It was a Tuesday morning as I headed out to meet up with the Australian biker Corey, marking what I expected to be my last day biking through South Africa (for at least a very long time) and my first day traveling with a partner. Corey was meeting up with another motorcyclist bloke for breakfast, so I crashed their breakfast party at a local Mugg and Bean. We discussed our plans, and stopped by a local travel agency to get me a DriveMoz sticker (ostensibly, a membership in a Mozambican AAA-like service, but supposedly useful in preventing cops from messing with you there) on the way out of town. We were heading for Swaziland, and the first leg was backtracking to Barberton, SA, where I’d come from. From Barberton, we turned off of the main road and up into the mountains into the Barberton Nature Reserve, and towards Pigg’s Peak border crossing.
The weather was cooperating, which treated us to beautiful views of the mountain-hugging road. We passed a turn-off with some rock displays and plaques, as well as a killer mountain view, so we stopped to look at the display. The plaques along with some women in a car that had stopped as well informed us that we were on the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail, a winding mountain path with some of the best views of rocks from the Archaean period, over 3 billion years ago, when the air was full of carbon dioxide, oceans covered nearly everything, there was no vegetation, and volcanoes were belching lava far more than now. Apparently nearly all of the spots where these formations are visible are far-flung, and to highlight it, the route has turnoffs with information and examples distributed along the path.
The road was full of twists, turns, and turnoffs. We passed exposed mountain rocks that really did look pretty unique and awesome, with pillowy igneous rocks, sandstone, and even a neat spotty-stone that formed with early small organisms in them, the fossilized remains of some of earth’s oldest life forms. My initial feelings that this was perhaps too geologist-nerdy for me was proved incorrect, especially when coupled by a fun, tranquil mountain highway.
Eventually, a couple small buildings appeared in the distance, marking what may be the most tranquil border crossing to date. Clearing South African customs and immigration took about 10 seconds. There wasn’t a soul in sight. The 30 feet over to the Swazi side went like a breeze until the border guard insisted we fill out customer satisfaction surveys, being really pushy and not liking when I responded by filling it out quickly and putting “less surveys” in the “comments” section. I didn’t mention the condoms they, of course, had.
On the Swaziland side, we were dumped onto a bumpy dirt mountain road surrounded by forest. It was a blast. Corey and I took turns trying (to moderate success) to document each other’s rides through the twisty, occasionally muddy, but super fun roads. There was nearly no traffic. The sky had cleared up. The road was fun, as was having a motorcycling partner for the first time. It was a great day. We made it to Pigg’s Peak, a tiny little town, and made a turnoff from the main road onto another scenic tar road.
We stopped for lunch at a small intersection and had a lunch of $1 roadside rotisserie chicken. It was delicious. The road took us up through a mountain pass overlooking the Maguga reservoir and dam. The sun was high and hot. We stopped at an overlook for some more ice cold Sibebe beers.
My plan was to head to Ding’s office before she left for the day and crash with her if it worked out (my phone didn’t work in Swaziland, so I had no way to confirm with her, or see if she had room for Corey as well, but we figured we’d give it a shot. We’d also heard it was cheaper to get a Mozambican visa at the consulate in Mbabane, so we headed there first.
We caught up to the main road not far from Mbabane, and unlike my last trip through, the clear skies provided an unobstructed view of the city. Situated in the mountains, small buildings sprawled over the lumpy landscape, with not much high-rise or industry to identify the downtown. The Mozambican consulate was accessible only by dirt road, and was sadly closed to consular business for the day despite it being early afternoon. The guard gave us the required materials sheet, and told us we’d only save a little money by getting the visa there vs the border, and that it would take three additional days. We worked out it made more sense to just continue on and get it at the border, and headed to Manzini to try and catch Ding.
We rode down the main highway and into the paint factory at about 3pm, catching Ding and her sister moments before they headed out for the day. She said she’d forgotten I was coming that day (oops!), but in fact had bunk beds in her spare apartment for us! We followed the sisters to the local grocery store to pick up food for the night and then went back to their house.
The sisters lived in opposing homes on the same plot of land, and Ding had a small in-law unit in the back of hers. It was a cute spot, complete with homespun rainwater collection, and our hosts were incredibly generous and friendly. They cooked up several big meals at once, making one with chicken for us, a salad for them, and a big bowl of protein for Ding’s son, who swung by after the gym just to pick up food his mom had made. Adorable.
We drank beer and whiskey, we watched the King’s plane take off from a nearby airport, and we chatted through the evening about all manner of funny topics before stumbling content back to bed. In the morning, we bid farewell to the sisters and packed our things. It was an easy ride to the border on the main highway, but we weren’t in a rush to get out, so we planned a route that would take us up north, and potentially through the Mlawula Nature Reserve (if they’d let us in), and through Hlane National Park if they wouldn’t. After a quick stop for Corey to try and source some convertible hiking pants at the local market (which he succeeded at), we jumped on the main highway for a hot second and headed north.
Things were super green and pleasant, but most of the day didn’t take us through the grandiose mountains we’d seen in the west. We stopped for a tasty lunch at the Mananga Golf Club around the apex of our route and managed to snag a little bit of internet to look for where we wanted to ultimately stay the night. Ultimately, we settled on the Mabuda Farm, an easy drive from us and the border. We settled up and headed out to try our luck crossing the Mlawula Nature Reserve.
We made it to the entrance of the reserve and from the gate could see a badass gravel road twisting off into the dense jungle. It looked fantastic… but the lady at the desk told us no bikes were allowed. Corey had interviewed for the position of Director of National Parks for Swaziland, and tried his luck sweet-talking us in, but it was to no avail, despite the lack of the “Big Five” animals that normally preclude motorcyclists. C’est la vie.
We rode down the road and through Hlane National Park, which actually *does* have “Big Five” animals (I really only saw a giraffe and some large birds from the road), and over to the town of Sitake. A 1km dirt road outside of town took us to the Mabuda Guest Farm, where we decided to camp at a beautiful site overlooking mountains, a valley, and coffee and banana plants. It was still plenty early, so we settled on heading to town for supplies and braaing for dinner. I rarely would set out to do something like this by myself. It was great to have company and a fellow cook to make it worthwhile.
We snagged steaks and sausage, onions, cucumber, olives, peppers, and homegrown tomatoes. We cooked up a feast and I slept like a baby.
The morning brought a thick layer of dew, which gave ample time to start the day while waiting for things to dry. From the farm, it was a short uneventful drive to the Goba Border, where it was time to switch languages (portuguese!), switch currencies (metical), switch directions (so much north!), and switch scenery (sand and beaches!).
A man at the petrol station in Swaziland had approached me, because apparently petrol stations are the place to make friends in southern Africa. He’d come from Nelspruit, where I was heading, and warned me about more intense fog. The sky was menacing, and as I rode through thick tree-lined ridges the fog came and went along with mild-but-obnoxious sprinkling rain.
I descended down a small pass and out of the clouds. Out on the horizon, I could even see a promise of sun that would remain unfulfilled. I was treated to 360 degrees of craggy mountainside, grey skies, and pale grass. There was wind, but it didn’t explain the overturned semi at the next T-junction.
I stopped at a roadside take-away restaurant for a boer-wors sandwich and to stretch. I chomped and chatted with some old and ever-curious locals. Aside from the weather and temperature, it was a pleasant ride through unremarkable (but still beautiful) mountains. Around mid-day, I took what I considered to be a mandatory 5km detour to the Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Eden. How could I possibly not??
I got in just in time to catch a tour already in progress, thereby missing all the establishing context for the place. Mostly, I just saw chimps! Dozens of them!
I’ll save you my ignorant musings and cut to what I learned from asking dumb questions later on. The Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Eden is a haven for rescued chimps of various sorts. Once there, they have no additional direct contact with humans. They’re kept in 3 distinct troops, with only two of them accessible to the public (the third are apparently too anti-social to even share a direct border with tourists).
Our guide related us facts about chimpanzees (mostly fascinating), the status of wild chimps now (mostly depressing), and the lives of these particular chimps (extremely depressing). Most of the chimps had had tumultuous lives before where they’d be used to sell sandwiches and entertain circus folks in Europe, or treated with chemicals in the USA. A few actually stuck to their stomping grounds in Africa. There were residual behaviors from their previous lives still playing out. One female chimp would make her own earrings out of vegetation. Another with PTSD would tear her and her friends’ hair out, bald patches standing out on her body.
We stood on a deck looking down on a reserve ringed in fence, electric and standard. The trees inside small enough to break had had all their vegetation stripped. We were told only this troop did this. Our guide tossed handfulls of nuts from a bowl to the chimps and explained their various tragic backstories and personalities. Nearly none of these animals had been raised by their mothers, which accounts for much their antisocial behaviors. For this reason, the females were regularly given the same daily contraceptive pills human females take. The largely idiosyncratic chimps came up to the fence, and seemingly-violently (which were assured is normal) interacted while they chomped on nuts.
We were led to the second of the two chimp enclosures visitors could see. Here, the trees’ foliage remained in tact, and among the chimps running around and playing on a jungle gym were both a relatively small chimp child, the oldest living male chimp (they live longer in captivity), and a large showboating chimp with special needs named Cozy.
The young chimp was born in captivity despite the contraceptives — as in humans, they’re apparently not 100% effective. Because none of the other chimps are mothers, and most also weren’t raised by their own parents, when the baby’s mother was diagnosed as pregnant, this presented a problem for the center. They kept the baby and its mother in seclusion while they tried to teach her some mothering. It took her awhile to learn to stop carrying her baby by its feet, but they struggled much more teaching it breast feeding. After failing with a video (she ignored it), a stuffed baby chimp and bottle (the mother seemed traumatized and convinced it was a dead baby), they finally had success by bringing in a new human mother and child and having her breast feed her own baby in front of the chimps. Then, momma figured it out immediately.
Born in a lab in the US, Cozy had been part of a roving circus act in Italy, and trained to perform and pose for photos. He had been put in a pair of blue jeans that he outgrew but which were left on, restricting his leg growth and blood flow, and leaving him permanently unable to sit or sleep like a chimp does naturally. When his owner died, the owner’s wife inherited it, but found it frightening, so she kept it in a cage for years, inadequately feeding it and making it live in its own filth, and even castrating him. When the new owner finally gave him up, they scanned his brain and found out he’d lost about 30% of it from neglect and abuse.
Despite his abuse, Cozy still seeks attention from humans. He smiles like a human (chimps normally wrap their lips over their teeth when smiling to avoid the appearance of aggression), appears happy when folks are looking at him, and his happiness seems to scale with the size of the cameras trained on him. If he doesn’t feel important enough, he’ll act out, as he did with me when he threw a macadamia nut shell and hit me in the chest with it while I was shooting a video. More so than any of the others, this special needs chimp, so abused by mankind, still seeking our affection, tugged at my heartstrings. It was hard to walk away as he stared with his unflinching gaze, still hoping for more reassurance that he was doing well.
I continued to Nelspruit towards the Funky Monkey Backpackers. The path took me winding through hills and fancy homes, and finally to a hostel that could be great with the right crowd. Once again, that crowd was very much absent upon my arrival. Also, their internet was down, so I couldn’t take advantage of the quiet to get work done. After checking in, I heard from Corey, the Australian motorcyclist Sean had referred me to. He invited me out for a pint at a nearby bar where he was out with a friend of his he was staying with. I joined him.
Corey is a bearded bloke just a few months younger than I am. He’s lived in Zimbabwe for years working as an anti-poaching ranger and had just finished a masters degree at the University of Cape Town in conservation. He’s traveling while waiting to find the right job. He’s riding a Suzuki 650 V-Strom, a much more street-oriented and larger and more refined dual-sport than me, but had just put brand new 50/50 on/off road tires on. Given I’m on street-oriented tires, I’d say we’re likely equivalently capable as long as we’re not racing (he’d win), and while getting to know him over beers, it became clear we had pretty similar goals about our travel. Neither of us is in a hurry, nor has a specific schedule. We left things non-commital, but I suspect we both figured we’d give traveling together a shot.
I’d come to Nelspruit to go for a ride with a dentist named Canzius. We’d planned on Saturday, but the weather wasn’t cooperating so we moved it to Sunday morning. On Saturday, I moved out of Funky Monkey Backpackers (which I really wasn’t feeling) to a guest house in hopes of getting a working internet connection so I could work through the oncoming rain. It was a good choice, and I was happy for the peace and quiet on a day full of heavy rain. I took it easy, venturing out for food and to track down some replacement headphones, as all but one of the three pairs I’d taken had died.
Early on Sunday, I met up with Canzius at a petrol station in town. He was a friendly guy on a 701 Husqvarna. After exchanging some pleasantries and making a plan, I followed him out onto the road. In just a couple kilometers, we turned onto an awesome dirt road. We passed mile after mile of little country homes and farmland, flowering trees and bouncy turns. After getting thoroughly out of town on this scenic byway, he turned onto a little dirt road that led to a locked gate with a small doorway intended for pedestrians. We squeezed over a step and through the door to the other side. I started to wonder what I’d gotten myself into.
Next thing I know, we’re riding up through dirt, mud, and rocks, climbing into the mountains. We’re on a logging road, with alternating dense forest and empty fields. Portions of the road test my skills, but in a way that’s fun, not terrifying like Lesotho. Canzius is a super-capable rider on a super-capable bike with proper off-road tires. As he guns his bike over hills to get off the ground, his engine braaaaping in the quiet mountains, I carefully pick and choose my route, occasionally sliding through thick red mud like ice.
Up and up through switchbacks and past streams, the road eventually opens to reveal a broad mountain ridge. We gaze down into the tree-lined mountains and foggy valleys below. It’s beautiful. After a short break, we head off down an analogous declining road, this one full of loose gravel. The lack of my panniers and bags reminds me of how capable my DRZ-400S is without all the weight. In the back of my head, visions of the roads and fear in Lesotho bounce around and minorly shake my confidence in alternating waves with joy for having an opportunity to do some proper off-roading. At one point, we stop at a ravine and I spot the remnants of a tire. We clomp down into the muck, pull it out, and set it on the side of the road in the hopes that someone else will get it out of there.
We descend all the way down to the valley, Canzius blazing the trail much faster than me, but patiently waiting ahead as I bump and slide carefully down. From there, we hop onto another dirt road and ride a handful of kilometers across relative flatlands. Dense mud punctuates the path. Canzius’ tires fly straight through them while mine leave deep curving ruts. We get to another logging road and again start to climb. It’s here that Canzius approaches me and tells me something is wrong with my top case.
There on the top of the mountain, I get off and examine my newest issue. Despite having emptied the case, both support arms from the support rack had failed. This was the 3rd time this failure had occurred. The case was now bouncing forward and backward, torquing the aluminum subframe below. I looked and could see two failed welds on the subframe. With not many options but to proceed, and no ropes or tools handy to otherwise secure the box, my entire outlook changed, now riding as gently and deliberately as possible. Now that I was aware, I could feel the big aluminum box bouncing to and fro.
Luckily, we were close to the top of the mountain. A vast grassy field opened up along its peak. Dozens of wild horses wandered the idyllic landscape. I followed Canzius towards a pile of large cairn-like rocks situated on a cliff. There was a solo hiker at the rocks sporting a backpack and hat. We said hello and I thought I heard an American accent so I asked him where he was from. He told me Seattle, but that he lived in Maputo. I told him I was heading there, and he responded that if I needed a place to crash, he has more bedrooms than he knew what to do with. He handed me his card, and the shiny gold seal at the top proclaimed U.S. State Department. He went on to explain that the rocks we were at were assembled into a stone calendar tool called Adam’s Calendar and explained how it was found after a plane crash and is disputed to be the oldest man-made structure in the world, perhaps dating back as much as 75,000 years. You can read about it here.
We said bye to the American and stood around appreciating the view from the cliff for awhile. It was beautiful. Then we turned around and rode a handful of miles to a small town with a tasty cafe to have breakfast and coffee. A handful of bikers came and went as we sat around and chatted over our food. Canzius was a really cool guy, and when the bill came, he insisted on picking up the tab. He also offered to have me over to his house for a braai that evening. How could I say no?
From the town, there was a tar road back to Nelspruit. I rode back slowly, trying to hold the top case on the bike the whole way back, struggling to shift and not snap the entire works off and onto the highway. Canzius warned that it looked like a storm was coming, and offered to come back and pick me up with his car after taking a shower. He followed me back to my guesthouse so he’d know where to pick me up then rode off. I immediately took off my case and told Corey I’d need to have some welds repaired before I’d be ready to leave. I was happy to hear back that that didn’t bother him.
When Canzius showed up to get me, the sky was ominous. There was no vagueness to the threat of incoming foul weather. We drove about a kilometer away to a gated community where he lived. It turned out he lived in a private nature reserve, and herds of antelopes dotted the green landscape and various unique and beautiful homes we passed on the winding private country road. We got to his home on a hill just as the first hints of water falling could be seen from the amazing view of his deck. Within 15 minutes, it arrived, and the intense rain was accompanied by some of the largest hail I’d ever seen in my life. The largest bits were nearly ping pong ball-sized, and they thundered on his metal roof. The wind tossed the things through the open wall of his deck and skittering across the floor.
The storm went on for what seemed like a long time given its sheer force. The roof began leaking. Hail accumulated in piles like snow. When it finally passed, ominously reminding us of its presence with thunder on the horizon, Canzius started a fire for a braai. Copious delicious food and plenty of beer was consumed. Afterwards Canzius took me for a ride around the animal-filled streets of his complex in a fun little golf-cart before driving me home with the number of a good welder in the area to try and get my bike fixed the next day. It was a damn nice time, and one I’m grateful of Canzius and his family for giving me.
I extended my guest house for yet another night and woke up early the next day in the hopes of having welding success. I called up a man named Andre at Fusion Welding and was extremely happy to hear they did steel and aluminum welding, as I needed both done. I headed across town with my top case strapped to the back seat.
Andre was a super friendly guy, and given my situation, he graciously set aside his other work to help me. The two of us stripped away the remaining parts to gain access to the subframe and see the extent of the damage. It wasn’t pretty…
Andre is the only certified airframe welder in the area, and it didn’t take long of working alongside him to see why. The guy was equal parts engineer, welder, and artist. He intrinsically understood what work I wanted done (not just repairing, but re-engineering my rack supports and strengthening my sub-frame). I was in awe of his ability to eyeball things and have them work out exactly right the first time. His welds were impeccable. He added a large aluminum plate that strengthened the sub-frame that looks far more reasonable than the stock setup, replaced the hollow square metal arms on the rack support with solid ones he welded to perfectly match the old ones, and also brought thick steel place supports down from the arms to prevent the torque problem that has been causing all these headaches to begin with. He also machined custom vinyl spacers to level out the arms of the rack support on the sub-frame. We spent four hours of his day getting it all done, and the result was beautiful. I had lucked-the-fuck out.
I had a celebratory meal after and let Corey know I’d be ready to ride the next day. It was finally time to leave South Africa for the last time!
Leaving South Africa is always a breeze. It was a tiny and quiet border, which always seems to help. Entering Swaziland proved to be pretty simple, as well, with just a 50 rand (<$4US) road tax fee before I was on my way. There was an added bonus: all the staff were wearing silly costume hats covered in glitter. When I asked about them, they pointed at a sign on the wall that read “Customer Service Week.” That’s some serious bonus points, Swaziland.
Before we get to my time, some quick facts about Swaziland:
They use the Swazi Lilangeni as their currency, but it’s 1:1 with the South African Rand, and aside from occasionally be scoffed at for Rand coins, Rand is accepted.
Swaziland is one of the last “absolute monarchy” in the world. Oddly, a separate panel picks which of the king’s wives will be the “great wife,” and her son becomes next in line for the throne. Also, his first 2 wives (he has 15!) were chosen for him by national councilors, and their kids won’t become king. Confusing!
Somehow, Swaziland has the dubious distinction of having the highest HIV rate in the world (of course there were condoms at customs, a common thing here).
Along with sugar and textiles, Swaziland is locally famous for having great pot.
I’d also heard the gasoline in Swaziland was cheaper than South Africa, so I’d skipped the last couple gas stations, but the one at the border was under construction. I figured I had enough to continue my plan… I‘d had two recommendations for accommodation in Swaziland: one nature reserve near the border (thanks, Hennie!), and one backpackers closer to the capital (thanks, Sean!). The wildlife reserve was first on the list, and only about 40k from the border.
I was in eastern Swaziland, and the landscape was flat and mostly empty, with small trees and grass dotting the landscape. Mountains loomed to the east. Small spread-out villages passed by as I headed north. There was nearly zero traffic, though I’d heard warnings about speed traps. I followed the speed limit as it varied seemingly randomly between 40 and 100kmh.
I arrived at Nisela Nature Reserve in the late afternoon. It was a cute and rustic place surrounded by For just a few dollars more than a campsite, they had traditional beehive huts, just like Hennie has told me. I hadn’t seen them, but I couldn’t say no. I booked in to beehive #2 and went to see my new home. It was adorable, right down to the need to lay nearly entirely prone and shimmy through the tiny little door. Inside was actually quite spacious, with two beds and some impressive weaving. You can check out the inside here.
I had my first delicious Sibebe beer at the restaurant/bar at the lodge, and eventually a lovely meal as well. I hung out, caught up on the news, read my book, and said hi to a cute zebra in a cage on the property. I slept like a baby in my beehive hut.
The familiar re-packing routine in the morning was amusingly complicated by the tiny door. I staged the things then had to crawl in and out to pull my things on and stack them back into my bike. Then I backtracked to the border and hopped on the highway heading west. I’d spent the previous day sweating in my jacket, so I’d removed the lining. Today, it was cold and ominous. A few kilometers west, the rain started. It would continue the rest of the day.
I stopped and put my waterproof lining back, and threw the rain cover on my tank bag. The road climbed up into the mountains. I was riding in dense fog. The road wound up and down, through tiny villages and mountain passes, but much of the most scenic parts were too cloaked in the clouds to see. I lamented my lost views while I rode, cold and wet. What was visible was light agriculture, small homes, and the greenest grass yet. I eventually came across the Rider’s Ranch, a large motorcycling event space out in the country. I stopped and took some photos of their funky motorcycle installations (including a sad shrine) and large castle-like structures before carrying on.
I carried on to the Sundowners Backpackers, just past the city of Manzini, that had been recommended to me by Sean, who used to run it. At the main gate, a large painted sign announced that the lodge and restaurant were closed for renovations. I started to drive off in search of alternate lodging when I spotted another smaller sign off to the side pointing up a steep hill announcing the backpackers (vs the lodge and restaurant) was up there. I rode up the steep wet bricks to another gate off the road, and was able to check into the backpackers.
The place was large, with over 100 beds, but it was also a ghost town. Not a single person other than me and the staff was there, and there were no vehicles in the driveway. I still figured it was worth a shot despite the staff being oddly unfriendly, and dropped my things off. Since there was neither a restaurant or bar, and the place wasn’t walking distance to anything, I rode off to get some food in town and try to find some new padlocks (I’d lost a couple of mine).
After a quick meal, I rode around looking for cheap Chinese retailers for padlocks. In this part of Swaziland, the equivalent class of shops had a solidly Indian flare, including the staff. I’d just parked in the rain and walked into one of the shops when the car guard came in behind me and told me someone in a white car was looking for me. I was confused and immediately on edge. Since I didn’t know anyone here, my first thought was I was about to enter some sort of scam. I was wrong.
Out in the parking lot, a white truck sat with its wipers on. As I approached it, the door opened and a small woman in the driver’s seat said something to the effect of “You must be cold and need coffee.” I stared blankly for a moment, unsure of if this was a question, an invitation, or simply an observation. I told her I never say no to coffee if she was inviting me. She responded that they like motorcyclists, and that she was off to pick someone up, but would be back in 3 minutes and I could follow her back to her office.
I agreed and we separated, her back on the road and me back into the shop to look for padlocks. I was confused and amused, wondering what odd situation I’d gotten myself into this time. After striking out on locks, I waited outside and eventually followed the familiar white pickup truck around the corner to a large building directly behind where I’d just been. It was a paint factory. The woman invited me inside to the office.
The woman was a Swazi native named Ding, and she worked at the paint factory with her sister and mom. Her brother, crazily enough, ran the Rider’s Ranch I’d just passed through! She’d grown up riding motorcycles and liked to help bikers out when she found them. How do I keep finding these people?!
Over coffee, we chatted, and I told her about my plans. She invited me to stay with her, and I told her I’d love to on my way back through Swaziland in a just a few days (after going riding around Nelspruit with my future dentist friend). Both sisters were absolute sweethearts. We traded info and eventually parted ways back out in the rain.
Back at the backpackers, it’s still just me and the grumpy woman in charge. I decide to make the best of things. The place has a bathroom nearly the size of a shitty studio apartment in SF replete with a massive bath tub. I grab my laptop, a couple beers I’d bought, and have a glorious soak with a movie. It was transcendental.
No one showed up at the backpackers all night. I had an entire room full of bunks to myself. It was a very odd experience.
While the rain let up briefly overnight, it was in full force when I went to leave again. From Sundowners, I hopped onto the largest highway in Swaziland, a divided highway that would feel right at home in America, which cuts right through the capital of Mbabane. Unfortunately, Mbabane is a mountainous city, and I was stuck in fog so thick I could frequently not see the incoming lanes of traffic across the median. Hints of buildings and mountains passed by on either side. I hugged the edge of the slow lane of traffic, terrified while navigating this thick pea soup of an atmosphere that some irresponsible driver would come roaring blindly down the highway and spread me and the contents of my motorcycle across the road. I struggled continually with the visor of my helmet — down would bead with water and fog to become totally impenetrable, and up would allow driving and tiny particles of rain to assault my eyes. There was no winning. I took it easy.
The highway deadends at a large (by Swazi standards) border with South Africa. The line at the Swaziland side moved fast, though I was hounded by a fast-talking pollster with an iPad who asked me a million questions about my stay as I passed through it. Any annoyance there was quickly rectified when I set eyes on the customs and immigration officers, who were once again adorned with sparkling goofy hats. Seriously, more officials in scary bureaucratic positions should do this.
On the other side, a near-Sisyphean nightmare was unfolding in the only South African border I’ve had an issue with. A dozen windows fed by a dozen lines, all of which were struggling with a pilot program whereby all entering parties were digitally fingerprinted was causing a massive backup. I had a chat with a hoarse professional golfer returning home. I got stuck behind a family with kids having some sort of meltdown. I switched lines and watched multiple people mash a woman’s hands onto a fingerprint scanner while she barked angrily at the immigration agent on the other side of the glass. Eventually, my fingers were also mashed onto glowing green glass, the customs agent still grumbling about the woman who’d been in front of me, and I entered South Africa for what I believe will be my 4th and final stint.
Durban is a well-known tropical beach town, and it had a twin hostel to the one I liked so much in Johannesburg, so it seemed worth a stop even if it was only a couple hours away. I’d been completely unloaded to work on my bike, so it took me much of the morning packing before I was on the road. This didn’t bother me so much, because there were multiple adorable dogs, cats, and a flock of peacocks on the property to keep me company as I worked. What didn’t make me as happy was the weather.
It was pissing rain as I hit the road. Hitting the highway, there was also brutal fog. I’d been on my adventure for over 5 months and this was the first time I’d had to ride in legitimate rain, so I’m not complaining, but it was a good reminder about how miserable the experience is. I rolled into Curiocity Backpackers uneventfully. The security guards were immediately looking out for me and my bike, which I appreciated. I got checked in, dropped off my stuff, and headed to lunch at a halal restaurant down by the beach. It was overcast, wet, and cold. I parked a ways from the restaurant, and immediately picked up incredibly persistent street touts. I ate a mediocre lunch that was pleasantly punctuated by the bearded proprietor, in traditional Islamic garb, chatting me up about how he used to ride motorcycles, and asking me about mine. Going back to the bike brought more, and more obnoxious, touts.
Back at the hostel, I was able to snag a bed in a totally empty room and get some blogging done on their WiFi. There’s a rule of thumb about hostels: there’s always at least one obnoxious asshole. If there’s not, the chances are it’s you. The first guy to move into my room and start bothering me was that guy. While trying to work, I had frequent interruptions, mostly from “the asshole,” who was pretty friendly to begin with. Eventually, I gave up and headed to the bar. There was a German girl who’d been traveling for 5 months, largely in Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya. She passed along some useful spots to visit. The asshole was there and asking folks about their dinner plans. I’d set my sights on re-visiting a Chicken Licken, a chain of tasty fast food soul food, and said as much. He offered to come with.
It was only after that that he apologized to the German girl, saying he was sorry if he’d been an asshole the night before. In prototypical German fashion, she made it blatantly clear he had been. I was still stuck going to dinner with him.
We went to dinner, not heeding the warnings from folks about how dangerous it is to walk around the neighborhood after dark. It seemed less sketchy than 16th Street/Mission in SF at night. We picked up some fried chicken, and he ranted about racist bullshit on our way back to the hostel. So it goes in South Africa sometimes.
Curiocity Durban may not have been in the worst part of town, but it also wasn’t in the nicest, nor did it have the vibe of friendly travelers I’d experienced in Joburg. The next morning, things were still quite overcast in Durban, and being not quite impressed enough to want to stick around, so I set my sights on St. Lucia, an easy day’s drive and a cute little town on the water with a nature reserve. The way out of town was dotted with huge office buildings bearing tech and finance company logos, and the brightest green vegetation I’d seen in Africa. The wind was ferocious off the ocean, blowing me around like a ragdoll. I rode through heavy traffic and big bridge construction, eventually making it out of town and into a coastal highway surrounded by big green hills that looked right out of the Windows XP desktop background.
I was making fairly good time on the highway. It was a well-constructed divided freeway with occasional tolls, and handy oases along the road with food and gas. It was at one of these that things took a change of direction. I’d stopped for gas, to use the toilet, stretch my legs, and drink a cold drink; the sun was shining and it was hot and humid despite the wind. When I came out of the store with a can of coke, the manager of the gas station, an Indian guy, was scoping out my bike. He talked about growing up in India riding bikes, and shared a story of nearly flipping a little 125cc bike while carrying a passenger, ending forever his willingness to take them. It’s a fear I understood.
When we got done chatting and I was about to climb back on the bike, a woman with a super cute little girl in tow approached me and put me immediately a little on edge by saying “we don’t normally talk to strangers, but we saw the bike.” They asked me if I was heading to the Hippo Rally. I said I had no idea what that was, and she explained that it was a motorcycle rally going on all weekend in Richard’s Bay, a town just down the road from where we were. She also told me I wouldn’t be able to get into the wildlife reserve in St. Lucia on my bike. That was enough for me. I looked up the cheapest hotel in Richard’s Bay and headed for it instead.
Richard’s Bay is home to one of the larger ports in Africa and hence a lot of industry. I passed a tall paper mill, an aluminum smelter with two huge grass-covered pyramids and an enormous ramp, and other huge industrial buildings on my way into town. Everywhere I went, I saw the signs of industrial work. It felt as if I was in an alternate Midwestern city where the rusted hulks that now line certain neighborhoods had never given up the ghost. It was also stupidly hot, especially in the traffic I hit coming into town.
I rolled into my cute little hotel for the evening in early afternoon, excited to have some time on my own to kick around town unencumbered. I unpacked, showered, and did some blogging. I rode around the little town a bit, surprised not to see all that many motorcycles kicking around. I headed down to the waterfront and rode around Pelican Island, a little peninsula jutting out into the natural bay. Nothing looked quite appealing enough to relax at. Instead, I was moderately productive and rode to the city proper and ran some errands at the local mall and Suzuki dealer.
Then it was time to find some dinner. I headed to the waterfront, where a handful of non-chain restaurants popped up on Google Maps. The place seemed pretty jumping in the early evening, but before I’d managed to park, a pair of folks flagged me down on the bike and asked if I had a light. Before long, they we were chatting and they invited me back to the pub with them. Continuing my tradition of saying yes to whatever possibilities I’m able to on this trip, I was off to the pub.
The gang turned out to be a group of sailors taking a 5+ month (I think?) course sailing a big wooden boat from the 60’s from Cape Town to Madagascar and back. They were an incredibly friendly and entertaining bunch of dudes, including a couple motorcyclists, and even a South African who’d been a software engineer in Atlanta (the poor guy). The skipper gave me a tour of the boat, and drinks kept materializing in my hands from one after another of them. I never did get the dinner I was looking for, but I had some fantastic conversations before I had to cut myself off and get some sleep around 2am.
The next day, I headed to the Hippo Rally, which wasn’t too far from the waterfront. The place seemed sparse — I only saw a handful of people and bikes — but there were a few vendors and a huge tent with music blaring that I presumed held most of the attendees. I paid the entrance fee (less than $10US) and rode my bike inside. The venue was large. The website had claimed they were expecting 3,000 motorcycles. The turnout was markedly less impressive…
It turned out there was some drama with the rally organizer, and the local bikers had decided to boycott the decades old rally to punish him. I’d say they were pretty successful. I got some curious looks from folks about my bike, which isn’t your standard rally fare, but there weren’t many folks around to look. Before I went into the big event tent, I spotted some of my sailor friends from the previous night and went and said hello. We walked into the tent together.
There was a full-size sound stage, and a stocked bar the width of the tent. Stacks of plastic chairs stood randomly around the area. A handful of plastic tables were set up. Only three had anyone at them. The tent could hold 1000 people comfortably, but less than 20 were in it, including me and my friends. I was witnessing a financial disaster of a rally, but I was doing it with friends.
We sat around and chatted. Some of the sailors hadn’t slept since the previous night, still riding the liver abuse wave. Music boomed from the empty stage and over the empty dance floor. Eventually, a guy with a microphone started amping folks up outside, and the sound of revving motorcycle engines entered the din. I went outside to check it out, and watched bikers spin their tires on the pavement, flooding the air with smoke and spraying burnt rubber in piles onto the ground.
There are similarities and differences when it comes to South African motorcycle clubs (biker gangs). They wear leather vests festooned with patches from events, cheeky slogans, their status in the club, and a large logo of their club’s “colors” on the back. Harley Davidsons are expensive and not necessarily ideal for South African roads where it’s not uncommon for folks to drive 80-90mph on the highways, so instead there’s the dissonance of these outfitted and often bearded folks riding Japanese sport bikes and BMW GSes. Like many motorcycle clubs in the US, the members were entirely white, and I was disappointed to see a handful of folks whose club colors prominently featured the confederate flag.
Instead of being draped in the black leather of the bikers, I was wearing a multicolored patchwork hoodie from Nepal that features the peace sign and Ganesha. At one point, apropos nothing, a couple with two young boys covered in chocolate ice cream approached me and asked if I’d take a photo with their kids. It was an odd request, but one I had no reason not to take them up on. I aligned the children towards the camera and smiled as they brought up the camera app on their phone and pointed it towards me. Before they snapped it, I noticed prominent swastikas on the lapels of their vests. My smile grew forced as I squinted into the sun at the camera pointed at a my jew-ish self, draped in what I perceive as a mantle of peace, smiling for a photo taken by those who drape themselves in the imagery of genocide against people like me. They took their photo and thanked me.
A bit shell-shocked, I returned to my sailor friends to rant. Some were sympathetic and embarrassed, others announced they were proud racists and supported separation of the races. I continue to struggle with the mental juxtaposition of bare bigotry with overt kindness to myself I receive from the Afrikaners. I do my best to empathize with their experience, and I’ve picked up a lot of context that helps me do so, but the entrenched ignorance and lack of empathy they themselves exhibit with these positions still proves a struggle for me. Before the cooler heads managed to change the subject to a less odious topic, I’d spotted numerous other symbols of racism hiding among the patches of nearby bikers’ vests. I was not impressed.
One of the sailors insisted I head to a town in South Africa called Nelspruit to ride with his friend, a dentist in the area. Hennie had mentioned the same guy (a member of the Wild Dogs), and had also pointed out a number of worthwhile rides in the area. It was easy to take a ride through Swaziland to get there, and the dentist’s timeline (free the weekend) fit easily with mine to get there, so I said yes.
The rally at its peak had maybe 50 attendees that I saw. Then it started to rain. The sailors and I decided to go back to the bar we’d met at to have some dinner and hang out. We headed out separately and met up there. It was another raucous and entertaining night, but I hit a wall around midnight, and when I needed to head to sleep, I was offered a berth on the boat by the crew, against the orders of the captain (a long story I’ll save for a pint with friends), and I took it. I slept like a rock on a cot in the belly of a rockin’ old wooden boat.
I crawled out of bed early in the morning to the smell of coffee coming from the galley. I was handed a hot cup of the stuff. I chatted with the few folks up and about until the captain showed up and kicked me off the boat, not unkindly. I headed back to my hotel, where I was greeted by a pack of adorable civet monkeys, and packed my things to head to Swaziland, now an easy day’s ride.
I had breakfast and made it as far as a petrol station in town, where I was filling up to leave, where a familiar story played out. I was approached by a pair of riders on a BMW R1100RT who asked where I was heading. I told them my plans and they told me they were heading to the last stop in an organized ride to fundraise for cancer research. They told me it was 40k away, but on the way to Swaziland, so I did what I try to always do: I said yes.
I followed them down the highway and into a small little town. We turned onto a street lined with over 100 bikes outside a bike gang clubhouse. The couple who’d grabbed me at the gas station payed my entry (less than $5), insisted on buying me beer, and started introducing me to all sorts of folks. It was a great group of folks. I met the preacher from the biker church (that’s a thing), entirely too many people in various states of injury from motorcycle accidents, and the same kind of friendly biker gang folks I’ve met in the states (thanks, Dad). It was becoming time for me to leave; if I stayed any longer, I’d end up with more booze than I could go riding with, I’d stay too late to make Swaziland that night, or both. I started making my rounds saying goodbye to all the friendly folks I’d met.
As I was finishing my goodbyes, some sort of ceremony had begun, and all the folks had came together in the clubhouse bar. As I was walking away, a guy I’d talked to before grabbed me and pulled me into the bar. They pushed me up to the front where the guy with the microphone was and handed me a bottle of rose wine with a little bow on it. The guy then introduced me, said I’d come all the way from America, and announced that I’d won the award for the furthest traveled. I guess it was a fair point…
With my new spoils, I once again made for the door. I made it as far as a table by the gate where a big group of folks was posing together for a photo. A small kid was attempting to navigate the camera to take the photo. I offered to do it instead. Perhaps you can already see where this is going…
After snapping the photo, I got asked about my plans, and a big bombastic biker flatly stated “You’re not going to Swaziland, you’re staying with me tonight!” He wasn’t wrong. I once again gave up on my plans to make it to Swaziland that night. His name was Hentie. A bit later, me and my new friend’s crew left to grab some lunch. We were told to be careful on our way out of town, as there had been an accident. We hadn’t ridden a kilometer down the road when we saw it and stopped. The scene was incredibly disturbing, and I nearly lost my shit.
NB: Feel free to skip the area between the rulers if you don’t want to read my accounting of the scene. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to.
As we went over a train bridge, we came upon a large crowd of people, mostly bikers. Broken glass and plastic was strewn across the street. A black pickup truck sat facing the wrong direction on the road, its rear quarter panel smashed in. A dark black skid mark started abruptly in the middle of the road and veered off to the left where the remnants of a sport bike lay on the curb. A large pool of oil sat in the gutter. The front of the bike was a twisted wreckage. The front tire was dislodged from the wheel, the bars were twisted, the radiator smashed, the forks bent, and the entire console and front plastics missing.
A large man lay face down in stocking feet, his shoes having been knocked off by the force of the accident. His toes dipped in the oil. His socks were torn. He still wore his helmet and jacket, and appeared to be communicating shallowly with folks around him, but I saw no movement. Masses of concerned people thronged around him.
More than 10 feet away on the grass lay another body, this one a woman. She was also laying face down, one of her legs bent sickeningly up and back. She was also not moving. I had to take deep breaths to avoid hyperventilating.
It was possible to draw some conclusions about how the accident had happened. The truck was clearly making a right turn onto a side street when the motorcycle came over the train bridge. It was clear from the damage, and the way the truck had been spun around, that the motorcycle had been traveling perhaps as fast as 100mph. It was a crazy place to be going that fast.
I took some photos. They are not for the squeamish, nor work/child/public safe. Please click with care.
We weren’t doing any good being there, so we cleared out and continued on to lunch at a cute spot out in the countryside. My new friends continued to get updates and gossip from others about what had come together to facilitate the accident. I’ll leave it at this: alcohol, high emotions, motorcycles, and speed should not be combined. Any one of them is dangerous in its own right.
We sat around and had a great lunch. I got to know a cool new group of folks over lunch. It was a fun assortment of folks, including what I think can be described as “ex-brothers in-law” who lived next door to each other in the same building (my host’s ex-wife was his neighbor’s sister). We talked about the relative merits of Sturgis vs Daytona’s Bike Week, about Burning Man and AfrikaBurn (because of course we did), and about their plans to buy bikes in America, ride across it, and sell them again sometime in the future. They also hooked me up with a lodge near Tofo Beach in a town called Praia de Barra the ex-wife/sister runs where I could stay (technically, I was told I was required to stay at least 4 days).
While we were eating, a British biker showed up and asked who was on the adventure bike. I introduced myself, and he asked about my plans. I told him I was staying with Hentie that night then heading to Swaziland. He told me he manufactures aluminum top boxes and panniers, and that what I was actually doing was staying with him in Richard’s Bay the next night. So much for Swaziland!
Hentie and his friends insisted on buying me lunch, and then I followed him back to his home. He gave me my own bedroom with a private bathroom, and plied me with beer and Jägermeister. We hung out with the gang for awhile by the pool, then retreated inside where we continued chatting, had dinner, and watched the South African Investigative Journalism show Carte Blanche, which may be the most depressing news program I’ve ever seen.
In the morning, I hit the road and headed to stay with Sean, the aluminum box builder from the pub. I caught him in a huge but unfinished house in his workshop, busy building a set of slick looking panniers with his Australian younger cousin Darcy. I hung out and tried to make myself moderately useful. I found it fascinating watching the construction process unfolding in front of me. I enjoyed learning about his design, and was jealous of how much easier his top box can be removed vs my own. When they finished up on what they were working on, the three of us hopped in the van to run some errands and get lunch.
Sean wanted to help me encase all my things in my locked boxes, so he asked about what I had in the backpack behind me. I explained that the thing that precludes me from emptying the backpack is my tent and poles, and next thing I know we’re making plans to add some PVC drainpipe to my panniers to hold extra goods. That evening, we grilled up a mess of chicken and Sean shared a handful of his imported Swazi Sibebe beer with me. I had dinner with his wife, kid, and cousin.
The next morning, Sean had some spare time and we set about finding supplies to add 4 drain pipe storage tubes to my bike. It was fun hanging out, running around town to the various spots, and watching him (and by that, I really mean me) get a discount at literally every supplier we stopped at (at a plumbing supply place, hardware store, and bolt store). We stopped at a friend of his place who’s a master woodworker and craftsman who’d built an absolutely stunning wooden top box for his motorcycle and he drilled some holes for Sean in a plate. We went by a spot and had some stainless steel mounting plates welded. We tried to pick up a set of aluminum plates that were being bent for assembly, but the power went out while they were still in the gigantic bending machine for the second time that day — TIA, as they say: This is Africa.
Then we headed back and went to work. Darcy gave us a hand, and between the three of us, we made short work of cutting, glueing, drilling, screwing, and painting the tubes, caps, panniers, and top box. The result is pretty damn awesome, and has dramatically effected my packing method in a way I’m super happy about. Sean really did me an incredible favor, donating his time, van, tools, and expertise. In return, he asked for nothing. There are some badass folks out there.
Sean makes panniers and top boxes using the name X Strong. He’s a damn fine upstanding character, and if you’re in the market for some boxes in Africa, you won’t regret going with him. He’s great for his expertise, work, and kindness. Tell him I sent you 🙂
I stayed an additional night, again having a lovely dinner with the family. Sean gave me some advice on Swaziland, where he used to live, including a backpacker’s called the Sundowners he used to run, and passed along the contact info for an Australian motorcyclist named Corey who’d also stayed with him, and who was heading up the east coast like me. I touched base with Corey, and left in the morning to head to Swaziland.
The road was mostly uneventful through South Africa, following good-condition main highway north and eventually west along the bottom of the Swazi border. Further northwest, there’s a decent-sized border, but I cut off far in the east to cross at a small out-of-the-way called Golela. To get there, you drive through a small game reserve called Pongola. The narrow tar road announces the potential hazards of animals as you cross a cattle guard into the reserve. Immediately, I ride past a large male giraffe blissfully chewing the leaves in the middle of a tree on the side of the road. When I swivel my head back towards front as I pass him, a pack of civet monkeys run across the road. If this is the harbinger of my time in Swaziland, it’s one I’m pretty stoked on.
I head off to the border smiling about the animals and new adventures, ready for a new country that doesn’t wreck me like Lesotho.
The Katse Lodge’s credit card machine wasn’t working and paying villagers for help had tapped nearly all of my money. I had just enough cash to pay for my room with breakfast before I’d need an ATM. From what I could see, I was the only person staying there. The parking lot was completely empty. I hauled my luggage and pannier into my room to take stock of it all and make sure the contents weren’t too damaged by all the damage. Each step hurt extra carrying the additional weight. I got undressed to take a shower in the communal bathroom in the dorms and marveled at the multicolored and lumpy tapestry that was my legs. After the shower, I ran to the ATM so I could afford to eat. When I returned, I limped back to the lounge, snapped some requisite photos of the beautiful scenery, and ordered lunch and a much-needed beer.
After filling my stomach, I grabbed my laptop and took advantage of the WiFi to get some work (read: this goddamn endless blog) done. Before I got too far in, a couple in motorcycle regalia walked in. I flagged them down and introduced myself. They were a pair of South African motorcyclists, and they were friendly. Perhaps, too friendly. The guy bought me beer after beer after beer. I told them about my ordeal, and he mentioned a big map of Lesotho at reception. We walked over so I could show where I crossed. On the map, the entire route was labeled “4×4 Track.” This explained some things to me.
We ended up chatting and getting more than a little drunk, eventually eating dinner together at a table. Afterwards I limped back to my room with my laptop, too drunk to get any more work done. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow despite my aching body.
Despite an early night, I slept until 8am. In the morning, I ate middling breakfast. Then I had some work to do on the bike, bending my seat mount and topbox latch back into something resembling working order, and other various things. One of the handles to my topbox mount fell off when I looked at it wrong. Ugh.
I was moving absurdly slowly. It was just after 10am when I had my things loaded again. When I checked out, the receptionist informed me they’d under-billed me for breakfast and I had to pay more. Total bullshit. I paid it anyways and hit the road. I once again crossed over the top of the dam, which meant another security checkpoint. The guard there had seen me the day before, and was crazy excited that I was an American. He kept telling me how happy he was to see me and how welcome he hoped I felt. It was adorable even as it was annoying he was keeping me. My clutch was dying and I was concerned about how long it may take me to get to the Wild Dogs National Bash in Ladybrand.
I made it back to the main highway and started my long slow path back to South Africa. The first stretch of the road hugged the reservoir, winding crazily along the receded edge. I passed the intake tower, rising lonely many meters above the water level. The wild curves continued for a very long time, as I the road worked its way up to what seemed like the most ridiculous mountain pass I’d ever witnessed, and then spent dozens of kilometers snaking down into an endless mountain plain. On every uphill, I fought my failing clutch to maximize my power while avoiding the worsening slipping.
After the mountain pass, things leveled off substantially, much to my relief. I was heading to a border crossing in the Lesotho capital of Maseru, and every kilometer brought more and fancier development. The cars became fancier. More industry appeared. The mountainous craziness I’d seen initially had been replaced by a vast and substantial steppe. Things were a slightly brighter shade of green than the muted landscape of before. I passed through town after town, many clearly organized around a single industry; the most memorable was dotted with small-scale quarries, the entire town built out of and selling white stone blocks and bricks. Huge dusty white towers of the stuff lined the roads, with the more creative citizens displaying tiles, sheets, and handicrafts made out of the stuff.
I couldn’t go more than around 58mph in straightaways and, taking the playbook from the overloaded trucks, I struggled to get up even the slightest inclines. I played leapfrog with huge diesel-belching buses that would fly past then immediately pull over to pick people up, only to repeat the process until I pulled off to stretch. At one point, a fancy SUV with tinted windows and a police escort screamed past me at around 100mph (160kmh). I wondered if it was the King.
Eventually, the lumpy landscape of Maseru appeared on the horizon. Pulling into town, I ran into the first stoplight I’d seen in days. I marveled at traffic control, traffic, and pedestrians everywhere. For what it’s worthy, the pedestrians seemed to marvel back. My good friend Marc had once lived in Maseru, and I took a brief jaunt off of my journey to stop by his old elementary school. Getting there involved climbing up from the hustle and din of the city proper and up to a more affluent neighborhood. I parked in front and took some pictures. A security guard scoped me out, then chatted with me. I explained why I was there and he seemed excited. He told me it was a good school.
From Maseru Preparatory School I headed to the border. Lesotho stamped me out in minutes. South Africa gave me shit because someone had messed up on one of my many entrances and they were confused about how many days I had left in the country (one can only spend 90 days in South Africa before they need to be stamped back into their own country, apparently), but they eventually got their shit together and let me in.
Things were calm on the South African side of the border. I was back on a beautiful highway that’s endemic of South Africa, down to the obsessive signage. I passed through a handful of kilometers of farmland and was eventually rolling into Ladybrand, home of the Wild Dogs National Bash. Google Maps routed me to the campground they were at down surface roads pocked with potholes as if they’d been recently bombed, down a dirt road, and finally into the gated driveway of a campground. As I entered, I saw adventure motorcycles scattered absolutely everywhere interspersed with tents and riders. It looked jumping. After checking in and being told to camp wherever I wanted, I rode into the din to waves from every stranger that set eyes on me. It seemed like a friendly crowd.
I parked my bike in an uninhabited spot in the middle of the campground and wandered around on foot looking for the folks I’d met in Himesville. It was a large area, and I was about to give up (there were just too many adventure bikes to be able to pick out the ones belonging to the folks I’d met) when I heard a voice call my name. My friends had found me! I asked if I could camp next to them and they waved me into a spot. I breathed a sigh of relief.
I set up camp while chatting with some of the folks I’d come to see. While still setting up, a guy approached me and introduced himself. His name was Hennie, aka Oubones, and he was the first person to send me a message on the Wild Dogs forum offering his help and a place to stay if I happened to be in his area. I said ‘hi’ and told him about my clutch situation. Within five minutes, he’s phoned someone, and with one call, located a brand new clutch for my bike near him hometown. He told me I could come with him and his family and he’d give me a place to stay until I could get my bike fixed. I was in awe. Before I had too much time to revel in my luck, I was pulled to the bar, where I met dozens of ridiculously friendly and kind adventure bikers. My new friends shared their dinner with me, and I ended up having numerous drinks bought for me, many new friends made, and a sweet Wild Dogs hat from the previous bash gifted to me.
It was a dangerous place. When I’d hit my alcohol limit, the drunk folks remained persistent. Eventually, I ghosted on the crowd and headed to bed before they could peer pressure me into more. I awoke to Hennie giving me a wake-up call. Him, his wife, his son, and two female friends were heading to a town called Clarens, that I’d heard was a big motorcycle destination, for a night before heading to their hometown of Hammarsdale. I’d asked to tag along. We packed our things. Hennie had a diesel van with his BMW F650GS on a trailer on the back. His son was riding a Honda NC750X. Their friends had another car in tow.
After a couple bumps in the road out of the bash (Hennie’s van needed a jump, and a trailer with a BMW 1200GS that was being raffeled needed to be picked up and dragged out of the way of some obstacles), we hit the road. With my clutch, I struggled horribly to keep up. Within 30 minutes, a cover from Hennie’s BMW flew off and I stopped the van. It had already been ran over, but Hennie asked about how I was going with my clutch, and brought up that I may end up shedding clutch pieces into my oil and damaging my engine. He offered to exchange my bike for his on the trailer, and let me ride his BMW to Clarens. I was flabbergast by the trust and generosity, but I accepted. We swapped the bikes out on the side of the road.
We caught up to Hennie’s son at a farm stall/restaurant along the way, and I rode the remainder of the way to Clarens with his son on the NC750X. The kid was a speed demon, and it was all I could do on the F650GS to keep up with him. It was a scenic, if windy, path, with buttes and mountains lining the largely green path. Clarens itself was a super cute touristy town arranged around a large square central park and nestled serenely in the mountains. We took a brief trip around it before heading to an adorable backpackers where we could set up our tents to camp. After we got settled, Hennie and his son ferried the rest of us to town (picking me up and riding me there on his son’s motorcycle) where we hung out, walked around, and drank fancy craft beer. The town was totally jam-packed with South Africans who head there for the weekend, many of them on motorcycles, including many of the same folks who’d been at the Wild Dogs bash. After a few hours of that, we headed back to the backpackers where Hennie’s son (also Hennie, and AKA Bones) braaied up a feast. We ate, drank, and chatted. I also met some pretty cool folks also staying at the same Backpacker’s who were there for a Lada (a cheap Soviet-era 4×4 car) meetup.
It rained in the night. and things were pretty soggy the next morning. While we let things dry, Hennie, his wife Rodene, and I went for a hike along a trail behind the property while things dried in the sun. There were remnants of old stone fence posts, a pump house, and eventually a great view of a levy and water-carved landscape.
As we got back, it started to rain again, and there was a mad dash to get all the gear back under cover and out of the rain. The rain let up, but the forecast called for loads more as well as plenty of rain later that day, so the family decided we’d load all three bikes up, two on the trailer, and Hennie’s in the back of the van. It took awhile and some physical Tetris to get everything loaded, but we pulled it off.
After we loaded up, me in the van, we hit the road. The wind was totally insane; I was super happy to not be on the bike. Hennie had plans to show me some nice scenery. We passed through the appropriately named Golden Gate Highlands National Park, which wraps a beautiful mountain pass. Hennie took us venturing onto a scenic side-route along a small paved road up the side of a mountain I’d have never found on my own. Multicolored painted cliffs dotted the landscape, with occasional large mammals grazing away. Lightly colored vegetation that has seemed like a staple through water-parched southern Africa covered everything not devoid of dirt.
Descending out of Golden Gate Highlands we passed through huge swaths of burned charred grasslands. In some places, a dramatic waving line between green grass and black char was visible. Wisps of smoke and ash still rose through the air, and the smell was one fresh wildfire. The landscape flattened out, but the specters of the Drakensberg mountains haunted the horizon. For my benefit, Hennie led us out of our way to Royal Natal National Park, where a famous land formation known as “The Amphitheater” is located. It was hazy and sprinkling rain, so while the photos didn’t pan out perfectly, I got a good feel for the impressive mountain range.
A final rainbow sent us out of this last national park. After dinner, the weather deteriorated with the setting sun. The last couple hours were wet, windy, and miserable. Around 9 o’clock, we rolled through a gate on a hilly country road in Hammarsdale and into the family home. With many hands, we made quick work of unloading the motorcycles and all the gear from the van. Hennie Jr. once again cooked us a great meal on a BBQ, and I was set up in a central room in the house.
I was the late riser in the family waking up at 7:30am. Hennie’s brother was coming in later and escorting me to the motorcycle shop, so I went to work getting some work trying to repair my bike before he showed up. We were headed to the workshop of Derek “Mad Murdoch” Graham, a former motocross star who was injured racing, and subsequently crippled after a botched surgery. Of course, he was also a friend of Hennie and his brother. When I arrived, Derek directed one of the mechanics along a vast hall of parts, plastic pieces and mufflers hanging from the ceilings, motorcycles in various states of assembly arranged neatly in lines. He pointed out a box labeled DRZ400. Inside were wiring harnesses, various doodads, and a pile of individually wrapped clutch parts.
The mechanic was a soft spoken chap who showed me photos of the two DRZ’s he’s had in the past, and he made quick effective work of the task. I once again needed to address a failed weld on my rear rack, which was becoming something of a recurring story, so after the clutch I pulled the top case off and he went off to weld it back together for me. In the meantime, I was also able to source a half-decent replacement mirror for mine that was smashed in the night in Lesotho.
Hennie’s brother meanwhile was working in a crazy workshop on diesel fuel pumps using large ancient Bosch machinery. He walked me through a bit of how it works over a beer, and then we went to lunch down the street. Aside from making a pretty decent pizza, the restaurant was a sort of half-way house for troubled folks, like Delancy Street in SF. Our waiter told me about how he’d walked all the way around the continent of Africa. When I asked him about some troubled borders, he responded with stories of being smuggled between Morocco and Algeria, and advised me that I needed to stop thinking “like an American” to get through them. It actually seemed like pretty sound advice.
When my bike was back together and I’d paid (Mad Murdoch was nice enough to give me a discount on parts, but clutch plates in SA don’t come cheap!) I headed back to La Casa de Hennie. I spent the next two hours with a hammer, a wooden plank, some vice grips, and my panniers, smashing and bashing away until they were made out of something even remotely resembling straight lines. When I placed them back on my bike and they *fit*, I was overjoyed!
Hennie was the last of the family back from work, and we’d decided to go out to dinner. The poor guy was out of work so late that the first couple spots we tried weren’t serving dinner. Eventually, we ended up at an Italian Mafia-themed restaurant. I drove everyone crazy by managing to buy dinner and only order a salad. Mission accomplished!
The word on the street was South Africa was expecting massive protests the next day organized by South Africa’s largest labor union (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party, which had threatened to “shut down the country.” After talking to the family about what this meant (supposedly roadblocks and potentially tired full of petrol burning in the streets), I decided it was probably best to stick around another day and avoid trying to make it through Durban during all this. I was also sold by the prospect of tasty coffee, working WiFi, and some scenic rides if I swung by Hennie Jr.’s work. I settled on a day of taking it easy.
In the morning, I lazily prepped and hopped on the bike. It was a leisurely and scenic ride through sugar cane fields and past logging trucks out to the small one-horse town where Hennie Jr. managed the one store in town. Once there, I was setup in the break room with power, internet, pod-cappuccinos, and even beef with gravy on rice. I sat around and worked for awhile, meeting the mayor, some cops, and various other folks who cycled through. Hennie Jr. then gave me advice on a ride that took me through parts of the Valley of a Thousand Hills, through more fields and forests, small towns, and curvy hilly dirt roads. Eventually I circled back before more rain struck.
That night, the family went all out to get me back for the dinner (and because they’re a crazy kind and generous bunch) cooking up a huge steak meal in the style of Spur (an American-themed steakhouse chain popular in South Africa that mystifyingly uses a feathered headdress-wearing Native American as its mascot). The steaks were massive and delicious. The forecast called for another day of rain and misery the following day, and they once again tried to convince me to stick around another night, but the time had come. It was time to move on. Next stop: Durban!
Update Oct 7 2017: I’ve finally managed to get all the supporting photos uploaded for this post.
I awoke in the well-furnished confines of my Himesville Arms digs ready for an epic ride. I’d downloaded the offline map of Lesotho to Google Maps (the entire country fits in one downloadable region). I had a few points of interest I wanted to swing through, and a rough plan for how I’d get to them. I packed my things and hit the road.
The day was warm and clear, perfect for enjoying the broad mountain vistas of Lesotho. As I finished the first handful of kilometers of tree-lined pastoral landscape to get to the turnoff for “Sani Pass Rd.” my excitement was nearly bubbling over. The first 20km or so of the pass road are perfectly paved. The mountains seem to pull in around you as you begin your ascent. Then, abruptly, the pavement ends, and a decent gravel road begins. For the first few kilometers, you ride up and down, around bends, hugging a rock-choked stream. Towering light-brown/green ridges encompass most of your view. Despite changing elevation constantly, you don’t really seem to be rising much. You can’t get much of a view in front or behind yourself at any given moment. The struggle of maintaining the road is ever-evident. Every few turns is a huge washout with a construction crew. Elsewhere, huge concrete tunnels are being installed beneath the road. Luckily, the few 4x4s and construction vehicles on the road mean you’re waved through with little ado.
Then the road starts to change. It takes a decidedly upward trend. I passed some small un-labeled buildings and began to worry, as I’d heard the South African border checkpoint is at the bottom of the pass, and I didn’t particularly want to get to the top only to be sent back down to get a stamp. Then a small paved ramp appeared to the left — a sign of development — and further on, the border post appeared.
I parked, and a few moments later, a very odd couple showed up on an adventure motorcycle behind me. Excited, I tried to chat with them only to be uncomfortably rebuffed. No matter. I headed to the immigration office, and had a brand new stamp within seconds. I bid farewell to the weird pair of bikers behind me and headed off to the pass.
Sani Pass is gorgeous. Hugging the mountain, the dirt road quickly angles up and up, cutting a path to the sky. Across the winding river, huge stone pillars rise up from the mildly-grassy mountains like sentinals watching. The sun glints off of small rivulets of water running down near the top of the ridge producing the appearance of patches of snow. Sheer rock faces tower above the mountain slope, menacingly. The road continues to meander, the drop to the water becoming more pronounced, the surface becoming less dirt, more pebbles and shards of shale. The road is narrow and rarely flat or straight, so turning off to take photos seems like a poor idea. Instead, I ride slowly and deliberately, taking in as much of the scenery as I can. Finally, I come to the first of the tight steep turns that’s made the road famous. My spirits are up among the mountain tops.
I begin to make my way up through the curves. They’re steep and covered in loose rocks, but thoroughly do-able. My motorcycle was built for roads like this, and it shows. The odd folks behind me at the border come flying up past me in a hail of rocks, but my only thought is they’re missing out. Where possible, I stop, take off my helmet, and feel the not-insubstantial wind in my hair as I look out across the valley below, marveling at the snake-like path I’m on. From the middle of the curves, you seem to be sitting on a precarious spot, with a steep rock face to one side, and a perilous dropoff to the other. Maintaining the speed to continue up the mountain, but still make hairpin turns, made my palms sweaty and the hair stand up on my neck. I imagined the madmen who take this road in the winter, then quickly tabled the thought.
The last few curves are the steepest, and as I climbed up, I had to pass around a pair of massive BMW R1200GS bikes and an RV on their way down. Giving my bike enough power to overcome gravity, the horizon leveled off to reveal a broad steppe, border post, and 100 meters ahead, pavement! Off to the right, just beyond the border fence, the famous pub at the top of the pass could be seen. With only 17-or-so tight turns, the road to the top seems to stretch on forever, but I still felt a twinge of disappointment when it’s over, and that I couldn’t ride something so crazy and awesome for another hour or two. These thoughts rattled around the back of my subconscious brain while the rest of my conscious mind rejoiced in a sea of feeling accomplished.
I parked my bike and headed to the border post for a perfunctory stamp and to pay the small toll. Then it was off to the highest pub in Africa for some requisite photos, a pint of the local beer Maluti, a chicken wrap, and a hell of a view of Sani Pass. I reveled in the cognitive dissonance of the place’s WiFi, and after unnecessarily sharing on social media that I’d friggin’ made it to the top of the world (and highest African border crossing), I sipped my beer and planned my next step.
Lesotho is a small country completely situated in the mountains. As such, it gets a substantial amount of snow fall and is treated as a giant water supply for much of South Africa. There’s a lot of complicated history there that I highly recommend as reading for those curious, and that history has a non-trivial role in the political tumult Lesotho continues to struggle with, such as a top general being assassinated there the week before I arrived.
With all this water, the massive Katse Dam was built to harness it (proposed by a South African engineer and organized by the World Bank. The damn thing cost $8 billion dollars!). Situated near the middle of the country, the second largest dam in Africa, as well as its highest, this seemed like the next logical destination. There are a small number of paved highways through Lesotho, and Google Maps advised a rather straight and boring route there along one of them. I instead zoomed in and found a more direct, but substantially smaller and curvier option that I wanted to try. I was going to live dangerously. No matter how you look at it, this was an amazing decision. Depending on how you look at it, it was amazingly good or bad.
I paid for my meal in South African Rand and got my first of the local Lesotho currency (conveniently equivalent and interchangeable within the country with Rand, just like Namibian dollars) as change. The highway was beautiful in nearly all senses of the word. It was perfectly paved, relatively well labeled (aside from sudden, insane corners), full of beautiful views, and also super curvy, occasionally steep, and nearly desolate. In other words: it was a perfect highway for motorcycling.
Immediately after Sani Pass, my path down the highway swung again upwards, to an even higher mountain pass. No matter how many times I describe a beautiful mountain vista, no justice will be done to them, and this was no exception. The mountains of Lesotho felt a bit like the middle of the Andes, as if the mountains east of Santiago had grown grass that then were left to dry nearly to a golden brown, that is to say, they lack the jagged edges of the Rockys but maintain their impressiveness. It took a couple surprise curves to realize a little “>” or “<” sign took the place of a massive billboard with flashing lights that you’d see in the States for the types of curves placed on the highways here. The roads rarely had a speed limit marker, because there’d be no point. You could go as fast as you wanted… it was pretty damn slow if you wanted to live.
I followed Google Maps down the highway, passing a fast cadence of tiny mountain-side settlements of small round stone huts with pointed thatched roofs, goats, sheep, cows, donkeys, and horsemen. Lesotho (pronounced ‘Lih-SOO-too’) is the established homeland of the Sotho (‘SOO-too,’ obviously) people, traditionally mountain herding people. The prevalent dress out in the mountains is a thick heavy blanket fastened by a giant metal clip (similar but different to a safety pin) worn over the shoulders, and frequently a thick woven balaclava around the head, even in mid-day when it’s warm. Nearly everyone in the country older than mid-teen years carries a stick, riding crop, or whip, even when there are no animals in sight, an uncommon occurrence.
I’d heard that fuel was few and far between, so when I passed a set of ragged-looking pumps to my left on a flat bend in the road, I doubled-back and pulled up to them. A guy wearing (what I ignorantly consider) the traditional garb sans-balaclava was standing nearby, and stared at me with a slack-jawed wonder. The pump said “paraffin.” I asked if there was any petrol, and he tightened his jaw long enough to say “yes!” then loosened it again, continuing to stare directly at me, immobile. I was unconvinced. I pointed at my tank and again inquired about gas. Again, “yes!” Eventually, someone else came out of the attached store and said there was no petrol. I asked where I could find it, and he pointed back the way I’d come. I still had over half a tank plus my reserve, so I figured I’d carry on. The slack-jawed man continued to marvel at me in silence until I was out of view.
I took the first turnoff Google Maps recommended started in the village of Tlokoeng. The grass-covered road descended immediately and steeply downward into a river, with deep ruts and the occasional boulder. It looked brutal, and I second-guessed myself after only about 100 meters. On the insane road, I once again referred to Google maps and found another pathway to the road I was aiming for just a few kilometers up the road at Mapholaneng. I turned around on the steep and narrow grass path to odd looks in the village and again hit the highway. When I got to the second version of the turnoff, things looked far more promising, so I figured Google had just routed me on the worse of the pathways to the main cross-country route. Once again, I’d had a sign, but ignored it.
The road I’d turned onto was hard, but it was beautiful and totally do-able… at first. About a kilometer down the road, in a stretch clinging to a mountain and quite bumpy with stones, a large flatbed truck with a picker arm attached was slowly making its way towards me. I pulled to the side to allow it to pass, and it pulled up next to me. The driver leaned out the window and asked me where I was going. I told him Katse Dam. He asked if I was by myself. I said yes, and asked if the road was bad. He said yeah, parts are bad, but he looked at my bike, said I “could make my own path,” and that I should be fine. He continued off towards the highway, and I continued my poor choice.
There was no such thing as straight and flat, and instead I bumped up and down mountain pass after mountain pass, with little but small Sotho villages of more round huts for signs of human development. Dodging goats, horses, cows, and donkeys became part of the adventure. From the tops of the mountains, I could see the road etched into the dry muted landscape. Up and down I went, mildly intimidated by the whips and sticks the locals were armed with. Kids waved and held their hands out for money or sweets. Old women stared silently and questioningly as I passed by.
The first 41km passed just as such. I was enjoying myself. Then there was a fork in the road. I was using navigation and as such, failed to notice (in fact, I only did just now re-tracing my steps) that on Google Maps, the side of the fork I was taking was identified in smaller strokes, indicating a different grade of road. But I’m being generous. What I turned onto became something altogether separate than a road. It was just around noon when I turned right onto a waking nightmare.
Ignorant of what I’d done, I marveled at how the “road” devolved so quickly. Huge water-cut ruts began to appear and wind through the steepest parts. The dirt was replaced with rocks, nay, boulders! Eventually, I stopped at the foot of a mountain and just stared at the gnarly pile of rocks climbing up to the summit that I was intended to cross. I dismounted and walked the path all the way to the top, trying to identify the best course up to avoid tragedy. I went back down to the bike, rode up to what I’d thought was the top, only to find the path continued. I hiked again. And again. And again. Up and down, the path was so insane I couldn’t confidently ride many of the stretches without pre-planning.
I can’t remember the first time I dropped the bike. The times blend together. I’d be riding up and over huge boulders, bouncing literally from one to another, and my front wheel would hit at an angle and I’d be thrown off like I was riding a bucking bronco. Down was even worse with the additional effort of needing to ride the clutch and brakes to control speed, combined with the less forgiving additional weight on the handlebars. My panniers and handlebars absorbed hit after hit, gaining new scratches and dents. At one point, a massive rut was running through an incline I needed to pass. The majority of the road was on the right, but the water had also washed all the dirt away, leaving jagged and broken rocks loose and imposing. On the left was a mildly-less treacherous path, but one that was narrowly winning against the mini-canyon to its right. I chose the path on the left, terrified of the bike ending up in the ditch. Luckily it didn’t. Instead, when riding off a ledge and onto a pile of loose rocks that caused my bike to come to a crashing halt, the bike stayed up on the path. I, however, when rolling sidelong into the hole. I picked myself up and dusted myself off. The fall didn’t hurt at all, but looking at the surrounding situation, I couldn’t help but begin hysterically laughing. It was just too absurd.
I passed tiny village after tiny village. I hiked a huge portion of the road twice, scoping things out and returning. I rode through small rivers. The road frequently disappeared in a pile of rocks with no indication of where it was and where it was going, but Google Maps had a pretty spot-on path that kept me oriented. Occasionally the road passed right through what seemed like someone’s yard. The road didn’t improve. It only got worse. The first 6 or so times I laid it down, I picked it back up and continued on, but after that, I was getting tired, and I started recruiting the locals. Invariably, before they’d help, they’d demand money. No matter what I gave them, afterwards, they wanted more. Not that it’s an excuse, according to Wikipedia, “about 40% of the population lives below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day.” I was paying far higher prices for a little bit of help.
Shit got intense. The roads were one step up from impassable. The worst of them I was too shell-shocked to photograph. There’d been no potable water supplies, and I’d run out of drinking water (I hadn’t brought as much as normal, expecting South Africa’s water bowl to provide with the aid of my water filter), I’d been on hard roads since the morning, and I’d picked up the more times than I was singularly able. I was exhausted. When I’d hike up and down the mountains to find a path, sweat poured out of my helmet. I could feel bruises growing and stiffness setting in in my legs from repeated tumbles.
On a particularly treacherous stretch of road, I took a tumble. I tried repeatedly, but I no longer had the strength to right the bike. I sat down on the side of the road and worked out my plan. Looking around, other than the “road,” there were zero signs of civilization. I was truly alone. I needed a break. I was completely exhausted and worn down. I didn’t want to keep going; I wanted to give up and just leave. I dreamt of another huge truck passing and just carrying me out of there. Looking at the path ahead and behind, the unstoppable notion in my head was just that I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t want to fall and crash. I didn’t want to struggle and find paths that failed. I wanted a break, a respite, a nice meal and a warm bed. I thought about my GPS transponder and what it would mean to hit the help button, but then I thought of the plan I’d made up with my genius friend Michael. He’d assume far worse than my situation, and my loved ones would be terrified. I wasn’t emotionally prepared for the fallout from that.
No. I would camp there on the steppe, next to the bike, and try again in the morning. I There was still an hour or two of daylight, so there was no rush. It was finally starting to get cold, which was a blessing. I’d try again in the morning. I’d persevere. I wouldn’t be beaten by Lesotho. I wasn’t personally convinced, but as I’d been all my life, I was stubborn. Then I spotted a figure on the horizon.
I watched from my high vantage. The figure wasn’t quite on the road, but was following it more-or-less. I waited, hoping they’d be kind and sympathetic. I felt vulnerable… because I was. As the figure approached, I made out a woman wearing nearly western-style clothes. When she approached, I asked for water and made the sign for it, but she either didn’t understand or didn’t want to (this ended up being a particularly confusing recurring thing). Instead I asked her for help picking up the bike. She set her coat down and helped me right it. Unprompted, I handed her 30 rand, so thankful for her help given my location. But the road was still a nightmare. I made it another 40 meters or so, then ended up back on the ground, a new bruise swelling in my right leg. The woman was subsequently making her way along the road, and again came to my aid. Together, we righted the bike, and this time, I crested the mountain.
On the other side lay misery. I was looking down on a field of stones, at at least a 30 degree angle. The path was inconsistent and dangerous. I hiked a bit of it, checked Google Maps to see my remaining distance to tar (26km), set my jaw, and decided to try and escape this cursed place. I made it about 100 meters before the impassable landscape once again claimed my upright status. When I achingly got up, I paced and cursed. I couldn’t do it anymore. I was too beaten, sore, exhausted, thirsty, hungry, and demoralized. The sun was about 30 minutes from dipping below the mountain tops. I looked at my steep and barren surroundings and I made up my mind: I’d set up camp here tonight, despite my lack of adequate rations (I have emergency dry food for these situations), pick up the bike, and continue on in the morning.
The woman who’d helped me out previously was still trekking, and in my direction. After contemplating my shitty situation for about 10 minutes, she trundled over the top of the mountain and came to my meager new home. She looked at my bike and me, her expression showing sympathy and saying “that’s some shit you got yourself into!” In Sotho I could understand (by context alone), she asked what my plan was. I held my hands up to my head and tilted it sideways in the universal sign of “sleep” and pointed to the brush off the road. She was having none of it.
In English, she said “no no no,” followed by “village,” followed by pointing, followed by her immediately trying to pick up my backpack to carry it for me. I stopped her and told her I could carry it, even though it was awfully tempting to suddenly acquire a porter. I was nervous of the massive cultural disconnect I was entering, but I shouldered my backpack, grabbed my helmet and tank bag, and set out down the mountain, following the woman.
We hiked in alternating silence and failed conversation. She had a handful of English words, but they seemed well practiced statements. She couldn’t tell me how far we were going. She seemed confused and just laughed when I asked her if she had water. But she told me in no uncertain terms that I’d stay tonight, and that she had to go to work tomorrow. It wasn’t clear, but it seemed she worked on a farm several kilometers away, and that she would walk in the morning. We hiked over two more peaks, my motorcycle disappearing completely from view, which made me very nervous. Then we rounded one last lump of earth and a small village of less than a dozen huts came into view. We’d came about 2km.
The woman walked up to the first hut on the right and went in. The base was round and made of stone, with a thick pointed thatch roof. A short wooden door stood in the singular opening, open. In the dwindling hours of the day, the inside was completely occluded. There were no windows. A minute after the woman popped in, she popped out again and gave me an annoyed look and signal: “come in you silly foreigner” she seemed to say. I ducked my tall backpack through the entryway and into the swept-dirt-floored hut and into another world.
There was another woman inside. I’m a terrible judge, but I’d wager they were both in the neighborhood of their mid-30’s. The woman threw my things on top of enormous bags of dry goods and gave me a tiny stool to sit on. She lit a match, then a small oil candle that provided meager light. It sat on a small table covered in various things. Inside, the thatched roof was dark and oily with soot. Dry goods and odds and ends ringed the structure. A group of very young children came inside and joined us and stared unabashadly at me. I tried to make myself small and respectful. Without words to indicate my appreciation, and with my attempts to convey it seemingly misunderstood (in retrospect, I think they just thought it would be rude to accept it), it was all I had. Outside, a rotating crew of locals passed by, taking turns getting a peak at the weird foreigner in a motorcycle jacket. They didn’t come in and talk. An older man came in and took a seat near me. I prepared to show my respect to what I assumed was the patriarch of the house, but he barely even glanced at me, simply sauntering in, hunkering down, and lighting a hand-rolled cigarette.
Presently, an older woman showed up with a large round metal can full of sticks and open at the top. She placed it in the middle of the hut. Another match was lit, and soon we had a full on blaze. In minutes, the scene became a haze of choking smoke. There was no ventillation except the open door. One of the kids gave a cough that sounded serious. He would go on to repeat it on occasion the rest of the evening. Everyone got low, as if gravity had increased two-fold. The children were on the floor. The women were toiling, one hand-washing clothes in a soapy yellow plastic tub, another messing with goods on the table. Two short pieces of rebar were thrown on top of the can. A pot was loaded with water. I was dying of thirst and again asked for a drink. This time, an enormous metal mug was produced and filled with water. Before it made it to me, a paper sachet was also produced, and its contents emptied into the mug. The red substance tasted like extra-sweet gatorade, but I didn’t care. I quaffed it with reckless abandon, downing a quarter of the big-gulp-style mug in a single go. I drank a full half before I reasoned I should share. It would be ages before the mug made it back.
The crew huddled around the fire, all wrapped in thick heavy blankets. The night was still warm. As a large saucepan was lowered onto the rebar over the fire, and some eggs were cracked into it, I moved to the floor next to the kids. Immediately, the woman came up to me with two large thick blankets, presumably assuming I was cold. Unsure how to handle it, I draped them over my shoulders. The kids and women all watched and laughed to themselves. I was happy to be amusing. As the meal cooked, I showed the kids how I can whistle by clasping my hands together and blowing into them. As anticipated, they repeatedly unsuccessfully began blowing into their hands.
Eventually, a plate materialized and was loaded up with the contents of the saucepan. I was served first, followed by the older man. I saw no other plates. In the meager light of the cookfire, I could hardly make out the concoction, but my mouth knew the truth: fried eggs and pap (a cornmeal porridge very common here). I greedily began to eat as soon as the man took his first bite. As I continued to eat, I waited for the others to be served, but nothing seemed to be happening. Before I was totally full, I was uncomfortable about this fact, and began to eat much slower. Then the man passed his plate to the women. I immediately passed my plate to the children. As an act, it went nearly completely un-acknowledged, as if it was neither expected or noteworthy. It just was.
After I’d passed on the plate, I pressed 100 rand into the old man’s hand. I wanted to be clear that I didn’t expect to just be fed for nothing. Though the women noticed the action, it passed without comment. I repeatedly thanked and praised my hosts, but it continued to produce little intelligible results from my culturally disadvantaged vantage.
After dinner, the woman who’d brought me slipped out without me noticing immediately. Ten minutes or so later, she re-appeared and motioned for me to come outside. I began to follow but she stopped me immediately, indicating I should bring my things. I complied. She led me about a dozen meters to another hut. Approximately the same size, from the outside I could see this one had a pair of windows worked into the stones. She led me in using an old Nokia candybar phone as a torch. Stepping through the entry, it took my mind a full second or two to process what I was seeing.
Inside the hut was a full bed frame with a mattress. The bed was made up, with a duvet and pillow. In the middle of the hut were more massive bags of dry goods, mostly corn meal, but also whole corn kernels. There was a wooden chair by the head of the bed set up like a nightstand, and a dresser with a mirror on it at the foot. Old calendars covered the windows. A tiny rug laid next to the nightstand/chair. She was about to walk out again, but still worried about faux pas, I asked her what to do if I had to pee using the lease uncomfortable sign language I could. She brought me a yellow plastic bucket and shut me in the hut.
It was still quite early, not quite 9pm. I climbed in bed with my book for a bit, then drifted off to the incredible silence of the surrounding village. I awoke at 6am to the sound of acticity. The village was already bustling. I found the woman who’d brought me in, and she immediately filled a tub with hot water, then got out soap and lotion. I washed my hands, face, and neck. She watched. It was an odd feeling. When I was finished, she motioned for me to get my stuff and to head back to the bike.
We began the hike back to the bike with three of the kids in tow. As soon we we left the village, I handed money to the woman and once again tried to communicate my appreciation, but to little reaction. We passed the same mountains, and eventually my bike became visible on the top of another. As we approached, it became apparent that something had changed with the bike: the seat appeared to be flying from the top like a flag. I got nervous.
When we got to the bike, once again my heart sank. The seat was at a 90 degree angle to the bike, its mounting bracket twisted wreckage. The right rearview mirror was smashed to bits. Next to my top case sat its padlock, a huge dent had appeared in its side, and the clasp that fastens the lid on was badly mangled. Something serious had battered my poor motorcycle. It looked like something had literally ran over it, but I couldn’t really be sure.
I got the bike upright and managed to reconnect the seat more-or-less. I checked the boxes. It turned out two of the padlocks had been ripped off, but none of the contents were missing. The lower strap for my tank bag, which connected only via the seat, wasn’t so lucky. It couldn’t be found anywhere. The woman left to go to work. The kids gruffly demanded “give me money!” with angry intonation. Looking down at the brutal landscape, I told them if they could help me get the bike to the village, I would give them money.
We had to get pretty creative to work around the stone wreckage in our path. With my cadre of village children, I trundled through a ditch, and down a long 300 meter animal path that circumvented a large part of the worst of the road. With much pushing, pulling, and careful riding, I made it to the village and paid the kids, and took stock of my situation…
I had an early start and 24km left to go. The road looked no better than what I’d been through. My legs were bruised and aching horribly. Despite the hour, it was already hot and I was on my way to being drenched in sweat. I hadn’t seen a single vehicle pass by since the truck I’d passed at the beginning of my trip off-road jaunt the day before. I considered hitting the help button on my GPS transponder and hoping for help, but I was dissuaded by both the panic I’d cause, and the knowledge that my issue would probably be misinterpreted as more severe than it was. I didn’t want another day of painful falls and bike brutalization. I wanted to rest. I wanted to put my bike on a truck and let it do the work. But I also didn’t want to give up. It took me a minute to steel myself, even taking a moment to pray to a god I don’t really believe in, both before and after painfully mounting my twisted ride. I hit the road.
The scenery and the mechanism I wound through my chosen path (frequently dismounting and walking the route to pick the best way forward) stayed the same. The folks along the path became somewhat less accommodating. I became numb to the phrase “Give me money!” I heard it from group after group after group of children. When they’d approach me on my steep jaunts, and thus have more time to try their luck, it was invariably followed by “Give me sweets!” Each time, the tone of voice was one of indignant demand. It was frustrating.
But it wasn’t just the children who had taken to asking for money. On one jaunt, I was staring at a particularly treacherous stretch of road, and a woman perched at the top tried to point me in another direction, but demanded money for the luxury of the advice. I refused. Also, her advice was woefully wrong, and led to another crash. It would be one of many. Throughout the course of the day, I would see young adults (17-29-ish) sprinting at full-tilt across the mountains on an intercept course to hold out their hands or even try and bar my path across the road. In the most terrifying of these interactions, a pair of hooded herders who had been perched on a bluff over the road jumped down and stood next to each other, both extending their arms and legs into the air, blocking the road and making threatening gestures. I stopped but kept the bike running. They were clearly pleased I’d stopped, and immediately broke ranks and made for the right side to (presumably) demand payment. Instead, I put the bike into gear and took off to the left around them. They briefly raised their hands and made threatening gestures with their whips, causing me to think I may be Indiana Jones-whipped off my bike while making my mistake, but they demurred. About 800 meters down the road, I again ran into a huge and scary decline. When I dismounted to take a look, I saw in the distance the two, who had once again perched upon the bluff, were sprinting down the street to get to me. I ran back to my bike, jumped on it, and took off sight-unseen down the mountain. I stayed upright and considered myself lucky and blessed.
I rode through the middle of villages. I lost sight of the road and found it again. I took a wrong turn and spent 30 minutes arguing with children about the best way back to the road, ultimately ignoring all their terrible advice and making it back in one piece. I talked to farmers on mules who were smiling and amazed by my presence, but who also just wanted to hang out and stare at me. I hiked up and down mountains. Sweat poured from the top of my helmet so much I had to take my sunglasses off and squint through the salt.
I had two low moments. In the first, I was confronted with a ludicrously steep decline full of boulders and spent minutes contemplating how I could possibly descend it. Eventually, I found a group of villagers and offered to pay them to help me walk the bike slowly down the mountain. For 15 grueling minutes, we panted and sweated down the path, nearly losing the bike on numerous occasions, but coming out safely at the bottom. On the second, on a particularly heinously steep section that would have been easy had there not been huge boulders randomly dispersed in the roadway, I was intentionally going fast enough to make it up the steep terrain when a huge sound like a gunshot rung out, and the bike jolted hard to the left and crashed heavily on the right side. When I stood up, I figured out what had happened: my left pannier had collided with a boulder and sat, ripped from its frame, mangled about a meter behind the bike. When I got up the energy from my sore, exhausted, and profusely sweating body to right the bike, it came up with the right pannier also too mangled to sit on its mount. I emptied the boxes on the roadway and used a rock to bash them into enough shape to carry on.
I can’t possibly communicate the depths of my morale that day. A dozen times, I stared at what lay ahead of me and wanted nothing more than to give up. It seemed too hard. I knew more painful crashes were ahead. My legs were bruised and swollen. My arms hung loosely, burned out from trying to keep a heavily loaded bike steady through a constant rock assault. I thought longingly about the GPS transponder, and how at a moment’s notice, I could plop down next to the bike and cook my emergency rations, confident I’d be on my way home to comfort and simplicity. At times, I laughed like an idiot into my helmet at the absurdity of the path I was on.
After getting stuck on a pile of rocks and needing to gun my engine and drop the clutch, I noticed after that it wasn’t nearly as responsive as it had been. I then had to perform the same operation about 3 more times in the next 300 meters, and before I knew it, I had to be gentle with the throttle or my engine would continue to rev, but my motorcycle wouldn’t be going anywhere. I considered hiking to the road.
I made a point not to watch the kilometers tick down on Google Maps. Whenever I did, I couldn’t believe how slow my progress was. On occasion, I’d be locked neck-and-neck with local pedestrians, and they’d win. With my morale scraping the barrel, the road passed through a dusty mountain town and became something remotely resembling a dirt road (90% of the time). With 6km to go, I rode in awe as my knuckles weren’t white, and every fiber of my arms and legs weren’t braced for impact. In the last 2km, I passed good looking 4×4 trucks that looked like they’d been recently cleaned. I passed a fenced-in school, something I hadn’t seen in well over 24 hours. Eventually, I climbed a super steep (but blessedly short and well-traveled) embankment onto gravel. Shortly after that, I hit pavement.
I wanted to leap from the bike and onto the surface, embracing it. Kissing it. Taking a silly photo to document my happiness. As soon as I stopped to stare in awe, much like the guy at the petrol station before I started my misadventure stared at me, a group broke off of a throng of people who were hanging out around vehicles (actual working moving driving vehicles!!!) and asked me for money. I figured it was better to move along.
It was nearly noon. It had taken the better part of 6 hours to escape the last 24 hours of my personal hell. I was dumped onto a small intersection in a small town stuffed with traffic, but once I made it out and climbing up to another high mountain pass, there was nearly no traffic. The pavement was perfect. I was running out of gas, and at the top of the pass was a petrol station. I felt like a million bucks. My grin was from ear to ear. Inside my mind, thoughts that rarely cross through my mind held a raucous party “Holy shit you made it! Holy shit you’re tough! Holy shit you’re a badass! You never gave up, even though things were crazy hard!” The thoughts were unstoppable. For the rest of the day, my modesty was put into a corner and told to shut the fuck up.
The station looked like a bomb had gone off. There were only two pumps: one petrol one diesel. After filling up, I had to guess which of the three doors in the bare concrete building went to something resembling a store. Building materials, trash, and other detritus covered the floor, but they had a working fridge. I ordered a 2-liter of coke and sat out front looking at the torn-apart cars and pallets of empty glass bottles in their yard. I drank my coke and alternated between shuddering at the thought of what I’d been through, and rejoicing at the break that was upcoming: there was a lodge overlooking the Katse Dam that looked fancy, and I didn’t care. I was staying there.
From the petrol station, I descended down the winding, perilous, and beautiful highway. I could make out the deep blue of the reservoir behind the dam. The reservoir level was clearly very low compared to its capacity. Eventually, a gigantic concrete dam appeared on the horizon, and the GPS directed me to turn directly onto it. There was immediately a fence, the guard asked me a lot of questions about why I was there, and threatened to charge me a fee for crossing (which I had no intention of paying), but eventually told me he’d let me cross for free because I was by myself. I had to fill out a form, and I passed over the top of the dam, rubbernecking all the way.
On the other side, I followed signs for the Katse Village, and once again found myself filling out a form in front of a guard. I followed the road to its terminus and found myself at a modest hotel. I winced as I dismounted, all my joints and tendons tightened from injury and inflammation, and found myself limping as I walked into the reception. I don’t think the receptionist knew what to make of me between my filth and excitement (especially when I learned they had cheap dorm rooms!), but I had a key to a room in my hands by 2pm. I limped my things to my room and collapsed in bed. I’d fucking survived.