South Africa on a Budget
“All is right in the world... coffee, cigars and chocolate cheesecake while I reroute my GPS over Tradouws Pass, then it’s onto the ostrich capitol of the world. The southern-most point of Africa already today, and great white sharks yesterday. I am on the wrong side of the road… but the right side of life.”
I updated my Facebook with these words and attached a picture of my rental BMW F800GS sitting curbside on a shady South African street in the background, the cheesecake of a local coffee shop stealing the spotlight. Day four in Africa—I had just over four more weeks left on my cannon ball run, and am finally adjusting to riding on the left side of the road, and not into incoming traffic.
I know nearly nothing about the continent, other than it is massive, suffers from political instability and has wildlife that rivals Jurassic Park. I wanted to get away, but was unable to do it on the scale of the overlanders and the costs of the guided tours I had looked into were too much for my budget. So, I decided to do it economically and brave it on my own thanks to a friendly local company who supplied a bike and a map with various routes and backroads. My request was simple, “as if sending a friend out to see the best of Africa” in the time allotted. The extent of my planning was to purchase a plane ticket, secure a rental motorcycle, and get the requisite immunizations—just in case. I had started my research, but couldn’t help but be nervous after seeing the poor conditions of a few towns along my proposed route. That’s it, I won’t plan anything else. All I need to know is that I want to hit Victoria Falls by my half-way point.
Out of my comfort zone, maybe, but I was on two wheels, and that is where I belong. The decision to not plan made every moment a complete surprise and I had no expectations of what the next day had in store for me. From sleeping at random local houses, encountering elephants on desolate roads, exploring Namibia’s skeleton coast, speeding by armed men in ski masks hours from any functioning police station, to leaning over the edge of Victoria Falls… the surprises would be endless.
“Please start, please start,” I said out loud as I frantically wretched the throttle while in waist deep water—both me and the gear were soaked. It is always the crossings where you can see the bottom that gives you a false sense of security. As soon as the motor turned, I dropped the clutch and shot to the other side, racing as fast as I could away from the group of curious baboons and down the road to the next crossing. I was in the Baviaanskloof, Afrikaans for “Baboon’s Gorge,” in South Africa. I had straddled an ostrich the day before for a joy ride, cruised the rugged Swartberg Pass, ridden the coasts near Knysna and the heavily-jungled logging trails of Prince Alfred Pass within the last few days. Now I am pulled over, letting my bike idle, as I eye the next crossing and sip brandy to calm my nerves. Here I was, just over 100 km into the heart of the mountains, exactly halfway between towns. Not helping the situation was that I had just learned, prior to my ride, a Cape buffalo here recently trampled a visitor to death in the protected “mega-reserve.” I guess it’s time to step up—damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. This will be around my twentieth time crossing this river and I do not know how many more times it snakes across the road ahead; all I do know is that I don’t want to try my luck going back through that last one again.
“Slow down, slow down! Remember this is a rental,” I tell myself, which was hard to do after losing time on today’s journey to Mokhotlong. Lesotho is a unique country; I have only seen a handful of vehicles in the last few hundred miles since departing Maseru for the highlands. It’s mainly been local herders on foot wearing their traditional “ski masks” and Basotho blankets, tending their livestock along the roadside. The “mountain kingdom” switches back and forth from gravel to perfect asphalt in short segments on technical mountain passes reminiscent of a superbike chicane section, begging for the bike to be opened up. An injury is what I consider my most serious threat while riding through southern Africa. If I am robbed, I am robbed; if my bike breaks, it breaks. I can always ask for support from locals or have money wired from home. If I wreck, however, I am in real trouble. I often think about this between long desolate stretches of road when complacency sets in. In-between large towns, there are a series of townships—or more traditional mud/stone huts assembled in villages. They may, at best, have cold beer for my injuries. Medical support, such as ambulances or “flight for life” helicopters, is limited to more developed cities, and those are few and far between.
People from back home and across southern Africa frequently called me an “idiot” when I explained I was going to be riding without friends or a tour group. But the simple fact is, when you are alone you are more approachable. At the end of a day of riding with friends, you chat with them over drinks, in a way closed-off from those around you. One thing that has served me well on this trip is the letting down of my guard and being more receptive to having conversations with those I met. Wrong turns solved by friendly locals, tales of adventures that shadow mine at gas stations, tips on accommodations or an extra room at their home while dining, or more importantly perspectives on life that completely reshape my own views. It’s easy to talk to locals while wearing your riding gear. It makes you a magnet for chitchat and they help fill you in about their town’s history, sightseeing expeditions, and the security of walking around at night. One common trait with most Africans is that they are proud of their countries. They are genuinely interested in how westerners are being treated, and if Africa is living up to our expectations.
I can already hear my friends back home, “Tyler was killed by an ass, how ironic.” It is amazing how many donkeys there are in Botswana, which surely has to be the donkey capitol of the world. I am now dodging them at high speeds. For such a lethargic creature it’s surprising that, when spooked, how some have the uncanny ability to nearly jump across one lane sideways.
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