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!
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!
Groblersbrug (or Grobler’s Bridge) is the name of the “settlement” opposite where I crossed over from Botswana. As far as I could tell, there’s nothing really there but trucks and farmland. It was getting late, and I still had a bit of riding to do before I’d make it to Lephalale, where I’d found a cute place to stay. The road was remarkably busy for a country road, but like most in South Africa, in pretty good shape. While the last glimpses of sun receded beyond the horizon, green lush farmland and happy looking trees passed by. I even passed a farm with a little kid zipping around on a tiny dirt bike in his front yard, waving frantically at me. I had to put in my reserve tank, as I hadn’t passed in a petrol station in hours.
Cloying darkness finally arrived, and I had to ride another 45 minutes in the dark, something I try my best to avoid. The traffic (and my consistently fouled visor) provided a constant source of near blindness. Eventually, I came upon a cute little town and a bustling petrol station. I gassed up and followed my GPS to a scenic gated lot and rang the door bell. An adorable old Afrikaner man led me into the place, an odd lodge that seemed empty, with a honor bar and tiny dorm rooms that packed a bed, desk, toilet, and shower all into one room. He pointed me out to a place for dinner that was open at this hour and after dumping my things, I headed back out.
Following his directions, I pulled into a grandiose entrance to a hotel. It looked super swanky, with guards, fieldstone work, well-kept grounds, and tables inside and out with white tablecloths. I walked up, and nearly walked back when I saw a sign on the door mentioning a relatively buttoned-up dress-code. I’d only seen a KFC as an alternate option, so I figured there was no hurt in checking out the menu. I walked in to no side-glances, despite my dirty jeans, clodhopper boots, and hiking shirt. The prices were also very strangely reasonable given the ambiance, so I stuck it out and had a delicious, oddly reasonable meal before retiring for the evening.
The next morning, it was on to Joburg! I had a tip for the Curiocity Backpackers in the neighborhood of Maboneng from an AfrikaBurn friend, so I cued up my GPS and headed out in the morning and the crack of 10am. The beginning of the excursion was rather pleasant by daylight, first leading me through D’Nyala Nature Reserve, then Grootwater Nature Reserve. All this really meant to me was flat, scenic roads with gentle curves and little traffic… and then there was a castle full of biltong! You’ll recall, biltong is the South African (pardon me, all folks in the area for the comparison I’m about to make for the American audience) version of jerky, only far superior. This place had an absurd collection, from Giraffe to Hippo, from Gemsbok to Springbok. I bought an absurd collection of animals meat-stick form.
From the amazing meat-castle, I headed south to increasingly busy roads; I ended up on the main north/south road into Joburg, the biggest city in South Africa. As I passed through increasingly urban locales, I simultaneously found more incredible vistas from the lumpy terrain. The building traffic was a trial-by-fire of big city South African traffic (of which I’ve mostly been blissfully unaware) and dirty diesel trucks (to which I blame South America for my intimate familiarity). I crested a well-placed hill and gazed down through the LA-esque fog at the sprawling skkyline, but I couldn’t get quite comfortable enough to enjoy it, instead dodging choking black smoke erupting from mistreated trucks.
Eventually, my GPS led me on a rather adventurous route through relatively central Joburg. As I would come to learn, my home neighborhood for the next few days, Maboneng, was redeveloped by a single local Jew, who over the years came to own a huge swatch of the previously quite rough-and-tumble neighborhood, and turned it into hipster central. I averaged seeing well over one ridiculous-looking photo shoot a day, and even listened to a shipping-container coffee shop/Turkish food restaurant owner kvetch about one ongoing in his restaurant. The ‘hood is full of murals and art installations, all of which are brought in by the developer as he redevelops the derelict buildings. It simultaneously creates a cohesive, if forced, artsy hipster vibe that reminds me of a stroll down Valencia St. in SF about 6 years ago when there were still more gaps in the reconditioned facades.
Oblivious to all this at the time, I followed my directions, and after a couple wrong turns, ended up at Curiocity Backpackers. When checking in, the front desk-woman pawned me off to another employee to show me my room, and the moment he asked me my name (to which I obviously replied ‘Levi’), a woman turned around and inquisitively repeated my name… it was a German friend I’d met in Cape Town and AfrikaBurn months ago! I finished checking into a large room packed with 12 beds, got invited to a birthday party for the friendly woman at the front desk, was told I could bring my motorcycle inside at night, and had a beer in my hands and was catching up with an old friend all in about 5 minutes. Welcome to Joburg, indeed!
I hung out for awhile decompressing, my friend headed out, and I headed out onto the Joburg streets to get some dinner. There was a tiny art-house cinema with an attached pizzeria/craft beer bar because, of course there was. I ordered a pizza and a beer, ended up meeting some locals and chatting about my travels, then the Finnish director of a documentary covering the opposing sides of refugee immigration in Finland came over and convinced us to attend the free screening of her film. After over an hour of watching naked Finnish men argue about Muslims in saunas and yell in the streets about their culture while poor immigrants struggled to start a life and recover from all their trauma, I was suitably depressed with humanity and I bailed before the Q&A.
The next few days were a whirlwind, so I’ll do my best movie-montage Joburg version in list form:
I went to The Apartheid Museum, which shares a parking lot with a casino and theme park. It was a master class in poor information design, but full of powerful imagery and tons of information about SA I was curious about and uninformed, and due to the design, am still largely in the same position but have a deeper emotional context. I cried.
I shot the shit with a gang of Brazilians.
I bonded with an impeccably-dressed fashion designer from Cape Town with great hair.
I attended the front desk woman’s birthday party on the roof deck of a nearby apartment building, learned about the ‘hood from a contractor working there, met a fascinating minister from Chicago, and opened a bottle of wine with my shoe (thanks, Emil!).
I met some cool sellouts (I use the term with the affection only a fellow sellout can) from London, and a much less cool Brexit voter from outside there, then thoroughly enjoyed watching the former seethe at the ignorance of the latter, especially when the latter to do a backflip at a bar and settled on walking down a flight of stairs on his hands.
I spent a day riding around Joburg. I found where the yuppies are, where the poor Arab and Indian immigrants are, and where the former squatters from Maboneng hang out: in a park covered with flaming trash. Downtown, I came across some odd sights including a group of a couple dozen people standing in the street holding what appeared to be a giant wooden roadblock painted red, with a very-oddly juxtaposed red office chair they were also sitting in. The car next to me floored it through the red light directly beyond this weird tableau, but I stopped at the light keeping me eyes on the folks, who seemed utterly preoccupied standing around and playing with their roadblock.
Through the magic of my incredible network of friends, you may recall that I was introduced to an awesome cat named Adam and his family in Cape Town via my friend Nick. Well, carrying on the longstanding tradition of my friends, even new ones, being freakin’ amazing, Adam passed me along to his friends Juniper and Tian in Johannesberg. Despite never meeting me, these new folks reached out and invited me to come stay at their place in the Linden neighborhood, come to Juniper’s birthday party, meet their family, animals, and even swim in their pool. It was a pretty difficult offer to refuse… so I didn’t.
So Sunday morning, I headed to the Juniper/Tian household. Following GPS, I got close, and before I could double-check the address on my phone, a pregnant Juniper with blue hair was coming down the street calling my name. Before I knew it, I was walking into an incredible lush gardenscape with a hip funky old brick house nestled in it. Cute dogs ran up to sniff me. A delicious latte materialized. There was Burning Man art on the walls! I was shown to a room full of books with a pull-out bed to unload, and we headed off to the birthday festivities in a new (to them) Toyota truck.
We had a fabulous lunch at Tian’s parent’s place, another incredible house surrounded by vegetation and landscaping. I came to discover that this was a very high-achieving group of folks. Juniper is a director, Tian a creative director at a big-name ad agency. In the family are successful businessfolks and aspiring TV personalities. All were curious, interesting, and incredibly friendly. I could hardly reason about how I’d come to be there. I drank tasty wine and craft beer. I talked about my travels, and learned about theirs. After lunch, we took the dogs for a walk through the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens where I played with dogs and took in the pastoral scenery. Juniper, Tian, and I then chatted all through the evening and night, braaing steaks, drinking beer (those of us not pregnant, that is ;), and having a wonderful time.
I’d intended to head out the following morning, but Juniper and Tian told me I should stick around another day. I had a few errands to run (new brake pads to source and install, chain lube, a new auxiliary power outlet, etc.), the blog to work on (they had the fastest internet at their home that I’d seen in all of Africa), and they were delightful conversationalists, so I happily demurred. I slept in the complete silence of their suburban paradise and had a productive day finding everything for which I looked and getting the work I had done on the bike. We had another nice evening of chatting and getting to know each other over wine and pasta, and they gave me some advice for the next leg of my journey. In the morning, I awoke to a latte held through the door right next to my head, packed my things, said goodbye to some truly fantastic humans, and once again hit the road.
I hopped on the N3, an absolutely beautiful divided highway toll road between Johannesburg and Durban, headed for the small town of Himeville at the foot of Sani Pass, one of the roads I’d been lusting after ever since I began planning my trip. Sani Pass is a winding mountain dirt road that serves as the craziest border crossing between South Africa and Lesotho. It’s the highest border crossing in Africa, and has tons of beautiful vistas and steep, sharp switchbacks climbing up to Lesotho. There are plans to pave it in the future, so it was important to me to ride it on this trip before that happened.
I worked my way out of Johannesburg traffic in a mass of choking exhaust and got into my groove. The road is perfectly paved, and an endless line of large trucks snakes through its winding path. The further I rode, the more scenic the road became. Giant fields of brown grains that would fit into the Kansas countryside opened to rolling mountains, then massive brown valleys overlooked with stately plateaus akin to the Valley of the Monuments. The road curved up and down through mountains that turned from rocky brown dirt and grass, to bright green rolling hills covered in cows (if you’ve ridden 280 south of SF, you’ve seen the same scenery), to true pine forests akin to the Olympic Peninsula (minus the white-capped peaks). I hadn’t gotten the world’s earliest start, and I was taking my time appreciating the scenery, which was grandiose and incredibly varied, so I decided to stretch my trip and appreciate the last leg of it in daylight. I found an adorable and cheap B&B in Howick, just off the N3, and checked in for the night.
An adorable elderly couple ran the B&B. I was given a room on the roof with a big bath tub and sent to a pub down the street for dinner. I drank tasty local beer and one of the best spicy chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had. The locals came by and chatted with me. It was a cute little town. After dinner, I hopped in a nice warm bath and soaked my bones with some downloaded Netflix. It was a welcoming decompression after the city life.
In the morning, I was off of the N3 and onto a smaller 2-lane country highway. I passed through more dramatic scenery shifts, from hot foothills covered in vineyards to cold pine forests draped in mist. I passed through the town of Boston, South Africa, thoroughly amused by the name, and had a nice chat with the independent petrol station owner. Eventually, I made my way to a pleasant valley of oak trees and hazy mountains for a horizon. In Underberg, I was approached by the owner of the local bike shop who gave me a brief and fascinating version of the area. More locals came by and chatted as we stood there, curious and friendly the lot of them. By early afternoon, I came upon the Himeville Arms, a centenarian hotel Juniper and Tian had recommended just before the start of Sani Pass, and checked in.
After lunch and some more motorcycle maintenance, I went to town to get a few beers to drink while I caught up on my blogging. On the way, I passed a whole crew of adventure bikers, some of the first proper ones I’d seen in ages! When I got back, I plopped down with a beer in the middle of the place where I could catch WiFi and tried to get some work done. Instead, a guy approached me and asked if the DRZ was mine. When I confirmed his suspicions he excitedly dragged me to the bar where an entire gang of South African adventure riders were sitting and getting ready for dinner!
The crew belonged to an adventure motorcycling forum called the Wild Dogs. They immediately bought me a beer. They were heading over Sani Pass in the morning on their way to a national bash for their motorcycling group, and told me I should come along. They even convinced me to go on the forum and make an introduction. They were super friendly and my kind of silly (they had a tradition of taking photos of themselves bare-assed in front of their bikes). I ended up grabbing dinner next to them and hearing about what a great group of folks would be at the bash, so I figured I’d try and catch the last day of it after Lesotho. Then I did my best to rest up before my big day riding up into Lesotho. My excitement whittled away at my sleep, but I woke up in the morning, stoked for the coming adventure.
With the burn over, it’s nearly time to begin my travels in earnest. First, as previously mentioned, my bike needed some work (that was fast!). I wanted my petcock fixed/replaced and an oil change. I dropped the bike off at 8am on Wednesday, confident such trivial work would be resolved in no more than two days. I forgot to think in what the locals assure me is standard Africa Time (or, perhaps even more popular, “TIA:” This Is Africa)… It took three days for them to tell me the petcock needed to be replaced (what I told them to do in the first place) and that they were just about to order the part from Johannesburg, eta Monday or Tuesday. Sigh.
There are far worse places to be stuck than Cape Town. The weather, food, people, scenery, and side-trips offered here are world-class. I haven’t been suffering. Instead I:
Went wine tasting.
Revisited the Penguin Colony in Simonstown (Boulders Beach).
Revisited Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope (and found a year-old Black Rock Lighthouse Service sticker still hanging out by the lighthouse there).
Attended a super-hip night market in Hout Bay.
Climbed Table Mountain and hung out with cute fuzzy rodents and big scary eagles.
Went to a large AfrikaBurn decompression party.
Re-organized my things about a dozen times to come up with a better packing strategy.
Caught up on my sleep.
Vegged out on Netflix.
Eventually, my bike made it back to me and I pried my way out of Cape Town’s comfortable clutches, heading North on the N7, the so-called Cape Namibia Route. The first thing you notice is that South Africa knows how to build a highway. It is beautifully paved and labeled, with no potholes and picnic areas every small handful of Kilometers. From this fine thoroughfare, you watch the landscape change — from urban to poverty to industrial to agricultural. The parallels between Cape Town and San Francisco are legion and worthy of a write-up in their own right, but among them are the presence of a large wine industry just to the North. I stopped at an organic winery and had 5 small glasses of wine for less than $2USD. Life is hard.
Hitting the road again, things moved more gradually. The traffic dropped off, the wind picked up, the rolling fields of vineyards and grains slowly transformed to rocks and scrub-grass and eventually rocky foothills. The wind was at a fever pitch. My bike found comfort at the sustained wind at around 20 degrees from vertical, and buffeted uncontrollably when passing a fast-moving oncoming semi-truck. I rode past another truck that had been blown from the roadway, unfortunately directly into a power pole, where a team of people were unloading its contents into smaller vehicles as it lay on its side. I have no idea if they were in linked with the original transportation outfit, and their ragtag appearance didn’t provide any useful indication.
As the landscape became increasingly barren, the improbability of the continuing perfect road stuck in my American mind. Each subsequent small settlement seemed increasingly impossible to posses the necessities for life, and each seemed more unwelcoming as-if to confirm that thought. Eventually, I sought refuge from the evening in a combination motel, caravan park, and convention center, located just outside of the oddly-suburban/touristic town of Springbok (which locals have assured me is mostly famous for generally topping the temperature forecasts in South Africa). Despite a lack of hot running water, and an oddly institutional vibe, I slept well in the tiny bed, seemingly the only resident of the large operation.
Morning brought me an extremely windy ride to the Namibian border. The scrub-grass slowly disappeared into a truly barren desert with dust clouds blasting orthogonally across the highway. I pulled into one of the picnic areas for a break. I set my helmet down and immediately realized my motorcycle was about to be blown *over* the kickstand. I braced it with my body, and my helmet took flight across the desert, thankfully coming to a rest right off the roadway. I climbed back onto the bike and managed to walk it close enough that I could hold it upright while re-acquiring my helmet. I’ve rarely seen wind like this even on the tops of mountains.
I eventually came upon the Namibian border. I just beat out one of the giant overland buses into line, and was able to glide smoothly through immigration and customs, with only a few confused glances at the paperwork I’d managed to generate at the Cape Town airport when I imported my motorcycle. A few tourists asked me about my adventures, and a suspicious police officer casually pawed through one of my panniers, and I was over the bridge border to Namibia! Things there were even easier, and within the hour, I’d crossed my first African overland border!
The first thing I realized upon topping up my fuel tank is that Namibia appears to use South African Rand interchangeably with their own currency; the ATM I visited actually dispensed a mix of 100 Rand and 100 Namibian Dollar notes! Well, to each country their own, I suppose!
On the Namibian side, there was only a hint of scrub-grass, and a smaller helping of boulders. Instead, the landscape swept out onto the mountainous horizon in dirt and pebbles. A sign helpfully warned that they weren’t into painting lines onto the tarmac (and traffic helpfully indicated to me that they still insist on driving on the left), but aside from a slightly rockier tarmac, the road was equally flawless. My first night in Namibia was to be at a “Hot Spring” (more about the quotes in a minute) in a national park, and I decided to take the more-direct dirt road to get there. In 86 kilometers of dirt path, I saw one car and one tractor. This is a country of dust, rocks, fence, and small birds, not one of men. Once again, my DRZ proved it’s not scares of dirt roads, especially when they’re helpfully parallel to the wind, and I made it to Ais Ais National Park without further incident.
Ais Ais translates into something like burning water, and it’s a pretty accurate name… They claim to have a “spa,” but what they have is a shallow, rocky pit of 60 C (140 F) water that’s painful to dip a toe into, and a big swimming pool of cold water. I never saw anyone in either. They also have a few buildings full of what look like hotel rooms with no one in them (they claimed to have no rooms available), and nearly a hundred camping spots with power. It was tent time, and I was happy for it. I set up and headed to the restaurant — I was famished. Unfortunately, they didn’t open for dinner until 6:30, and it was 4pm! I think my disappointment was apparent (and a little charm can go a long way), and the server came back awhile later with a plate of chips (fries) telling me she convinced the chef they were for her. I devoured them and thanked her profusely.
Since there wasn’t much to do at the “spa” besides talk to the frequent rubberneckers that would gather around, poke, prod, and photograph my motorcycle (I hadn’t seen another since leaving Cape Town), I called it an early night.
I hardly slept the night before the burn. It’s a common story. I forced myself to sleep around midnight, bags packed, clothes set out, alarm painfully set for 4am. I woke up at 3:30 and all hopes to eek out that last 30 minutes of sleep quickly went out the window. I oozed from the covers and prepared for the adventure.
AfrikaBurn lies in the Tankwa desert, a mere 3.5-4 hours out of Cape Town. The pavement ends a tad over 100km from the event, and the dusty rock-filled path is notorious for eating tires. I’d pre-arranged a caravan with some folks from my hostel, and at five past 5am, we hit the cold dark road.
In my mind, the trip would be hot and dusty, but the first 2 hours ascended through windswept mountain vistas. I’d not dressed for the weather, and the wind that tossed my bike around like a bag caught on a fence (and overturned a huge overloaded semi-truck) also chilled me to the bone. I didn’t want to lose my caravan, so I shivered and shook until we reached Ceres, the last town before the desert. We ate breakfast at a chain restaurant filled with fellow burners, and I aggressively cupped my coffee in my numb hands.
The last few miles of pavement passed by uneventfully, then ended abruptly with thick dirt and rocks. AfrikaBurn hosted ~13,000 attendees in 2017, and the size difference with Burning Man is thankfully reflected in the entrance traffic. Bumping down the washboard road kicks up massive clouds of impenetrable dust which are particularly arduous in the exposed seat of a motorcycle. Luckily, my narrow profile, offroad suspension, and weight afforded me the convenience of speed, and I mostly managed to pass slower vehicles that otherwise coated my body, helmet, and lungs with dust.
The dirt road was a goddamn pleasure on two wheels; my DR-Z400S floated like a dream. The landscape was pleasant in its stark emptiness. The occasional random pedestrian, seemingly unencumbered with bags or water, padded down the desolate shoulder at odd intervals. Eventually, there’s a road to the right, poorly labeled with the “Clan,” the analogue for Burning Man’s “Man.” Another windy kilometer down the road, and the familiar lines of a desert festival entrance unfolded on the horizon. There was no line — another lovely difference from the Gerlach regional. Within minutes, I had a wristband and was speeding 10km/hr towards home on the Welcome Road.
My amazing friend, former campmate, and artist behind the badass Black Rock Lighthouse service did me the great service of bringing me into his camp, and I headed towards its playa address (Lady Davina and B). The first face I saw was a campmate I’d also been in touch with through a web of connections. He pointed me to my new temporary home. I’d arrived!
I’ve had the good fortune to make it to the last 9 burns in Nevada, but never to one of the many regional events. Without a lot of ideas about what to expect, at AfrikaBurn I was a sponge. At first blush, it looks like Burning Man hit by a shrink ray: the campground is smaller, the camps are smaller, the art is smaller. The vibe is nearly identical. If you go out to the playa at night, you could momentarily be convinced it was just another Burning Man until you squint enough to perceive depth.
But then you see that there are a lot fewer theme camps, and less events going on. You notice that nearly all of the shade structures are these incredible stretchy tents that were largely set up by rental companies. You stumble over rocks and scramble up and down dry riverbeds. You shit in a long-drop toilet, open to the sun and the stars. You marvel at how white the burn is, and realize that you’re thinking those thoughts from Africa.
It was a goddamn good time. That said, some part of the spark that Burning Man represents to me was missing. Missing were miles of campground frontage aggressively pulling you in to be misted, fed, launched, spanked, slapped, or plied with alcoholic snowcones. Missing were oases on the outskirts of the desert where you can perch on a shady beanbag chair and watch the wavering apparitions on the horizon crawl slowly across your vision, the occasional ball of fire reaching up and licking the mountains. Missing for me were the unending serendipitous meetings with close friends, often when I thought I didn’t want to be found. Sometimes the things you end up missing surprise you.
There was a distinctly wild-west vibe that I’m sure would be reminiscent of American burns gone by: police were present, but I never heard of any busts, and the ones I saw walked in large groups joking, smoking, and looking at the occasional uncovered boobs. Joints were rolled and smoked in plain view. The burn schedule was effectively written in pencil, with many postponements including the Clan itself, which much to my surprise, was burned a day late and after the Temple. Burn perimeters were routinely violated in an AfrikaBurn tradition of running naked around the fire. Art car speed limits were very much a suggestion. Got a flat-bed, some lights, and a sign? You’ve got an art car!
A stomach bug swept through the burn to epic effect. I’ve heard countless stories of burners vomiting through their last few days of the burn, or the ride home, or the worst: 30 hour transatlantic flights while regularly exploding out of both ends.
When it came time for my own departure, I lost my caravan in the dust and was quite concerned when I learned while waiting for them that there had been a fatal accident on the road a few minutes behind me. My bike was running a bit rough, so I had to goose the throttle when stopped to keep things moving, at which point I realized the fuel petcock was dumping fuel out the vent hole with each pulse of the piston (it’s vacuum-driven by the engine).
In summary: I’m back in Cape Town with a host of new friends, my bike is at the shop, and I’ve caught up on my sleep. And there are penguins, so many cute penguins!
My sturdy steed, my trusty transit — my soon to be dusty dreambike — has arrived, unharmed and fully functional to the great city of Cape Town. Make no mistake, no humble words, dear reader, will convey the rich mix of excitement and relief that’s been pouring through my veins since the wood walls that passed across the ocean with my beloved bike. The logistics of receiving it was one of the most endearing things that’s happened to me so far, which is mind-boggling since we’re talking about dealing with customs and cargo handlers!
Things didn’t start off smoothly. The flight from Istanbul to Cape Town was delayed by a little over an hour, and 30 minutes after it had landed, the folks at the cargo office hadn’t received a final manifest to confirm that the bike had indeed arrived (it had previously been marked as taking a flight on the 16th, but had been rebooked). I was antsy, so I decided to head to the cargo office independently. I took yet another Uber and had them drop me outside the secure gate. I walked up, and was instantly met by a guard who told me in no uncertain terms that I wouldn’t be walking in. I was immediately incredulous! I had walked in on the 16th, signing a ledger in the guard house before being let in, but this woman insisted there was no ledger, and that foot traffic in was strictly forbidden. To enter, I needed to be in a vehicle. We went back and forth several times, and the logic of this rule was completely lost on me, and within 5 minutes, the woman, tired of dealing with me, asked a random driver coming in in a car to let me in. He begrudgingly accepted, I hopped in, went through the gate, and got out again. Well, okay, whatever works I guess!
Next to the cargo receiving office proper. A crotchety man in a neon safety vest in a wheelchair insisted on giving me directions. An incredibly friendly guy behind the counter recognized me from Sunday, greeting me with a stack of paperwork including the original Airway Bill. My bike was here somewhere! I stepped out to head to customs, and the wheelchair man once again flagged me down and sent me off in the proper direction.
This was one of the parts I’d expected to be tricky. To ship a bike into South Africa, you’re highly encouraged to have an anachronistic document called a carnet de passage en douanes. It’s basically a passport for a vehicle. Once common, only a handful of countries still use these, and many of them are in Africa, but aside from some outliers (notably Egypt), it’s optional when crossing borders overland. Shipping is different, but I’d spent days researching the requirements and reaching out to South African customs, eventually getting some useful information from the South African consulate in the US that a particular customs form, the aptly named SAD 500, should enable me to safely bring my bike in. Of course, there’s a catch: the SAD 500 requires a bond at 30% of the value of the vehicle that’s reimbursed upon the vehicle’s passage out of the country. I’d read online that the value customs decides to use for any particular vehicle can vary.
With all this in my mind, I waited my turn at a customs window, where the first question was unsurprisingly “Do you have a carnet?” The two ladies behind the glass barrier were not impressed with my answer. They scolded me harshly, telling me how important it is, and seemingly brushing off my statement about a SAD 500. A couple sentences in, their chiding became “make sure you get a carnet next time” (emphasis mine) and my heart rate began to slow. I think my excitement was contagious, as before I knew it, one of the women behind the glass was asking if I had room for her to join me, and they were handing me a stamped document free of charge that they told me was all I needed. Sight unseen and without a penny spent, I’d just cleared a motorcycle into Africa.
Back to the cargo office, more paperwork, more stamps, and I’m handed a packet to give to security to get my bike. The friendly guy behind the counter asks how I’m getting the bike out of the crate, I give him a look of pleading, and before I can open my mouth, he’s laughing and holding a giant crowbar. My good fortune continues!
I hand the documents over, and a crowbar-wielding handler bursts through the gate driving a forklift, crate in proverbial hand. My heartbeat swells. The crate is dropped off to the side on the loading dock, and three handlers, including my gruff wheelchaired friend, descend on the crate with a sense of purpose. The top lifts off. I get my first look. My heart sings.
My bike is released from its protective shell, but my friends aren’t done. I need to re-assemble the top case, re-install my mirrors, and reshuffle my things. Before I know it, the cargo handlers are into my tools, working together to do things for me. They install my mirrors. They install my top case. They help me re-pack. The wheelchaired man directs it all from his perch. I am in complete and utter awe and appreciation. As we finish, I give them all big hugs under the baking African sun. They accept this with a nonchalance that says “of course we’re helping you get your shit together. Welcome to South Africa!”
I suit up. I mount my fully assembled machine. I wave a meaningful and heartfelt farewell, and I head to the exit. The guard there looks at me, asks for my ID, and before I can even reach for it tells me it’s too difficult for me to retrieve and waves me through unchecked.
I’m on the road (what feels like the wrong side of it).
I’m riding on the highway.
I feel the wind through my mesh jacket.
The sound of the motorcycle, the hot air, and the traffic plays like the most beautiful symphony inside my head. After years of thought and planning, months of logistics, and a life of dreams, I’m riding my first meters on an adventure bike on this fourth, and most personally mysterious, continent. Emotion pours over me with the wind.
I head back to my hostel and have a beer. And then another. I relax. I buy a chain and lock my bike to a post. My friend, you’re not going anywhere without me for awhile.
10,000 miles from home, and I haven’t escaped the gratuitous and gracious giving of fellow burners, and as I type, an army of them are descending on Cape Town and the deserts north. A fluke of my timing, once it was so in reach, there was never a choice in my mind: I was going to be amongst them in the desert. But it’s no small feat surviving in the desert for a week with only a motorbike to bring your things, and even less so when you’re outfitted to do far more things on the bike than just attend AfrikaBurn.
Enter the community: Say what you will about “hippies taking drugs in the desert,” but let no one say that burners aren’t some of the most outrageously generous folks. Let’s approach this, once again, in list form. The following things have happened to me since arriving:
Offered water to be brought for me to the burn for free (refusing payment) by a total stranger.
Offered to bring any other goods I may need by a total stranger.
Offered three different opportunities to caravan up with folks, all of which are willing to help me bring things up.
Convinced a stranger at my hostel to go to the burn, and before the end of the day she had a ticket and ride to get there.
Offered help finding an early entry pass (pending).
Offered many dusty hugs by Black Rock Rangers.
Approached by a journalist who wants to chat at the burn.
Offered tips on where to get costumes and food.
Nevermind the new friends, amazing company, and general feeling of being once again in a community that welcomes me and does everything possible to allow me to succeed.
Drove with my father to pick up my crated motorcycle
Discovered the crate was too large for the trailer we’d hauled from Kalamazoo to Detroit
Rented a u-haul trailer
Picked up the trailer
Dropped off the crate at a bustling freight warehouse near the airport
Checked into a Chinatown hostel in Toronto
Bid farewell to my mother
Caught an Uber to the Toronto airport with a South African driver who spent the entire ride cautioning me in no unclear language about how extremely dangerous South Africa is, including personal anecdotes wherein he overheard the staff at a hotel he stayed in in Cape Town colluding to rob him that evening in Sotho (a language they assumed he didn’t understand), ending in him getting in touch with the hotel owner and having them fired
Flew 10390 miles, 21 hours with the layover and delays, to Cape Town via Addis Ababa
Stopped by the Cape Town cargo terminal and learned my motorcycle is arriving Tuesday afternoon
Caught an Uber to the AirBNB I’d booked south of the airport
Drove through the middle of some extremely seedy townships, the driver repeatedly remarking that the neighborhood is “very dangerous” and proceeding to lock the doors, roll up the windows, and run a stop sign
Got dropped off at my AirBNB in an uncomfortable-feeling neighborhood of tiny houses
Called my host when there was no answer at the door only to be told he was out of town and had mistakenly accepted the request for a room
Drew a lot of looks lugging my stuffed backpacking backpack through the labyrinthine neighborhood to a major intersection
Caught another Uber to a nice hostel in a student area near town
Checked in and drank a much-deserved beer
First to the question you’re clearly already looking to ask me: I’m totally aware that Uber is a company that’s been acting like garbage pretty much since the beginning, but I’ve mostly had no choice! There’s no Lyft in Toronto or Cape Town! 😉
Alright, we’ve gotten that out of the way. Let’s talk second impressions: I had the privilege of visiting South Africa seven years ago with friends, one of whom grew up here and still has family in the Eastern Cape. On that trip, we had a rental car and spent a large portion of our time on the tourist circuit or staying with my friend’s family. Traveling solo is always a different beast, with every interaction colored by others’ perception and your own lack of group influence. 24 hours in, I feel extremely welcomed here.
Aside from the occasional stare, folks have been helpful, kind, friendly, and open. On a personal level, walking down the streets (an activity you see very few white people doing outside of the downtown CBD) and feeling like the odd one out is, to me, a valuable lesson that anyone who’s lived most of their life with an appearance similar to the majority of the people around them should learn. The smiles and help I’ve gotten from pedestrians, bus drivers, and kids serves to me as a stark juxtaposition to the treatment minorities often get elsewhere. Considering how recently there were major shifts in race relations in South Africa, it’s hard for me not to feel heartened about our abilities to co-exist, forgive, and perceive people as individuals, not just members of a group.*
For those curious about my plans, my next week will be dedicated to three things: preparing to attend AfrikaBurn next week (a gratuitous self-indulgence at the beginning of my trip), exploring Cape Town, and, most importantly, planning my next steps after. More to come!
*NB, as a white guy from the Midwest, my own knowledge and depth of experience on these subjects is limited at best and is in no way meant to be authoritative. I’ll also add that my last trip to South Africa, I heard some of the most blatant and offensive hate-speech I’ve encountered anywhere.