Beaches, Bikers, and Boxes

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.

My new friends’ ride

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…

This was nearly all of the motorcycles at the rally

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.

Hey little guy!


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.

Unlike the Hippo Rally, motorcyclists actually showed up to this

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.

These folks would fit right in in middle America

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…

I win!

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 and Darcy at work making panniers

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.

Every part of this including the lettering was hand-carved and assembled

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 working on my newest addition
The final assembly — pretty slick!

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.

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