on the road again
19-30 July 2008
Total kilometers cycled: 36,881 (22,866 miles)
Cycling through South Africa and Swaziland
Specific country info on routes & roads/food & accommodation/the locals available here.Our last glimpse of India was of the sleeping city of Chennai as we raced by on our bikes in a mad dash to make it to the airport by midnight. Flights taking off in the wee hours of the morning are hardly convenient for anyone and less so for a cyclist. There were plenty of families sleeping rough on the side of the road, but in tranquil India, nobody bothered to hassle us in the dead of night. 40 hours after takeoff and a luxurious 24 hour stopover in Qatar at the 5 star Movenpick hotel (not at our expense, naturally) we landed in Johannesburg and braced ourselves for what is known to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Not quite up there in the league of Baghdad, Kabul or Mogadishu, but a city nonetheless notorious for its carjackings, violent robberies and rapes. We were fortunate, then, to be met by Jay, the brother of our hospitality club contact who hosted us in Cape Town. Jay's passion is flying and as soon as he'd loaded our bikes and gear into the back of his pick up (alright, that's cheating a bit, but this is the return trip so we've relaxed the rules a tad) he whisked us off to the airfield, fired up his microlight plane and we were airborne again. What a rush flying over the highveld as the sun slowly set over Johannesburg, buzzing low over the fields with a sharp wind in your face and then floating back down to earth.
But cold. Really cold for two travelers who'd just escaped from sweltering India where it was in the 90's (35 Celsius) before 9 AM. We were in the midst of the southern hemisphere winter and Johannesburg lies up on a plateau at around 1500 meters. Central heating in homes somehow never caught on in South Africa and we had to content ourselves with hovering around the fireplace at Jay's place, piling on the blankets at night and sleeping with a cap to keep frostbite at bay (OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but once sun set, I started shivering). At least we weren't in the tent. And fortunately geysers (which is pronounced geezer and is what I call a water heater) are a normal feature in South African homes. In any case, the cold didn't agree with me and I spent the better part of two days buried under the covers in Jay's bed. Jay slept in his sleeping bag on the floor in the living room. Maybe he just wanted to be near the fire, but more likely this is just another example of how seriously South African's take their hospitality.
After a few days we'd acclimatized ourselves to the new weather conditions and were ready to hit the road. Jay offered to drop us off at the highway heading towards Swaziland and we didn't refuse. We're getting soft. He was worried we might get lost in the tangle of roads encircling Johannesburg or take a wrong turn and find ourselves in the middle of a troubled township. Most every South African we've met has a tale of being robbed, and Johannesburg holds the dubious honor of crime capital of the country, so we didn't want to push our luck. Day one back on the bikes we racked up a grand total of 30 kilometers. And the next day we rested. We weren't keen to push on just yet since we were being hosted by Amanda from Hospitality Club, who's an excellent cook and good company. Plus she took us on a mini township tour and showed us some bright spots in what are some pretty blighted areas. She's in charge of several township libraries which often serve as a haven for young people who want to escape the poverty and crime that surrounds them. Kids pour in once school's out for the day to do their homework and escape sometimes harsh life at home.
On August 24th we started cycling in earnest--no rides in pick ups or stopping after 30 K's. We did a whopping 124 kilometers (77 miles), arrived in a small town called Bethal as sun was setting, stopped off at the police station to see if we could camp in their compound and were directed to the municipal campsite just outside of town on the edge of a lovely lake. Great, only the place seemed deserted and was surrounded by a high barbed wire fence and electric gate. But wait, what's that? Way off in the distance a group of men kicking around a soccer ball. Hey, hey, let us in, pleeeaaase! They ignored us at first, but we were unrelenting in our pleas and eventually one of them hopped in his pick up to see what all the ruckus was about. He had a remote control that operated the gate and I guess we didn't look too suspicious so he let us in. The group of guys were road workers who were doing a job nearby and the only campers who wanted to brave the freezing temperatures. When I complained about the cold they just laughed and showed me the heaters they had running off the truck battery. It was toasty in their tent, no so in ours.
The next night we were luckier. Just as were starting to think about searching for a nice friendly farm where we might pitch our tent, a smiling face called out to us and asked if we didn't feel tired and wouldn't we like to spend the night in the guesthouse? Were we dreaming? That's how we got to know the Celliers family and spent the rest of the afternoon riding horses and being given a tour of the farm on the back of a quad driven by a very able eight year old. Most kids his age couldn't handle anything more complex than a game boy --these farm kids show surprising maturity.
In the morning it was on to Swaziland, past more caramel-colored highveld farmland and then it to the imposing forested mountains of the Kingdom. Near nightfall we made our way to the local police headquarters in Bhunia with an aim to pitch our tent in their compound. The officer in charge was seated below regal portraits of the king and the she-elephant, as his co-ruler and mother is known. We explained our mission, got permission to camp and then got to chatting with the policemen about Swaziland. The king's turning 40 this year and there's much speculation as to whether he'll take another wife. She's normally chosen in the month of August when the Kingdom's most beautiful virgins are summoned to dance bare-breasted before the king so he can choose the loveliest of them all as his latest bride. At last count he had, I believe, 14 young beauties in his harem. But sometimes he skips a year, I'm told.
Swaziland's a tiny country and our stay was short, but from what we saw it looks like the Kingdom is developing fast. The capital, Mbabane, is surprisingly modern with parks and shopping malls and branches of all the big South African shops and supermarkets. Even villagers live in well-constructed brick homes and have access to schools, health services, running water and electricity. Swaziland's main scourge is AIDS. One Peace Corps volunteer told me that the HIV infection rate is up to 40 percent in certain areas. The country's got enormous tourism potential and is courting upscale South African holiday makers with spas, golf courses and safaris. Late one afternoon as we were approaching a wildlife reserve we were stopped in our tracks by the sign reading Cyclists & Pedestrians beware of Lions & Elephants. We though better of continuing on so late in the day and turned back down the highway and followed the sign reading Cattle Ranch in hopes of finding a nice spot to pitch the tent. The cattle ranch turned out be property of His Highness so we got to camp alongside the King's 2,000 head of cattle. It's his private stock which he uses to feed the masses during festivals, royal weddings and such. The family managing the ranch was extremely friendly and invited us in for warm showers, tea and dainty cheese sandwiches.
We were up by 5AM the next morning to take on the elephants and lions of the wildlife reserve and were slightly disappointed to spot nothing more exotic that a couple of warthogs. Just our luck.
Soon enough we reached the busy Mozambique border, stopped in for our last cheap meal of fish and chips and snapped a photo of the women roasting mealies (better known as corn-on-the-cob where I come from). These enterprising ladies then tried to extort a photography fee which I deftly avoided paying --Who do you think you are, Cosmopolitan top models? That got them laughing and we parted ways on good terms. Border procedures were painless and it was quickly time to say good-bye to English speaking Africa and concentrate on Portuguese in order to communicate with Mozambicans who are struggling to put their colonial past and recent civil war behind them and work towards a better future. Beaches, bush and a long slog up the National 1 await us.
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