South Africa, Joburg/Drakensberg edition

Groblersbrug (or Grobler’s Bridge) is the name of the “settlement” opposite where I crossed over from Botswana. As far as I could tell, there’s nothing really there but trucks and farmland. It was getting late, and I still had a bit of riding to do before I’d make it to Lephalale, where I’d found a cute place to stay. The road was remarkably busy for a country road, but like most in South Africa, in pretty good shape. While the last glimpses of sun receded beyond the horizon, green lush farmland and happy looking trees passed by. I even passed a farm with a little kid zipping around on a tiny dirt bike in his front yard, waving frantically at me. I had to put in my reserve tank, as I hadn’t passed in a petrol station in hours.

Cloying darkness finally arrived, and I had to ride another 45 minutes in the dark, something I try my best to avoid. The traffic (and my consistently fouled visor) provided a constant source of near blindness. Eventually, I came upon a cute little town and a bustling petrol station. I gassed up and followed my GPS to a scenic gated lot and rang the door bell. An adorable old Afrikaner man led me into the place, an odd lodge that seemed empty, with a honor bar and tiny dorm rooms that packed a bed, desk, toilet, and shower all into one room. He pointed me out to a place for dinner that was open at this hour and after dumping my things, I headed back out.

Not pictured: the shower and sign informing everyone not to wear pajamas in the dining area.

Following his directions, I pulled into a grandiose entrance to a hotel. It looked super swanky, with guards, fieldstone work, well-kept grounds, and tables inside and out with white tablecloths. I walked up, and nearly walked back when I saw a sign on the door mentioning a relatively buttoned-up dress-code. I’d only seen a KFC as an alternate option, so I figured there was no hurt in checking out the menu. I walked in to no side-glances, despite my dirty jeans, clodhopper boots, and hiking shirt. The prices were also very strangely reasonable given the ambiance, so I stuck it out and had a delicious, oddly reasonable meal before retiring for the evening.

The next morning, it was on to Joburg! I had a tip for the Curiocity Backpackers in the neighborhood of Maboneng from an AfrikaBurn friend, so I cued up my GPS and headed out in the morning and the crack of 10am. The beginning of the excursion was rather pleasant by daylight, first leading me through D’Nyala Nature Reserve, then Grootwater Nature Reserve. All this really meant to me was flat, scenic roads with gentle curves and little traffic… and then there was a castle full of biltong! You’ll recall, biltong is the South African (pardon me, all folks in the area for the comparison I’m about to make for the American audience) version of jerky, only far superior. This place had an absurd collection, from Giraffe to Hippo, from Gemsbok to Springbok. I bought an absurd collection of animals meat-stick form.

Crenelated meat!
A cornucopia of every meat known to southern Africa!

From the amazing meat-castle, I headed south to increasingly busy roads; I ended up on the main north/south road into Joburg, the biggest city in South Africa. As I passed through increasingly urban locales, I simultaneously found more incredible vistas from the lumpy terrain. The building traffic was a trial-by-fire of big city South African traffic (of which I’ve mostly been blissfully unaware) and dirty diesel trucks (to which I blame South America for my intimate familiarity). I crested a well-placed hill and gazed down through the LA-esque fog at the sprawling skkyline, but I couldn’t get quite comfortable enough to enjoy it, instead dodging choking black smoke erupting from mistreated trucks.

Eventually, my GPS led me on a rather adventurous route through relatively central Joburg. As I would come to learn, my home neighborhood for the next few days, Maboneng, was redeveloped by a single local Jew, who over the years came to own a huge swatch of the previously quite rough-and-tumble neighborhood, and turned it into hipster central. I averaged seeing well over one ridiculous-looking photo shoot a day, and even listened to a shipping-container coffee shop/Turkish food restaurant owner kvetch about one ongoing in his restaurant. The ‘hood is full of murals and art installations, all of which are brought in by the developer as he redevelops the derelict buildings. It simultaneously creates a cohesive, if forced, artsy hipster vibe that reminds me of a stroll down Valencia St. in SF about 6 years ago when there were still more gaps in the reconditioned facades.

Oblivious to all this at the time, I followed my directions, and after a couple wrong turns, ended up at Curiocity Backpackers. When checking in, the front desk-woman pawned me off to another employee to show me my room, and the moment he asked me my name (to which I obviously replied ‘Levi’), a woman turned around and inquisitively repeated my name… it was a German friend I’d met in Cape Town and AfrikaBurn months ago! I finished checking into a large room packed with 12 beds, got invited to a birthday party for the friendly woman at the front desk, was told I could bring my motorcycle inside at night, and had a beer in my hands and was catching up with an old friend all in about 5 minutes. Welcome to Joburg, indeed!

My bike playing pool

I hung out for awhile decompressing, my friend headed out, and I headed out onto the Joburg streets to get some dinner. There was a tiny art-house cinema with an attached pizzeria/craft beer bar because, of course there was. I ordered a pizza and a beer, ended up meeting some locals and chatting about my travels, then the Finnish director of a documentary covering the opposing sides of refugee immigration in Finland came over and convinced us to attend the free screening of her film. After over an hour of watching naked Finnish men argue about Muslims in saunas and yell in the streets about their culture while poor immigrants struggled to start a life and recover from all their trauma, I was suitably depressed with humanity and I bailed before the Q&A.

I guess they have something for all emotional states…

The next few days were a whirlwind, so I’ll do my best movie-montage Joburg version in list form:

  • I went to The Apartheid Museum, which shares a parking lot with a casino and theme park. It was a master class in poor information design, but full of powerful imagery and tons of information about SA I was curious about and uninformed, and due to the design, am still largely in the same position but have a deeper emotional context. I cried.
  • I shot the shit with a gang of Brazilians.
  • I bonded with an impeccably-dressed fashion designer from Cape Town with great hair.
  • I attended the front desk woman’s birthday party on the roof deck of a nearby apartment building, learned about the ‘hood from a contractor working there, met a fascinating minister from Chicago, and opened a bottle of wine with my shoe (thanks, Emil!).
  • I met some cool sellouts (I use the term with the affection only a fellow sellout can) from London, and a much less cool Brexit voter from outside there, then thoroughly enjoyed watching the former seethe at the ignorance of the latter, especially when the latter to do a backflip at a bar and settled on walking down a flight of stairs on his hands.
  • I spent a day riding around Joburg. I found where the yuppies are, where the poor Arab and Indian immigrants are, and where the former squatters from Maboneng hang out: in a park covered with flaming trash. Downtown, I came across some odd sights including a group of a couple dozen people standing in the street holding what appeared to be a giant wooden roadblock painted red, with a very-oddly juxtaposed red office chair they were also sitting in. The car next to me floored it through the red light directly beyond this weird tableau, but I stopped at the light keeping me eyes on the folks, who seemed utterly preoccupied standing around and playing with their roadblock.
New friends
Beard friend
Hipster central: Maboneng
Birthday party with a view!

Through the magic of my incredible network of friends, you may recall that I was introduced to an awesome cat named Adam and his family in Cape Town via my friend Nick. Well, carrying on the longstanding tradition of my friends, even new ones, being freakin’ amazing, Adam passed me along to his friends Juniper and Tian in Johannesberg. Despite never meeting me, these new folks reached out and invited me to come stay at their place in the Linden neighborhood, come to Juniper’s birthday party, meet their family, animals, and even swim in their pool. It was a pretty difficult offer to refuse… so I didn’t.

So Sunday morning, I headed to the Juniper/Tian household. Following GPS, I got close, and before I could double-check the address on my phone, a pregnant Juniper with blue hair was coming down the street calling my name. Before I knew it, I was walking into an incredible lush gardenscape with a hip funky old brick house nestled in it. Cute dogs ran up to sniff me. A delicious latte materialized. There was Burning Man art on the walls! I was shown to a room full of books with a pull-out bed to unload, and we headed off to the birthday festivities in a new (to them) Toyota truck.

Clearly, I have friends in all the right places!
And they’re even burners!!!

We had a fabulous lunch at Tian’s parent’s place, another incredible house surrounded by vegetation and landscaping. I came to discover that this was a very high-achieving group of folks. Juniper is a director, Tian a creative director at a big-name ad agency. In the family are successful businessfolks and aspiring TV personalities. All were curious, interesting, and incredibly friendly. I could hardly reason about how I’d come to be there. I drank tasty wine and craft beer. I talked about my travels, and learned about theirs. After lunch, we took the dogs for a walk through the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens where I played with dogs and took in the pastoral scenery. Juniper, Tian, and I then chatted all through the evening and night, braaing steaks, drinking beer (those of us not pregnant, that is ;), and having a wonderful time.

I’d intended to head out the following morning, but Juniper and Tian told me I should stick around another day. I had a few errands to run (new brake pads to source and install, chain lube, a new auxiliary power outlet, etc.), the blog to work on (they had the fastest internet at their home that I’d seen in all of Africa), and they were delightful conversationalists, so I happily demurred. I slept in the complete silence of their suburban paradise and had a productive day finding everything for which I looked and getting the work I had done on the bike. We had another nice evening of chatting and getting to know each other over wine and pasta, and they gave me some advice for the next leg of my journey. In the morning, I awoke to a latte held through the door right next to my head, packed my things, said goodbye to some truly fantastic humans, and once again hit the road.

I hopped on the N3, an absolutely beautiful divided highway toll road between Johannesburg and Durban, headed for the small town of Himeville at the foot of Sani Pass, one of the roads I’d been lusting after ever since I began planning my trip. Sani Pass is a winding mountain dirt road that serves as the craziest border crossing between South Africa and Lesotho. It’s the highest border crossing in Africa, and has tons of beautiful vistas and steep, sharp switchbacks climbing up to Lesotho. There are plans to pave it in the future, so it was important to me to ride it on this trip before that happened.

I worked my way out of Johannesburg traffic in a mass of choking exhaust and got into my groove. The road is perfectly paved, and an endless line of large trucks snakes through its winding path. The further I rode, the more scenic the road became. Giant fields of brown grains that would fit into the Kansas countryside opened to rolling mountains, then massive brown valleys overlooked with stately plateaus akin to the Valley of the Monuments. The road curved up and down through mountains that turned from rocky brown dirt and grass, to bright green rolling hills covered in cows (if you’ve ridden 280 south of SF, you’ve seen the same scenery), to true pine forests akin to the Olympic Peninsula (minus the white-capped peaks). I hadn’t gotten the world’s earliest start, and I was taking my time appreciating the scenery, which was grandiose and incredibly varied, so I decided to stretch my trip and appreciate the last leg of it in daylight. I found an adorable and cheap B&B in Howick, just off the N3, and checked in for the night.


An adorable elderly couple ran the B&B. I was given a room on the roof with a big bath tub and sent to a pub down the street for dinner. I drank tasty local beer and one of the best spicy chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had. The locals came by and chatted with me. It was a cute little town. After dinner, I hopped in a nice warm bath and soaked my bones with some downloaded Netflix. It was a welcoming decompression after the city life.

In the morning, I was off of the N3 and onto a smaller 2-lane country highway. I passed through more dramatic scenery shifts, from hot foothills covered in vineyards to cold pine forests draped in mist. I passed through the town of Boston, South Africa, thoroughly amused by the name, and had a nice chat with the independent petrol station owner. Eventually, I made my way to a pleasant valley of oak trees and hazy mountains for a horizon. In Underberg, I was approached by the owner of the local bike shop who gave me a brief and fascinating version of the area. More locals came by and chatted as we stood there, curious and friendly the lot of them. By early afternoon, I came upon the Himeville Arms, a centenarian hotel Juniper and Tian had recommended just before the start of Sani Pass, and checked in.

This doesn’t look like the Boston I used to live outside of…

After lunch and some more motorcycle maintenance, I went to town to get a few beers to drink while I caught up on my blogging. On the way, I passed a whole crew of adventure bikers, some of the first proper ones I’d seen in ages! When I got back, I plopped down with a beer in the middle of the place where I could catch WiFi and tried to get some work done. Instead, a guy approached me and asked if the DRZ was mine. When I confirmed his suspicions he excitedly dragged me to the bar where an entire gang of South African adventure riders were sitting and getting ready for dinner!

New adventure biker friends: The Wild Dogs!

The crew belonged to an adventure motorcycling forum called the Wild Dogs. They immediately bought me a beer. They were heading over Sani Pass in the morning on their way to a national bash for their motorcycling group, and told me I should come along. They even convinced me to go on the forum and make an introduction. They were super friendly and my kind of silly (they had a tradition of taking photos of themselves bare-assed in front of their bikes). I ended up grabbing dinner next to them and hearing about what a great group of folks would be at the bash, so I figured I’d try and catch the last day of it after Lesotho. Then I did my best to rest up before my big day riding up into Lesotho. My excitement whittled away at my sleep, but I woke up in the morning, stoked for the coming adventure.

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