibia, I just have to cycle over a bridge that crosses the Orange river. The South African customs are right after. A bakkie and a large truck pass through it in seconds, but I am stopped for a long time. Eish, these two ladies like to talk. “So where do you come from? Was it safe? Weren’t you afraid? Did you get ebola? What do you eat? Did you carry your own food since where you come from? How many tires? And do you have cash to buy food? What about wild animals? …” I feel relieved when a car arrives behind me, but it doesn’t let me go: they tell the guy to move ahead so that they can keep chatting with me.
South Africa recently tightened its immigration policies against travelers: it’s still a 90-day visa-free entry, but the new regulations are very confusing. For sure it’s no more possible to hop from SA to Lesotho or Namibia and get a new 3-month permit. And the visa-free 3-month permit is only granted upon arrival at international airports, while land borders now have the freedom give me a 7-day or a 1-month permit if they want. Therefore, since I don’t want to take any risk of having a shorter permit (I do deserve my holidays in Cape Town), it’s safer to diligently chat with the border people. Plus, they could still ask me to unpack my whole luggage, and I hate that as much as having a puncture in the desert.
The two ladies end up giving me an orange, before letting me proceed to the immigration building. It’s quite fancy and professional, not surprisingly since South Africa is much closer (at least in appearance) to European standards than to African standards, if I have to compare with my previous experience in West/Central Africa. I am asked to show my old passport, like if they do make sure I’m not inventing that story of cycling the continent just to abuse their tourist visa. And since my old passport is now on the desk, I want my last stamp in it!
They are very reluctant to do it, but I’m even more annoyed by having in one passport all of my journey’s stamps but one. After quite some time negotiating, I finally get out with a 3-month entry in my new passport, and a small Vioolsdrift stamp in the old one: victory! My 32-page passport lasted exactly 2 years of cycling. I’m done with visas! It wasn’t that bad. Getting visas on the road has been a challenge, I remember the struggles to get the ones for Sierra Leone and Nigeria, the day spent trying to enter DRC, but that kind of visa-adventure (a 100% bribe-less one) is still more fun than boring paperwork at European Embassies. By the way, I notice a typo in my passport: the Benin official stamp reads “Republipue”.
I leave the border complex with recommendations that I shouldn’t leave my bike at the tuck shop, because of the kids who would steal anything unattended. I eventually manage to avoid another lengthy discussion with the guard at the exit booth, and I’m ready for South Africa!
Before leaving this tiny place of Vioolsdrif, I visit that tuck shop to get a local SIM card. Unfortunately they don’t sell any, and the shop owner says because of RICA (the South African SIM card registration policy, all mobile phone numbers must have an owner and an address), I won’t be able to get one until the next town with mobile operator stores, that is Springbok. I’ll be two days offline then.
The route profile above shows it clearly: my road until Steinkopf is constantly uphill. I want to make it to Steinkopf, the next town, so as to avoid camping by the national road tonight. Harsh sun + 60 km uphill + immigration in the morning = little time to idle by the road. I only take a few breaks. There is nothing much to see anyway: one house in ruins (= shade) and a few dirt tracks leading to very remote farms or mining camps.
I am thinking about the safety tips for drivers in South Africa: “Do not take any hitchhiker, do not stop to help if you see an accident, it’s a trick to rob you, etc“, but I would be surprised if something happened here. There’s very little traffic on this very long and empty road, despite being the main traffic lane between Namibia and Western South Africa. The tar is brand new and there is a useful shoulder, that I am forced to use when trucks overtake me: they prefer passing as close to me as possible rather then making use of the opposite lane, despite being cleared until kilometers away.
This region is called Namaqualand, home to the Nama people, the same one mass-murdered by the Germans in Namibia. Namaqualand actually spans on both sides of the Orange river, and it’s true that the area I’m in now looks like the flat and rather boring eastern side of the Karas region of Namibia. Namaqualand is much more popular in South Africa, because it’s associated with flowers: in spring (August, September), many South Africans visit this region to see colorful carpets of flowers taking over the bare landscape.
I have seen many ads about the Namaqualand flowers, where the land looks like a mosaic of colors, but it’s not at all what I see right now. Maybe it’s too early, or I’m at the wrong place. Yet, having some purple in the fields is already a great change.
And I make it to Steinkopf just for the night. There is a campsite at the entrance of the town, but camping is “not ready” and the self-catering options are fully booked. What? There’s nothing to see and the place is fully booked? Many South Africans adults and kids are running around. The reception tells me they come from all around the country until here to enjoy the quietness of the countryside. Nothing special, indeed … but at first it surprised me. When was the last time I’ve seen local tourists booking up a place? Certainly not recently. But I can hardly compare South Africa with West/Central Africa. South Africa was up to now the largest economy of the continent (Nigeria caught up) and one of the few African countries that attract tourists. Every lodge and outdoor activity of the region has a flyer at the campsite reception. Towns and ci1ties have proper supermarkets and plenty of ATMs. If evaluated only on its infrastructure and tourism facilities, it can easily be mistaken for a first world country.
I can abandon my “survival mode mindset” and worry less about mitigating all the risks linked to food / water / shelter / breakdowns. It’s funny, it’s a bit like the opposite of my impressions when I passed from Spain -> Morocco -> Mauritania -> Senegal. I was very excited on the way “into Africa”, so it feels now like I’m cycling out of it. In a way, the hardcore adventure is definitely over.
The place is indeed not suited to welcome campers, but I can still stay on their premises. The most comfortable and flat floor I find is actually in a house in construction (it’s probably the future lavatory of the pool), and I manage to set up my tent in it. Back at an altitude of 850 m, it will be a cold night. It’s been also a long time since I didn’t look at the sky carefully. Helped with my smartphone planetarium, I realize that Mars and Saturn are close to each other, next to Scorpius and Centaurus. These two constellations are big and beautiful (and Scorpius actually looks pretty much like the animal it’s called after), and only visible in the southern sky.
Doing the acrobat to set up my tent in there was a good idea, since the morning is so windy my tent flysheet is flapping badly. Fortunately, for the rest of the day the wind will come from the north.
The road from Steinkopf is the same as before, but it has no more shoulder. Cars overtaking me are honking, maybe because I’m in “their” lane, or maybe as a greeting, but I don’t like it. I think I’ve become addicted to cycling on dirt roads, away from almost every car, and I can’t deal with it anymore.
There are some flowers. Not many, but it sometimes smell like tea. I expected a wild version of what I had seen in Furano and Biei, while cycle touring Hokkaido in Japan, but it seems I expected a bit too much … yet I’m pleased to see colors after so much desert.
O’Kiep is the first place that actually looks orange.
At first, I didn’t plan to cycle this road. This is the N7, the main north-south national road of the province, and I thought there would be too much traffic. Until South Africans in Namibia told me that it’s very quiet (it is indeed quiet and boring), I had considered cycling along the coast. There is a parallel road in the Northern Cape, by the Atlantic ocean, passing through many small mining towns. That area is similar to the Sperrgebiet in Namibia: dry, deserted, and used mainly for mining diamonds. Since it’s impossible for visitors to enter the Sperrgebiet, I don’t know if South Africa requires a permit or something to use that road. On satellite imagery, it looks at least intriguing: almost every single of the 150 kilometers of coastline between Alexander Bay, at the border with Namibia, and Kleinzee, south of Port Nolloth, is scarred with mining activity. It even spreads further south to Koingnaas and Hondeklip Bay.
I reach Springbok, the largest town of Namaqualand with a population just above 10’000, early afternoon. It’s Sunday, and it feels like everybody is away.
The main street is Voortrekker St, named after the first Afrikaner settlers. Since I won’t be seeing another town this “big” until close to Cape Town, I decide to stay here for the night, and get a SIM card once the stores open tomorrow.
While moving on the main street, I notice a tuck shop is open. It’s an Indian guy watching a Bollywood movie at his desk and selling ice cold Coke, leaving me refreshing in the shade of his store and observing the very little movement in the main street. And he happens to sell MTN SIM cards as well. MTN is my favorite brand, the quickest to work in West Africa, “but I’d need to register it before I can use it, right?“. The shopkeeper answers that the SIM is “pre-registered”.
So how does it work? South Africa enforces SIM registration with an ID to prevent crime, and at the other end, people sell them pre-registered? It doesn’t make sense and it’s probably a scam. In the past, I’ve had my share of lost hours trying to make SIMs work, but for 5 rands, I’m too curious to let it go.
I try the SIM anyway, and it actually works. Internet, here you are! And I don’t need to stay in the town anymore. While fiddling with the MTN’s USSD menus on the pavement, a car stops in front of me and a lady asks: “Are you the cyclist I’m supposed to pick up?” Hem … no, not that I know of … “Okay, just stay there, I’ll be back“.
A few minute later, Davida comes back, followed by another cyclist. It’s Jakkie, in his seventies, cycling 5000 KM along the perimeter of South Africa and fundraising for the Institute for the Blind. It’s pretty impressive, and Davida spontaneously offers to host me. Two cyclists for the price of one.
And it’s not over: Jakkie is joined by two more cyclists from Pretoria who just arrived today, so we are actually six, including four cyclists. That’s perfect for a delicious braai! Namibia has been delicious for the meat, likewise South Africa is better enjoyed by non-vegetarians. It’s apparently cheaper and tastier in Namibia (according to my calculations, there are currently, on Namibian soil, 35 kg of oryx meat growing in the wild per inhabitant), but the population of South Africa being 53 million, if people on my road are as hospitable as Davida, I am 25 times more likely to braai!
Her husband used to be in the SADF, the South African army, which has been quite active during the no-so-glorious years of the country’s history. I got interested at one poster in the house:
The dot indicating Norton de Matos on the map is actually Balombo (war map), near Benguela. Balombo? I was there six months ago. I have been hosted at the catholic mission and taken to the Kotakota hot springs, which are overlooked by a large mansion in ruins, on a hill.
We didn’t talk about the Angolan war at that time, but I’ve met Angolans telling me stories about bullets, landmines, and planes dropping bombs on their heads. In Balombo, I wouldn’t have imagined that 2400 KM further, I would be staying with someone who participated in this war, but on the other camp. South Africa offered a military support to the UNITA, which also received financial support from the USA, France, and China. They were eventually defeated by the MPLA, of the current president Dos Santos, backed up by Cuba and the Soviet Union.
Forty years later (and 12 after the end of the war), the wound is still fresh, the abandoned tanks still by the road and the bullets scars still on some houses. I’ve been accused of being UNITA while cycling in Angola. But some South Africans ex-military have been visiting already.
Antonie and John joining us, we’re now all heading to Cape Town. The meat and brandy went down the legs, a good breakfast is there for the day, and I leave much earlier than I used to.
Jakkie is very disciplined, in a very good shape, and always has a plan for the night. We will go to Kamieskroon today, the next small town (1000 souls) on the N7, and arrive quite early.
The tar is good, but with lots of ups and lots of downs. There is still no shoulder on the sides, after the yellow line, and several cars are still honking at us. It’s definitely a greeting, that John appreciates, but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.
It’s quite windy and there’s not many flowers.
And finally, I can take the same pictures I’ve seen in leaflets advertising Namaqualand.
But it’s actually not that common.
We stop 10 km before Kamieskroon, in a self-catering house Jakkie had organized, and have plenty of time to go and buy meat and charcoal for the braai. Antonie must find a lift back to Springbok to get his rear wheel re-spoked and trued, since he doesn’t have the tools for removing his cassette (that’s another bonus point for the Rohloff speedhub! Spokes have an unusual length, but they can be changed quickly).
Antonie and John don’t carry as much luggage and tools as I do, yet they have an invaluable gear item: a self-dosing plastic brandy flask. Pap and braai end the day.
The morning is cold and cloudy, and it looks like a European autumn in the hills. We cycle quickly to Kamieskroon where I pack a large amount of vetkoek, that should fuel me for the whole day. Vetkoeks are almost the same as the fried dough beignets, that I think I had in every country, under different names, since Guinea. It’s probably the only food that I’ve seen more widespread than cassava/manioc.
But I won’t keep up with my new cycling crew. The N7 road is rather boring, I still don’t like cars, and if I want to see some South Africa, I shouldn’t stay there. Instead, there is a parallel dirt road going up in the passes and hills. The others decide to stick to the asphalt, so we will meet again tonight in Garies, 60 km later for them, 90 km later for me.
These road signs also illustrate the broad scope of the hospitality business, so many beds for a town of 1000. Is that only for the flower season?
Kamieskroon is a town that relocated in 1924, because the original location, stuck at the end of a valley close to where we stayed, was becoming too narrow. Kroon means crown, and it refers to a rock on the top of peak overlooking the town.
And that’s behind that kroon that my road takes me, to Garies via Leliefontein.
Immediately after leaving Kamieskroon, the dirt road replaces the tar and it climbs for 8 km. It’s the Kamiesberg pass.
Above, it’s a plateau with flowers, cows, and farms. Ah, much better than the N7.
Kamieskroon was at 750 m, and it’s still going up. I will eventually reach 1350 m. Well done, as while passing the Orange river, I didn’t think I’d be above 1000 m again.
I’m pushing this time, being quite tired, and also tired of never seeing this Leliefontein. In fact, the town is hidden just behind the radio masts. It’s Namaqualand’s oldest village, and home to a Nama community (it was a “coloured reserve” during apartheid), a Methodist church and a mission. It’s quite a big village for a town not even appearing on some maps, and despite the cold temperature, that slope is pushing me straight into a shop. Fortunately there’s one with plenty of cold cokes, thank you electricity.
The town lies at 1350 m high, and the shopkeeper tells me that it snowed three times this year. I thought Southern Africa only sees snow in Lesotho and the Drakensberg’s surroundings, but I know now it can also snow in Windhoek, the Khomas highlands, and even Namaqualand (maybe not every winter, though). He also tells me that from now on, it should be only downhill until the end. Good news!
There are some farms and not much else, and it’s a pretty countryside. One could indeed say that it’s like Namibia. But wet (by Namibian standards).
It’s quite green up here and the satellite picture shows well the farmland around the roads and rivers. By the way, while exploring the surroundings with satellite imagery (at the time of writing), I noticed something suspicious near Platbakkies: a landstrip, a building, a few geometric roads, holes of a precise geometry in the middle of nowhere, and nothing else. It looks too clean to me to be innocent farmland, and it reminds me of something that Mark had shown me before: the Vastrap military airfield and underground nuclear weapon test site, in the Kalahari (i.e. also in the middle of nowhere). There, two shafts drilled in 1979, as deep as 385 m, have been sealed in 1993. It’s said no detonation has ever happened there, but on the other hand, it’s still unclear whether South Africans or Israelis, or both, are behind the 1979 Vela double flash in the South Atlantic.
Back to my suspicious infrastructure on the map in Namaqualand: a little research (OpenStreetMap is great for that) makes me “discover” the only radioactive waste disposal in the country: it’s Vaalputs, and their website shows them burying yellow barrels of nuclear waste originating from Koeberg (the only nuclear power plant of the continent, that I will see on my way to Cape Town) in a land basically described as deserted except for sheep farming. If Necsa (the nuclear energy corporation) is managed with the same sloppiness as Eskom (the main energy producer), I may end up with superhero muscles, because I’m ready to eat a million lamb chops. (Just kidding, my legs are already equipped with superhero muscles).
I don’t mean to spy on the nuclear facilities of South Africa (it seems harder to hide a single shaft in the Karoo or the Kalahari than a whole city in DRC’s jungle), but three years ago I happened to be jogging around the Necsa research center in Pelindaba, near Pretoria. The Hennops trail offers a nice view of the facilities, which include a mini nuclear reactor and the buildings that have hosted the South African atomic bomb (maybe true, maybe fake, lots of stories involving Israel, but the images are worth a look).
The real downhill happens via the Studer’s pass, a really impressive one: 15 km downhill, from 1000 m to 300 m, at the edge of the mountain, plenty of water, river and pans, only a few cars, and blue sky from time to time. It’s even more amazing because I expected nothing that nice.
It’s getting night after downhill, and I still have 10 km of dirt road before reaching Garies. It’s being a very long day! In total, 80 out of my 90 km today are on dirt roads, and the last bits are corrugated. Namibia can do better. I pass a small Wollastonite mine, snap a kilomilestone photo for my 26000 KM, and finally get into town, where I find Jakkie, Antonie and John. I had quite an intense day and a consequent mileage, considering the road surface and elevation profile, and despite my exhaustion, I’m very excited to have made it to Garies and meet them again. Our hospitable hosts are Toelie and Tanya, and they treat us with lots of delicious meat. Another dinner in South Africa, another braai. My eyes, stomach and legs are 100% satisfied!